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.