Welcome to another week of Five of the Best, a series celebrating the lovely incidental details in games we tend to overlook. So far we’ve celebrated hands, potions, dinosaurs, shops, health-pick-ups and maps – a real smorgasbord! I really wanted to use that word.
Best of all, it’s Friday again, which means another Five of the Best and another chance for you to share your thoughts as well as sit through mine (well, ours – I sometimes rope in a bit of help). Today, it’s…
Hubs! What would a game be without one? A messy pile of level spaghetti, that’s what. Where would you go to chill out? Where would you chat up other characters? Yep, games would be rubbish without hubs.
We’ve had all kinds. Sci-fi towers, castles on mountains (I loved Skyhold in Dragon Age: Inquisition, although why I, the Inquisitor, had to run around to talk to people, instead of them coming to me, I will never know) motherships, Santa’s grotto – bonus points if you can guess which game that’s from. We’ve even had the White House, in a non-political game… shh don’t laugh, don’t say anything.
Hubs do so much. They cement everything together. They keep you in the world, the setting, the fiction – they reinforce immersion while you catch your breath before heading out on another mission. Remember the elevator in the shower in Alpha Protocol’s Taipei safehouse, and the Batcave motorbike exit? Now that was cool. I don’t know why I haven’t included it, actually – maybe because there are multiple safe houses? The Rome safehouse had a hot tub. I’m just saying.
Anyway, without further ado, here are five of the best hubs. But which are yours? Let me know below, politely – we’re not animals are we?
I loved the Skylanders games and I don’t care who knows it! God knows how many hours my son and me spent playing them. What really impressed me was how generous they were – how much there was to do in them. And the place where you got to all of it was in the hubs.
The hubs grew with each game. A flying ship became a kind of giant tree village became a whole academy and on and on. And with each iteration, more stuff to do was stuffed in. Take the Academy, for instance – it’s the one I remember best, the one from Trap Team. Great game – you could trap the enemy bosses and use them in battle!
At the Academy, you not only levelled your characters, accessed levels, bought hats – all the usual nonsense – you could also play mini-games. And the best was the Kaos Doom Challenge, a wave-based mode. I think we spent more time here than in the campaign itself – it was a great way to level-up. And it was just a hub extra – just one of the hub extras. I miss you, Skylanders (get involved if you never have – you can probably pick them up on the cheap now they’re out of fashion).
The Normandy – need I say more? It’s almost a character in its own right, it’s so well known. The Normandy is with you from the very beginning, in the opening shot in Mass Effect 1, Shepard gazing out of the window, maybe thinking about dinner, maybe thinking about going to the toilet. And it stays with you the entire series, getting souped up and reimagined by your rich benefactors until its the size of a Star Destroyer by Mass Effect 3.
The Normandy is the glue in the whole Mass Effect series, the place you spend all your downtime. Where you get to know the characters you recruit, take showers with them, punch them, all of the good stuff. It’s where you get to research and upgrade your gear. It’s where the RPG stuff happens, really. And, of course, it’s home to the iconic Galaxy Map, which Mass Effect would seem an infinitely smaller game without.
Seems like every generation a Mario game comes along and does something new, and we all look at each other a bit dumbstruck and wonder why no one has done it before. Mario 64 did that. Nintendo’s first foray into a 3D game space didn’t have a map you explored, like the SNES games, it had a goddamn castle – one you could run around and go through the doors in, in order to get to new levels. And you could jump into paintings. I’ve tried this in real-life by the way and it doesn’t work.
Better yet was the hunt for the stars. 15 secret stars, hidden around the castle. Can you find them? To do so, you need to fly above the castle and explore below and around it. IT made the hub a playground all of its own. No wasted gameplay opportunity. The castle is a masterstroke.
Where do you go when you’re wanted for regicide, or whatever it is – and whoever you’re meant to have killed – in Dishonored? If I sound a bit wobbly on the details, it’s probably because the game’s hub is a pub – The Hound Pits – a stately bit of sticky-carpeted real-estate surrounded by the spines of former buildings and general bombed-out dereliction.
Is there a difference between a pub and a boozer? If so, The Hounds is definitely a boozer. I can’t imagine any of the windows open, and I can’t imagine the optics have been cleaned in decades. You know how everything in a boozer sort of longs to become a kind of sepia brown? The Hounds is well on its way. It’s strange to see such a perfectly observed bit of Britishness in such a big budget game, but it’s reassuring to know that the essential seediness of the classic public house is a known quantity around the world.
There are mysteries to the Hound – what’s on that floor you can’t seem to get on to? And there’s also a bit of visual storytelling too. Those loyalists who talk such a good game also like to linger with a pint while you go out and do most of the actual work. Does this make them bar-room revolutionaries? Dishonored is a lot of things, then, but it isn’t subtle.
Does Croft Manor count as an actual hub? You can’t really leave for any of the missions from it in most incarnations. In most incarnations it just sort of sits in the menu – maybe the menu is a kind of ludic Buckinghamshire – hosting an advanced tutorial. Even so, the Manor holds a special place in my heart. Lara Croft was an enigma, sure, but here was her home.
And what a home. Croft Manor changes between games, but it’s got a recognisable vibe. It’s big, it’s empty and it has an absolutely amazing central reception. I can’t help feeling it’s intermingled with Wayne Manor in the public consciousness. Both big, richly appointed houses, filled with secrets and brooding owners. (Only one has a butler locked in the freezer, obv.)
It was a bit of a shock when the place was raided by goons at the end of Tomb Raider 2. But it was even worse when it got blown to pieces at the beginning of Underworld. In recent games, Lara herself has been rebooted but the Manor is still at the heart of the character’s backstory. In one of the recent games you can poke around the place in VR.