Note: this will be a multi-running series. There are a lot of games I haven't played yet, so if you don't see your favourite games here there's a good chance I either haven't played them yet, or that I simply haven't covered it so far. This episode will specifically be focusing on a small handful of some of the games that I consider to be the best.
First off, if anyone is actually reading this then I'd just like to say that I'm just as surprised as you are that I actually wrote a blog, let alone posted one on GameSpot. I can't guarantee that this is a full-fledged comeback, but for the time being I'm here to stay.
So without further delay, I present to you an incomplete list that is much more representative of how I feel about the current generation of gaming than a simple "GOTY" list. I don't play enough games from each year to make concrete claims about which game is the best, and I feel it's kind of pointless anyway. I'd much rather talk about games that I think are awesome no matter what year they were released.
There is no order to this list, it is a largely unorganized random stream of consciousness that I wrote as it came to me. Below each game I will link to a hand-picked music track favourite of mine from the afformentioned game. If you're too impatient to listen to them separately, I highly recommend listening to each track as you read each game's section. Thanks for reading and enjoy.
Mass Effect (2007, 2010, 2012)
It should come to no surprise to anyone that a dude with an N7 avatar is going to talk about Mass Effect. Mass Effect is kind of a sensitive topic for me because I feel very passionately about the franchise as a whole. I didn't care much for the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 but that's neither here nor there. The franchise as a whole is quite good, and while I personally think that Mass Effect has been on a steady decline since the first game, each entry in the series has its own unique strength that sets it apart - each piece of this franchise is an equal component to the entire experience. Where Mass Effect 1 is a thrilling chase across the galaxy as the first human Spectre full of intrigue and wonder, the second is a gritty Seven Samurai-esque romp across the dark corners of the galaxy to assimilate a team of pure badassery. Finally, we have the third game which is the culmination of everything we've accomplished as a player across the entire series. I have a lot of issues with the way certain aspects of the trilogy were handled in the final game but the core experience is a phenomenal rollercoaster ride from start to finish. It's disappointing that BioWare fell asleep in the last 15 minutes of the story, but they managed to salvage most of the core issues with the Extended Cut - which delivers on several of the inconsistencies made within the original final moments. Most importantly the Extended Cut manages to give Mass Effect 3 the send off it deserves - the memorial scene and final narration moments in particular - while maintaining the integrity of the original ending.
If you haven't played Mass Effect, I highly encourage you to do so. This is a heavily story-driven game with a first installment that is deeply rooted in RPGs with a heavy emphasis on exploration and player choice. It's true that this particular aspect of Mass Effect is largely an illusion, but it feels a bit less like the Mass Effect I fell in love with being largely absent in the third incarnation. Shooter elements are emphasized in the second and third, and while the changes made to the franchise are debatable it'd be hard to imagine a Mass Effect game without some of the now trademark mechanics like on-the fly ammo powers and Mass Effect 3's incredibly entertaining biotic detonations.
With Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 now available on the Xbox 360, PC, and PS3 in the form of the $60 "Trilogy" pack, now is the perfect time to jump in and experience an unforgettable trilogy with all of its ups and downs. A great balance of story and gameplay, with a particular high point of this series being on BioWare's excellent characters that permeate the entire series. Mass Effect's least interesting characters are better than most franchises best characters. That speaks volumes and is a huge testament to the quality of the writing here. Fantastic villains, particularly Saren and the Illusive Man (prominently displayed above behind Shepard in all their evil glory) with weighty moral choices that have you deciding things like who lives and who dies, and how far will you go to "get the job done" the Mass Effect trilogy is truly unlike anything else currently available. Not to mention that Command Shepard - the female Commander Shepard is one of the most badass characters in the existence of video games, especially if you play a slightly renegade style. That's sexy! If you have never played Mass Effect experiencing Jennifer Hale's superb performance you're truly missing out on one of the best female characters in gaming - and hey, if you prefer playing as a dude, that's cool. Dude shepard is fine.
With the announcement of Mass Effect 4, I personally hope that the franchise returns to its RPG roots rather than becoming more like every other third person shooter on the market, but in either case you can be damn well sure I'll probably be at the forefront of the legion of fans awaitng the advent of the next Mass Effect.
Mass Effect 1 music track: Spectre Induction
This is the track you hear when Commander Shepard becomes the first human Spectre ever in the entire galaxy.
Nier is single-handedly the most mistunderstood game of this generation. I feel so passionate about this game and it saddens me deeply that it received so much critical backlash upon release. I can guarantee that the large majority of reviewers that mediocrely scored Nier did not play the game farther than its first ending and simply left it at that. In truth, Nier doesn't truly shine until you replay it in New Game +. That might seem like a heavy requirement, but it's worth it. Nier features an odd story-telling mechanic that deliberately hides information from the player during the first run through the game. It's not only until the second playthrough (which begins just slightly over the games half-way point, so replaying the entire game is not necessary) when this information is fully revealed to you. In fact, there's actually major characters that are not even revealed until the second playthrough. Extended background history is revealed for the rest of the cast, and your entire perception of the entire storyline is forever altered. Everything you knew about Nier to this point was only half of the story - once previously perceived heroic deeds may now only be realized as potentially abhorrent actions, born of ignorance and misunderstanding.
Nier does all of this without making you feel like you're missing out on anything. It's not like when you play the game the first time you feel like there is something missing, and that's why it works so well - it's not until you replay the game from it's climactic middle point that you realize how much else was going on behind the scenes in which to you were absolutely ignorant. It's true that Nier does not stack up to more complex action games in terms of gameplay, but there's enough variation to keep things interesting throughout. It pays homage to various genres of games, there are clear nods to 2D platformers, shumps, survival horror, text-based adventures, you name it, Nier's probably been influenced by it in some capacity. The entire game dabbles in various camera angles that highlight the action and give nods to various other games. There's even a blatant reference to The Legend of Zelda. Nier does all of this while also maintaining its own unique individual identity, and is not reflective of a game with an identity crisis. It also has quite a few incredible boss fights which put numerous other games to shame.
Most importantly is probably the subject matter in which Nier deals with. Industry analysts frequently mention that the majority of gamers are between the ages of 18 to 35, and with a lot of us being males within this age category it's interesting to see Nier feature a 39 year old protagonist whose main motivating factors are to protect his 7 year old terminally ill daughter. Nier not only tugs at the heart strings, it shows just how far one man will go to protect the only thing that makes his life worth living. The supporting cast is fantastic too, and much like Mass Effect, one of Nier's greatest strengths is its remarkably deep set of intriguing characters.
Lets also not forget that Nier has hands-down, one of the single-best soundtracks ever composed for any game, ever. Also, your companions are a floating magical snobby talking book with a British accent, a foul-mouthed badass chick in lingerie, and a floating skeleton kid. That's pretty cool.
Nier music track: The Lost Forest
There's so many tracks to pick that choosing just one is nearly impossible. Nearly every track in the game features vocals of some kind - this is one of the rare few that doesn't. I chose it simply because it reminds me of the times I spent travelling the country side with my wacky group of companions on an absolutely unforgettable journey.
Lost Odyssey (2007)
Lost Odyssey is probably the most aptly named game I've ever played. It's the RPG swansong to Japanese RPGs of the "Golden Era", or whatever you want to call it except that it's on an HD console. With gameplay concepts that date all the way back to the original 1987 Final Fantasy on the Famicom, Lost Odyssey is truly a game for the 'hardcore' Japanese RPG fan. It also feels like a goodbye love letter to the genre - which is largely 'dead' in its current form. Lost Odyssey's style of RPG simply doesn't exist anymore. The genre has moved on, for better or worse, and this game was made for everyone who hated the fact that Final Fantasy XI was an MMO, or that FFXII had a real-time battle system.
I'm not going to make any claims that Lost Odyssey is one of the best games ever made, but it's a damn good one with a fantastic story. It features strictly old-school Japanese RPG gameplay with some really cool cinematic camera angles that highlight the action exceptionally well. Not to mention the simple yet really cool "ring" system that demands the player for actual input during attack sequences. Anyone who enjoyed one of the older Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games would be a fool to ignore. I've largely outgrown this genre of game, but I'll always have fond memories of Lost Odyssey which in a way is the culmination of all my years of gaming up to the point that I played it - it allowed me to say goodbye to a genre that was such a huge part of my life and to accept that it's gone. The "Thousand Years of Dreams" sequences that chronicle the life of the immortal 1000 year old Kaim Argonar, are perhaps some of the most poignant writing in any video game in existence - so much so in fact that the guy who wrote them is actually an award-winning short story writer, not really a surprising fact when the first dream in the game almost made me start f***ing crying. The rest of the cast is great too, if a little oddly dressed, but I'd expect nothing less from this style of RPG.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, Mistwalker, and Nobuo Uematsu crafted a masterpiece of an oldschool Japanese RPG for the longtime fan. I'd argue that Lost Odyssey is the best "Final Fantasy" that never existed, and it's living proof that Square Enix lost a part of its soul when they let these guys walk.
Lost Odyssey, I salute you for being the only game of your type on current-gen hardware. This game is the whole reason I even bought an Xbox 360, and what a ride it's been ever since.
Lost Odyssey music track: A Return, Indeed...
Gears of War (2006, 2008, 2011)
I've been debating whether to include this series as of the entire writing so far, but I feel its place is well deserved, especially the first game which is a personal favourite of mine and the pinnacle of all third-person shooters as far as I'm concerned. I think the above image is an accurate portrayal of what I love so much about it too. It's is a fantastic mix of gruesome third-person shooting action with intense survival horror elements. It's such a shame that the horror theme of Gears of War, in each it's atmosphere, presentation and soundtrack was largely abandoned in future games. The soundtrack is phenomenal in getting the feeling across that the world has just been absolutely ransacked by these nightmarish hordes of monsters and that it's been horrifically taxing on the world's inhabitants. Unfortunately they replaced the original composer with the dude who scores awful summer blockbuster films like Transformers, so you can kind of see where this is going. Even though Gears of War 2 is easily the worst game in the series for a variety of reasons, the series as a whole manages to stand strong with a relatively commendable third entry that ends the series on a high note without simply mimicking what made the original so good. It sets out to strive its own path making for a relatively exceptional game on its own without relying on the first two. Gears of War 3 also has a surprisingly well-written storyline and great character exposition which is something I was wholly not expecting. There's even a slight nod at the darkness of the original Gears of War near the end which I really enjoyed, I'm just kind of disappointed that they didn't bring back the horror elements in full-force.
I don't consider Gears of War to be anywhere close to being one of the "greatest trilogies of all time" or anything of that calibre, but the core three games, with particular emphasis on the superb original game and the surprisingly competent comeback of the third make it an overall high quality action series that's worth checking out but... bring a buddy; It's a lot better in co-op.
Gears of War 1 music track: Ephyra Streets II
This track plays while you're being swarmed by hordes of monstrous locust creatures in a destroyed city during nighttime. Epic.
Borderlands 2 (2009, 2012)
Borderlands was a good game, but Borderlands 2 is such a ridiculously massive improvement in nearly every facet of its design it's almost inconceivable that a game could improve this drastically. The three year wait between games may have seemed like an eternity for fans, but it just goes to show how a little bit of extra time can be put to good use.
My friend and I who both had doubts about whether this franchise was really that great were seriously surprised by how much we enjoyed the original game, so much so that we marathoned it over the entire Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and then shortly went out and acquired the sequel.
Not only is this game awesome, it's basically Diablo III for everyone who hated Diablo III. The similarities between Borderlands 2 and Diablo II are absolutely undeniable, and as a huge fan of Diablo II this game reignited a spark in me I thought died with the previous decade. Not only is this game insanely fun, and insanely addictive, it has some of the most hilarious dialogue ever seen in a game, and it also surprisingly has a pretty damn good storyline and an exceptionally brilliant villain. Handsome Jack is literally the biggest douche who constantly antagonizes you throughout the entire game. The final encounter with him at the end is one of the most satisfying moments in any game I've ever played.
Not to mention Claptrap is absolutely hilarious. Love that little guy.
Borderlands 2 music track: Southern Shelf Ambient
This sucker was really hard to find because I couldn't remember the name of the area it played it, but it's near the start of the game. I'm really disappointed to find out this song isn't on the official soundtrack but it's the first one that really stood out to me as I played. Its pulsing rhythm is hypnotic, and actually reminds me of Wolfgang Voight's Gas project, slightly.
These are but a handful of some of the best games released this gen... I'll be covering many more games at some point in the future, and I'm personally looking forward to the entry where I cover what I feel are the absolute worst games this gen