As 2009 comes to a close, GameStooge is looking at the Greatest Games of the Decade. As you may guess, there were tons of awesome games and we’re only going to rank the top 50. To streamline, no handheld games were considered; that may be the subject of a different list. Occasionally, there will be some “batches” of related games. That is because they’re a series of games so similar in gameplay and quality, they’d be listed one after another on the list. Plus, it’s a semi-cheat to include more games. It was hard enough picking 50!
Part IV features the games ranked from 20 down through to 11, and it is here that some of the powerhouses start to appear. Seven of the games are from recent years that became instant classics, while three others from 2003 and earlier are still played today and spoken of with reverence.
Without further ado, here’s the fourth batch. The year and platform listed are for the first platform it was released for, though some multiplatform games had a simultaneous release.
20. Left 4 Dead
(PC/Xbox 360, 2008)
Left 4 Dead 2
(PC/Xbox 360, 2009)
What could surpass surviving the zombie apocalypse in a mall? How about a movie-style first person four player co-op shooter set in the zombie apocalypse? Better yet, the zombie apocalypse with Otis nowhere in sight? Welcome to Left 4 Dead, the game that took the Source engine and made one of the most addicting co-op experiences ever in gaming history. Not only did it use its setting better than anyone, but infused it with character, a devious AI “director”, and gameplay that made sure you worked together as a group. Going solo was a good way to die, as many attacks required another player to save the victim – if one player remained alive, they wouldn’t remain so for long. Adding to the experience was the personality of the game. The four survivors each had their own charms – most players singled out Francis, the biker who hated everything. Competitive multiplayer was included, but paled in comparison to the general mode.
To the shock of gamers everywhere, Valve actually had the temerity to release the sequel a year later. Protests were started but died quickly as the sequel added to the mayhem. It added new special infected that defeated many of the overused strategies of the first game, such as camping in a corner and meleeing the undead away. It even improved on competitive multiplayer with one game mode that required survivors to fill a tank with gas littered around the map.
Left 4 Dead and its sequel have raised the bar for any games with a co-op multiplayer mode. Valve has already started supporting the title with new content, including one map which united the four survivors from the first game with the four from the sequel.
19. Mass Effect
(Xbox 360, 2007)
Mass Effect is one of the most cinematic roleplaying games ever made, one of the few where subtitles actually detract from the experience. It is an homage to the science fiction films from the 1980′s, so much so it even features a film grain. The music is an homage to films of the era such as Blade Runner and Dune. The scenes have genuine thrill and power to them, with such exciting scenes as the first approach to the Citadel, the induction of Shepard to the Spectres, the moment when Wrex and Shepard argue about the fate of the Krogan, the difficult choice by Shepard that leads to the sacrifice of a party member, and even the final shot of Shepard, as a paragon or renegade, as he (or she) stands with a faraway look.
What makes Mass Effect special is that the player crafts the story themselves. While good/evil meters are nothing new – especially for BioWare – Mass Effect makes the game shift its perception as you play. New options open depending on what you’ve chosen before. It is the progenitor of Dragon Age, which takes this to a new level, but wrapped in a sweet shell that anyone can enjoy (while Dragon Age’s dour story sometimes requires effort for some players to invest feelings in.)
There was one shining negative point to the game: it was combat, which was clunky and stuck in the nether region between roleplaying game and third person shooter, and purely frustrating for players. Mass Effect 2. coming in early 2010, seems to have solved this problem, and the bonus of having your character and their choices carry over into the game makes Mass Effect that much more valuable.
18. Thief II: The Metal Age
When mentioning the coolest protagonists of video games, Garrett the Thief is always near the top of the list. The anti-hero of the Thief series is all at once calm, nervous, sarcastic, wry, dismissive, and most of all, good at heart. Thrust into situations he does not wish to be involved in, he always finds himself doing the right thing. He might be a thief who enjoys robbing the wealthy (and not so wealthy) elite, he will always end up saving the world he has no desire to be a part of. Unlike most shooters, killing was frowned upon – it was stealth and subterfuge that was the main weapon of Garrett. Thief invented the first person skulker; if the guards came upon you, you were dead – unless you ran away.
Thief II: The Dark Project was the second in the series following The Dark Project, and fixed some of the problems that the original suffered. For one, it did away with zombies, ghosts and acid-spewing burricks, creatures that Garrett could not simply bonk away like human enemies. Instead, it focused on the strengths of the series: stealing, hiding, and blackjacks. In addition, the levels were larger, with more to do, investigate, and of course, rob. The highlight of the game for most fans was the Thieves Highway, which not only had ample nooks and crannies to explore, but one of the funniest scenes of the series in which two sets of guards hurled insults about their counterparts’ masters, culminating in a barrage of inventive swearing and volleys of arrows. If there was one thing in Thief II lacking, it was that it was far less scary than The Dark Project.
The series continued with Thief: Deadly Shadows, and while it was limited in its scope due to its being multiplatform with the Xbox, it still featured a great story and The Cradle, a level that is consistently brought up when scary video game scenes are mentioned. Square-Enix has announced Thief 4, which is supposedly a PC-first platform.
Portal was viewed by most as just a pack-in to The Orange Box, which boasted the debuts of the long-awaited Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Team Fortress 2. It quickly became the most beloved part of the pack, as well as creating the famous internet meme: “The Cake is a Lie.”
What won people over about Portal were twofold. First of all, the game’s gameplay mechanic of physics-based puzzles using portals, using kinetic momentum at times to propel the player (or, as villianess GlaDOS advises, “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”) The other part came from the game’s writing: Portal was a black comedy which put kidnapped “test subject” Chell into the world of insane AI GlaDOS, whose obsessions were science and love of inanimate objects. Old Man Murry’s Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek wrote most of the dialogue for the game, and there were inspired touches, such as GlaDOS’ rant late in the game: “I’d just like to point out that you were given every opportunity to succeed. There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the Companion Cube. Of course, he couldn’t come because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn’t come either because you don’t have any other friends. Because of how unlikeable you are. It says so here in your personnel file: Unlikeable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned. ‘Shall not be mourned.’ That’s exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you were adopted. So that’s funny, too.”
The game was topped off by Jonathan Coulton’s song “Still Alive”, sung by GlaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain), which was the perfect sour grapes tell-off by GlaDOS after you defeated her. Portal was later released on Xbox Live Arcade, and a sequel is hungrily awaited. With cake.
16. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
(Nintendo 64, 2000)
Considered a companion to the all-time great The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask is the last truly classic Zelda game to date, easily outpacing The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. As with Ocarina, Majora’s Mask is a full 3D world which hero Link explores, occasionally zooming into a first person view when he performs certain tasks, such as firing a bow. The game was large enough that it required the 4MB Expansion Pack to play.
Majora’s Mask adds a new gameplay mechanic into the mix: the masks. Link can don a mask to gain a new form with special powers. For example, one mask transforms link into a Zora, an amphibian creature that can swim and breathe underwater. The entire game takes place within the span of three days; Link can travel in time, too. In fact, in order to save the game, Link has to travel back to the first day. Majora’s Mask is also the darkest game in the Zelda series, taking place in an alternate reality called Termina, which can best be described as a grimmer version of Hyrule; in fact, many of the characters from Ocarina are reused and altered in Majora’s Mask.
While The Ocarina of Time is generally considered the best game of the Zelda series, Majora’s Mask is often designated as “1A”, and by some even better due to the increased complexity of the gameplay and the maturity of the story. Wii owners can enjoy the title as Nintendo released it on WiiWare this year.
15. Batman: Arkham Asylum
One of the biggest surprises of 2009 was Batman: Arkham Asylum, one of the very few licensed superhero games that got everything right, and from a developer whose only previous game was Urban Chaos: Riot Response. Most gamers assumed Batman would be a mindless beat’em-up in the vein of Watchmen: The End is Nigh, with better production values. Instead, they created the Batman experience fans were craving.
First off, Batman: Arkham Asylum did great pains to please even the most hardcore of Batman fans by staying true to the mythology. Batman was as much a detective as a brawler in the game, and never killed anyone. Every single notable Batman villain from the Rogue’s Gallery was represented in some way, even if the villain didn’t actually appear in the game. Paul Dini, the creator of Batman: The Animated Series wrote the story, while Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin did the voice acting. The mood of the piece was suitably gothic and the set pieces large and exciting.
The gameplay was equally pitch perfect. The game centered around “free flow” combat, in which the player had four mapped buttons that allowed Batman to attack, counter, stun and jump. The simple controls belie the chess match the player must do to rack up combo points. However, unlike many other superheroes, Batman is allergic to bullets, so when dealing with armed thugs, Batman did what he does best – become the “invisible predator”, picking off henchmen one by one, as the hapless victims become more and more panicked; being a prick was the most satisfying part of the stealth gameplay, and The Joker’s gleeful observation made it that more fun. The game also featured one of the more creepy, unique boss battles in the past decade: the Freddy Krueger-like dream sequences with The Scarecrow, as Batman played on a 2D plane and avoided his malevolent gaze.
Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 is due at the end of 2010, and it hopefully will carry the torch of being the best superhero game of the decade, not to mention one of the best all-time.
14. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The first Call of Duty game was released in 2003, by ex-Medal of Honor developers Infinity Ward. The game stressed cinematic splendor, and while it was criticized for its short running time, the graphics, sound and overall harrowing experience of realistic war combat won it praise. The series reached its pinnacle ironically when it ditched its World War II setting, in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Free from having to mine new battles from a thoroughly covered war, Modern Warfare blazed into 20 minutes into the future, with fun hypothetical scenarios with the latest modern weaponry. The game focused on some of the hottest topics in geopolitical news, featuring civil wars in the Middle East and in Russia, with such distinct locales as Azerbaijan, Russia, the Ukraine. One of the most unforgettable scenes is the POV of being a soldier in the near vicinity of a nuclear explosion.
Surpassing even the single player campaign, however, was the addictive multiplayer, which could almost be considered an MMO lite. Players earned ranks through persistent stat tracking, and as they gained in rank, they’d get access to new weapons. Once reaching the highest level (50), they could opt to start from scratch in Prestige mode to receive nerd cred in the form of an in-game insignia. The multiplayer was so popular, that it even unseated Halo 3 and Gears of War from Xbox Live’s rankings.
The next game by Infinity Ward, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, would be controversial on many fronts: the airport sequence in which the player was assisting, or at least accompanying, a terrorist attack on innocent civilians, the broken multiplayer which featured glitches and exploits, and the lack of server support, all of which divided and angered fans, especially on the PC side. Even so, Modern Warfare 2 was the highest grossing game of all-time thanks to the popularity of its predecessor, ensuring that a Modern Warfare 3 will be an inevitability. The only question is, would the series return to the heights of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare?
13. Fallout 3
“I don’t want to set the world on fire. I just want to start a flame in your heart” So goes the virtual anthem of Fallout 3, the successor to one of the most beloved roleplaying game series of all-time. When Fallout 3 was first announced, many fans of the game feared it would just be Oblivion in the apocalypse. To some extent, they were right, but Fallout 3 was much more than that.
Most of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system from the first two games was retained, along with the perks, including, yes, Bloody Mess. In terms of active gameplay, it successfully married turn-based roleplaying with first person shooting with the VATS system, which allowed the player to pause the game, and use action points to selectively target areas of the enemy. The main quest was meaty enough, but the game featured tons of side quests that could keep a gamer at a leisurely pace if they chose. The karma system was ingrained into both the plot and to the gameplay, as different options were only available to certain types of players. (It was especially nice to hear Three Dog report on your actions, especially if you were taking the move evil path: “Nice job… scumbag.”)
Even more than the solid, well-thought out gameplay was the story itself. Playing “Vault 101″, as Three Dog dubbed you, you went on a quest to find your idealistic father after he escaped your Vault, which didn’t endear yourself to the residents. Along the way, the player is presented with moral choices that sometimes aren’t so clear, especially in some of the expansions like “The Pitt”. The game was hardly grim, however, as it infused itself with the same black comedy and biting social satire that made the first two games so beloved.
Fallout 3 was supported by six expansions that added to the experience, from visiting Pittsburgh where most of the populace has been enslaved, to a mutant-ridden bayou, to on board an alien grey spacecraft. While the expansions are finished, gamers will be waiting for the as of yet unannounced Fallout 4 with hungry anticipation.
(PC/Xbox 360, 2007)
Fallout was one series that was begging to be revived; System Shock was another. In 1998, one of the greatest first person RPGs was released in the form of System Shock 2, as you played an unfortunate soldier who’d been implanted with cybernetic systems by the evil AI SHODAN. Unfortunately, Looking Glass was extinct, and Irrational did not own the license. So, they did the next best thing: a spiritual successor, eschewing cyberpunk for retrofuturism, setting a Shock game in 1960, under the ocean. It was called BioShock.
If there was one thing lacking with System Shock 2, it was more roleplaying game and less a shooter. BioShock fixed this and made itself a balls to the wall actioner, while still retaining some roleplaying elements in the form of plasmids. Plasmids were retrogenetic powers that allowed the player to shoot lightning from their hands, or employ telekinesis, and so forth. The rest of the gameplay was instantly recognizable to Shock fans: audio diaries, hacking, vending machines, and so forth. Tje game did feature one of the greatest video game adversaries ever: the Big Daddy, thunderous diving suit clad behemoths, and the Little Sister, whom the Daddies protected.
The other aspect that made BioShock so brilliant was the story. Replacing SHODAN was Andrew Ryan, who represented the core of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, and another hidden enemy who wouldn’t reveal himself to you til midway through the game, after you defeated and killed Ryan. The moral choice of whether to save Little Sisters or not was actually not much of one, since sparing Sisters gave you large gifts afterward. What really struck home was the theme of “what makes a man free? what defines a man?” While the endings were criticized as too short, the story was intelligent and involving.
BioShock 2 is due in February 2010, and will bring multiplayer to the new IP, but it is the story that people are most interested in, this time involving the Big Sister and the protagonist: the player will play the first Big Daddy, a prototype that was more than a wailing automaton.
11. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic came at an interesting time. The wretched second trilogy was wrapping up, and roleplaying games were few and far between. It was the best time for BioWare to unveil a Star Wars game that put anything George Lucas was producing to shame.
Knights of the Old Republic was a wondrous tale of epic scale, a tale of intrigue, action, and love. Depending on how the gamer played the game, it was either a story of ultimate redemption or a cautionary tale of betrayal and power. Using the D20 rules of the pen and paper game, the player created a character, and ultimately, the Jedi class later. Combat was in pausable real-time – and what combat it was. Lightsabers flashing, acrobatic kicks and parries, blaster fire, and force powers blazing. Players could engage their inner Darth Vader and Force Choke enemies, or their inner Obi-Wan Kenobi and inspire party members with buffs. There was nothing like Force Pushing a large group of enemies with a wave of the hand.
The heart of the game, though, was the Light Side/Dark Side meter that would become a staple of later BioWare games, as well as other RPGs such as Fallout 3. Some of the Dark Side choices were especially cruel, such as forcing one loyal party member to kill his best friend – who always believed there was still good in you. The two endings were equally powerful, as the Light Side hailed you as “the Prodigal Knight” who had come to save the galaxy – while the Dark Side you were crowned “the True Lord of the Sith” who had come to enslave it under his (or her) will.
Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords was developed by Obsidian, but released far too soon by LucasArts a mere year after the first game was released. Had it been completed, its complex tale and improved gameplay tweaks would have put it in the 11th slot over the first game; Kreia, even as it is, remains one of the most intriguing video game characters in history. BioWare has returned to the franchise with not an RPG, but a vastly promising MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which will attempt to take the genre to a new level; it resembles a single player RPG with fully voiced dialog, cutscenes and character interaction. If it fulfills its promises, it may indeed compete with World of Warcraft on its own terms.