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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best video game levels of 2017

Screenshot: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus/Bethesda Softworks
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You’ve already heard from us about our favorite games, but we also wanted to dig deeper and applaud some of the most memorable sequences that helped make 2017 such a tremendous year. After all, every game contains multitudes of moments and decisions, and even a mediocre release can occasionally come together into something transcendent. To that end, we’ve wracked our brains and assembled a list (in no particular order) of some of the best chunks of gaming goodness the year had to offer, including individual levels, side quests, boss fights, and everything in between. And yes, this list includes specific plot and aesthetic details, so if you’re at all sensitive to that sort of thing, tread lightly.

Roswell, New Mexico, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Roswell isn’t the most dramatic or crazy place B.J. Blazkowicz visits in his bloody odyssey to retake America from its German oppressors. There are no severed heads, no gargantuan superweapons, and very little Nazi-killing at all. In a game that gleefully screams its intentions at every turn, your short time in downtown Roswell is quiet, almost normal—and that’s the gut-wrenching point. You walk down an all-American street where robe-clad KKK members stroll around without a care in the world, other than proving to their new masters that they’re keeping up with their German lessons, of course. This is what normal looks like in the nightmarish world B.J. has woken up into, a world where the Nazis won. The New Colossus is never subtle in its politics, but sunny Roswell is its nastiest punch, a world of smiling white people who are perfectly happy never to be freed from their racially motivated oppression. It’s almost a relief when the blood starts to flow again. [William Hughes]

The Bank Job, Dishonored: Death Of The Outsider

When done well, there’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned heist. In what might be the series’ final outing, Dishonored delivered a great one, tasking players with breaking into a high-security bank and stealing a magical dagger with the power to kill a god. You could bust in with sword and gun and occult powers in hand, but it’s hard to resist the more measured approach that materializes during your preparation and promises to leave the building’s human guards snoozing. (You’ll still have to deal with a few robot sentries and diabolical puzzles, though.) The bank also provides the perfect backdrop for some of the game’s most pointed social commentary. You’ll find all-too-familiar evidence of corruption and crumpled letters from the citizens it swindled while audio messages to wealthy customers blare through the speakers of the otherwise silent building. It’s enough to make you seriously question whether your pacifist playthrough is worth sparing the life of the bank’s detestable owner. [Matt Gerardi]

Eventide Island, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild

Your ability to progress through The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild depends on how prepared you are for whatever it throws at you next, whether it’s tough enemies or inclement weather. But Eventide Island does something different. You first see it when you reach the east coast of the game’s huge map, and even without Sirens on its shores calling you to your doom, it’s hard for any player to resist the temptation to explore it. Once you step foot on its beach, all of your gear disappears, and you can’t get it back until you complete a series of challenges or give up and swim away. It’s a perfect distillation of the entire game: testing how well you’ve conquered its many mechanics by forcing you to drop everything you’ve earned and rebuild from scratch in a harsh, accelerated environment. Completing it just might be the game’s high point. [Sam Barsanti]

The garage, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

Resident Evil 7 never gets better than its first several hours. The decrepit Baker house is still mysterious and confounding, every closed door and dark room presents a terrifying threat, and you’re being mercilessly pursued by a raving Cajun killer. Right there in the middle of it, you’re unwittingly thrown into your first real fight against that lunatic, and it’s been crafted to be a perfectly deranged microcosm of the energy that made this new Resident Evil so reinvigorating. It’s brutally claustrophobic, trapping you in a garage with the Baker patriarch and his giant ax. It’s unwinnable through normal means, forcing you to observe and experiment with your surroundings while evading Jack’s attacks. And most importantly, it’s wildly unpredictable and funny, a constant crescendo of gore and madness the ends with shocking suddenness whether you win or lose. [Matt Gerardi]

King Dice, Cuphead

Underneath the admittedly gorgeous aesthetics, Cuphead is really about variety, asking just how many different boss concepts one game can stuff inside its old-timey-cartoon aesthetic. As a showcase for that kind of variety, it’s hard to beat the penultimate boss fight against The Devil’s crooning crony, the smoothly mustached “Mr.” King Dice. Rather than fighting plucky battlers Cuphead and Mugman directly, the malevolent pit boss runs them through a craps-based gauntlet that pits them against evil versions of martini sets, claw games, stogies, roulette wheels, and more. Besides nodding to one of Cuphead’s clearest inspirations—the Dice Palace from Treasure’s classic Gunstar Heroes—King Dice’s endurance match serves as the ultimate test of skill for both the players, in navigating it, and StudioMDHR, in finding so many different twists on the boss-battling formula. [William Hughes]

Lewis Finch, What Remains Of Edith Finch

What Remains Of Edith Finch looks like the sort of walking sim you’ve played before: creepy house, family mystery, sneaky gut-punch of emotion. But it’s also a game of surprising verve, packing wildly different mechanics into each storybook vignette of a Finch family member’s life and untimely death. (They’re cursed.) Some of the simplest are the most effective, but the story of Lewis—a dreamy, sensitive kid who struggles with drugs, comes home to work a factory job, and disappears into a fantasy world—is the game’s centerpiece. Giant Sparrow audaciously forces you to work the cannery job with the right joystick while the left joystick controls the world of his imagination, which begins as a lo-fi adventure game but gradually evolves into a history of games themselves, with references to Mario, Diablo, Minecraft, Civilization, and many more. It works simultaneously as an affectionate ode to the medium’s power and an unblinking indictment of the dangers of power fantasies, building toward a heart-rending climax in which his worlds coalesce. It ends the same way things always do for the Finch family—grimly and with great beauty. [Clayton Purdom]

Miracle On Tenkaichi Street, Yakuza 0

Yakuza 0, the excellent prequel/soft reboot of Sega’s mobster soap-opera series, has its fair share of zany side stories, but a chance encounter with the world’s biggest pop star stands tall as one of the most ridiculous things video games had to offer in 2017. At one point, Kiryu, the moody former yakuza who stars in the game, can meet the famed “Miracle Johnson” in all his red-leather-wearing, random-dance-move-popping glory. You see, this Popstar Prince is in town to film a music video, helmed by “big Hollywood director Stephen Spining,” where he evades an attack from a horde of zombies and “dances his way through the land of the rising sun.” It’s Kiryu’s job to fight off the overeager extras while Johnson does his “Miracle Walk” down a Kamurocho alley. The fake Michael Jackson tunes, the exaggerated impression, the soulless eyes and robotic face of fake Steven Spielberg, Kiryu’s earned incredulity about the whole thing—it’s a masterpiece of absurdity. [Matt Gerardi]

First day on the job, Prey

Arkane Studios’ Prey is full of nasty narrative tricks designed to trip its players up. One of its most ambitious arrives right at the start. As Morgan Yu, you set off for your first day at work, embarking on an opening tour that hits all the standard “immersive intro” beats that players have nodded their way through since Half-Life’s famous tram ride popularized the concept. It’s all perfectly normal, up to and including the moment when things go disastrously wrong (as they usually do). But instead of diving into action, you suddenly wake up back in your apartment in peace again—until desperate messages start coming in, ordering you to escape. Facing locked doors at every turn, you grab a wrench and approach your gorgeous bay windows. With just a hint of slow motion—to better to savor the effect—you swing the wrench…and the entire skyline shatters. In its place are watching cameras, industrial darkness, and the slow realization that everything the game has shown you up to this point has been a lie. [William Hughes]

Liberation, Call Of Duty: WWII

The Call Of Duty: WWII campaign is mostly soulless, shuffling the player through war-ravaged Europe on a tedious wartime adventure, but for the Liberation level, it briefly turns into a much more interesting game. It has you play as Rousseau, an agent working for the French resistance tasked with contacting a Nazi officer secretly working with the good guys. Rather than storming the gates or casually choking everyone out like Solid Snake, you have to memorize the personal details listed on your fake identification papers and try to figure out which Nazi is your mole without tipping anyone off. You spend the level surrounded by enemies, aware that any wrong move could get you killed, and it makes the eventual combat sequence much more satisfying than any other level in the game. Plus, it ends with you standing among the people of Paris as they celebrate beating back the Nazis, and it’s the one moment where COD almost matches the passion of Wolfenstein II. [Sam Barsanti]

Studiopolis Zone Act 1, Sonic Mania

Sonic Mania makes its intentions known early on by twisting two very familiar levels into surprising new forms, but nothing can prepare you for the splendor of its first original stage, Studiopolis Zone. Everything that was great about those Genesis classics comes roaring to a heightened state here. The soundtrack revs into full New Jack Swing mode, and the color palette is immediately gorgeous, all chromatic blue pathways set against a neon-lined orange and purple skyline. The Hollywood/broadcast television theme works its way into every inch of the stage’s sprawl, from the static-filled CRT monitors and color-bar motif to the clapboard platforms and news vans that beam Sonic into rabbit-eared TVs. Even the simple trick of letting Sonic run behind a backlit pane of glass, either to show him in silhouette or let him shatter the window into tumbling proto-polygonal shards, produces eye-popping results. [Matt Gerardi]

The Bloom, Torment: Tides Of Numenera

Two-thirds of the way through InXile’s semi-successful attempt to replicate the weird magic of RPG classic Planescape Torment, you desperately hurl your character, The Last Castoff, through a mysterious portal. You land in a massive cavern made of meat and bone, populated by traders and desperate refugees. The Bloom isn’t just a multi-dimensional marketplace with a body-horror theme; it’s a living thing, and its predatory drives inform every story that takes place within it. Hungry, toothy maws demand sacrifices before allowing people to pass through them, normally docile creatures feast gleefully on the blood of their submissive prey, and leaders are tossed away the second their power starts to wane. At every step, you’re forced to decide what to sacrifice (or who), and how far to bend to the creature’s malevolent whims. As a reinforcement of the game’s themes—legacy, loss, sacrifice, etc.—it’s Torment at its best, especially since even the most clever players will find themselves inevitably forced to pay a price that’s going to hurt. [William Hughes]

A Traditional Festival!, Super Mario Odyssey

“Joyous” is one of those adjectives games critics have abused almost to the point of meaninglessness, so let’s establish a new rule: Unless your subject is more earnest and exuberant than Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City Festival, use another word. You’d be hard pressed to find a more heartwarming scene in 2017, or any other year, than this sumptuous celebration of Mario history. The city’s Donkey Kong inspiration comes out in full, and you’re transitioned into a gravity defying 2-D stage full of rolling barrels, flaming oil drums, and a showdown with the big ape himself. But what makes it such a life-affirming delight is the supportive pageantry surrounding your ascent. Fireworks erupt around you. Confetti pours down. The entire city cheers you on, and a rousing Donkey Kong-theme-quoting big-band number plays you to your destination. It just plain makes you feel good—joyous even. [Matt Gerardi]

Erangel , PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

PUBG’s Erangel is a weird place: a massive Russian island—complete with military bases, towns, ancient ruins, swamps, and more—that appears to have been evacuated just minutes before a bunch of gun-hungry battle-royale fighters parachute down to ransack its houses for cover and loot. If Battlegrounds were a Gone Home-style walking simulator, the abandoned buildings would be full of environmental storytelling and subtle clues; instead, the game’s mysteries are allowed to stand untouched. What’s up with that giant underground bomb shelter? Who’s controlling the lethal blue circle? And has anyone ever survived going into that goddamn shooting range? The island’s greatest strength, though, isn’t its weirdo mysteries, but its size. It’s big enough that it can take several minutes for players to run into one another at the start of a match, allowing plenty of time for tension—and camaraderie, if you’re playing with a squad—to steadily build before it’s suddenly spent in a burst of gunfire, panic, and violence. [William Hughes]