Continuing our series of absolutely kickass video game levels of all time, this instalment takes the best from three of the most loved video game franchises. All three examples cited here veer off the beaten path of level design and incorporate varied approaches to creating levels that don't just push the plot forward, but deliver memorable experiences. We have levels ranging from those employing the abstract to ones that dial ingenuity and cinematic flair all the way to 11. Let's start off with the crazy one.
Sorrow's River (Metal Gear Solid 3)
Hideo Kojima and his Metal Gear franchise are well known for a brand of typically Japanese quirkiness. The Metal Gear Solid games feature cheesy self-referential humour and characters that break the fourth wall with impunity. However, this sort of inanity is well complemented by Kojima's painstaking attention to detail. A bizarre confluence of these two virtues is best seen in a bizarre boss level where you fight The Sorrow, who's a powerful spirit medium soldier of the Cobra Unit capable of communicating with the dead. This isn't your conventional boss battle as there's no way to kill The Sorrow. That's because you can't kill what's already dead. There isn't any win condition either, since the whole level is an endless walk through a shallow river until the ghost kills you. The idea is to feel the sorrow of those whose lives you had ended through the course of the game.
As you wade through the river, all the men you have killed chronologically appear as revenants. This is especially creepy because the game keeps a track of exactly how you've murdered them. Those who've had their throats slit will be seen clutching it, whereas if you had shot someone in the gentleman's area, you'll hear them scream about how they won't be able to have kids anymore. The more disturbing examples include ghosts accusing you of cannibalism if you've eaten a vulture that's, in turn, feasted on an enemy you'd killed earlier. Sorrow's River's sheer ability to keep a track of all you have done through the game and surprise you by reminding you of your misdeeds in the most morbid manner sends its bizarre and hence awesome quotient through the roof.
All Ghillied Up and One Shot, One Kill (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare)
With its extremely linear and restrictive nature, the Call of Duty series may not win any awards for gameplay, but the game sure knows how to flaunt its cinematic flair. When the first Modern Warfare released, it caught everyone by surprise with its almost Hollywood-like polish and by delivering some truly memorable adrenaline-pumping sequences. Ask anyone who's played COD4 about their favourite part in the game and they'll invariably talk about the “cool sniper level”. To be precise, it's the bit where you have the intel and the opportunity to eliminate the main baddie Imran Zakhaev. Like any high value target, this is a job for the sniper; it plays over two levels dubbed All Ghillied Up and One Shot, One Kill.
The levels start with you and Captiain MacMillan donning ghillie suits and making your way as ghosts undetected through the outskirts of Chernobyl en route to the sniper's nest deep in the abandoned zone. The entire level is marked by a thick air of tension as you stalk enemy soldiers while moving through the outgrowth. Kills are fast and coordinate surgical strikes, as you clear the perimeter one enemy patrol team at a time. You encounter plenty of heart-stopping moments where you're at spitting distance from an enemy platoon, with only the blades of grass and quick thinking keeping you from getting discovered and subsequently Swiss cheesed.
As you move further towards the goal, you come across hazards ranging from radioactive zones and pack of deadly feral dogs to battle tanks replete with foot soldiers for escort. Survive long enough and you are treated to a satisfying sniping segment, where you take a shot from a mile across. This is the kind of level that makes your palms sweat invariably. It's easily the highest point in a game otherwise filled with truly brilliant cinematic sequences.
Unexpected Turbulence (No One Lives Forever)
Among the many underrated gems that couldn't get the recognition that they deserved in the shadow of Half Life, The Operative: No One Lives Forever (NOLF) is the most intelligent game of them all. This First-Person Shooter manages to pull off satire, which is one aspect that has otherwise largely been missing in FPS games. The game puts you in the shoes of Cate Archer. She is the female equivalent of James Bond, who somehow manages to maintain an air of grace and sophistication despite dressing up in the typically 70s styled pastel shaded attire.
NOLF does a terrific job of parodying James Bond's brand of spy movies, even as Cate reacts to the hilarity around her with a subtle nonchalance, incisive sarcasm and wit that's rarely seen in video games. Apart from maintaining highest standards of AI, gameplay and story, the game did an exceedingly brilliant job of delivering the most memorable set pieces. Levels such as Unexpected Turbulence from the original NOLF showed a level of imagination and level design ingenuity that was unprecedented at that time.
Unexpected Turbulence involves a typical Cold War routine of escorting a scientist who has defected from the post-war Berlin. What starts out as a safe flight back home after a successful extraction turns into a mid-air hijack. Soon enough, your aeroplane starts falling to pieces and you're left with no choice but to dive out of the burning wreck. What happens next is quite shocking to an FPS gamer who's, until that point of time, used to linear level design comprising long corridors and warehouses brimming with crates.
The entire level takes place in a free fall, and you have to start off by diving off the plane to borrow a parachute from one of the baddies. A polite “Mind if I borrow that?” later, Cate's all ready to land, but soon enough a dozen odd grunts jump off the intercepting plane and open fire. What follows next can be best described as mid-air ballet, and Cate rolls, dodges and dives through the sky—all the while capping baddies in the head. When you finally dispatch the last minion and pull the chute, the level ends in a cutscene that goes back to the grunt we had borrowed the parachute from. Headed straight for a barn sans a parachute, the baddie is shown chanting, “Please be full of hay! Please be full of hay!”, right before a very loud thud.
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