Weekend Hot Topic: The best level in a video game

Readers discuss their favourite level or open world area in a video game, from the opening of Bloodborne to the ending of Prince Of Persia.

The subject for this week’s Hot Topic was suggested by reader Simon and since many games nowadays don’t have levels, any distinct section of a game was allowed. What was it you enjoyed so much about the section and how did it compare to other elements of the game?

We had plenty of answers and a good mix of older and new games, all of which had left lasting, positive impressions.

Playing forts
My favourite level in a video game has to be Fort Frolic in Bioshock. Its Bioshock as a whole but condensed down into one microcosm of the game. By the time you reach it you’ve unlocked most of the guns and plasmids in the game, so you’re able to really experiment with the combat.

It’s the best level to show the interplay between all the various factions of enemy and it’s a standalone story in the game about Sander Cohen and his experience of Rapture. All that and you can tackle the level in any order, so it has a dash of immersive sim as well.

Did I also mention that it has the best-looking environments in the game? Seriously, the scene where Sander Cohen introduced me to Fort Frolic blew me away in 2007 and still looks beautiful in the 2016 remaster. If I could only replay one level of Bioshock it’s always going to be Fort Frolic, an evening with Sander Cohen.
Nick Pilcher

This town’s finished
This would be a really tough one to answer were it not for Bloodborne’s opening level. Yharnam still is the most atmospheric, terror-inducing opening level I’ve played, barring all of P.T. Whilst not a conventional horror the fact that death is only two hits away means you’re tentatively moving in fear of the sneak attack.

That all goes out of the window when you arrive at the social gathering by the fire, where you’re completely overwhelmed by crazed residents, and you slowly learn to drag individual enemies away from the pack.

Just thinking about that first week playing it and finding my feet, mastering the parry and trick weapon switch, the macabre sewers, beating Cleric Beast and the unforgettable showdown with Gascoigne, it’s such an opening that you feel the rest of the game might not be up to the same standards. Thankfully, that is not the case with Cainhurst and Nightmare Frontier being especially memorable for me. Still, nothing beats Yharnam.

Notable mentions to current titles like Astro Bot: Rescue Mission’s Feed Willy and Spooky Mansion, Derelict Citadel in Returnal, New Donk City in Mario Odyssey, final boss in Shadow Of The Colossus and… in fact I’ll stop there as it’s easy to start listing hundreds of great levels (Zelda: Ocarina Of Time’s Water Temple) from yesteryear too.

Gordon Bennett
For me it would have to be the bridge level in Half-Life 2. It involved you going underneath the bridge, onto its supports to fight off a helicopter using a rocket launcher. It was such a superb set piece. I remember thinking it was mad that I was using the supports of the bridge as effectively a path for Gordon to walk on, but you had to keep your wits about you to not fall off given how narrow they were.

That mixed with fighting off a helicopter made it an incredibly tense yet action-packed set piece that would normally only be shown in a cut scene in other games at the time. The soundtrack playing during the level added to the atmosphere. A totally unforgettable level in an unforgettable game.

Another level which sticks out to me is the finale of Max Payne 3, in the airport. It’s a pretty standard level gameplay-wise but it features the best song within the soundtrack from HEALTH, which perfectly suited the moment of Max being on his last legs, fighting through hordes of gangsters to get to his goal.
Now playing: Resident Evil 4 (PS5) and Pizza Tower (Steam Deck)

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First impressions
One of my favourite level analogues would be the Eagle’s Tower dungeon in the Zelda game Link’s Awakening.

What makes it so fun is the overarching puzzle that dominates the dungeon – destroying load bearing pillars with the goal of collapsing an entire floor of the dungeon and accessing the roof.

The only item that can destroy the pillars is extremely unwieldy, and the main puzzles in the dungeon consist of getting the item to the various rooms that contain the pillars, which I found very enjoyable.

The other dungeons in the game are very good, but to me Eagle’s Tower stands as an all timer across the history of the series.

Regarding games where one level is far better than any others, I can’t think of any examples without going back into the depths: NES games like Bart Vs. The Space Mutants or James Bond Jnr., which have quite enjoyable first levels but then tailed off in quality rather quickly, probably due to short development times.

Shareware games of the time tended to have the free levels be the most polished too (were they generally free? My local place always charged a couple of quid for the shareware disks, not sure if this was normal). I often didn’t find these levels worth playing the rest of the game for (certainly not with Bart, which overall is an awful game), but I do sometimes replay the first levels because they’re quick to get to.

I wouldn’t bother if they were deep into the game and I had to wade through bad or even average levels to get to it.
Lord Darkstorm

GC: They were supposed to be free.

Dead scary
My favourite set piece from any game, that sticks in my head, is from Dead Space 2. It’s only a small part and it lasts just a few minutes but it’s always in my head.

The part in question is when you are in the school and you come across a gym. There’s been a play or talent show. You know something is coming but when you get swarmed by all the mini-necros its very unnerving, especially as these used to be kids. The exploding baby scene runs a close second but it’s not interactive. It’s the slow build, the sounds and then the violence. Love it.

Dungeon master
There are many good and interesting answers to this topic, absolutely. But there is only one true and empirically correct answer. And that is the Stone Tower Temple from Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Superficially similar to the Spirit Temple from its immediate predecessor, and a dungeon that also makes clever use of reflecting beams of light to solve puzzles – this is still that level’s superior. Not by much, and certainly the end level boss is mediocre at best and not a patch on Twinrova, but still.

It is the ultimate test for all your transformation masks, so much so that it makes what the Moon offers just a little sadder by comparison. You make great use of the light arrows, there are some good mini-bosses and, oh yes, you can literally flip the place upside down! What genius, what a masterpiece. It ought to be taught in design schools it’s so essential.

And that is where even the, ahem, dungeons of Tears Of The Kingdom fall down. The Zelda series has spoilt us with some of the best level design in gaming history. That kind of thing casts a very long shadow…

Previously on GameCentral…
At the risk of me suggesting it’s been done already, can I shamelessly plug (or even request a rerun/reissue) of my Reader’s Feature from 2019?!

Thank you!
simjhpy (Twitter) aka Ace Attorney

Buried Treasure
I think my favourite level has still got to be the one where you’re going through the tube in the ocean in Sin & Punishment 2. The game has a lot of standout points, constantly throwing new twists throughout, but I think this one has the most set pieces that left a lasting impression.

Taking out the surfing soldiers, fending off giant moray eels, diving down the trench and fighting a hair straightener masquerading as a submarine. Then finish it off with probably my favourite boss ever: a bloke who can turn into a 20ft manta ray, seahorse, and then several dolphins. Because of course.

It’s such a shame this gem of a game ended up being the last major title that Treasure developed; I would’ve loved to have seen their take on a Star Fox game.

GC: That’s a good call.

Ever upwards
Great idea for a Hot Topic – thanks to Simon for suggesting it!

A few levels from Uncharted 2, 3, and 4, and Tomb Raider 2013, sprung to mind initially, but I think my favourite is the tower climb at the end of Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Shorn of the Dagger of Time, you have to complete the complex acrobatics the game is famous for high up, with no safety net. Chaining together all your wall runs, bar flips, rope swings, etc. with the added jeopardy of having your powers removed is a thrilling piece of gameplay, and incredibly satisfying when you get it right.

The Prince has also been gradually getting his clothing ripped off throughout the game, and is now naked from the waist up, which adds to the feeling that everything has been stripped back and that this section is now revealing the true essence of the character, and indeed the game. And, of course, the fact that you’re ascending heightens the sense that you’re building towards a climax.
I had this on PlayStation 2 and had a specific save on my memory card for the start of this section, and would come back and play just this 10-minute section of the game fairly regularly. Great times.

Big shout out too to the Avenger Defence mission in XCOM 2. In a game that never lets up, this was the ultimate high pressure, high stakes mission (being able to wheel out your injured soldiers to aid your desperate defence was a great touch) and the epitome of that excellent game for me.

Looking forward to reading about other reader’s favourites, and maybe getting some inspiration for other games to play too!

Constant replay
The driving level in the London heist part of PlayStation VR Worlds on the original PlayStation VR is just amazing. Shooting cars and bikes as you speed down a motorway was an exhilarating, especially as one of my first VR experiences.

Besides that, level one of both Final Fight and Ghosts ‘N Goblins I can replay over and over again.
Mark Matthews

Oblivion Gaiden
One of my favourite quests in Oblivion was the Thieves Guild quest, climaxing with stealing an actual Elder Scroll. Although a side quest, as opposed to a level or set piece, it definitely took me off the main path of the game and did indeed open up new areas and locations, which were inaccessible before.

You met a bunch of blind moth monks and there was some great stealth gameplay through libraries and castle keeps. The Thieves Guild quests starts as usual, as a small time bunch of heists, but you are then getting historical linked missions, meeting famous deities or characters which were just talked about originally, and finding out secrets which could blow your mind about a variety of things in the world of Oblivion.

Definitely a fantastic side mission and definitely carried on in Skyrim, though not as good. It’s still definitely worth doing, as an amazing cave is opened up if you collect all of the Barenziah crown jewels. This cave network is seriously the best in the game I feel – like going on an amusement park adventure and following stories of the remains of failed previous adventurers.

Plenty more from other games but open world role-players are a treasure trove of moments which usually eclipse the main missions and truly make an amazing game even greater.

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The small print
New Inbox updates appear every weekday morning, with special Hot Topic Inboxes at the weekend. Readers’ letters are used on merit and may be edited for length and content.

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