While quite a few developers decide to create their own fantastical worlds to explore, a handful prefer to ground themselves within our reality. Taking inspiration from popular cities or neighborhoods, there is definitely a certain joy that can be derived from seeing a recognizable landmark in a game. It makes the entire experience feel tangible, like it’s something that could actually happen in everyday life.
As Western games tend to market themselves towards an American audience, it is no surprise they occasionally use cities like Los Angeles or New York as a setting. Say what you want about the USA, but very few countries can match it in terms of scale and diversity. Setting a movie or a game in Boston leads to a completely different atmosphere than if it was set in Miami.
There are hundreds of games set in the USA, and here are our picks for the best of the best.
10. Heavy Rain
- System: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Quantic Dream
- Release Dates: Feb 18, 2010 (JP), Feb 23, 2010 (NA), Feb 24, 2010 (EU)
Heavy Rain is an interactive drama written by David Cage, who would go on to pen Beyond Two Souls. The gameplay is not really the focus, as it is generally relegated to a series of quick time events. Players can also move the characters and interact with objects, but there is not much room for exploration. The story is the star of the show, as Cage penned a thrilling film noir set in the atmospheric streets of Philadelphia.
With four main characters, Heavy Rain constantly shifts perspective from one chapter to the next. The story centers around the Origami Killer, who kidnapped the son of Ethan Mars. Players start off controlling Ethan, before stepping into the shoes of professionals investigating the case. As the plot is the main reason to try this one out, and it is best to avoid spoilers, we will just say that Heavy Rain keeps the player guessing.
Philadelphia is well realized and adds to the overall tone of the narrative. As this is a linear game, players are not given any freedom to explore the city, but this restrictive narrative style allows for a tense overall experience.
9. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
- System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
- Developer: Ninja Theory
- Release Dates: Oct 5, 2010 (NA), Oct 7, 2010 (JP), Oct 8, 2010 (EU)
Inspired by Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West, Ninja Theory's action-adventure game updates the setting from ancient China to a post-apocalyptic New York. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is set 150 years in the future and features a world worth exploring. The story is pretty good too, with an interesting premise and a fantastic cast.
Due to a global war, Earth has been left in ruins, with humanity practically extinct. The battles are fought using mechs, who continue to follow their original orders while roaming the countryside. Players control Monkey, who escapes a slave ship but ends up having to help his captive return back to her village. The game starts off in New York, although the journey is not limited to a single city.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is probably Ninja Theory's best-rounded game, as the engaging storyline is backed up with solid gameplay.
8. No More Heroes
- System: Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: Marvelous Entertainment, Ubisoft, Rising Star Games
- Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
- Release Dates: Dec 6, 2007 (JP), Jan 22, 2008 (NA), Mar 14, 2008 (EU)
When it comes to Goichi Suda, you kind of know what you are going to get. There is going to be insanity, a lot of reference to anime and pop-culture, and an overabundance of mini-games.His games do not always come together seamlessly, but the No More Heroes series is easily among his best. The hack-and-slash gameplay was tailor-made for a Wii remote and offered something that adult fans of the console could enjoy.
This one seems perfect for Honey's Anime, as the lead character is an otaku. Travis Touchdown's room is littered with anime collectibles, instantly making him the greatest protagonist in gaming history. His entire journey is fueled by a desire to buy more video games and toys, so he starts accepting jobs to kill assassins. The plot feels right out of a manga, with Travis needing to take out ten targets to reach the top spot.
Surprisingly, No More Heroes is set in California and not Akihabara. In between missions, players are allowed to roam the city of Santa Destroy on Travis' bike. While the city itself is hardly anything to write home about, the comic book aesthetic is charming and unique.
7. Mafia II
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Developer: 2K Czech
- Release Dates: Aug 24, 2010 (JP), Aug 26, 2010 (NA), Aug 27, 2010 (EU)
The gangster life holds a special place in pop-culture. While films were obliged to show the dangers of living this type of life, the public has always been fascinated by organized crime. Films like The Godfather and Scarface take the concept of the American Dream and mercilessly twist it beyond recognition. America is the land of the free, and we are going to be rich and powerful whether you like it or not.
The Mafia franchise is the closest the gaming industry has come to re-creating the magic of old-school gangster flicks. From the three released so far, the second is by far the best. The story is nothing particularly original, as it follows the Sicilian born Vito Scaletta as he works his way through the ranks of a mob, but 2K Czech elevated the experience with relatable characters and brilliant voice acting.
Mafia II is set in Empire Bay, a fictional city based on New York, which players can drive in and explore. The story primarily takes place during the 50s, with a great attention to detail shown via the cars and weapons.
6. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
- System: PlayStation 2, PlayStation, Game Boy Color, GameCube, Xbox, Game Boy Advance, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo 64, Mac OS
- Publisher: Activision O2
- Developer: Neversoft, Shaba Games, HotGen, Vicarious Visions, Gearbox Software, Edge of Reality
- Release Dates: Oct 28, 2001
For quite a few years, the Tony Hawk skateboarding series could not be escaped. Every gamer had to have one, and they were available for most platforms. While each entry has its fans, Pro Skater 3 is arguably the best of the series, with a Metacritic rating in the 90s.
There is not much to say about the gameplay, other than it is skating done right. Pro Skater 3 introduces the revert system, which allows combos to be tied together manually by pushing a button. This system was improved for the sequel, but the third entry deserves props for starting it. This game was also the first to include online modes, allowing owners of the PlayStation 2 version to connect via a USB Ethernet adapter.
There are multiple stages available, with America getting a fair few. Versions of Califnornia's Woodland Hills, Rhode Island, Los Angeles, and Portland are created within Pro Skater 3; guaranteeing there is enough variety to keep players coming back for more.
5. Resident Evil
- System: GameCube, Wii, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Publisher: Capcom
- Developer: Capcom
- Release Dates: Mar 22, 2002
Deciding which of Capcom's franchise to include was far from an easy task. After hours of soul-searching, the 2002 GameCube remake of the original Resident Evil seemed like the ideal choice. By this point, Shinji Mikami's magnum opus had already changed the survival horror genre for good. Around seven new titles were already released before the remake hit the market and reminded fans why they originally fell in the love with the series.
Raccoon City is an American Midwestern Town, although the majority of the gameplay is restricted to a solitary mansion. While Resident Evil 4 delivered fantastic action sequences, the original prioritized creating an unsettling atmosphere. There is an ever present sense of dread throughout the entire campaign, as one cannot help feeling that they are constantly on the verge of death. The controls might be a bit dated, but the lack of mobility enhances the survival horror elements.
Later entries in the Resident Evil franchise show more of Raccoon City and this post-apocalyptic world, but none really manage to recreate the magic of the original game.
4. Need for Speed: Underground
- System: GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, Microsoft Windows, Game Boy Advance
- Publisher: EA Games
- Developer: EA Black Box
- Release Dates: Nov 17, 2003 (NA), Nov 21, 2003 (EU)
EA's racing franchise peaked over a decade ago with the Underground series. Maybe they were just released at the perfect time, but the newer entries seem to lack the charm of this 2003 title. At the time, Underground was a huge gamble, as it removed the exotic sports cars in favor of a robust career mode with an actual storyline. The garage mode is one of the best included in a racing game, offering a multitude of customization options and visual upgrades for the impressive selection of imported cars.
Need for Speed: Underground takes place in Olympic City, an American metropolis that holds similarities to places like San Francisco and Los Angeles. The content is far from lacking, with many different events and race types for players to try out. The gameplay is best described as an arcade racer that is easy to grasp but hard to master, making Underground perfect for newcomers and veterans of the genre alike. The sequel is also worth trying, as it primarily offers more of the same.
3. The Last of Us
- System: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Naughty Dog
- Release Dates: June 14, 2013
If allowed by the topic, it is almost impossible not to include The Last of Us in a gaming-related list. Naughty Dog hit a homerun with their first attempt at a survival horror game, creating the perfect swan song for Sony's PlayStation 3. The Last of Us went on to win multiple awards, earned itself a PlayStation 4 remaster, and a sequel is in production.
The story follows Joel and Ellie, who travel across a post-apocalyptic America that is infected with a zombifying virus. Ellie is immune to the disease and holds the key to humanity's survival, which places a massive bullseye on the back of her head. Joel is tasked with protecting the teenager until they locate a resistance group who is working on a cure.
The plot might seem rather by-the-numbers, but Naughty Dog deserves props for breathing life into a tired concept. It is impossible not to feel invested in Joel and Ellie's journey, as these two isolated individuals slowly warm up to each other. The ending is also brilliant and well worth the effort.
2. Deus Ex
- System: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, PlayStation 2
- Publisher: Eidos Interactive
- Developer: Ion Storm
- Release Dates: June 17, 2000
Deus Ex's plot involves the entire world, although America tends to take center stage. In this version of Earth, conspiracy theories are more than just the ramblings of madmen. Things like Area 51, Men in Black, and aliens exist; and there are multiple organizations whose sole purpose is to control the public's knowledge. This resulted in a world on the verge of chaos, as social tensions continue to rise between the haves and have-nots.
JC Denton is a legendary gaming protagonist, who served as the central character for the original Deus Ex. Denton works for UNATCO, an anti-terrorist coalition that carries out missions across the world. Their headquarters is stationed beneath New York's Liberty Island, which acts as a hub world. The gameplay combines role-playing elements and first-person shooter mechanics, with Ion Storm prioritizing player choice. Completing missions rewards skill points, which can be used to upgrade Denton and alter how best to approach situations.
Deus Ex is a massive franchise with more than one great game, although the original offers the most variety. As a landmark release within the industry, every player owes it to themselves to try this one out.
1. Grand Theft Auto V
- System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Developer: Rockstar North
- Release Dates: Sep 17, 2013
Nothing was going to steal the top spot from Rockstar's popular franchise. Grand Theft Auto is all about American culture, with each entry acting as a social commentary on the state of the country. The latest release is the biggest and most complete of the series, with a massive open world based on Los Angeles. Los Santos is a living, breathing city; and a perfect sandbox for players to destroy.
The single-player includes over 60 main missions, with three central characters from different walks of life. A free-roaming player can just switch from one protagonist to the next, depending on who they enjoy controlling the most. The story is comedic, over-the-top, and robust. Ignoring the multiplayer, which continues to go strong today, Grand Theft Auto V is more than capable of distracting someone for days on end.
Los Santos is stacked to the brim with side-content. Rockstar pulled off all the stops; including stuff like base-jumping, scuba diving, and an in-game internet. Los Santos is America in digital form.
Art imitates reality, so, American cities are destined to serve as inspiration for developers until the end of time. Considering the sheer quality of the games included in this list, we cannot help but get excited about what the future of gaming might hold. By this point, videogame cities are starting to look more enticing than their real-life counterparts.
Which game best recreated an American city? Please let us know in the comment section below.