I really like trains. Not in a parka-wearing, notebook-wielding kind of way, but in a “this is the best way to travel, specifically if I have to travel between Dundee and Manchester” kind of way. You see some excellent scenery and fascinating people. I once sat adjacent to a gentleman on a train travelling from Stockport to Edinburgh who had booked a table seat so he could watch Rab C. Nesbitt VHS taps on the Combo-TV/VCR he had brought with him. Even the tinny sounds of Gregor Fisher bellowing through the carriage couldn’t dampen my mood on a train. It helps that the UK countryside is a marvelous source of inspiration, if you get a chance to actually see it through the rain and fog and trips to the small kiosk next to the toilets for a £5 bag of crisps.
Clearly level designers love trains as well, because they just keep showing up in games! And when they do, a twinge of excitement usually follows from yours-truly.
To that end here’s a list of my favorite train-based levels and some designery notes about them to keep it all above board and pretend I didn’t just want list some levels with trains in them like an absolute nerdling. I just hope I can get to the end of the list without running out of STEAM!
Uncharted 2 – Locomotion
Right lets get this out the way because it’s the first thing people think of now when they think about train levels, which, if you’re like me, is at least twice a day. This level floored me when I first played it and it set the (level crossing) bar for all future locomotive-based adventures.
Naughty Dog described this level as a “fully traversable set-piece” and had to develop new technology (the Dynamic Object Traversal System) to pull it off. They essentially produced a level within a level, where the player is traversing across a train as it speeds through the Nepalese mountains.
Like all the best levels, the result is a an experience that holistically fuses everything exciting about video-games: technology, story, agency and to top it all off it was beautiful to look at.
Level Design Notes
This level is not just a cool set piece but it is a great example, probably the clearest example, of Naughty Dogs design sensibilities (at least, at the time). The physical space the train inhabits represents a linear timeline of progression and pacing which we can observe when considering the layout of the vehicle alone. What the movement of the vehicle brings to the level, beyond simply looking and feeling epic, is that the “fall to death” areas (that are usually vast distances in the rest of the game) are now much shorter (falling off the train kills you). The result is a level that pushes the player to utilize Drake’s traversal set to progress over a tighter area, with hazards that can actually kill the player. This pushes the tension of the level up incredibly high. To add to that, the technology allows the train to bend and sway, moving the jump destinations around, making progress feel tense and dangerous.
Crysis: Warhead – From Hell’s Heart
I’m a bit biased here because of my history working at Crytek on the Crysis games, but this level, designed by Zoltán Katona, is just the ticket. Much like the Uncharted 2 example above, the scenario leverages the best principles of the game it lives in. In the case of Crysis, that comes in the form of nanosuit abilities such as super-jumping and super speed as well as the sandbox level design philosophy Crysis is famous for.
Level Design Notes
The player can board and disembark the train whenever they want using the super-jump, they can run off to get up close and personal with enemies in the distance then use super speed to catch up with the train again and they can utilize many of the sandbox options Crysis offers. For example, the train is armed to the teeth with mounted weapons and, again like Uncharted, physically moves through the game world. The result is a moving unit of destruction with the player as the conductor. A real joy to play.
Red Dead Redemption
One of my favourite games of all time, as a huge fan of westerns this game just runs through the list of western fantasies we’re all familiar with in a giant seamless open world. It feels like a cheat to call the entire open world a “train level”, but it is a level and it does have a train moving through it so you can fulfill all your fantasies of train robbing and executing bandits by hog tying them and laying them on the tracks. I want to give a special mention to one particular mission however…
Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare – American Imperialism
- Cowboys? Check
- Zombies? Check
- A motherflippin’ TRAIN? Check!
Level Design Notes
Like Crysis: Warhead, you’re escorting the train through the wilderness fighting off enemies. Unlike Crysis, however, those enemies are zombies and they arrive in hordes! This insane mashup is just a brilliant slice of fun that really utilizes Rockstars open world systems, great arsenal of western weaponry and plain fun mission design. While you can jump on and off moving locomotives in the open world at any time, this mission makes it the focus and keeps you engaged.
Timesplitters: Future Perfect – The Khallos Express
More bias, there’s a reason I wanted to work for Free Radical and that was down to the awesome TimeSplitters series. Future Perfect is often overlooked due to the milestone achievement that was Timesplitters 2, but my memories of the third installment are just as fond, late nights playing split screen on the Gamecube with friends.
Oh yeah and Future Perfect HAS A TRAIN LEVEL which makes it THE BEST TIMESPLITTERS, END-OF.
Level Design Notes
This level excels in continually keeping up the excitement. It starts off with some stealth, moves into tight corridor shooting, out into the open for some frantic action and follows with multiple setpieces including a chopper, wormholes, a SECOND train, puzzles and a jetpack flying boss fight. The levels tempo is set by the great music track which follows the action brilliantly.
This level also includes the remote control cat “Strudel”, which is worth mentioning just for sheer novelty alone.
Gears of War – Train Wreck
On paper, there’s nothing that a train brings to Gears of War other than sheer novelty. In practice, it just works. The momentum of the rhody run coupled with a level that is itself charging through the environment adds a satisfying level of empowerment to the already JUICED Gears of War protagonists.
At first it seems like standard Gears of War fare, cover shooting as you make your way up the train carriages.
And then they throw this hackit bastard at you…
And suddenly it becomes clear why the level designer put you on a train.
This is a brilliant example of how Epic took the established mechanics of the Berserker boss fight and married them up with an environment that enhances the tension of the encounter. Ultimately it’s a simple one, but it’s a great twist to kick off the level.
The mechanics of Gears work wonderfully on all sections of the level. The trope of the chopper enemy is replaced with the, suitably Gears, “Reaver”. These come in waves and add an element of verticality to the action.
After some open-air shooting the level progresses into the tight corridors of the carriages. Here the level designer chooses to throw lambent at the player, enemies that are very dangerous in close quarters. The mechanics of Gears put to great use once again. Suddenly the momentum from earlier is put into question as the player cautiously approaches new carriages and unseen corners in a tight space such as a train this raises the tension even higher.
Special mention here to ending the game ON the train with the final boss fight. If you thought it was odd that the Berserker was thrown at the player at the start of the level, this is why. The boss uses all the previous mechanics of the level, so it turns out the level was a great way to make sure the player had a paced progression through the core features that would make up the finale.
End of the Line
Something inherent in all the levels mentioned that permeates through each experience is the concept of a “destination”. The idea that all this momentum is destined to end, one way or another, creates a sense of urgency in these levels. It adds a concept of a timer to the players experience often without literally showing a countdown. I believe this diegetic form of a timer – the physical passing of the environment – is an incredibly strong and implicit way to raise the tension in a game and can be used for a spike in pacing and tempo.
It also helps that trains are awesome.
An honorable mention at the end here for Resistance 3 – The Train to New York.
This level uniquely utilizes the concept of a hold out and a moving level to create fantastic set pieces. Backtracking to defend different sections of the train and the deterioration of cover keep it feeling fast, frantic and fun.