Richard’s Games of the Generation
Nine years is a long time, particularly for a console generation. Looking back, this list could be more than double the length it is now, with so many different games resonating with me for so many different reasons. So rather than wax lyrical in this opening paragraph about what has summed up this generation or what it’s meant to me, I’m just going to list off some of the games I wish could have bundled their way into this top five. Games like Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Portal, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Batman: Arkham Asylum, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Spec Ops: The Line, Dead Space, Journey, The Stanley Parable, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Rock Band 2, Grand Theft Auto V, Vanquish, Bayonetta, The Walking Dead, Bioshock, Mario Galaxy, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the FIFA series, Left 4 Dead 2, this list could go on and on. But let’s get down to business: A top five! Just don’t ask me to put them in any sort of order.
Much has been made of death in Dark Souls; of its punishing difficulty and deliberately opaque design. But it’s all about having the right mindset. Patience is a virtue, they say, and in Dark Souls it’s the difference between enjoying the most rewarding game of the generation and destroying a controller after one too many frustrating deaths. Begin to embrace its methodical pacing and singular approach to combat and you’ll be enthralled in the fascinating world of Lodren for many, many hours. You’ll learn that death is a learning tool, not a rage-inducing end. A way to study enemy patterns, learn their strengths and weaknesses, venture to hidden areas and take a blind leap of faith at the behest of another player’s anonymous message.
Each new area becomes a blank slate filled with unlimited possibilities. A new environment to explore and be enraptured by, from the destroyed beauty of Undead Burg to Lost Izalith’s fiery doom. There are new enemies to be feared, too, each one posing a unique threat no matter their size or appearance. Underestimate nothing; you need to be disciplined and determined to survive or you will be duly punished. Everything is a challenging obstacle to overcome, an exciting, incredibly tense battle to win. Yet there is no right or wrong way to play, only your way. It even exists outside of itself, in a fervent community dedicated to uncovering each of its numerous intricacies and deciphering its vague design. Being part of the zeitgeist is a big part of the Dark Souls charm, just as much as the poignancy of its minimalistic approach to storytelling.
There’s nothing else quite like it and it’s hard not to feel like you’re part of something special as you uncover a bloodstain revealing another player’s death, discover a secret item because of a random player message or summon a stranger to help you fight a particularly troubling foe. Dark Souls is special, you just need to prepare to die.
The Last of Us
Like so many big-budget blockbusters this generation, The Last of Us is full of Hollywood cliché. Its post-apocalyptic setting, difficult subject matter, questionable characters and core relationship are all fairly recent and overdone tropes. Yet Naughty Dog manages to subvert our every expectation, turning these familiar ideas on their head to create something incredibly meaningful.
The Last of Us may have arrived late in the day but it’s the blockbuster we’ve been waiting for this entire generation. From the opening gut-wrenching scene to its final bittersweet moment, Naughty Dog has crafted a fully-realised world and given the characters that inhabit it a mature and engaging tale to tell. There is no heavy-handed exposition here, this is storytelling at its finest, told through subtle facial expressions, concise dialogue and a show, don’t tell philosophy. It trusts us as an audience, refusing to hold our hand like so many other games unfortunately do. Once Joel and Ellie’s bond is fully formed we’re already on board with no looking back.
It’s a seamless and cohesive experience, too, the narrative and Gustavo Santaolalla’s fanatically eerie score meshing perfectly with the intense, terrifying and reflective gameplay. Exploring and scavenging for supplies makes perfect sense within the context of this established world, while the brutal intensity of its combat fits with Joel’s character and his approach to this harsh climate. It’s often an uncomfortable game to play but it resonates long after you’ve put the controller down, earning its place as a phenomenal narrative driven experience, and one that could only be achieved with this interactive medium. Let’s hope the next generation sees more blockbusters like it.
Red Dead Redemption
Rockstar Games’ Western opus is the perfect open-world. When the story is all said and done, you’ve collected all of the bounties, skinned a bear and ruled the roost at a friendly game of poker, it’s the world and its setting that sticks in your mind.
A beautiful, sweeping landscape at the end of an era; the decision to set it in 1911 as opposed to the 1800s is a piece of creative ingenuity. It leads to a romanticised world, yet one full of melancholy as rapid expansion begins its path of modernisation, bringing the Old West to a contemplative end. You feel like a part of history, buying into John Marston’s plight as the gunslinger myth gradually becomes a relic for the ages. There’s a resonance present that carries into the open-world and its fiction. The Grand Theft Auto-style rampage actually makes sense within the context of this lawless land, removing any dissonance with the player’s engagement and granting a freedom like no other. You buy into its fiction, embodying the gunslinger role and falling in love with the world’s scarcity and appreciation for silence and serenity. The frontier can be a lonely place, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.
It shows you that open-worlds don’t need to be populated with things to do just for the sake of doing them. Activities that fit the fiction, like hunting animals and playing five finger fillet, are more than enough, giving the open-world room to breathe without any needless clutter. It made you feel as though you existed in this world, fully absorbed in the romance of the Wild West, recollecting vivid memories of your time along the United States and Mexico border years later. Rockstar didn’t just conquer the Western genre with Red Dead Redemption, they reached the epitome of the open-world genre they themselves popularised.
Mass Effect 2
Combat has been refined, player movement is less clunky and the shooting is more responsive and satisfying. Awkward Mako sections have been removed, inventory management has been streamlined, the framerate is improved, texture pop-in is less frequent and you no longer spend an innate amount of time waiting in elevators. Mass Effect 2 is an improvement on its predecessor in almost every tangible way. And yet, just like Bioware’s series kick-starter, none of that really matters. The universe of Mass Effect is so incredible, its characters so diverse and fantastically written, that its mechanics only need to be competent at best (it’s simply a pleasant bonus that they’re better).
This is still a game all about those characters and that universe after all. You couldn’t dream of a better ragtag crew for the suicide mission you embark upon, your interactions with them aboard the Normandy and during their splendid loyalty missions making up some of the game’s best moments. The ensemble may be large but it puts every single one of them to good use.
Your embodiment of Shepard plays a big role in this, too. Whether you’re getting in the middle of a heated argument, facing the ramifications of your choices and actions or romanticising every living thing in sight, you feel like an integral part of this world, empowered by your ability to shape what happens next. It manages to both be intimate and encompass a grand scale full of memorable adventure and universe-ending peril. Mass Effect 3 may have been a disappointment but it doesn’t really matter when we can jump into Mass Effect 2 for a fifth time and discover something new.
Whiteness. This is the first thing you see as you begin your foray into the Capitol Wasteland. A blinding flash of unfamiliar sunlight as you emerge from the confines of Vault 101 for the first time. As your eyes slowly begin to adjust the landscape comes into focus. A ravaged land, demolished by nuclear warfare and filled with limitless possibilities. Many will tout this moment as one of the generation’s finest, but Fallout 3’s accomplishments come from managing to recreate that first excited feeling over and over again, even when you’re eighty hours deep.
That sense of exploration and discovery would never dissipate, from its first moment to the day you finally decide you’ve seen all Fallout 3 has to offer. Pick a direction and begin walking and you’re guaranteed to find something fascinating over the next irradiated hill or destroyed highway. From your first visit to Megaton, to the Republic of Pete and the first time you meet the AntAgoniser, the mixture of retro Americana with the brutal violence of an apocalyptic wasteland was ripe for wonder and unexpected surprises.
The combat held up its end of the bargain, too, meshing the old with the new. The SPECIAL skills system was adopted and refined (Pip Boy in tow), while VATS proved a triumph, presenting a turn-based system with glorious results. The hidden dice roles kept everything ticking over, yet it also proved accessible for those new to the genre, eager to explore for themselves. Fallout 4 for next-generation consoles is an appetizing thought indeed.