When Chicago’s Meigs Field was destroyed in the middle of the night by King Daley in March of 2003, there were a surprising amount of protesters from around the country who condemned the incident—not because they had personally used the tiny downtown airstrip for travel, but because they had fond memories of beginning every version of Microsoft Flight Simulator there. Since its first appearance in the series in 1983, Meigs Field became ever more realistic with each version, mirroring the intense advances in graphics as video games matured. For many, therefore, the loss of Meigs Field was as much the loss of a hallmark of video game history as it was the loss of treasured span of their lives. A common joke of the period ran: “Meigs Field wasn’t destroyed; it was just uninstalled.”
By and large, though, the video game industry has not been kind to Chicago. Despite its epic history of human triumph and organized crime, its magnificent architectural heritage and myriad neighborhoods, and the infamous corruption and envied resilience of its populace, Chicago has been the setting of very few games. Instead, Chicago’s cousin New York hogs most of the attention, to the point that seeing the smashing of the Big Apple has become more cliché than frightening.
This is not to say that interest is lacking. In 2006, for instance, Rockstar Games announced Grand Theft Auto: Chicago on April Fools’ Day, resulting in over 30,000 unique visitors to the site eager to read about Johnny Rosselli’s 1933 gangland quest to end prohibition and to get revenge for being framed for the murder of his family. While many obviously realized it was an April Fools’ joke, many readers expressed a strong desire that this game actually be made.
Below you’ll find what I believe are the 10 best games that feature Chicago. As there are only a handful of games which are fully set in Chicago, I have instead chosen games based on exceptional levels featuring the city, either for their faithful depiction of the city of Chicago or entertainment value in a memorable Chicago setting. I have also excluded sports games, and focused instead on entertaining mainstream video games.
I obviously can’t include every game, so I’ll include a couple of honorable mentions before I begin. The devoted should check out Railfan: Chicago Transit Authority Brown Line for the PS3, which allows the user to control a train on the CTA’s Brown Line. (This game would have been more successful if they allowed you to confront thugs, kick off panhandlers, and yell out the window at people who weren’t fully inside the doors.) The truly hardcore, however, should check out the deliciously horrible Japanese-exclusive Michigan: Report from Hell. Despite its name, Michigan (named for the lake, not the state) is set in Chicago following the outbreak of a virus that forces city residents to turn on each other. Armed with only your camera, you run around the city capturing images of the infected for the news, finding life-saving items, and getting points for stopping to look up a reporter’s skirt. (It’s Japanese, remember?)
And now, the Top Ten:
10. BattleTanx (N64)
A guilty pleasure, BattleTanx is the Italian beef sandwich of Chicago games. BattleTanx gives new meaning to the “Save the Girl” mission featured so many video games. It’s 2001, and a nasty virus has caused over 99.99% of the world’s women to die. Since there are no longer so many fish in the sea, testosterone levels are high and men are taking the opportunity to do what they’ve always wanted to do: blow stuff up with tanks. (And maybe scout for women a little.) BattleTanx was one of the first games to feature Chicago in an action setting and it’s still great fun, even if the two levels featuring the City of Big Shoulders are somewhat generic, with few identifiable landmarks apart from the CTA tracks. The game makes the list, however, for the ability to blow up Picasso’s gigantic statue in Daley Plaza, finally settling the question of what the statue actually is. Like everything else in BattleTanx, it’s cannon fodder.
9. Perfect Dark (N64, XBOX 360)
Perfect Dark makes this list not so much because there’s anything recognizable about the city in the game (aside from gritty warehouses and alleys reminiscent of The Dark Knight), but because of its impact on the gaming industry and the developer’s decision to make Chicago an integral part of the plot. Set during an interstellar war between the Maians (Roswell grey men) and the reptilian Skedar (who can disguise themselves), Perfect Dark follows special agent Joanna Dark of the Carrington Institute as she uncovers a sinister Sekdar plot. In particular, Mission 5: “Chicago: Stealth” has received a lot of attention for its challenging speed achievement “Quickly Does It,” in which Joanna is required to complete all three objectives in quick succession. Perfect Dark was re-released with updated graphics earlier this year for Xbox Live, but alas, we don’t even get a second’s glance of the Willis (née Sears) Tower.
8. Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. (PC, PS3, XBOX 360, Wii, iPhone)
The Chicago level of Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. (aka Operation: Iron Arrow) must have been designed by one of those Microsoft Flight Simulator veterans who also liked to play Lethal Enforcers on the side. It’s 2021, you have a jet and a stunningly realistic recreation of the entire city and its environs (although it’s difficult to believe that the skyline hasn’t changed at all 11 years from now), and you get to blow stuff up while dodging skyscrapers. The game’s general storyline is much too complex to write here (it deals with private military companies essentially replacing national militaries), but suffice it to say that you have to restore a communications network, which the enemy is jamming from a building in the Loop. For Chicagoans, the wonder of this level is the sheer attention given to every last detail from the air, down to the trainyards, the bridges spanning the Chicago River, and the city’s many neighborhoods and suburbs. If you look close enough, you might see a missile destroy your apartment building.
7: Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (XBOX, XBOX 360)
Set in an alternate 1930s when airplanes and zeppelins have become the primary modes of transportation, Crimson Skies: High road to Revenge features the early Art Deco skyscrapers of Chicago reaching to unimaginable heights in a handful of notable levels. As Nathan Zachary, the obligatory dashing pilot full of derring do, you navigate your fighter plane through the city’s towers and lead the Fortune Hunters pirate gang against the dastardly Red Skulls. All that’s recognizable here is the Chicago River, which apparently still has its bridges despite the world’s decision to take to the skies, but for all that it still looks like Chicago.
6. Midtown Madness: Chicago Edition (PC)
Midtown Madness scraps the idea of the multiple-track racing game and instead uses the entire city of Chicago as a racing ground. From the Art Institute to the Wrigley Field, virtually all of the city’s most popular landmarks make an appearance here, and best of all, you have a good chance of acing this game if you know your way around the city in real life. The graphics are somewhat disappointing at times, and the pedestrians are surprisingly gifted at dodging cars, but Midtown Madness is a treat for any Chicagoan. Racing fans may also want to check out 2003’s Project Gotham Racing 2—which is largely a better game overall—but its limitation to one track for Chicago keeps it out of this list.
5. Stranglehold (PC, PS3, XBOX 360)
Remember Chow Yun Fat? Especially in the 90s, Chow was billed as the Chinese star who was going to change American entertainment for good. It never quite caught on, but he makes an excellent showing in this fast-paced shoot-em-up bearing the stamp of John Woo. Created by Midway Chicago before the recession finished it off with a stranglehold of its own, the game was an intentional homage to the studio’s hometown. Presumably to avoid any controversy, everything in the city is slightly altered, resulting in an effect akin to looking at Chicago through a broken mirror, although there’s a rare nod here to the city’s extensive Chinatown. The game’s can’t-miss moment, however, is a gunfight in a space that’s strongly meant to resemble the Field Museum of Natural History, complete with full scale version of Sue.
4. Still Life (PC, XBOX)
Before there was Heavy Rain there was Still Life, a moody but beautiful serial murder mystery game that flips back and forth between storylines in 2004 Chicago and 1920s Prague. Mildly reminiscent of the Myst series on account of its attention to exquisitely detailed still images (ah ha!) in which to frame the story, Still Life manages to include the oft-neglected suburbs and the allusions to the little-known history of the Czechs in Chicago. Although it takes certain liberties with the city (including a final scene more evocative of London than Chicago), Still Life is probably the game that comes closest to a “pure” Chicago game with a story. It’s certainly one of the few games that has the courage to partly depict Chicago in the grip of winter.
3. Lethal Enforcers (Arcade, PS1, SNES, Sega)
Ah, Lethal Enforcers. Virtually any kid who was old enough to hold a controller in the early ’90s remembers this landmark arcade shooter, which attracted kids and angered parents by the thousands on account of its revelry in hefty bits of the old ultraviolence. Above all, Lethal Enforcers taught us that all bad guys have bad 70s hairdos and sunglasses and that you should never use cover while mowing them down. Konami obviously tried to alleviate any fears upon its release to the SNES by making gamers play with pink and blue “Konami Justifiers,” apparently wishing to convey the lesson that guns are for sissies. Although Chicago is never explicitly mentioned in Lethal Enforcers, the architecture of certain levels is definitely identifiable as the city and all question is removed in a famous highway level featuring downtown’s extensive skyline in the background. And, of course, the game wins points for unabashedly celebrating the city’s reputation for violence.
2. Resistance 2 (PS3)
While certainly not the most original of first-person shooters, Insomniac’s Resistance 2 demonstrated how to get a Chicago level right. Set in an alternate Chicago in the 1950s, Resistance 2 captured the city when it still retained much of the early 20th-century romance of the Capone era, despite a bunch of squatting aliens. Loving detail is given to such enduring landmarks as the Chicago Theater and the Wrigley Building, and the team obviously studied period photographs to recreate the city as it was. To the north, a gigantic alien tower looms over the entire city, proving that even the Chimera think Chicago’s best real estate is in the Gold Coast.
Easily the highpoint of the entire game, the level features a continuous firefight ranging from the North Loop to the Magnificent Mile. The most intense fighting occurs when the player steps out of the ruins of the London Guarantee Building and onto the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which has always provided one of the most impressive views of the city. (As an aside, this spot was also the site of 1812’s Battle of Fort Dearborn.) As you fight across the bridge and into the Wrigley Building, a 300-foot tall “Leviathan” appears and shows Chicago his best Godzilla impression. It’s worth it just for that.
1. I Am Alive (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PC)
I Am Alive is the Chicago game that we’ve all been waiting for in the Windy City . . . and we’re still waiting. First announced in 2008, the release date for the highly anticipated I Am Alive has been pushed back so many times that even George R. R. Martin is in awe. The little we know about the story suggests that the entire game is set in Chicago following a massive earthquake that leveled the city and left it in unspeakable chaos. For the next seven days, you have to fight your way through the city and stay alive while other Chicagoans fight you for water, which has become a highly precious commodity. Evidently, either the city has forgotten that one of the largest freshwater bodies in the world is but a few steps away, or the earthquake also affected the environment. What we can see of I Am Alive in the leaked screenshots makes it clear that it’s a true homage to the city, ranging from its faithful depictions of fallen landmarks to what appears to be writing that accurately captures the city’s populace. It looks promising enough that I’m willing to award it the first prize based on a few screenshots and a few synopses. Ubisoft has promised that it hasn’t abandoned I Am Alive, which may turn out to be the best Chicago-based game of all time. We may have lost the Olympics, but I don’t want to lose I Am Alive.