Baldur's Gate, from Baldur's Gate
It was a toss up between Baldur's Gate and Athkatla, from Baldur's Gate II: Shadow of Amn. The latter has the benefit of being near the start of the game, letting you spend hours exploring its streets and discovering its many sidequests. Cities, inevitably, are my favourite part of any RPG, and getting one so interesting so early was a good choice to differentiate the Baldur's Gate sequel from its predecessor.
Thing is, Athkatla feels more like a theme park than a city. The player can only visit some of its buildings, and it never really feels like a place that people live. Baldur's Gate does, and, if you enjoy poking around people's private property, offers plenty of houses to investigate. Also, it does benefit from your party's long journey to get there. Throughout your travels along the Sword Coast you stop at towns such as Beregost with its many inns and taverns, and Nashkel (carnival and all). In comparison, Baldur's Gate feels vast, exciting and dangerous—just like a proper city.
Dunwall, from Dishonored
British Imperial opulence and Victorian London urchin chic collide in this spectacular Gothic location, covered in disease and full of strange technology. ‘Steampunk’ is the phrase often used to describe the intricate, rusting copper pipe and clockwork contraptions that the city’s rulers use to police the streets, but Dishonored is a richer fantasy that incorporates the occult and bio-horror into its setup. The whole place is powered by the bile of Lovecraftian whales, exploited by a monstrous industrial revolution that’s slowly digesting all but the most privileged of Dunwall’s citizens. Luckily, as Corvo, you have the spells and killing power to break out of that fate, but moving through Dunwall still feels like being trapped in a Tom Waits song, in the best possible way.
Novigrad, from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
When I think of Geralt now, I like to imagine him patrolling the sun-dappled fields of Toussaint. (Or in the bath, obviously.) But the beating heart of The Witcher 3 is Novigrad, the dense, sprawling city you first visit about a third of the way into the game. Judged purely on visuals, I don’t think there’s another city that comes close. I literally gasped the first time the guards parted to let me through the gates and I saw what was inside. “Have you seen how good this bloody thing looks?” I said, almost exasperated, to my other half. She had. She’d already finished the game. But that didn’t stop me banging on about it. “Look at the bloody docks! This is ridiculous!”
But it’s not just its prettiness the leaves Novigrad lingering long in the memory. The Assassin’s Creed games have delivered plenty of impressive looking cities. What makes The Witcher 3 so much more special is the variety of stuff that happens during your stay. Helping Hattori to open his high-end sword shop. Navigating the politics of the various street gangs, and their brilliantly drawn rulers. Sweet little asides like the house haunted by a godling. The brilliant murder mystery plotline which Wes just informed me I didn’t actually solve correctly. Putting on a play, for god’s sake. That shouldn’t even be fun!
Woven through all this are the bigger arcs—Geralt’s search for Ciri, the persecution of the mages, and his possible romance with Triss. What you don’t get is the tedious repetition of sidequest structures that are used to bloat other open world games. Novigrad is so wonderfully put together, so insanely detailed—when I think about how much work has gone into it, I’m staggered all over again—that when it came time for the story to shift focus to Skellige, I actually felt a small sense of loss. When you’re bored of Novigrad…
Paradise City, from Burnout Paradise
Good luck getting that song out of your head. I’m sorry. But it’s worth powering through for the memories of Paradise City, the place cool cars go when they die. The reason so many people still look back on Burnout Paradise as The Final Racing game is because it turned an entire city into a playground for fast cars while somehow layering dozens of sensible racing routes and stunt challenges on top of one another without compromise. It’s a marvel of racing game design, and the best place to hang out with friends in search of nothing more than speed, stunts, and explosions—the combination of which is the antidote for ennui.
Rapture, from Bioshock
You’re late to the party when you finally arrive in Rapture, but as the Bioshock Infinite expansion ultimately proved, it’s impossible to properly show this city at the height of its power. Instead you must fight through a crumpled fallen paradise that nature is trying to reclaim. It’s still one of the most evocative places in games.
Every burst bolt and half-flooded hallway reminds you that the whole enterprise is a bubble on the verge of implosion, but the Art Deco fixings offer glimpses of the grand Rapture vision. This is a great gaming city because because even as you explore its ruins, you feel its alluring pull, in a way that seeing it rendered in a film or static images wouldn’t. You hear the first-hand accounts of the citizens who met grim, horrible ends chasing the Rapture dream, but if you were out of work, out of opportunities, wouldn’t this vision of an unregulated undersea utopia be tempting? Before you have the chance to realise that the city has degenerated into chaos, Bioshock’s extraordinary introduction shows you the exterior of the husk in its full majesty—a dreamlike exterior that hides a terrible nightmare.
Chernogorsk, from Day Z
Originally DayZ’s largest city—that title now belongs to Novodmitrovsk—Cherno was the most intimidating and terrifying spot on the map for the solo DayZ player. Even more than airfields and military bases, which were easy to survey for threats from a distance, a visit to Cherno almost guaranteed a swift and shocking end, not just from its packs of zombies but from its packs of bandits, hidden among the valleys of darkened buildings. Visited only out of desperation for supplies, or as an end-game activity—I’m all geared up, so I might as well go and die—even the sight of its skyline always filled me with the best kind of dread.
Image via DayZTV.
The City, from Thief 2
The City in which Garrett lives and works is never experienced as a whole, or even a coherent entity, but rather through a series of missions in different areas that collectively form a sprawling metropolis of earthy magic and molten industry. A bank, a warehouse, an opera house, an entire district that's been walled off to keep out the undead, and a whole other city, buried and forgotten underneath this one—and that's not even the best of it! The Thieves’ Highway leads over the rooftops and through the apartments of the Dayport district, a journey worthy of a mission entirely on its own before Angelwatch, where the job actually takes place, is even reached. The limitations of the mid-90s technology meant that The City is conspicuously empty of civilians, but the guards wander and chit-chat, and the relative lack of life fits with the fiction that Garrett wouldn't be out and about in large crowds. Going unseen is central to what he does, after all.
Thief: Deadly Shadows took an admirable but not entirely successful shot at creating a more open-ended rendition of The City for Garrett to explore at his leisure. The result was novel but largely forgettable, although to its credit the game did add a few memorable locales of its own, including Auldale and its marvelous museum, and the asylum-turned-orphanage called The Cradle, the emotional scars of which may one day fade but will never entirely go away. But they, and the entire game, don't really mesh with the first two in the trilogy; they look different, but more importantly they feel different. The game engine is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, but the game itself, not so much.
But The City of those first two games, rendered in brilliantly designed levels and stylish cut scenes that have yet to be surpassed, is as unforgettable as any virtual place I’ve been. I reveled in it for hours—and after all these years, I continue to hold out hope that one day, I will go back to it.
(But not to The Cradle. Screw that place.)
Hell's Kitchen, from Deus Ex
As a series, Deus Ex has plenty of cities to choose from. Mankind Divided has Prague; Human Revolution has Detroit and Hengsha; and Invisible War made an attempt at Seattle, bless it forever. But only the original, ugly as it is, really captured the scale of a city. Its version of the Hell's Kitchen district of New York feels ominous and towering, sure, but, in comparison to the latter games, also spacious. Its streets are wide, making JC Denton feel like a small part of this huge place. Lots of games struggle with scale, but Deus Ex really captures the sense of a city's size.
Sure, it's not the most remarkable looking of the Deus Ex series' cities, and its backing music isn't as memorable as Hong Kong, but it feels like a real place. It's dark, dingy, and covered in recognisable detritus. As interesting as the paradoxically more futuristic cities of the prequels look, I appreciate how the familiarity of Hell's Kitchen serves to heighten what's different about the world. Plus, it's got a great bar. That's about 90% of the requirements of a great videogame city right there.
Lindblum, from Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX wasn't a PC game the first (or third) time I played through it, but now that it is I can gush about one of the greatest cities Squaresoft ever designed: Lindblum's capital. A massive city built into a mountain, with a castle rising from the center, Lindblum is the ideal of a fantasy RPG castle town (it even includes a massive doorway for airships). But it's walking around on foot that gives a sense of scale I'd never experienced before that point. Lindblum is barely a speck compared to today's MMOs and open world cities, but at the time it felt huge and full of life thanks to its three districts, divided up by a rail system that would ferry you between them.
Final Fantasy IX was the peak of Squaresoft's pre-rendered background art, and Lindblum had this wonderful red-brown cobblestone and a sea of ornate tiled buildings. There were so many buildings to enter, so many NPCs to talk to and little secrets to find. And on top of that, Lindblum played host to the Festival of the Hunt, a prolonged minigame that had you running across the city for 20 minutes to hunt big game in competition with allies. The city streets are emptied and monster encounters are added. It's one of many small, never-repeated events in Final Fantasy IX that gives it personality, and it helps give Lindblum a sense of place and history that's always stuck with me.
The City, from Mirror's Edge
The City doesn’t feel like a place that could really exist—it’s just too clean. However, it is one of the most striking game locations of the decade, an abstract, striking piece of living concept art that flows vibrantly around you during the game’s energising chase sequences. The City’s palette celebrates the simple pleasures of colour and contrast. Even the foliage is pure white, to better offset the explosive primary colours that accent every building and corridors. Even the sewers look good—white with bright green bricks of colour, illuminated by shafts of sunlight. It’s a truly beautiful dystopia.
Los Santos, from GTA 5
Creating a fictional city is hard enough, but it takes something extra to capture the ambience of a place as famous as Los Angeles, and to do it with a satirical eye. Rockstar’s extraordinary attention to detail gives each neighbourhood its own personality. Even the road surfaces tell the story of the city, from the sun-cracked tarmac of run-down residential areas to the clean, dark surfaces of the hills. Smog-haze, storms and sunsets give Los Santos a sense of baking heat while the NPCs capture the city's contradictory nature. Starlets and bodybuilders strut on the beachfronts while the homeless camp under city bridges, and they are all reactive agents that will yell at you, fight you, or call the cops when you accidentally run over someone.
These day's it's a spectacular playground for GTA Online hijinks, but it's still worth the 50GB download to stroll around the place and admire. I would play a dozen games set in this remarkable place.