When you don’t have to shovel it, snow can be great. It’s associated with Christmas, a comfortable time for many, and it holds a very peaceful ambience that translates well to interactive spaces. Think about the worst aspects of snow: the freezing temperatures, the runny noses, the risk of hypothermia. These aren’t problems you have from the comfort of your living room sofa.
At some point in the last decade, game developers decided levels that feature your character slipping around on delicate ice aren’t really that fun, and thus you don’t see that aspect of winter represented in many modern video games. Instead, the snowy aesthetic is adapted more for the visuals than the gameplay, as evidenced by the growing number of snow levels that you get nowadays.
To help you get in the festive spirit, then, here are our picks for ten of the best snow levels…
Bury The Hatchet – GTA V
About halfway through Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, we are taken away from the sunny San Andreas beaches to the snowy hills of North Yankton. This is the turning point for the story’s drama as we see Trevor and Michael turn on each other as a bloody shootout occurs in a quiet rural cemetery.
The violent incompetence of GTA V’s main characters parallels that of the Coen Brothers’ filmography, with the Fargo-like setting of Ludendorff serving as the perfect backdrop for mixing this comedy and drama while also delivering one of the game’s most iconic missions.
Cliffhanger – Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
This is the game Call Of Duty fans credit with taking the series into a Hollywood movie direction, and Cliffhanger was the perfect way to familiarise players with this tone. This mission sees the return of Soap MacTavish – the player character from the previous one – now a captain leading you to recover stolen satellite equipment in the Kazakhstan mountains.
This one has a bit of everything: using a blizzard to sneak through a base, diving from cover to cover in a shootout against a small army, and a madcap vehicle escape that sees you getting out of dodge on a fast snowmobile. It was this, plus Modern Warfare 2’s legacy as being a game-changer for the series, that made Cliffhanger one of the most memorable Call Of Duty levels to date.
Hoth – Star Wars Battlefront (2004)
From the Rebel soldiers camping out in snow-dug trenches to the heroic tow-cable feat, the opening act of The Empire Strikes Back is one of the most iconic moments in science-fiction cinema. For the original Star Wars Battlefront, Pandemic Studios wanted players to feel like they were taking part in those epic battles seen on screen.
All the best parts of its cinematic counterpart were included in Hoth’s multiplayer map. The trenches, underground tunnels and shield generator are present. The Imperial team begins on an endless stretch of white with two walkers to use, while the Rebels start from the safety of the hangar with access to Snowspeeders that can even operate the tow-cables to bring the AT-ATs down. Every Battlefront player has fond memories of this map.
You Better Watch Out – Hitman: Blood Money
The Hitman series has always been ripe with humour and its most popular sequel is no exception to that. You Better Watch Out is set in a mountainside Colorado lodge in the middle of winter, and Agent 47 is assigned to kill two men at the annual Bad Guy Christmas Party.
As with all Hitman levels, there are a whole bunch of disguises you can grab to infiltrate the place. There’s a drunk Santa gallivanting around that provides the perfect cover for you to be snooping through the building. A highlight of the mission comes in seeing one of the targets step out in sub-zero temperatures for a smoke on the balcony while wearing nothing more than a speedo. We’ve put you on the naughty list!
The Way Of The Voice – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
You may enjoy a brisk walk in the snow but when you’re climbing a steep mountain in the middle of a blizzard, things get complicated. Skyrim’s The Way Of The Voice has you climb the 7,000 steps leading up to High Hrothgar to visit the Greybeards.
While climbing the mountain, you’re faced with attacks from wild wolves, trolls and other monsters. At the tallest peak in Tamriel, you’re able to get a gorgeous view of the entire region from the top, that is unless the game’s dynamic weather system kicks in with an intense snowstorm to ruin your day. Considering the reward for this quest is being able to fully utilise ‘Fus Ro Dah’, it’s one of the most memorable quests in Skyrim.
Winter – The Last Of Us
The third arc of Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us brings about a significant change in the story. Due to his wounds in the previous chapter, Joel has become gravely ill and is bedridden most of the time. The role of guardian shifts from him to Ellie as she scavenges the cold wilderness for food and medicine. It’s here we get to use the skills she learnt from Joel, such as how to hunt or use a rifle.
While the first half of The Last Of Us pits the infected as the main threats of the story, its second half instead switches it around once we meet the sinister David and his group of cannibalistic survivors. Being a small teenager, playing as Ellie presents a more interesting challenge for players. She’s unable to fight in hand-to-hand combat and lacks the ability to grapple enemies, though she’s able to fit into smaller spaces where others can’t.
Forsaken Cainhurst Castle – Bloodborne
Although entirely an optional area, the Stoker-esque, snow-covered Cainhurst Castle is one of Bloodborne’s most interesting locations to visit. By the time the hunter reaches this place, the stronghold is no more than a crumbling ruin withered by years of abandonment. Beasts have since occupied the fortress, with the ghostly Silver Ladies and monstrous Bloodlickers comprising many of its hostilities.
With many horrible surprises waiting around every corner, this location remains a challenge even for the most seasoned of Bloodborne players. Frozen gargoyles spring to life to catch you unaware, while rooftop walkways could spell certain death if you let your guard down. The horrific Martyr Logarius is also very tough due to the emphasis on spiral attacks and aerial magic assaults. It’s a must-visit for anyone looking for a real endurance test.
And The Truth Will Set You Free – Red Dead Redemption
In the climax of Red Dead Redemption, players assault the mountain hideout of antagonist Dutch Van Der Linde. In classic Rockstar fashion, this epic finale includes lots of explosions, an army of soldiers and an armoured car with a machine gun attached. As you fight Dutch’s gang on the American plains, the mission slowly moves up into the mountains and the snowy climate where his fort lies.
This is one of the more notable missions in Red Dead Redemption for reinforcing the main themes of the story, which is how modern civilisation has killed off the old west and the time of outlaws is coming to an end. Dutch accepts this in his final words to protagonist John Marston: “We can’t always fight nature. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight nothing. Our time is passed.”
Home Sweet Home – Mafia II
The first half of Mafia II takes place in the winter of 1945 and features up-and-coming gangster Vito Scaletta returning home from the war to adjust to life in the snowy paradise of Empire Bay (the game’s version of New York).
While the level itself isn’t as remarkable as some of the others on this list, Home Sweet Home establishes the Christmas setting perfectly in its first ten minutes. Vito getting out a taxicab to the tune of Dean Martin’s ‘Let It Snow’ juxtaposes the idyllic Americana imagery with the reality of seeing how war, poverty and depression has affected the migrant residents of Little Italy.
The Murder – Fahrenheit: Indigo Prophecy
Quantic Dream’s Fahrenheit may have gone off the rails towards the end, but its opening level remains an iconic video game moment in its own right. In a diner restroom in the middle of a snowy winter, you must cover up a murder by removing evidence and hiding the body, then try to leave the honest establishment without arousing suspicion from the other patrons and the cop enjoying this dinner.
The best thing about this level is the various ways it can end. Failure to hide all the evidence may lead to a swift arrest, whereas paying your bill and keeping calm helps cover your tracks. The cop eventually goes to the loo, so it becomes a race against time to leave before you get caught. Your decisions and interactions with other people also affect the subsequent chapter that has you control two cops investigating the crime.
That’s your lot, folks! And if you’re looking for some more geeky picks to get you in a festive mood, check out our list of the best Christmas horror films.