While Uncharted 4 spends quite a bit of time around water and even has some of the most gorgeous underwater visuals that ever hit the PS4, its predecessor is the one that introduces a remarkable water level that’s impossible to forget. Uncharted 4’s underwater excursions don’t necessarily add an incredible element to the game as far as gameplay is involved. You’re mostly swimming around lazily searching for things in the water. In Uncharted 3, however, water is used to significantly change the game’s pace and add a whole new level to the danger unfolding around you.
Chapter 15: Sink or Swim certainly presents one of the highlights of Uncharted 3. During this mission Nathan Drake is not only facing off with gun-touting bad guys but he’s also rushing to escape a collapsing ship that is quickly filling up with water. The majority of the gameplay still happens above water but the danger of rapidly rising waters swirling around in the player’s brain has a significant impact here. It’s an intense moment where the guys with guns aren’t your biggest threat and they no longer control the pace of the game. That privilege is handed over to the water rushing against your feet.
Modern gaming has managed to introduce quite a few enjoyable water-based experiences. At this point, developers have simply learned enough from past mistakes that making water levels isn’t as daunting of a task as it seemed to be in the 90s. Back then, it seemed like the gaming space was being plagued by cringe-worthy water levels. Then, as if it were a blessing bestowed upon all those who once rage quit in the middle of an aquatic themed stage, Sonic 3 was released in 1994. Hydrocity Zone is easily one of the best water levels of its entire decade and for more reasons than one. For starters, Hydrocity Zone was a very early example of how to properly set the environment and tone in a water level. The unique sound effects and unforgettable soundtrack come together perfectly with the palette of purples and greens to set the tone of going on a nautical adventure. The best water levels always take advantage of the opportunity for a new set of aesthetics and Sonic 3 certainly capitalizes on that chance.
In terms of gameplay, Sonic 3 demands even more praise. Act 1 feels very similar to your usual run through Sonic but Act 2 adds some extra pressure without coming across as downright unreasonable. Act 2 throws you into another water-filled stage while dealing with a wall closing in on you and cleverly placed springs all while you try to make sure you don’t run out of breath. It presents a pretty big challenge but it wraps it in a package that’s still entertaining and keeps the usual fast-paced fun that sits at the foundation of the Sonic franchise.
Sonic finally got water levels right with Sonic 3 back in 1994 and by the time Sonic Colors came around in 2010, the franchise had yet another fantastic water level on its hands. Yet again Sonic makes his way through an underwater world in a way that still provides the flow-like feel every water level should have without leaving a negative impact on our beloved protagonist’s speed.
Aquarium Park does offer a slower pace of play than other stages but not in a way that feels sluggish or unnatural for a Sonic game. The fun change in gameplay is also combined with stunning visuals and another great soundtrack that really set a great high energy environment for one of Sonic Color’s best levels.
Donkey Kong Country
Donkey Kong Country is a game that didn’t just pull off one successful underwater level. Every water stage in the game was absolutely incredible and added substantial value to the game. One of the best decisions Donkey Kong Country made was to ditch any use of breathing mechanics. There was no need to choose between battling it out or running full speed ahead in search for air.
It’s a good thing too because levels like Coral Capers had such a fun variety of aquatic villains that it would be a shame to have a race for air stealing any attention away from them. Donkey Kong Country’s underwater stages also provide a nice break for slower paced action in the midst of a game that is constantly sending you through each level on a fast and delightfully chaotic adventure.
Mega Man X
In 1993 Mega Man X finally managed to do what no other Mega Man game before it could—create a water level that wasn’t downright infuriating. The weird sinking mechanics that were featured in water levels from previous games just felt like a cheap way to ensure players would be losing a ton of lives.
In Mega Man X, however, the addition of water gave Mega Man some serious perks instead of additional obstacles to handle. This time around being in the water allowed your jumps to take you much higher, which was a fun addition to the water stages. Mega Man X’s Launch Octopus level is a genuinely good time packed with plenty of collectibles, fun mini-bosses and a final boss that was challenging without being overwhelming.
Shadow of the Colossus
There are multiple encounters that bring players to wonderfully decrepit lakes for battle but it’s the face off against the Seventh Colossus that makes great use of water. This battle forces players to spend quite a bit of time in the water and the combat experience during these times is quite remarkable. Some games treat water as an unrealistic handicap. You control a character that is physically remarkable in every way during every other part of the adventure but once you drop a pinky toe in the water your once heroic protagonist becomes a sniveling weakling. Not in Shadow of the Colossus.
Wander proves to be perfectly competent even in the water and battling in the new environment still feels realistic while providing a unique set of challenges as well. The combination of the visuals, the dynamics of the battle and the epic scene that unfolds as you brave the challenge of this eel-like colossus creates one heck of a battle in the water that other action adventure games should take note of.
Super Mario Sunshine
The Mario series actually has quite a few examples of great water levels but some of the most delightful stages certainly come from Super Mario Sunshine. The game introduces several water stages that serve as shining examples of how to make water stages fun and challenging all at the same time. One of the most fun experiences you’ll have in Super Mario Sunshine is to see what it’s like to fly around the world with Mario’s new water-powered jetpack F.L.U.D.D. and it’s hard to find a place more suited for this than the game’s hub — Delfino Plaza.
Delfino Plaza looks beautiful and also provides a ton of water to traverse. Don’t think this hub is a meaningless placemarker in the game either. Some rather important story elements actually unfold in Delfino Plaza and the entire town just showcases Super Mario Sunshine’s lovely beach themes. Exploring the wide variety of water levels throughout the game is a fun yet challenging experience that feels fresh with every new world you arrive at.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm introduced an almost entirely underwater zone called The Vashj’ir that introduces some fun new mechanics. Of course, since players are plunging into the deep, a breathing mechanic is added that players will have to manage carefully. It’s perfectly balanced, however, to make sure it creates the feel of being underwater while not being so pesky that the experience is more stressful than it is entertaining.
The best perks of this new zone comes in the form of increased movement speed and the ability to mount a sea horse. Let’s be honest, giving players the chance to hop on a sea horse was about all it took to make Vashj’ir an incredibly fun zone. Also adding a buff for players in a new environment that is absolutely stunning easily makes this zone one of the best underwater experiences you can find.
Call of Duty: Ghosts
The Call of Duty games have always had incredible campaigns with missions that never fail to keep you on the edge of your seat. In Call of Duty: Ghosts, the series takes the thrills underwater in the mission Into The Deep. This mission combines your usual fun of firing away at enemies with a variety of other random events that provide alternative sources of adrenaline-pumping fun.
In addition to dodging a few barrages of bullets, you’ll also risk being eaten by a sharks, aim a remote controlled underwater missile and try to stay alive as sunken debris threatens to drag you into the abyss. There is simply a lot to enjoy about this mission all while you take in the sights of an intricately crafted underwater battlefield.
Gravity Rush 2
To be incredibly technical here, The Candle Zone is not actually a place filled with water. The Candle Zone feels like it is included for the sole purpose of having the opportunity to create a beautiful underwater stage without any of the inconveniences of breathing mechanics or trying to explain why Kat would be exploring an underwater world. Everything else about The Candle Zone is very clearly made to recreate the feeling of an underwater stage in a game. The dark blue atmosphere creates the feel of being in the deep sea, sea shells scattered along the rocks create a faux version of the sea floor and Kat’s unlocked Lunar Style dramatically reduces gravity’s strength to create the type of movement associated with floating through a water stage.
You even end up hunting down a wrecked ship in The Candle Zone during the mission And The Soldier’s Wife. If you aren’t paying attention to the dialogue in the game you would very easily be convinced that for some reason Kat really has been transported to a world deep under the sea. The new aquatic themed enemies that fill The Candle Zone can be pesky to deal with but Kat’s Lunar Style is perfectly suited to deal with these new types of foes. This, of course, is in addition to the fact that this zone just looks enchanting while Kat’s Lunar Style provides a fluid play style that introduces an enjoyably slower pace to the game.