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Games of the generation: Brenna’s trend-tracking life-eaters

Wednesday, 6th November 2013 08:20 GMT By Brenna Hillier

What were the games of the current generation? VG247′s staff pick their highlights of the past eight years ahead of the PS4 and Xbox One launch. Today, Brenna lists games that obsessed her while embracing generational trends – both good and bad.

This is the first generation where picking a handful of games as representative is really, really hard. It’s been a long break between hardware cycles, something that has been blamed for retail downturn and reduced innovation, but which has certainly helped keep both platform holders and content producers afloat while the world changed around them.

Over the past eight years, games and the business of games really have changed. Our concept of what constitutes a game and a gamer have changed – or should have changed, although since you’re reading this on the Internet I have to assume you’re likely to need an axe to get new ideas into your head. Expectations have changed. Delivery systems have changed. In some ways, the games that defined us at the start of the generation in 2005 are very different from those that define us now – and in other ways, they’re alarmingly similar.

When I look back over the past generation, which kicked off for me with the PS3, before including an Xbox 360 and finally a beast of a PC (loading times drove me over the divide), I can’t pick out a handful of games that I would say, hands-down, are better or more representative than all the rest. But I can pick five games and franchises that meant a lot to me, personally, and when I cast my eye over them, I see the generation unfolding and expanding, growing up alongside me.

We’ve both had a rough few years.

5. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Ridiculously long install times; an online component that would have been much more popular on Xbox Live; downloads that lasted approximately forever; design that showcased the power of new hardware while not actually being that much fun. Metal Gear Solid 4 is museum piece of the PlayStation 3′s frankly dire launch years. Can you believe it got perfect review scores? Ho ho, what clarity hindsight brings.

I loved it anyway. After the much-deserved success of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Konami and Sony pulled Hideo Kojima out of his voluntary retirement and let him have his head with the result that his mile-wide streak of insanity shows plainly. I quite like all the nonsense, certainly more than when the series stops being playful and takes itself seriously with a 15 minute cutscene on the history and ethics of extrapolated future technology.

MGS4 was one of a handful of titles I played through to completion while stuck in bed with a serious illness (the others being The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bladestorm: The Hundred Years War, GTA IV and Warriors Orochi; yes, I was sick for a long time). It was one of the last games I played through with my partner of the time, before we both got too busy for such indulgences, and followed on from us doing an MGS3 run. It has a special place in my heart for that as well as for bearing what might have been the hallmarks of the end of console wars if Sony hadn’t rapidly pulled its socks up and stopped being laughably rubbish.

Now that I’m amicably divorced (oh god you guys I have to do my own laundry and nobody else ever makes tea, it is the worst) I am quite unmoved at the prospect of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Not excited about a Metal Gear game – if that’s not generational fatigue I don’t know what is.

4. The Walking Dead
What I love about The Walking Dead is how much it antagonises the Game Police. I am so wretchedly tired of complaints that such-and-such is “not a GAME” because it doesn’t have scores or shooting or puzzles or whatever blasted differentiator Mr Internet has decided is lacking from something he doesn’t want to like, in case it causes him to grow an actual brain, after which he’ll have to learn to live with late-stage capitalism-induced existential horror just like the rest of us. What the heck does it matter what is and isn’t a game? Who died and made you the truthmaker? Get off the Internet. Go outside in the fresh air.

In The Walking Dead you walk around and click on things and make dialogue choices, which is all you do in any game, really, except that other games go out of their way to convince you your input matters when it doesn’t, whereas in The Walking Dead your input matters but it’s so cunningly concealed that you don’t even really notice it. When somebody compares it unfavourably to Call of Duty, which will mostly masturbate itself to the ending cinematic as long as you rubber band the left analog stick down, I wonder whether I can handle 20 to 30 years in jail for murder. After all, I won’t have to listen to such bullshit on a daily basis.

The Walking Dead here represents a whole spate of other games – Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther, to name just a few – which have told powerful stories, expressed artistic ideas, provided hours of entertainment, and worked with the strengths of the genre to its betterment rather than trying to shoehorn Hollywood into a medium that is equipped to surpass it.

I chose it over other key examples because I played through the first season while on Christmas holidays last year with my dad. Over the course of several days I kept up a running commentary of what was happening, just as I tell him about the books I’m reading and movies I’ve seen. When we got to the bit in the attic towards the end, where you find the little boy and have to make a hard decision, my voice faltered a bit. My dad looked at me with wondering eyes and said, “I didn’t know they made games with things like that in it.”

3. Fable 3
We will probably never get another game like Fable 3, and it is only thanks to my cynicism and general misanthropy that I can endure your claim that this is a good thing because Peter Molyneux is a liar, it’s a game for kids, et cetera et cetera I have tuned you out.

Now that the costs of development are so high, and the market so conservative, I fear the great age of creativity in the triple-A sphere is behind us. Indies will rise to replace it, providing us with an alternative to the Hollywood-style, blockbuster-focused business of the big publishers, but it’s not the same – a team of three working with $100,000 in Kickstarter pledges just can’t do what a team 100 would do with 20 or 30 or even 100 times that. No publisher stands ready to gamble any more, so every game – genre-breaking as it may be – will be endlessly over-produced, focus-tested, and polished until it shines with the same identical gleam as everything on the shelves next to it.

Fable 3 slipped through this net. The entire last third of the game is basically broken. Whether Lionhead ran out of time or money or support or, given how few gamers ever actually complete games, just didn’t care, we may never know. The point is Microsoft trusted then MGS boss Peter Molyneux and his team enough to release a game that wasn’t scrubbed raw of all personality. This will never be allowed to occur again. Better boring than boldly broken.

The ending hours of Fable 3 are often described as badly designed, where “badly designed” means “attempts something not exactly like every other game in the same genre, which didn’t quite work”. In times past, we used to celebrate the experiments, successful or otherwise – not condemn them. I’m not sure we’ll have a chance to correct this behaviour in the coming generation. We’ve bought ourselves into a corner.

Also: there’s a bit in Fable 3 where you’re exploring a temple in a desert and the darkness comes to life, then comes for you. I was alone, well after midnight, and under extreme stress in my personal life; it creeped me the fuck out. I paused the game to go to the Sanctuary and take a breather.

The darkness was waiting for me. I will go to the wall for Peter Molyneux.

2. Assassin’s Creed
If I had to pick one franchise as representative of the journey of the last generation, it would be the Creed. The first game was the last vestige of the previous generation’s incubation of new genres and ideas. The sequels went on to pick up and run with many of the trends that came to dominate the triple-A space over the past decade – annual sequels, DLC, online passes, extraneous (but notably innovative) multiplayer, feature glut, content glut, the exploitation of franchises, and multi-studio development.

Assassin’s Creed 3 was a mess, and Ubisoft suffered a shock over its reception; you’ll never convince me the game we’re getting this year wasn’t originally intended as Assassin’s Creed 3: Subtitle. Assassin’s Creed 4 was too far into its development cycle for Ubi to have enacted serious overhauls, although it certainly seems to have tried, but it won’t be till the first truly next-gen Assassin’s Creed that we see the benefits of lessons learned – assuming Black Flag sells well enough to ensure the three or four future games make it to market.

Until then, the series is both a celebration of the good and testament to the less successful experiments turned standard business practices of the era. If asked to nominate a favourite entry, I’d be torn between the simple elegance of the first game, which we’d probably now describe as user-unfriendly, and Brotherhood, which was the last release to avoid painfully demonstrating that Ubisoft had begun frothing at the mouth.

1. Mass Effect
Mass Effect! I love you so tenderly. I love you so much that at one point you were a serious strain on my relationship, because every time you put out a new release or DLC or comic book or trailer I’d drop everything up to and including a fully grown adult and rush off to consume it in a private orgy of delight. I love you so much I let your multiplayer dominate my gaming for months – something games writers can’t really afford to do – and I shelled out for licensed peripherals with your logo on them since my workday keyboard and mouse don’t really cut it for competitive gaming. I love you so much I have this hoodie, and whenever someone in the street shouts “HELLO COMMANDER” at me (about once a month) I reply with “I should go” and everybody has the raddest day.

There’s no point me going into raptures over the deep character customisation; the incredible performance of Jennifer Hale as The One True Shep; the meaningful, consequential decisions system; the plethora of charming content; the astoundingly well-executed save imports; the carefully evolved RPG shooter hybrid gameplay; the compelling soft sci-fi universe; the promotion of a female protagonist, late in the day but still bold and much appreciated; and the cast of characters we came to know, love, and even shack up with. You already know all that.

Mass Effect was the first game that ever made me, personally, feel like a real hero. It was the first game to make my heart beat a little faster in the throes of a virtual crush. It was the first game where I was unable to indulge in my usual habit of min-maxing until everything is broken because I was having feelings. Gosh!

I don’t think I’m alone in this. The reception to the game’s ending is testament to the power this short series had over gamers this generation. “I’ve never seen a reaction like this,” Pat told me at the time. Neither of us has ever figured out whether BioWare’s decision was the right one, or what ramifications it might have for the industry, but we do know that the tidal wave of anger and vitriol was one of the greatest compliments the developer could have received – and well deserved.

Honourable mentions: Portal and its sequel, Nier, Vanquish, Deadly Premonition, Journey, Just Cause 2, Minecraft, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Steph already nominated Red Dead Redemption, Demon’s Souls and Rock Band. I loved a few 2K releases but I won’t talk about them as my housemate is the local PR rep. I played my first MMO this generation, The Secret World, and loved it.

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25 Comments

  1. Francis O

    Fable 3 is utter trash, but the rest of the list is cool.

    #1 9 months ago
  2. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough

    So is the first Ass Creed. And who really thinks ME is better than ME2?

    Each to their own, I guess.

    #2 9 months ago
  3. Mr_Weasel_

    My top franchises or games this gen would have to be:

    Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham games
    Mass Effect Series
    Assassin’s Creed 2
    Halo 3
    Bioshock and Bioshock infinite

    But by far my favourite has to be the Batman games :3

    #3 9 months ago
  4. Darkfield

    @2 except assassin’s creed the first was better than everything came after it, haven’t touched black flag to form an opinion on it, nor will I ever have.

    Mass Effect 1 was the best in the installment, it had some tedious inconveniences like the buggy planetary explorations but it was great on every front specially the story and the build up.

    #4 9 months ago
  5. Edo

    Fable 3?For reelz!?!?

    #5 9 months ago
  6. TheWulf

    Fable III turned out better than I expected it to. I was put off initially by the shots of a guy in big armour slaying wolves, which had me thinking it was more of a typical fantasy affair. That’s not the way to sell your game to people who’re tired of that, and a way to falsely sell it to people who love that.

    Still, I gave it a shot, as I do, and it turned out to be okay. It wasn’t as good as Fable II in general, but I did enjoy the steampunk aesthetic it had. I suppose the biggest problem with it was that aside from becoming a king, I don’t think it had enough character of its own. Certainly lots of borrowed character (even an underground vault, borrowed from Fallout) but not so much of its own.

    Where Fable III absolutely shone though was its characters and character writing. In that area, it was a sublime experience and one I’d like to enjoy again. I just fear that unless they do something to shake the series up a bit, though, it’ll become stale.

    I honestly wish they’d used the steampunk stuff to better effect, rather than just for flavour. Of course, most of it was for the entertainingly evil Reaver, who was voice acted so superbly by Stephen Fry.

    I’d love to see them embrace a strange fantasy experience at some point, sort of along the lines of Arcanum.

    Still! Good character writing. So I enjoyed it, and I certainly enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. I just tend to come away from it longing for it to be more of its own thing. Not a bad game, just one that infuriatingly had so much promise of individuality and originality that it never truly cashed in on as much as it should have.

    #6 9 months ago
  7. Keivz

    Awesome screenshot choices there with some great writing, too. I think I’ll make my own personal list in a similar format… I’ve done something similar in the past and the nostalgia you get from looking back years down the line is priceless.

    I don’t agree with most of what’s on this list though, and have found this whole generation to be largely overrated and underwhelming. I had a hard time choosing 5 gems myself (I’m seriously considering ‘gaming retirement’ tbh).

    My personal top 5 would be
    1. GTA IV (waiting on the PC version to play V)
    2. The Witcher
    3. Mass Effect (series)
    4. Bayonetta
    5. Gears of War

    #7 9 months ago
  8. Inspectre

    Mass Effect…
    <3

    #8 9 months ago
  9. fihar

    “Now that I’m amicably divorced”
    Sadface.

    You know, after the first few hours I’ve spent with AC3, I was absolutely horrified that people actually thought that it was crap but then I get to spend more time with the game and I wasn’t anymore.
    Whoever designed the missions in that game need to be shot, and stabbed, repeatedly.

    Ubisoft really need to stop shoehorning important historical events into the game if it doesn’t fit with the whole Assassin theme in the first place.
    I can forgive the Homestead missions for being rather trivial because it was meant to give a slice-of-life feel into the game but to have the main story missions as dumb and unassassin-esque as the Paul Revere’s Ride and the Boston Tea Party is idiotic and definitely not fun.

    #9 9 months ago
  10. Dark

    No DmC? :P

    #10 9 months ago
  11. Obernox

    @2 Mass Effect 1 was IMMENSELY better then 2 or 3. It was a true RPG with a better skill tree, better gear, better class system, and MAKO!

    #11 9 months ago
  12. polygem

    i loved fable 1 and 2…but 3 was a disappointment. i still really like that franchise though and hope we will see another great fable game at some point.

    #12 9 months ago
  13. Legendaryboss

    Dave, Steph and Brenna all have at least one of my GOTY each and honourable mentions, kudos.

    #13 9 months ago
  14. ninjanutta

    Uncharted series dosent get a look in??????? your all mental im afraid

    #14 9 months ago
  15. FreeZZa

    @11 Mass Effect 1 was the best as a pure RPG but as a game 2 was WAY better. So much more condensed and the pacing was so much better. And the final mission? Come on ;). And the Mako sucked ass, I hated that thing :D. But tastes are different ;).

    #15 9 months ago
  16. DrDamn

    “The ending hours of Fable 3 are often described as badly designed”

    Just the end of the game? It lost me completely when I looted a chest, found some new gloves and had to transport back to my house and *walk* to the wardrobe room to put them on!

    That’s the divisive one in your list, I can see why you have included it in your reasoning. I think that only applies to some companies though.

    #16 9 months ago
  17. Takeshi

    Batman Arkham series
    Uncharted series
    Mass Effect series
    The Witcher series
    Metro series

    Definitely playing through Batman, Witcher and Metro again when I get a high-end gaming rig.

    #17 9 months ago
  18. Cobra951

    No mention of Red Dead Redemption? By anyone? How about the Elder Scrolls universe? This gen can’t be discussed without involving Oblivion and Skyrim. GTA? Borderlands? How can Fable 3 be on that list, but not any of these? “Games of the Generation”–not “My Personal Faves”. That’s a whopper of a title, and it carries some responsibility.

    #18 9 months ago
  19. FreeZZa

    @18 Definitely agreed on RDR, not TES though. I played Oblivion for a couple of hours, didn’t do it for me. Never played Skyrim and I don’t intend to do so.

    It’s damn hard to narrow my favs down to 5. Gears of War Serie, Uncharted (2), Halo (3), Assassin’s Creed (2), GTA (V), Red Dead Redemption (would be #1 whatsoever), Batman Arkham, Rock Band, BioShock (Infinite), Portal, Mass Effect, DiRT 2, Minecraft, Trials Evolution, Battlefield: Bad Company 2; Hell, even Mirror’s Edge and Enslaved were great games. Imagine narrowing these down to 5… Damn.

    #19 9 months ago
  20. Stephany Nunneley

    @18 I had both RDR and Skyrim in my top 5 yesterday, and honorably mentioned Borderlands 2 because I have played the living hell out of it – twice! ;)

    #20 9 months ago
  21. loki

    fable 3 facepalm

    #21 9 months ago
  22. karma

    #1: “Fable 3 is utter trash, but the rest of the list is cool.”

    Agreed, F3 was an awful follow up to F2, which was the best in the fable series, and even then it wasn’t all that great. IMO the Fable games always showed potential but they never quite found their footing.

    Assassins Creed is another series I didn’t like (well at least in the beginning) The first bunch of titles I found a tad boring due to the setting and clunky gameplay mechanics. Then AC3 came along and the new setting and improved gameplay started to click for me. Looking forward to playing Blackflag when I have the funds.

    As for my fave games of this/last gen > Fallout: New Vegas and 3 are at the top of my list followed by BioShock 1 and 2, The Witcher 2, ES4 Oblivion, Batman AA + AC, Farcry 3, RDR, Dishonoured, SR3, Mass Effect 1 and 3 and the whole Dead Space series.

    Also special mention to XCOM EU because while it didnt quite bring back the glory days of X-COM it did bring back turn based tactical games that I personally have missed for the majority of this generation and the previous gen.

    #22 9 months ago
  23. TheWulf

    I honestly think the only reason that Fable III was a disappointment was because it could have been more of its own thing, but it chose to still be a very typical fantasy RPG, choosing to only utilise the steampunk stuff a little bit for flavour.

    If they’d gone down the Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura route, then they would have had something much more engaging. I feel that there’s something of a disconnect there between their admittedly wonderful writers, and their world designers.

    It’s sort of similar to the problem I have with GW2. Except the writing in Fable III really is sublime, I fell in love with the characters, Walter especially. (I hated that they killed Walter, it felt like a cheap way to shoehorn some negative emotion into the game, which verged a little too much on teen-fiction for my liking.)

    So, the character writing was good, and the ideas for the lore and the world were good, but then the game had little connection with any of that and proceeded to be almost exactly the same as Fable II. So, yes, whilst it was incredibly easy to play Fable III due to it playing exactly how Fable II did, I’m incredibly disappointed by it.

    See, after moving from bows to pistols in Fable II, I suspected that Fable III would have much more interesting mechanics, that Fable III would be less of a typical RPG setting. In fact, Fable III was even more of one than Fable II since instead of fighting weird bug creatures, the pests in that game were wolves. (No, Fable, you’re not Skyrim.)

    I did get to dress up as steampunk Iron Man, though, with a steampunk dog. So that was awesome. But still. I just hope that with future Fable games (if that ever happens), they’ll choose to realise the potential of their own world, more, and actually change up their gameplay mechanics.

    #23 9 months ago
  24. cityoftreesca

    I don’t know what the hell is going on or what the rules are but I see people making lists and I think that’s fun and I want to join in so here ya go, no particular order:

    - GTA V, IV (not sure which is better)
    - Red Dead (I think this game is as close to perfect as we got in this generation)
    - MGS4
    - Skate
    - Max Payne 3

    #24 9 months ago
  25. Djoenz

    Mass Effect! ! ! best of the series. I salute you!

    #25 9 months ago

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