Video games have an immense power to capture the imagination, and though some take their sweet time putting a gun in your hand or setting you loose on an open world, some establish their worlds, systems and themes from the moment you press “Start”. Here are 10 of my favourite opening levels in video games.
1) Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Modern Warfare’s opening isn’t so much a level as it is a series of vignettes. The first half hour of the game sees you learning the ropes at an SAS camp, being thrown into the siege of a cargo ship in the middle of a storm, being placed in the shoes of a political leader about to be assassinated AND then has you storming a village wearing night vision goggles in search of a hostage. Its exhilarating and varied, and the buttery smooth gun play means you feel like a special forces bad ass the entire time.
2) Halo: Combat Evolved
Sticking with the FPS genre (in this case the most important FPS in Xbox’s history), the first time you’re awoken on “The Pillar of Autumn” and tasked with taking on swarms of alien races sticks in the memory over a decade later. The overpowered pistol, the buzz of the assault rifle and the grenades being mapped to their own button left you feeling undeniably capable of taking on hordes of Covenant right away. The opening level has you slinking across hallways and through ventilation shafts, hopelessly outnumbered and fighting a losing battle. When it becomes clear that the only option is to abandon ship, things only get more impressive. The rest, as they say, is history.
3) Final Fantasy VII
Back in 1997, compact discs being used for video games was still a novel idea – the Playstation had been around for a couple of years and developers were still putting incredible amounts of data into each game. Then came FFVII, which required 3 discs – a mind-blowing concept at the time. When the game started, however, the CGI cut scene showed you the world of Midgar in all of it’s industrial glory before dropping you into a series of battles almost immediately. After some turn-based tussling you make the realisation that in this game, YOU are an eco-terrorist. Your mission is to destroy a “Mako Reactor” to stop it sucking the life from the planet. Rather than the clipboards used by today’s tree-huggers, you get the most ridiculously over-sized and iconic sword in video game history.
Plane crash? Check. Surviving by the skin of your teeth? Check. Finding super creepy lighthouse in the middle of nowhere? Check. Nothing too extreme there, until you head into the lighthouse and travel to the underwater city of Rapture via Bathysphere. Imposing and yet imperfect, Rapture is as much a character of the game as any humans found within it. This makes it onto the list purely for its subtle foreshadowing and atmosphere - you’re stuck in this little underwater ball and the only way out is into a city falling apart under the weight of it’s own ambition. Its quite harrowing.
5) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim/Oblivion
Ok, now I’m cheating but both of the last two Elder Scrolls titles start with tragedy and end with an unbelievable sense of adventure. Whether it’s avoiding becoming barbecued by a dragon in Skyrim or fighting off rats in Oblivion, you immediately feel oppressed. Both games’ opening areas feature a litany of caves and underground passages, but reach the light at the end of the tunnel and you’ll find a world brimming with opportunity. While many complaints have been aimed at the restrictive first levels in both games they are definitely a necessary evil to allow for that sense of wonder when you see the open world for the first time.
6) Mass Effect 2
Another RPG, although this opening is entirely linear. Commander Shepherd – intergalactic boss, wooer of space people and saviour of universes is enjoying a nice spaceflight in his ship from the first game. All is going swimmingly until an unknown adversary attacks the Normandy. While saving those under his command, Commander Shepherd is blown into space and killed in one of the most shocking openings in gaming history. The next step is Shepherd being rebuilt, allowing you to make any changes to your imported character. Kudos Bioware – nobody saw that coming!
7) Grand Theft Auto V
The prologue for GTA V takes place in it’s own area, away from Los Santos (where the remainder of the game is based). This gave Rockstar licence to craft a tense “bank-heist gone wrong” set-piece which is a perfect opportunity to introduce characters and show off GTA V’s much improved shooting mechanics. This then leads to a car chase and a tense standoff with the authorities. Its short, but its incredibly sweet.
2016’s Doom surprised almost everybody by being that rare game that exceeds all hype. A glorious throwback to the gore-soaked first-person shooter campaigns of yore, it weaves environmental storytelling, dark humour and clever mechanics to create some of the most fun you’ll have in a shooter. The intro tells you everything you need to know about the title – there are lots of Demons that want to kill you, you’re a marine that is good at killing people and you also like doing it in quite creative, gory ways. Waking up laying on a ritual table, you take out demons by hand and then unloading on them with a newly acquired pistol before picking up the now-famous “Doom” armour.
9) Batman: Arkham Asylum
This was a tough choice between all 3 Arkham games – “City” finds you locked in with prisoners as Bruce Wayne and scrambling to obtain your suit and “Knight” gives you a button prompt which says “Even the odds” – referring to your Batmobile speeding in to save you. I had to give it to the original, however. Leading Batman’s arch nemesis into the belly of the beast is tense, and it’s clear that something isn’t right. Joker seems calm considering his location, and there are plenty of other villains including a cameo from Killer Croc where you realise just how terrifying he is. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the Joker to escape and free most of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, and this scene sets up how its going to be a long night for the Caped Crusader.
10) Hitman: Absolution
My personal favourite on this list, Hitman: Absolution makes you feel so powerful in the opening level that it’s almost like being the star of an action movie. Sneaking into a beautiful seaside complex you have ample opportunity to show off Agent 47’s skills. Throwing a kitchen knife into the back of someone’s head; throwing someone from a window onto the rocks below; smashing a coffee mug over someone’s head – its almost John Wick-esque. Once you’ve eliminated your target, you’re faced with a room full of baddies the tutorial practically begs you to use your new “execute everyone with headshots in a single move” skill. And it is just glorious.
Have I missed any of your favourite opening levels in games? If so, let me know in the comments below.
Hi! I’m Lloyd! I’m from the UK and can usually be found playing FIFA or Destiny. My Gamertag is PopPunkPanda and it’d be great to make some friends within the most positive gaming community on Earth - XoneBros! I also write for my own gaming blog, check it out Here.