I think now is the best time to do a final look at the era of the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii. Sure all their successors launched one and two years ago, but do you really feel like the new generation of games started in 2013, or even this past year?
Almost everything significant this past year has still been, on some level, designed with the old consoles in mind. 2014 was a far cry from the PS2’s amazing first year on the market when it quickly received probably near a dozen excellent games to justify the platform. The PS4 and Xbox One feel very early in their game libraries, neither one having received a real killer app yet. The Wii U is the only console that truly seems essential between the three despite its almost total lack of third party games.
Looking forward however, 2015 looks like the year for both the PS4 and Xbox One. That first wave of true high-quality games made specifically for those systems that I’ve mentioned too many times on this blog looks to arrive in the first half of the year. The PS3 and 360 still got a huge number of significant games in 2014, but that number in 2015 looks to be dropping to near zero. I thought the end of 2013 was a bit too early to close the curtain on them, but now is about time as we start to get the final vapors from their tailpipes.
I should stress this is just my own personal list of favorite games of that generation. I’m not necessarily counting games I think might be the best. I’m not counting games because they were the most influential or most representative of that era of gaming. This really isn’t even a review of that console generation, I’m just saying what my favorite games from it are. There are a lot of games I enjoyed immensely that aren’t on this list because I needed to lock it down to my absolute top-tier favorites.
These are the games I will always look back to first when I think of the PS3 and 360. These are the games that will be the reason I ever plug in my PS3 again, the games that manage to keep pulling me back and stand the test of time going forward. It’s not about what the games of the moment were. It’s about what games I’ll still want to play in 10 years. I guess PC games count if they came out between 2005 and 2014, but I think every PC game on my list also had a console version. These games are listed in no particular order.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
A lot of people will probably agree Call of Duty 4 was the defining game of its era. It’s the game that pretty much every AAA game tried to be. So many developers said they wanted “the Call of Duty audience.” It became to its generation what Halo: Combat Evolved and Street Fighter II were to their respective eras. In the end that doesn’t have much bearing on it being one of my favorite games of the generation.
Even after what is it, seven subsequent Call of Duty games, COD4 is probably the one I retain the most interest in playing. I feel like it was the last one before success possessed Activision and Infinity Ward. It’s not as flashy and self-absorbed as any of the later games. I like some of the later COD games a lot, particularly Modern Warfare 3, but the first Modern Warare is the only one that seems somewhat humble.
It’s the last one that got a lot of mod support like with things like promod and Galactic Warfare. It was the last one before we had to worry about whether each new release would have lean or dedicated servers. It was the last one before PC players had to pay for map packs. Really, it was the last one that really felt like a PC game. If I ever think about getting back into COD multiplayer, I’ll probably do it by just reinstalling COD4 with promod.
The game also however still has one of my favorite singleplayer campaigns in a recent first person shooter. I really don’t like how every major game these days has to be a straight corridor filled with set pieces that feel like interactive cut scenes. COD4 is the game that popularized it, but it’s also almost the only game that does it right. Its events make you feel like you’re in movie scenes, but they don’t actually rip controls away from you or force you to play out those scenes. It just sets up those events for you to react to, not follow. It’s a malleable roller-coaster ride. The encounter design in that ride is also what sets COD4 apart. Many other games try to do what it does, but it’s all in the execution, and that’s where COD4 is superior. It’s that one roller-coaster at the park you want to ride ever time you go there.
I guess that difference signifies the whole of my relationship with COD4. Sure I dislike the wave it started and what that wave did to console games, but I can’t blame Modern Warfare for all the games that tried to copy it.
Team Fortress 2
The biggest tragedy of COD4’s multiplayer is the big tragedy of online gaming in general right now for console games — how their publishers dump them to the side to make way for the sequel every two years. COD4 is a seven-year-old game but I’d probably still choose its multiplayer over any of its seven sequels. Valve on the other hand released one multiplayer game in the same year as COD4 and decided to support it up to the present day. The result is Team Fortress 2, which now is far more than a game, but is really a platform of content and a place where communities have been born.
TF2 has become the sort of background game for people on Steam to play, the old reliable. It has been given the time and breathing room to form its own community and even its own economy, to the point where Valve has let the community largely drive the development of the game. It’s one of a handful of games I know I’ll be able to play today and probably years from now. Even the base game felt like an efficient, balanced creation that wouldn’t get old fast, and it’s only become more refined in the years since.
Beyond that though, it’s also one of the only online shooters I can enjoy all that much because of its increased focus on the eponymous team and how much more communication it seems to encourage between players. The thing is, I’m pretty much done with conventional online shooters where you just anonymously blast 15-31 other people over and over again. Games like COD and Battlefield to me have become endless grinds masquerading as social gatherings. That kind of experience is geared towards a specific person, and I’m not that person. TF2 on the other hand is a game that forces you to work closely with a relatively small group of specialists. Everyone pretty much has an immediately obvious job that plays into a game plan. It’s possible to coordinate like this in COD or BF, but TF pretty much demands it. That combined with its dedicated servers has made TF2 one of the only “social” video games of which I don’t tire.
Street Fighter IV
Street Fighter IV is kind of the console equivalent of TF2. It’s one game that Capcom managed to support for six years, building a community along with a significant competitive scene. It’s probably almost the only recent console game that has reached a status similar to TF2, League of Legends, or Counter-Strike.
SF4 spearheaded a sort of renaissance of fighting games after the genre went comatose in the early 2000’s. A lot of other fighting games came along, lot of them great, and more than a few from Capcom itself. SF4 is the one that endured and stayed active through the whole phase up until now. Maybe that’s just due to the inertia of it being Street Fighter, but I like to think it’s because Capcom endeavored to keep the game updated and fresh over six years.
Even now as Street Fighter V looms I think about switching from my PS3 copy of SF4 to a PC copy. Even after I dive into the Ultra Street Fighter IV upgrades like its new characters and Omega Mode, the strong base game will still be there with a strong community behind it. Let me just say this, SF4 is just about the only console game I like playing online anymore.
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Galaxy is one of those games where if you start a new file just to mess around you end up playing through the whole game again simply because of how infectiously fun it is. When it came out (also in 2007) people couldn’t believe how much like classic Nintendo it felt. It pretty much encapsulates everything we still like about Nintendo and what he company is good at.
It’s got immediately satisfying controls built around a small number of focused mechanics. More importantly it’s packed with levels that re-imagine those mechanics in continually new ways. The whole game is really just one good idea after another. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is pretty much the same thing, some would argue done better, but I’m going to go with the starting game on this one. Both of them are probably the games for which I’m most willing to keep my Wii plugged up.
Super Mario Galaxy is one of those things that feels like it should be in a textbook for good game design. I like summing it up by calling it “Fun: The Game.”
The first Crysis game is not only one of my favorite shooters and stealth games of the past generation, but I think it’s also one of the most underrated games of its era. 2007 was a year of games that started trends in the industry. I feel like Crysis is the game the industry chose not to follow but should have. It possesses a lot of what I miss about FPSs.
Basically, Crysis is arguably the most technically advanced objective-based first person game ever made, even though it came out seven years ago. It’s been called the most advanced Predator simulator ever made. Basically no shooter since 2007 has topped its level of interactivity or freedom. It took the “here are some objectives, find your own way to do them,” design style seen in GoldenEye, Thief, and Deus Ex, and pushed it to a point no game since has reached.
I think Crysis got labeled as little more than a tech demo because other than its graphics, no single feature of it really stands out. It pushed many aspects of FPSs to technological heights, but it pushed them all uniformly. In Crysis you can choose to pick up most objects with a deep physics system, destroy houses and watch them dynamically collapse, explore huge environments like sandboxes, blow up groups of enemies with a tank or an exploding jeep, infiltrate a base by swimming through its sewer, sneak up to said base through the bushes, race down a river in a motorboat while a helicopter chases you, and so much more. A lot of people saw the full package as a generic one. Maybe it was also because few people had the hardware to play Crysis in 2007 and thus couldn’t see its gameplay for themselves.
In any case, it’s still one of the shooter campaigns that keeps sucking me back in with not only its advanced mechanics but the good level design built with them. Even more so in the case of Crysis Warhead. It’s too bad the industry decided to take shooters in completely the opposite direction after 2007. I happen to believe another game like the first Crysis is exactly what shooters need today.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Uncharted 2 is probably one of COD4’s progeny, fully following the doctrine of a relatively linear progression of levels built around set pieces. Where it differs from all the pretenders that bore me is that it’s one of the games that actually follows the doctrine correctly. In short, it’s one of my favorite shooter campaigns and one of my favorite roller-coaster rides.
Basically, Uncharted 2 just has good level design and really good encounter design. This is all coming from someone who was really “meh” on the first Uncharted. I thought that game tried too hard to push players through its own directed experience, and focused too much on shooting over the adventure elements I expected. The sequel introduced a bit more adventuring while actually letting players solve its puzzles on their own, features platforming puzzles that feel intuitive but not stupid, and in general has well-plotted levels that actually let players play around with how they engage enemies.
I was particularly surprised with how well Uncharted 2 handles stealth, letting players choose to sneak through much of the game. Each little area feels like a well-plotted arena. The game even manages to remain this well-designed during a train section, which is usually about as straight a corridor as you can get. The surprises didn’t stop there which is what sealed Uncharted 2 as one of my top PS3 games.
I also happen to think Unchared 2 is Naughty Dog’s highest achievement on the PS3. Judging by Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us I think Uncharted 2 hit the peak of what the console is capable of. In that area and in terms of overall design, TLOU and Uncharted 3 are great, but I don’t think either definitively tops Uncharted 2. That game for Naughty Dog represents a plateau if you ask me, and out of their PS3 games it’s the one I feel the most inclined to revisit.
If there is one specific type of game that really attracted me over the last several years, it was singleplayer role-playing games, mostly western-style role-playing games like Fallout, Elder Scrolls, and The Witcher. I guess I could count Demon’s Souls among the best of those. Along with Uncharted 2 it’s also probably my top PS3 game.
The first Dark Souls seems to be the most popular of the three Souls games, but for some reason I’m still partial to Demon’s. The other two are great and have gotten similar amounts of time out of me. The first Dark Souls in particular is an expertly-designed game. To start, their combat system is one of the only near perfect fusions of action gaming and role-playing. It’s like Soul Calibur but slowed down and influenced by the stat system of a dungeon crawler. That’s what the Souls games are — the punishing dangers and mysterious atmosphere of old school dungeon crawlers realized through modern graphics and controls. They are something close to what people probably imagined while playing Ultima Underworld or Dungeon Master. Also, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls in particular are so well-rounded it’s hard to think of an aspect of them that you could leave out. Everything that is in those games feels like it needs to be there.
But, after finishing all three Souls games I feel most inclined to start a new character in Demon’s Souls. I think what puts it over the edge is its atmosphere. Some people put it against Demon’s Souls that it probably has the least varied atmosphere out of the three games. Both Dark Souls games take you through all kinds of places but Demon’s Souls mainly sticks with castles and dungeons with a cold blue-ish tint. The thing is, I like that visual style. To me Demon’s Souls feels the most like the dungeon crawlers of old and is where I’m inclined to go when I’m in the mood for one. It’s definitely going to be the main reason I keep my PS3 installed in the future.
The first Mass Effect may be the most flawed and criticized of the three games, but I think it’s also my favorite. In my mind it’s a back and forth between the first two but I think I ultimately have to go with the first, the main reason being what its sequels decided to leave behind.
People give the first game a hard time because its combat is messy, the vehicle controls are weird, is inventory system is unwieldy, and the planets you explore are pretty barren. I take more issue with how the sequels either drastically changed or completely dropped those elements. One of the things I like most in RPGs is exploration, and the first Mass Effect is pretty much the only RPG I’ve played that let me examine planets on a star chart and explore their surfaces. When you think about it those planets and derelict ships were random dungeons in space. In comparison, all the places in the second and third game are just corridors and arenas where you shot things. They are shooters first and foremost, which I don’t really feel is a strength for a company like BioWare. Mass Effect’s sequels should have improved on its flaws, not tried to be a different kind of game. But once again there’s that COD4 influence.
I guess Mass Effect 2 did deliver its writing and characters just as well as the first game. The second game had better side quests but the first had a better-executed main quest. The first game in particular had an impressive array of outcomes for some of its story threads which is what makes interacting with its characters feel dynamic.
The Mass Effect series overall is one of those things I still feel the temptation to return to years after finishing it. The reason I feel pulled to the first one in particular is because it’s the only one that tried to be what I wanted out of the franchise — a space RPG.
Whether or not any of these games will ever make it into my all-time favorites list is something I can only determine as the years go by. I’m not even sure how much this past console generation will stand the test of time. I’m still of the opinion its very best games don’t quite match up with the very best of previous eras, but that could be because the earlier games have had more time to prove their staying power. Some of these are games I might still want to play in 10 years, but what about 20 or 25?
How will the upcoming games of 2015 and the rest of the new console generation make these ones look in comparison? Will they make us fondly look back on the PS3 or 360 era?
- New Years message: We are now halfway between the year 2000 and the year 2030.