I know I asked this for the podcast but can’t remember if I asked here (delete if so). Well, so…
What are your favorite video game levels? Those slices of a world that make you go “Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. I’ll have more of that, thanks.”
No-man’s Wharf from Dark Souls II is up there for myself. Feels the most “Dark Souls as Disney” the series has gotten. Entirely bound to the old colonial shipping town theme. Has a little light gimmick that you probably have to just grind your way through. The boss is lacking after such a swell set-up but it was a nice build. I love boats.
There are others I want to talk about but the floor is open!
“Effects and Cause” from Titanfall 2 may very well be the greatest shooter level in history. Tight level design supporting both combat and platforming, two simultaneously generated versions of the level that can be switched at the tap of a button, and an absolutely transcendent final set piece, it really has everything. Even if you have no interest in shooters, I still recommend that everybody play this one level.
Sapienza from Hitman 2016, especially the version in The Landslide. I just want to walk around in that town, exploring and finding cool little things.
All Ghillied Up from COD4. Even though it’s simple by today’s standards with it being on rails, it was fascinating in its time, it built tension so well and the pay off when you take the shot for you to then have to extract. It just all comes together so well.
There’s something about “All Ghillied Up” from COD 4 and “Vendetta” from COD 5 that I just can’t get enough of. Skulking around with a sniper and getting the jump on enemy squads while being calmly coached through these unbearably tense and dangerous situations by an experienced mentor with you is so damn rewarding for me, I play both of these missions probably multiple times a year.
So this is more of a zone I suppose then a level but the Children’s Bedroom section in Toy Commander was one of my favorite because it perfectly captures that feeling of being a kid and using your imagination to turn your bedroom into something exciting like a city where your Godzilla doll that’s dressed as a rabbit is running amuck or an elaborate race track where your cars can drive on the walls.
I’ve got two in mind. The first was The Maw run at the end of Halo: CE. I know that’s just the last part of the level, and everything preceding it doesn’t quite rise to the same level, but I still have fond memories, driving that damn fishtailing Warthog down the spine of The Pillar of Autumn, explosions everywhere, racing against the clock, and it was just such a glorious and tense ending to a classic game.
The other is the suicide mission in ME2. While I’d be curious to go back to it to see how it holds up, I will always remember my first playthrough, and having my gut in knots the entire time, hoping I made the right calls and I wasn’t leading any of my team to their deaths. Getting through it on the first attempt with no deaths, without consulting a wiki or anything, is still one of my proudest gaming achievements.
de_jeepathon2k should be in every video game please and thank you
I feel like it’s kind of cliche to mention but genuinely Ravenholm from Half Life 2 really made a deep impact. Personally, i have some pretty bad arachnophobia, but i basically forced myself to face my fears in that level and power through. I really did feel like i had conquered at least some of my fears by beating it. Aside from that stuff, it’s still just an excellent level top to bottom. Totally switching up the pace of the game, forcing the player to utilize their resources in unexpected ways, being legitimately scary as hell and brilliantly utilizing the environment as a storytelling device, and it even had its own internal narrative seperate from the rest of the game. I played HL2 for the first time like 4 years ago too, so im not even really looking through rose tinted glasses.
I remember feeling exhilarated after finishing ME2 as well. For all its faults in hindsight, it was a damn good experience the first time through.
I was trying to think which stage of Half-Life 2 I liked the most, but there are too many good set-pieces for me to pick just one.
The Royal Physician from Dishonored was perhaps my favourite from that game. There was something satisfying about stealthing the entire way through, only to grab Molotov (sorry, can’t remember his name!) and dive off the edge into the water.
One of my favourite levels in any video game is “The Million Dollar Question” from Max Payne 2, the final level of the games first act
Max and Mona, the game’s two protagonists, are storming a high-society New York highrise to try and save a senator, potential ally, and member of the game’s illusive shadow organization, The Inner Circle. You fight your way through a series of apartments and find you got there too late, the senator is dead and you have to fight your way back down to Mona before she gets killed too. you run through apartments and across balconies, through lobbies and on scaffoldings. You really get a feel for the building even though it’s such a small, linear level in the grand scheme of things.
I’m not a level design genius or anything, but theres just something about running through apartments that feel lived in. Theres pizza boxes and beers on tables, TV’s are still on playing shitty soap operas. Each apartment is different and has it’s own flavour that says something about the person who was living there. It’s not an immersive sim by any means, but there are shades of what makes immersive sims work there, I think. Every space feels unique.
From a combat perspective, even, I think it showcases Max Payne 2 at it’s best. You frequently go from fighting in compact apartments that require quick reflexes and effective use of cover to more open lobby areas where Max’s time slowing abilities really shine. It just feels dynamic and good. (which, maybe in this week of discussing firearms in video games is something I should be more critical of, honestly but I think that would take a little more unpacking than I’m equipped to do)
I agree so much with this. I’ve spent so much time just basking in the beauty of that place and enjoying the brilliant level design.
I even ended up finding the real life location it was based off of and considering going on holiday there but it was too difficult/expensive in the end. One day hopefully…
Navster already mentioned ‘Effect and Cause’ in Titanfall 2, so I’ll mention the level immediately following it which is ‘The Beacon’.
It was the first level Respawn made for the game, so it’s not surprising that it basically condenses everything good about Titanfall 2 into a forty five minute section. There’s platforming, there’s incredibly fast combat sections, there’s the sense of scale and there’s Jack’s relationship with BT.
The Respawn devs have a commentary video on this level (As well as other levels on TF2). It’s really fascinating and made me appreciate this level a whole lot more, especially considering the one that came before it.
Oh, I didn’t know it was based of a real life location! Would you mind telling me the name of the place?
The place is called Vernazza (it comes up on a few threads if you type in ‘sapienza real place hitman’)
The place looks real nice
When I think of multiplayer maps that I remember best, in which I’ve had the must thrilling, tense moments, I think of playing Rush mode on Arica Harbor from Bad Company 2. For those unfamiliar, Rush mode pits two teams against one another, with one on offense and the other on defense. The team on offense is tasked with planting bombs at two bomb sites, a lot like Counter-Strike. Should they succeed, the defensive team must fall back to a newly-revealed part of the map, and the offensive team can now spawn at the previous bomb site. This happens two or three times, leading up to a final showdown at the last site, a multistory construction site, both bomb sites inside.
Arica Harbor was a long corridor of a map, with urban and industrial areas interspersed by a few natural, open, sometimes craggy areas. Though effectively narrow, there were a ton of ways to navigate the map that allowed for any kind of gameplay you wanted. You could sprint down the street and go head-to-head with a tank as it barreled around the corner dead ahead, or you could take the hills behind the streetside housing and cut through someone’s kitchen, or you could take a buggy down the beach, circumventing all conflict - or you could take to the rocky bluffs for a vantage point on all three.
Best of all, the showdown at the last site was always extremely chaotic and frantic, with defenders setting up along all perimeters and watching the stairs while the offending team bears down on them from all sides, above and below. The building was just barely too big to be effectively covered by an entire team, but small enough to present a real challenge to the attackers.
I could play that map endlessly, and more than I miss that game (though I do), I miss that map.
The Milkman Conspiracy from Psychonauts. It showcased everything that was great about the game, from the gravity-defying geometry of the level, the funhouse-mirror take on suburbia, and the ridiculous quest chain that Raz had to follow.
I still say “I AM BAKING A PIE” in a flat monotone out of the blue from time to time.
Since a lot of the ones mentioned so far seem to be shooter levels (and I agree fully with Effect and Cause), let me throw in some platformer ones. (And I have a few, so sorry, this might get long).
It’s been a while since I’ve played Dead Cells and they might have changed it a bit in an update, but once I got decent enough at the game not to die instantly the moment I entered, I started really loving Fog Fjord. It feels like its enemies are balanced perfectly between needing to plan well and then execute well, especially between the boomerang-axe ones and the cannonball pirate ones. And that music is dope.
Chapter 6 (Reflection) in Celeste is a tightly-focused yet still expansive feeling level that treads the line between precision and some really satisfying kinetic platforming. I think my mouth was open for most of its boss fight. And even though I’ve heard a lot of dislike thrown around, I really love its bumpers.
City of Tears from Hollow Knight is the epitome of everything that game does well: a combination of intricately linked spaces and hidden combat arenas inside an incredibly atmospheric and moving setting that manages to tell a vast amount of story with almost no text.
Some honorable mentions: Hydrocity Zone from Sonic Mania. Flying Machine from Shovel Knight (which imo might have the best level design of any platformer). Also, going back to shooters, I really love the Half-Life 2 vehicle levels, but I recognize that I am fully alone on that one. Still, Water Hazard for life.
But no, the greatest video game level ever, without question, is Mariachi Madness from Rayman Legends. Also the rest of the music levels, but that one is just… listen, if running through a perfectly engineered speed machine to an acoustic version of Eye of the Tiger while colored skeletons play guitars and kazoos is not your idea of a good time, then you’re just no fun. (I’m joking about that last bit, but seriously though, it’s great.)
Ravenholm was the first thing that came to mind for me too! I also came to HL2 pretty late but that game has a lot of really cool stuff in it. I loved the driving sections along the coast where you’re zooming along in an awful little cart and stopping at interesting places and having tense sometimes very scary zombie encounters in bombed out houses and industrial spaces by the sea.
For some reason when people ask “whats your favourite level in a game” my mind always jumps to linear shooters first. Maybe its that I played too many shooters growing up, maybe it’s just that the popularity of those types of games last gen really left it’s impact on how I think about level design.
But getting away from that: School 2 from Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 has to be one of the best levels in terms of what it teaches you about the general structure of the rest of the game.
You go from the Hangar, which has pretty straight forward goals and kind of acts as the tutorial. Okay jump this, grind these rails, hit these barrels.
School 2 is kind of the “The Real THPS Starts Here”, advanced tutorial level. It teaches you how to wallride to get to higher places, TC’s Roof Gap teaches you about verticality in the levels and that you have to explore to find certain areas, like the gym section. It teaches you that you can skitch on vehicles to get more speed. It really gets to the weird psudo-3D Platformer aspects of a lot of THPS levels that make those early games such a delight to play.