The most absorbing, most horrifying and most loveable settings in the gaming world
Alpha Halo (Halo: Combat Evolved)
Alpha Halo, or Installation 04, is the ring-shaped megastructure, 10,000 miles in diameter, upon which the bulk of Halo: Combat Evolved takes place. A metallic exterior and wall house an atmosphere, water and plant life, and the ring’s rotation creates a gravity similar to that of Earth. Built by an extinct race called the Forerunners, the Halo isn’t just the place where you fight the majority of Master Chief’s battles against the Covenant – it’s also a key plot device thats importance becomes clear as its secrets are discovered.
Hyrule (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
Hyrule is the setting for many games in the Zelda series, but the first fully 3D version from the Nintendo 64’s Ocarina of Time is arguably the greatest of all. With the vast Hyrule Field acting as a central hub, Hyrule featured several iconic areas for the hero Link to visit. And in a twist, we got to see the world in two different periods: with Link as a child and seven years later as a grown man.
City 17 and its environs (Half-life 2)
The original Half-life’s Black Mesa was a memorable setting, but the game’s sequel provided something entirely grander: Earth is now an Orwellian dystopia where the semi-alien Combine have all but subjugated the human race. You experience this grim reality for yourself in the game’s opening sequence, as you enter (the apparently Eastern European) City 17 by train and, powerless at first, witness the brutality of the Combine first hand.
Gaia (Final Fantasy VII)
At the time of Final Fantasy VII’s release in 1997, few games featured such a huge or well-developed world. Gaia is a world in flux: while the Shinra corporation pollutes and rules through money and military might, an underground group of resistance fighters seeks to return the planet to its pre-industrial balance. The world is fully explorable later in the game, from the vast capital city of Midgar to the Gold Saucer, a casino/amusement park in the middle of a desert.
Liberty City (Grand Theft Auto IV)
Grand Theft Auto IV is many things, but above all it is a love letter to New York City. Sure, the conurbation that plays host to Niko Bellic’s misadventures has a different name, but it’s the finest recreation of the Big Apple in video games, nailing not only the look of the city but its feel: dirty, rude but above all a place where anybody can do anything.
The Wasteland (Fallout)
The original Fallout’s bleak setting wasn’t just a post-apocalyptic nightmare: it was a post-modern post-apocalyptic nightmare based off an alternate history where the US remained mired in the “Mom’s apple pie” attitudes and popular culture of the 1950s. Evocative, referential and brutal, Fallout’s radioactive re-imagining of America has since been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century with Bethesda’s two first-person Fallout games – and very nice they both look. If you can use “nice” to describe nuclear-ravaged desolation.
The Dinosaur Land (Super Mario World)
Mario’s first outing on the SNES didn’t wildly change the platform formula, but it did add an extra element: a map of the entire game world. This allowed Mario to take different routes through the Dinosaur Kingdom and thus reach the final boss (Bowser, of course), travelling through a beautifully varied selection of level types in the process.
1947 Los Angeles (L.A. Noire)
Crime action adventure L.A. Noire is not without its critics, but few could take issue with the game’s recreation of Los Angeles in the aftermath of World War II. Developers Team Bondi used over 110,000 aerial shots of the city to achieve a striking level of accuracy, but perhaps more impressive is the way it captures the feel of a city on the way up: glamorous but almost hopelessly corrupt.
Vvardenfell (The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind)
Oblivion or Skyrim might be obvious choices for their size, beauty and the Radiant Engine that gives their inhabitants jobs, homes and routines, but for our money Vvardenfell, from 2002’s Morrowind, is the more memorable place. A harsh land of swamps, ash wastes and strange architecture, dominated by the huge volcano Red Mountain and mostly populated by the unfriendly, xenophobic Dark Elves, Vvardenfell felt like unfamiliar and foreign rather than a rehash of stereotypical fantasy worlds.
A vast art deco underwater city built by the Ayn Rand-inspired Andrew Ryan, Rapture was intended to be an Objectivist paradise. Free from religion, monarchy and the interference of government, it would be a place where any man or woman could make themselves a success through hard work – and a bit of genetic engineering. But the dream turned sour when this gene splicing resulted in half the population turning murderous, and by the time of BioShock Rapture is a vast horrific ruin, and a reminder of how the grandest dreams can turn into the worst nightmares.