It began in late December of 2005, and it began – as these things often do – by responding to a Craigslist ad, and then meeting a complete stranger in a Burger King parking lot in Astoria, Queens.
And it ended with me out 700 bucks, but with a new Xbox 360.
Rather than trying to recall what that experience might’ve been like all these years later, it just so happens that I documented the unboxing on my blog. And so what follows is an excerpt from my December 21, 2005 Livejournal post, which appears to be the day after I bought my first 360. Please excuse the slack-jawed hyperbole that follows. As I read it again now, at the other side of the era, I’m literally shocked at the sorts of things that apparently dropped my jaw back then:
…I bit the bullet, scoured Craigslist and paid too much (but not THAT much) for an Xbox 360. I know that I had said that I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it, and that I could wait until it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to get one, but – this guy was selling it for pretty cheap, AND he lived in Queens, AND he drove it to my house. I don’t have an HDTV, but I do have a nice 27″ TV, and the games STILL look phenomenal. Not only that, but the user interface is fan-fucking-tastic, PLUS I can connect my iPod up to it with a USB cable, PLUS I can download all these awesome old-school arcade games for $5. The wireless controller (!!!) can shut down the console all by itself. The PS3 may end up being a more powerful machine, but for my money the Xbox360 is where it’s at, in terms of the online experience, the ease of use, and the elegance and simplicity of the user interface. The games, also, will play a part. I bought Kameo (beautiful platform-y action-y adventure-y), Perfect Dark Zero (beautiful sci-fi first person shooter/stealth), Project Gotham Racing 3 (insanely beautiful driving game), and Call of Duty 2 (World War 2 shooter, which is the only one I haven’t spent any time with). I also downloaded Geometry Wars, which is completely insane and trippy and ridiculous.
Isn’t that adorable? Being in love with the original “Blades” 360 interface? Being gobsmacked by a wireless controller that (i) comes standard in the box, and (ii) can power up and power down the console? Being impressed that I could connect my iPod via USB? Being knocked out by Perfect Dark Zero?
Oh man. What a long way we’ve come since then.
* * *
I never really thought about it all that much; I guess I’d always just assumed that I was a one-console dude. I’d always been one, ever since my early days rocking an Atari 2600. Being a “fanboy” sounded like an adolescent waste of time, but in retrospect it’s clear to me now that I’d always been one (because, since I had the Atari, I never got to own a Nintendo). I’d pick (or, really, be given) a console and then I’d stick with it with a fierce devotion, most likely so that I could feel justified in my purchase and not get too bent out of shape if a different console had an exclusive game that I couldn’t, in my current state, play. (In the case of the Xbox, the one time I really got bent out of shape was for the GTA games – and as it turned out, those games got really great Xbox ports, so it all turned out OK.)
The point is, this sort of juvenile, “one console or bust” thinking continued well into my 30s, and I only broke out of that mindset by accident. I was a die-hard 360 owner and proud of it, but it turned out that I’d backed the wrong HD format for movies. HD-DVD had gotten its ass kicked pretty thoroughly, and because I’m just as big a film nerd as I am a game nerd, I knew I had to buy a Blu-Ray player… and if it happened to play games, then, well, that was an added bonus. That the PS3’s library of exclusive games happened to be, for the most part, fantastic was an even better added bonus. (Side note: my HD-DVD drive still works, and I still have a few HD-DVDs that I haven’t yet upgraded.)
I’ll get to the question of who “won” this console generation in a little bit, but if I can be corny for a second here, it turns out that the real answer to that question is: me. I finally broke out of my fanboy mindset and embraced pretty much all this generation had to offer (even the Wii, too, if only for a limited time). And in my opinion, this generation was pretty goddamned terrific. Each console had some fantastic exclusive games on offer, and the strength of the multi-platform titles were well beyond what I’d been accustomed to.
So, then: I’m now enlightened, and finally free of the fanboy mindset. Maybe I spent a little too much money along the way in doing so, but what are you gonna do? The hilarious irony in all this, though, is that now that I’m a father, and now that I literally can’t afford to be so fiscally irresponsible when it comes to gaming, I’m most likely going to have to go back to being a one-console dude; there’s just no way I can afford both a PS4 and an Xbox One and expect to play everything that comes out (especially if I’m also going to keep gaming on the PC). Not as long as I remain an un-professional videogame journalist, that is.
And so I’m going to have to choose.
That choice, it should go without saying, will be well documented here in the coming months, as I hem and haw and scrimp and save and whine and bitch and moan. Oh, I’m sure it will make for delightful reading, especially for those of you who already made up your mind.
But in the meantime, I want to embrace this opportunity to say goodbye to a lot of the best games I ever played – at least, before I have to box them up and tuck them away.
* * *
I should hold up a second here and let you know that while this post is focused on the 360 and the PS3, I have not forgotten about the Wii. I certainly did covet the Wii for a long time, and I did ultimately buy one, and I did have some fun with it for a time – Wii Sports was fun at parties for a little while, and Super Mario Galaxy is without question a very special game (although I should admit that I never finished it). The thing is, the Wii experience fell apart for me not long after I bought it. For one thing, there was literally nothing to play on it – not even SMG – that resonated with me in any meaningful way. But the other issue – and I actually forgot about this until I started going through these blog archives – was that shortly after getting the Wii, I developed some day-job-related carpal tunnel issues in my hands that made shaking the remote a very painful experience, and which ultimately rendered the entire Wii experience more or less impossible. My hands have since recovered, but I ended up giving the Wii to my in-laws, who, last I heard, were using it to stream Netflix.
I should also mention that I’m also not going to talk about the DS or the 3DS, or the PSP, or the Vita, or the iPhone or iPad. (And even though I’m now primarily a PC gamer, I’ll refrain from talking about PC-only games, too.) For one thing, there’s more than enough to talk about between the 360 and the PS3; for another, I’m not as familiar with those systems. Fundamentally, though, this post is very much about celebrating the console experience. These consoles were why I bought an HDTV, and why I paid more money for higher speed internet; these were transformative innovations that have forever changed what I expect out of a console experience.
Finally, it should go without saying that even though the new machines are now upon us, this current console generation is not yet over, and this “farewell” post is certainly at least a few months premature. As I said about 1000 words ago, I’m not planning on buying a new console until early 2014, and even then I’m only buying one; and this also means that I’ll still have at least one console from this generation that will be alive and kicking, and there are still a few notable current-gen games yet to arrive (South Park, the FFX remasters, FF13-3 and Dark Souls 2 come to mind).
I think that’s more than enough table-setting – let’s jump in and get to it.
BEST CONSOLE OF THE GENERATION, and therefore UNDISPUTED WINNER OF THE CONSOLE WAR:
Ha ha ha! No, but seriously, the Xbox 360 was my preferred console, so much so that I ended up buying 4 of them (after each previous one would red-ring, of course). A very strong case can be made (and I’m happy to make it, frankly) that the PS3 ended up with a much stronger lineup of exclusive games – certainly within the last few years, at least – but the 360 almost always got the better-performing version of a multi-platform game, and its lineup of exclusives wasn’t exactly shabby, either. Not to mention that the 360 had a far better user interface – even that aforementioned Blade design was better than the PS3’s XMB – and probably the best controller ever made.
Most importantly, though, Microsoft bet big on Xbox Live, and that’s what ultimately gives them the win. A few hiccups aside, the service was far more stable and more capable than PSN, to be sure, but it would also win if for no other reason than that the 360 was where my friends were playing, too, and if I wanted to play with them, the 360 version of a multi-platform game was the only logical choice.
Some might argue that PSN is better because it’s free (and I might argue that you get more value with Playstation Plus, what with all those free games), but I maintain that you get what you pay for, and Xbox Live is, for the most part, rock solid. And this goes beyond maintaining stability in team deathmatches; downloading and installing a PS3 game update is still a slow nightmare, and “syncing trophy data” is a phrase that I never want to see or hear ever again.
Speaking of which, here’s the understatement of the year: ACHIEVEMENTS > TROPHIES. I could spend 1000 words on Achievements alone, and how they changed not only how I played games, but how games themselves were designed. In fact, let’s just spend a moment here to reflect: was there ever a more satisfying sound than the sweet little chirp of an unlocked Achievement?
Let me put this “winner of the console generation” another way:
I won’t miss my PS3 when I upgrade. Despite the excellent games I played on it, I still – even now – primarily use it as a Blu-Ray player and a streaming media device, and my gaming time on it has always been minimal; which is just as well, because as much as I loved the 360 controller, I actively loathed the Dualshock 3. In fact, here’s some excessive hyperbole for you – I nearly gave up on almost every PS3 game I ever played because of that goddamned controller. Just think how much more pleasurable Uncharted 2 would’ve been with a 360 controller. Right? The mind reels.
I will miss the 360, though. Up until this year, it’s where I did at least 90% of my gaming; it’s where my friends were; the pull of Achievements were strong enough to make it my platform of choice for multi-console, single-player releases; and as I said before, the 360 controller is the best controller I’ve ever used, and I continue to use it as my PC controller now.
BEST YEAR: 2007. I know I covered this in my GAMES OF THE 00s post, but it bears repeating that this very well might go down as the best year for new IP of all time. Consider: Mass Effect 1, Bioshock 1, Portal 1 (and the Orange Box, which is still probably the best bang for one’s buck of all time), Call of Duty Modern Warfare 1, Super Mario Galaxy 1, Assassin’s Creed 1, Rock Band 1. Then consider Halo 3 and God of War 2. THEN consider other minor classics like Crackdown and The Darkness. Nothing else even comes close. If the PS4/XONE era gives us a year even half as great as 2007, we’ll be in for a real treat.
BEST OPEN WORLDS: I suppose if I had to choose my favorite genre, it would be the open-world / sandbox-style game (closely followed by the 3rd-person action-adventure-platformer – and if next-gen consoles can figure out how to combine the two, I will probably be unable to leave the house). This sort of game can take many different shapes – the gunplay that takes place on the islands of Far Cry 3 is a much different beast than what transpires in GTA V’s Los Santos – but ultimately the appeal for me of the genre isn’t necessarily the gameplay, but rather the nonlinear exploration, where there aren’t any enemies after me and where I’m free to take in the sights and check out all the nooks and crannies. (Again, this is why a synthesis of something like Uncharted with something like GTA would be amazing. And it suddenly occurs to me that this particular synthesis is partly why the Batman: Arkham games are so personally appealing.) While it’s true that open-world games have been around at least since the PS2, it’s been this generation where they really came into their own, and where the available technology could start catching up to the art direction – and so those aforementioned nooks and crannies could become a lot more interesting as we go forward.
Side note – this was one of the first categories I came up with when I started working on this post, and yet it’s become one of the most difficult to get a handle on. Three examples: (1) Borderlands 2 was on this list for a long time, but when I thought about it, the world itself wasn’t particularly all that interesting – it’s just that the art style was so incredibly unique, and that the game itself was a ton of fun. (2) There is no Saints Row on this list. I’ve played and loved all four games, but the truth is that none of the actual cities are what make those games so great. Indeed, the introduction of superpowers in SR4 made the city itself irrelevant, for the most part, as one could traverse from one side of town to the other in about 30 seconds. (3) I haven’t played enough Just Cause 2 to give it serious consideration, but my impressions of what I have played are that, while the world itself is impressive, it’s everything else around it that makes that game hum. At the end of the day, this category is specifically about celebrating the world, not the quality of the game that surrounds it.
- GTA IV
- Red Dead Redemption
- L.A. Noire
- GTA V - It should come as no surprise that Rockstar has 4 nominees in this category; they do open worlds better than anyone, because they understand that there’s more to building a city than simply having lots of stuff. All of their worlds are built and crafted – each city block has a distinct personality; each tree is placed with care. And while each of Rockstar’s worlds on this list are extraordinary in their own right, it is GTA V’s re-imagining of San Andreas that is, without question, one of the greatest technical and artistic accomplishments of this generation. Furthermore, it’s raised the bar for what we should expect on the PS4 and Xbox One.
- Sleeping Dogs – A radical departure for the open world gangland genre, if only because the city itself was so different from what most Western gamers are used to. The city is very big, well designed, and looks absolutely gorgeous at night in the rain.
- Batman Arkham City - While I’m of the opinion that Asylum is the better game (partially because the smaller environment helps to keep the pace moving), I think City is the more interesting world, and there’s certainly no shortage of things to do or places to explore. (Even if 400 Riddler statues is a bit too many.) Bonus points for the game’s verticality, which is something that not a lot of these games tend to explore – and also for Batman’s traversal mechanic, which makes zooming around the city quite enjoyable.
- Assassin’s Creed IV – I’m still playing this, actually, but what I’ve seen so far (and it’s quite a lot) is simply astonishing. The world itself is immense, and there’s not a lot of obvious cutting-and-pasting as far as each individual island is concerned, which means that you’ll never know what to expect when you arrive somewhere new. With each passing hour I find myself more and more convinced that AC4 represents the best of what the series has been trying to achieve ever since the first installment.
- Far Cry 3 - I’ve never been the world’s biggest Far Cry fan, but I was stunned by the islands of FC3, and I found myself far more interested in exploring every cave than I was in advancing the story. (Still haven’t finished the game, actually; I’m a few missions behind the end.) The designers of AC4 took a lot of good cues from FC3, and it shows.
- Fallout 3 – The only knocks I feel comfortable giving to Fallout 3′s world are that the dark and dreary color palette became oppressively depressing after a few dozen hours, and that the engine itself was not all that pretty. That being said, MAN. I’m sure I put almost 100 hours into FO3 and I’m also sure I’ve seen less than half of what that game has to offer.
- Skyrim – While I have certain reservations about my game experience, that’s definitely not the fault of the world. The world of Skyrim is mind-bogglingly massive; I recall being dumbstruck when I came across an entire city built underneath another city on the surface.
- Brutal Legend – my disappointment in this game is tough to get over, but the world itself is a thing of beauty and wonder. If I were 13 years old and more inclined towards real-time strategy, I might’ve loved this game with every fiber of my being. Alas, the game fell apart on me – but man, it’s worth playing just to see that world.
BEST GRAPHICS (TECHNICAL): This is kind of a bullshit category, I admit, because (a) I know nothing about graphics beyond being a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing graphics whore, and (b) if you just glance at the titles below it’s clear that what I’m specifically talking about are AAA games with big budgets and premium pixel placement. My intention here, it should be clear, is to NOT slight the indie scene in any way; it’s simply to appreciate the work of those big-ticket items that went above and beyond, and that pushed the consoles to their limits, and to work in as much hyperbole as I possibly can to distract you from the fact that I have nothing of any insight to offer as far as this category goes.
- Uncharted 2/3 – It’s hard to separate the latter two Uncharted games in my mind from a graphical standpoint (though, in my opinion, 2 is absolutely a better game than 3). Normally that would be a bad thing, I guess, in this category, but it’s only because both games look so spectacular that it’s basically splitting hairs. (I get that The Last of Us is built on the same engine, and it’s also just as gorgeous, but by design it’s also not nearly as vibrant and colorful, and therefore not something I feel drawn to revisit.)
- Rage – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if Fallout 4 doesn’t use this engine, something terrible has happened. The game wasn’t all that great, but it looked absolutely stunning. (And the iPad games that came out alongside this were not too shabby looking, either.)
- Bioshock Infinite – Even as I remain flummoxed by this game, I am simply agog at the art direction. And I’m especially impressed by Burial At Sea; I spent too much time taking screenshots instead of paying attention to the game itself.
- Red Dead Redemption – Speaking of screenshots, pretty much every single frame of this game could be an award-winner. I never really thought of Rockstar as a graphical powerhouse until this game. And the animation is pretty spectacular, too – it was always breathtaking to pick a rider off his horse.
- GTA V - It wasn’t until RDR that I ever thought of Rockstar games as being a graphics powerhouse, and Max Payne 3 upped the ante considerably in that regard. GTA V, though, is simply incredible. The city of Los Santos is astonishing, and then the back country up north is just as astonishing, and then there’s the coral reefs surrounding the entire island, which most players won’t ever see?!
- Skyrim – The faces are still a little creepy, but the world itself is stunning to behold.
BEST FACIAL ANIMATION TECH: As long as we’re talking about graphics, I feel pretty strongly that facial animation should get its own category. As games get more mature in their storytelling, it becomes vitally important that the digital acting is convincing. The “uncanny valley” was a big buzzword this generation, and with good reason; nobody wants their AAA game to be unintentionally creepy. Not every big game cared to get this right, but the games that went for it really went for it.
- Enslaved - I suppose this could be viewed as an underdog/sympathy pick, but I did just just play the PC re-release, and the facial animation is still astonishing – the relationship between Monkey and Trip is incredibly powerful and potent, and a lot of that is done simply through eye movement and subtle facial gestures. A knock that I have against L.A. Noire is that, while the tech is impressive, the acting is so over-the-top that the interrogation scenes became somewhat ridiculous. Enslaved is proof positive that less is definitely more.
- Beyond: Two Souls
- Heavy Rain
- L.A. Noire
- The Last of Us
- Uncharted (2/3)
TOP 10 FAVORITE/NOTABLE NEW FRANCHISES (in no particular order) (must have at least 2 significant/great games to be included)
- Mass Effect (1,2,3) – say what you will about the ending, but this was a remarkable and memorable journey, with a fantastic cast of characters. The games were not without their faults, but I enjoyed nearly every minute I spent with these games – and I played them all at least twice.
- Assassin’s Creed (1,2,Bro, 4) – I worry about this franchise, only because it started with such promise, and Brotherhood is one of my favorite games of the generation, and then Revelations and AC3 completely soured me. I’m very, very happy to say, then, that even though I’ve not yet finished AC4, I’ve put in more than 40 hours into it already, and it could very well end up being my favorite of the entire franchise.
- Portal (1, 2) – The first game was a perfect gem, and the second game was (in my opinion) even better, and that’s not even taking into account the glorious co-op.
- Saints Row (1,2,3,4) – One of the great feel-good stories of this generation; what started as an obvious GTA clone turned into something totally batshit crazy and gloriously stupid – and with genuinely good innovations that GTA would do well to steal.
- Uncharted (1,2,3) – The first game was a pretty good Tomb Raider clone with some great platforming and some tedious and frustrating combat (featuring some of the most tenacious bullet sponges in game history), but 2 was an astonishing breakthrough – so good, in fact, that it maybe set the bar a little too high for 3. I have very high hopes for the inevitable sequels on the PS4.
- Batman (Arkham Asylum, Arkham City) – The first game came out of nowhere to become, most likely, the finest licensed game ever made. That the second game didn’t quite hit the same highs is mitigated by the scope of its ambition, especially as it came so quickly after the first – and let’s be honest here, Arkham City is still really, really good. Rocksteady has clearly established itself as a developer to be watched. (As of this writing, I have not yet played Arkham Origins, and my understanding is that it’s a bit of a disappointment. Still, the category only requires “2 significant/great games” in order to be included, and these two games are phenomenal.
- Borderlands (1,2) – Even if the first game’s narrative left a lot to be desired (and the ending was, to put it kindly, anticlimactic), it was a remarkably fun shooter with a totally unique art style. The second game fixed everything that was wrong with the first game and then multiplied everything by a thousand. When all is said and done, B2 is one of my all-time favorite first-person shooters, and is indeed one of the only FPS franchises that I actually still care about.
- Rock Band (1,2,3,Beatles) – It’s a shame that this franchise appears to be dead, although it’s unclear just how they could’ve improved on it. Great setlists, fantastic gameplay; the ultimate party game. And the Beatles edition was as good as a hard-core Beatle fan could hope for.
- Gears of War (1,2,3) – The hard-core bro attitude might’ve gotten a bit much after a while, but there’s no question that this was one of the most important and influential shooters of this era. Certainly it established what could be accomplished with the now-ubiquitous Unreal engine (even as it single-handedly destroyed every game designer’s color palette); the cover mechanic was unmatched; the active reload system made sure you paid attention. I didn’t necessarily get into the competitive multiplayer side of things, but I had a lot of fun with the campaigns (especially in online co-op).
- Left 4 Dead (1,2)? – I didn’t play nearly enough of 2, which is a shame; not enough of my 360 friends played it, and by the time I got a PC copy, everyone had moved on. But man, these games were an absolute blast.
- Bioshock (1, 2, Infinite) - My intense love of the first game ultimately lost out to my dislike of the 2nd and my weird, possibly irrational (ha!) disdain towards Infinite. I thought about where to rank this for a very long time; this was not an easy decision. But the key to being in this category was having at least two (2) great games, and I can’t call Infinite a great game.
- Dead Space (1,2) – Still haven’t finished 1, which is stupid of me. 2 wasn’t as scary, but it was still rock solid and fun. Never played 3, which apparently is just as well.
- Little Big Planet (1,2) – Despite the gawd-awful jumping physics, these games were amazing and charming as all get-out.
- LEGO games (LOTR, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel, Batman, etc.) – Oh how I wish these games didn’t feel broken at times – in every other respect they are some of the best fan service money can buy. I can’t wait to play these with my kid.
- Darksiders (1,2) – Overlooked and undersold, these games were the mature-themed Zelda games I never knew I wanted. Here’s hoping the franchise isn’t dead after the THQ debacle.
TOP 10 FAVORITE CONTINUATIONS OF OLD FRANCHISES: (in no particular order)
- Grand Theft Auto (4,5) – After San Andreas, it was hard to imagine (for me, at least) what a next-gen GTA game could look like. But then I saw that first GTA IV trailer and lost my mind a little bit. And – again – my problems with the narrative aside, it’s hard to argue with GTA V’s world and improvements to its gameplay
- Forza (3,4,Horizon) – It’s hard to imagine that the first 4 Forza games all came out in between Gran Turismo 4 and 5. Harder still to imagine that Horizon, which smelled of cheap cash-in from miles away, turned out to be one of my favorite driving games of the entire generation. That being said, it’s no Burnout Paradise. Speaking of which…
- Burnout (4, Paradise) – 4 was a solid (if undistinguished) follow-up to 3, which is still possibly my favorite driving game of all time. Paradise, though, was something else. It truly felt next-gen; it did things no other driving games were even thinking about, let alone implement so staggeringly well. It’s a shame that Criterion is shackled to the Need for Speed franchise; their NFS games are fun enough, but they don’t feel as gleefully unrestrained as Paradise was.
- Elder Scrolls (Oblivion,Skyrim) – Skyrim is the better-looking and better-playing game, but Oblivion is the one I sunk over 100 hours into.
- Red Dead Redemption – this is, technically, a sequel to the previous generation’s Red Dead Revolver. Did anyone ever play that first game? Does anyone even remember it? I seem to recall that first game coming out along with a bunch of other Western-themed titles like Gun and Dead Man’s Hand. No matter; we’ll be talking about this game a little later on.
- Fallout (3, New Vegas, lots of DLC) – I never played the original games. Come to think of it, I didn’t play very much of New Vegas, either. But I played a TON of 3, and I’d very much like to see Fallout 4 on the new consoles with some idTech graphics.
- Halo (3, ODST, Reach, 4) – I’m not the guy to talk about Halo. (And I won’t be the guy to talk about Call of Duty.) But these games were clearly labors of love, and you gotta respect that.
- Tomb Raider (three times, actually – the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, and then the isometric Guardians of Light, and then the 2013 reboot). I’m lucky, I suppose, that I never played the original games – I started right with the first Xbox 360 game and remain a big fan today. I’ve seen screenshots of those original games, and they just look dreadful. I’m really curious to see where this year’s reboot sends the franchise in the coming years.
- Rayman (Origins, Legends, the iOS games) Rayman 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and as such there will always be a soft spot in my heart for that little limbless dude. The Rabbids games kinda sidetracked what made that franchise so special for me, though I can’t blame them for chasing their audience (and for giving Wii owners something to do). But the recent releases of Origins and Legends are nothing short of breathtaking – they are absolutely gorgeous, and have made 2D platformers worth looking forward to again.
- Max Payne 3 – I feel like this game has gotten a bad rap; I think it’s a very worthy successor to the first 2 games, even if it’s got its head stuck up its own ass a little.
- Fable (2,3?) – Sad to say that I’ve lost interest in these games, especially as all I seem to remember about them are the terrific art direction and the clunky [everything else]. 2 was quite good, but 3 had some issues, and I’ve all but stopped paying attention.
- God of War 3 - As I never owned a PS2, I didn’t get a chance to play God of War 1 and/or 2 until their (excellent) HD remakes on the PS3, and 3 seemed like a worthy follow-up. It was gorgeous, to be sure, though I’m not sure I remember it all that well (beyond killing a god by sticking my thumbs in his eyes).
- Civilization Revolutions – In the grand scheme of things, CivRev might not be a “great” game, but it’s what got me into the franchise. I bought Civ4 shortly after getting hooked on Rev, and I’m still very much in awe of V (even if I’m still intimidated by it).
- XCOM: Enemy Unknown – I never played the original, and I still haven’t finished this new one (even if I’ve purchased it on PS3, PC and iPad); it’s very fun but also very, very stressful.
- Diablo 3 – I suppose this sneaks in on a technicality (as far as I’m personally concerned), given that I’ve only played the PC version – the console versions appear to be pretty good. I played the hell out of the PC version and burned myself out on it in the process – and I also dropped a fair amount of real money in the auction house, which I’m not sure if I’m ashamed to admit.
- Street Fighter 4 and Mortal Kombat – I’m including these two games in my attempt to cover all my bases, even if I’m not much of a fighting game fan, and even though I only played these on the easiest difficulty settings. SF4 looked fantastic and still felt familiar; MK (specifically the 2011 game) was fun as hell and featured an absurd amount of content.
- Super Mario Galaxy (1/2) – My disinterest for the Wii aside, these two were glorious platformers and absolutely worth buying a Wii for.
- DiRT (1, 2, 3 – picking up from Colin McRae) – even the menu screens are gorgeous. Very much looking forward to the next-gen editions.
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution – my friend says it’s his favorite game of all time; I can’t quite go that far, but this game had no business being as great as it turned out to be (even in spite of the boss battle calamities and the terrible, terrible endings).
- DmC – I never cared for the original games, but the 2013 reboot is fantastic; if we never see another Enslaved game from Ninja Theory, hopefully we’ll see them make more of these.
- Metal Gear Solid 4 – this is tough for me to include, given that I consider the Metal Gear franchise to be the most overrated franchise of all time. And my problems with this game are still pretty serious – I still think Act 3 features the most unintentionally ridiculous dialogue I’ve ever heard (see http://shoutsfromthecouch.com/2008/06/25/a-discussion-of-mgs4-act-3/ for my commentary). But this was the first true PS3 blockbuster, and it did things that the 360 simply couldn’t do, and I did have more fun with it than I care to admit. (That active camo system was pretty great.)
THE 12 BEST GAMES THAT DID NOT BECOME FRANCHISES (disc-based): The “disc-based” thing is significant because most downloadable games were brand-new IP anyway. These were big-budget AAA games that never had a sequel because: (1) they were built only to be a one-off, (2) they were released too late in this console cycle to have a sequel ready; (3) they simply didn’t sell well, or (4) disaster struck before a sequel could be finished.
- Sleeping Dogs – This fits squarely into category (2) above, and a next-gen sequel is supposedly in the works.
- Dishonored – see above.
- Mirror’s Edge – A next-gen sequel is supposedly in the works, too, but I worry about that game. And I admit that my concern might appear strange, seeing as I never finished the original game; despite the incredible visuals and the exhilarating first-person action, the story was nonsensical and anything that involved enemies was a bit of a drag. And yet it had perhaps the most distinctive art style of any game this generation, and it was genuinely thrilling to pull off some of those trickier parkour moves. I vaguely recall there being some extra modes (or possibly DLC?) which were strictly focused on the parkour aspect, and those were incredibly fun (and competitive – I think there was a leaderboard aspect to them). If the sequel is indeed happening, I want more of that. (The iOS versions weren’t too shabby, if I recall.)
- Bulletstorm – I played this again not that long ago, and it still holds up remarkably well. The graphics are still fantastic – one forgets that the Unreal Engine is capable of vibrant colors – and the game’s ‘bro ‘tude gets pleasantly subverted by an unexpectedly engaging story. Plus the scoring mechanics always kept the action fresh.
- Lost Odyssey – There’s a part of me that kinda wants to find a used copy of this game and play it over again, even though I know that I’d never be able to finish it a second time. My memories of this game are a bit hazy now, unfortunately, but I remember loving it despite some tedious grinding toward the end. (But aren’t all JRPGs about tedious grinding, ultimately?)
- Split/Second – As far as shallow arcade racers go, man, this game was a blast. An absolutely gorgeous racer with environments that could destruct and transform in spectacular fashion and at a moment’s notice. It’s a shame this never caught on with a larger audience – I had a really fun time with this online.
- Enslaved – Shame this didn’t sell better, as I’d still like to see where the next game was going. A great-looking, great-playing adventure with a memorable cast of characters; indeed, it’s rare to think of digital characters as having “chemistry”, but that’s the only way to describe the relationship between Trip and Monkey.
- The Last of Us – Seems this would fit into category 1; this is not really built for a sequel, and I’d be very surprised to see it return on the PS4 aside from an up-rezzed version.
- Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning – Category 4 disaster. It remains to be seen what will happen to this IP – at the time of this writing, the IP has not yet been sold at auction. Anyway, despite my utter loathing of anything involving Curt Schilling, I really enjoyed this game – and even though I sunk a substantial amount of time into finishing the story, there was almost too much still to be done.
- L.A. Noire – Not sure if this is a Category 4 disaster or a Category 1 one-off; a friend of mine from college was a casting director and intimated to me that there would be a sequel, but considering the sordid mess of the game’s development history, the lack of a sequel shouldn’t come as a surprise. That aside, it’s not necessarily built for a sequel, either, though I wouldn’t put anything past Rockstar.
- Spec Ops: The Line – Probably falls into Category 1; you wouldn’t think of Coppola making Apocalypse Now 2, either. This game starts off as a standard third-person military shooter (with the ubiquitous Nolan North as the lead voice actor) and ends up becoming something else entirely. I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to play again, but I was very pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the experience.
- Alan Wake – The hype that followed this game during development was so big that it was inevitable that the the finished product would feel like a let down. Still, I enjoyed it, and it did get “American Nightmare”, which was a sort-of expansion… but it kinda fizzled out rather quietly. For more on what’s up with this franchise and Remedy at large, check this Polygon interview.
FAVORITE GAMES OF THE GENERATION (AAA category): (Yes, I am aware there are no Nintendo titles on this list.)
- Portal 1/2 – Unlike other sequels on this list, I can’t pull these two games apart. They feel very much connected to each other in ways that other sequels aren’t. Indeed, the things that were changed from Portal 1 to Portal 2 are, for the most part, small and subtle things (unlike the big gameplay overhaul from ME1 to ME2 (and ME2 to ME3), and AssBro’s approach of throwing the entire kitchen sink into the game). Glados… the Companion Cube… the cake… Wheatley… Cave Johnson… so many memorable moments, so many quotable lines… and, of course, the most unique gameplay mechanic of the entire generation. And all without firing a single bullet. Most importantly, as Greg says: it’s hard to conceive of how they could be better. Maybe if there wasn’t a loading break after every puzzle?
- Red Dead Redemption – I did not see this one coming. Nor did I think I’d be all that interested; Westerns were never my cup of tea. And for all that I loved about GTA IV, the gameplay left a lot to be desired – especially when compared to Saints Row, which was making noticeable and much-appreciated changes to the formula.
- Grand Theft Auto IV – I liked Niko, even if he was a hard man to like. I felt for him, even as he struggled to remain empathetic. But the true star of the show was always Liberty City. I’ve lived in NYC for almost 20 years, and I’ve played a lot of games that are set there, but this was the first game that really captured the feel of this place. The gameplay is incredibly dated now, but it’s hard to hold that against it – at the time of its release, it was a staggering achievement of storytelling and technology.
- Bioshock – So what if you gained health from eating years-old potato chips out of a garbage can? I’m not sure there was a more arresting atmosphere in this entire console generation. And the big plot twist was a true jaw-dropper.
- Mass Effect 2 – The gameplay was improved from ME1, the pacing felt better than ME3, and the story arc was the most satisfying.
- Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood – my personal high point for the franchise. I never lacked for something to do, but more importantly, all the side stuff felt justified in the larger context of Ezio’s journey. (As I’ve said earlier and elsewhere, though, I’m currently 40+ hours deep into AC4, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s maybe a better overall game than this one. It will be certainly be worth revisiting AC4 when we get to the end of the PS4/XBO era, for sure.)
- Batman: Arkham Asylum – What an absolute delight this game is. I recognize that “delight” is a peculiar word for a game that takes place in a comic book insane asylum filled with Gotham’s looniest baddies, but it’s also the most appropriate – it was the first time that I’d ever played a superhero game where I really, truly felt like a superhero. The thrill of turning on Batvision and stealthily clearing out a room of bad guys? Nothing like it.
- Uncharted 2 – The enemies are bullet sponges and there are too many of them, and I don’t like using the Dualshock 3 to control action games. Those are the only real demerits I can offer; everything else is spectacular.
- Oblivion – Skyrim is the better-playing game, sure, but Oblivion is the one that, for whatever reason, sucked me in and never let me go. And I’m happy to say that I never bothered with horse armor. (Who rides horses in TES games, anyway?)
- Rock Band 3 - It’s hard for me to pick just one (between RB2, RB3 and Beatles), especially as each subsequent game would let you import the previous game’s setlist – and as a hard-core Beatle fan, I was absolutely thrilled to see that the Beatles game wasn’t just a cheap cash-in, but rather an incredibly well-designed tribute (and with spectacular sound design, too – it was a real treat to hear individual audio tracks). It’s kind of a shame that the plastic-instrument era is, for all intents and purposes, over – these games were always crowd pleasers at parties.
- Saints Row the Third
- Skyrim (despite serious glitches)
- Burnout Paradise
- Batman Arkham City
- Dirt 2
FAVORITE “INDIE” / ARCADE TITLES (i.e., non “AAA”)
- Fez - I don’t care what you think about Phil Fish the Twitter user; the Phil Fish that created this game is a gentle, beautiful genius. I still get chills when I think of that first reveal trailer; the full game is just as magical and yet a thousand times more devious.
- Journey – This was my 2012 game of the year. I wrote that 2012 column shortly after the Newtown shootings and my emotions were running pretty high, and it’s possible that I was putting this one at the top because it wasn’t a shooter, and had nothing at all to do with violence in any form. That being said, I stand by my decision and specifically by what I said about this game; it’s a rare thing these days for a game to fill you with pure joy, and this one had joy to spare.
- Braid - It’s hard to overstate this game’s importance in the grand scheme of things; this was the first “art” game to really break through to a wide audience on a console, and as such it completely changed the idea of what an XBLA game – or, indeed, what an “indie” game – could be. And I’ll say right now that “The Witness” being a PS4 title is a very, very big reason why I’m leaning in that console’s direction.
- Bastion - I don’t know what to say about this one other than I think about it a lot, and I need to play it again. (The iPad version is serviceable.)
- Walking Dead (Telltale) – My pop-culture appetite for zombies is wearing very thin, and I have no interest in the Walking Dead show. But my wife is a big fan of the show, and we played this game together – she made the decisions, I drove the controller. And, well, you know the rest. That this game rates as high as it does on my own personal list despite the aforementioned zombie fatigue should indicate just how great this game is.
- Shadow Complex – Man, whatever happened to this game? Why is there no Shadow Complex 2, 3 or 4 by now? I had an absolute blast with this one – even if this was right around the time when Nolan North was starting to become a little too ubiquitous.
- Pinball FX2 - Maybe it’s not the most accurate pinball simulator, but I’ve played pretty much every table they’ve ever released, and they’re all really fun – and they keep getting better, too, which is nice. The recent Star Wars tables are quite good.
- Mark of the Ninja - Just when I’d written off the stealth genre, this one comes along and totally changes the rules. I cannot wait for a sequel.
- Trials HD/Evolution - Not all “indie” games have to be “arty”. Goddamn, these games are super-fun and really, really difficult. And I can’t say enough about the leaderboard integration – it’s brilliant.
- Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - I’ll have more to say about this in my 2013 GOTY column. Suffice it to say, it’s rare that a control scheme can cause me to well up with tears.
- Gone Home (PC-only, but still)
- Super Meat Boy
- Geometry Wars 2
FAVORITE PS3 GAME: Uncharted 2. (Honorable mention: Journey.)
FAVORITE 360 GAME: Gears 3? Halo Reach? Fable 2? Why is it that only now, at the end, am I realizing that the 360’s exclusive games never really resonated with me the way that the PS3′s did? Is this why I’m kinda leaning towards the PS4, because their exclusive games are generally more aligned with my personal tastes? I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. Maybe I’ll say Forza 4?
Favorite Innovations / Trends:
- The boom in indie games / XBLA/PSN
- Autolog / the leaderboard system in Trials
- Online co-op (especially drop-in / drop-out)
- Hybrid game design (putting RPG elements into shooters, puzzlers, etc.)
- HD remakes – if backwards compatibility is a thing of the past, then this is the next best thing (although I kinda resent having to pay for something twice, which is probably the idea)
- Customizable home bases (Mass Effect’s Normandy, AC4’s “Jackdaw”, Saints Row’s “Cribs”)
- DoubleFine transitioning from a big-game studio to a smaller indie studio. Best possible situation for those guys, plus we get to play more stuff from that team.
- Outstanding art direction focusing on little details, especially w/r/t post-apocalyptic places
- Paid DLC for stuff already on the disc
- the grey/brown sludge of the Unreal engine
- Minecraft graphics in non-Minecraft games / 8 and 16-bit “retro” graphics in lieu of something interesting to say
- Games that get all meta and comment on how stupid the current mission is instead of doing something about it (Saints Row 4 takes this to the extreme)
- The relative lack of compelling female protagonists, or at least female characters that aren’t (a) overtly sexualized, or (b) helpless and need a man’s help.
- Zombies. I’m done with zombies. Stop with the zombies.
- the HD-DVD format
- Motion control (Move, Kinect)
- Too Human
- Playstation Home
- Portal: the first time you go “behind the scenes.” The Companion Cube. “Still Alive.”
- Oblivion: Emerging from the tutorial dungeon and seeing, well, everything.
- Mass Effect 1-3: My first exploratory cruise of the Normandy.
- Mass Effect 3 – Going to the temple with Liara and the Prothean (absolutely crucial to have the Prothean in your party for this sequence – he presents a perspective on what you see there that nobody else has, and it’s utterly jaw-dropping)
- Bioshock – “Would you kindly?”
- Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood – synchronizing viewpoints; solving those weird glyph puzzles
- Red Dead Redemption – the real ending
- Walking Dead – ending
- Journey – the sand surfing level
- Burnout Paradise – endless crash modes; screwing around online with friends
- Left 4 Dead - pretty much any time all 4 players survived a level
- Crackdown – finding the last agility orb
- Brutal Legend – pretty much everything except the stage battles, but especially just cruising around that environment.
- The Last of Us – opening sequence
- Gone Home – the ending
- Rock Band 2 – finishing The Endless Setlist with my wife – 7 hours on drums (!)
- Geometry Wars 2 - The “Wax Off” Achievement
- Duke Nukem Forever
- Crackdown 2
- Mercenaries 2
- No PC port of Red Dead Redemption
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
- Brutal Legend
Best HD Revivals: since backwards compatibility seems to be something that nobody’s interested in, the only way we’re ever going to play our old favorites is if (a) we hold on to our old consoles or (b) they remake those games and make ‘em all nice and purty. I’m OK with this, even if I’m a little cynical about it – at least I finally got a chance to play a number of classic games that I’d never gotten to play otherwise.
- Ico / Shadow of the Colossus
- God of War 1 and 2
- Beyond Good & Evil
- Tony Hawk Pro Skater (a little underwhelming, at the end of the day, but it was fun while it lasted)
- Resident Evil 4 (I’m including this for the sake of completeness; I didn’t play it, nor did I want to. I know.)
- Tony Hawk
- Rock Band (?)
- Guitar Hero
- Viva Pinata (serious bummer)
- Amped (and snowboarding games in general)
- Prince of Persia
- Tiger Woods PGA Golf (well, at least TW’s involvement)
- Beautiful Katamari
- Banjo Kazooie – Nuts and Bolts
- Stuntman: Ignition
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance
- Civilization Revolution
- Viva Pinata
- Rockstar Presents: Table Tennis
BEST GAMES I NEVER FINISHED / “PILE OF SHAME”
- Dead Space 1
- XCOM: Enemy Unknown
- The Witcher 2
- Dragon Age: Origins (PC version – the 360 version was shite)
- Super Mario Galaxy
MOST UNDERRATED / OVERLOOKED / UNFAIRLY DERIDED
- Resident Evil 5 – With the exception of a few hours spent trying to play RE2 a million years ago, and some time with the Dreamcast’s Code Veronica, I’ve never been all that big into the RE franchise. Indeed, I am well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that could not get into RE4, a game often called one of the best ever made. So color me very surprised that I found myself getting very, very deep into RE5; I played through it multiple times – certainly long enough to unlock the unlimited ammo perk for the Magnum, which basically one-shot-kills everything in the game.
- Max Payne 3 – My only real beef with MP3 is the unskippable cutscenes, especially since the cutscenes can be a bit tedious and overwrought. That said, I thought this was a great reinvention of one of my favorite franchises, and it’s one of the best looking games Rockstar’s ever made.
- Lost Odyssey - the Xbox 360 did not get many JRPGs, but this one was really, really good.
- Deathspank 1 – I don’t know, I had a lot of fun with it. Great, goofy art style; satisfying action; a relentlessly juvenile sense of humor that was somehow still endearing.
- Prey – (1) If I recall correctly, this was one of the only shooters that didn’t use the Unreal engine, and instead used the Doom 3 engine – and I think it looked pretty great. (2) It also did the Portal thing before Portal (sorta). (3) it’s one of the only shooters where I didn’t totally suck in online deathmatch. No idea why, but I was more often than not on top of the leaderboard in any given match.
GAMES I SPENT THE MOST TIME PLAYING – I don’t have accurate records of this, so I’m sorta doing this by estimate. For one thing, Raptr wasn’t around when this generation got started, and even now it’s not always accurate (two examples: (a) it doesn’t track any of my PS3 time, and (b) I definitely have not spent over 90 hours playing Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (there was some sort of bug where the game didn’t close all the way, and I’d accidentally left it running for at least a few days in between sessions)). There also are more than a few instances where I played the same game on multiple platforms. So I have no idea if this is accurate or not.
- Oblivion – taking note of the disclaimer above, this is almost certainly the winner of this category, as I’m nearly positive I haven’t sunk over 150 hours on anything else.
- Fallout 3
- Red Dead Redemption
- GTA IV (360 / PC)
- Mass Effect 1/2 – I played both of these twice, as both paragon and renegade, doing every side mission I could find each time. I have not yet done the same with ME3 – in fact, I still haven’t played The Citadel DLC, now that I think of it.
- L. A. Noire
- Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
- Assassin’s Creed IV (as of 12/5, I’m at 50+ hours and counting!
- Borderlands 2
- Portal 2 (even though it’s a short game, I beat it multiple times on every platform, as well as finishing the co-op on both 360 and PC – PC, Mac, 360, PS3)
NOTABLE GAMES I DID NOT PLAY / COULD NOT GET INTO
- every Call of Duty game after MW2 (and MW2 is where the series jumped the shark, as far as I’m concerned)
- Super Mario Galaxy 2
- Resistance 1/2 (though I did finish and enjoy 3)
- Killzone (any)
- Bayonetta (made it to Chapter 5)
- Dark Souls / Demon Souls
BEST PERFORMANCE – I had trouble coming up with nominees for this category, strangely enough, because I knew who the winner was before I’d even finished typing the words “Best Performance.” To my mind, there has never been a greater synergy between script writing, vocal performance, and character design and animation than Stephen Merchant as “Wheatley” in Portal 2. (To that end, this award also goes to Erik Wolpaw’s script and Karen Prell’s character design.)
BEST CHARACTER (non-Wheatley edition)
- Glados, Portal 1/2
- “FemShep”, Mass Effect
- Niko Bellic, GTA IV
- John Marston, Red Dead Redemption