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My Generation – The Five Best Games On PS3 And Xbox 360

June 18, 2013

It’s been a long console generation, and I am tired.

I decided to write a thing about my favourite games of the generation, mostly because I realised I didn’t know what they were and partly to remind myself I had some. Then I had a little trouble deciding the exact qualification for “generation”, though I think I’ve landed on a formulation that will annoy almost everybody: I’ve excluded handheld games, for reasons, and also Wii games, because they exist on an entirely different track to the PS3 and Xbox 360 titles I spend the bulk of my time playing. This is arbitrary and almost certainly short-sighted, and I’m doing it anyway.

Choice number one – Mirror’s Edge

Mirrors EdgeIt’s depressing how long ago Mirror’s Edge was, and how at the time it already seemed a searing white riposte to overbrown shooter fatigue. I am so fatigued, and browned. The things I love about it include but are not limited to the rare appearance of a female protagonist, landscapes that felt designed for beauty rather than realism, and the striking notion that running away from guns might be more interesting than running around holding one like a metal comforter.

Secondarily I loved the game’s use of motion and space, which made movement and agility its own pleasure rather than, as is usually the case with first-person scenarios, a grudging necessity. Sliding, rolling and wall-jumping through Mirror’s Edge oriented me in a virtual space in a way nothing has done – or even tried to do – since, probably because Mirror’s Edge sold four copies, which is the fault of everyone I called a baby at the time for reviewing it badly because it was sometimes a bit hard. You BABIES.

Choice number two – Dead Space

Dead SpaceDead Space arrived in the same year as Mirror’s Edge during a halcyon time when it seemed as though investing in new IP, rather than iterating Call Of Duty at the precise speed it takes a nation of 14 year-old boys to save up another £40, might be the key to winning the games industry. This was never a realistic hope, but the upside is that Dead Space is an excellent game that I again want to describe as “striking”. I think striking might be one of my favourite words. Striking.

Dead Space is the grizzly end of sci-fi as learned from the blue-collar crew of Alien’s Nostromo. The future, it says, will be a place where replacing washers and making sure we can all breathe in trans-galactic flight will trump having a name like Dex Forearm and regenerating health. Our hero Isaac fixes things – trams, lifts, shuttles, navigation modules – and wears a rusty brown suit.

He’s likeably functional, and the game is impressively focused around him. His weapons are tools – cutters, saws, flamethrowers – and his enemies require precision dismemberment rather than undirected aggression. He is the artful shed-dad on an Autumn afternoon of videogame protagonists, and he lives in a satisfyingly unglamorous future of realistic moving parts. It’s a design of brilliant cohesion and visual strength, and I’m extraordinarily attached to it.

Choice number three – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

U2-TenzinThis is really difficult to leave out. A feature of this generation has been the perfection of the ten-hour focused single-player campaign, and – without saying “striking” over and over again – this is the best one. It had moments of technically astounding action, a leading character capable of carrying an unheard of tonal range (tension, comedy, tragedy – where most comparable blockbusters do anger as one long machinegun burst) and it embraced an idea of storytelling and entertainment that brought everything together very successfully.

What makes Uncharted 2 remarkable is that I remember the people I met while playing it as brightly as I remember all the things I blew up inside it. And I really like blowing things up – just not as much as I love Tenzin the non-English-speaking Sherpa, who took me back to his village in the Himalayas (and then helped me blow up a tank). In that Himalyan village, while injured hero Drake walks peacefully through Tenzin’s people, the button for melee attack becomes the button to shake hands, and for just a few moments a square-jawed hero is capable of interacting with his surroundings by reaching out and making connections rather than swinging fists and breaking faces.

This is a mark of Uncharted 2’s accomplished storytelling and all-round polish, rather than a suggestion that humanitarian positivism is the bedrock of acing the third-person shooter. I’m not going to attempt to reconcile the contradiction of this being my favourite moment in a game about killing hundreds of pirates – I don’t have to, because this is my list, and I’m about to say something far more ridiculous.

Choice number four – Halo 3

Halo 3This choice is especially exciting because I can’t remember much of what happened in the single-player side of Halo 3 except me getting quite cross and wishing Bungie had read more Robert McKee. Its inclusion is based entirely on the strengths of its multiplayer, which is the best online console shooter there has been, and which has been washed away by the pervasive influence of Call Of Duty, a tragedy on a par with the disappearance of Native American wisdom from the Great Plains or, more likely, the fact we don’t see so many red squirrels about these days.

The system is balanced and level in a way which encourages skill and strategy. Starting weapons are standardised, more powerful alternatives are to be fought over on the map – a game of territory and tactics. There are no geography-defeating power-ups of flight or speed, making knowledge of and fleet-footed navigation around the maps crucial. And there’s skill-based matchmaking to ensure a mostly steady curve of challenging opponent.

With Reach and Halo 4 the series’ points of differentiation were worn down to nothingness. CoD-inspired loadouts, perks and killstreak drops threw chaos into a system that thrived on even-handed stability, and made it faster and stupider.

Halo 3 is an elegant bare box. Learning its depths takes time, and there is no stat-tracked record of your progression. Halo 4 is a barking arcade of head-pats and ADD reinforcement. We’ve lost something intangible that used to happen between four men starting with BRs and grenades on Guardian with a count to 25, the swinging sense of paralysis and power, of gridlock and frenzy, that no game with a fucking jetpack will ever come close to.

Choice number five – Bioshock Infinite

BioshockThis currently squeezes in ahead of The Last Of Us, which is a surprise not least to me as I’d half-written the entry for Naughty Dog’s game. The switch comes down to the fact that The Last Of Us is a brilliantly controlled depiction of a world I’ve seen in various forms before, while Bioshock Infinite’s great strength is its ability to conjure stop-and-stare moments of symbolism and spectacle from a place beyond my imagination.

It’s easy to say “games should do this” without thinking about how boring it would be if they all really did, or how hard it must be to construct engaging combat-heavy gameplay around a stars and stripes theme – but games really should do this. Fighting a metaphor of fallen idealism among the clouds feels transportive in a way that scoping the slightly big bugs of this season’s apocalypse will never be again. There were perhaps a dozen moments during the steady wonder of Infinite that I paused to enjoy an audacious idea or image – Booker’s opening baptism, the sad-faced Handymen, the incredible use of music.

The music! I’m in love with Bioshock Infinite as a culturally erudite game that has the technical prowess (and development resources) to play meaningfully with ideas and themes coherently within a sophisticated fictional environment. Its use of music just drives me crazy. Booker’s journey is peppered with period covers of popular hits from across the twentieth century. The titles and lyrics add meaning to the scenarios in which they’re found, like ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ playing as a newly-freed Elizabeth dances through a fair (‘Some guys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world… Oh daddy please you know you’re still number one…’) and sometimes their original context layers extra meaning on top (counter-culture anthem ‘Fortunate Son’ plays during a worker’s revolution).

I recently played some of my old Mega Drive games for something else I’m writing, including the Simpsons tie-in Krusty’s Fun House, the soundtrack to which is basically atonal farting set to a backing track designed to unreel your mind. The idea that a game like Bioshock Infinite can exist and that there can still be any handwringing as to the legitimacy of games is an idea ridiculous enough to make me so angry I’m going to stop.

Choices I did not make

In no order, things that came close and on another day could conceivably be on this list are Portal 2 for being the funniest game I’ve played, Batman Arkham City for the noise of punching men as Batman, GTA IV for the first time I saw the city at night listening to Philip Glass, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for getting SAS men so right, Journey for the best sand, Burnout Paradise for the 100 hours I spent playing it online, FIFA 09 for being the first really new football game we’ve had for years before or since, Bulletstorm for being fun, Dishonored for being a lot like Thief, and The Last Of Us for everything.


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