29) Sunset Overdrive

Plenty of the games on this list have lighthearted, comedic tones with vibrant cartoon art styles. Sunset Overdrive has both of those, but its vibe is decidedly way different from anything else I’ve talked about. For example, it definitely dabbles in the random and adult humor of the Borderlands series, but in Sunset it comes off as more endearing than annoying. Overall, this game reminds me much more of Animaniacs and Looney Tunes than anything else tonally, and it makes the wacky, 4th wall breaking, humor hit so much harder for me personally. Add that to the aggressively vibrant artstyle, complete with physically written out onomatopoeia, and you have a game with a style all its own. But this game has so much more going for it than its style.

As an Insomniac Games joint, this game has dozens of excellent and unique weapons. Having them all level up to reveal new bonuses rewards you for using them, but the relatively low-level cap for each weapon encouraged me to swap between them more often. And the faux perk system of the amps further rewarded my mastery of the movement system with even more destructive and chaotic power. 

And that movement system, the main reason I wanted to play the game in the first place, is…interesting. I will say, once you get the hang of it, it’s incredibly fluid and fast enough to get you across it’s open world in just a few short minutes. But it isn’t as automatic as Prototype 2 and even other Insomniac titles I’ll soon mention. This means that wall running, grinding, and pole swinging is just slightly more manual than my liking, which isn’t bad on it’s own. But considering that most of the time you’ll be facing hordes of soda infused zombies, having that slight layer of mandatory interactivity often distracts from focusing on the combat. But don’t let that discourage you from giving this game a shot. As an early Xbox One exclusive, it was sadly overlooked by many. But this is easily one of Insomniac’s best games, and if you have an Xbox or PC, it’s easily some of the most fun you can have on either platform.

28) Shadow Warrior 2

Shadow Warrior 2 is not a jack of all trades, or at least I don’t see it as such. Its narrative, which can be played with 3 others or solo, is full of idiotic humor that only lands half the time, and a bunch of prosperous personalities to push forward its fairly convoluted narrative. But what earns it such a high spot on this list is the game’s combat and RPG systems, because it basically does what Borderlands does but better in damn near every way. Combat is already excellent thanks to a healthy amount of gore, responsive animations, hitmarkers, and excellent sound design. And the dance of combat is always engaging thanks to the dashes, double jumps, and high movement speed at your disposal. But once you finish an encounter, you get to pick over the loot and reward dropped from enemies, and then the real fun begins.

The biggest issue I had with Borderlands’ loot system is that having millions of weapons makes each weapon feel less special. Finding a great weapon early on and getting used to its fire rate, recoil, and other aspects is pointless because moments later you’ll swap it for a completely different, better weapon just because it has better stats. In Shadow Warrior 2, the much more modest arsenal of only a few dozen weapons are modified by way of socketable gems you can attach to every weapon. This way, that Uzi you got used to over the opening hours can still be viable later in the game if you add the right augments to it. And, like Borderlands, the number of those augments is immense in both number and variety. You can use them to make your weapons set enemies on fire, or increase fire rate, or turn them into a burst weapon, or give them hundreds of other abilities. This system means I can keep the weapons I’m comfortable with for way longer, and it made the game feel way better in moment to moment combat. So good in fact that it jumped right over the entire Borderlands series and nearly made the top quarter of my list.

27) Guacamelee!

Okay, everyone knows me as the biggest PlayStation Vita fan in the tristate area. But I can’t just put a whole ass platform on this list, so how about the game that I feel encapsulates everything I love about the system? Well, Guacamelee is that game, and I don’t know if I would have loved that game as much as I did if not for the platform in which I played most of it.

As someone who missed out on the Symphony of the Night’s and Shadow Complexes, Guacamelee is the first Metroidvania title I really got into. Its vibrant art-style, humorous tone and steady stream of new abilities kept me coming back until I found every secret and collected every item. The vibrancy of its art really popped on my original Vita’s OLED screen. The simplicity of its controls mapped perfectly to Vita’s concise set of inputs. And the structure of the game itself made it perfect for bite-sized sessions of play that work so well with handhelds.

But, it’s the fact that the Vita was the first next-generation handheld is that made Guacamelee so special to me. On PS3, it would have been a fun title that certainly would have made this list regardless. But the fact that I was able to download my save to my Vita 2000, after accidentally dropping my original Vita in a cooler years prior, made it way easier to finally get through the title. Guacamelee is actually a game that had eluded me for years, as those few years I was Vitaless meant that I didn’t touch the game until I could play it on the platform where it felt like it belonged. And then, once I finally did complete it, I was able to push my save over to the PS3 version, which was included at no additional cost, where I cleaned up some of the final trophies for the platinum.

Overall, Guacamelee is still my favorite game I’ve played from Drinkbox, at least until I play the sequel. And it’s a modern independent classic on the level of the Braids and Bastions of the world. But I attach it so heavily to its lead platform that my fondness for it is intrinsically linked to it. But hey, the Vita did eventually get a predecessor, sort of, so perhaps I’ll have just as much fun playing Guacamelee 2 on Switch.

26) Resident Evil 4

I’ve been long overdue for some Capcom classics on this list, and it’s only appropriate we start with a game many consider to be perfect: Resident Evil 4. But honestly, this game was close to not appearing on this list. After running into issues running the PC port, and losing interest when playing the PS3 port, I finally decided to dedicate my time fully to its PS4 port, and I was rewarded with my favorite horror game of all time, which is wild for me to say. I mean, the only other horror game I have on this list is F.E.A.R. 2, and that was over 50 games ago. So, what makes this game so special? Well, you could find that answer literally anywhere else on the internet, but I’ll be glad to answer that.

The mish-mash of gothic and body horror isn’t particularly appealing to me, nor is the incredibly campy plot or over-the-top characters. The gameplay, over all else, is what kept me hooked. Despite this being the template to which all other 3rd person shooters would follow, the gunplay in this game feels incredible. Every bullet feels like it makes a real impact thanks to great sound design and animation. And combat encounters sometimes became puzzles, as figuring out the best place to shoot a zombie to trigger a context-sensitive melee move would often be the difference between life and death. And good God, every single one of those moves felt like a satisfying break from the chaos, like the Glory Kills of the Doom reboot, but 11 years prior.

On top of great combat, unlike most of the other shooters I’ve played to this point, the game didn’t depend solely on its combat. My hours spent puzzle-solving, note reading, collectible hunting, money scavenging, and weapon upgrading were just as substantial, and often rewarding, as the combat. And some of the set pieces I played through really provided an exhilarating change of pace to the slow pace of positioning and aiming in place. Despite the fact I played Resident Evil 5 before it, RE 4 felt like a wholly original game in so many ways that I couldn’t help but finally see how great it is. Too bad it took 3 tried, and a doubled framerate, to finally make me see the light.

25) Devil May Cry V

Never in my life would I have expected a Devil May Cry game to be on this list, let alone the 5th one in the series. In fact, this isn’t even my first time playing these games since I enjoyed the Ninja Theory reboot from the last generation. But for as much as I loved the combat and the creativeness of it’s environmental and enemy design, but the narrative and characters just didn’t stick with me much. But DMC V does everything that game did but 5 times better.

I’ve used over-the-top so many times when describing games on this list, but this game seems to fully embody that phrase with every moment of its single-player campaign. Think a guy with detachable robot arms is ridiculous, just wait until you meet the dude who hits demons in the face with a breakaway motorcycle. Think a breakaway motorcycle is too crazy? Wait until you see his EX mode where he dances like Micheal Jackson. And you fight so many monsters that are the size of skyscrapers that they honestly all blend together thinking back on the game. In fact, the narrative didn’t do much for me overall, which is my fault for jumping in on its 5th part. But the characters were so outstanding on their own that I just loved watching them all interact.

Nero, while initially bland, eventually showed himself to be the young hothead itching to prove himself, a trope I enjoyed in contrast to the rest of the cast. And Good GOD, the rest of this cast man. V, who’s true identity was a genuine shock, is the most Hot Topic, My Chemical Romance ass dude I’ve ever seen in a game with lips way softer than necessary. Dante, the main character of the series I’d say, gives off the most “hot dad” energy of any character ever thanks to his flamboyant dance moves and goofy confidence. And Nico, don’t get me STARTED on Nico, dude. How, dare they give this woman the body of a Savage X Fenty ambassador and the voice and personality of a Louisiana mechanic that browses 4Chan? It’s the weirdest clash but she still manages to come off as both endearing and as easily simpable as the rest of the cast.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I forgot to bring up the rest of the game! The combat, though initially unintuitive to my tastes, proved to have tons of depth and satisfying combos once I took the time to learn it. As this was one of the first titles I played on my new PC, it was a visual feast in graphical fidelity and art design. Every pore of skin impressed me just as much as the uniquely grotesque ways in which hell crept into the real world above. And the game still has more for me to do after the campaign, as the Blood Palace’s many floors of combat challenges are still begging me to return. But even if I never do, the beautiful, violent, and horny smorgasbord of stimuli that is Devil May Cry V will live in my heart for a long time.

24) Max Payne 3

Near the start of this countdown, I discussed how much I love Kane and Lynch 2 for its intentionally hideous design. Everything about it, from its visual artstyle to its gritty story and audio design, is meant to put a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who played it. But the biggest casualty of that design priority is that the gameplay ultimately suffered a bit. Its gunplay isn’t broken, but it’s definitely bland compared to many contemporary shooters. Well, there’s another game with an intentionally unpleasant visual style, seedy narrative, and angry white man in a foreign land ready to murder. But this game actually has incredible gunplay, and it’s called Max Payne 3.

Yes, Max Payne 3, the least talked about Rockstar game right behind Table Tennis and State of Emergency. Despite how rarely it’s remembered, the game is one of the best efforts in their entire catalog. That intentional ugliness comes through the visual distortions that appear during gameplay and cutscenes that reflect the fogginess of the protagonist’s mind. Max Payne, after all the stuff he went through in the last 2 games, is a broken man trying to live with his sorrow. And in the middle of getting caught up in political intrigue and gang warfare with corrupt law enforcement, he decides to also kick his alcoholism at the same time. So, yea, he’s definitely not at 100%, so these effects not only look cool but feed right back into the narrative of the game.

And that narrative, for as fucked up as it is, I kind of enjoy after a recent replay. It’s a tragic tale for the most part, and not just for Max, but at times it’s so brutally nihilistic and gruesome that it almost comes around to being kinda funny. As someone who’s been turned off by the usually sinister tone of Rockstar titles like Grand Theft Auto V, I find it so incredible that a game with that similar tone actually resonated with me. And despite the horrible acts you witness, and sometimes take part in, the conclusion gives much-needed closure to all of the suffering.

But when it comes to the suffering Max himself inflicts, it’s immensely satisfying. Well, that is just referring to the kind done within gameplay. Max Payne 3 has the most precise aiming I’ve ever seen in a 3rd person shooter and even some 1st person shooters. And the physics system makes every bullet’s impact look substantial and appropriate according to the caliber of each bullet. Like, shooting a dude with a pistol will kill a guy, but it’ll only slightly push their shoulder back. But hit that same shoulder with a shotgun blast or a higher-powered rifle and it’ll send them flying. Rockstar even went the unnecessary extra mile by modeling every entry and exit wound, which is a detail that even carries over into multiplayer.

All of these elements combine to make a game where shooting enemies feels just as good as watching them fall right afterward. And of course, with Max Payne’s patented Bullet Time, it makes both activities even easier to enjoy. So, yes, while Kane and Lynch 2 has many similarities to this game, Max Payne 3 is so polished and fun to play that its leaps and bounds over not only Kane and Lynch but most contemporaries in the genre. Even if Rockstar never remasters the title for current generation systems, it is definitely worth tracking down and playing.

23) Dreams

Oh look, another Media Molecule game! Yea, well, I swear this one is different; it does outrank both LittleBigPlanet 2 and Tearaway after all. Now, LBP 2 captured my imagination when I first played it, and Tearaway warmed my heart when I saw its conclusion. But Dreams not only did both of those, but it also truly showed me just how strong the power of creativity can be both thanks to and outside of its single-player campaign.

Media Molecule’s handcrafted story of the, aptly named, Art and his struggle to reconnect with his friends and his passion for creation is as goofy and charming as it is heartbreakingly authentic. It taps into the real adult fears that come when following your dreams, like the fear of letting down the colleagues that you call friends. It taps into the struggle to reconnect with long-gone friends and passions. But at the same time, it indulges in off-the-wall concepts from flying digital dragons being ridden by sentient childhood toys to musical numbers from train conductors and club bodyguards. It results in a narrative that is just as sincere with its emotional beats as Tearaway but just as absurd with its fiction as LittleBigPlanet 2, and it’s remarkable that they were able to pull off such a balance.

But all of that is small potatoes compared to the thing that truly makes Dreams a once-in-a-lifetime kind of game, it’s a creative suite. That touching tale of self-doubt and creativity I just mentioned? It was made entirely using a toolset that every owner of the game has. Every single elaborate musical number, or side-scrolling shooter, or point and click sequence, or 3D platforming segment were all made using the in-game tools. This means that the toolset, despite being designed around a Dualshock 4 or two Move controllers, is just as powerful as the PC-based tools found in game engines like Unity and Unreal, with very few caveats.

This unlocks a level of creativity I’ve never seen in a console game, or any game really. Sure, there are PC mods, but much of those are based on the pre-established templates of the games they are designed in. In Dreams, you can literally start from an empty void and, with a few hours of ingenuity, creativity, and maybe even some help from the crowdsourced index of community-made assets, end up with anything from the next great kart racer to a dazzling music video. While I’ve done a terrible job at keeping up with the game in the months since launch, I’ve still seen an incredible amount of visual, audio, and interactive experience that have all impressed me with their quality and originality.

In theory, Dreams could be the only game you ever need, as it can deliver experiences that rival, or even outclass, anything you could actually pay for on the gaming market. The possibilities are endless, and in only about a year since the early access launch, the wonderful community has proven that. I can’t wait to see what else they come up with, but the dozens and dozens of Dreams I’ve already seen, heard, and played are more than enough to earn this game one of the highest spots on my list. Now if only I had the patience to create something myself….

22) Gotham City Imposters

I’ve thrown some hints to this already throughout this list, but one of my favorite genres of games is what I like to call the “movement shooter”. Any game where snap aiming and headshots is just as important as fast movement and airborne combat mastery is usually my jam. I just gushed about Doom, Sunset Overdrive, and Shadow Warrior 2 not too long ago, and you’ll definitely see more games like this as we keep counting down. But there’s one entry in this genre that gets nowhere near the love it deserves, and that’s Gotham City Imposters.

Now, I understand why it’s so obscure. The idea that someone made a class-based shooter in the Batman universe, and you don’t play as the caped crusader or any of his enemies or friends, is understandably bizarre. But, this is Monolith Productions, the same studio that made the excellent F.E.A.R. and it’s sequel. So, they had to have done a good job on it, right? Well, you damn right they did.

Instead of playing into the more grounded and serious tone of most Batman fiction, they hype up it’s more ridiculous aspects with exaggerated character designs, cartoonish sound design, and a bright artstyle. But the aspect that feels the least grounded, literally, is it’s movement abilities. Depending on your selection in it’s create-a-class system, you can glide from high places with a cape, boost into the highest corners of the map with a jetpack, have a high jump to use at any time with pogo boots, or swing around maps with the grappling hook. All of these gadgets gave new and interesting ways to play what would otherwise be a fairly basic Call of Duty clone. But they take what works in the CoD formula and apply it to such a vibrant and free-flowing game that feels wholly original. Hell, even if you forgo the movement gadgets for something more traditional like Targeting Goggles or a Smoke Bomb, you can still make an impact without double jumping and flying all over the map.

On top of the fact that every single weapon felt viable and fun to use, it easily made Gotham City Imposters an instant classic in my eyes. It’s the template that so many other movement shooters, like CoD: Black Ops 3 and CoD: Infinite Warfare, would soon go to follow. If only the rest of the world felt the same, because the game has long since been left behind on the PS3 and 360 consoles, and it’s free to play Steam version lacks a substantial player base or controller support. But if they ever get tired of making Lord of the Rings games, I hope Monolith gives this series another look, because it certainly deserves a revival.

21) Gears 5

Throughout the back half of 2019, I decided to play through the entire Gears of War series in preparation for Gears 5, which came out that fall. Despite many long pauses in between titles, I played every mainline Gears game, and discovered that I quite liked the series. Its combination of solid gunplay, gorgeous visuals, and spectacular set-pieces was appealing to me from the get-go. But none of those prior titles prepared me for how much I would end up enjoying Gears 5 once I finally got around to it.

Gears 5 is a masterpiece because it manages to walk the tightrope between a linear campaign and a massive open-world quest-a-thon better than any other game I’ve ever played. One minute, you’re deep in an abandoned science facility being toured through corridors of sci-fi horror. The next, you’re riding a Skiff through a massive, snow-covered, open plain towards one of your multiple objectives. The next, you’re fighting a military chopper after sliding down a sand slide in a side mission. And the variety of things you do and see in the game just continues as you play it.

It’s so remarkable to me because, having just played through the series, I knew it exclusively as a linear series. But when they expanded the game into open-world environments and added side missions and skill trees, it didn’t feel overwhelming, especially when compared to another GoW title that I mentioned earlier. In that game, the glut of new mechanics and expanded environments didn’t feel like they were vital to the experience, especially as movement mechanics were not properly adapted to allow for fun exploration of its bigger world.

Gears 5 accommodates for all of those issues. There’s no deep loot system, but the focus on a more limited arsenal allows you to get used to the weapons over time. The open world is a breeze to explore with the Skiff, and when outside of it, corridors are designed in a way that funnels you to each plot point much faster and more efficiently. And the narrative, in my opinion, is much stronger than that game as it’s simply way more original of a tale. By 2018, I had seen many of Dad and Boy stories, so seeing Kait’s story of inherited family trauma from her mother was captivating. Not only was it refreshing to see a story focused around a mother and daughter, but the science fiction themes in the game were way more fascinating than the aspects of Norse mythology I’ve seen countless other places.

Okay okay, I think I’ve made my point, but even without comparing the game to its contemporaries, Gears 5 stands on its own as one of the best games of the generation. I haven’t even mentioned the excellent multiplayer offerings like Escape mode, Horde Mode, and the classic Versus. But there are just so many wonderful sights to see, crazy story revelations to discover, and aliens to explode that no matter how you play, you deserve to give Gears 5 some of your time. And with Game Pass, it really shouldn’t even cost you much at all.

20) Red Dead Redemption

I’ll go ahead and spoil this right now, there isn’t a single Grand Theft Auto game on this list. While others have a fondness for other Rockstar properties like Bully and The Warriors, I never really had much of a connection to its most loved series, despite having a decent history with it. The open-world violence of the series never really tickled my fancy, because its groundedness, which is a major reason for its success, served as yet another restriction to the freedom I could experience in other games. I played a lot of Liberty City Stories on PSP, but its tone couldn’t match my youthful desire for instant gratification that something like Pursuit Force provided on the system. And the same could be said for GTA IV and V, and it’s less grounded contemporaries like Saints Row. But I discovered that groundedness does indeed have an appeal to me if the world, characters, and narrative all delight me. And that combination finally came to me in the form of Red Dead Redemption.

Like other Rockstar Games, I was caught up in the hype cycle of the title. But thanks to the few dollars I had thanks to my first part-time job, I bought it at launch rather than lived vicariously through reviews and podcasts. This is because the impeccable detail and presentation aren’t only what got me in the door, but also the unique setting. There have been western games before this, but so few of them appealed to me due to their cartoonish presentation. Red Dead Redemption was the first time that a game looked like a genuine, live-action, tale. In everything I saw of it, its groundedness wasn’t just an aesthetic, but everything from its mechanics to its narrative was built around the old west setting. And once I played the game, that quality was consistent.

Red Dead Redemption is a game that I was happy to have absorbed me. It was such a uniquely serene world that I happily rode my slow little horse through its massive landscapes. And when violence inevitably broke out, the mechanics of it were finally mature enough to be genuinely fun. Through the GTA series, Rockstar struggled to craft solid 3rd person shooting mechanics, and while they had yet to perfect them in Max Payne 3, Red Dead Redemption was still a compelling prototype, aided heavily by the simpler weaponry of the era.

And its narrative was incredibly strong at the time and still has plenty to love as well. It suffers from a lot of the bloat that open-world games typically do, but the highs are absolutely incredible. Some of the most iconic scenes are still burned into my memory, and their emotions of them can still be felt when I dig deep enough into my heart. Plus, some of the twists that happen near the end of the tale were completely unfathomable to my younger mind, and I still think they are some of the most daring narrative choices I’ve ever seen. 

But on top of all of this, my love of this game doesn’t stop at the single-player, as it’s likely my most played Rockstar title due mostly to its multiplayer. Its emphasis on maintaining the freeform nature of the single-player but just with other players added, felt like Burnout Paradise and Skate because it felt more like joining a space to just hang out. The traditional competitive modes and cooperative missions are improved tenfold by the ability to freely match up with friends and new acquaintances during and before those instances. And those same arcadey gunplay mechanics and physics-based mayhem work excellently online.

Red Dead Redemption is obviously one of the all-time greats, and that’s according to many more than just me. But I’m thankful for it as a fantastic introduction to a genre, westerns, that I’ve never cared about and a developer, Rockstar, that I never loved on the level they maybe deserved. If only the game was made ethically, but hey, they got their act together and treated their workers better in later titles…right?

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