Lists! YouTube is full of lists! “10 things you missed in Halo 2”, “9 reasons to care about Assassin’s Creed”, “13 aardvarks in turn-based strategy games”.
They’re kind of stupid. But I wanted to do my own, so I pared it back a bit and have produced my own – simple – list.
The 5 best games
That’s right. As a lifelong games player, enthusiast, and developer, I feel I have a great deal of experience playing a wide variety of titles. So here is a list of what I consider to be the best games ever made. This is not really adjusted for time – it’s just what would be the most fun to play right now.
So, here we go, in reverse order for extra excitingness:
5. Halo 3
Halo, the classic shooter that propelled the original Xbox into the mainstream, can be hailed as the first (or at least one of the first, yes I hear you Goldeneye) FPS to successfully bring the genre to console and nail the controls on a gamepad. So much so, that nowadays when I play Call of Duty or Titanfall, I prefer using a gamepad over the traditional mouse-and-keyboard combo.
Halo 2 pushed the Xbox to the limit, and the multiplayer was sublime. But the single-player campaign left people wanting. Personally I didn’t enjoy playing the arbiter missions (I’m the chief!), and the ending was… well, it wasn’t there. They ran out of time!
Halo 3 corrected every mis-step Bungie made on Halo 2, and on a new console (the Xbox 360), the developers could step up the graphics a notch as well. The single player campaign is thoughtfully constructed with some fun maps, and they cleverly focused on the aspects of the game that were the most fun. There is ample opportunity to drive your warthog around, with AI soldiers manning the turrets, fly around in alien ships, and of course the “thirty seconds of fun” often touted by the developer is in plain sight, where you pick off a few bad guys, melee some others, hide from some shots, and finish off the group with a well-placed grenade.
Play the whole Bungie series! Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, Halo ODST and Halo Reach. Even better in multiplayer! Halo 4 was good as well. I think the internet jury is still out on Halo 5. It seems like the bar has been raised so many times that it’s very, very high, and 343 Industries is having a tough time clearing it.
4. Uncharted 4
You’ll need some high-rated sunglasses when playing this game, because the polish and shine on display is mesmerising. Uncharted made a name for itself on PlayStation 2 with the original, an interactive Indiana Jones adventure, drawing heavily on the Tomb Raider series for inspiration. Uncharted 2 improved across the board, but somehow Naughty Dog couldn’t repeat the success with number 3. It’s still good. If you have the time, play it, for nothing else than the continuity of the story. But the frustrating gunplay (I died many, many cheap deaths) had me tossing the controller away in anger several times.
Naughty Dog sensibly took a little break (working on the technically amazing, but personally not as enjoyable The Last Of Us in the meantime), and when they came back for Uncharted 4 everything has been made perfect. Seriously, I don’t know how they could make this product any better. I really like and care about the characters, the way they play off each other is inspired, and the gameplay is ridiculously fun. Nate snaps to cover satisfyingly, and the forgiving platforming will make you feel like a superhero swinging off ropes and clinging onto cracks in walls.
Graphically, I had to rub my eyeballs several times to drink in the sights. Perhaps this comment will sound dated in another 5, 10, or more years, but it feels like we are pushing our way out of the uncanny valley now. It’s still not photoreal, but it is gorgeous. The colours and lavish scenery will really spoil you, if you have enough time to notice while so swept up in the world of A Thief’s End.
3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I’ve covered this before, and my recommendation stands! It’s simply the most effective turn-based strategy game I’ve ever touched. The animations of soldiers as they vault over scenery and pop a shot around the corner is deeply satisfying, and the threat from the aliens is real. When your soldiers die, they’re gone forever. And so without any specific effort on Firaxis’s part, they spun some incredible stories just through the nature of the mortal qualities of my characters. I spent hours with them on various missions, then all of a sudden, they die. In one case I had one amazing soldier who made it through the whole game, only to die in the last mission, but ensuring success and humanity’s survival. It was a specific route that only ever played out in my game, and I felt quite emotional when the credits scrolled by.
XCOM 2 was also great. Probably just as great, maybe even a little more. Just play both, okay? They’re good on iPad, but I might suggest keyboard-and-mouse (or even Steam controller) for the best experience.
2. Mass Effect 2
Much has been said about Commander Shepard and his galactic fight about The Reapers, and it’s difficult to know what to add. The whole series is great, but this felt like the game that raised the bar even higher than players’ lofty expectations after the original was released.
I love the freedom Bioware gave us to shape a hero to our own liking, allowing us to choose the gender of our protagonist, and giving equally valid options to resolve conflicts with powerful words or punishing weapons. In many ways it is Star Wars: The Game, a beloved space opera which is less sci-fi and more gripping thriller, with sexy technological undertones.
The characters you add to your squad are well-rounded and charismatic, and in this release they improved the gameplay competently. Play Mass Effect 3 as well of course, just don’t miss out on this one.
1. The Witcher 3
The first Witcher game was not so accessible, but when CD Project Red came round to making the sequel, they improved their franchise in just about every way possible. The Witcher 2 was a mature, deep adventure game for adults. Combining believable characters with a fascinating plot that you could actually shape yourself – like really: huge swathes of the game were different depending on whether you sided with humans or the other races, and different plots would activate depending how you resolved various other quests. The fighting system was fun, just hard enough in normal mode (to give you that nervous edge while fighting for your life), and the multiple endings were satisfying. This review won’t go into spoilers, but I like how they bucked a videogame trope and didn’t make me do something that all other games make me do.
CD Project was also not afraid to deal with some powerful themes as well. Torture, homelessness, rape and more is discussed, and as a powerful force yourself, you feel the responsibility to take action and correct some misdeeds. The gore is explicit but not sensationalised, and I’m relieved to see they’re not scared to render a nipple or two (and potentially many more depending what you get up to).
In The Witcher 3, it just got even better. Initially dismayed by the announcement that it would be open-world, I found they made the formula work very well. And they ramped up the impact your decisions had on the world even more. You literally decide the fate of nations – sometimes by accident – and the level of interaction with the characters is mesmerising. You will find yourself genuinely feeling something for your fellow witchers and sorceresses, and the quest to find Ciri is powerfully told, along with well-scripted and thoughtful side quests. The loot, magic, potion and fighting systems have all been given another layer of polish and the whole game hums together, taking you on its adventure like a well-tuned motorcycle. Graphically, it has set a standard for AAA RPGs to aspire to. I sunk over 150 hours into this one and its two capable DLC expansions, and I consider it time well-invested.