There are missions, and then there are adventures. The levels that defy expectation, and take you into unfamiliar territory. These are the moments that shock and enthrall us. They give us a glimpse of who we are and why we play. We crave the unknown. Send us to environments we were not prepared for so our skills may be tested, and our conventions challenged. In an ever-expanding medium of entertainment, it's these moments that keep us expanding with it. When we look back on years spent facing impossible odds and plunging into certain doom, its these levels that keep us charging onward.
Halo 3 - Cortana
Choosing the most memorable level in the Halo franchise is no easy task. The Silent Cartographer, Assault on the Control Room, and 343 Guilty Spark are some the of most epic moments in video games, and that's just Halo CE! But oh, the time I spent on Cortana. The agony, the success, the immediate failure after a new checkpoint, the forced replays on co-op with friends. While Cortana may have not been the most unforgivingly hard level (that honor goes to The Library), its environment, context, and ending all contribute to a far more memorable experience. The level does a wonderful job of creating linear progression while preserving the feel of being in a space ship the size of Wyoming. Cortana overrides the chief’s senses as he progresses. The ship has a familiarity to its halls. The rush back through an exploding ship is textbook halo. I will never forget this level.
Portal 2 - The Fall
Few moments compare to the long fall into the depths of Aperture Science labs. Dropping miles down into the earth as potato Glados insults your intelligence has to be the most comedic plunge in gaming history. And yet, this initial rush is nothing compared to the sense of wonder accompanying you through the rest of your time in the abandoned labs. You're not in furnished testing chambers, you're not being observed, you and potato Glados are alone. The setting stands apart from the entirety of the rest of the game. Its grim and foreboding. At least, it would be if Cave Johnson’s audio recordings weren’t hysterical. After all, this is portal, where any sense of darkness is overlaid with humor. If a unique setting wasn't enough, this is also where you are introduced to the three gels. Easily my favorite addition to the game, these gels added another level of creativity to the already ingenious puzzle design. I would return to Portal 2's dilapidated wreck of a facility any time.
Super Mario Bros - Level 1-1
No list of memorable levels would be complete without a nod to one of the oldest heroes of gaming. Like many gamers, I got my start with Nintendo and Mario. While I’ve played dozens of games with the mustached icon, only one image forms in my head when I think of him. It is the moment level 1-1 begins. The blue sky, a hill, some shrubbery, and a world waiting to my right marked the beginning of an adventure into gaming. Possibly the most analyzed level in gaming for its logic, level 1-1 is hailed as a masterclass in level design. This doesn't mean that the level will be the most memorable of all the Mario games. But for me, it was the start of Mario’s journey, and my own.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - All Ghillied Up
Slow paced, tactical, desolate. Modern Call of Duties are seldom described as such. This was the setting of the franchises most memorable level. I just took down Al-Asad with all the might of the SAS. I came under cover of darkness, using night vision, and air strikes, and semi-automatic shotguns. Now it’s time to take a step back to 1996. I Looked out over a radiated field as Captain MacMillan emerged from the shrubbery in a ghillie suit. The two of us, armed with snipers and pistols, will stealthily traverse the ghost town that is Pripyat. No prior level had been such a departure from expectation. I line up shots for synchronized sniping, crawl under vehicles, and move through empty buildings. Moment to moment, I am engrossed. When MacMillan tells me to stay, I stay. When he tells me to crawl, I crawl. When he tells me to run, and the drums begin to beat, my heart races, and I run. The most memorable, methodic, and visceral COD level has earned its place among the greats.
Braid - World 1
I knew I was the good guy. Starting this strange final level cleverly titled World 1, I knew I was going to save my beloved princess who missed me ever so much. I knew that every gate she opened for me and every bridge she brought up was getting us closer and closer to each other. I was wrong. World 1 has everything moving in reverse. In a game about reversing time this shouldn't be strange. But I am no longer reversing time. My ability now moves it forward. So, when I must use this ability in the final level, I see things for how they truly are. I see that I am the monster, and that everything I have done to this point was not to save her, but to capture her. She is doing everything in her power to prevent me from reaching her. She closes those gates and drops the bridges. Thus, this level gives purpose to all the others. I have not been searching for my beloved, I have been hunting her. The levels on this list are memorable for what they have me doing from moment to moment. Only does braid solidify itself in my memory by having me hold down a single button, and watch all that I have done come crashing down.
Grand Theft Auto IV - Three Leaf Clover
GTA4’s campaign is a feat of narrative and scope on par with some of the greats of modern cinema. There is drama, action, betrayal, loss, and bowling, lots of bowling. Yet, it was not difficult for me to decide which level stood out the most. Three Leaf Clover was a bank heist like I’ve never experienced. From the moment the heist begins to the moment I returned to Packies house, I didn't blink. Five stars lit up at the top of my screen and I knew we were not going out quietly. There were ambushes, helicopters, chases, subway fire fights; I didn't want it to end. GTA4 offered a bank heist years before Payday revolutionized the concept, before films like The Dark Knight and The Town released. The acclaim of this level undoubtedly played a part in Rockstar’s decision to emphasize heists in their next installment. I think it’s time to revisit my Russian hero.
Furi - The Edge
“What would I do if I had an eternity to do nothing but wait? Do I keep busy, do I daydream, do I freak out? He trained.” My eyes widened at that. I had slayed The Song, triumphed over The Burst, and I believed the most challenge was behind me. I approached The Edge with the smug confidence of a child who believes he knows how to argue. I died in three strikes. I didn’t land a single parry. So I tried, and swiftly died, again. I was dumbfounded. Every prior boss had his or her gimmick, but that didn't change the formula. I fight from a distance, landing blows when I can, while avoiding giant waves and beams my opponent unleashes. When I deal enough damage, I move in close and engage. Even in these close segments, my opponent has no shame launching some ranged attacks. But then there is The Edge. He doesn't care about any of that. He won’t fight me from a distance and throw projectiles. He will come in close and slice at me until only one is left. The final segment moves the gameplay out of an arena and onto a flat dock Mortal Kombat style. Admittedly, here he throws a fireball now and then. Nevertheless, this fight is a step away from the games convention and a true challenge. I fear what is waiting for me on furier difficulty.
The Witcher 3 - Through Time and Space
To be fair, almost every mission in this game is memorable. But I am a sucker for levels like this. Many games put an emphasis on the protagonist as being the biggest badass of a character in the game. And in these cases, that's enough. The world or the galaxy is saved thanks to you. You are the strongest, wisest, and most capable of the characters you come across. The Witcher 3 seems to be no different. But then Avallac'h takes you through an interplanetary wormhole, and suddenly you realize that you are simply the biggest fish in a very small pond. Trips through time and space are often reserved for sci-fi. So, it is quite the treat when it occurs in a game so invested in a single planet. The four locations in this level each have their own pace. You fight alien arachnids on a barren wasteland. You wander through a no man’s sky looking planet with high red grass and naturally extruding columns. You evade freezing to death on a planet overcome with frost. Finally, you reach Tir ná Lia, the capital of Aen Elle home world. This level is about perspective in a universe far bigger than most games care to acknowledge.
Gears of War 2 - Intestinal Fortitude
Never has being in the belly of the beast been so roomy. I suppose that's what you get when you're inside a worm the length of Manhattan. While video games have always been guilty of gamifying tasks and environments, nothing is quite as entertaining as the gamification of biology. Internal stomach stompers become roadie run obstacles. Gastrointestinal tracts become foggy, rancid mazes. Stomach lining becomes walls to chainsaw through. Bacteria becomes fearsome crawling enemies. The level culminates in a battle around the worms third heart. Yes, the third, because the rule of three demands it. As I chainsaw his arteries, the environment becomes a pool of blood up to my waist. Every moment in this level feels like the perfect blend of style and gameplay.
Mass Effect 2 - Suicide Mission
While this is more of an act than a level, I would be remiss to not acknowledge every bit of what made it unforgettable. So rarely does a game hype a conclusion to such high degrees and still exceed expectation. It is a shame mass effect 3 couldn’t. Regardless, Mass Effect 2 makes it clear early on that I am assembling a team to take on an impossible foe and task. I am to infiltrate the Collector Base and destroy it. Few moments stuck with me like my first playthrough, as I watched Thane and Legion die before we even landed. My mind raced. “where did I go wrong?” “Does everyone lose those two at the start?” “What the hell is happening?!” Never did an instant hammer home the idea that my decisions have consequences so mercilessly. I didn't upgrade the ships functionalities; I didn't take a big enough interest in my crew members. From there I traversed the catacomb-like architecture of the hive, being confronted with life or death decisions along the way. The act is filled with choices and consequences that make you feel like a leader in ways few games can. And when the dust settled, and I blew up the base and made it out with what little crew I could, I restarted the game immediately. And I saved every last one of them.