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. Muzman says:

    This list is probably about stuff other than Stalker for a change, what with Jim being an aficionado. But it is a classic
    one
    two

  2. zeekthegeek says:

    Guild Wars 2 has some very lovely stuff out there.

  3. T4ffer says:

    This is one of the few times when I feel sad that Rock Paper Shotgun is strictly about PC gaming, because Red Dead Redemption really needs to be listed there. That game really astounded me with it’s superb treatment of terrain.

    • DeanLearner says:

      I was going to mention RDR, just imagine it running on a PC!

      More than a dozen times that game stopped me in my tracks and I just stared at it.

  4. Lacero says:

    If we can have Monkey Island we need Alpha Centauri for the terraforming and weather patterns and giant fungus alien.

  5. Wizlah says:

    yay, midwinter. Sight of it always warms the cockles of my heart. I’d love to see a spiritual sequel of that, sometime.

  6. rsanchez1 says:

    If we’re gonna throw oldies in there, might as well throw in Rollercoaster Tycoon 2. RC1 had nice terrain, but RC2 had some really nice terrain. Best part was that it was all editable. Some of the scenario maps looked really nice, whether desert, mountain, or snow, and then with the expansions, some of the real-world locations had excellent terrain. The terrain in RC2 also made the real-world theme parks they added in that much better.

    RC3 was pretty good too, but by the time it came out many, many other games had better terrain.

  7. Vernalagnia says:

    I appreciate seeing Warhammer get a nod. For all of its flaws the world was so well built, especially for an MMO. The Greenskin/Dwarf zones in particular were always so much fun to explore. Still crushed that it flopped so bad, because there was so much potential, and a lot of it was even decently executed.

  8. Cut says:

    If we’re including “iconic” as well as just “gorgeous”, I think a landscape from The Sentinel deserves a spot on the list.

    (Maybe even a greenscreen one from the Amstrad version…)

    http://www.crashonline.org.uk/40/sentinel.htm

  9. hamburger_cheesedoodle says:

    I suppose it’s not out yet, but Sir You Are Being Hunted looks like something I’d put on this list.

  10. Vurogj says:

    3 pages of comments and no-one has mentioned Black & White yet? Must be just me that spent more time watching the sun set than trying to make my creature behave sensibly then.

  11. slantrhymes says:

    Morrowind: LOOK AT THIS F***ING STUMP

    IT’S SUCH A GREAT STUMP

  12. Gabe McGrath says:

    Scrolling….

    Nice terrain… nice terrain… nice terrain…
    Nice terr…. AWW I WANT TO PLAY BATTLEZONE (PC, 1998) again!!

    Someone (do that IP thing) and get it onto GOG/Steam…. please!
    (PS: Yes, I have found it’s available ‘elsewhere’ but I’d prefer an official release if possible)

  13. Lemming says:

    Bit of an odd choice for the Baldur’s Gate shot. All off the gorgeous artwork in that game we end up with a blobby grass shot?

  14. Stratovarius says:

    Rift has some incredible terrain, I’m surprised it wasn’t on this list.
    This is a screenshot of Ember Isle.
    http://i.imgur.com/Ynrm0.jpg

    • Smoky_the_Bear says:

      I think most MMO’s could be on this list tbh, say what you will about the genre but one thing it does amazingly well is create beautiful locales.

  15. sillythings says:

    All this talk of terrain and no mention of Alan Wake? This won’t do.

    • Oozo says:

      As I wanted to say just 5 minutes after you, including pretty much the same link:
      Terrain – in combination with lighting – is arguably the only thing Alan Wake does well. (Or at least, it was the only thing that kept me playing.)

    • SkittleDiddler says:

      Hells yes. I still consider AW one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played, all because the devs managed to make the forest look like a unique set piece for each chapter.

    • KenTWOu says:

      Yeah, even Alan Wake’s American Nightmare has cool terrain shots like this and this.

  16. TheApologist says:

    Interesting how not urban these choices are. No GTA games…?

    • Wolfman says:

      This is about terrain not buildings. Terrain is the natural landscape, urban is the man/alien/whatever landscape. Otherwise I would have suggested Mirrors Edge, a wonderfully stylistic urban setting.

      • TheApologist says:

        Fair enough – didn’t realise the man-made landscape didn’t count as terrain.

        Thanks for the clarification

        • Wolfman says:

          Not in game speak at least! Not sure what the actual classification of terrain is, but a terrain generator in a game engine will typically generate everything except the buildings!

  17. Harlander says:

    Should probably try and get some Shores of Hazeron shots in here..

  18. Oozo says:

    Bogus, ninjaed!

  19. apa says:

    3D Deathchase! That brings back memories :)

  20. UncleLou says:

    Best terrain I’ve seen recently was in – not a PC game, sorry – Dragon’s Dogma. Utterly wonderful, small-ish map that feels eerily like a real place somewhere in the Alps, which makes a great contrast to all the mythological creatures you encounter. The colours, the proportions of everything, the little details in the world are just absolutely perfect.

    • Oozo says:

      Yeah, Dragon’s Dogma really had nice terrain, and as you say, it’s full of rich details that are just there, uncommented on (except from your ever-so-chatty Pawns), for you to be explored. (Things like the windy valley, or the marvelous monastery in the middle of the forrest, that you never actually have to visit if you don’t want to.) It’s generous, in a way.

      That I liked it this much is even more remarkable in light of the fact that some of it could be summed up as a hodgepod of all the things you might find in a “Catalogue of Esoteric Hotspots”. But it’s done very well, and it is always enjoyably unobtrusive, so to speak.

  21. EPICTHEFAIL says:

    And now for the obligatory Mass Effect examples: Aeia (ME2, the jungle planet from Jacob`s mission), Virmire, that one planet with a Blood Clan base whose name I keep forgetting (it was in Xe Cha, or somewhere near there), Rannoch… Say what you will about the game, but some of the environments there are pure awesome.

  22. Mungrul says:

    I’d like to put a shout out for the terrain maps of Quake 3: Team Arena which were a major selling point, and the wonderfully deformable terrain of Myth 1 & 2. Explosives in The Fallen Lords & Soulblighter were things of wonder.

  23. choconutjoe says:

    I think the first game to make me just stop and stare at the terrain was Giants: Citizen Kabuto. http://www.flickr.com/photos/27082569@N05/8026017421/

    • fugo says:

      YES. i was literally scrolling through the comments to see if this had been mentioned. especially the level linked. jetpacks and big terrain, what more could you want.

      i’ve been tempted recently to play it again, but i am worried my nostalgia wouldn’t be enough to keep it fun.

  24. Maldomel says:

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. I don’t play much anymore, but pc games always amaze me.

  25. Nallen says:

    Oh the ironing board. No Crysis.

  26. tomeoftom says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful

  27. islisis says:

    If you are going to highlight the difference terrain had made PC stand out from titles

    Mechwarrior II

    and a title from any sim genre you pick would have added to this crunchy food for thought.
    Analysis of the storage capacity benefits of PCs vs consoles would also be enlightening, I think. And ignoring Crysis does seem a bit spiteful.

  28. Shadowcat says:

    I wish I had some good screens at hand for “Vietcong”. Also “Sacrifice”, “Powerslide”, “Hidden & Dangerous 2″, “Thief: The Dark Project”.

    “Worms”? :)

    My top pick when I think of games and terrain would have to be “Trespasser”, though. I remember a pre-release interview in which one of the developers said they needed to be careful that they weren’t creating “Microsoft Hiking Simulator”, and if you play the game you understand that it wasn’t just a glib comment — working my way across the island, it felt like a real journey in a real place to a degree that I don’t think any other game I’ve played has ever matched.

  29. brulleks says:

    “PC Games Are All About Terrain”

    Nonsense. Some of them are about t’sun, or t’snow, or t’other weather conditions.

  30. sirdavies says:

    You should have put Dear Esther. That one’s all about terrain

  31. Subject 706 says:

    Hey what about the Myth games? Terrain was absolutely vital to your survival on most maps. Wonderful games *sniff*. Kickstarter for Myth 4!!

  32. Smoky_the_Bear says:

    Needs a GW2 screenie in there for sure, some of the most epic terrain ever. Also Farcry, don’t think any other game, possibly Oblivion, had me walking around going “oh wow” like that game,

  33. Smoky_the_Bear says:

    For its time 3D realms Terminal Velocity had some varied and interesting terrain.
    http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/terminal-velocity/screenshots

    Also i give Star Wars: Rogue Squadron a nod, maybe not the best game but certainly cool zooming through the terrain, between mountains, flying into valleys to avoid turret fire etc, the terrain really influenced how you approached each situation.
    http://www.allgame.com/game.php?id=14541&tab=screen

  34. Cerebulon says:

    Strange choice of screenshot for Dwarf Fortress, considering it’s a world generated with settings so heavily changed they’re totally unlike anything remotely sensible.
    It’s a world of immense plateaus, sheer cliffs and flat lowland, with shallow lakes in what little variation in height there is. It all looks a bit artificial, like it was generated by a generator considerably less advanced than what it really is.

  35. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    Ultima 7, assuming it hasn’t already been mentioned:
    http://www.mac-gamer.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Exult-Ultima7-Engine.jpg

    It’s all about the terrain.

  36. Kefren says:

    That brought some smiles.

    The Fuel screenshot doesn’t look anything like the game Fuel I played though?

  37. The Sombrero Kid says:

    There’s something relaxing about thinking about some of those landscapes, esp. Just Cause 2 & Terra Nova (@Smoky_the_Bear was an amazing game)

    Also Mech Warrior 2 had some awesome terrain.

  38. Splynter says:

    No mention of Sim City 4? Just peruse this city diary. http://sc4devotion.com/forums/index.php?topic=9440.0

  39. communisthamster says:

    I’ve been trying to find this article again for a while. It really stuck in my mind.

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