Summer sales represent an excellent opportunity to explore the last generation of gaming on the cheap, and so we present to you, in no particular order, the most underrated, undersold and under-appreciated games of the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation.
One of a couple of new IP JRPGs of the same era that went straight under the radar, Lost Odyssey stands among the best examples of the genre - in any generation. Hailing from Mistwalker, the company founded by "father of Final Fantasy" Hironobu Sakaguchi to do the things Square Enix wouldn't gamble its top franchise on, it was, perhaps unfortunately, first released on Xbox 360, presumably as part of Microsoft's many (historically less half-hearted) attempts to bring Japanese and JRPG fans over to its side of the fence.
It's mysterious that this game wasn't pushed more as an incredible amount of love (and work) went into it; it spans four discs, plus DLC, and boasts incredible production values. Protagonist Kaim is one of the sulkiest fellows ever to grace a game cover, but his millennia of existence provides some rich lore to explore, and the soundtrack is an absolute stunner. You don't get much more traditional-JRPG-meets-western-budget than this.
"No other game gives you a trophy for diving off the Eiffel Tower."
One of the many products of the open world fever that gripped us at the end of the PS2 era and into the next, The Saboteur was one of those difficult projects that didn't quite find its audience, resulting in the closure of Pandemic and the shelving of DLC plans.
The Saboteur, like any game, certainly has its issues, but it's packed with astonishingly courageous decisions. The conceit of marking resistance-held areas by an ethereal, pastoral aesthetic while the Nazi-controlled regions reman starkly black and white is something you'd never see come out of triple-A today. Pandemic poured a ridiculous amount of money into its facial graphics tech (with mixed results, admittedly). WWII France is huge, gorgeous, and filled with occasionally mental content; you can see the seams where the creative team was split and restitched and hurried to launch date. But no other game gives you a trophy for diving off the Eiffel Tower.
It's hard even to know where to begin talking about where Alpha Protocol went wrong, but in hindsight, the developer-publisher combination of Obsidian and Sega might be a clue. A difficult project, the ups and down of which have been charted in some fascinating retrospectives, Alpha Protocol is an almost unbearably bold mish-mash of gameplay styles, attempting to bring the modern third-person RPG out of the realm of fantasy and into other settings, a thing only Mass Effect had really managed at the time.
A little like Deadly Premonition, (which went from unknown to great cult celebration in a reversal of Alpha Protocol's fortunes), the espionage thriller was highly divisive. Some players simply could not forgive the many technical issues it launched with, and others just found its core systems too weird or swallow. Nowadays the vision doesn't seem so kooky, and Obsidian makes a quiet little income off back-catalogue sales.
This is a shooter from one of the teams regularly called in to assist on Call of Duty, with a string of successful first-person games to its name. Rather than the usual "shoot the terrorists" setting it has a time-travelling plot with three possible endings and enough back and forth to make the hokey pokey look relatively static. And instead of adding a new kind of grenade and calling it a day, the gameplay boldly deviates from the generic realms of shooterdom by throwing in a time manipulation power, among other twists, and keeping one foot very firmly in the survival horror camp.
Doesn't that sound like a game everyone ought to have played, loved, and never shut up about? And yet here we are today, with you sort of staring blankly at us while we slap your face with a copy of Singularity and shout "this is why mainstream shooters have become identical you great pillock!"
Enslaved: Journey to the West
"A brave attempt by Namco Bandai to fly in the face of flagging sales as other publishers grimly knuckled under to make sequels."
Remember how for a while there nobody was making any new IP? Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was one of the last precious properties to be born before it became apparent that trough was going to stick around for a while, and was a brave attempt by Namco Bandai to fly in the face of flagging sales as other publishers grimly knuckled under to make sequels. We've waxed lyrical and at great length on the boldness of this move, which went sadly unrewarded by sales, despite a belated PC port.
Whether it is the gamer's general reluctance to enjoy AI companions, a surfeit of third-person action adventure games, a lack of appreciation for the colourful post-apocalyptic setting, or just the ennui of generational fatigue, Enslaved was unfairly overlooked and deserves another chance.
A JRPG set within the dreams of the composer Chopin as he lay on his deathbed, and - wait, where are you going?
One of the few modern video games to pay such loving tribute to classical music, Eternal Sonata is beautiful, whimsical, and stuffed to the brim with goodness. With twice the charm of the far better known Dragon Quest, and more genuine exploration of the possibilities of JRPG conventions than Final Fantasy, Eternal Sonata is a delight for all the senses. A few stray criticisms - it's too short, there's no open world - fail to appreciate Tri-Crescendo's admirably complete and discrete work of art, which wraps itself up so neatly and beautifully that to wish for more would be a small sin.
The first tentative steps towards a new approach to SRPG out of Japan in a long, long time, that Valkyria Chronicles sold so poorly is a crime for which you will never be forgiven.
Valkyria Chronicles is more than the sum of its parts - the gorgeous, cel-shaded graphics; vast cast of (almost universally high quality) characters; gripping war story and unusual get-in-the-action tactical gameplay. It is a masterpiece. Fans of XCOM and Fire Emblem should apply, and Nintendo's upcoming Codename: STEAM owes much to Sega.
"Once the platform holder decided to commit it jumped in with both feet."
Oh yes, it's easy to write off MAG - especially now that it's gone offline - but this shooter really needs one last hurrah before we send it into the dark. Sony was a little bit late getting on board the whole "online console network" thing and the PSN's rocky beginnings did not help Zipper's effort along, but once the platform holder decided to commit it jumped in with both feet. It built a "massive action game" at a time when we still weren't entirely sure if this was the future of games or just an interesting footnote in history (spoilers: comment threads are filled with people still arguing that multiplayer isn't important).
You can't play MAG now, because it was multiplayer only, and nothing has come along to succeed it; no other console shooter is capable of supporting 256 players. It turns out we maybe don't actually want 256 players concurrently as the resulting chaos isn't delightful, but whatever; this needed to exist. Well done, Sony. Keep that tech in the bank; you'll probably need it pretty soon.
A spin-off of the Drakengard series, Nier was one of the last games made by the much-mourned Cavia before it folded. Thank goodness the loving fans in Square Enix's management deigned to resurrect the team for Drakengard 3. Much maligned at release, Nier is one of those games that rewards effort, giving back as much as you care to put in - not an appreciated approach in today's world of instantaneous gratification, and especially not as what Nier gives out is mostly literary playfulness, an ironic exploitation of RPG tropes, and a whole lot of weirdness.
An action RPG with bullet hell sections, an emphasis on subtext and the written word, and a core party composed of a cynically designed "western appeal" gritty hero, a dead child and a takes-no-shit half demon intersex arse-kicker does not make for mainstream appeal. A much darker world and story than it initially suggests, Nier only gives up all its secrets after at least four play throughs, at which point it will erase your save file in one of the most unusual acts of video game self-awareness since the original Metal Gear Solid. A cult fandom continues to explore the further offerings of the Nier and Drakengard universe, translating interviews and art books - and for good reason.
Yakuza 3 and Yakuza 4
"Yakuza Studio has built hundreds of interactive stores offering food, real video games, romance opportunities and other amusements, apparently just because it can."
Toshihiro Nagoshi took up the mantle of Japanese open-world games when Yu Suzuki and Shenmue bowed out. A fellow Sega production, the Yakuza series has always been released in limited numbers in the west, and with little marketing support from the publisher, so it's really no surprise it went under the radar. It is, however, a great shame.
The Yakuza series combines an old-school beat-'em-up combat system with RPG quests, inventory management levelling - so far so whatever, right? - but sets all this action not in a high fantasy world but the streets of modern-day Japan. Telling what is no doubt supposed to be a gritty true-to-life story of the very real criminal organisations that haunt Japan, but instead tending heavily towards the J-drama end of the narrative scale, Yakuza offers an unrivalled opportunity to explore the neon playgrounds of Tokyo. Yakuza Studio has built hundreds of interactive stores offering food, real video games, romance opportunities and other amusements, apparently just because it can.
A much more traditional western-style game than Yakuza, Binary Domain still retains that trademark Nagoshi flair. It's one of a number of one-off shooters produced by Japanese teams during the last generation as publishers struggled to straddle domestic and international markets, but it has several differentiating factors that make it well worth checking out even if you think you've seen all the world of headshots can offer.
The least of these innovations is a voice command system, which seemed novel at the time but quickly became de riguer thanks to Microsoft's championship of Kinect, and works just about as well as you'd expect, unfortunately. More interestingly, the game's cast is peppered with differing personality types and the player must weave a complex diplomatic dance to keep them all onboard, or risk having their orders - issued via voice or control pad - ignored. It's not enough to get a walkthrough and choose all the "right" dialogue options; fluff one firefight too many and your party members will turn their back on you, uninspired by your leadership. This unique mechanic and a compelling sci-fi story make Binary Domain worth the trouble.
Age of Conan: Unchained
"Among MMO aficionados Age of Conan is praised for its deviations from the gameplay conventions of competing titles."
If you were to judge solely by chatter you'd be excused for thinking Age of Conan: Unchained didn't exist at all, but it is, in fact, a full scale triple-A MMO that remains one of Funcom's most reliably profitable enterprises, especially since its free-to-play relaunch. Its unfortunately buggy launch has hung over it, but Age of Conan has moved far enough since those days that it has more than earned another chance at winning your heart.
Among MMO aficionados Age of Conan is praised for its deviations from the gameplay conventions of competing titles; the world of Hyboria may seem familiar at first, but that's because the IP inspired much of the low fantasy that came after it. Funcom hasn't settled on trotting out fantasy tropes, working conventions of the genre into the lore itself, and building a richly detailed and surprisingly dark game world. Like stablemate The Secret World, Age of Conan offers a high level of customisation - both of the vanity and gameplay variety - and distinguishes itself further with one of the best melee systems of any RPG, and genuinely tactical combat.
Okay friends, imagine this: From Software, the team behind Dark Souls, tackles the "stylish action" (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta) genre. Did you just make a mess in your panties? And yet Ninja Blade is relatively unknown, and certainly uncelebrated. Probably because it has the least interesting title of all time and released exclusively on the Xbox 360 at a time when games by Japanese developers got about as much love from Microsoft fans as a proctology visit.
As part of the then-burgeoning trend among Japanese devs to appeal to westerners, the game's protagonist, Ken, was designed under the influence of Hollywood, and the action cinematic feel is obvious throughout. It didn't help; the Otogi spiritual successor sunk without a trace despite receiving perfect and near-perfect review scores. We don't deserve nice things.
Sometime in the middle of being a hardcore PC developer, churning out dozens of forgettable family friendly affairs, and then being a hardcore PC developer again with Elite: Dangerous, Frontier Developers managed to squeeze out LostWinds, a WiiWare launch title and exclusive that lingers on in the mind long after the adventures of Toku and Enril have come to an end. That this one hasn't been brought to Wii U yet is one of the great tragedies of the industry.
LostWinds is an optionally two player affair in which players can control the wind. The platforming and puzzle solving that result from this gimmick are almost flawless, but it's the unique, indescribable atmosphere that pervades the game, even more than the satisfying wind mechanic, that makes this one so memorable. This looks better than any early WiiWare title has a right to.
Another Mistwalker effort, Blue Dragon is the first game from Sakaguchi following his departure from Square Enix, and it shows. A more traditional RPG than Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon speaks to the classic Final Fantasy fan, she who values FF9 and FF6 over their flashier, more modern cousins.
With the traditional overworld dungeon split, a colourful party, turn-based combat and a comfortably familiar, kid-friendly aesthetic, it looks somewhat generic at first - but what makes Blue Dragon stand out is the "shadows" system. Similar to Final Fantasy's job system, but with more flexibility, this mechanic remains one of the most tactically satisfying character customisation systems in traditional JRPGs - and that's saying a lot.
"A bold new fictional setting and a surprisingly robust multiplayer suite."
Homefront was THQ's attempt to break into the space dominated by Call of Duty, something nobody has yet really managed. As the industry has become increasingly hit-focused, the 35 million strong Call of Duty crowd has become something of a holy grail - or perhaps a holy pie, which everyone wants a slice of.
Unfortunately, the culture that supports juggernauts like Call of Duty and GTA also leaves no room for near-misses, and Homefront, despite selling respectably, has gone down in gaming consciousness as a failure. It's far from that, and has plenty to offer besides being a pretty decent shooter - a bold new fictional setting and a surprisingly robust multiplayer suite that had a lot more going for it than many contemporary releases.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2
The middle of this last generation resulted in a great dearth of tactics and strategy titles. The genres are slowly working back into relevancy with titles like XCOM and Fire Emblem, and we've seen several great releases on PC over the past few years, but for a couple of years there it was pretty much StarCraft or nothing in terms of mainstream appreciation. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2 was an unfortunate victim of this softness in the market, and its triumphs have been only quietly celebrated.
What makes Dawn of War 2 worth checking out in the long term is its use of RPG mechanics, but it's the immediately compelling, surprisingly fast-paced tactical combat that first captures the attention, perhaps thanks to the elimination of all that base-building nonsense - in Dawn of War 2, you invest in gear and people, not temporary places. There's a great deal of replayability in the single-player campaign as a result.
Spec Ops: The Line
"A profoundly moving experience that foregrounds a lot of aspects of modern violent game design."
A controversial entry here, as some of the VG247 staff feels this didn't get enough love, and another faction feels it got too much. We definitely feel comfortable saying this one is worth a look just for its divisiveness, though.
Based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops tells a story as dark and familiar as the armpit of the night. Don't bother with the multiplayer, as you're not here for the shooting; you're here for a war story that will leave you hot and cold by turns. For some people, the classic sting in the tale's tail is a cheap gimmick, and for others it's a profoundly moving experience that foregrounds a lot of aspects of modern violent game design we normally sweep under the rug.
This is one of those projects that had all the right ingredients and a solid method, and yet when it came out of the oven all delicious and scented nobody wanted to eat the damn thing. Conan was an attempt to build on the success of combat-centric games like Ninja Gaiden and God of War, but with the gore and "adult" sexual themes foregrounded and turned up to 11. Add to this the rabid Conan fanbase (it's a thing, really) and this should have been one of "the" games of 2007.
Maybe THQ fumbled the launch, or maybe back in those heady days we were so spoiled for choice on the then-new platforms that we overlooked a familiar face among the splurges of new IP. But if you can stomach the excesses of violence and nudity, which can feel a bit cynical and tacky, you'll find a pretty solid action game that has suffered from too much comparison to Kratos and not enough appreciation of its own merits. Don't talk to us about the Graven fight, though.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
If there's anything to must be said for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning it's that 38 Studios did not stint on content; this fantasy runs far beyond the play limit you expect from a modern RPG, and you can feel the cancelled MMO that was to follow, Copernicus, luring in the shadows at the edge of the game design.
But you've really got to praise the combat. So few RPGs manage to make gameplay feel as fluid and immediately responsive as pure action and yet allow for stats and attributes to be gratifyingly consequential. The setting, a product of collaboration between RA Salvatore and Todd McFarlane, is perhaps ultimately too generic, but the lore that pours out in great gushing spurts every time you get the game excited shows a remarkable awareness of writing with games in mind. A sequel might have had a chance at being the perfect western high fantasy action RPG; as it was, Reckoning must be among the best.
"Combines the pyrotechnic tactical choices of Rollcage with the addictive, teeth-grinding versus dynamics of Mario Kart."
One of the last triple-A projects out of Disney before the publisher washed its hands of everything but Skylanders clones forevermore, Split/Second came along at just the wrong time. Racers sell most strongly on new hardware, because they're perfectly suited to exploit new advances in graphics tech. By 2010, that time was already passed, we were just months ahead of the slow falls of several major racing franchises, and Black Rock's gorgeous, dynamic worlds couldn't get a sniff in.
If you enjoy racing at all - like, at all - Split/Second is really worth a look, because it captures the sheer joy of tearing around in very fast machines. It does this by gleefully blowing up the levels around you, often to your benefit and the frustration of your foes, in a mechanic that combines the pyrotechnic tactical choices of Psygnosis classic Rollcage with the addictive, teeth-grinding versus dynamics of Mario Kart.
"The Club is much more skill-based than it first seems, rewarding the twitchy and punishing the hesitant."
Here's another one that might have been ahead of its time. Fashions in gaming go in cycles, and as we're now just starting to see tactical shooters edge back into the spotlight it's hard to remember there was a time when run-and-gun action was looked upon with pity and disdain.
Occasionally described as "a racing game with guns", The Club is frenetic and much more skill-based than it first seems, rewarding the twitchy and punishing the hesitant. Nothing else has ever quite captured the feel of its unique gameplay. If it launched today, with full the social support of new consoles, you'd probably see one of those tiresome months where every gamer in the world seems to be tweeting challenges to beat their high score.
Motion controls, and especially the Kinect, have such a bed reputation amongst gamers that it's quite likely many copies of this Xbox 360 pack-in have never even been opened. A collection of mini-games designed to show off the capabilities of Microsoft's new controller, Kinect Adventures is one of the few showcases that is also actually pretty fun to play.
Not every mini-game is as satisfying as it could be, but the ones that are fun are brilliant with a few mates over - or even over Xbox Live. The collection's tendency to take photos of you at your most awkward moments is fiendish and therefore hilarious, especially when you're quietly working your way through story mode and feeling a bit ashamed about how compelling the progression system is. Hold your head high, mate; we've all done it.
Straddling genres and reinventing them for new platforms is a risky business, and The Outfit is a poster child for the mixed success of this bold approach. From PC strategy master Relic Entertainment, The Outfit waters down its strategic elements a little too thoroughly, but on the other hand is an excellent example of how to avoid all the fiddly bits that make the genre so difficult to sell on consoles, and taking your game online to face real human foes ups the required thinking considerably.
At the end of the day, this is a game where you blow things up with tanks, and it's pretty hard to argue with that - especially when the thing you're blowing up include "the whole enormous sodding level". Wheee!
Shadows of the Damned
"Shadows of the Damned is what happens when Suda is asked to write an elevator pitch for a western executive."
One of the must frustrating aspects of gaming is that the most beautiful and unusual creations tend to die on release, and it's only when their organs are harvested for other projects that we come to truly appreciate them. This is the culture in which Goichi Suda, a man with enough imagination to power a dirigible, must attempt to sell games. Shadows of the Damned, in which our Latin Lover descends to Hell to rescue his girlfriend, is what happens when Suda is asked to write an elevator pitch for a western executive.
Gloriously marketed in the dying throes of EA Partners, Shadows of the Damned failed to ignite hype, but it is both a better and a weirder game than its dismissive detractors assume. Suda cannot hide his light under EA's bushel, and when push comes to shove Grasshopper Manufacture can't resist making a tight action game.
There's an argument that games need to be immediately compelling, and it's a fair one. If you have to play for so many hours before "it gets good", why wouldn't you just play something else? This is perhaps one of the reasons why so many people chose to play something other than Brütal Legend, which hides all its most interesting elements - namely RTS-style combat and some genuinely funny writing - behind hours and hours of third-person action adventure.
For those who brave those opening hours, or who are attracted by the game's sensational rock soundtrack, the effort is well-rewarded. This was the game that drove Double Fine to go completely indie, and for that we must thank the cold, unfeeling games industry, even as we mourn the fact that we'll probably never see a sequel build on what promised to be an incredible formula.
"The gameplay goes from brainless blast-a-thon to tight, controlled and arguably even tactical action."
Bulletstorm is an easy game to hate. The marketing was over the top stupid, and lacking the self-aware detachment that would have made its sheer, mind-numbing testosterone piquant rather than distasteful. The grinning madness with which it invited you to get silly was always going to offend, and not for the reasons People Can Fly probably intended.
Which is a great shame, because Bulletstorm is a great deal of silly fun, and as shooters go, one of the most rewarding. Put in your time and score those ridiculous skill shots and you'll find the gameplay goes from brainless blast-a-thon to tight, controlled and arguably even tactical action. Plus, it's pretty funny when you shoot them in the ballsack. What? It is.
Platinum Games is one of those developers, like Grasshopper, that makes excellent games nobody spends enough money on. And like many games on this list, Vanquish was developed with a cynical eye to appealing to the western market. Turns out that no matter how well you wrap it up the Call of Duty brigade is not going to buy a Japanese mechasuit third-person shooter, and the Japanese-games loving crowd is not into "generic" western-influenced designs.
Ignore both of these perspectives, though, and you'll find one of the most challenging action games of the generation. Relentlessly fast-paced and twitchy, Vanquish lives up to the claims its competitors wave about but never meet: it is visceral. Keep your dull plodding along corridors and letting the AI do the shooting; Vanquish only wants you if you're hard enough.
Of course we can't have hit on every uncelebrated success of the last generation - we haven't even started on indies! - so add your favourites in the comments below.