What makes a level immersive is not necessarily just the beautiful environments, expert gameplay design, or effective story elements, but also the journey you experience over time. There are plenty of cinematic moments in games but fewer instances where entire levels are packed with these moments, one after another, sucking you into the world of the game and not letting go.
This list explores how the changes to the physical space you traverse allows the player to feel engulfed by the story, wanting more details and information while being supplied just enough to keep you hooked. The ideal experience feels like an engaging challenge for survival, requiring fortitude, improvisation, and your smarts to survive. And while many cutscenes are amazing in their own right, this list focuses on levels you actually play, not watch.
Beware of spoilers.
1. The Pillar of Autumn, Halo: Combat Evolved
This video of the first level in Halo: Combat Evolved periodically switches between the original and updated graphics, giving you an impression of the improvements; however, either way, the mission proves immersive.
With key figures like Captain Keyes, Cortana, and Sergeant Johnson all preparing to do battle with the encroaching Covenant pursuers, the process of waking from cryo-stasis and navigating the Alien-like corridors of The Pillar of Autumn help give the level a sense of tense urgency and desperation. You’ll pass exploding hallways and escape pods as well as Marines battling Covenant forces that have boarded the ship.
The quick and efficient introduction of a lot of information while focusing on the characters taking action allows for the player to become oriented in a world that feels alive, one that would carry on without you if you weren’t there. It’s moments of feeling insignificant or only being a part of a greater conflict that make levels like this truly immersive.
2. Long Night of Solace, Halo: Reach
A direct prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo: Reach ultimately leads to the events on The Pillar of Autumn. Before the Chief boards Keyes’s ship and encounters the first Halo installation, Reach was a planet littered with historic battles against the ever-persistent onslaught of Covenant forces.
“The Long Night of Solace” is a mission that transports you to a lot of locations in a relatively small amount of time. The initial beach assault has you retake a human military base with the objective to pilot Sabre aircraft up to a space station orbiting the planet. After that you’ll utilize the Savannah’s slipspace drive to destroy a Covenant carrier orbiting Reach.
The whole level ends up feeling like a journey in itself, having you travel to multiple locations and battling both on foot and in a Sabre space fighter. Throw in some small but notable elements like muffled sound in the space battles and details like Savannah’s destruction while supporting the boarding team, and the whole affair feels epic, grand, and involving. The team succeeds at the cost of many marines and the Spartan Jorge, only to witness a fleet of Covenant ships warping into orbit.
3. Crew Expendable, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
One of the most iconic Call of Duty missions ever, what makes “Crew Expendable” so effective is its focus and brevity. The mission is simple: Board the ship, eliminate hostiles, deal with a bomb, extract. Rather than succumbing to the bloated bombast many later entries in the franchise suffer from, the mission feels tight, cinematic, intimate, and tense.
Little details like executing sleeping enemies balance well with the crazy action that ensues when the ship begins to sink and you’re required to sprint to safety as the catwalks and deck of the ship fail to stay level. The focused intensity of the mission feels a little more like a Rainbow 6 game in its experience than a traditional Call of Duty game, and that’s a good thing. However, it wouldn’t be a Duty adventure without a last ditch spectacular jump to escape.
4. One Shot, One Kill, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Another iconic Duty mission, “One Shot, One Kill” has you attempting to eliminate Zakheav, shooting down a chopper and escaping your pursuers across the abandoned apartment buildings in the city of Pripyat, made famous by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown disaster.
But wait, there’s more. You’ll also narrowly escape a crashing helicopter, lug your mate MacMillian across the landscape, and wait for extraction underneath the Ferris wheel Chernobyl made so famous. This is Call of Duty doing its blockbuster action at its best. It’s not just explosions and hectic gunfire, it’s a struggle for survival that feels real and visceral at every turn.
5. Hunter and Hunted, Hitman: Absolution
The Hitman franchise is chock-full of immersive missions and environments, but it’s the fairly long, multi-part mission “Hunter and Hunted” that excels in having you traverse so many different environments with their own distinct atmospheres and moods.
The extensive progression of environments provides an illusion that you’re truly moving around in a living breathing city. The voyeuristic nature of Hitman also allows for the observation of each area’s people and their respective attitudes as they converse with one another.
Starting in the back alleys of Chicago, leading to a strip club, the dressing rooms backstage, a derelict building, a convenience store, a loading area, and finally the Chinese New Year festival, the mission covers a lot of ground. The festival is one of the most impressive portions in the game, as the crowd mechanics alone create a sense that you can elude any pursuers and stalk your prey as you slip through the masses.
6. Déjà Vu on the Ishimura, Dead Space 2
A true treat for Dead Space fans, the second game has you exploring the partially sanitized Ishimura. As you progress through the ship, you discover, likely as no surprise, that many of the crew that were cleaning and refitting the ship were losing their minds, to say the least.
Things get really interesting visually when you reach the sections illuminated with black lights and you can see all the evidence of blood and horror the ship has endured. Descending into the depths of a ship you know was and still is cursed with the Necromorph infestation makes for an experience where you not only fear what occurs in game, but are gripped by your memories from Dead Space 1, too.
7. Ardat-Yakshi Monastery, Mass Effect 3
In a mission to address an Asari monastery that holds the super powerful Ardat-Yakshi, you run into Samara (granted that she’s alive) who’s searching for her own Ardat-Yakshi daughters. The Reapers desire to absorb them into their forces, intending to use their powers for conquest and annihilation, so the mission soon takes an urgent pace.
The quiet and ominous atmosphere is soon interrupted by the intimidatingly creepy banshees whose screeches pierce the silence. The beautiful environments inside and outside the monastery work as a stark contrast to the conflict that resides within. As the mission progresses, you venture deeper and deeper into what assuredly can be anticipated as a Reaper trap.
After dealing with the Reaper threat and Samara and her daughters, however you see fit, you’ll detonate the bomb in the belly of the monastery, narrowly escaping. Like many entries on this list, it’s the tight pace paired with simplicity of the mission that really sets it apart from many of the other great levels in the Mass Effect saga.
8. Intestinal Fortitude, Gears of War 2
In the chapter aptly named “Intestinal Fortitude,” members of the Gears crew finds themselves swallowed by a giant Riftworm, much like the sandworms from Dune. This predicament lends nicely to creating a truly disgusting adventure through the digestive teeth, stomach acids, Nemacytes, and the general bloody mess that comprise the worm’s innards.
As you shoot, cut, and slide your way through the worm’s various organs and sections, you’ll eventually reach its multiple hearts. Cutting the veins leading from the hearts also proves dangerous, as the squad barely survives drowning in rivers of worm blood before cutting their way out once the worm emerges from underground.
This level is definitely the most outlandish entry on the list, but it’s nevertheless a distinct and entertaining experience.
9. Omaha Beach, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
Only a part of the much longer level “Operation Overlord,” the assault on Omaha beach stands out on its own, even if it’s only one section of a larger piece. From the initial landing to the slow crawl up the beach, each piece of cover feels precious and invaluable. When you finally reach some cover and blow the barbed wire to finally reach the massive bunkers, you feel like a small, very small, pawn in a much larger conflict.
By the time you’ve cleared the bunkers and emerged at the machine gun slots overlooking the beach, it dawns on you how difficult and tragic it was for so many men to simply get on the beaches of France, and that’s just the first few hundred feet. There’s a whole war ahead of you, and the assault on D-Day just further reinforces how massive a task it was for the real-life counterparts to invade Europe after the Nazi takeover.
In that sense, the recreation of D-Day, despite it being done many times in games and film, pales in comparison to what it was like for the real men who fought and died to save the world from tyranny, making it one of the most, if not the most, immersive levels in gaming.
10. Leaving Earth, Mass Effect 3
Though much of this entry is limited in gameplay and has various cutscenes or cinematic moments spliced throughout, that in no way diminishes the immersive impact of this opening sequence in Mass Effect 3.
As the Reapers invade Earth, you’re tasked as Commander Shephard to flee and organize Earth’s allies to return for a climactic battle at the end of the game. Though this sets up “the ends that shall not be named” due to its controversy and general hatred by many fans, the initial encounter on Earth feels massively epic, and it’s actually too bad it doesn’t last any longer.
The initial setup builds tension and intrigue while the human forces realize the Reapers are approaching, making the Reapers’ cinematic descent upon the cities shocking as they blast everything in sight with their iconic red beams of death. Add in some close calls, a few cinematic snippets, and the agony of leaving Earth and key characters like Admiral Anderson behind, the experience as a whole has you yearning for a return, helping motivate you through the entirety of the game to come.