The PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are here. With the curtain closing on the seventh generation and a new era of PC gaming approaching, we asked our contributors to share with us the games that they remember as their most interesting, innovative and memorable. These are the games that for our writers defined the last seven years.
Gears of War 2
I have a weakness for couch co-op and big, dumb cover-based shooters, so the Gears franchise is right up my alley. I also find Epic’s insistence on pushing everything to the edge of ridiculousness (and beyond) hilarious: the ‘roided-up douchebros, the outsized guns and vehicles, the ultra-violence. The most fun I had with the series was undoubtedly the many sessions playing Gears of War 2’s Horde mode on hard with four other COG grunts via local co-op. Trying to hold the house on River or make a play for the mortar while under assault by Maulers, Boomers, Grinders, and the damn Kantus was not only awesomely intense, it was a total crack-up as things inevitably fell apart and four downed soldiers were left begging a doomed lone survivor for a revival.
Witnessing first-hand the reactions of others to comical failures, improbable recoveries, and straight-up ownage is one of the joys of local co-op, and Rock Band provides all three with astounding regularity. Its true genius is in its accessibility – even non-gamers are usually keen to get in on the act, something aided by its truly massive and diverse song library. My circle of friends spent countless nights drinking and annoying the neighbours with raucous Rock Band renditions of everything from the cheesy to the heavy, often before heading into town which by comparison couldn’t be anything but a disappointment.
Red Dead Redemption
As Mass Effect is covered covered twice below, I’m going with another favourite, Red Dead Redemption. As is the case in many Rockstar games, the setting and music are the stars, but the celebrated developer pulled out some fantastic writing and extremely memorable characters too. That all of the above stood out even though I had just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s western tour de force Blood Meridian speaks to the quality of Red Dead. So does the fact that although the multiplayer missions weren’t available, we rented five copies of the game anyway and prowled the land as a posse, the scourge of both bandits and regular folk everywhere.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Licensed games are notoriously bad, and superhero games are among the worst offenders, so it was shocking when Arkham Asylum turned out to not only be a truly great Batman game, but one of the finest action adventure games ever made. Flawlessly voice acted by cast members from the beloved Batman animated series, it combined exceptional storytelling and skin tight game mechanics to deliver a game that was satisfying on every level, and a game that finally provided a game experience worthy of the world’s greatest detective.
Valve took the innovative puzzle mechanics and subversive humor of the original, expanded and refined them and delivered a quality game that is equal parts hilarious, inventive, and challenging.
In every way an improvement over its exceptional predecessor. Portal 2 added more complexity and diversity to the deceptively simple portal mechanics, and also provided one of the most satisfying co-op experiences in modern gaming. The glorious return of GLaDOS, and the exceptional voice work of J.K Simmons as Cave Johnson, and Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley add some surprisingly emotional depth and of course some of the most hilarious dialogue in any game ever made.
With its stunning visuals, cinematic presentation, and narrative complexity, 2007’s The Witcher has my vote as the best game of the last generation. Coming out of nowhere from then unknown Polish developer CD Projekt Red, I was completely taken aback and captivated by the dark and brutal game world filled with racial conflict, adult themes, and moral ambiguity. A game coloured in multiple shades of grey, where seemingly innocuous choices will have far reaching and often unforeseen consequences it’s a compelling and rich RPG experience, and one of the best in the genre.
Team Fortress 2
In a generation where FPS multiplayer was synonymous with grey-brown military shoot-em-ups, Team Fortress 2 stood out from the pack - and blew them all away. Six years on, it's still vibrant, energetic and gleefully absurd. Its brilliant cartoon logic is its trump card, driving its dynamic class system, ludicrous arsenal and incredible speed. There's stuff here for the hardcore, sure, but it's one of the best games of this generation because it's such a refreshing take on multiplayer violence, a comically gory homage to post-war American animation.
Thirty Flights of Loving
My favourite game of this generation, Thirty Flights of Loving is the videogame as short story. There's no dialogue, no linear narrative structure, and the most 'player agency' you'll experience is when you're eating an orange. It's elliptical and poignant, a tale of love, loss and betrayal more affecting for its first-person perspective and lack of choice. You are Citizen Abel, and you made your bed long ago. This is a game about consequences; the best game about consequences.
Limiting myself to three games seems particularly cruel given some of the quality I've had to exclude - Bioshock, Portal, The Walking Dead, Limbo, Bastion. But it seems appropriate to round this off with a game that's no bullshit, pure mechanic; a game that's Super Hexagon. Terry Cavanagh's twitchy against-the-clock showdown keeps its aesthetic minimal - a tilting table pumping and shifting to the beat of Chipzel's tense chip-tune score - in order to keep the focus on your fingers, those walls, moving left, moving right, stopping, starting. It's elegant and aggressive, exacting in its difficulty and beautiful in its simplicity. It's this generation's essential handheld game.
Quite simply, a beautiful, transcendent gaming experience. Stunning landscapes, a moving score, quirky creature design – all of this was great, but the real draw was the curious experience of sharing your journey with anonymous players and striving towards a common goal, all without the use of language. It was one of those rare cases where artistic direction and gameplay just synched completely perfectly. A short game, Journey ultimately had more to say than many games with hundreds of hours of content.
With its punishing difficulty, obscure crafting system and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it story, Dark Souls was a divisive title, but its refusal to pander to short attention spans earned it a rightful cult following. An idiosyncratic online system – one that saw players both helping and invading one another's games as phantasms – only added to its mysterious aura. Dark Souls is a game that rewards patience and skill, and the sense of achievement felt when making progress through its creepy fantasy world was incredibly addictive.
They say you never forget your first, and from the day I brought home my PS3 and copy of Fallout 3, I was completely hooked. That initial sense of awe felt when the Lone Wanderer emerges from Vault 101 for the first time, with a whole world waiting to be discovered, in a way represents all the excitement and potential of a brand new console. So the game was a little glitchy at times, so what? Its epic scope, murky ethical choices, and most of all its simply incredible world-building made it an irresistible place to explore.
In a world of a hundred cookie-cutter FPS games, BioShock set itself apart as a stupendous feat of creative imagination, and I was utterly hooked from that amazing opening (has there been a better one in gaming?) It offers up enough different story, setting, gameplay and even philosophical ideas for a dozen other games, and yet still manages to be more than the sum of its parts. My mind was basically set to “boggled” just about the entire time I spent in Rapture, and it remains the only piece of entertainment media to ever have caused my jaw to literally drop in astonishment. (Yes, in that scene. You know the one.)
Mass Effect 2
Space opera in gaming came charging back with the Mass Effect saga, and I rejoiced down to my anti-gravity boots. It's a fantastic trilogy overall, but the first game was still finding its feet, and the third (while 98 percent amazing) had that ending on it, so for me Mass Effect 2, with its Dirty-Dozen-in-space structure, is the crowning achievement of the series. Good writing, memorable characters, a fascinating universe, weighty decision-making, and Ben Shepard sniping those evil Collectors right in their compound-eyed faces – this was the best made-to-order space epic since my 7-year-old self wrote stories about being Luke Skywalker's best friend.
How does one explain Minecraft to the non-converted? “It's sort of like virtual Lego. But there are monsters. You start off in this big world … you have to punch trees.” Here is a game that to a casual viewer might appear to be the simplest game in the world, when in fact it is probably one of the deepest games that exists. Here is a game where you can elect to spend your time on building a functioning calculator the size of a mountain, or on painstaking interior decoration for the room that houses your pet cats. Here is a game that my 4 year old son and I are equally enthusiastic about playing. Minecraft is straight-out amazing.
The Walking Dead
I hate to bring this back up again, but deceased critic Roger Ebert held that games could never match movies in sheer artistry because games lack an artist’s authoritative control of their artwork. He was wrong, but it’s still a valuable point. In The Walking Dead your dialogue choices did not effect the outcome of the story, which many held as a criticism of the game. I felt, however, that choosing dialogue options forced me to consider protagonist Lee’s motivations as well as those of his companions. I could not not understand the internal tumult he was going through because I was experiencing it first end. Non-interactive mediums cannot do this. The Walking Dead’s story made sense and was paced well because authoritative control was maintained by its author. In combination, this game made me cry not merely more than any other game, but more than any other piece of media.
Early in Dark Souls the tail of a hulking crimson wyvern can be hacked off and wielded as a weapon with better stats than any the player is likely to encounter until far later in the game. No signposts in the game hint that this might be possible, yet almost every new player will take advantage of this exploit, no doubt having perused strategy guides in preparation. Dark Souls is brutal, almost encouraging its playerbase to cheat. A lesser game would have one weapon, spell or combination thereof that is clearly optimal, but Dark Souls has such perfectly balanced systems that nearly every weapon and sorcery are equally viable. Dark Souls is perfectly difficult, with unmatched grotesque imagery and sound design.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft's success has been without precedent, and much of the rest of the games industry has been trying to mimic it - whether by creating competing MMOs or shoehorning in subscriptions everywhere it can - for almost 10 years. Many of the concepts that are now considered hallmarks of the MMO genre were first popularised by Blizzard. Its early accessibility, low technical requirements and challenging end-game saw it win and retain huge numbers of players. But what really set it apart was Blizzard's attention to detail and the game's community. Many will have vivid fond memories of their first times in places such as Warsong Gulch, Scholomance, and Black Temple, but it's the smaller, personal encounters that set the game apart for me: Finally buying a mount, or that first, exhilarating world PvP encounter.
Red Dead Redemption
Who'll ever forget riding into Red Dead Redemption's sun scorched Mexico as Jose Gonzalez's "Far Away" plays? Or the game's fitting, sombre climax? Rockstar is without rival in creating detailed, busy open worlds that we want to spend time in and explore, and in making a vast American frontier engaging, Red Dead arguably remains its crowning achievement. Red Dead Redemption demonstrated that the Western, with all its colourful archetypes, stereotypes and tropes, can not only be transplanted to the games medium, but that it can thrive here as well.
BioShock's clever twist on the notion of player autonomy is easily one of the most memorable and important moments in the last generation of gaming. It also dared to grapple with some more abstract concepts that fell far outside the usual machismo fodder found in first-person shooters, and demonstrated that gamers aren't simply capable of engaging with challenging subject matter, but will consume it voraciously. All of this was supported by some haunting direction, audio and voice acting in one of the most memorable settings ever brought to life by a videogame. If you haven't played it, would you kindly do so immediately.
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 is here as a stand-in for the trilogy, but it's a great game in its own right: mostly-perfected shooting; polished presentation; satisfying, sometimes heartbreaking closure for many beloved characters; and a poetic, thematically-resonant ending, fan backlash notwithstanding. The story of “my” Shepard was engrossing; the universe welcoming; the characters friends. It's a stupendous achievement by BioWare and an epic conclusion to a classic trilogy. If I wrote fan fiction for anything, it’d probably be Mass Effect, and that’s as good a sign as any of its quality.
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
I never played Rainbow Six: Vegas 2’s likely unremarkable single-player campaign. For me, though, it is the generation’s defining game, thanks to countless co-op hours with friends in Christchurch's now-demolished gaming lounge Respawn. Our favourite mode, Terrorist Hunt, had none of the frills of later co-op games: rather, its gameplay was simple and addictive. "Rambuuu!" we would cry, as the last remaining player fought solo against twenty enemies. It's the experience that got me back into gaming after a long absence, and for that I owe it.
In an age of blockbuster cinematic sequences and mo-capped dudebro acting, Portal and its sequel told a hilarious, innovative and sinister story using only environmental details and excellent voice acting. The tragicomic passive aggression of GlaDOS was something new to game characters, and the game's willingness to be adorable, silly or even musical, despite taking place in an offshoot of Half-Life's gritty universe, lent it a unique charm. The whiz-bang selling point was the genius teleportational puzzle design, but what made Portal an enduring classic was its storytelling.