Hey guys. Here it is - the final part of my Top 30 Games list, covering numbers 5 to 1. Some of it may be expected, some of it may not. You may approve of the selections, or I may lose all credibility in your eyes because of them. Let the controversy commence!
5. Vagrant Story
PlayStation (2000)In at number five is one of the last great games for the original PlayStation. Vagrant Story was a no-brainer purchase for me when I bought it way back in 2002. It was an action RPG from Square, the same company that had brought me the Final Fantasy games. How could I possibly pass it up? Of course, that attitude set me up for a fall, and I was initially shocked by just how different Vagrant Story was to Square's most popular franchise. After settling down into it, though, I found it to be an outstanding game in its own right. For a start. the graphics were mindblowing by PS1 standards. The character models and environments were beautifully rendered in full 3D, and the game boasted some pretty impressive lighting effects. In fact, the cinematic visuals and presentation earned Vagrant Story the nickname "Medieval Gear Solid". The combat was a welcome change, too, taking several simple concepts such as weapon range and combo attacks, and bringing them together into a very deep and satisfying battle system. Outside of battle there was a vast, beautifully realised world to explore and a complex weapon-forging system to experiment with. The story was also first-rate - being made by the same team responsible for Final Fantasy Tactics, I would expect nothing less. It's a very difficult game, too - certainly much tougher and more demanding than most games of its kind. But if you can overcome the steep learning curve, the world of Lea Monde is sure to grip you and pull you in. As far as action RPGs go, they don't come much better than the masterpiece that is Vagrant Story.
4. Half-Life 2
Xbox 360 (2007)This time last year, if you'd told me that a first-person shooter would make it into the final five on a list of my personal thirty favourite games, I would have laughed at you. But that was before I played Half-Life 2. I picked up The Orange Box shortly after playing through the original Half-Life, which in itself had majorly impressed me and rewritten my opinion of the first-person shooter genre. Half-Life 2 took that rewritten opinion and amplified it ten-fold by doing absolutely everything right. The shooting mechanics were just as solid as they were in the first game, if not more so, with a balanced array of weapons that were all fun to use. The introduction of the Gravity Gun made for some really awesome physics-based puzzles and combat, too. Graphically it was a tour-de-force - even considering it's a five-year-old game now, it continues to look brilliant, with some of the best facial animation I've ever seen in a video game. The audio is also top-notch, and the voice acting stands out as some of the best in the industry. Once again, though, it was the cinematic presentation and delivery of the game's story that really hooked me. Half-Life 2 is filled with moments straight out of Hollywood. Set-pieces like the journey through Ravenholm, the bridge on Highway 17 and the Strider battles towards the end of the game are what really make it stand out. Not only do these events look amazing, but thanks to the gameplay on offer, they're a lot of fun to play, too. No other FPS does set-pieces quite like Half-Life 2, and no other FPS probably ever will. While a lot of people would probably name Portal as the best part of The Orange Box, my vote goes to Half-Life 2 and its episodes. Here's hoping we don't have to wait for Episode Three too much longer...
3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
PlayStation 2 (2005)I couldn't complete a list like this without mentioning a Metal Gear game, and my choice pick by a country mile is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Although I've been a fan of the series for a long time, and all the games I've played hold a very special place in my heart, it's the third instalment to bear the Solid suffix that I remember most fondly. While I loved Metal Gear Solid for its story and (at the time) originality, I found it awkward to play because some particularly daft control choices seemed to detract from the gameplay at key moments (does anybody remember having to constantly switch between the gas mask and the card keys in the game's gas-filled corridor?). While Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty removed these annoyances and increased the gameplay possibilities, it negated them with an over-the-top, completely bullshit story. Metal Gear Solid 3 thus represents what I love most about its two predecessors combined into one package - the tight, cohesive storytelling of MGS1 and the graphical and gameplay enhancements of MGS2. It was aethetically superb, featuring lush environments and more detailed character models than the second game. It also added some welcome changes to the gameplay that suited the new locations, like improved melee combat, camouflage, and the inclusion of a stamina gauge. The game was filled with little touches that really made me appreciate the level of care and attention the developers must have put into the game, like the seemingly simple notion of the food Snake had gathered rotting in real time. Then there were the boss fights - some of the best to grace not just the Metal Gear series, but also gaming in general. Who could ever forget facing off against The Fear, or The End? And not forgetting that final showdown - while I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers, the end of MGS3 remains one of gaming's most moving moments in my eyes. Overall, I just found it to be the most engaging game in the series. No, I haven't played MGS4, and I'm starting to feel like I don't really want to. Metal Gear Solid 3 is everything I could ever want from a tactical espionage action game, and it's a title that I can still see myself playing several years from now.
2. Final Fantasy VII
PlayStation (1997)I know I'm going to get a lot of stick for putting this here. Final Fantasy VII is very much a love it or hate it game, and I am not ashamed to say I rest firmly in the former camp. Before everybody gets on their high horse and slates me for this statement, I'd like to remind them that this is a list of my favourite games of all time. The two key words there are my (as in, not yours) and favourite (as in, not necessarily best). I'm not of the opinion that Final Fantasy VII is the second-best game of all time. I don't even think it's the best Final Fantasy - that title probably belongs to Final Fantasy IX, as I stated on Saturday. The main reason FFVII is on this list is because it was my first Final Fantasy, and, as anybody who has played and loved a Final Fantasy game (or indeed a game in any other franchise) will know, the first one you play is often the one you remember most fondly. Final Fantasy VII did a lot for me when I first played it way back in 2000. It turned me back on to reading and writing, something that I'd all but lost sight of at that moment in time. It was also the first game that showed me just how powerful games could be as an entertainment medium, and probably marks the point where I stopped considering myself a casual player of games and started calling myself a gamer. That's not to say the game itself was bad - in my opinion, it was quite the opposite. The game looks dated now, especially compared to what Square managed to squeeze out of the PlayStation with FFVIII and FFIX, but it was a work of art upon its original release and it still continues to impress me with the quality and detail of some of the pre-rendered backdrops. In terms of gameplay, the game may not have strayed far from the standard JRPG formula but it was all the more successful for it. The battle system was solid, allowing for some strategic boss fights, and the Materia system allowed for some pretty deep character customisation. The main reason I loved FFVII, though, was because of the story it told. Right from the off the game hooked me and refused to let go, ultimately taking me on a sixty-hour journey through some of the most epic writing I've ever encountered. Looking back on it now, it may seem clichéd with its spiky-haired, melancholy hero and over-sized swords, but what a lot of people seem to forget is that FFVII established most of those clichés. But I digress. No game has been as influential to my life away from the console as Final Fantasy VII. For that reason alone, it is worthy of a spot on this list.
1. Grand Theft Auto IV
Xbox 360 (2008)I don't know whether this choice will be expected or come as a shock to most of you, but when I sat down and thought about creating this list, I instantly knew what was going to make the top-spot. Grand Theft Auto IV is, without doubt, one of the most entertaining and captivating games I have ever played. It has absolutely everything I could ever want from a video game - incredible action, a well-realised, believable game world, limitless entertainment value, and above all, a story that grabs you so hard you struggle to breathe as it drags you through the game. If Final Fantasy VII made me believe that games could be an effective way of telling a story, then Grand Theft Auto IV is the confirmation of that belief. Having recently played through the game for a second time, I can safely say that no other game has left me feeling so attached to the characters, so integrated into the world it creates, or so hollow at the culmination of the story. If it were a book, GTAIV would be a modern-day best-seller - not an accomplished work of literature, but a gripping page-turner that you can't put down. Except, instead of turning pages, you're completing missions. Most of its success is down to the characters, who are both believable and likeable, particularly the protagonist Niko Bellic. Whether you want to or not, you end up caring about the characters, and it's this attachment that makes the story so effective, particularly towards the end of the game. Of course, GTAIV isn't all about the story, and when all the other factors are taken into consideration, they prove to be just as entertaining and masterfully created as the main plot. Graphically, the game more than holds its own against other games of its generation, with a cohesive art style that enhances the lived-in feel of Liberty City. The gameplay is also the best in the series, taking the established sandbox formula from the PS2 games and making important refinements, the most notable of which is the significant improvement of the combat. Furthermore, the game is full of little touches that all add something to the experience. Guns dropped by enemies will sometimes fire as they hit the ground. People in the street may be doing all manner of things, from carrying groceries to reading newspapers to smoking cigarettes. When a car door opens at night, the little overhead light will come on. If you receive a text message in-game while driving, the incoming signal will cause static on the car radio. All these little touches help to make GTAIV a more cohesive and immersive gaming experience. I could keep going on and on, but I won't. It all boils down to this - no other game has provided me with as much entertainment or as much immersion as Grand Theft Auto IV, and that's a good enough reason to give it the number one spot on this list in my view.
Thanks for reading guys. As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have opinions of your own. If you missed out on any other parts of my list you can find them by clicking on the following links to numbers 30-26, 25-21, 20-16, 15 to 11 and 10 to 6. In the meantime, happy gaming, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (X360)