Critical Gamer’s best of gen (so far)

consoles

Which console generation we’re on about should be obvious; peek at the picture above for the machines we’re including. Although the poor ol’ Vita qualifies, none of its games made the list. Persona 4 Golden almost did but, ultimately, it’s at least 80% identical to the PS2 original. Believe us though – if you own this young whippersnapper of a handheld, you need that game.

We’re not saying that the following titles are inarguably the very best on offer; that would be silly. They’ve stood out against some pretty darn stiff competition however, and so please allow us to explain – in no particular order – why.

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Kevin: Nintendo had a big hit on its hands with the Wii, and the crown jewel in its collection of games was the Super Mario Galaxy games. Even though the Wii was underpowered compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360, Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the one game that put a smile on my face from start to finish. The plot was inconsequential as this game was all about the gameplay, and this was gameplay in its purest form. Each stage had its own special power for the diminutive Italian plumber, and the levels were fantastically diverse, which made it a joy to play. You just didn’t know what you were going to get next, and as you progressed it just got better and better as Mario shot across space to various planets and levels that folded in on themselves, with fantastic boss battles that are both testing and inventive. When you finish the game it is a real challenge to collect the final stars for 100% completion, and only really dedicated players will be able to rise to the challenge. The topsy turvy worlds and the return of Yoshi in this sequel make Super Mario Galaxy 2 even better than the already fantastic original game, which is an amazing feat in itself. The developers were on fire here and this was Nintendo at their absolute creative best. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have the most powerful console in existence to make the best games, and make no mistake, this was for me, the best game of the current console generation by a long way.

The Walking Dead

Seán: My first choice is the most recent of the two – Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. Reimagining the point and click genre, being one of the most engrossing and emotional (despite the lack of polygons) stories and breaking past the burden of carrying a licence; The Walking Dead burst forth last year and took the world by storm.

While many of us probably don’t even think about it in any real depth, Lee is a black protagonist which, let’s face it, is pretty rare in games. Despite his background and past decisions in his life he was more or less an everyman, almost everyone could relate to him and we all felt that he was a good guy at heart (unless you made him the bad guy, which statistically was low I believe). Looking after Clementine was one of those things that sort of swept into your consciousness and you never felt forced to do; she wasn’t completely helpless but you went ahead and looked after her anyway because it was just what you needed to do.

The first episode was clever, engaging, had plenty of character development and gave you choices that felt like they mattered – but the second episode was where I knew I loved the game. The sheer brutality in the episode’s final quarter left me shaking from the adrenaline, something I can only recall from about three other moments in recent years; most recently after watching series two of Luther. It did hiccup for me a little on the third and fourth episodes, but like many others the final episode left me in tears; something I won’t forget any time soon.

Mario Kart Wii

Luke:trade and sell games fairly regularly. I can’t afford to hoard huge collections any more; but despite this I have never even considered getting rid of Mario Kart Wii. This despite owning the game since its release back in 2008, not to mention the fact that Nintendo games hold their value for years rather than weeks.

Mario Kart Wii is sheer, unadulterated fun. It’s (loosely) organised chaos. Yes, the Mario Kart tradition of AI keeping up through cheating rather than skill is present and correct – on the highest difficulties, at least. Yes, the blue shell weapon – which homes in on the lead racer and causes an explosion that catches anybody unfortunate enough to be driving close to them – is poorly implemented. And, yes, last-second reversals of fortune can undeniably be down more to accident than design. But that, perversely, is part of the appeal – and it always has been.

It may sound like skill is entirely superfluous to the experience, but nothing could be further from the truth. The aforementioned element of chance can be manipulated (to an extent) just as much as the slipstreaming, shortcuts, boosts and tricks. An experienced player can second-guess the appearance of a blue shell or bulldozing bullet, and knows when to use an item for the offensive and when to save it for the likely appearance of an attack from behind.

While Mario Kart 7 is the better game in some respects, Mario Kart Wii is better for local multiplayer simply because you can sit with family or friends round a TV. As for online, well, it’s one of the most ferociously addictive and infuriating things you’ll ever play. Forget Call of Duty, playing Mario Kart online gets me swearing in a manner that would make my mother’s ears explode. Fortunately, chat is not supported.

Binary Domain

Adam: Binary Domain is an absolutely ridiculous game: it opens with people ripping their faces off to reveal robots beneath, the craziness only mounting from there with every exposition-filled minute. While the gameplay is that of a merely serviceable shooter, it’s used well in a few brilliant set pieces and is generally fun enough to carry you through.

However, this game isn’t here for its gameplay. Binary Domain features one of the most overwhelmingly fun stories I’ve ever seen. It’s really something that ought to be experienced rather than relayed via text, so I’ll simply say that it is delightfully, wonderfully, other-positive-adjective-ly dumb in the most flamboyant way possible – and the developers clearly knew it.

This is thanks in large part to the game’s cast of characters, most of whom seem to conveniently hail from different parts of the globe or ethnic background. They’re brilliantly written and build a tangible sense of tension among the squad that plays a major part in the latter half of the game. That’s where it gets joyously weird.

One of the best surprises was the pretty great Consequence System, allowing you to build trust with your squad mates which – shockingly – had consequences. This has been done before, sure, but similar mechanics rarely have such a huge effect on their game, completely altering large parts of gameplay.

Binary Domain feels a bit like someone peeked within my brain and made a game just for me, so it’s with selfish delight that I call it one of my games of the generation.

Test Drive Unlimited

Stephen: Hey, I’ve got a question. Do you remember Test Drive Unlimited? That open-world racing game that took place on Oahu? I manage to get by day after day without dwelling on its existence, but every once in a while I suddenly remember that, at one point in time, it was a digital representation of the future. Well, to me, anyway. It was my first Xbox 360 game, understand, and thus my first Shiny Next Generation Experience. I quite honestly couldn’t believe my eyes when the first batch of screenshots displayed a fully explorable Hawaiian island populated with cars that surely were chiseled from vehicular gods. I didn’t – and still don’t – give a fig-and-a-half about horsepower or torque (still not sure if the latter is real…?), and I found online play an ignorable novelty. But I’ll never forget the freedom of breezing down highways and driving up mountains in a lemon-yellow Saturn Sky, losing myself entirely in the boxy CRTV that glimpsed into the very future. This was around the time I was practicing for my driver’s license, and I’m convinced that trying my darnedest to obey on-screen traffic laws without smacking into dangerous objects helped me learn the laws of the road. In hindsight I really should have worked more on parallel parking, but the point here is that Test Drive Unlimited had a weirdly-shaped place in my heart. Looking back on it now, the game is empty, silly, and borderline ugly, but that just goes to show how long this ridiculous generation has been going on. A lot can change in eight years. Technology changes, expectations change, people change… uh oh. I’m starting to get nostalgic. This usually means I’ll end up staring at a wall and listening to the Thomas Was Alone soundtrack straight through, so I’m going to stop here.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Seán: My second choice is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This beast of a game started the ball rolling for the behemoth that the series has become. It is my personal favourite in the series and has some of the best moments in gaming; the nuclear blast that kills off your character, the actually fun and challenging tutorial (not the standard movement and action bits but the assault course) and the sinking ship, all of which amount to moments that will stick in your memory forever. My favourite level is the sniper mission; I’m a sucker for sniping in single player, so this level really did define the game as one of my all-time favourites. Everything from the setup, to the sniping, to the final escape; it all comes together so nicely.

It was the first game to bring multiplayer out on a multiplatform level to the masses. There were few multiplatform games that enjoyed anywhere near the same amount of success and the only games I can think of that reach heights anywhere near were always system sellers (so long as we discount PC games from this). This was also the first online multiplayer game that I was A. Good at and B. Really, really into. I still remember running and gunning with an MP5 in multiplayer, trying to slowly up my Kill/Death ratio to 2. I eventually got it above 1.8 but after a certain amount of kills, trying to improve the ratio just got too lengthy a process.

COD brought with its success blockbuster games and mainstream appeal. It’s both a blessing and a curse on the games industry; it’s brought games to the masses on a level that was unheard of before, it’s made with an incredible amount of polish that many developers have tried to echo. Unfortunately the echoing has also been attempted in creating “COD-killers”, publishers holding unrealistic standards, the need for oneupmanship in blockbuster moments, and widespread yearly releases for non-sports games.

Grand Theft Auto V

Kevin: GTA V was only Rockstar’s second ‘proper’ GTA game on the PS3 and 360. I have to say that I didn’t really enjoy GTA IV, it just seemed to suck the fun out of the series with the developers going for realism rather than over-the-top set pieces. With GTA V taking five years to create, there were high hopes that the series was back to its best. I have to say that it’s probably the most impressive open world game that I’ve played. The game world is absolutely massive, and the attention to detail is incredible. From the stunning beaches of Los Santos to the imposing Mount Chiliad, which even has a working cable car to its summit, this is a diverse and beautiful world that encourages and rewards exploration. There are so many different things to do like playing golf and tennis, entering a triathlon, scuba diving in the huge ocean, or skydiving from a helicopter or plane.

The missions themselves were also much more diverse, and there was more to them than simply going to a point on the map and killing a bad guy. From infiltrating an army base to steal a helicopter to flying a light aircraft into a cargo plane, the game had some fantastic set pieces, and the addition of heists gave the player the chance to complete the mission whichever way they wished. With GTA Online as an added bonus to the already burgeoning single player, GTA V has redefined the open world genre.

This was next gen gaming before the next gen consoles had even arrived. No wonder Ubisoft delayed Watch Dogs. Because after seeing what Rockstar have achieved on current hardware it’s a wonder we need new consoles at all.

Mass Effect

Adam: Despite disappointing sequels, the original Mass Effect is still a fantastic game to play. The combination of RPG and Third Person Shooter mechanics, framed by a classically sci-fi narrative, coalesce to form my favourite game of the generation.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that made this game brilliant, but part of it was obviously the gameplay. Mass Effect introduced a lot of refinements to morality systems previously used in games like KotOR, arguably revolutionising the concept itself. It was a joy to sit and play through the game multiple times, gauging how saintly or devilish your Shepard had to be to elicit certain reactions. The size of the world was almost overwhelming, but also inviting. Exploring the planets and hidden encounters inserted into the game was one of its greatest, most rewarding assets.

Combat was also fantastic, welding together the best parts of RPGs with the third person shooter framework that was gaining popularity with games like Gears of War. Shepard also commanded wildly entertaining skills at his fingertips, dependent on your choice of class. While a lot of complaints were thrown at the shooting being based on the roll of a dice, it was certainly appreciated by RPG fans. It’s a shame that the combat was simplified down to a dull shooter so much for the sequels; the mechanics of the original were dripping with potential.

The story was a classic sci-fi tale of aliens, robots, and alien robots with malicious intent for mankind. Despite being riddled with overused twists, they were well-written and impeccably delivered. The cast of characters were absolutely unforgettable: from space-racist Ashley Williams to angry turtle-alien Wrex, they were each wonderfully written with meticulously detailed backstories for the player to explore.

Finally; the music. If you’re a fan of sci-fi movies and Blade Runner composer Vangelis, you should just play this game immediately.

The Last Of Us

Luke: There are games I’ve enjoyed playing more than The Last of Us. There are story driven games with fewer atmosphere-destroying bugs and design decisions. Nonetheless what this game does right it does almost perfectly, with the result that it exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic Naughty Dog fan.

It’s worth bearing in mind that here was a developer working with a huge budget, backed by one of the biggest publishers in the industry (which also happens to be the manufacturer of the console) who also seems to have allowed them masses of creative freedom. Almost no other developer enjoys such a combination of luxuries. I still hope, however, that developers and publishers alike will look at this game and see that such a thing is still possible – and will still sell.

What such a thing (grammar’s fine, shut up)? Simply put, a ‘proper’ game that not only looks great, but also has consistently excellent acting and – crucially, for me – absolutely top quality writing. For far too long, mediocre scripts in game have been praised as genius simply because the industry standard is so damn low. Time will tell if The Last Of Us makes any sort of difference to the games we buy; but if it does, everybody will benefit.

Considered in isolation, it’s a brilliant game that’s well worth buying. Combat may not be great, but it does the job competently. There’s no point pretending that the journey’s about anything other than the story, the telling of which extends even to little details in the environment you could easily miss. As Kevin said with GTA V, there are some games which make you question if a new round of consoles is even necessary yet.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Stephen: While the Xbox 360 was busy living and dying, the 3DS was born and – as of the time of this writing – stands as my favorite videogame machine on the market. Animal Crossing also happens to be one of my favorite series on this planet we call Earth, holding its own with your Zeldas, Sonics, and Warcrafts. Although I suspected the handheld entry would ultimately let me down, New Leaf jumped me like a thief in an alley, stealing not my money, but my heart. Turns out this is the best Animal Crossing since the original, so it’s been by my side ever since. And I really do mean that: I’ve played this game every day (or at least every week) since its release in June. I like habits, I like ‘em a lot, and I keep many of them comfortably in my daily routine. The ability to turn on an ultra-relaxing, always-cheerful little habit box that invites me to follow along in real-time without resorting to the sad ways of modern casual games is something that I’m way into. One of Nintendo’s many masterpieces this year, New Leaf had very little trouble easing its way into my favorite games of this generation; not because it bowled me over with excellence or left an immediate impression on me, but because it charms my hat off and I play it while drinking coffee every morning. It’s full of comfort and quality, my village of :D Town is, and I shall continue growing orchards, collecting high-class furniture, and making friends with multicoloured bears well into 2014.

So that’s it; Critical Gamer’s best of gen (so far). All that remains is for you to leave angry comments and send us angry e mails, explaining that your opinions differ from ours.

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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