Within the gaming universe (a colloquial phrase to embody all games, on all platforms) there are a plethora of locales and grandiose settings that we as gamers can explore. You can trudge through the snowcapped mountain ranges of Tamriel's Skyrim providence in the hopes of finding your destiny, venture through the Mushroom Kingdom to rescue your beloved princess, storm the enemy held Bunkers of Normandy while dodging shrapnel and barbed wire or strap into the cockpit of an F-22 Raptor and scream through Dubai's luxurious skyline at Mach 2. But to me there's another venue, another realm entirely in the gaming universe I wish to inhabit. It's not a singular place, nor is it a singular planet in which events transpire. It's the universe, not the gaming universe of course, but the universe. It's that which harbors stars, nebulas and the billion's upon billions of galaxies that make up the void. The genre who's environments and settings which have made the grandest impact on me, and perhaps shot me into my career as a Science Fiction literature major and writer is that of the Science Fiction realm. This journey is not for everyone, but for those who have succumbed to it's call have journeyed through some of the most breathtaking settings and locations.
I was sixteen during the fall of 2001, and a rabid fan of the Playstation. I had backlogged many, many hours into Final Fantasy X, Gran Turismo and the other big hitting titles on the system. However I kept spying ads for a new console, one which Microsoft had been fabricating. It intrigued me to say the least, I was curious of it's large size and the promise of a true internal hard drive. The most promising feature of this new black and green box was that it would slingshot online play (which the PC market had enjoyed for many years) into the spotlight of consoles. So on November 16th, I took a risk and bought an Xbox. I had no insight into which launch titles to purchase, so I picked up three. In hindsight I should have only bought one, had I have known, because that was all I would be playing for the next two years. Enter Halo. I must have stared at the main menue screen for a good five minutes, the grandiose ringworld I was viewing was breathtaking. Never before had I seen such vivid graphics, such detail on a console, let alone on PC. Within this ringworld I could see cloud cover, mountain ranges and sprawling oceans. So I pressed "Campaign" and there my journey began, and it was at that moment that science fiction took over my life. I navigated through the tight, greyscale corridors of the Pillar of Autumn, and heaved myself into an escape pod as the last (or so the story goes until the books introduced many, many more) remaining Spartan II, the Master Chief. I was astonished at the amount of detail that had been put into this game, flying towards Halo in a minuscule escape pod gave me a truly unique way to appreciate the scale of it all. But it wasn't until my companion Cortana woke me up from my rattled slumber that it all came into clear view. There I was, standing on Halo, the sprawling landscape infront of me. To my forward right there was a waterfall, to my left a vast canyon where a steam was sent down, ahead of me I saw green hills and lofty brown rocks. I had little time to admire the view, the Covenant was on my trail and I needed to make haste. But in that brief view of Halo, I knew that this was it, and that this universe was one I could spend days in. Not because of the tight gameplay, or the excellant story, but because of the scenery, landscapes and vistas.
Everyone trumpets that the key level in Halo: Combat Evolved is the Silent Cartographer. To many that level is the pinnacle of vistas, and one of a timeless nature. Not for me, the key level in Halo: Combat Evolved was and always will be Truth and Reconciliation. Not because of the stealth, the sheer excitement of placing a well aimed headshot from the SRS99C-S2 AM, or the enjoyment of the all mighty M6D Magnum. No, for me it was touchdown, the moment when Foehammer's Pelican dropped me near the cliff's edge. I turned behind me to see Threshold, the nearby gas giant. It was entrancing and I began to stare at it, for how long I can't say. It was far beyond the detail most games try to capture, the gas giant was dark red, you could see the wind marks within it's sphere and I truly felt that I was not on Earth but instead on an alien artifact. I moved forward and stopped, I stood in between a small canyon corridor with Covenant troops on the opposite end. But I didn't immediately take them out, I was instead distracted by the view. The canyon walls were covered in moss, small trees dotted the landscape as their leaves waved in the air. Apparently the Covenant did not take kindly to my sight seeing and immediately opened fire on myself and my UNSC Marine allies. But is was worth every death, because I was able to relive that view again and again. The game transitioned beautifully I as moved on, from mossed covered canyons to the intimidating purple contours of the Truth and Reconciliation's interior. In my mind that's what Halo embodies, the venturing into the unknown and discovering grand new worlds, settings and walking away like you've actually been to Halo, actually stormed a Covenant ship and escaped to save the Universe later on down the line. From that moment forward my Playstation gathered dust, and continues to do so. I could go on, how Halo ODST's sweeping futuristic depiction of New Mombasa made me stop and take the skyline in, or how Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary made me fall in love with Halo all over again. But I must move on, to other voids.
Halo is wonderful for making you feel apart of something greater, but there's nothing that can compare in terms of sheer terror and helplessness as the void of space. No game, Sci-Fi or other in my opinion captures that feeling of abandonment and horror as well as Dead Space. From the moment I saw that static filled screen I knew this wasn't just a routine repair mission. The setting, the Planet Cracker class starship USG Ishimura would leave a profound impact on my life as a gamer. Stepping into the shoes of everyman Isaac Clarke was a welcomed change from the cybernetic super soldier that was Master Chief. It was eerily quite after exiting the Kellion, our small repair vessel, which had suffered a not-so-elegant landing in the Ishimura's hanger bay. I walked forward, listening and watching a view screen recapturing the glory days of this titanic starship. It had definitely seen better days as I maneuvered Clarke into the system's analysis room for a damage and control report. As soon as the report was given the lights dimmed, being replaced with the glow of blood red warning lights. My crew assured me it was just the venting system, so I relaxed if ever so slightly. Then a ceiling vent was forcibly pushed out, then another until the room was filled with a green haze. A shadowy figure emerged from the haze, as one of my crew spun around to confront it. But he was too late, a blade impaled his torso as he feel limply to the ground. My crew, the security team at least, was firing wildly into the air attempting to hit their would be assailants. Another member of the security team fell to the floor, his side gashed open by what I clearly could now see was a grotesque humanoid figure with blades for hands. I was frantic, until the remainder of my crew told me the one world I truly wanted to hear...RUN. I ran as fast as Isaac would let me, being chased by more of the grotesque humanoid monsters. I ran to a lift and pressed the button, but not before one of the creatures made it's way in, soon decapitated by the closing doors.
I was tense, and for a lack of a better term, scared shitless. But the setting and location of Dead Space is not just the biomass of these monsters clinging to the hull, or the Necromorphs themselves, it's the USG Ishimura itself. The setting feels all too real, as you stumble through the decks as Isaac you begin to imagine through the expertly crafted sections of the Ishimura what this ship had been like before the outbreak of this alien scourge. Audio logs tell many stories from the crew, those who were instantly killed while shrieking, or those who went mad from the affects of the Marker. Posters hanging on walls remind the crew of their duties, and how moving the ship forward means progress for all of humanity. Little set pieces like these can make or break an in-game location, and to me Visceral Games made an astonishingly real space opera horror game. Again, it's not the Necromorphs, Kendra or Hammond that engrain it into your gaming memory, it's the USG Ishimura and it's narro corridors, it's the sprawling hull you are forced to go EVA on, the bridge where asteroids are falling near the gigantic glass atrium and the quarters of crew members long dead. Dead Space 2 improved on this immensely, throwing Isaac not into a ship, but into a massive space station city. And the moments when Mr. Clarke leaves the Spawl and ventures out into the vacuum of space are the moments I will always remember. I await to finish Isaac's journey in Dead Space 3, and to venture into that stunning and terrible void once more.
Halo, Dead Space and all the other grand sci-fi locations I've forgotten, all grand in scale and impact. But there's one in my mind that stands above the rest. The finest of Space Opera titles, one which makes us the gamer the star of the universe. As soon as I said that sentence, many readers will have already come to the conclusion that is Mass Effect. Lucky for you, it's the right conclusion to make in this situation.
In 2007 I had just finished Halo 3, and finished the fight as the marketing slogan goes. I had nothing to play or enthrall me in the gaming world. Sure, Halo 3 offered co-op and multiplayer to keep me busy, but I wanted a story, I wanted a grand space opera. It was a year before Dead Space, and until then it seemed I would have nothing to become lost in after my day on campus was through. Then I started seeing ads at my local Gamestop for a gamed called Mass Effect, and the more I read, the more I became certain that I needed this game. So there I was on November 19th, in the frigid rain soaked streets of San Diego waiting for the midnight release of Mass Effect. Little did I know that when I returned home that this would be the grandest space opera I had ever been apart of, in any form of medium. I popped in the disc and from the moment I heard the menu music I was in love. It's Vangelis type tones, behind the background of Earth was all I needed to be swept away. I traveled to the Citadel, perhaps my favorite in game location to date. It was unique, and felt like a city with different people and cultures. I could go visit the angry Turian shopkeeper who refused anyone a refund, I could visit Flux where I was able to drink, dance and gamble. Each section of this massive space station city felt like it was an independent nation. And the fact that so many different species called it home made the setting that much more believable. I stood jaw agape as I listened to a Volus re-tell his trip to the massive military vessel Destiny Ascension as is passed by the massive arms of the Citadel and the homely glow of the Wards, the Serpent nebula in the background. I traveled the see the Council next, who represented all Galactic races. Indeed, a great honor for a lowly soldier such as myself. The presidium was beautiful, there was a pristine lake, grassy lawns, and the sleek curves of futuristic apartments buildings and other structures. Even the Council chambers were magnificent. The cherry blossom trees, mixed with the zen of rocks and fine sand arrangements. Right down to the massive fountain, which there must be an unspoken rule about fountains in high brow places. This was just one location of the Mass Effect universe, I could go one and one about Novaria's frost covered architecture or the truly breathtaking planets you could journey to, but once again I must move on.
Mass Effect 2 continued the grand tradition of space opera with even more encapsulating and entrancing settings. From the moment the Normandy SR1 is obliterated you're swept across the stars to finally confront the Collectors and of course the Reapers. But doing so demands an army, or an incredibly deadly team. So I went in search of the deadliest, and my journey took me to each corner of the Milky Way. I traveled to Omega, a Blade Runner themed space station downtrodden to the utmost degree. I gazed upon the sleek and stylish skyline of Illium, a space opera version of modern day Dubai where money and power can procure you anything. I ended up inside a Collector ship! It's insectoid like locations reminding me just how alien these beings truly were. I rushed to help my friend Liara with my BFF Garrus on top a moving space fortress being constantly bombarded by lighting inside a turbulent planet's atmosphere and came out the other side. Mass Effect 2's locations were bigger, better and more entertaining than the first and I am pleased to see that tradition continue in Mass Effect 3. Is it March yet?
So while Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft and a plethora of other games offer a great variety of locations, none of them come close to the Science Fiction spectacle for me. You can have your snowcapped Skyrim, your war torn World War 3 and your planet of adventure. I'll be in my starship, traveling light years away, to discover new breathtaking locations, discover my destiny and perhaps when all said and done save the entire universe.[img]