Games of the generation: Dave picks the seismic shifts

Monday, 4 November 2013 12:54 GMT By Dave Cook

What were the games of the current generation? VG247’s staff pick their highlights of the past 8 years ahead of the PS4 and Xbox One launch. This time, Dave gets crushed in a tectonic shift of big ideas.

We’re dedicating this week to VG247’s personal games of the generation. We’ll post a different team member’s list each day, so stay tuned to see what we all thought.

What are the best games of the generation?

It’s a big question isn’t it? How do you even begin to approach it? What makes one game better or more significant than another? Well, I think that all depends on how you define words like “best” or “significant” in this context. There are so many parameters to consider and perspectives from which to approach this topic that it’s always going to be a subjective issue. No one really ‘wins’ a generation outright, but there are many games out there that affect us each in a personal manner, and enrich our hobby in new ways.

To me, the “best” games of any generation aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable, but those that bring wild new ideas to the table, inspire their competitors to do better, and persuade rival studios to think outside the box. I’ve decided to pick my five games based on that criteria. It’s worth pointing out that these aren’t in any significant order, or intended as definitive answers to the big question above, but they are five games that made me think differently about my hobby or the industry in a new light.

So without further stalling for time, here are my five games of the generation.

5. LittleBigPlanet
Creative elements in console games were around before Media Molecule unleashed its smiling toolbox onto the world in 2008, but they had never been delivered with such depth and finesse. While not as expansive as its sequel, the original LittleBigPlanet broke down the barriers of what it meant to be a ‘game.’ Core quest aside, the game could be whatever you wanted it to be, with a powerful suite of creative gadgets and gizmos that gave rise to a big community brimming with wild and wonderful ideas.

From its release and through several sequels, Media Molecule’s charming IP has left a trail of inspired followers in its wake, each eager to take a sloppy bite of the creation pie. Look to the industry today and you’ll an abundance of titles boasting creative elements in comparison to the previous generation. A quick name-check draws forth the likes of Trials Evolution, Terraria and Minecraft, each delivering creativity in unique ways.

But let’s forget games that allow you to build from the ground up for a second. You can even see LittleBigPlanet’s influence in games that offer only slight creative freedom. Since the game dropped, there has been a visible rise in titles that let players modify assets already present in the game, such as character creation or custom decals. These elements and the ability to build in games took an undeniable upswing after the launch of LittleBigPlanet and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s wasn’t a coincidence. All arguments aside, any game that gets young or typically passive minds thinking creatively is surely worthy of applause. That’s why it’s absolutely LBP has earned a place on my list.

4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Let’s be brutally honest here; Infinity Ward’s triggered something of a fierce, industry-wide trend when it dropped Call of Duty 4 on to the world in 2007. The seminal shoter was massively influential, even if some of you may see that trend as more of a plague. Every man, woman and their dog seemed hungry to rip off the game’s twitch, military template off without a hint of shame, but no game did cinematic warfare better than this at the time. Oh and that campaign is simply incredible, even to this day. Remember the TV studio shoot-out, the nuke twist, that stealth mission in Russia?

The plot was a masterclass in corridor pacing, with the tension ebbing and flowing just at the right moments to hold your interest. Incredibly, the story wasn’t utter waffle – I felt the studio saved that for Modern Warfare 2 – and the end result was a fitting homage to the militaristic action flick. Price’s ‘tache was pretty rockin’ too. Did I mention the stealth mission already? I did? Just checking. Throw in a superbly balanced and relatively sober multiplayer without the head-crushing mountains of shit exploding everywhere, and you have a well-rounded package that kept this particular critic hooked for a year after release.

It’s also worth noting the rolling XP-based progression mechanic and the ability to prestige, both of which have been copied in several franchises since. You can see Call of Duty 4’s influence in many titles today, even in the rival Battlefield series. I don’t even consider that a bad thing as developers of both franchises can learn a lot from one another, so this definitely isn’t a dig. Titanfall, Battlefield 4, Spec Ops: The Line and many other shooters have cribbed from Infinity Ward’s big book of ‘How to make your shooter exciting and engaging.’ Love or hate it, many walks of the industry owe Modern Warfare a debt.

3. Gears of War
I know that games like Kill.Switch and Winback introduced the ‘wider’ world to cover shooting as we know it today, but Gears of War made the notion sing. The game was considered a massive coup for Microsoft when it secured its Xbox 360 exclusivity in 2006, and when I look back now I feel that yeah, it certainly was. Why is it on the list? Well, just look at how many games have used the same cover-hugging tricks and techniques Epic Games brought to the table. You only need to look to Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3, GTA 5 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution to see examples of games presenting new spins on the old format

Some would say that the mechanic has been over-used in the same way the Call of Duty format has been flogged over the years, but I see it more as a solution to a big problem. It’s a mechanic that makes for smoother transitions in 3D space, and in games where stealth is a factor you no longer have to clumsily navigate your avatar out of the enemy’s line of sight. You can now simply snap to cover and slide along walls, safe in the knowledge that you’re concealed.

The same goes for dodging hailstorms of bullets. Can you recall just how painful it was to hide from gunfire in games before snapping to cover was an option? You never quite knew if you were hidden or not and fucking up meant you could be killed in seconds without any room to reply. Confirming that you were hidden required a lot of edging your avatar around and manipulating the camera after every few steps to get a clear view around corners. Gears of War didn’t figure that conundrum out – again: see Winback and Kill.Switch – but it polished it to an attractive sheen that showed the world it could work. The rest is history.

2. GTA 4
Okay, stop hurling feces at me and I’ll explain why I’ve opted for the fourth game over GTA 5. Cast your mind back to Grand Theft Auto 3 and just try to remember how you felt when taking those first, mind-blowing steps into Liberty City. This was it man, the dream. It was a ‘real’, living city with odd-looking polygon people walking around, cars begging to be jacked and hell to be raised. It was like Rockstar North had delved into many of our minds and replicated what we thought the future of gaming would look like, but it was there in front of us, actually happening.

The PS2 game sparked a sandbox gold rush that would roll on for years through such series as Crackdown, Prototype, inFamous, Saints Row, Assassin’s Creed and many more. Despite GTA 4’s many flaws it still delivered a world that felt more believable and organic than those presented by the competition. I’m not saying the games listed above are bad – far from it, they’re each superb in their own ways – but Rockstar North remained unmatched in the world-building stakes.

Some people didn’t give two shits about things like Liberty City’s ‘working’ internet pages, the in-game phone, and many of its myriad mechanics, but chances are you found something special in that urban maze of decay that spoke to you. The sheer volume of options and tools in that play-space is still incredible to this day. To that end, I think GTA 4 was the kind of game that generated many ‘water-cooler’ moments. Conversations about how people tackled certain missions or insane rampages they exacted on the cops went on for months to years after the game released. You couldn’t escape it. Many of us didn’t want to.

Those emergent tales are more likely if a game world offers unbridled freedom and a vast tool-set to play around with. GTA 4 hit that bullseye with confidence. Years later, Rockstar North built upon that solid base to deliver GTA 5, a game that delivers a vast improvement in almost every aspect. So while Niko’s escapades may have soured the mouths of one-time fans since they came to pass, we can’t overlook just how significant that eye-opening jaunt into Liberty City has become.

1. Braid
Is this controversial? Maybe, but the list is in no specific order and like all the titles here I’ve chosen Braid for its wider impact and influence on the industry. It’s importance to modern gaming is simply immeasurable, even if you dislike Jonathan Blow and his game. The artistic, time-bending platformer charmed gamers with its beautiful art style and dreamy musical score, while the undercurrent of plot kept players guessing. Who was Tim really? Was he a frustrated lover or was he really the man who birthed the atomic bomb? Was he the hero or villain? I had never seen a game of Braid’s stature spark so much debate, yet I shouldn’t have been surprised.

After all, the indie scene had always proved populous on PC, yet the console market was yet to present the world with a suitable outlet for the creativity of solo coders and small teams. Xbox Live Arcade helped ease the issue, but the marketplace still needed that first, ground-shaking indie hit. When Braid came along it proved anyone, even the little guy could make their riches in the shark pool of the blockbuster circuit. You no longer required the publishing might of colossi like EA or Activision to make money in that arena. Financial and critical success could belong to anyone, even the cash poor. All you needed was an idea and the talent to pull it off.

Of course, we now know that in reality Xbox Live Arcade was a costly route to market, and certainly not the dream ticket we all thought it was once Jonathan Blow’s name started making the headlines. Even if you consider Braid’s runaway success an anomaly, it’s quite clear that it left a prominent mark on the industry. It appeared to open floodgates on both sides of the fence. On one side we saw a torrent of new, emerging independent talent rising up and getting their content out on consoles and Steam, while critics grew more accepting of the ‘curio’ title.

We now live in a world where Hotline Miami, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Dear Esther, Thomas Was Alone and Papers, Please are considered equals to the triple-a blockbuster juggernauts. They’re most certainly seen as headline-worthy across a wider range of sites. Indie games from relatively unknown coders or teams are no longer deemed a gamble, and many of us have stopped approaching them with preconceptions of lower quality. These teams are now respected as the artists, story-tellers and influential people that they are.

It’s impossible to pin this all on Braid alone, but I guarantee that Blow’s hit revealed a wider, brighter world to a significant amount of people out there. The game has since led me on to new, thought-provoking experiences across the years and has opened my eyes to wonderful things. I suspect I’m not alone in this either.

Well folks that’s all, I’m going to run for the nearest exit before the baying mob strips me of my skin and wears it as a rain smock. In case you did wonder, my ‘other’ games of the generation from an overall perspective include but are not restricted to Bayonetta, Dark Souls, Lost Odyssey, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Portal, The Walking Dead, BioShock, Journey, Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2 and more I’ve definitely forgotten.

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