It's that time of year again, folks. A time for lists and top tens. A time of reflection, where we present our views on the games that have been and gone over the last twelve months.
Well, it's almost time for that.
Before we get into Game of the Year season, it's time for Game of the Generation. As the arrival of the PS4 and Xbox One finish what the Wii U started in ushering in the eighth console generation, it's time for us to take a moment and reflect on the best games, the most memorable moments, gaming highlights, and crushing disappointments of much of the last decade.
It's time we all got stuck in with some opinion-slinging and critical debate about the games of generation seven, and what better way to kick that off than by talking about the best games we've seen over the past seven years or so. But what does "best" mean, particularly in a medium of such diverse possibility? Well, that's what makes it fun. We have titles here that provided openness, agency, outstanding interactive fiction, sublime gameplay, and innovative, groundbreaking ideas and execution. Put simply, these are the games we feel defined the seventh console generation for us.
Take it away lads...
Carl - Mass Effect
Of the many, many games I have played over the course of the generation, one comes up as a truly inspiring game-changer for me, and that is Mass Effect. In a time when RPGs were beginning to stagnate, and JRPGs weren’t quite delivery the same level of quality they had previously done, BioWare’s spiritual successor to KOTOR let me live out my futuristic dreams with my own version of Commander Shepard.
Its cast of characters, both heroes and villains, were some of the best I had come across, and the intrigue that was created as I discovered the truth behind Saren’s master plan was some of the best storytelling I had been able to directly affect. Making difficult (and some quite humorous) choices lead to some great water cooler moments that still get discussed to this day. You only have to say the word “Virmire” to instigate a barrage of anecdotes, each with their own unique take on a mission that changed everything.
It was also - perhaps most importantly, a new sci-fi property – something I had been craving for quite some time considering the last series of that kind I was truly invested in was Freespace. Other games that have come since then have arguably provided more of a sense of freedom, but the illusion of being able to explore the galaxy and visit different planets aboard the Normandy was mind-blowing.
As the now-infamous song goes – “You can fight like a Krogan, run like a leopard / But you’ll never be better than Commander Shepard.”
Chris - Wii Sports
When I think about what it means to be “Best Game of the Generation” I think of games that have defined said time period. And when I think about how the landscape of this last generation changed from its predecessors, the biggest shift was how accessible gaming became. In the years of the GameCube, the PS2 and the Xbox, gaming was still very much a pigeon-holed hobby that was misunderstood and to some extent ignored by the majority in favour of other entertainment media.
Then along came the Wii and its launch title – cleverly placed in every box – Wii Sports. A game that not only served as a way of showcasing the unique control method of Nintendo's strikingly affordable console, but at the same time making many realise that they could partake and enjoy games. You had children playing Golf with grandparents, families united by their love of Wii bowling, or punching the living daylights out of comical portrait Miis in Wii Boxing. Anyone could step up and have a go, and Nintendo showed the world what many of us gamers had known for some time: games are for everyone.
Imitation is probably the highest form of flattery, and we only have to look at what Microsoft and Sony did after Nintendo crashed the party with the Wii to see how big this phenomenon was. A massive untapped market became available to the big three and beyond -- people that were barely considered in previous generations -- and casual gaming became an enormous money-spinner, largely thanks to the game that Nintendo had stealthily slipped into every lounge. Wii Sports had that perfect balance of instant accessibility, undeniable charm and humour, and downright fun, that it became an instant hit across the gaming world. It was no surprise then that at my recent 30th birthday bash – gaming themed naturally – that Wii Sports proved to be the game of choice, and thanks to the nature of hotswapping multiplayer, everyone was able to get in on the fun, something that would have been impossible a few years ago.
As such gaming as we now it is more popular than ever, and enjoyed by so many. This can only be a good thing for our industry as it becomes so much more accepted and explored. We owe a lot to Wii Sports. Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest, or the biggest game; but for impact it’s almost incomparable.
Jonathan - Fallout 3
This console generation has afforded us some truly fantastic games, and picking ten of the best is nightmarishly difficult. Twenty, thirty, fifty even. But as far as I'm concerned, identifying the single best game of the last eight years is actually child's play. It's Fallout 3. Obviously.
Bethesda's epic RPG immersed us into an enormous, dense and challenging world rife with unpredictable encounters, massive scope for exploration and huge decisions to make. The VATS system and versatile character skills made for an impressive hybrid between pureblood RPG and engaging FPS, but this was just the foundation for a truly revolutionary adventure.
We frequently talk about 'choice' and 'agency' (or the illusion thereof) as being important parts of open-world games and videogames in general, and we've seen plenty of titles that give us an inordinate amount of choice when it comes to moment-to-moment gameplay or combat. But Fallout 3 let us choose at every turn, on every level. From the earliest moments, we could perform a quest for a bartender to discover critical story information... or hack his computer... or trick him... or subvert his mission... or even just head out into the wilderness and accidentally rejoin the story somewhere along the line. Then blow up a town. There's always a lock to pick, a computer to hack and a hidden easter egg to ferret out – or just something else to see and do waiting beyond the next gutted skyscraper.
We can do the right thing. We can be a heartless bastard. We can be who we want to be, fight how we want to fight, explore where and whenever we want – and always, Fallout 3 offers an inordinate amount of meaningful content to reward our efforts, and support our playstyle. Having completed it four times already, I'm still spoiling for a fifth.
And perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fallout 3 is that it let us live an entire life, from the very moment of birth. It gave us a sense of place, a feeling of really belonging to the world, that other games can only dream of.
Skyrim was magnificent, no doubt about it. But Fallout 3, for my money, is nothing less than this generation's Deus Ex... even compared to, well, this generation's Deus Ex.
Matt - Bioshock
As someone who likes to waffle on about the nature of player agency when it comes to this interactive medium of ours, it might seem strange to have Bioshock as my pick for the best game of this generation. Truth be told, I'd happily lend my voice to the choices of both Jon and Carl with their picks, and also throw Skyrim and Dragon Age: Origins and Super Mario Galaxy and The Walking Dead and Portal and Journey into the mix too.
The glorious thing is, of course, that defining the best game of a generation depends entirely upon the standpoint from which you approach the question.
Bioshock was one of the very few games to really make me feel something, to really drop my jaw. It carries with it one of the very finest twists in any medium of storytelling, one that changes everything that you thought that you knew about the game and its world -- the superbly realised, diseased and crumbling former utopia that was Rapture -- and delivers a gut-punch so utterly emphatic and head-spinningly profound that you can't help but be astounded.
Irrational created the most memorable game world of the generation in Rapture, and left you to pick your way through its dilapidated bones, discovering its history at your own pace. The lack of direct choice (or the illusion of it) -- that is to say, the apparent absence of morality-driven narrative divergences -- didn't matter. Bioshock played with the nature of control and discovery, using exposition to give colour and depth to the horrors you'd witness, and then turning everything on its head.
This was a time before audiologs became overly hackneyed, when learning the personal histories of these seemingly long-gone characters proved deeply moving, as story was doled out in little chunks, with snippets of ethical nightmares that gradually changed the way we saw Rapture. There was horror in survival, and in the things we'd end up doing to make it through, to see this lonely journey through to its end. Bioshock stuck in my mind more than any other game of this generation (save perhaps Mass Effect). The Little Sisters, their hulking, drill-handed protectors, and the glistening ADAM slugs; the terror of hearing the whispers of gene addicts and crazed splicers in the darkened tunnels but not being able to see them; and those three words.
Rarely have three words proved so absolutely devastating in any story across any medium. Bioshock isn't just a video game classic, it's a milestone in interactive fiction.
Brendan - Uncharted 2
As far as I’m concerned, Uncharted 2 is still the benchmark in action games. The action set pieces are still absolutely jaw dropping. Naughty Dog are masters at letting you play what most other developers relegate to a cutscene or QTE. Scenes like the helicopter attack that brings the building down in Nepal or the train ride rank amongst the very best moments of the generation. Uncharted 3 didn’t beat them for me, but I’m ready to have my socks blown off with the upcoming PS4 game.
Uncharted 2 also mastered the quieter moments, such as the walk around the peaceful Tibetan village after Drake almost died on the mountain after the train crash. The scene gave us and Drake an opportunity to reflect on everything that we’d experienced so far before we set off again. And when the villains attacked that village, it felt personal as I rushed to protect those who had saved Drake’s life.
As something of a graphics junkie, I’ll never forget my first sighting of the lost city of Shambhala with its beautiful waterfalls and ancient buildings perched on the cliffs, hell I’m actually sad that such a place doesn’t exist in real life (or does it?). Maybe I’ll just have to settle on a future visit to Nepal and try to match the unforgettable view from the hotel roof.
Rounding up the complete gaming package of the generation is the incredible cast. Nolan North and friends have been on top of their game all generation with an intensely likable back and forth between their characters. Only Bioshock Infinite has come close to matching them.
When Sony says Greatness Awaits on PS4, I’m expecting Naughty Dog to be the prime example again.