PC Games Are All About Terrain

By Jim Rossignol on September 25th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.

#terrain
About this time, every few years, we like to remember that a strange man once observed that “PC games are all about terrain”. Little did he know that in fact all games are about terrain. Except the ones that aren’t. But those are hardly games at all.

Terrain! It’s the undulating table on which the pieces of our play are set. It’s the sandbox in which we dig, and the garden in which we grow. Terrain: for exploring, for absorbing, for smoothing, for deforming. It is the unsung underfoot heroic substrate of all that is gaming, and much else besides.

Twitter helped me think about how much I love terrain. While hardly definitive, I think this gallery gives a taste of the rainbow of landscape that gaming terrain encompasses. Here’s how we got on:

Ad Astra

The Hunter

Planetside 2

From Dust

Rage

Lord Of The Rings Online

Total War: Rome 2

Carrier Command

Fallout: New Vegas

Warhammer Online

3D Deathchase

The Secret Of Monkey Island

Tribes Ascend

Everquest

Darwinia

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Dwarf Fortress

XCOM: UfO Defense

Battlezone

Arma 2

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Half-Life 2

Outcast

Baldur’s Gate

Just Cause 2

Midwinter

Battlefield 2 (Project Reality mod)

Populous

Ground Control

Minecraft

FUEL

Thanks to everyone who contributed to #terrain!

Commenters: post your own terrain greatest hits below, and I will add the best ones to the gallery.

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184 Comments »

  1. Brun says:

    There’s something about Tribes: Ascend’s level design, color palette, art direction, and/or general aesthetic (perhaps all four) that really gives me a strong Halo 1 vibe. I feel like I’m looking at high-def screenshots of Halo:CE (that’s Custom Edition, the moddable PC version) from 2003.

    • Durkonkell says:

      How interesting. That screenshot reminded me VERY strongly of Halo:CE too. Add the Halo itself arcing up in the background and I could be charging around that area in a warthog, running down grunts and dodging sticky grenades.

    • Bhazor says:

      For me there’s something about Halo’s level design, color palette, art direction, and/or general aesthetic (perhaps all four) that really gives me a strong Tribes 1 vibe. I feel like I’m looking at high-def screenshots of Tribes 1 (that’s the moddable PC version) from 1998.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        Yeah. Tribes came out before Halo. But it doesn’t look like Halo.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            I see Tribes, a sci-fi shooter which has indoor and outdoor and areas. Guess what a Halo is? A sci-fi shooter that also has indoor and outdoor areas. I mean, I don’t really know what to say. Nuh-uh? Neener neener neener you’re wrong?

            I’m guessing you either haven’t played Halo or are one of those people who have a silly vendetta against it and have to constantly find some point of comparison in order to maintain the narrative that it was just a big ripoff of (insert PC game here) that totally did it first.

          • MDefender says:

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Esly3aTNdCg
            Well, at least you tried.

          • wengart says:

            Dude no one is assaulting Halo. We’re just pointing out an interesting similarity between the two games. Which when you think of the current milieu of oppressive gray/brown shooters is quite unique.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            Er, that wasn’t really what I was going for. My point — which I’ve now ponderously dragged out waaay beyond its importance — was just that the snark was unnecessary because Tribes: Ascend does indeed look more like Halo than it does the first Starsiege: Tribes.

            Plays nothing like Halo though.

          • Sparkasaurusmex says:

            The game you’re thinking of is called Marathon.

    • Wyrm says:

      …and then you see Tribes Ascend in motion, and realise that it’s high speed, acrobat balletic gameplay is NOTHING like Halo’s dull trudgery…

  2. Tinus says:

    Lovely collection!

    * Opens World Machine for some terrain jammin’ *

    • Diziet Sma says:

      Oh wow. Thank you, must have play with that. I’ve been trying to find a replacement for Vista Pro as it was on my Amiga. ‘Dropping’ rivers on a mountain to see them trickle down then rendering the resulting waterfall.

      Any other suggestions on a Vista Pro esq tool gratefully received. I can’t get on with Bryce and I’ve not tried E-on Vue.

  3. howdyzach says:

    Battlefield 3 is without a doubt the high water mark of simulated terrain in this generation:

    http://blogs.battlefield.com/2012/08/inside-dice-alborz/

    • DogKiller says:

      Half the reason I like Battlefield 3 so much is seeing the map reduced to little more than debris by the end of the round.

      • Clavus says:

        On those 1000 ticket servers there’s no tree left standing when the round ends.

        • sharks.don't.sleep says:

          It’s just too bad, that most of the buildings are..

        • Jabberslops says:

          Bad Company 2 still has better destruction despite it being heavily scripted. BC2 has more building destruction as well. I would say BF3 destruction is more akin to the Destruction 1.0/1.5 used in Bad company and BC2 Vietnam (used 1.5); Where as Bad Company 2 uses Destruction 2.0.

          I think the only reason for having less overall large scale destruction in BF3 is because the game would come to a crawl. Not only on a users PC, but also on the server with 32-64 players, due to the higher requirements to process the physics of the smaller objects and the “higher-minimum” graphics in BF3 compared to BC2.

          The only real “advantage” that BF3 has over BC2 in terms of destruction is there is more small localized bit of debris from scripted destruction points than the simpler mostly scripted Destruction events in BC2. Otherwise it feels almost like a step back compared to BC2.

  4. Smashbox says:

    I love this post and I support the creation of more posts that are just kind of positive about things that are nice in games generally.

  5. Vagrant says:

    While there’s some oddball picks in there, and you otherwise be excused for not thinking of every beautiful game ever….

    What about Love? I used to run the login screen as a screensaver before I ever played the game.

  6. RaveTurned says:

    Terrain Spotting.

  7. BobbleHat says:

    What’s that? Mr Rossignol doing a feature on terrain without mentioning STALKER?

    http://i48.tinypic.com/voly8g.jpg

    Not the best by any means, but I quite like it, even with the distracting HUD.

  8. Eli Just says:

    How is STALKER not on this list already? Some of the best terrain in any game.

  9. Hoaxfish says:

    I was going to say Outcast, but look at that, it’s already there.

    Also, Eve Online or Homeworld. Obviously you’re not standing on anything, but the vastness of space, without just being empty black, certainly stands up to scrutiny.

    Oh, and Dear Esther.

  10. Greggh says:

    I actually cried a little. Great post, mister Rouxinol!

  11. DogKiller says:

    I really liked the scenery of Fallout 3, especially the Washington ruins. Don’t throw rocks at me, please. The green radioactive tint on everything was pretty cool.

    • sinister agent says:

      Anyone who would hurt you for saying that is mad in the face. Fallout 3, whatever criticisms people level at it, had some spectacular, excellently realised landscapes, even without modding enhancements (fellout with its dark nights makes the city utterly terrifying – pitch black with occasional pools of lights, lit up with a crossfire of lasers from an unknown battle up ahead as you crept around trying not to die. Joy).

      • DogKiller says:

        I had the impression that some parts of the internets considered Fallout 3 to be butt ugly. Regardless of whether people do think that or not, I still think Fallout 3 is absolutely fantastic, and the world they built for it is one of those reasons why. It’s almost like a character in itself. It doesn’t talk or do anything that the virtual people do, but it made a really big impression on me and it’s always what I think of when I see the game mentioned.

        • Tyrone Slothrop. says:

          I second this, walking south towards Washington D.C., seeing the sun set over the perversely beautiful urban destruction, light filtering through rebars and my feet knocking over the small cans around a corpse, with it’s own implied narrative of how it came to be there… Billie Holliday’s mournful virtuosity coming in clear over the radio was a spectacularly beautiful experience. New Vegas just didn’t have a fraction of those implied narratives, certainly the dialogue was superior (barring John Henry Eden’s masterful pastiche of American presidential addresses) but the moment to moment storytelling in the environment (or the vast majority of either game) was unmatched.

  12. TheIronSky says:

    That’s Fallout 3, not New Vegas.
    I just thought I’d say that because Fallout 3 is my favorite game ever, whereas New Vegas was hardly any fun at all for me.

    • rsanchez1 says:

      It does look more like something out of Fallout 3, but there were some highway ruins around New Vegas as well.

      I’m the opposite of you. Fallout 3 was a fun game to me, but New Vegas was twice as fun.

    • fish99 says:

      How much New Vegas did you play? Personally I found it really dull until I reached Vegas, but from then on I loved every second of it, and by the end I thought it was way better than F3, an opinion which was confirmed when I recently went back and played F3+DLCs all the way through.

      I’ve been thinking of replaying Vegas actually, it’s one of those game worlds I genuinely miss.

      • rsanchez1 says:

        It did take a lot of building up. You could try the fast route to Vegas, but you are almost guaranteed death by Deathclaw. Aside from that, you have to take the long way around which takes, well, a long time.

    • Cytrom says:

      F3 had vastly superior ‘terrain’ and better exploration. The whole experience was pretty lightweight, but fun. NV on the other hand had far superior story, moral choices, characters and better quest variety… and quantity. The combination of the two would have been a true masterpiece, but they are both great games, although in a very different way.

    • Prokroustis says:

      You are a strange man.

  13. sinister agent says:

    The Settlers! Procedurally generated, too. Unfortunately I don’t have WinUAE installed at the moment (the amiga version sounded vastly better, but they look identical), so can’t take a really good shot, but: http://theodor.lauppert.ws/games/s/screen1/siedler.png .

    I knew Just Cause 2 had to be in there. Stunningly gorgeous game.

    • rsanchez1 says:

      And it’s oh so much fun with a thousand other people causing mayhem.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        Make it 2500 and me. I was even kicked for sniping two beta testers on the top of Panau xD (it was a personal grudge though, not because they were testers).

        But the hell is that screenshot? Is it even from the release version of the game? It doesn’t make it any justice!

        • Philpax says:

          Actually, you were kicked because you were disrupting a server-wide event. People who disrupt testing will be treated as they should be.

          • Mr. Mister says:

            You know you hadn’t announced your intentions of said server-wide even yet: for all we knew, that was still at the frozen lake, and you were just taking a walk.
            Plus, I was the one to first suggest a peak party, I remember that.

  14. rsanchez1 says:

    I want more games that have nothing to do with Terra at all, where you wander about the endless expanse of outer space looking for adventure.

    • phelix says:

      You might be interested in SpaceEngine (.96):

      en.spaceengine.org

      Very promising ‘universe-wanderer’ style space simulator under open development, and it’s free. Just spreadin’ the luv.

      • EPICTHEFAIL says:

        Likewise, Infinity the Quest for Earth, assuming it gets released before the heat death of the universe.

        • Prime says:

          Like the mythical Elite IV, Infinity won’t ever see the light of day, is my opinion. Not unless someone buys the code, hires them, and some other programmers, and hires some PR and finance experts. Even given this miracle it’ll still be years before we see anything playable. The devs have simply bitten off waay more than they can chew. The heart-breaking tragedy is that the engine is startlingly beautiful and so close to giving Space Gamers the high-fidelity environment many of them, myself included, have been dreaming of since birth.

          Space Engine is looking fabulous, while Pioneer offers a more complete gaming experience. These are our current champions, I reckon. But I really would give up on Infinity to save yourself the protracted grieving process.

        • phelix says:

          I’ve spended quite some time on their forums and the community appears to have died about a year ago.

  15. SpaceJesus says:

    You can say what you like about the actual gameplay, but putting that Rage shot next to the rest of these really does show how much of a difference having unique texture detail *everywhere* does. It looks fantastic.

    Just don’t turn around too fast. ;)

    Also: Midwinter – possibly the first implementation of a sniper rifle with zooming scope in a game ever? Anyone got any earlier examples?

    • liquidsoap89 says:

      I was going to say the same thing. Despite the game itself being a little bland, that environment is absolutely beautiful!

  16. Davie says:

    Guh, I love terrain. My perfect game, I think, would be something that just allowed me to create landscapes, islands, continents, and transform them exactly as I liked down to the tiniest detail. I guess the actual game bit would be a survival-focused RPG or something. Maybe aliens?

    The world’s best level editor, basically. I would spend half my life on something like that.

  17. Ratamacue says:

    Can’t take any screens now, but I absolutely loved the scenes of Venice/Newport in The Longest Journey (the original, not Dreamfall). Not entirely unique for a cyberpunk setting, but very well drawn.

  18. parm says:

    Proteus is all and only about the terrain. Incredibly evocative.

    • Gasmask Hero says:

      I want to post shots of rainclouds moving in off the ocean at dawn, or the stars dancing from a mountaintop at night, or the lowering, oppresive clouds of winter…

      …but you could just buy it, and experience these things first hand.

  19. Deadly Habit says:

    Two Worlds 2 had some great terrain, personally I thought it looked better than Skyrim in most places.

  20. Dog Pants says:

    Wow, Midwinter. That takes me back. From new to old, I’d nominate a shot of Lion’s Arch from GW2 and the dystopian urban sprawl of Syndicate Wars (yes, the game wasn’t as good but the cities looked better).

  21. int says:

    We need Startopia biodeck.

  22. vivlo says:

    hey, what is that ad astra game ? i need a link ! can’t find it on the web, too much things called ad astra…
    edit : it’s because i’m french, and there is a french guy who created a board game called Ad Astra (Bruno Faidutti and some other) so as i’m clever i changed the language filter to english and no more faidutti and i found it there for anyone interested http://www.a-astra.com/Demo.htm

  23. Robsoie says:

    Midwinter ! so much of my youth.
    Hunter (not the one listed) that was a Midwinter-like game of the same era was very amazing too, but the terrain were less impressive.

    Was toying around with the “Google Earth Flight Sim” game :
    http://www.gefs-online.com/
    and due to Google Earth being used as the engine for it, it can produce some very nice terrain :
    http://i.imgur.com/lnuaR.jpg

  24. Hybrid says:

    Here’s one from Black Mesa: http://db.tt/zQ78b9k3

  25. Tusque D'Ivoire says:

    Just these little early-on screenshots that I found in my STALKER:CS and Torchlight2 folders.

    Terrain it is!!

  26. Mark says:

    As an environment artist I completely agree!

    Never underestimate how hard nice rocks and trees are to make too, they’re made of fractals which most people tacitly understand (and will recognise if they’re wrong) but are very hard to accurately replicate. Kind-of like how people can instantly tell if a face or human body looks wrong, but it’s hard to draw one yourself.

  27. Rikard Peterson says:

    It doesn’t make for a good screenshot, but among IF people, it’s generally agreed (as far as anything is agreed upon) that one of the things IF does best is environments. The exploring of the environment is an area where Interactive Fiction really has something to offer compared to a normal novel.

    Or in other words, the terrain (if we call it that) is indeed important, but I don’t think it’s so much about the visuals. And that applies to the screenshots above too. Some of them are pretty, but others are very unremarkable (even ugly), but they earn their place in this gallery by the experience the screenshot represents.

  28. MrLebanon says:

    Just Cause 2 was a game that I often stopped to just look around at the landscape…. beautiful… and the draw distance allowed you to see quite a bit of it at once. Of course this was when I wasn’t mindly blowing things up.

    I’d like to throw Mount and Blade Warband in the mix, although some of its randomly generated battlefields ended up a little oddly shaped – it offered a huge ammount of variance. Factoring in that hills and slopes played a huge strategic role as well, made it all the much better.
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-4CtueUvIOH4/T2zr-x13PDI/AAAAAAAAAEM/J8ar4NtLenM/s1600/MountAndBladeWarbandBattle2.jpg

    • Davie says:

      The curious thing about every Mount & Blade game is that the battlefields actually sort of feel like game boards. The disconnect from the overworld, the extremely short render distance outside the playable area, the even scattering of terrain features so all the edges can fade away smoothly…all of that makes it feel more like a wargaming table than any real space. I certainly wouldn’t mind if they made it far more realistic in the theoretical sequel, but the current setup has a novelty all on its own. I can certainly appreciate how much the terrain affects the gameplay, which makes it worthy of inclusion either way.

  29. Soon says:

    I’d stick some of The Void up, but it’s time for my hot chocolate.
    Also, probably something Gothic.

    And also: Scorched Tanks.

  30. InternetBatman says:

    I think any discussion of terrain should mention Piranha Bytes. Gothic 1, Gothic 2, and Risen all had amazing terrain features to both look at and play through. Even Gothic 3 was no slouch. There were so many hidden ravines (not an easy thing to do but true to real life), and naturally placed secret passages.

    They had a real advantage over other studios because they designed a physical sculpture of the land, and then put that into the game.

    Also they missed my favorite map, Tokara Forrest from UT2003.

  31. faillord_adam says:

    Now Jim, didn’t I tell you someone would say Minecraft?

    Also, I’m being told that you must upgrade to WordPress 3.4.2, or bad, bad things will happen to your cat

  32. Wizardry says:

    Here’s a good picture of classic CRPG terrain in all its CGA glory: http://i.imgur.com/k1avQ.png

    I would appreciate it if you would add this to the gallery to balance out all the real-time abominations. The game is called Phantasie by the way.

    • Davie says:

      What scale is that at? Is it a map view or more zoomed in? I honestly can’t tell if it’s to scale or if the tiled mountains are shorthand for a larger formation.

      • Wizardry says:

        It’s one small section of the world map that you use to move from place to place on. The P represents the player’s party, but underneath the P tile is actually a town. That building to the west is only an inn, the cave below is actually a dungeon (a temple in this case), and the round orb-like thing is one of three attribute boosting pools in the game. This map is actually the second in the game as you start from the map to the east. The next map, to the west, is the third map, but at that point things start opening up as you can exit in multiple directions.

        One really nice thing is that each terrain tile has different effects on your characters. Moving along path tiles takes a lot less time than moving on other tiles, and because characters age quite quickly this is quite important. Travelling on grass and forest tiles takes more of your time, and you’re likely to fight insects and slimes. Travelling on desert tiles (not shown) is relatively quick and easy, but with a higher chance you’ll fight humanoids. Travelling on mountain or hill tiles is very difficult and takes a long time, with a much higher chance you’ll find wild animals. Swimming through water tiles (there’s a swimming skill in this game) has a chance of injuring your characters, but you meet no enemies. At night you apparently have a greater chance of fighting undead, but it’s a bit of a pain to track day and night so it never really comes into the player’s planning.

  33. jorygriffis says:

    I adore this post.

  34. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    Skyrim nailed it for me. As a keen walker it really was a virtualised feeling of being outdoors. The journey to the Throat of the World will stay with me for many years.

    • fish99 says:

      That’s one of the worst terrain engines I’ve seen, in fact you couldn’t really call it a terrain engine, it’s just big square patches in 2 detail levels for the terrain, then a load of seperate geometry slapped ontop with a couple of LOD levels. It has bad pop-up and everything past a certain distance looks really ugly.

      Doesn’t hold a candle to the avalanche 2 engine used in JC2/Hunter. Someone really should make a fantasy RPG with that engine.

  35. Radiant says:

    It undulates, we postulate.

  36. phuzz says:

    I’m pretty sure that’s not Just Cause 2,
    Wait, no. it is. I’m getting confused with Far Cry 2.
    but yes, you should have had some Far Cry 2 in there, beautiful game.

  37. Nouser says:

    Does anybody still remember the Ground Control games? That makes me incredibly happy.

  38. Carra says:

    A big part of why Guild Wars 2 is so good is the terrain.

    The designers made excellent use of heights to create a world that feels real.

    • Vorphalack says:

      GW: Nightfall and EotN are still holding up well by more modern standards too. One of these days I will actually go back and beat EotN. Can’t play Factions or the original GW anymore though, too monochrome.

    • Carra says:

      Couldn’t get into the original Guild Wars myself, it didn’t appeal to me.

      WoW also works nicely with heights. Plenty of great zones in there too.

    • Radiant says:

      They create a world that feels real populated by completely bonkers fantasy creations.

  39. PatrickSwayze says:

    Shout out for World In Conflict, especially the way the maps change as battles progress and weather changes.

    Everyone remembers that bridge defence in that fast falling blizzard, the delaying of the russian troops in that beautiful little snowy village and the sea side village that gradually clouds over as the opposing forces go toe to toe.

    Time for my yearly playthrough of world war three now….

  40. crinkles esq. says:

    I’m surprised Unreal didn’t make it into this list, as it was the first to really usher in lush vistas to first-person shooters.

    Also, Total Annihilation…the first to utilize terrain as a tactical advantage in a RTS.

  41. pilouuuu says:

    Wow, The Sims 3 with the Sunlite Tides World looks amazing! I will try to post pics later.

  42. lofaszjoska says:

    How about the Gothics, all three of them?

    Where are the Far Crys?

    I’d also like to join the STALKER crowd gathered here.

  43. garlandgreen says:

    Had my ground control screen shot at the ready but you had it covered. Good work

  44. DigitalSignalX says:

    Surprised not to see any of Borderlands unique texture work on display. A couple of shots from the sequel:

    http://img9.imageshack.us/img9/3542/borderlands220120924230.jpg

    http://img24.imageshack.us/img24/4074/borderlands220120924171.jpg

  45. Fatbubba says:

    Trine 2: Heck, almost every terrain in the game is beautiful
    Assassin’s Creed: First time I got to one of the big cities (was it Jeruzalem?) had me gaping at it for a few minutes
    Bulletstorm: Some great apocalyptic futuristic vista’s to explore. Granted though, it looks at its best where you can’t reach it: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=10241408
    Sleeping Dogs: At night when it’s raining with all the reflections
    World in Conflict: with its big craters after a battle and the tracks from the tanks in the grass

  46. Buemba says:

    Magic Carpet deserves a mention, surely?

    Far Cry 1 and 2 as well.

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