Now that we’re officially into 2014 it’s time to reflect on not just a year of gaming, but an entire era. 

Firstly, what defines the “last generation” of gaming?  Some of my contemporaries refer to last generation as the “Console War.”  I hate those contemporaries.  Wars kill people.  All three consoles in contention broke records and made tons of money for their developers.  The only casualties were a few good developers and people’s sense of quality.

Just because a bunch of PS3 and 360 Fan Bois/Grrls got into a pissing contest over the console their mom bought them, doesn’t make it a war.  Besides, Wii (the console with the most reasonable fans) outsold both the PS3 and 360 by the millions.  The “console war” was a manufactured concept (like most conflicts) to drive up competition and sales for two tech juggernauts; Sony and Microsoft.  Both of which heard the cash register noise each time you tried to convince yourself that you picked the “right” console by insulting people on the internet with cult-like loyalty.

The most absurd aspect of the entire argument is that referring to it as the “console” anything omits a big portion of what made last generation so impressive.  PC gaming witnessed a huge resurgence and revival.  The years 2003 and 2004 were hallmark years for PC gaming that would lay the groundwork for an online revolution over the following decade.  What made those years so special you ask?  Steam and World of Warcraft.

There’s a reason I don’t review MMOs on this site but if we’re talking about video games that changed the landscape of the medium, one can’t deny the impact of WoW in terms of sheer exposure and acceptance of video games and the people that play them as a sub-culture.

One other big thing happened this last generation – the Arcades and DLC.  Getting people to continually pay to play video games is a concept as old as Pac-man.  DLC and ten dollar indie games did exactly that.  If you’ve followed the site for a while you know my stance on DLC is a complicated one.  If you’re new to Winsomnia, you just need to understand that I think there’s a good way of doing it and a bad way.  And also that I don’t give indie games the leeway other reviewers do:  “It’s good for an indie game” isn’t a phrase I would use.  There are good games and bad games.  Good DLC and bad DLC.  Good art.  Bad art.

For posterity’s sake let’s just assume the generation of gaming I’m referring to includes three consoles (360, Wii, and PS3) and PC between the years of 2005 to 2014 (now).  Due to the online nature, prevalence of DLC, Arcade Downloads, and Steam, I’m referring to this generation Digital Gaming Age.

Click here for tangent.

For my list of best games I thought long and hard about games that set out to achieve something special and succeeded.

Best Games of the Digital Age (in no particular order):

Mass Effect 2

I pretty much can’t say enough about the Mass Effect series.  It does away with my most hated “feature” of modern WRPGs.  The model for WRPGs is to tell a story about an ambiguous hero.  Quite frankly it doesn’t work.  The result is too often that the NPCs have no idea who they’re talking to and are forced into unnaturally written dialogue with impersonal, blanket statement responses.  Not the case with ME.  You are Commander Shepard.  Everyone fucking knows it.  You choose what he does with real consequences.  The genius of ME is that the repercussions are often twofold – the immediate and the long term.  The story matures.  Characters grow.  And the universe is changed forever.  Part of the reason ME2 takes title of “the best” of the two is because you begin to see the fruits of your choices from the first.

When I first played Mass Effect 1 as a standalone the game didn’t get passing scores.  Its gameplay was flawed to an almost unplayable level for half the classes… in spite of that, the story allows you to push on and enjoy.  It’s a testament to the fact that a game with a good enough story can overcome any gameplay obstacles.

Then ME2 happened.  The gameplay is better and it doesn’t take a hit to storytelling.  The universe was big and mysterious in the first game.  ME2 fills in the details and makes the world and its inhabitants living breathing things.

There’s also something to be said for having a good example of DLC done right in the form of the Shadow Broker.

I just hope that ME3 continues the trend of improving the gameplay without sacrificing the great writing.  I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the stunning, and no doubt still single player, conclusion.

Uncharted 2

Uncharted 1 was a bad game.  It tried to do too much and ended up doing nothing well.  When it was time to make Uncharted 2 the folks at Naughty Dog had to do some soul searching – they had to filter criticism and figure out what kind of game they wanted to be.  Too often sequels take the easy way out.  They hide their flaws behind gimmicks, better graphics, and the multiplayer crutch.  Short gameplay or uninventive level design is masked with a couple lazy scripted vehicle scenes and the franchise continues – business as usual.

That isn’t what Uncharted 2 did (other franchises should learn from their mighty example).  Naughty Dog landed on epic Adventure Platformer.  Shooter and melee combat were polished to enhance the thrill and help the pacing.  If a mechanic couldn’t be perfected – it was left out the game.  They didn’t phone it in and they didn’t waste effort; just excellence in execution.

While playing, it’s like Uncharted 2 sits on the couch next to you, slaps you high fives, and reminds you what it’s like to be a kid having fun.

“Remember the time you thought I was about to throw a scripted vehicle scene at you, Andrew?”

Yes I do.  I was midsentence yelling at you for the cutscene building up to it… then you exploded the car and thrust me into one of my favorite platforming sequences of all time.  Thanks Uncharted 2.

Uncharted 2 is an experience that leaves you with memories.  It’s the kind of game you wish you could play for the first time again.

Braid

Braid pretty much made the arcade.  It had a good, though subtle, story told in a way that didn’t take the focus off the style of gameplay.  The ultimate success is that the gameplay struck a layered balance.  The same stage had multiple levels of difficulty that you often didn’t learn about until later playthroughs.  It embraced the core mechanics of 2D platforming while bringing some fully polished features of its own to the stage.

Journey

Speaking of amazing arcade games.  Due to thatgamecompany’s exclusive contract with Sony, Journey didn’t have the circulation of Braid but that’s no excuse for any “real” gamers to miss it.  Journey is the concept of games as art personified.  Music, visuals, and story are all entwined and implemented perfectly.  It goes a step further and makes the music part of the gameplay.   thatgamecompany excels at making games that trigger an emotional response.  Flower, Flow both succeed at this – Journey just goes the extra mile.  Push button, receive feelings.

The final point for Journey is its ending.  I won’t describe it.  You shouldn’t read about it.  It should be experienced.

Bioshock

Bioshock is the best example of a game that hits a homerun on atmosphere and setting.  Bioshock makes my best games list on the merit of these two points alone.  That’s how good they are.

Haven’t won you over?

It also possesses good, at times great writing in a genre not typically known for it and brought that expectation into the mainstream.  Getting the typical gamer to care about story in their shooters is a feat worthy of respect.

Then there’s that lasting memory thing I mentioned above.  Two of the most mind-blowing plot twists in recent gaming history come from Bioshock and precede a great ending.  I have negative opinions on karma systems and multiple endings.  Despite those handicaps Bioshock generates an ending that is simply unforgettable.

Batman Akham Asylum

I went back and forth on which to name;  Arkham Asylum or City.  In the end it wasn’t a difficult decision.  Asylum wins because the second didn’t really add anything new to the formula – just increased the scope.  City was a great game – it just didn’t feel as sincere.  And I still haven’t forgiven it for keeping push-to-run controls when Mario did away with his in the N64 era.

Both games do something remarkable though.  You play as the goddamn Batman.  The success is that you feel as powerful as Batman during combat and as smart as him during investigations.  The gameplay is robust, the environments leave a lot of room for exploration, and then there’s the Scarecrow Scenes.

The Scarecrow Scenes were among some of the best moments in video game history.  Period.

Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed is one of those rare games that comes along and does something refreshing and new.  It had its flaws but its innovation far outweighed them.  It’s sad that they’ve now become one of the worst offenders of safe sequel mining but I digress on that subject.

Let’s talk about how awesome the first Assassin’s Creed was.

AC basically was the first game to utilize the open-world as more than a sandbox but as a living breathing thing.  Climb any wall, do anything.  Listen to ambient conversations.

There was a great balance between the open gameplay and the linear story.  The game was also about assassinating people.  Missions often featured multiple ways to complete them but perfectly stealthing, unseen to your quarry and performing a stealth kill was the most rewarding.  It’s a fact several of the later instalments forgot – as Assassin’s Creed gave way to Duelist Creed and eventually Batman Brawler Creed.

I may have grown bored with the series’ increasingly absurd plot, worse main characters, and appalling writing but nothing can sour how impressive I still find the first game.

King of Fighters XIII

Speaking of fighters that make people angry… King of Fighters XIII is arguably the best tuned Fighter around.  From character selection, to team building.  From gauge uses, to its online pairing algorithm for the Steam port.  This is a game tuned by robots to be played competitively.

Lost Odyssey

This generation of gaming was a sad one for RPGs.  As we enter the next generation the genre is basically on life support.  Three major factors have contributed to the endangered status of RPGs.

MMOs are part of the problem.  RPGs that make it to consoles are basically single-player MMOs with fetch-quest monotony and uninteresting stories.  Another big factor is that the core RPG mechanics have ended up in all the other genres.  Advancement, leveling, farming… these are becoming staples of just video games in general.  The last problem is only a problem for the Final Fantasy series (and the games trying to compete – so basically everyone); budget.  With all the rendering of large expansive environments, animated turn-based attacks, etc. the budgets just inflate.  It takes too much time and too much money to make an RPG that’ll wow you with graphics and elaborate cutscenes.

The result of all this is that RPGs are having a bit of an identity crisis.  Publishers have no fucking clue what RPG consumers want.  We want style not flash.  We want story not gimmicks.  We played turn-based RPGs for freaking decades; more action based gameplay isn’t what we crave.  RPGs have the inherent advantage of getting story as gameplay element by default.  Don’t squander that.

So here we have Lost Odyssey.  An RPG released in the wrong time on the wrong console.

Final Fantasy keeps changing its identity with every title for the worse and it’s nice to have something classic.  I’m not saying that Lost Odyssey wins by default (it kinda does).  It has stellar music (thanks again Uematsu).  The combat is turn-based and there’s an interesting take on advance.  Party-size does skirt on too big for my tastes.  Tactics are required to win the hard fights.  Then there’s a twitch-based element where, like the Gunblade, you hit a shoulder button at the right time do more damage.

The opening is grabs you immediately.  The story holds you.  And the ending passes.  I’d rate the writing lower but The Lost Memories segments rescue it.  They’re quite honestly some of the most emotive things written in a video game.

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games

Finally mainstream gamers get why I love Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and the Neverhood so much.  Thank you, Telltale Games for doing what you always do and tell a great story with sensible adventure game gameplay.  Oh and I suppose the inexplicable appeal of zombies is partially to blame too.

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games is basically the “I told you so game” of the generation.  Story as gameplay.  Emotion.  Relationships.  Logical consequences for actions.  Interesting characters.  Style over raw graphics.  Rewarding gameplay that you will sometimes fail at.  This game does it all correct.  It’s unfortunate that it took such mediocre subject material to do get the rest of the gamer population to appreciate such things.

Portal

If you had been in a coma for the last 50 years and I were going to introduce you to video games, Portal is the game I would have you play.  If you enjoyed it, I’d point you to Portal 2.  If you didn’t, well video games aren’t for everyone.

Mark of the Ninja

This is the best pure stealth game mechanically of the generation.  That it accomplished it as a 2D platformer speaks volumes.  You think hard, get punished for your mistakes and rewarded for your work.  The entire ordeal is an addictive.

Honorable Mentions:

Games that didn’t quite make the “Best” list but bare mentioning.

Mirror’s Edge

I have an admitted soft spot for platformers.  For me they’re the origins of gaming.  Every time a game implements platforming mechanics in a new interesting way I get excited.  Mirror’s Edge did just that.  It was held off my “best of” list by its horrible tutorial and trying too hard story.

It does make some advances in the games as art department though with its stylized cutscenes and just refreshing color scheme for environments.  Everything is so bright and pretty – the world is in stark contrast with the plot and setting.  I love it.

MK9

Let’s talk about expectations.  The Mortal Kombat series has always sucked.  There was no way a next generation iteration of it was going to be good.  Turns out it was alright.  In that way it defied expectations.  Furthermore, Injustice is badass and owes its success entirely to this game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: HR proves something I’ve long said about Square Enix.  Publish games, quit developing.  You have unlimited money but you’re clearly cashed out for ideas.  Time to pass the torch.

HR is a damn well produced game.  The soundtrack is up there as far as my personal favorites go.  Subdued future techno that captures the mood of every moment you’re sauntering around the sweet futurescape.  If Bioshock is the game with tens for atmosphere and setting, Dues Ex:  Human Revolution has nines in those categories.  The gameplay is actually better than Bioshocks but it fumbles the ending and quite honestly only half the missions are exciting – and the atmosphere doesn’t always follow you indoors.  I found myself enjoying walking through town and doing side quests more than finishing the current story arch.

Red Dead Redemption

If the Official Winsomnia Facebook page had a relationship status it would list “it’s complicated” between me and Rockstar.  Rockstar is pretty damn good at getting a setting right.  They can even write good dialogue.  They’re just piss-poor at controls and getting me to give a damn.  GTA4 probably belongs on my list below but I give them props for production value.  They may make vapid my boring life sims, mixed with hollow killing spree and crimewave sandboxes but there was a time I loved these assholes.  Red Dead Redemption is that game that keeps me from blocking their page after sending a really heart-felt but ultimately emo message to their current love interest, Money.

Audiosurf

Find me a game with a better soundtrack and I’ll find you a liar.  Spoiler: the liar is you.  On a more serious note, I’m not sold on the rhythm games thing.  Here’s one I like and that says something.

The Ending Theme to RAGE

My favorite ending theme of any game this generation… next to Mass Effect 1’s end credit song that is.

Most Overhyped Game of the Generation:

Ha, this is a trick.  It’s a three way tie.  I don’t know why people enjoy the following games.  Tons of people do but I assure you, they’re wrong and here is why.

Skyrim

Skyrim is realistic in the worst ways (exhaustible resources on NPC merchants, finite ammo supplies that take up inventory space, and carrying capacities to name a few).  Then unrealistic in the worst ways (every npc in the world has a psychic link to your actions – steal a sweet roll, most wanted man in the world).  It’s like they’re trying to ruin fun as hard as they can as a game sold as the “RPG that lets you do anything.”  Round that out with bad writing, a cliché story, flat humor, awful UI, limitless bugs, horrible combat, and that ambiguous narrative bullshit and you have a formula for a bad game held aloft by the teaming masses of starving fantasy fans that will gobble up any bone you throw their way.

Dragon Age

Pretty much everything I have to say about Skyrim goes double for Dragon Age.  Add to it Jennifer “Hamburger” Hepler – one of the most vapid video game writers to garner fame – and you have just another over celebrated pile of fantasy mediocrity.   While Dragon Age does have the good sense to side step the realistic-but-not-fun trap Skyrim falls into, it walks right into the uninteresting-and-more-cliché-story rake which promptly whacks it in the balls.  It also manages to travel back in time to find the worst controls on the planet for the PC port.  Looking at you point-and-click controls… what the fuck are you doing in an action/adventure RPG?

Fantasy games are becoming the genre of lowered expectations.  I really hope the next generation has more to offer.

The Phoned-in Safe Sequel Shooters

Kenny D pointed out something about the first Modern Warfare I hadn’t considered.  RPG elements were implemented pretty well.  Where I differ is I don’t feel it was the true best implementation, first, or even a necessary addition to the FPS formula but seriously kudos.  It doesn’t excuse every sequel from being the same game again released at full retail price.  Each glorified re-release adding another pile of sediment to the already drowning genre.  It’s getting to the point where even the most easily impressed gamer is beginning to see through the murky waters the vapid dirt shooters inhabit.  I’m looking at you CoD: Ghosts.

Biggest Disappointment of the Generation

Dishonored

Cool concept, interesting setting, and one of my favorite genres – stealth.  Then they ruined it.

Silent protagonist done wrong and weak writing handicapped this one from the start.  Then there was the problem with everything feeling so damn empty.  Empty characters.  Empty environments.  And an empty place in my soul where a good game should be with pretty excellent stealth mechanics.