Nick H’s Games of the Generation
Looking back on the last console generation has reminded me just how many excellent games we’ve been served up over the last few years. As I stagger bleary-eyed into the second half of my twenties, it’s reassuring to think that the future might hold countless titles of similiar brilliance, even if I do end up playing them on a battered second-hand games console in the slave-hold of a Zargon warship.
Now since there’s been so many excellent games, it’s obviously impossible for me to list them all. Honourable mentions go to, amongst others, the terrific Mass Effect trilogy, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Skyrim, Hotline Miami, Dragon Age: Origins, Bioshock (I left that out? God, I hate me), Portals 1 and 2, Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty 4. So my choices below aren’t necessarily my undisputed, cast-iron favourites, but rather the ones that immediately came to mind when I sat down to create the list. Thus rendering this article almost entirely pointless. Enjoy!
The Walking Dead
Where did this come from? Telltale Games, a studio previously known for hoovering up movie licenses and churning out tatty adventure game titles, somehow managed to create possibly the most emotionally devastating video game series of the last ten years. It started inauspiciously enough with protagonist and convict Lee Everett stumbling from the back of a crashed police transport and into a world in which every choice is a bad one and every safe haven is just a temporary reprieve.
However it was with the introduction of Clementine, Lee’s young charge and possibly the only child character in entertainment media history that I haven’t immediately wanted to push into a river, that The Walking Dead turned from a smartly written, enjoyable adventure game with a cast of great characters to something really special. Voiced to perfection by Melissa Hutchison, Clementine is a triumph of a character and the driving force behind both Lee and the player’s motivation. From the moment you meet her you know you’ll do anything to protect this girl. Discovering just how far you’ll have to go to do so makes for an often harrowing but always gripping experience that builds up expertly to that devastating gut-punch of a finale. Unmissable.
Crusader Kings II
It takes time to fully appreciate Crusader Kings II. Initially you’re met with an bewilderingly vast array of options; thousands of individual characters with their own concerns and vices, a complex and intimidating interface and dozens of different sub-systems that each impact your ruler’s ability to manage his domain.
Stick with it though! Underneath the complexity is a beautiful game, a rewarding and deep experience that brings welcome personality and character to the grand strategy genre. The focus on characters, from your chosen liege to his varied cast of allies and enemies, makes the game’s world come alive. I’ve spent countless hours backstabbing and betraying my way across Europe and the Middle East, making enemies and lifelong allies on the way. Name me another game where you can play a syphilitic hunchback in control of a vast spy network, who prunes his kingdom of troublesome nobles with the help of his vast fortune and several very efficient contract killers. And if you’re bored of that? How about creating a zealous and violent warrior King who spends his weekdays battering heretics to death and his weekends sleeping with the kitchen staff?
No other grand strategy game quite gives you that same sense of power, nor the sheer amount of options that CKII does. In three years time, I still don’t think I’ll be done with it.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Oh, XCOM. We’re so used to the cavalcade of expensive pre-launch marketing for upcoming titles that it’s rare for a game to sneak up on us unawares. Having never played the original title, I had no particular interest in Enemy Unknown when it was released. Sure it looked intriguing, with its colourful sci-fi brio and clean, sharp design, but I didn’t expect big things from it.
How foolish I was. XCOM was the finest game of 2012, a near-perfect mix of turn-based tactical combat and base-building that was gorgeous to look at and an absolute joy to play. Your international squad of badass marines could be customised to your heart’s content, outfitted with a variety of weapons and gear, then sent out into the field to take on an alien invasion. Bringing your team home alive was an exercise in tension and tactics, each squadmate loss a punch to the gut that had you reaching guiltily for the quick-load button. These were your guys, you were their commander, and through it all you wanted to protect them, your protective instincts only increasing as they each levelled up and gained new skills, experience and gear.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown proves that there’s an audience for supposedly niche genres like turn-based strategy, particularly when it’s this lovingly designed and beautifully produced. It’s a beacon of hope in modern mainstream gaming.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Superhero games had a fairly bad rep before Arkham Asylum came along, most of them being half-arsed efforts flung out in time for the next blockbuster release. Thankfully for fans of the world’s most famous grumpy vigilante, developers Rocksteady crafted the pitch-perfect Batman experience; a thrilling, Gothic tour through the Arkham madhouse with nifty gadgets, satisfying stealth sections and plenty of punch-ups.
Arkham Asylum‘s combat system was a revelation, a simple to learn but tricky to master collection of strikes, counters and throws that was joyously responsive and wonderfully brutal. Flinging myself from thug to thug, detaching a retina here, inverting a testicle there, it felt like I really was the Dark Knight himself, dealing out justice on the streets of Gotham. It was a fighting system that could have justified the game on its own, but Rocksteady weren’t resting on their laurels. Adding to the fisticuffs were an effective, empowering stealth system, various gadgets and tools that emphasised Batman’s detective skills and resourcefulness, and of course the gorgeous setting of the Asylum itself.
Packed with secrets, lathered in Gothic splendour and populated by the cream of Batman’s rogue’s gallery (with a particularly snazzy cameo from Scarecrow, one of my personal favourites), Arkham Asylum was a beautiful place to explore, and the most lovingly crafted interpretation of the Dark Knight mythos ever seen. Even a slightly dodgy ending couldn’t spoil the fun. Oh, and it had Mark Hamill as the Joker. Enough said.
Far Cry 2
So Far Cry 2‘s a weird one. There are plenty of games I’ve played and loved over the last generation that have annoyed me far less than Ubisoft’s open world shooter, and yet I can’t help but consider it one of the most memorable games of the lot. As mercenary soldier, you’re sent to a war-torn African country to kill the Jackal, a legendary arms dealer who reads every line like he’s only got five minutes to catch the 10:45 to Chepstow. How you do this is up to you. Oh, and you have malaria. See you later!
Set loose in the African wilderness, you’re free to approach missions however you like. Sneak up on the corrupt police chief’s villa? Nah, boring, I’d rather bring out a flame-thrower and put those excellent flame physics to use. For every time Far Cry 2 frustrates with excessive driving to and fro and respawning enemy checkpoints, there’s another moment when it produces something spectacular. Just as your rusty, second-hand AK47 crumbles to bits and you catch a grenade round in the jugular, one of your mercenary buddies pops up with a medical syringe and a spare pistol, dragging you out of the line of fire. The wind catches the flames, and suddenly you find yourself staggering through a village on fire, fending off panicked enemies with your borrowed pistol and hoping you can scavenge another medkit from somewhere.
Underpinning all this violence is a bleak tale of greed and exploitation, one in which everybody can be bought, all roads lead to more death, and you’re the catalyst for the inferno that will tear this country apart. It’s all very jolly. And yet, despite (perhaps because) a sparse story-telling style that favours tone and atmosphere over endless cutscenes and exposition, it’s a hundred times more engaging than the empty, Lynx-advert stupidity of Far Cry 3. Not a perfect game then, but a fascinating experience, and one that sticks in my mind long after more polished, slicker titles have been forgotten.