It’s hard to deny that this generation of consoles has been nothing short of amazing. Familiar franchises have made their triumphant return, new IPs made their presence known, genre boundaries were pushed, and there was no shortage in the way of innovation. But what games were the ones that truly stand out among the rest? What games have not only had an impact on the industry as a whole, but will also cement themselves as classics of our era? Ladies and Gentlemen, as it draws to a rapidly-approaching close, I present to you the essential top 25 list of the absolute must-play games from this generation.
#25: Sleeping Dogs
Enough praise cannot be given to Sleeping Dogs. After being caught in near development hell, coming dangerously close to being cancelled, and having so much about it change that it evolved from being a sequel to a stand alone title, the game somehow still managed to come together and release. And not only did it release, it was also good. Really good. Borrowing elements from GTA, Batman: Arkham City, and Need for Speed, Sleeping Dogs is an engrossing open-world title that will capture you with both its stylistic combat and fantastic storytelling. It’s a unique take on the genre that ended up being fantastic when it shouldn’t have made it as far as it did in the first place.
Combining deep story and unique puzzle elements, Catherine is one of the most original and unique games to emerge on the scene in years. It deals with overtly mature themes, coupling hard-hitting storytelling with a unique metaphor for the protagonist’s confusion using nightmarish puzzles. It’s so unique, in fact, that it’s often hard to give Catherine a designated genre. It’s a fresh and original idea that became a highly impressive game the likes of which we haven’t seen repeated yet in this generation.
#23: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
I actually had the honor of being in Japan when Metal Gear Solid 4 released, and I remember well the hype and excitement Japanese gamers had for to return to the series. And the excitement was well placed. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was a thrilling (supposed) conclusion to the Metal Gear Solid franchise, bringing together the complex narrative the games have been weaving over the years. Gameplay was also open enough to appeal to different play styles, giving the game a new realm of accessibility and making it one of the strongest entries to the Metal Gear legacy.
#22: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Modern Warfare marked the first time the series embarked into the modern day, taking warfare to an all-too-familiar new level set in the conflicts that plague our world today. Coupled with a strong, twisting narrative and an all-new take on multiplayer, Call of Duty 4 marked the beginning of the modern age of Call of Duty, a legacy that still continues strong today as it enjoys the biggest numbers in sales year after year. Love it or hate it, Call of Duty is a cultural phenomenon and an integral part in the online multiplayer discussion, making it an important must-play from this generation.
#21: Heavy Rain
Story is something that has been heavily explored this generation, and Heavy Rain was proof that a great story can make for great gameplay. Coupling choice and dark, compelling narrative, the game explored territory in story that has only been glanced over before. The result was one of the most unique and engaging games seen this generation, pushing genre boundaries and challenging what we as gamers expect from interactive entertainment.
The story of Cole McGrath is a unique one indeed. Using morality and the ability to be a supercharged badass, Infamous added Cole to an already impressive list of iconic PlayStation characters. It gave us a new take on both the superhero and open-world genres and continues to be a standout title today in the PS3′s lineup.
#19: Civilization V
No one can deny the success of development mastermind Sid Meier. One of the geniuses of innovation in the strategy game space, Sid was able to craft something truly special out of Civilization that hadn’t been seen before in the PC gaming space. Hours and hours of gamer’s lives have been sucked into this civilization simulation game, and new changes have allowed this to be one of the best strategy games ever released on the PC, making it an absolute must-play from this generation.
#18: Red Dead Redemption
The story of John Marston is a unique one in the sense that not many games use the Old West as their primary setting. With Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games took their strong open-world capabilities and used them to the fullest extent to deliver a hard-hitting epic full of guns, fistfights, horses, cougars, and of course, zombies. It all came together nicely, telling a strong story and presenting us with interesting characters that even John Wayne himself couldn’t hold a light to.
#17: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
While it’s not the only Zelda game to be released on the Wii, it is often touted as the game that used the Wii to its fullest capacity. Using the Wii’s Motion Plus technology, the game blended smooth, responsive motion controls with a narrative often compared to that of Ocarina of Time. The result is one of the most impressive and important Zelda games ever released.
#16: StarCraft II
With StarCraft II, Blizzard proved once again that they are no strangers to innovation, delivering one of the most engaging and impressive RTS games on PC. Since its release, we’ve seen the game grow in popularity to becoming one of the top competitive games to play alongside League of Legends, and one of the most important strategy games of this generation.
#15: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
While Oblivion created a unique world rife with high fantasy lore and interesting gameplay, Skyrim was able to come along and completely flesh out the ideas brought up in the fourth installment of the Elder Scrolls series. Skyrim’s massive world not only challenges other games due in part to its size and scope, but also manages to capture a sense of life and realism not seen in a first-person RPG before. Nearly every facet of the game’s story was unique and different, and the fact that you can combat large, fearsome dragons gave the game an unprecedented epic feel that was, in a word, awesome.
Unfortunately, bugs did plague the game on all platforms, specifically the PS3, where problems still persist today. But despite its glaring shortcomings, Skyrim is a game that is all but deserving of having a place on the top list of must-play games.
#14: Little Big Planet
Its cute and interesting platforming elements are unique and fresh, but Little Big Planet is most remarkable for its innovation of the “Play, create, share” sub-genre. User-generated content is the true hook of Little Big Planet, and genius players used the feature to its fullest extent, creating everything from customized platforming to all-out FPS levels. On top of the fantastic user-created levels, the game also presented Sackboy, yet another character to find his way onto the PlayStation icon roster.
#13: Grand Theft Auto IV
Since its initial release, Grand Theft Auto has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It re-invented the open-world genre and made way for games such as Sleeping Dogs and Saint’s Row with its use of the “do what you want, whenever you want” style of gameplay that made it endearing to fans. GTA IV was no exception, this time coupling strong narrative with the freedom of gameplay familiar to the franchise. The result is one of the most important and fun open-world games ever seen on consoles.
#12: Assassin’s Creed II
Assassin’s Creed II was the game that realized the potential of the original Assassin’s Creed and made it into the game it needed to be. Using re-defined story and gameplay elements, AC II set the standard that all other AC games have sought to live up to since. Altair’s was indeed an interesting take on a historical (and futuristic) narrative, but it was ultimately Ezio that helped realize the full potential of the series. The games still persist today as some of the most impressive and important games on the market, amassing an enormous fanbase and yielding several installments of the game’s story. AC is definitely unique, and AC II has been the serie’s historical high point. It remains to be seen how AC III will hold up, but as far as innovation and development are concerned, it’s AC II that still holds top honors in the franchise.
Blending elements of loot, role-playing, and the FPS, Borderlands was supremely successful in becoming what it sought to be: a shameless shoot-and-loot fest that delivered on all counts. Featuring a generous loot system, stylisitc cel-shaded graphics, and more guns than you could possibly count, Borderlands is one of the most unique and original shooters to emerge on the market in this generation.
#10: Gears of War
Gears of War is ultimately the game that redefined the third-person shooter genre. Using the Unreal Engine 3 to an impressive capacity, the game featured destructible environments, fluid combat, and masterful use of cover mechanics to create a solid and impressive shooter that has influenced many others within the same genre ever since, making Epic Games a household name both in game development and as creator of one of the most widely-used game engines today.
#9: Halo 3
Sure, ODST and Reach were great games. But Halo 3 cannot be overlooked as the best installment in the Halo franchise in this generation. Seeing the return of Master Chief on our current-gen consoles was truly an amazing experience that, yet again, set a precedence for the FPS today. The game also saw another great addition to the already-impressive and long-running life cycle of Halo multiplayer that has rivaled only that of Call of Duty in the realm of console-based online multiplayer popularity.
#8: Left 4 Dead
If there’s any genre that has been beaten to death throughout this gen, it’s the zombie apocalypse game. With new announcements and developments virtually every week, zombie games are a dime a dozen, an unfortunate majority of them tend to reiterate the same tired gameplay mechanics and try hard to break free from a genre with such cemented conventions. However, leave it to Valve to deliver one of the most unique and fresh zombie games in Left 4 Dead. With an emphasis on cooperative gameplay and different environments and zombie types, Left 4 Dead has become something of a standard for zombie games today, making it a key title in discussion of the genre.
#7: Uncharted 2
Despite their long and successful history, it can be argued that Naughty Dog really hit their stride with the Uncharted series. Creating an Indiana Jones-type treasure hunter in Nathan Drake, Uncharted gave us an all-new story and world to explore.
But it was Uncharted 2 that took the elements of great gameplay and complex narrative to a whole new level, carrying the player across the world as Drake moved through a twisted story that continues to hold a place as one of the strongest narratives in gaming. Add to that the impressive visuals that still rival a majority of console games today, and Uncharted 2 has proven that it is worthy of a spot on the top ten games on this list.
#6: Super Mario Galaxy
Touted as one of the best platforming games of this generation, Super Mario Galaxy is said to be the game that married both the conventions of old classics such as Super Mario 64 and new challenges and elements that made it truly unique and special. New mechanics allow for unique traversal and opportunity in navigating the game’s multiple “galaxies”, and the game itself used great pacing, visuals, and gameplay to create a Mario game not to be overlooked in the mustachioed hero’s extensive and legendary library.
#5: Batman: Arkham City
It’s hard enough to find a superhero game that achieves a more-than-mediocre score with critics these days, and nearly impossible to find one that achieves excellence in the way Arkham Asylum did. Batman: Arkham City did just that, however, impressing on all counts, from its story and voice acting to the intense and satisfying combat. Add to that impressive visuals and the unconquerable feeling of being a total badass, and you’ve got a game truly worthy of the legacy of the Dark Knight.
#4: Fallout 3
War. War never changes, and neither does the importance of Fallout 3. With a whole new first-person approach on the franchise and a unique setting rarely explored in RPGs, Fallout 3 was a masterpiece of a game that created one of the most haunting and engrossing game worlds in our generation. With unique quests, creatures, NPCs, weapons, skills, and an unparalleled experience, Fallout 3 is not only a must-play for this generation, but a necessary part of the library of any gamer who wants to explore the history of gaming to its fullest.
If Valve’s proved anything to us over the years, it’s that they know how to create game changers within the industry. Portal was no exception to that; in fact, it’s probably one of the most important games Valve has ever released.
It’s hard to deny that the eerie traversal through Aperture is one of the best ever seen on a modern gaming console.With a masterful take on story, puzzles, and action elements, Portal was able to follow in the legacy of the Half-Life series by creating a phenomenal and unforgettable experience expertly woven by developers that still stands as one of the most impressive games of this generation.
For all its madness and danger, the world of Rapture is undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking and engaging settings ever seen in a video game. Everything about BioShock is unique and original, from the use of plasmids to its fascinating story. Multiple iconic moments have also arisen from the game itself. Who could forget the first view of Rapture as Ryan introduces it to you? Your first time using Plasmids? Your first encounter with the dangerous Big Daddies? And how about your first decision of whether or not to harvest a little sister or set her free? Every element of BioShock was handled with an incredible eye for detail, making it one of the most important and unique games created this generation.
#1: Mass Effect
Mass Effect has carved out an important place for itself in gaming history. It was one of the first games to use saves that carried over and affected the gameplay in later installments. Its story was unique and engaging, creating an entire universe with countless years of backstory and lore that gave it a life of its own, and using choice and consequence to ultimately effect the flow of the game’s narrative. And on top of that, it’s one of the few space-based RPGs ever developed, using the setting to a maximum degree as it followed the story of Shepard and his/her relationships with other alien races.
Mass Effect hasn’t just become a trilogy; it’s become an epic saga the likes of which has only been rivaled by a handful of other games in the past. While the second game is arguably the best in the series and one of the best action RPGs ever made, it’s the original that paved the way for ME2′s existence and set the bar for both RPGs and storytelling, making it the #1 must-play game of this generation.