By Gamer_152 3 Comments
2013 is winding down and with the release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, the seventh generation of video game consoles has come to a close. Given that, now seems an opportune time to reflect on the best games from the last eight years. The following list consists of my favourite titles released between late 2005 and late 2013, grouped by franchise, and listed alphabetically, so without further ado:
In open-world romps like Assassin's Creed, it's not just our weapons and the environmental objects we can interact with that are important, but also the way we move through the world; Assassin's Creed manages to instil a feeling of liberation by letting us move up and over the buildings that would act as hard barriers in many other games. The houses, shops, and churches around us all manage to retain a surprising amount of realism despite being so deeply integrated into the gameplay, and there's this wonderful flow to the way we can leap from handhold to handhold or bound from rooftop to rooftop to traverse the city. Scaling a large building feels like overcoming something greater than yourself and I found these activities all the more enjoyable in the picturesque Renaissance Italy of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood.
In other stealth games getting caught means game over, but in Assassins' Creed it's often where another level of fun begins. The pursuits in the game not only allow you another out even if you do get spotted, but become this source of kinetic action in themselves. In general your abilities to slip out of the sight of guards in the blink of an eye or discreetly take out an important target with a sly wristblade in the side make you feel like you're outwitting people at every turn. I also have a soft spot for the multiplayer, which blurs the line between player and AI and lets you overthrow your opponents by hiding in plain sight. In short, it's no wonder that Assassin's Creed has been such an influential name.
Usually I can’t help but roll my eyes at games that are trying to be “Grim and gritty”, but in the context of Batman it works. I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why the Arkham games are able to pull it off when so many others aren’t, but maybe it has something to do with how well they’re able to execute on that aesthetic choice and the fact that they don’t just want to present a brooding protagonist and grey-filtered visuals, but also a wonderfully crafted pseudo-gothic world filled with dark but unique characters. However, the Arkham games bring with them not just the beloved heroes, villains, and look of the Batman franchise, but also manage to subvert the classic blunder of so many licensed games out there by making you really feel like you’re playing as Batman, as opposed to it just feeling like you’re playing a generic action-adventure game skinned for the Batman franchise.
Not entirely unlike Assassin's Creed, the stealth sections are often not about making you feel underpowered in comparison to enemies, but instead the forgiving difficulty and reactions of the enemies in the Arkham titles make you feel like a force to be reckoned with as you pick off frightened miscreants one by one. The more direct melee combat comes with its own unmistakable sense of rhythm, impact, and a beautiful simplicity which thoroughly embraces the concept of being easy to learn but hard to master. Then there’s Batman’s utility belt of gadgets which fit uncannily well into the challenges the game lays out for you, and Arkham City’s fluid and exhilarating city traversal. All of this comes together to make Arkham Asylum and Arkham City not just two of the best licensed games I’ve played, but two of my favourite action-adventure games out there.
I’ve already gushed about Bioshock recently, but there’s no way I could leave it off this list. Often video game creators draw from a fairly limited pool of influences. We’ve all seen the enormous number of games just based around sports, the military, Tolkienesque fantasy, action sci-fi, and similar concepts, and there’s nothing wrong with any of these things in themselves, but sometimes games need to step beyond this pattern of repetition. Irrational incorporate a lot of classic action movie and video game tropes into Bioshock’s worlds, but manage to do something rather magical by blending them with more unconventional influences for video games like objectivist philosophy, class politics, U.S. history, and quantum physics. They then manage to put these worlds across with a level of realisation and clarity matched by few other games out there.
In some ways it feels difficult to talk about the entire Bioshock franchise as one series because while there are obvious common threads running through all three games, Infinite feels so different from Bioshock 1 and 2. The original Bioshock drops us into a creeping, dingy place where exploration of the environments is also coupled with the discovery of the characters that shaped the world we’re moving through. We discover this epic story of a fallen dystopia and the curious madmen who made it the way it is. Infinite on the other hand is much more upfront about how the city we see came to be, and instead of being cold and inhuman is more about using characters that we care about and empathise with to affect a reaction. What looks like the fairly simple story of a city’s downfall eventually spirals to such an insane and unsettling place, you never would have seen it coming. I have huge respect for those games.
Geometry Wars is a game that no matter how many times I’ve experienced before, I can still go back and play it again and again because it’s just so compelling. It represents a kind of clash of eras, taking the simple mechanics and distilled fun of an arcade game and pairing it with 21st century gaming’s modern graphics and capacity for hundreds of entities existing in play at a time. Its neon-tinted visuals, pulsing music, and colourful firework animations make it an aesthetic delight, and the combination of vulnerability and power the gameplay presents makes it constantly exciting. As games progress you get a strong sensation of the intensity being steadily ramped up, with play becoming increasingly chaotic and your score multiplier growing ever-larger until you eventually meet your climactic end. I can never get enough Geometry Wars.
Grand Theft Auto
I realise that Grand Theft Auto IV being my first proper venture into the open-world crime genre makes me a little late to the party, but that among other reasons makes the title rather special for me. In more recent times however, it’s Grand Theft Auto V that’s had my attention, with its generally sunnier demeanour and ridiculously large scale. GTA’s writing isn’t mind-blowing, but there’s something engaging about many of its characters, be they a European immigrant disillusioned with the American dream or a rural U.S. psychopath discovering the existence of a friend he presumed dead. As with any great sandbox game, you can lose hour after hour to just roaming the world and playing with the toys it gives you, and there’s a great air of freedom in just jumping in your car, driving wherever you want, and laying waste to whatever catches your eye.
I have a real affinity for all of the Halo games, but I consider Halo 3 the high point of the series, and it’s the game that sealed my obsession with the franchise. I love the way the weapons feel, I love the level design, and I love the way the games provide a careful balance of gunplay, melee combat, and use of grenades. In the campaign and firefight modes the varied enemy types mean that combat doesn’t just come down to aiming for the head on a conventional human model and squeezing the trigger, and in general the games are able to provide encounters that are meatier and contain just a little more room for players to defend themselves and counter-attack than you find in many other modern shooters.
Graphically, the Halo series is vibrant and full of life, with each of the three factions in the games having a pleasingly defined look. Halo 4 and Reach could have stood to be a little more ambitious, but the new mechanics and features brought to the series over the past generation have had me hooked, and I have to give Halo 3: ODST a special nod for stepping out and doing something a bit different. Oh, and the soundtracks on those games are still fantastic.
Mass Effect is a series with some major flaws. Among other things, it’s fairly mediocre as a third-person shooter, moral choices are often very black-and-white, and the finale of the trilogy is far from perfect, but I think it says something about how brilliantly done much of the games are that they’re able to get past these serious issues to be overall amazing experiences. Characters are imaginative and likeable in a way that we rarely see in games, and the whole thing works in no small part because missions are not just about plot advancement and gameplay, but getting to know the characters, where they come from, and what made them the people we see today.
The story and lore of the Mass Effect universe have been brought into being with real care and thought, and the games do a great job of making it feel like your choices have weight and meaning. I know that I’m not the only one who will have fond memories of the Normandy crew for a long time to come.
I remember the first time I saw Portal’s central mechanic in action. For a moment I was confused, I couldn’t properly process what had just happened, and then it clicked and I’ve been amazed with everything that Portal is ever since. The original Portal is a perfect demonstration that budgets and resources alone are far from defining the quality of a game. It’s short on content, reuses assets all over the place, and is 99% voiced by one person, and yet through clever design decisions and fantastically skilled execution manages to make sure none of that has a negative impact on the game. Portal 2 manages to build expertly on top of the groundwork the first game laid, expanding out the gameplay concepts, the diversity of environments, and the story of Aperture in a really engaging way.
One of the smartest things the series does is instead of trying to pave over an organic world with mechanics and components that come across as oddly “gamey” like so many other titles, it sets itself in a controlled and human-designed environment to make its obvious gameyness feel right at home. Within that environment there’s still nothing quite like linking two points in space with your Portal Gun and bending that bit of magic to your advantage. The Portal games are unique, hilarious, beautifully animated, wonderfully voice acted, and have puzzle design bordering on perfection.
I feel like many people have taken Rock Band to be one of those games that’s a fun party activity, but generally don’t hold the series in high regard the same way they might with more traditional video games. For me, whether played solo or with other people, Rock Band is brilliant fun. It’s easy to forget how conceptually crazy Rock Band first was or how far it’s come from its relatively humble roots, but that basic idea of taking the Guitar Hero formula and broadening it to include a full band was an excellent and ambitious notion. Harmonix proved themselves capable of going above and beyond expectations, with the games not only executing on their original ideas with minimal faults, but also playing host to some killer soundtracks, offering thousands of pieces of downloadable content, and eventually providing support for actual instruments.
A good rhythm game allows us to feel that our actions are intertwined with the music in a way we can’t otherwise get short of playing an actual instrument. Rock Band’s plastic imitations may not have the complexity and freedom of the real thing, but they’ve provided an exciting and approachable way to interact with music I’d probably never otherwise be able to and introduced me to plenty of great songs and artists. For that I can only heap appreciation on Harmonix.
The Walking Dead
In the journey of games progressing to become a medium capable of affecting wider and deeper emotions, The Walking Dead has to be a serious milestone. I don’t think I can explain what’s so powerful about the game better than I already did in my review, but it’s not hard to see why so many people have named The Walking Dead as the first video game to make them cry. It understands human emotion, how to evoke emotional responses, and carefully balance positive moments against negative ones to get the most out of every little minute you spend playing.
Major decisions and their outcomes are often hard to deal with. You end up hurting those around you even if you didn’t mean to or couldn’t avoid doing so, and the most important choices are often made under pressure, with no clear course of action to find a good solution to your problem. There’s this interesting duality where The Walking Dead simultaneously manages to make it feel like you’re at the mercy of this uncaring and brutal universe, and yet that your choices are influential and affecting in the larger scheme of things. I’ve played almost no other games that hold as much emotional weight as The Walking Dead and that makes it a very meaningful game for me.
Thanks for reading.