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The best video game openings, from BioShock to Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2
(Image credit: BioWare)

The best video game openings are the ones that set the stage so well, you simply have to continue playing to see what happens after the opening credits. 

Typically, the best video game openings work to quickly establish a place, protagonist, and problems. If the first few minutes of a video game don't capture you or throw you into the deep end in a way that disorients you, you may not play for much longer – that's why openings can be so important. Whether the developer chooses to thrust you immediately into action or slowly introduce you to a game world to establish the atmosphere, video game openings can make or break a game. 

We've gathered the best video game openings of all time, from the starkly sad The Last of Us, to the power tripping wildness of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, to the beauty of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. 

Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect Legendary Edition

(Image credit: BioWare)

The opening of Mass Effect 2 shocked the hell out of me during my first playthrough – and I'm certainly not the only one. At first, it seems like the opening of a '90s action movie, as the crew of the Normandy bustle about discussing a recent alien attack. But then, those aliens in question appear in space just ahead of the Normandy and fire on the ship, blowing up one of the most iconic visuals of the Mass Effect trilogy. 

You as Commander Shepard have to attempt to get your crew to safety as the ship disintegrates around you, leading up to one of the most awe-inspiring moments in the entire trilogy. As you walk through a part of the ship that has been destroyed and is exposed to the vacuum of space, the sound drops out, leaving you to hear only Shepard's breathing through their spacesuit. Shortly after, a blast sends Shepard hurtling into space, desperately grasping at their spacesuit as their oxygen runs out. Cue the credits. Yeah, it's that intense.

Ghost of Tsushima 

Ghost of Tsushima Director's Cut

(Image credit: Sucker Punch)

The opening of Ghost of Tsushima begins with the snap of several dozen flags waving in the wind as the sound of footsteps of both man and horse ring out. The protagonist, Jin Sakai, sets the stage, telling us that the Mongol empire is invading his home. Eight samurai face off against thousands of soldiers in what is a shockingly brutal battle – Ghost of Tsushima isn't scared to show the good guys getting their asses whooped by the bad guys, that's for sure.

Fire bombs rain down around you as you ride through on horseback, passing tons of other small fights before you're knocked off your horse. Just as it seems the fight is over, and the Mongols have won, you advance onward, fighting your way through more soldiers. The ending of this scene will shock you, as Jin is callously knocked aside by yet another ball of fire, and faints before getting a chance to save his uncle. It's a shockingly anticlimactic moment for the hero, one that helps propel Jin into a journey for revenge and redemption. 

God of War 3

God of War 3

(Image credit: Sony)

It's Gods versus Titans in God of War 3's epic opening scene. As Zeus explains the origins and importance of Mount Olympus in a voiceover meant to rally the Gods, the camera sweeps through visuals that echo his story before soaring up a mountainside. There are Titans steadily climbing up that mountainside, their giant hands grasping handholds, rocks falling around them – and at the top of that mountain awaits the Gods.

Naturally, Kratos is involved, promising to bring with him the destruction of OIympus. As Zeus' soldiers and fellow Gods drop from the peak of Mount Olympus, you take up the controls. And just when you think Kratos is standing on top of a ledge, you realize he's perched on the shoulder of a gigantic Titan. The sheer scale of God of War 3's opener is enough to leave you speechless – and it only gets more grand from there. 

BioShock 

Bioshock

(Image credit: 2K)

BioShock is revered largely thanks to its setting. Rapture is a world that gets its hooks in you, a world that is steeped in despair and depravity. The introduction to that world is one that strips away all typical early gameplay elements (like tutorials or UI), leaving you to watch as your plane crashes into the Atlantic. Then, as the title card appears and the screams of passengers ring out, you (as the protagonist, Jack) swim to a lighthouse, inside which is a bathysphere (like an elevator submarine.). As you descend into the depths of the ocean, a brief voiceover from antagonist Andrew Ryan sets up the creation of the city you're about to see. 

Even after that setup, it's impossible to not be absolutely floored by Rapture, an art deco city bathed in artificial neon light and the eerie glow of the opaque ocean. As far as atmosphere setting in video game openers goes, BioShock is the best of the best. 

Assassin's Creed 2

Assassin's Creed 2

(Image credit: Ubisoft)

No one knew how Ubisoft was going to follow up the groundbreaking Assassin's Creed, but when the sequel begins with Demond Miles breaking out of Abstergo, you know things are going to get real spicy real quick. When Desmond enters a new Animus to dip into a different ancestor's memories, a bizarre little quick-time event takes place as he inhabits the body of a baby. Thats' baby Ezio Auditore da Firenze, to you, the protagonist of Assassin's Creed 2.

The opening flits back to Desmond before dropping you back into the now-grown body of Ezio, giving you a chance to re-familiarize yourself with the game's control scheme in a brilliant scene. That scene is Ezio and his brother racing across the rooftops of Renaissance Italy in a moment that will take your breath away. And when you reach the top of the highest building in the area, we're given that Assassin's Creed bird's eye money shot as a gorgeous score swells and the title rolls in. Che bellissimo. 

The Last of Us

The Last of Us

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

The Last of Us has one of those game openers that you want to tell everybody about – especially people who don't play video games. The opening scene of The Last of Us has the pacing of a top-tier movie and the emotional gut-punch usually reserved for prestige TV. It stays with you long after the title card appears, and persists well into the game. In fact, I still think about The Last of Us opening, years after I first experienced it.

It begins innocuously enough, with a dad named Joel and his daughter, Sarah. Sarah stays up late to wish her dad a happy birthday, and as he sweetly brings her up to her room, Joel's leitmotif plays. The screen fades to black, and you can't help but think "gee, this game is gonna be wholesome." Of course, it isn't, as it quickly cuts to Sarah waking up to the phone ringing. It's Uncle Tommy, and he needs to talk to Joel because something weird is going on. That something weird is spilling out into the streets, and the rest of the opening scene takes place at breakneck speed as the family tries to flee the horde. The heartbreaking ending – where Joel and his daughter are fired upon by guards who assume they're infected – is enough to leave you feeling sick to your stomach. That, my friends, is how to draw people in.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 

Star Wars The Force Unleashed

(Image credit: LucasArts/Activision/THQ)

I remember the first time I booted up The Force Unleashed. I went in completely blind, knowing only that it was a new Star Wars video game and that it was probably going to be badass. The familiar Star Wars crawl sets the stage before the camera pants to several Star Destroyers approaching a planet. As smaller ships land on the planet's surface, the doors open up to reveal the billowing black robes of Darth Vader. His ventilator-assisted breathing echoes, and before you even have a chance to process his involvement in the game, you get a chance to control him. 

And hoo boy, is he overpowered as hell, tossing poor Wookies around like ragdolls and Force-choking a rogue Jedi with abandon. It's a fantastic way to set the stage for the story of Vader's apprentice, Starkiller. 

Skyrim

Skyrim

(Image credit: Bethesda)

Bethesda knew Elder Scrolls fans were ready for dragons, so they gave us dragons in a spectacular fashion. The Skyrim opening is now the stuff of internet legend, providing a steady stream of memes for the last decade. But imagine what it was like seeing the Skyrim opening for the first time?

You wake up on a cart with other rebels who are en route to their execution, so things aren't looking too good. As you watch one of them get their head chopped off, things start to look even worse. But when you kneel down in front of the man about to divorce your head from your neck, a dragon appears on the roof of the nearby building and starts laying waste to everything. What's great about this scene is the perspective – Skyrim actually has you see your first in-game dragon from the tilted vantage point of a person about to be beheaded. It's a brilliant bit of cinematography, followed by a mad dash to escape the spicy dragon fire. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild 

Breath of the Wild

(Image credit: Nintendo)

A simple black title screen turns into a beam of light that expands into more beams, with a distant voice imploring you to open your eyes. Of course, it's Zelda, and of course, you're Link, but as you open your eyes and see a bizarre, constellation-covered ceiling, you can't help but feel excited. After all, fans waited a long time for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the opening is iconic for a reason.

As Link slowly awakens and takes in his surroundings, the visuals will astound you. Glowing blue lights and twisting tendrils of architecture are all around you - but it's what happens after you leave the room of your slumber that you'll really be wowed.  Get your Sheikah Slate, put on some clothes, and emerge into a blindingly bright Hyrule. As you make your way to the top of the peak and the music swells with your movement, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dry eye in the house by the time the title card appears.

Marvel's Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man

(Image credit: Sony)

Superhero video games exist to give players a chance to feel like their favorite comic book characters, and the team behind Marvel's Spider-Man clearly understood the assignment. The camera pans over Peter Parker's room, which includes fascinating details like family pictures, a cracked laptop screen, a struggling houseplant, and doodles for Spidey-Suit ideas. We then see Peter, lying in bed listening to the NYPD radio scanner for something juicy. The scanner delivers almost right away, and Peter rushes through his morning routine before jumping out the window and into the city. 

Just when you think this is going to be a lovely cutscene, you're given the reins and can control Spider-Man as he wheels and deals between buildings. You get a lightning-fast tutorial on some of the controls, and a peek into a lifestyle that's split down the middle: one side is a "normal" life with bills and an adult job, on the other is a life where you're facing off against armed henchmen in the middle of Times Square. It is iconic in so many ways, and an absolutely fantastic way to jump into a game headfirst. 


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Alyssa Mercante

Alyssa Mercante is an editor and features writer at GamesRadar based out of Brooklyn, NY. Prior to entering the industry, she got her Masters's degree in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Newcastle University with a dissertation focusing on contemporary indie games. She spends most of her time playing competitive shooters and in-depth RPGs and was recently on a PAX Panel about the best bars in video games. In her spare time Alyssa rescues cats, practices her Italian, and plays soccer.