10) Saints Row IV 

Games have been striving to be more than just a child’s plaything in the years I’ve been playing them. And as we’ve seen from titles like Gone Home and Inside, the perception of video games as nothing but shallow power fantasies has become more and more outdated. But, much like how not every movie can be a Schindler’s List or a Portrait of a Lady on Fire, sometimes you just need a Bad Boys II or a Sausage Party when you have the craving. And that craving comes even more frequently and aggressively in games. Saints Row IV will always satisfy that craving better than any other game because it prioritizes fun over anything else.

Saints Row IV, like dozens of other games, has a colorful cast of characters and a convoluted plot about saving the world from aliens using supernatural abilities. But every single aspect of the game exists not to serve the plot, but the player themselves. Much like Far Cry 3, the game is more a large arena filled with content than an actual place. But unlike that game, getting around has been made so much easier and faster with the ability to sprint faster than any car, jump as high as any plane, and glide over and through skyscrapers as good as any helicopter. This might make traversal one note, but you’re onto the next thing so fast that you never get the chance to get tired of it. Same for the combat too. 

There are dozens of guns to use, but the litany of additional abilities (like gravity stomps, telekinetic throws, and flame auras) give even more options to choose from. In Saints Row IV, especially in its latter half, you have a dozen ways to kill an enemy at any given time, none of which are any less viable than others, which further put emphasis on the fun of the player.

This freedom of choice can be found everywhere in the game. Don’t wanna run up buildings? Grab a car on the street, or better yet, call in a mech. Don’t wanna fight all the cops that you inevitably attract when causing chaos in the city? Chase down this floating eyebot to get all the heat off your tail. Don’t like how your character looks or even sounds? Head to a clothes shop to get a new look or a plastic surgeon to change your very being. The entire game is made to bend to the player’s whim, and it makes the game so fun to play.

But because of just how fun it is to play Saints Row IV, it makes it even harder to look at its characters and narrative with much of a critical eye. But even if you tried, you’d be greeted with hostility, as even these aspects push the player to think less about the drama of a world destroyed only to be avenged by a bunch of ex-gangsters turned superheroes and more about how hilarious that premise is.

Every main mission has a set-piece that throws you into some new vehicle or gives you some new power or ability that either keeps the sequence fresh or gives you a new tool to use throughout the rest of the game. The characters are always cracking jokes alongside you and are either all endearing or incredibly fun to hate. The game even doubles down on these characters with side missions focusing squarely on them, like in Mass Effect 2.

Overall, Saints Row IV is purely about fun because it revels in the fact that it is fun. Who wouldn’t want to save the world? Who wouldn’t want to wield the power to dispatch any foe and the freedom to traverse a city at the speed of sound? Who wouldn’t want to have a laugh with a group of side characters so larger than life and as welcoming as these? The only reason these questions aren’t so gleefully answered by many is that the question is asked by so much of the media we consume.

Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and other incredibly successful properties have built empires on the back of these questions, and it has understandably led to some fatigue when another property tries to ask them. But in the case of Saints Row IV, that is all it asks of you. At the time when I first played this, during my first year of college, I was in a bad place. Isolated from my closest friends, living in a strange new place and trying to fit into routines that were mostly foreign to me, I wanted nothing more than a good time to distract me from real life.  So, thank GOD this game wants nothing more from me than for me to have a good time because when real life proves to be difficult, confusing, and often full of suffering, I would always rather answer that call.

9) Nier: Automata

In every medium, we all have specific genres which never really stray from. With games, since we mostly only play what we pay for outright, it is much harder for us to trust in the quality of a game enough to step out of our comfort zones. In my case, it’s clear that shooters and action games are my bread and butter, but western developed games are even more so my niche. Besides a handful of examples, games made by Japanese developers, or with Japanese aesthetics, have never really been my jam. So, it was a shock for me to pay full price on this obscure JRPG that everyone wouldn’t just up about back in 2017. And it’s an even bigger shock that I consider the game one of my favorite games of all time, even with so many other great titles released in the 3 years since playing it. But once I look back at every aspect of Nier Automata, it makes perfect sense as to why I fuck with it so heavily.

As a Platinum Games joint, its combat was rock solid and instantly compelling. Prior to this, the only game from them I played for any real amount of time was Vanquish, and it was a blast. But their melee combat is what they’re really known for, and good GOD does it hold up. Their patented slow-motion dodge is easily one of my favorite mechanics of all time, and the variety of weapons I could use to whack and hack androids kept combat fresh throughout multiple playthroughs. But that wasn’t the only thing I could customize!

Because pretty much every playable character is an android, they are all programmed with different chips that can be changed at will, similar to Shadow Warrior 2’s gem system. Want to heal automatically over time? There’s a chip for that. Want to boost your movement speed by 50%? There’s a chip for that. Want to increase damage with swords by 20%? There’s a chip for that. Want to increase the dodge window in which you can trigger slow motion? There’s a chip for that, too, and dozens and dozens of even the most obscure attributes of your character. But keep in mind, you can only equip a finite amount of these chips, which forces you to decide just how important fundamental aspects of the game are. What I mean is, the health bar on your screen takes up chip pace, as does the map, and other on-screen UI items. If you don’t NEED the mini map, you’re free to delete that chip for something more advantageous, which is just an unprecedented and wild amount of freedom. Of course, you could possibly buy back chips like these from shops, or loot them from an enemy, but the fact you can willingly screw yourself over like this is remarkable to me.

But that isn’t the most remarkable thing about this game. That title belongs to this game’s narrative because it is sincerely the most batshit narrative I have experienced in any medium. It was a story that I couldn’t believe someone had the mind to even think of conceptually, let alone think of dialogue, art, and a plot for. It’s anime as hell, as the art design and some character behaviors will show, but the themes this game plays with are so grandiose that I couldn’t help be in awe with every chapter. And that’s another thing! Remember how I mentioned this game got better with every playthrough, well, despite my lack of familiarity with games like this, I felt compelled to play through it 3 whole times. I rarely play through games twice, let alone trice, yet I had so many more narrative revelations to encounter with each new playthrough. And its conclusion is one that had my jaw on the floor for several hours during and after its ending. The creative way this game hammers home themes in ways exclusive to their interactive medium of video games blew me away completely. And I’m talking as vaguely as I can because part of the fun is the surprise of every twist and turn this ride takes you on.

Simply put, this allured me out of my comfort zone to provide me with one of the more subversive, surprising, fun, and unique experiences I’ve ever played. In all my years of playing games, which were well over a decade by the time I played this in 2017, I had never even thought a game like Nier Automata could exist. And not only does it, but it’s damn near flawless. Okay, that’s not quite true, some sparse environmental design and some repetitive gameplay keeps that from being true. But I swear, if you have any affinity for action games or games that push the limit of what the medium can do, you owe it to yourself to play Nier: Automata. If not for yourself, do it for the glory of mankind.

8) Red Dead Redemption II

Red Dead Redemption II does a lot to earn such a high spot on the list, but it doesn’t do so without fault. When I rolled credits on the game, I had put in a little less than 100 hours, double the time I spent in Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and other games that I adored all the way up to my final hours with it. But I was left feeling exhausted, as it felt like the game had overstayed its welcome 50 hours earlier. But the longer I sat and reflected on my experiences with the game, the more I came to appreciate its gruelingly slow pace because it forced me to simply exist in the world in a way different from any other game.

Every other game I’ve played, even some that come after this one in this list, is about going forward at an intentioned pace. In a game as fast as Burnout or Call of Duty, it’s about using reflexive and impulsive gameplay to get to the end screen where rewards and increasing numbers give the climax of dopamine that those actions were building to. In a game as slow as Life is Strange or God of War (2018), the stories themselves motivate you to not dwell on individual details and push you forward to the emotional climax found in the conclusions of the game. In Red Dead Redemption II, the game isn’t pushing you forward but rather using its gorgeous vistas, intentionally paced plot, engrossing characters, and lively world to almost directly beg the player to linger in it almost indefinitely.

In fact, that’s what the plot, my favorite aspect of the game, is all about. It’s about appreciating what you have before it’s gone, lingering in the moment, but appreciating what you have isn’t purely an emotional state. You also have to fight for what you have to maintain it, and doing so might require you to abandon those parts of your past that threaten what you love in your present. This struggle is what leads to a story of, well, redemption, that has shaken me emotionally more than almost any other tale in games thanks to the incredibly slow pace at which it occurred. If I didn’t have nearly 9 dozen hours to endear myself with the characters and get comfortable with the rules of the world, to fully accept the request of the game to simply exist in it, then my inevitable slow and heartbreaking departure from this world wouldn’t have hit as hard. As a prequel, the game’s ending was known from the start, and once that tragic end comes it certainly hurts. But despite that, I was not only able to enjoy the ride, but the game managed to maybe make a positive impact on the way out.

Red Dead Redemption II remains as one of my favorites because, even if I don’t have the dark and complicated past that Arthur Morgan has, I truly hope to live my final days as he does: by living nobly in the face of inevitable corruption and pain and to enjoy the present in the face of an inevitable and often bleak future. And while it might be easy to fall to the lesser parts of my human nature at times, the fact I have that choice in the first place makes choosing the nobler path all the more powerful. So, yes, its shooting controls are not the most responsive. Yes, its mission design can often feel archaic after years of open-world gameplay innovations. And yes, the slow pace of the game can be annoying when most AAA games ask dozens of hours from the player just to experience the bare minimum of content. But in the case of Rockstar’s epic, all of those faults were easy to overlook in this transformative, engaging, and touching tale.

7) Horizon: Zero Dawn

I remember when this game came out. Despite it being a graphical marvel with excellent gameplay, many greeted it with lukewarm perception as they perceived it as not unique or innovative enough to interest them. Now, that viewpoint might be due to it being the first entry in a franchise released alongside a different title that added new life to a long-running and passionately loved series. But even as a non-Zelda fan, I can understand that Horizon isn’t the most original in many respects, despite how high it is on my list. But personally, its lack of innovation is precisely the reason I love the game so much. Because instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, it sticks to the same familiar treading and spokes but does it better than nearly any other game I’ve played.

Aloy is one of my favorite characters, despite her generally stoic personality, because she serves as an effective straight woman. The personalities of the supporting cast are just a bit more heightened, so they are even more vibrant in comparison to her. Plus, it allows her to be a bit malleable in certain moments, as to show different aspects of her personality. Despite her initially robotic demeanor, these moments are where she gets chances to be a bit more comical, flirty, and caring than her lonely upbringing allowed her to be.

The gameplay, on paper, still requires 3rd person shooting and precision aiming. But the context of using these mechanics to take down massive robot dinosaurs makes it feel so much more engaging than that description. Because you’re never just shooting; you’re also sneaking up on enemies, setting draps, dodging attacks, and scrambling mid-combat to gather the supplies and herbs to craft items on the fly. And you’re never just shooting a massive glowing weak point, you’re either aiming for fuel containers for an explosion of elemental damage, or aiming for armor pieces to expose softer tissue underneath, or firing off a weapon from their back for you to use against them. All these elements make the combat feel dynamic in a way different from any other game I’ve played.

But the thing that really made me want to linger in the world forever is fascinating sci-fi lore and how it led to the creation of such a devastatingly beautiful world. Without spoiling it for those who have yet to play it, the origin story of both Aloy and the world itself taps into some of the most interesting science fiction concepts in the genre. It’s a slightly different take on what is a somewhat familiar setup, but it takes advantage of some of the more familiar tropes to set up a fiction that skips all of the obvious stories told with this setup and goes straight to the more original parts.

And that part is the fantastic open world that Guerilla has made. It incorporates that lore in clever ways, but outside of that, it’s probably the most graphically impressive world I’ve ever seen. I’d constantly marvel at the fact that I could see the pores in everyone’s skin, and the vibrancy and variety of color pallets in each of the biomes. Once I wrapped the game up, I found myself with the strongest case of post-game depression I’ve ever had. It was exactly like those stories that came out about James Cameron’s Avatar, where audiences wished they could live in Pandora and were sad once they had to return to reality. The world of Horizon might be full of danger and conflict, but it was so inviting, both visually and thanks to some of its characters, that I couldn’t help but wish I could visit it physically.

So, yea, I know that much of this game has been done before in other games and in other media. But I still crave everything this game does, and it did all of those things in a way just different enough that it resonated with me deeply. I look forward to playing through it all over again on PC, and eventually getting to Forbidden West when it comes out as well.

6) Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1

Remember when I said I disagree with those that claim Tales from the Borderlands is the best Telltale game? We’ll, that’s because my favorite Telltale game is The Walking Dead Season 1, a game so unexpectedly brilliant that, even almost a decade later, developers are still trying to capture its magic. But tales of survival in a zombie apocalypse aren’t at all original. Hell, this game alone is the 3rd medium that The Walking Dead franchise has graced. But, even as someone who watched the show from the beginning, this game is my favorite slice of the universe for a reason.

 Lee was a perfect blank slate character for we players to put our own personalities onto. The fact he was a family man who was arrested for a crime of passion made him equally capable of compassion just as much as cruelty. But if you played towards his bad side, you are truly a monster, if not in your eyes, then through the eyes of Clementine. The addition of this girl not only melted all of our hours on many occasions but naturally pushed us to be the best surrogate father we could be for her. Sure, in a world this ruthless, it is easy to succumb to unjust impulses. But Clem constantly pushes you to do otherwise, because you wouldn’t just be letting Lee down, you’d be letting her down too.

This made all of the events that transpired, from the fun and comical, to the devastating and tense, so much more emotionally heightened that every choice was agonizing and lead to many game pauses to think out the right decision. And not every choice I made was solely to protect Clem, as my love for Carley, Katjaa, Omid, Christa, and others made me always consider them in my choices. If you played the game, you know how futile fighting for some of these characters is, but that’s part of the fun, and part of the reason I love this game so much. It’s a game that forces my indecisive ass to make hard choices not just a handful of times, but constantly. It’s a unique kind of rush that no narrative has ever given me, in games or out. Because I’ve played interactive narratives before this, like Telltale’s own Sam and Max and Back to the Future games, but the passion I had for these characters outweighed those by miles. And being forced to decide their fates in split decisions was a form of emotional trauma I never thought I would enjoy.

But I didn’t make these choices alone, which brings me to a major reason I rank this game so high, and it has little to do with the game itself. You see, thanks to an incredible amount of hype leading to its premiere, I was super excited to watch the premier of the TV show on AMC. And thanks in part to that excitement, and the fact it was a worldwide phenomenon that was hard to ignore, I was able to get my entire family into the show as well. Those years where we all regularly watch the show are some of the only consistent hours of bonding my family ever had. I mean, we all love each other, but we all had our different passions that meant we’d often be in different rooms once at home. And with everyone else in the family being into sports, I’d often be the only one opting to not watch along in favor of anything more interesting. So, for those years we watched the show, I not only cherished those times together but was proud that, for once, they came about thanks to a passion I had.

This family-wide passion for The Walking Dead carried over into the game as well…almost. While my parents and sister were turned off by its cartoonish art style, my little brother was just as excited to have yet another slice of this narrative to watch. So, we played the first season together in its entirety, waiting feverishly for every episode over the months it took for each to come out. It’s a tradition that carried over into every mainline season of the Walking Dead games, all the way up to the supposed end of Clementine’s story in Season 4, 8 years later. Our tradition of playing these games together lasted long after our family tradition of watching the TV show fizzled out, and our sessions playing that game have heavily contributed to the bond I have with him to this day.

So, yea, I know it was riddled with bugs upon its original release. And I know it helped kick off an epidemic of “dad games” in the years to come. But the emotional impact of this game’s narrative is matched only by the stronger emotional bond to my little brother it helped give me. This is a big reason why, if I’m ever blessed enough to have a daughter, I hope to name her Clementine. Not just because my favorite color is orange, but because she has been a constant in the lives of both my brother and I. And that bond was first formed in this inaugural season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

5) Risk of Rain 2

I’ve spent most of 2020 being as loud and proud about my love of Risk of Rain 2 as possible, even going as far as to give it a glowing review on VGU.TV. Much of what I’ll say here will overlap with that review, but I’ll be damned if you sat through all of this just for me to link you to an old article. So, let me reiterate that Risk of Rain 2 is one of the most consistently satisfying games of all time. No matter how many times I play it, it remains fun.

Now, as someone who heavily values the progression found in my favorite RPGs and multiplayer games, the minimal progression of this game should be a turn-off. There are only a few skins and ability variants to unlock outside of text-based lore entries, but the real sense of progression is found in learning how to play the game. This goes beyond just learning the baseline structure of runs and how to unlock new characters, but all the way down to the more minute details of advanced runs. Like, in my first few runs, using ultimate abilities to take out dozens of foes at once was fun. But once I knew what items to look for, that same ultimate attack could also heal me while also chaining lightning to damage enemies outside of the range of the initial attack.

Getting to that level makes the game soar. The numerous items you can collect augment your abilities in dozens of ways, and the fact that all of these items can stack infinitely can lead to impromptu builds that are delightfully overpowered. Get lucky enough with items drops, and you can have 7 jumps to get you anywhere in a map, or multiply your movement speed by 6 to sip you to and from enemies instantly, and even build enough damage modifiers to kill even the hardest bosses in one hit. Builds like this are definitely rare, but when they happen, it makes you wanna stay in that run for as long as possible, which often leads to sessions that are hours long.

Then, once you understand what every item does, you can learn all of the varied abilities of each playable class so you know what items to aim for in a run. For example, the loader is a melee-based character, so collecting Focus Crystals, which increase damage in a small radius around you, is a high priority. Then once you fully grasp how these items affect all aspects of each character, the game still doesn’t get stale, because the rouge-like, procedural nature of the game throws all of these, now familiar, elements at you in an order you can rarely predict.

All of this makes for an experience that constantly keeps you on your toes, even when not playing with 3 others in co-op. Every run feels like a unique test of skill, complete with clutch moments that are equally brought on by a lucky item drop and pure player skill. And it all of this is done without having to face online opponents, which can often feel unfair. In Risk of Rain 2, it can similarly feel unfair when you don’t find good enough items to keep you alive long term, but you always have the potential to override that misfortune with player skill, and it makes for a game that makes you feel incredibly triumphant when things are finally going your way.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and me putting it this high on the list hopefully is yet another ringing endorsement. It’s provided me with the best sessions of comfort food gaming I’ve ever had, and I want this game to warmingly hug all of you as much as it has to me.

4) Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

You’ve gotten this far in the list, so you’ve probably seen that I consider most of the games on this list as my comfort food. And you’ve likely also seen just how much I turn to open-world superhero games for hours and hours of enjoyment. And you definitely know by now that I have a deep adoration of Insomniac Games. All of these aspects can be found in Marvel’s Spider-Man, a game that everyone knew would be good, but one I didn’t expect would so effortlessly swing (heh) to the top of my list.

Spider-Man is obviously gorgeous, you can tell that within seconds of seeing it. Their experience with the bright colors of Ratchet and Clank and their human character animations of Resistance combine for an art style that looks just as contemporary as it does slick and stylish. They’ve adapted the movement system of Sunset Overdrive into this game and added web-swinging to make for one of the most effortless, yet deep, traversal systems ever put in a game. Think about all the downtime you have in games like Saints Row IV or Just Cause 2 when gliding through the sky. In Spider-Man, that downtime is filled with attempting to keep momentum through the city, figuring out the best way over or around skyscrapers on the fly, and seeing just how many backflips you can do before hitting the ground.

Combat as well benefits from the Ratchet series, as the plethora of gadgets at Peter’s disposal makes combat immensely more satisfying. But that isn’t to say that punching and racking up combos on foes alone isn’t gratifying, because is surely is. And for that matter, stealth is also spiced up greatly by the gadgets. Sticking a Spider Mine on a guy just for it to attach to another enemy for a double takedown never ceased to be satisfying. And the suit abilities added even bigger wrenches into the normal gameplay loop, modifying everything from combat to stealth, and even traversal. Plus, each of the suits was pulled from different corners of Spider-Man’s rich history, which I’m very familiar with. And that brings me to another reason this game is so high on the list.

Ever since I was 6 years old, thanks to Sam Rami and Tobey McGuire, Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero of all time. His altruistic drive to always do the right thing and his, struggle to balance the everyday struggles of young adulthood attracted me to the character, and these aspects have continued to make me love him over 3 movie series, a few animated iterations, and a number of games. So, I was predestined to love Marvel’s Spider-Man from the jump, the fact that my favorite developer was working on it was just icing on the cake.

But the thing is, that’s a lot of talk for the original Spider-Man, which doesn’t even appear on this list. Now, all of these compliments and descriptors also apply to Miles Morales, but what is it about this game specifically that makes it outshine the original? Well, the more bit-sized experience was a bit more satisfying to run though, as there was a lack of any substantial filler content. The addition of Venom powers make combat, traversal, and stealth just a little bit more exciting and satisfying thanks to the expanded tool set. The game even looks prettier and runs better now that it’s on PS5.

But more than any of that, I was blown away by the story even more so than the original. I loved the tale of Peter’s struggles, but after so many iterations of the character, I can’t help that following a relatively newer face was more compelling. But Insomniac has proven that they are just as proficient with narratives as they are with gameplay because they managed to move me emotionally with the campaign way more than the original and in way less time. The characters and their relationships to each other hit way closer to home for me than Parker’s exploits, so I resonated with Mile’s story so much more than even I expected.

So, yea, this one was a layup, but could you blame me? Spider-Man was easily the best game Insomniac had ever made, and they have both the overwhelmingly high sales, and my intense love, to show for it. The only thing that could have made me love it more was if it had a black protagonist, trap music infused in its score, the ability to play it at a higher framerate, and maybe heavy inspiration from one of my favorite animated films of all time: Into the SpiderVerse. And they did exactly that, and quite a bit more.

3) The Last of Us

At this point, I’ve talked your ear off about 97 different games from over a decade of video game releases, and I truly believe all of these games are great, in some cases, despite the popular opinion on them. But very few of these games have that extra special sauce that make them widely considered a classic. Titles like Resident Evil 4, Portal 2, and Bioshock have this sauce, but despite my love for them, they all had aspects that kept me from loving them with the hyperbole shared by others. But The Last of Us not only smells like a classic and tastes like a classic, but it does so while also resonating with me deeply on a personal level.

It accomplishes this by, first off, by having immaculate presentation. While the game has aged somewhat over the years, the art design alone remains strong. Characters’ animations are strong, and the excellence in animation help make clickers so much more terrifying when their inhuman movements are on display. And the environmental design is so well done that many of the items you interact with are connected to their own story outside of Ellie and Joel’s. The sewer level with Ish and the story you uncover by reading collectible notes is the best example of this, but the way they use things like this to make this intimate story take place in such a big world.

And speaking of an intimate story, the tale of Joel and Ellie is so iconic that it feels as timeless as the countless works of post-apocalyptic fiction that inspired it. It manages to give so many different glimpses into so many aspects of a broken society that it feels like an anthology series at times. But the core narrative alone still manages to be the source of years of conversations and theory, especially with its incredibly bold ending. And now, after multiple playthroughs, I’ve come to find comfort in this story, which is incredibly rare for me.

Like, there are plenty of movies I watch for comfort, like Toy Story 3, Bad Boys II, Sleepover, and Spider-Man Homecoming. When watching movies like these, I find myself not only anticipating narrative beats but also feeling the emotions those moments are meant to evoke just as strongly as my first watch. The Last of Us is one of the only games to also trigger the same emotions I felt about its narrative every time I play it. It makes my relationship with this game unique from all of the others on this list. Most of these games I associate with a moment of time in my life, and my opinions on them are rooted in my life at the time. But The Last of Us remains strong no matter when I play it, which is remarkable in my eyes.

But the main reason that this story works so well is that it adapts so perfectly to being a video game. I’ve talked about how much I enjoy visceral combat, but here it not only serves great gameplay, but also helps portray the brutality of the world. Plus, this isn’t like Naughty Dog’s previous Uncharted series, you can’t just use any weapon you want. It forces you to adapt to your surroundings, scavenge the tools you need to survive, and conserve as many resources as possible. It makes for combat that feels improvisational, never allowing you to rest on easy tactics, but always rewarding you for diligent exploration and preparedness.

But not only does the combat work in single-player, it works maybe even better in multiplayer. Where the campaign forced you to outsmart enemies to continue the journey, the multiplayer forced you to outsmart enemies in order to just stay alive for as long as possible. The odds aren’t permanently in your favor, and you have to fight for every inch of a fuse that will inevitably either burn out or explode. Then on top of that, the framework of the mode casts you as a scavenger looking to bring food and supplies back to a camp that can actually die out, which could cut the multiplayer campaign short. This ever-present dread made every match incredibly tense, as too many bad matches could force you to toss away hours of building up your camp. But thank God that the gunplay is precise and the audio design is sound (heh) because every shot and every footstep is life and death. And that improvisational vibe of the combat persists. While you can upgrade weapons and equipment mid-match, ammo is still scarce in multiplayer, forcing players to craft bombs, shivs, and melee weapons to compensate. This adds just enough variables on the battlefield that every match feels dynamic without being chaotic, and if you are one of the many who played through the game without trying the multiplayer, you should go back and fix that.

But overall, it is really hard to overstate just how excellent I think The Last of Us is. The narrative raises fascinating questions about humanity that I love pondering over. Its characters were either super relatable or just fun to watch chew up the scenery. And its combat fit into its world perfectly while being excellent enough alone to support an entire multiplayer mode.

2) Shadow of the Colossus

Something that I’ve often mentioned in this list is how much I appreciate it when a game subverts my expectations. Also, I’ve also talked about how some games, while great in their own right, simply fail to live up to the high expectations I had set for me by the heaps of praise I heard before playing. But Shadow of the Colossus is one of the very few games, maybe even the only one, that managed to subvert my expectations because it managed to surpass them so greatly.

I remember getting my hands on it for the first time through the PS3 remaster that came bundled with Ico. It was the Christmas of 2011, and I had gotten Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 the same day. I mention that because I truly believe my love of Shadow of the Colossus was partially because I played  MW3 so close to it. I loved Modern Warfare 3, but it was my 3rd straight Call of Duty game and I consumed its entire campaign by the end of the day. It was like candy, or even a baked treat: it gave me the familiar rush I craved but was gone almost as quickly as it came. Shadow of the Colossus was the polar opposite of that, and I couldn’t help but be intoxicated by that.

As someone who never truly became a gamer until the PS3 generation, I had already grown accustomed to many conveniences that were standardized in that generation. So, to play something that felt definitely unintuitive in its controls felt bizarre. To play something where, the more Colossi I battled, the more hostile the beasts and the world itself became felt off-putting. To be given a world so much more massive than I had ever seen and then to only keep 17 main points of interest on it felt counter-intuitive. But this challenge of what I thought games were supposed to be is what fascinated me enough to keep me going. Well, that wasn’t the only motivator.

On top of the prestige that led me to ask for the game in the first place, from early on, the sheer wonder of this world, and concept of the game itself, blew me away. I had just beaten a game in which I dispatched thousands of enemies who were effectively my equal, and less than a percent of those deaths held any weight. Shadow of the Colossus asked me to only take down 16 foes, and finding out how to defeat each was an infinitely more fascinating challenge. And the Colossi themselves were mesmerizing, with each managing to top the one before it in either scale or creativity of design.

With the excessive free time of a teenage Emmett, I allowed the game to consume most of my winter vacation exclusively, and I was rewarded with a spectacular experience that I never would have encountered had I not explored outside of my gaming comfort zone. I can trace my modern attempts to try and step outside of my comfort zone in games, movies, podcasts, and music all the way back to when I was so handsomely rewarded for doing so over a decade ago, and I feel forever in debt to Team Ico for changing my life is such a profound way.

1) Titanfall 2

What is there left to say about Titanfall 2 that others haven’t already talked about in countless articles, interviews, and video essays? Ever since naming it as my 7th favorite game of 2016, I’ve regretted that decision more and more over the years. My initial instincts were off thanks to how heavily I weighed my opinion of the fantastic single-player campaign, which is admittedly just as great as everyone claims.

Narratively, it’s not game-changing. The bond between Jack Cooper and BT is touching, especially near the end. But the rogues’ gallery was varied enough, and their personalities were strong enough that the anticipation and payoff of fighting every one of them was satisfying.

However, it’s the levels in between those boss battles that are really the highlight. Effect and Cause alone is one of the most mind-bending and unique concepts for a level ever conceived, and the high-speed platforming of Titanfall served as a great template to apply those ideas to. But outside of that one iconic mission, every level is a treat, from storming a compound in your Titan along dozens of others to wall-running on the floor of an assembly line-made home as it’s being built. Each level has a gimmick unique from the last, and the game switches between them so quickly that it leaves you wanting more of each one, which means none of them ever get old.

But the campaign isn’t the reason I’ve put roughly 100 hours into the game over the last few years. It’s the multiplayer component that has kept me coming back so often. Sure, thanks to its streamlined leveling system, it rewards long-term play just as much as any Call of Duty game. And with a heavy slant to player earned customization items, the game deemphasizes the use of its microtransactions, which are still reasonably priced and limited in quantity. But it’s the expert pace and dynamism of its matches that keep me engaged.

The gunplay is wonderful, and seeing as the game is developed by ex-Call of Duty devs, I’d expect nothing less. But in the Call of Duty games, the combat was all you had to look forward to every match. It meant that every moment between spawn and combat was dull. Titanfall 2 fills that gap with the most fluid and fast parkour mechanics that I’ve ever seen in a first-person shooter. It makes for a wonderful back and forth between hitting headshots on enemies in midair and sliding and flying to and from combatants.

This parkour system also complements it’s map design as well. Because you can rocket boost, speed slide, or grapple hook into any obscure corner of any map, the possibility of movement feels boundless while actually being fairly constrained. I’m a big fan of these kinds of free movement systems in games, but often they feel the need to have a sprawling world full of obstacles and square footage to support it. Titanfall 2 instead makes levels claustrophobic when playing as a pilot, yet expansive when playing as a Titan. This way, you can support complex movement without the lulls of traversal, like finding a tall building to glide or swing from in Saints Row IV or Marvel’s Spider-Man, but also allow for a wide playspace for the massive Titans to brawl out.

And speaking of Titans, each one plays differently from the other, and when playing to their strengths, every single one can be a blast. But in contrast to the on-foot movement, Titan combat is much slower paced and more about positioning and timing. Because you can’t double jump away from trouble a millisecond, you’re often forced to outsmart your opponents rather than outrun them. But this trade-off is welcome, because the Titan weapons are often the most powerful in the game, killing pretty much anyone and anything not in a Titan in one hit.

Now, think about all of these mechanics in comparison to how they make Titanfall 2 stand out. Every other multiplayer shooter I’ve ever played goes a similar way. Usually, you engage with the very same mechanics the entire match, with very minimal variation such as weapon types and loadout swaps. One team takes an early lead, and the team that is less good at combating human players is forced to suffer until the match’s end. And during that end sequence, the losing team is often helpless to watch as any kind of victory is snatched from their hands.

Titanfall 2 understands the issues often found in typical multiplayer games and solves damn near all of them in its premier mode, Attrition. Aren’t quick enough on the sticks to face human players? There are dozens of AI combatants to shoot that contribute to your team’s score. Tired of trying to nail the parkour system? You can piggyback onto any friendly Titan so you can focus purely on shooting. Can’t rack up enough kills to get your Titan? There’s a timer on it so, no matter your performance, you can eventually get to call it in. Did you just outright lose the match, fair and square? Then you can eliminate the enemy team all before they can evacuate, which is often just as satisfying as a conventional victory. Sure, there are modes like Live Fire, Last Titan Standing, and Pilot vs Pilot that reward player skill and mastery of specific mechanics a lot more. But all of these elements make for a game that is welcoming to every type of shooter fan game sings louder than any other game I’ve played and does so consistently over hundreds of matches.

So that’s why I love Titanfall 2 so much. That’s why I never shut up about it on Twitter. That’s why I bought 6 copies of the game on multiple platforms, not only for myself but as a gift to friends. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to spend the last $150 I had at the time to buy the Collector’s Edition off of a friend back when he stumbled across a copy. That’s why, despite some missteps, I will always gleefully jump into anything Respawn makes.

There’s always a new Call of Duty or Battlefield, each with its own annual or tri-annual changes. There’s always a new free-to-play shooter of the month, and many of them will have me hooked if only for a few weeks, but they all inevitably evolve with updates or die due to low player base. But Titanfall 2 has been a constant in my life for nearly the entire last generation. Through subtle balance changes, population drops (and spikes), and the studios’ pivot to their surprise spin-off, the brilliant core design of its gameplay remains from launch. And at the end of the day, no matter how much I might love a character, relate to a theme, get immersed in a world, or get blown away by an unexpected twist; in the realm of interactive media, the sheer joy of interactivity will overrule all. And the joy I get from interacting with Titanfall 2 has yet to be matched by any other title to date. 

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