It takes a lot to make a good video game. Gameplay, visuals, a coherent narrative, and more come together to produce something far greater than the sum of these parts. Ultimately, the moments that stick with players the most lie in the final level of the title, as this may be the last taste fans get for quite some time. This list breaks down the best final levels video games have to offer—those that stick with players far after the credits roll. Please note that the following includes major spoilers, of course.
Best Final Levels: Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line exceeds in instilling a profound sense of guilt into players. After infiltrating a radio tower, American soldier Walker and his crew gun down the seemingly sinister radioman only to discover that another enemy is still toying with them through Walker’s personal radio. It turns out that the grunts in the game are actually fellow American soldiers—but wait, it gets worse.
After knowingly destroying an onslaught of U.S. troops, the army decides it best to send an entire convoy Walker’s way. He mercilessly mows down everyone once more to highlight the fact that he can’t tell who is real enemy is. Walker has no regrets killing his comrades, as he fails to separate his vision of the world around him from reality. The twisted nature of war on the human psyche is on full display, with Walker being the unfortunate specimen.
Best Final Levels: Kingdom Hearts II
Kingdom Hearts 2‘s The World That Never Was is truly as ominous as it sounds. Featuring a perpetual night sky and a gigantic glowing heart that harvests loose souls, it’s a departure from the cheery levels found throughout the main campaign. Here, multiple minor plot points come to a climax, with nearly every Organization XIII member confronting Sora (and losing his or her life in the process).
The sorrow and emptiness of the level is highlighted everywhere, from the blank buildings to the expressionless stares of the Heartless that slither toward you. The World That Never Was succeeds in stripping a lot of hope right before the final battle with Xemnas—making the battle that much more excruciating.
Best Final Levels: The Last of Us
The Last of Us is filled with moments that resonate with people from all walks of life. Whether it be a tender relationship between a father and his daughter, brotherly love, or saying goodbye to something you can’t take care of, there’s no shortage of deep, affecting experiences in the game. Perhaps the most divisive and controversial sequence takes place towards the latter half of the final level, where Joel confronts a group of doctors ready to perform brain surgery on Ellie and possibly find a cure for humanity.
In many ways, the girl has replaced his dead daughter, and the man realizes that he can’t lose her again. He takes matters into his own hands, taking Ellie from the surgeons and driving her back out east where he knows they can be safe. Players continue to think over Joel’s decision to this day and how his actions will manifest once The Last of Us Part II finally comes out.
Best Final Levels: GoldenEye 007
While many praise GoldenEye 007 today for its addictive multiplayer functionality, the game also has a pretty impressive story that successfully manages to recreate the excitement of the movie the title is based on. The final level, called Cradle, is set on the antenna of a radio telescope. The game’s main antagonist, Alec Trevelyan, is trying to activate GoldenEye’s satellite laser in a final attempt to get his revenge on covert British intelligence organization MI6.
Agent 007 gives chase as a countdown clock quickly approaches zero. The two exchange bullets, with neither significantly damaging the other. In the end, Bond does catch up with Trevelyan on a tiny platform and pins him to the floor. Trevelyan says “For England, James?” and Bond responds, “No, for me.” If there were ever a moment that encapsulated what this franchise is all about, this would be it.
Best Final Levels: Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 makes clear from the very beginning that a suicide mission awaits players towards the end of the game. In preparation for this, Commander Shepard must form a crew and develop relationships with teammates he or she can trust. Knowing your team’s strong suits and individual abilities adds greatly not only throughout the game, but also through the tension-filled final level, where Shepard must confront the mysterious Collectors and venture to a point of no return.
The gravity of the situation is aided by the fact that characters constantly remind the player that no one has ever made it into and out of the Collectors’ territory alive. Setting foot on their turf truly feels as if Shepard is living his last moments alive, which makes Mass Effect 2‘s final level one of the most memorable in recent history.
Best Final Levels: Bioshock
In Bioshock, protagonist Jack “accidentally” washes up on an abandoned lighthouse and takes an elevator down to the dark depths of a devastated utopia called Rapture. Here, mechanical monsters called Big Daddies protect their supernatural Little Sisters while the remnants of civilization feed on body-altering drugs. Jack is ordered to free Atlas, otherwise known as Frank Fontaine, from a terrible fate in the dilapidated metropolis.
The main character finds that Frank is a murderer, however, and Atlas’ plan backfires. In the final battle, Jack suits up as a Big Daddy while Frank injects himself with every kind of ADAM imaginable. A crazy spectacle of drills and supernatural powers ensues. It’s a perfect summation of what Bioshock is all about, ending the game through the most concise yet memorable means possible.
It goes without saying that final video game levels resonate with audiences more if they provide a satisfying payoff. Whether through an ill-fated suicide mission or a final clash between rivals, these final sequences wrap up the big picture in ways that will leave fans gratified. Perhaps the most critical aspect of designing a great final level simply lies in this feeling of accomplishment and leaving your players with something think about once the credits have rolled.