The problem with most water levels - other than their being spawned from hell unto an unsuspecting world in order to punish a corrupt and decadent mankind - is that they’re a cheap excuse to engineer an artificial challenge by taking control away from the player. All those skills, moves and tactics you’ve developed over the last few hours? Well forget them, matey. Now you’re going to move as slowly as the hour before lunchtime and jump like a fat man on the moon. Hey presto, an instantly challenging level without actually having to design a decent level.
Dino Crisis 2’s flooded facility however, is great because it does the exact opposite. It uses the new physics of its sodden environment to afford you greater freedom and new gameplay options. Normally, DC2’s gameplay works almost exactly like a Jurrassic remix of Resident Evil: Nemesis. Old-school Resi tank controls, some puzzles, and lots of killing. Once submerged however, it literally becomes a whole new game.
With a jet-powered submarine suit at your disposal and the prerequisite floaty water physics to play with, Dino Crisis 2 suddenly becomes a lot more like a third-person Halo or Quake 3. With jumping now an option, the game reinvents itself as an aquatic platform-shooter, stuffed to the gills with high-flying aerial combat.
Yes, you still have to deal with the deliberately awkward survival horror controls, but the ability to leap up, over and around your foes gives you a boatload of satisfying new tactical combat options. And with things kept less hectic than the average water level, you’re free to enjoy them, and the area’s rather dreamy ambience, to your extinction-loving heart’s content.
4. Colossus 7 – Shadow of the Colossus
PS2 (and soon PS3 – Wheeeee!)
Okay, we’re sort of stretching the definition of ‘level’ here, but due to their scale and complexity, in an abstract way, each of Shadow of the Colossus’ big beasty battles is a level in itself. And besides, this one is great, and Meiks’ said it was okay to include it. And he’s obsessed with SotC, so he knows what he’s talking about.
If you’ve played Monster Hunter, you’ll know how thrilling, satisfying, and murderously frustrating it can be to progressively slay a huge and resilient monster while submerged in the not-ideal battleground of a huge swath of H2O . The Colossus 7 battle is like that, but scaled up and without the murderously frustrating part. And it’s wrapped up a in stunningly ethereal environment (yep, even for SotC), with a beautifully-paced build up.
The first overhead sighting of the Colossus from the giddy heights of the bridge gives the first sense of the thing’s scale, with the water masking its true size and nature. After a little more walking to take that information in, it’s time to plunge irrevocably downwards into the beast’s lair, gravity pulling you into an alien environment that the beast is completely adept in, but which you are not.
That said, Wander’s water-based handling isn’t too bad at all, and certainly never frustrates. The battle itself is a satisfyingly tactical affair, playing Wander’s limited dive depth against his need to hang on to the rising and sinking beast, as well as his need to stay close to its weak spots while also keeping far away enough to escape when they go all electric eel up in his face.
All in all, proof that Team ICO really can do no wrong, even when it comes to the most decried level concept in all of gaming.
3. Jolly Roger Bay – Super Mario 64
So Nintendo had worked out how to transfer all the creativity and personality of the Super Mario Bros. series to a 3D environment. A well-deserved solid gold genius award there then. And it had also created a new controller which opened up our enjoyment of its new world in ways that would otherwise have been impossible. Oh go on, have another award then.
And then it had created a water level, which against all odds was an utter joy to play, in full 3D. Oh Nintendo, now you’re just taking the piss. No third award for you. Bad Nintendo. Cocky Nintendo.
Jolly Roger Bay’s brilliance is a perfect storm of fantastic little Nintendo design touches. Firstly, the swimming controls are far more enjoyable than they have any right to be in a pioneering early 3D platformer – indeed, no Mario game since has bettered them. Deftly responsive and instinctively implemented, Super Mario 64’s swimming controls are one of the best examples of a water level empowering you to have fun rather than trying to impede your progress.
Then there’s the level design. Wide, open, explorable at your leisure, and with barely an enemy in sight. Jolly Roger Bay is about providing an ambient sensory experience with inventive fun thrown in along the way. It’s in stark contrast to previous water levels’ tactic of hurling the player into a teaming pit of unsympathetic death and then taking half of his control options away.
And then there’s the soundtrack. In both aesthetic and technical execution it’s a brilliant piece of work. Mellow, soothing, and downright beautiful to listen to in its own right, the real trump card is the way in which Nintendo made it reactive to the player’s progress through the level. New layers and musical themes kick in at various stages of exploration, the track building to a stunning crescendo as the player progresses from the shore into the depths of the bay’s waters, and then finally emerges in the hidden cave on the far side of the level.
As a calling card and statement of intent for Nintendo’s first foray into 3D, Jolly Roger Bay is a peerless experience. Go on then guys, have that third award. Just don’t tell anyone it came from us. We still think you’re a show-off.
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