One of the grand achievements of the modern gaming era has been the creation of the digital city. A place where gamers can take the tools given to them and toys and literally go to town with whatever their imagination can come up with, struggle to survive against an onslaught of impossible odds or alternatively gain more insight into the world they're trying to save. Fast cars, automatic weapons, grappling hooks and otherworldly technology are just some of a long list of features that have made these environments so much fun to use as a virtual playground; but a tremendous contributing factor to all of this is the design and layout of the world itself, not just the things we use to explore/destroy it.
So here are the cities that I've come to know and love better than the one I currently live in. It's pretty embarrassing but to be fair if there was a place I could drive my car off a skyscraper at top speed and still survive maybe I would be a little more invested in learning my surroundings.
1. Vice City, Grand Theft Auto
Not to say that Liberty or San Andreas weren't as compelling, but there was something about Vice City that really stuck out for me. Perhaps it was the long beach side boardwalk or back alleys that were perfect for high speed chases, or the multitude of trick style motorcycle videos I've watched. More likely it was because in a genre filled with dark and gritty urban environments Vice City was a bright, colorful and brilliantly phoney representation of 1980's American culture. A dive into a time that was too far gone for me to experience but yet still young enough to feel the effects from.
That and the addition of helicopters made it a lot easier to appreciate the scope of the Miami-esque cityscape, a good example on how all it takes is one small feature to completely alter one's perspective of the environment.
2. The Citadel, Mass Effect
It's a giant space station hybrid super weapon created by sentient robots to supply us all with a single convenient location to provide all of the hottest deals in the galaxy. What's not to love?
In all seriousness the Citadel, beside being district of equipment and storyline, was one of the most interesting parts of the Mass Effect series because it a total hub to intergalactic culture. Through each game we get to encounter another new sector to help build and elaborate on various interspecies culture, arts, and religion; social areas like eateries or clubs mix in with more business oriented customs agencies and shipping depots to provide a rich history for a game that spans across dozens of worlds across space and time.
Sadly the closest I'll ever get to experiencing the wonders of the Citadel in the real world is that one time I was stuck in an elevator for five minutes, but that's what the trilogy is there for right?
3. Venice, Assassins Creed 2
A full rendition of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, captured at the peak of its most romantic era. It's also probably the closest thing we'll get to time travel, if we ignore the whole parkour assassin storyline thing. The game has received mountains of praise for its design ranging from its realistic portrayal of a real world landmark to the far more responsive AI and combat options. Everything from exploration to action was made to be a far more immersive experience and it shows.
Sure it's not exactly a digitally-exclusive city, but for bringing a bit of culture to our lives Ubisoft deserves quite a bit of credit. Not all of us can afford a trip to Italy after all. On top of all that the free running mechanics of Ezio enabled us to appreciate the cityscape from a myriad of perspectives, whether it's moving from roof to roof or pressing amongst the common people.
I have no idea where to find a baguette within ten block radius of where I live, but ask me to guide you to the Venice Carnevale and we'll have ourselves a good time. If that isn't the mark of excellent game design then what is?
4. Pacific City, Crackdown
Crackdown was a great game that allowed gamers to live out their secret fantasy of being an unstoppable superhuman cop. Able to leap tall buildings, run faster than cars, throw trucks the distance of a city block and punch people hard enough to send them across a football field there was little not to love, except for maybe those crazy achievement hunters who were forced to look all over the sprawling three island cluster to find every single orb hidden throughout Pacific City.
Or in my case, the first time I ever personally encountered lyme disease.
Unable to do much else except lay around sick Pacific City became burned in into my retinas as my agent scoured the tri-island area for criminal scum. And orbs. It was like Spiderman 2 all over again, except replace web swinging with a hulk-like jump; and Pacific City was beautifully designed to take full advantage of the agent's over-the-top movements and incredible sense of power. It's a shame that the second game didn't quite live up to the standards set by the original, but there's always hope for Pacific city and all of its sprawling urban districts to make a return one day.
5. Raccoon City, Resident Evil
First we learned about some manor on the city limits and promptly discovered and world of underground laboratories, research centers, dark and foreboding corridors and secret locked passageways. Then the city was brought into view, an entire population brought to its knees and revived as the walking dead. Wandering back alleyways, moving through abandoned stores, exploring the depths of a police station, Resident Evil has been a series that is partly about fighting zombies and other biological threats across the globe.
It's also partly about making me ashamed for knowing how to get the spade key to a building that doesn't exist in a city that's entirely fictional when I'm not even sure where we keep the tall cups in the house. To be fair it's within the nature of Resident Evil to make players move through rooms multiple times to achieve a single goal, which means players would spend a lot of time in a single building; but constant additions to the urban sprawl over the years continue to expand upon the dark secrets contained within Raccoon's urban streets.
At the end of the day there's a reason fans get excited whenever a return to Raccoon is mentioned, the promise of horror in a metropolis overtaken by unnatural death is almost too good to pass up. Plus it means Capcom likely won't toss in Las Plagas again, which everyone can likely agree is a good thing.