Allow me to divert from the general tone of this blog. As someone who has played video games almost my entire life, growing up with them starting with the SNES and Game Boy to today's PCs and PS4s, I figured this would be fitting, given that last gen - that of PS3, Xbox 360, et al - is all but over. Here is a long but hopefully enjoyable read about the games from last gen, including PC games released during last gen's time frame, that I most enjoyed.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
I have chosen to neglect a strict ranking, as I was getting hung up on doing so, but if there were to be a number 1, this would be a heavy contender. Straddling the streamlined nature of Skyrim with the weirdness and heavily dice roll basis of Morrowind, Oblivion is perhaps Bethesda’s most consistent and sprawling vision of what a fantasy world should be. If there’s one thing that might elevate this game over Morrowind and Skyrim, it’s the endearing quality of some of the quest lines. The Dark Brotherhood is a triumph; you feel sympathy for a leader of a guild of assassins as he is framed as a traitor and flayed alive, his guidance suddenly ripped from you and yourself now at the center of a conspiracy to bring the entire organization down, uncovering the darkest, most disturbing quest line of any TES game to date, and one that really probably meant it should never have gotten a T rating. But it’s not the only one that sticks with you; the uncompromising challenge of late Thieves Guild quests, having to memorize guard shifts, or scurrying past blind Elder Scrolls monks. The long slog for Mehrunes’ Razor, a brutal, twisting dungeon of enemies and traps and switchbacks. The twisted, darkly humorous Shivering Isles. This was a game that begged you to come back, to engross yourself in its despair, humour, and beauty. What better moment was there then stumbling out of the sewers in 2006, seeing a vast landscape of swaying, individual grass and trees, sunlight beams, and reflective water, and thinking “this entire world is now mine to explore.”
Need for Speed: Most Wanted/Carbon
I really didn't know how to count this. Most Wanted released for PS2, Gamecube, and GBA... but also DS and Xbox 360. Carbon released for every single console ever created and then some, including all 7th gen consoles and handhelds. They came out in late 2005, and late 2006, respectively. I've lumped them together here out of a "who knows" rule violation or non-violation. The important thing is that these were the best damn arcade racers I ever played, and the nighttime cityscape of Carbon, replete with drifting, racing, cops, and tuning, literally cost me days and days of endless driving. This was driving through an open world just for fun before the open worlds of Burnout and NFS got inundated with "content" every block, when we were expected to drive around town simply because it was fun. That made it that much harder to pull off, from a game dev standpoint, but when it was, it worked so, so well. These games were gloriously cheesy, fast, and accessible. But that’s what made them so good as racing games.
Neverwinter Nights 2
Give Obsidian the D&D ruleset to play with and they will do so. The story was generic, but the cast of characters were definitely stronger than its precursor and the entire Forgotten Realms setting was more alive this time through. As was common with D&D games back then, the amount of options and ways to build your character and play them out meant it would take a ton of playthroughs to see every way to go through the game. Dungeon crawling was challenging and rewarding. Character banter was on point. It's very telling to go back to these games nowadays. From BG --> KOTOR --> NWN you can see the development path that set the stages for another group of games that will make this list, and whose gameplay was entirely derivative of these D&D games. NWN2 still stands as perhaps the most despair inducing and wonderfully party based game of last gen. And I haven’t even touched the mods…
Ridge Racers 2 (PSP)
This addition and the next addition will seem odd and I don't blame you, but there is one thing that elevated them to this high for me. That is, my sister and I literally played the shit out of them, together. Like, I knew every course in this game, mirrored, reversed, upside-down (doesn't exist but you get the point) and every which way like the back of my hand. I can't tell you how many car rides we spent, er, racing cars. If NFS was the Star Wars of arcade racing at the time, this was the LotR. The sense of speed and the way that one little mistake could throw you off was incredibly well done for such an arcade racer.
Tekken: Dark Resurrection (PSP)
Maaaaaaaaybe cheating but YOLO. Same as above. Played so much with my sister. Made so much in-game money, customized every character, had dozens and dozens of battles with every character and hundreds with some. Super polished, 60FPS fighter game that made the perfect portable time. This is the last Tekken release that felt un-inundated and perfectly imperfectly balanced. The series has yet to reach the same height since then.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Has the single greatest level in the history of FPS games. Crawling through tall grass in the Pripyat ruins, making a long distance sniper shot, then defending yourself from henchman and attack dogs until the helicopter arrives. If every single FPS mission was this minimalist, intense, claustrophobic, and atmospheric, FPS games would be put on the same level as other genres. That CoD never went back and copied that mission is damming. That the series never quite hit the high again of 4, even though they continually pushed the envelope on multiplayer, even more so.
Virtua Tennis WT and 3 (PSP)
Halfway in between the wonderful debut on Dreamcast and the endless rehash of the more recent releases, this arcade tennis series hit its high point. Featuring an incredibly dense and replayable campaign in which you created a player, did skill challenges to level them up, and eventually progressed from 300 in the world to number 1 by playing in real life tournaments, this game sucked up a lot of time. Later matches against top 25 ranked AI were unforgiving and brutal. The skill challenges became tests of finesse, timing, and planning. The hours it took to master everything was more reminiscent of a sprawling JRPG than a sports game. If you could have your week 1 player play your 3 months later player, you’d run laps around your early days; blindfolded, and one handed. The progression of these games was incredibly fulfilling. And at their core was a simple, polished, wonderful game of tennis. Game, set, match.
Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (PSP)
Mwahahahah I cheat again. I dare anyone to go out, pick up this game, either this port or the original, and without reading a single guide or helpful hint, beat it. If you can, you know your stuff. This is a game that drops you in the world, gives you a time limit, and then says “haha fuck you figure it out yourself.” But it’s so pretty, the platforming and combat so good, and the soundtrack so freaking invigorating that the big swords, heroic interludes, and frustrating difficulty all work together. It’s now very old-fashioned, but it’s one of the most underappreciated and unforgiving JRPGs of all time.
The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King – Expansions for WoW
WoW itself came out a year too early to count, and MMOs are kind of weird to include in something like this, considering they continually exist over time. These two expansions were for a game that came out before the required time slot, but they also undoubtedly were released last gen and brought sweeping changes to the game. This was the high point of the MMO, before threading and boosting rendered the leveling experience obsolete, when mysteries were still uncovered every day, when Barrens chat was still Barrens chat, when class and race restrictions had meaning, and when the production values were still among the best of any MMO. I don’t know of a single game that will ever leave as big of an imprint on a generation of gamers as WoW did. It is the Goliath, the most successful game ever created, and one that made an entire year of my life a waiting game through class or work until I could log on again. Its scope at the time, its polish, its overwhelmingly superior design and scale made it the granddaddy of all MMOs. Its days are numbered now, but those who played it during its heyday witnessed something that might never ever exist in gaming again; the utter domination of an entire market by one incredible experience.
Monster Hunter (series)
Souls before Souls. Slow, timing based combat. Massive bosses. A super fast ramp up in difficulty. Deep, slow to uncover mechanics. Endless progression. Incredibly varied weapons and ways to play. These games require hundreds of hours if you want to uncover everything about them, and I’ll admit, sometimes, eating a bunch of food pre-battle and hoping you have everything you need buff and equipment-wise could test patience. But when you overcome it all and take down that one boss that is kicking your ass? Hell yeah.
Metal Gear Solid IV
If there is a better opening sequence in a game, I have yet to see it. “War, war has changed…” Snake growls to us, as the incredible battle sequence thrusts us into a war half human and half machine, something entirely sci-fi and entirely real, something that has aged all too well in a world now replete with drones and mechanized weaponry. MGS IV had a lot going on, interspersing ideas of tracking and loss of privacy (incredibly prescient) with its usual gaggle of poop jokes (…). As a game, it was unparalleled, featuring an incredibly replayable campaign whose UI and stealth and shooting mechanics all worked synchronously to deliver an endlessly intense experience, and featuring some of the best boss battles of any MGS game to date. And yet, amidst the technology, the machinery, and the cyborgs, the game ended with you fist-to-fist, trading blows against the setting sun, as two legends duked it out one last time. Fantastic.
You might be saying “What? A slightly obscure F2P Korean MMO that came out relatively unhyped in 2006?” Yes, my friends. It is true. Rappelz shined because it did several things that many F2P games at the time did not:
You didn’t need to pay to progress
The leveling system was not locked down or utterly simplistic
It looked damn good at the time
It was a game that never expanded beyond its scope, making sure you were always playing with other people, and not questing through dead zones and areas that had been left behind. It constantly refreshed itself, and it featured a ton going on in terms of leveling and skilling up your characters. At a time when P2P was still the MMO norm, Rappelz managed to bring some sanity and welcoming attitude into the F2P market.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Driven by a continued attempt to see the series more console friendly, Skyrim may frustrate with its clunky menues, the repetitive nature of dragon fights, and the engine that is now starting to show its age. But it also features the most in depth characters of any TES game yet, perhaps the most fun and sprawling dungeons, and a host of fantastic sights, from towering Daedric statues to the Aurora Borealis at night. Skyrim may continue the series in a direction older fans like me don't always agree with, but as a massively accomplished open world RPG, it still has few peers.
Assassin’s Creed (Series)
My specific favourites are 2, Brotherhood, and IV. For a series that has been criticized as being formulaic nowadays, I think we forget how much it expanded its scope and mechanics in the first half dozen or so games, particularly from 1-->2 and 3-->4. Before the games became a clusterfuck of map icons and Ubisoft store purchases and buggy PC releases, they were the children of the smooth and silky parkour from Prince of Persia, now interspersed in impressive and intriguing open world settings, and featuring a bit more combat and a lot more stealth. At its peak, there was nothing quite like endlessly flowing from one segment to another, getting your target, and executing a perfect escape. As a bonus? It has always treated women, and sex workers specifically, about as good as any game series to date.
My personal favourite is Demon’s Souls, and I would like to share a moment, if I may. After slogging through 1-1, I walked into my sister’s room and said “you have to see this game.” So she did. I showed her the notes and tips on the ground, the ghosts of recent deaths, the seamless online experience that seemed so groundbreaking at the time, and then, somehow, with palms sweaty, I made it through 1-2 at my first go, cheesing the spider boss at the end, no shame at all. We both exhaled deeply when it was over, knowing what death meant, knowing how on edge the game always put you, both sharing a moment in its intensity, neither of us talking or joking around for the entirety of the level. The Souls games have never apologized for what they are, and they never should. They are frustrating, patience-testing, and supremely atmospheric. Are they perfect? Nah. Are they still exactly what they should be? Absolutely.
If there has ever been a non-MMO game that has under gone as many significant changes, additions, and new content, I have not played it. Diablo 3 has become, over time, Diablo 4, completely incomparable to its controversial debut. What we have now is perhaps that most addicting and cromulent action/loot grind of all time, a game whose endless additions, perfect polish, and ever expanding difficulty make it impossible to go without playing for too long a time. Is it as dense or as atmospheric or as well written as many of the games on this list? No. But it would be right near the top for me, because co-opping through another season with Winsord, and the hundreds of hours this game has stolen from me were never not fun, even from day 1. There will be a true Diablo 4 someday, but to successfully iterate on the penultimate loot grind will be incredibly, incredibly difficult.
Mass Effect (series)
There are a lot of things to say about Mass Effect, and many have been said by people much smarter and more talented as writers than me. But to sum it up; take one part massive sci-fi environment, one part Bioware character banter and relationships, and one part thrilling production values, and you have what is perhaps the most majestic sci-fi experiment in gaming to date. There are so many things this series could have done better, and yet, there were so many ways this experience was completely unparalleled at the time. There has yet to be a sci-fi saga this large in scope and this intimidatingly realized; whose very existence had me mining for every conversation and sidequest, wanting to meet every character, wanting to see every planet, wanting to lose myself in its world for good, whose story simultaneously frustrated and engrossed me. Shepard’s saga may be over, but its legacy and the sheer entertainment it brought will never be forgotten.
Dragon Age (series)
Bioware’s other modern single player achievement, and one that underwent a serious period of lost direction. Origins was a throwback to NWN, a party based, pauseable tactical CRPG that felt like a modern take on early aughts successes. In its place came DA2, a more modern action RPG that attempted to bring in flashy combat and quicker fights into the world. To say it went over well with the fanbase would be folly. Inquisition is too recent to count, alas, but even still, Origins is my favourite of the series, as it thrust us into a ton of varied locations, presented a fantastically dark (but never seemingly over-the-top as much) fantasy world, perfectly channeled traditional CRPG mechanics made modern, and brought us one of the best characters of any game ever, in the wise-cracking, god-hating, tradition-blasting, mother-killing Morrigan.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Speaking of Bioware, SWTOR is the game that will forever be known as the game that ruined MMOs for me. Why? Because this game’s story content and quest content is so incredibly, incredibly much better done than any MMO previous or since then. In fact, narratively, (hold your breath here folks) it is one of the single greatest games of all time. I said it! It’s a shame many KOTOR fans will overlook this because of its MMO nature. But did this game hit it out of the park. Its PvP was almost perpetually balanced and fun, its storyline was always a blast, and its production values were the best of any MMO since WoW first hit. This is, outside of KOTOR, an absolutely must play for Star Wars fans and right there with Mass Effect as a definitive sci-fi experience. I think everyone owes it to themselves to at least level a couple of characters through the campaign. Also notably, the post release support and content additions have been through the roof in number.
Featuring the largest change in foundational mechanics of any Pokemon game yet, X and Y were the first Pokemon games to feature fully polygonal graphics, and to integrate internet mechanics fully and comprehensively into a Pokemon game. The end result was one of the deepest and most polished Pokemon experiences to date, and one whose sheer number of content, social mechanics, and uplifting (and surprisingly political – not a joke) world made for a relaxing, enjoyable, and nostalgia inducing trip.
Path of Exile
Containing one of the most massive leveling systems of any game, ever, one whose scope and options are almost too large and overwhelming, and feeling like Diablo 2 ripped and placed into an MMO world, Path of Exile is a love letter to loot crawls, to uncompromising customization, to dark colour palettes and hopelessness and dark fantasy, made modern through the internet, and in many ways, what Diablo 2.5 would have or could have been.
Ah, DotA. Has there ever been a game in which you can get yelled at, called a dozen gay and racist slurs, sworn at a hundred times over, be utterly humiliated by your lack of skill, and come away, still, thinking, “my god that was fun and I will do better next time, fuck you all!?!?!?!?” Dota is a game of mixed emotions, notoriously salty players, complex and unforgiving mechanics, and through it all, a deeply rewarding multiplayer experience of close calls, fantastic plays, and… god damnit, will someone go fucking mid lane? And stop pinging the damn map, I get it. Christ.
Final Fantasy XIII Saga
I saved this for last intentionally. I still remember forking over $90 for the Bluray Japanese release of Advent Children all to play the Japanese version of the demo of XIII, way back in the day, and streaming it online for some people in a gaming community I still frequent, myself the standard bearer of Final Fantasy fandom there, wowed by the graphics and combat, excited about all the possibilities the full game would present. It was coming on the heels of XII, one of my favourite games of all time and one of the most comprehensive and intelligent JRPGs ever created.
The XIII trilogy had its warts, and in one sense, it is a disappointment, the first Final Fantasy game perhaps ever to feature a host of times where you think “what if?” What if the game wasn’t as tunnel driven? What if the game didn’t continue to hamfist its own combat system by giving you only two characters to fight with? What if the game didn’t take you away from one plotline right as it got interesting? XIII-2 in many ways fixed the gameplay side of things, featuring a really cool time travel mechanic, and was probably the high point of the series for me, but alas, even still, narratively overburdened by its melodrama and the entire series’ love of awkward names and proper nouns, came apart a bit.
And yet, I still came back to them. I put up with the issues and the what ifs because at the core of these games was a journey Square Enix really wanted us to take, one of forgiveness, familial bonds, and friendship at all costs. From Sazh’s story of personal heartbreak, to Lightning and Serah’s sisterly bond, Vanille’s bubbly narration and her and Fang’s friendship, this was a deeply personal story and one whose scope and world were simultaneously massive and small, sloppy and amateurish and yet personable, swept along by the riveting battle score and the CGI cutscenes. Where the series goes from here, and whatever XV is or becomes, people may not look on XIII as the first PS3 and 360 Final Fantasy experience they wanted, but it’s the one we all got, and for all of its what ifs, fantastical setting, and over-the-top scenarios, it remains unquestionably, undoubtedly, human.