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Nov 14 / Great Apes

Top 25 Games Of This Console Generation: 10-1

Earlier this week I began my count-down of the top 25 games of this console generation (including contemporaneous PC games) by revealing my list of games 25 through 11.  Today I’m back to finish it off with my top 10.  The descriptions here are a little bit lengthier, and these are all fantastic games that I can recommend pretty much universally.  Let’s get to it.

10. The Walking Dead


The Walking Dead game wasn’t one I was looking forward to.  I’d heard very little about it at the time of its release and, while I enjoyed Telltale’s comedic adventure games like Sam & Max I didn’t pay much attention to their licensed film and TV properties.  But listening to the hosts on the Weekend Confirmed podcast made it sound like a game I might really enjoy.  A tense, story-driven experience in which the primary method of interaction was making plot and character relevant decisions?  Cool.  It definitely lived up to that, but it was also much more; a game that drove a deep emotional engagement to its characters primarily through its excellent writing and voice acting.  The characters were well-drawn and didn’t fit into established archetypes, while the relationship between Lee and Clementine was as emotionally affecting as any I’ve experienced in games or any other medium.  There are places where The Walking Dead falls short, such as its lack of any real challenge; I thought a few puzzles (previously Telltale’s specialty) would have really helped.  But on the whole it charts out a unique experience and executes on that vision with precision.

9. Little Big Planet 1 & 2

The world needs more games like Little Big Planet.  The two words that would best describe it would be “joyful” and “exuberant”.  We have a lot of games about being angry and about being powerful, we’re getting an increasing number of games that deal with themes like sadness or isolation, but we still have so few games that deal with joy.  That seems strange given that, of all the artistic mediums out there, video games seem like the one best suited to providing joy because they’re the only one centered around play.  Thankfully, Little Big Planet is there to fill that void.  Everything about the game oozes a silly sort of charm: the way the sack people move, the ridiculous costumes you can dress them up in, mechanics like bounce pads that lend themselves to just having a blast.  The creation tools that came with the LBP games have helped keep them in my PS3 far longer than most other games last.  It really is impressive just how much creativity there is out there if you give people the tools to show it off (Minecraft is as great an example of this as you’ll find).  One other thing that LBP has going for it is couch co-op.  Most multiplayer games these days focus on competitive matches played on different consoles in different places.  I’ve played Little Big Planet almost exclusively with my girlfriend sitting on the same couch beside me.  Couch co-op is great.  What I’m saying is that I want more joyful co-operative games.  Please make them.

8. World of Goo

World of Goo is so good, and so easy to learn, and available on virtually every platform imaginable (PC, Wii, tablet, smartphone) so there’s really no good excuse to have not played it.  The central conceit is simple: grab blobs of goo and use them to form vertexes that create, well . . . goo shapes in order to reach the goal at the end of each level.  The game manages to pull off something that’s very difficult to do but immensely rewarding when it works: it’s a puzzle game in which there is no right solution, just a set of tools and a goal.  There are two things that make World of Goo really stand out beyond that.  The first is the impressive variety of gameplay ideas that 2D Boy was able to center around that simple premise of dragging goo balls to vertexes.  Rarely will you be doing the same thing for very long.  The second thing that makes World of Goo stand out is, surprisingly, its story.  The narrative isn’t front and center, and it would be easy to not even notice that it’s there if you were just speeding your way through the game, but it is there and it’s great.  Inside this fun little puzzle game there’s a surprisingly serious and moving story about consumerism and resource depletion.  That puts it over the top for me.

7. Assassin’s Creed 2

This is the third and last of the “open world” games on my list that took the general structure of Grand Theft Auto and spun it off in interesting ways that surpasses anything the GTA games have done.  The original Assassin’s Creed came across like a cool idea put into a great tech demo, but it had lots of minor problems that in total wound up making it an interesting but ultimately frustrating game.  Assassin’s Creed 2 kept what worked and fixed all of its predecessors problems to create one of this generation’s finest video games.  The two cities at the center of the game – Venice and Florence – are simply gorgeous both to look at and to run through.  The AC games have always been about climbing up to the top of famous landmarks, but the viewpoints and their resulting views are at their peak in this game.  It succeeds at the central conceit of this series better than any of the other AC games, which is letting you skulk around and feel dangerous.  The other games too frequently railroad the player into open confrontation, but in Assassin’s Creed 2 the player is usually given the freedom to be as stealthy and efficient as they want to be.  The highlight of the game though for me is the non-violent, indoor church missions in which the player must climb to the top of the church in a series of platforming challenges reminiscent of AC creator Patrice Desilets’ previous game, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.  It’s a shame that Desilets is apparently jobless at the moment after Ubisoft got rid of him twice.

6. Mass Effect 1 – 3

Mass Effect 3 was my game of the year last year, despite its problems (OK, mostly just despite its god awful deus ex machina ending).  If I had to rate all three games in this series from best to worst I’d go Mass Effect 1 > Mass Effect 3 > Mass Effect 2.  As should become pretty apparent from this top 10, I’m a big RPG guy, so the more-stats-than-reflexes based ME1 is the one that gets the nod from me.  I liked its greater focus on team build and character customisation and I thought the way that guns ran on heat rather than ammo was a really cool idea.  The story in ME1 is also the best of the bunch, with a clear villian who you chase from beginning to end and a clear mystery that the player is trying to solve (Who were the Protheans?).  Also, I loved the bits where you got to walk around on the surface of other planets; the part where you get to walk on the moon is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in a game.  Mass Effect 2 did some cool things, especially with its almost episodic structure, and it had great characters, but it got way too far away from the main plot thread and the overall Illusive Man plot is a major flaw in the series.  I also disliked the increased emphasis on action over tactics.  Mass Effect 3 falls somewhere in the middle of the two.  On the whole I’m not sure how much I’d call Mass Effect an RPG series.  It’s more like a cinematic action game with unusually detailed branching dialogue.  Whatever genre it is, though, it’s a great series and the story told by the first and third games is excellent.

5. Heavy Rain

When I initially prepared this list I had Heavy Rain and the #4 game swapped.  Ranking Heavy Rain poses a problem, and the problem is this: playing Heavy Rain was a fantastic experience.  It’s possibly the most emotionally engaging game I’ve ever played.  But the big reveal as to who the killer is and the fact that the game has only managed to conceal it from you by, essentially, lying felt like a betrayal of the trust that the narrative seeks to build, and it hurts the way I remember the game something fierce.  To a large degree Heavy Rain plays out like The Walking Dead.  It’s a very story-driven experience in which the primary hook is that your decisions matter.  But some of the things that Heavy Rain does makes it stand above TWD.  For one thing, while it is possible to screw up in the game in many ways, there are no game overs.  The story takes your mistakes into account and moves on.  Entire scenes change or disappear entirely depending on your choices and actions.  This means that unlike TWD, Heavy Rain has genuine challenges, places where you do more than just make a choice but take an action.  It also does as good a job as any game I’ve played of really making you inhabit the characters you play as, and the primary way it does this is through an ingenious control scheme whereby you use motions on the controller to physically replicate what the character is doing.  I think this is the direction that games need to go in to advance as an art form: to take the player and make them inhabit a character.  Because of the interactivity of video games there is an opportunity to create genuine empathy in a way that films or books can never be as good at.  Beyond that it also tells a genuinely moving story about a father and his son and it does so in a way that video games normally don’t, by being a (mostly) non-violent detective story.  Oh, and I tend to love anything noir-ish, so there’s that too.

4. Lost Odyssey

Lost Odyssey is the Final Fantasy game that Square should have made, the kind they haven’t made since Final Fantasy X.  Lost Odyssey was directed by the creator of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, Hironobu Sakaguchi.  Other Final Fantasy veterans joined him, such as long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose work here lives up to his usual high standard.  No one really makes this kind of RPG any more, which is a shame because what Lost Odyssey does is so very good.  The turn-based combat system is excellent, right up there with any of the great Final Fantasies.  The character customisation is deep and rewarding.  The world is full of the kind of mystery and wonder that no one ever seems to even try to create outside of JRPGs.  It all comes together in an outstanding package that’s thoroughly enjoyable.  I have two quibbles with Lost Odyssey.  The first, smaller one is that the game’s central mystery (who are the immortals and why are they here?) is never answered.  The second is that it has an old fashioned save system that is painful.  The game frequently goes half an hour or more without any opportunity to save and there are multiple instances in which the game goes over an hour between save points.  That’s the only reason I’ve never gone back to play Lost Odyssey.  It’s such an smart, enchanting game, but that save system is a genuine barrier to enjoyment.

3. Fallout 3

Another role-playing game?  Yes, another role-playing game.  You probably know about that moment early in Fallout 3 when you first step out of the vault and your eyes adjust to the sudden rush of sunshine, and suddenly there’s a huge, demolished world standing open in front of you, full of opportunity and danger.  That feeling may subside somewhat, but it never really goes away over the 40 or more hours it takes to play through Fallout 3.  I’ve never really been able to get into the very similar Elder Scrolls games, and there are a few things that make me enjoy Fallout 3 more.  One is that exploration in Fallout just feels like it makes more sense.  Your character has never seen this world, and it’s obvious why there’s danger lurking everywhere you go.  I enjoy exploration more because scavenging items makes sense thematically and the feeling that you’re constantly running out of resources because of the shape that the world is in works well.  Exploring the environments makes more sense too because you’re trying to piece together the story of what happened in this world while civilization locked itself away in the vaults.  The character building and customisation is also an awful lot more fun and well balanced in Fallout.  The perks are a really fun way to create a unique character to play as.  I remember when I bought Fallout 3 it was Christmas holidays while I was doing my Masters degree, and I was so engaged in the game that I plowed through the whole thing in about two weeks.  It’s an enthralling game, one of this generation’s best.

2. Metal Gear Solid 4

Most conversations about the Metal Gear Solid games focus on its story.  Fair enough.  The story is front and centre.  Many cut scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 do go on for too long.  And the story’s endlessly self-referential nature does become pretty ridiculous at points.  But let’s be honest about the narrative of Metal Gear Solid 4: it has more interesting things to say about the world we live in than virtually any other game on the market.  Watch the game’s opening few minutes, if you haven’t before.  Contrary to almost all other games on the market, MGS4 portrays war as a confusing, frightening, sad, and ultimately pointless endeavour.  And it has ideas about war, about what it might be like in a not-too-distant future where private military companies like Blackwater take the place of traditional militaries and technological and biological surveillance becomes just a little bit more advanced.  This is not a new thing for the MGS games either.  Metal Gear Solid 2, released shortly after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, presents a vision of the U.S. in which all e-mails and Internet communications are monitored by a paranoid government.  It sounded outlandish to most people at the time but we now know that this is precisely what the PATRIOT Act has engendered.

Let’s be honest about something else too: even if you stripped all of the narrative out, Metal Gear Solid 4 is an exhilirating game of nearly unmatched creativity.  Each of its 5 chapters is virtually a new game.  There’s an urban warfare chapter, a South American mountain chapter, a noir-ish detective chapter, and more.  Each one takes the same basic ingredients and turns them into vastly different things, creating a game that’s constantly changing but familiar enough to be cohesive.  And MGS still puts all other stealth games to shame because Hideo Kojima understands that the fun of stealth isn’t just hiding and waiting, but in playing a tactical game of cat-and-mouse in which you’re constantly trying to outwit your opponent.  MGS4 is so very nearly the best game of this console generation, but there’s one game that stands out just a little bit more for me . . .

1. Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins does so many things right.  It is an excellent encapsulation of what a role playing game ought to be.  While its central plot thread is fairly standard fantasy stuff (unite the kingdoms to defeat the usurper and kill the dragon) it really succeeds in the details.  The game is full of fascinating and well drawn characters and the dialogue options allow for some of the greatest breadth of expression around.  It presents all sorts of moral choices, but unlike other games it doesn’t tell you which are good or bad, leaving room to construct characters and tell a story of considerably more nuance than the simple black and white morality of games like Fable or Fallout 3.  Perhaps the best part of the stories are the titular Origins, one of six prologues that you can play depending on the race of character you’ve chosen.  These origin stories help to create a real sense both of who the player character is and what it is that motivates them beyond the simple “killing demons and uniting the kingdom”.  Having played Origins, games that don’t similarly provide a chance to really create a character through the story feel like they fall short.

Where the game really shines is in the tactical combat.  You can build your party in a variety of ways (I typically went with a tank, a damage dealing warrior, a rogue, and a mage) and they significantly change how the battles play out.  There’s also a wealth of character customisation options, both in terms of the abilities available to characters and the equipment that can be used to boost stats to improve character builds.  The combat feels fresh and interesting throughout the 40-50 hour campaign.  In fact, I like this game so much that I’ve played all the way through both it and the ~15 hour expansion (Awakenings) twice, meaning I’ve put well over 100 hours into Dragon Age Origins.  It’s the best game of this console generation.

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