Depending on what kind of games you enjoy, you’re either nodding your head in excitement right now or asking yourself “what the heck is a set piece?”. If you’re in the latter camp, allow me to explain. Most folks will have seen an action movie at some point in their lives. Using that frame of reference, consider those big, loud action scenes that leave you catching your breath. It’s not just that these scenes are big, it’s that they are unique focal points, often standing alone as notable moments.
Think Tom Cruise climbing the side of a 100-story building in a Mission Impossible movie, The Rock doing something death-defying in a Fast and Furious movie, or pretty much anything James Bond does. Now put those in a video game, and you have yourself a set piece.
The gaming landscape is full of these moments, and everyone will have a different list. Certain developers are really great at them, others tend to avoid them for sake of budget or just the flow of the game. There’s no way one article could cover all the great examples in PlayStation’s illustrious history, but we’ll give it a shot. Let us know your favorites in the comments!
from Uncharted 2
Uncharted is a series that’s basically built on a foundation of set pieces, and the second entry in the series is perhaps the one most jam-packed with them. What makes this scene unique is that it is literally the beginning of the game.
The camera fades into our hero, Nathan Drake, sitting inside a train, and it quickly becomes clear that everything is very wrong with the scenario. Nate is covered in his own blood, and pieces of luggage start falling past him. The camera widens out, and you see that Nate is, in fact, sitting in a train car that is dangling off the side of a mountain, still connected to another car that rests precipitously at the edge of the cliff.
The train is literally disintegrating around him as he tries to escape, with pipes peeling away, doors flying open and boulders crashing down as Nate hangs on for dear life. The camera work is incredible throughout the scene, many times pivoting to show the scene from above, resulting in a dizzying vista that is not for the faint of heart. It really sells the peril Nate finds himself in and cements the scene for the experience as one of the greatest in PlayStation history.
By the time you make it back to solid ground, you may need to pause for a few minutes to catch your breath.
from Uncharted 4
The final chapter of Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting adventures contains one of the best set-pieces across all four games. Nate’s long-lost brother Sam has come back into the picture and, as it always does, trouble ensues. The brothers, along with Nate’s partner Sully, find themselves in a small village in Madagascar, on the trail of a pirate treasure but running afoul of the local bad guys. They hop into a jeep, trying to catch up with Sam, who is fleeing on a motorcycle.
What follows is comparable to the best chase scenes in cinema history. Sully drives the jeep through narrow side streets, crowded markets and down hills as they fight to get to the docks to escape the island. Pursued by the bad guys in a massive armored truck with a mounted gun, they must twist and turn down through the town, returning fire to stay one step ahead. They soon run out of real estate, and that’s where things really get crazy.
As Sully screeches to a stop at the end of the dock, Nate uses his grappling hook to snag one of the enemy trucks as it pursues Sam. Being dragged through the water and mud, Nate has to work his way across a convoy of vehicles to reach Sam, where the chase concludes with flipping vehicles, massive explosions, and stunned onlookers. It’s the best cinematic moment in a game that’s chock full of them. As is the case with all these set pieces, it truly needs to be played to be believed, so what are you waiting for?!
from Batman: Arkham Asylum
This is a bit of a different take on the usual set-piece formula, as it’s less action than the rest of this list, though it’s no less impressive for what it accomplishes. The first game in the Batman Arkham trilogy was groundbreaking with its combat and traversal mechanics, and the Scarecrow scenes turned everything on its head.
As Batman wanders through Arkham Asylum, trying to put the city’s worst villains back behind bars, he is stalked by Scarecrow, in many ways his most fearsome foe. Using his terrifying fear toxin, Scarecrow makes Batman’s worst nightmares come true. While the rest of the game has a 3rd person camera over Batman’s shoulder, these scenes brilliantly shift to a side-scrolling perspective. Running back and forth in a semi-2D design, the camera shifts 90 degrees as Batman turns the corners, working his way toward the Bat-signal, his only weapon against the villain.
A nightmarish version of the asylum, where pieces of the floors and walls disintegrate and fly around, is the setting. Batman must avoid a massive Scarecrow standing among it all, trying to find him with laser-like eyes and clawing toward him with syringe fingers, determined to give the superhero a lethal dose. As you creep stealthily and crouch behind broken walls, the level constantly changes to keep you on your toes, all with the menace of those horrifying eyes close behind you. It’s terrifying both for the enemy and the swift change in tactics, leaving you on edge and eager to escape.
This is what “subverting expectations” should look like in gaming.
from God of War 3
For all of the incredible action on this list, the Cronos boss battle in God of War 3 takes the cake for sheer size and scope. Not only is the environment where the fight takes place simply massive, but you are literally fighting something the size of a mountain. This boss is bigger than some entire levels in earlier God of War games, actually carrying a smaller mountain on his back! For a franchise that made itself famous with huge enemies and levels, this is the biggest of them all.
Cronos has something Kratos wants, but all you really need to know is he’s trying to smash the puny man-who-destroyed-the-gods in his massive stone hands. Kratos uses his tools of destruction to tear chunks from his enemy and seeing bloody fingers and gaping wounds appear on Cronos makes the battle feel incredibly visceral. Along the way, Kratos fights regular beasts that emerge from within Cronos, on platforms that look like regular levels themselves. You can almost forget that you are fighting on your enemy until the entire scene begins to move anew.
At one point Cronos swallows Kratos, and you can imagine it doesn’t end well for the big guy. Mortally wounded, Cronos falls, the chains which surround him rendering him helpless to fend off the final death blow. The entire fight will leave you breathless, due to the button-mashing combat and the sheer scale of what you’ve just witnessed.
from Spec Ops: The Line
This is a game that is much more regarded for its unique story than its 3rd person cover-based shooting gameplay. Most lists would put the “White Phosphorous” moment in this place, but I find the helicopter battle is much more of a true set piece. The game takes place in a world where Dubai has been ravaged by apocalyptic sandstorms, leaving a humanitarian crisis in its wake. An elite U.S. Army unit is sent in to help, but when they fall silent, your team of three is sent in to assess the situation and report back.
Your team has pushed forward into the city, trying to solve the mystery, and discovers that the unit that was sent in to help has gone rogue and is trying to take you out. After infiltrating their base of operations, you grab a helicopter and try to evacuate. The helicopter’s minigun is your weapon of choice, shredding trees, people, and the building itself. As the glass tower atop the bad guy headquarters collapses in spectacular fashion, your team attempts to flee the city. They are pursued by multiple enemy choppers intent on stopping you at any cost.
The chase that follows is pure adrenaline, as you attempt to shoot down the helicopters and air-to-air missiles alike. Choppers crash into buildings and construction cranes, toppling them in your path. You shred glass facades with your minigun as you attempt to stop the relentless pursuit of your enemies. A fresh sandstorm crashes through the city, bringing visibility to zero. One final enemy chopper strikes yours in the mayhem, sending you crashing to the sand once more, unable to escape the madness inside the city.
from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Call of Duty is another franchise that puts incredible set pieces at the center of its games. From taking out your enemies with an orbiting C-130 gunship to running through a destroyed White House when the battle comes to American soil, these games have done it all. But the wizards at Infinity Ward outdid themselves with this scene in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which has you witnessing a nuclear blast from very close range.
You are part of a US Marine unit attempting to stop a terrorist who threatens to detonate a nuke. As it becomes clear that may not be possible, your unit evacuates, but one of the helicopters is shot down. You set back down to save the pilot from enemy troops, but as you return to the air, the nuke detonates in a blinding flash. Your struggle to stay in the chopper and keep your fellow soldiers from being torn out of the dying aircraft. As the helicopter crashes heavily, the screen goes black.
After a pause, the cinematic shows you are still alive, and returns to your view in the ruined chopper. You somehow pull yourself out of the wreckage and turn to see the massive mushroom cloud just a few miles away. All around you, fellow soldiers choke out their dying words or lay strewn on the ground, already gone. As you stumble to your knees and breathe your last, the screen fades to white. It’s incredibly powerful stuff, and for a series that never shies away from showing brutality, this is a moment that truly shows the hell of war in the starkest terms possible.
If action games are your cup of tea, you won’t want to miss the games we’ve highlighted here, and you may find yourself on a search to find others that fit the bill. There are thousands of candidates across four generations of PlayStation consoles, so there’s no doubt you will find something to your liking. Enjoy the journey, and long live gaming!
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