19) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This is perhaps the most out-of-place game on this entire list. I’ve mentioned a bunch of times how traditional fantasy worlds aren’t appealing to me and how long or giant games can be too intimidating for me. Then why the hell did I sink over 150 hours into a land full of elves, dragons, and magic? Well, to put it simply, Skyrim was designed in a way that naturally made me want to sink my teeth into it.

I loved Fallout 3 and New Vegas, so I was looking forward to another Bethesda game to keep me exploring for hours. I never cared about the narrative, and even know I retained very little of it, but the idea of getting to fight all kinds of mythical creatures with dozens and dozens of spells and weapons was instantly appealing. And holy hell was it, but my love for Skyrim was more of a “death by a thousand cuts” kind of thing.

If I break down a single combat encounter, melee combat boils down to hitting R2 as fast as you can, and spell casting adds some basic depth. And as I said, that story didn’t connect with me. But exploration was so effortless that I found myself binging the game for months. The map was densely packed with locations to loot, monsters to fight, and quests to take, so there was rarely a dull moment. Plus, many of these locations were filled with new things to find and do with later sidequest in the game. Even when the aspects I disliked reared their ugly head, the exploration, loot, and progression kept me coming back again and again.

And there were so many ways you could customize your experience as well, even outside of its famously huge mod scene. This was the first Bethesda game that allowed me to own my own house, where I could customize the space with the items of my choosing. I could get married to my choice of dozens of different NPCs. I even went out of my way to marry the only black NPC on that list, and it was awesome to see all the side characters of my journey’s show up to the ceremony, even if a glitched caused me never to see her again. I even got to make and customize many of my weapons and clothing, which I found super engaging.

I’ve talked about comfort food games often in this list. I don’t think that Skyrim falls neatly into that classification, as it’s not a game I came back to consistently over time. But it maintained a baseline of excellence for hundreds of hours, so a feat that remarkable deserves to be this high on the list.

18) The Jackbox Party Pack 3

I have often gushed about how excellent The Jackbox Party Packs are, and each of them is worth playing even if I haven’t mentioned most of them in this list. But the iteration that made me fall in love with the series is its third one. Every pack has some great games and some duds, but this pack has the highest average of hits when compared to all the others. Let me count the ways:

Trivia Murder Party isn’t my favorite game at all, as my trivia skills are often lacking. But its blend of mini-games and a quirky horror theme makes it a favorite among friends and considering how tense and hilarious games get, I totally understand why. Tee K.O. is a brilliant game of competitive T-shirting, and the fact it relies on quippy slogans just as much as funny or detailed drawings really makes the game more accessible to those lacking in either. Plus, the fact that you can order physical versions of these trash shirts makes the memories made in this game potentially last forever, or at least however long that shirt takes to fade.

But the two brightest stars in this bundle are Fakin’ It and Quiplash 2. The latter was preceded by an already excellent game, but the sequel adds even more hilarious prompts and also adds some new twists on the formula. It’s not only the most crowd-pleasing game Jackbox has ever made in my opinion, but it is also their most replayable, at least until I get my hands on Quiplash 3 in the recently released 7th Pack. But Fakin’ It is a stroke of fucking genius in my eyes. I mentioned earlier how some games like Patently Stupid are only fun if friends are willing to play into their role and act out the comedy for everyone else. Fakin’ It distills that into one action direction: lie your ass off. It results in the most fun implementation of dishonesty in gameplay of all time, yes even more than Among Us. And the game works perfectly as an icebreaker for new groups, as the personal questions can often reveal a lot about the players.

Guesspionage is the closest thing to a dud in this bundle, as most of my friends never want to play it. But I’ve been told that even it is a very fun alternative to Family Feud. So, yea, I really think Jackbox Party Pack 3 is a perfect party game, or at least as close as humanity has yet gotten to one. Using phones instead of traditional controllers makes the game open to so many more players, and the opportunities to make comedy, even when the players themselves aren’t comedians, are so plentiful in this series of games that it still holds the crown as the best in the series. But hey, they release one of these packs every year, so let’s see when they are finally able to top their junior effort.

17) The Last of Us Part II

As soon as I rolled credits, I knew that The Last of Us Part II would be on this list. But it took over a year of thought to figure out where I would put it. Not to spoil later entries, but comparing and contrasting this and the original TLoU lead me to realize something: I love these games nearly equally, but for completely different reasons. The original game is a classic piece of art, but it does so by implementing several aspects of post-apocalyptic fiction that we are widely familiar with. It doesn’t break ground because it does all that much new, just for how it does it. It’s still a fantastic video game, as I’ll discuss further later on, but the sequel is such an impressive achievement to me because of how daring it decides to be in comparison.

Part II takes the narrative formula, character archetypes, and sets expectations of the original game and shatters them all. It defies any set expectations one would have after the first game, but it doesn’t subvert those expectations for the shot value alone. It frontloads its narrative with some really painful character choices but nearly all of them pay off remarkably by the end of the game. The story does a remarkable job of making you look at outright villains and our most beloved heroes in completely different lights, so it’s impossible to solely hate or love any of them. The game could have easily just retreaded more of what the original did and it likely would have still gotten high reviews and would have satisfied most players, but Naughty Dog did not take the opportunity to play it safe, and for that alone, I think the game is a massive achievement. And all of that doesn’t even mention the massively improved visuals, especially on PS5, the much more fluid gameplay, and the much more impressive and varied set-pieces.

So, if this game is so great, so daring, so fun to play, why hasn’t its prequel been brought up before this one? Well, the single-player in The Last of Us was only half of the reason why I loved it so much, so the lack of any multiplayer mode in the sequel is a sizable step back. Plus, the last few hours of the game made the experience feel like it was dragging on a bit too long. But Part II is still one of the most emotionally moving and gripping games I’ve ever played and I still think about its themes and plot points daily.

16) Mafia III

I truly don’t think there’s another game out there like Mafia III especially in the AAA space. Its most high-profile missions have a wide variety of set pieces to shoot and stealth through, all of which stand toe to toe with the best missions in games like Grand Theft Auto. Stealth is satisfyingly streamlined and once guns start blazing, the chaos of combat is intoxicating. Thanks to a steady stream of post-launch DLC and support, slow-motion aiming and driving make gunplay and traversal much more accessible. And the racially charged narrative of revenge in 1968 New Bordeaux for what essentially is a hate crime is just as great as everyone says.

But there are a wealth of open-world titles on this list, and from a strictly gameplay and technical standpoint, Mafia III is likely one of the most inferior of the bunch. It’s best missions are sprinkled over a sea of repetitive open-world activities, like base infiltrations and target destruction. Its lack of a fast travel system forces you to commute way too long in cars that handle in a way alien to the numbers of open-world games set in modern-day. And despite many patches after launch, it still has a handful of visual bugs that break immersion just enough to potentially ruin the game for a less fortunate player.

However, despite all of these faults, the game provides a power fantasy not found in another game, and one I was gleefully glad to partake in: racially-based revenge. It takes place in 1968, one of the most explosive years of the Civil Rights movement, in a fictionalized deep south, but it asks you, as a black character, to dismantle an entire criminal operation built on the backs & graves of African Americans. And you don’t do so diplomatically, rather you get to be the one pulling every trigger, slicing every throat, seizing every business, and deciding what to do with the property and profits. I played the game on release, in the fall of 2016, and you can imagine just how cathartic such a racially charged revenge tale was for me. Sure, the satisfying combat and brilliantly written characters helped my enjoyment, but Lincoln Clay’s tale of revenge served more as a vessel for me to express my rage at an unjust America than anything else, and the chance to live out that fantasy effectively is more than worth any warts or jagged edges that may accompany it. And any game where I get to shoot up a Klan rally is an all-time great for me.

15) Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

As someone who has only recently tried Nintendo games, one thing I’ve often heard used to describe these games is a sense of awe and endearment. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to get a sense of endearment from Media Molecule’s games, and nearly every AAA game I’ve played, from God of War to Gears of War, instill a sense of awe with impeccable polish and scale. But Astro Bot: Rescue Mission manages to do both for the first time I’ve ever seen, and the impact of that achievement hits even harder thanks to its unique platform: PlayStation VR. Its narrative is skeletal, but the game takes that bare plot as an opportunity to pack it’s levels and enemies with as much variety as possible. You go from tropical beaches and underwater civilizations to moonlit bamboo fields and airbound metropolises in its 9-hour campaign. None of those environments ever feel stale, the character and environmental design remain endearing throughout, and most of them even invite repeat playthroughs for secrets and collectibles. But any game could check all of those boxes. It’s the perspective of PSVR that makes the game feel so much more tactile and makes it stand head-and-shoulders above any other straight platformer I’ve played. Gameplay is simple, yet incredibly varied as every level has a new twist that allows for the enhanced interactivity PSVR allows for. Astro Bot doesn’t just exist in another world inside your screen, they’re right there next to you because you are brought into their world thanks to PSVR. It makes everything tactile in a way you can’t replicate in a more traditional game, and it also makes the game feel much more intimate as well. It does follow the formula of classic 3D platformers, but the new perspective, keeps any of it from being derivative and, in fact, makes it feel revolutionary. So, Astro Bot is not only the best PSVR game I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best games I’ve played the entire last generation, regardless of platform.

14) Burnout Paradise

What’s that, another racing game on the list?!? Yes indeed, as this is the racing game I alluded to earlier as being superior, in my eyes, to Burnout 3. I understand that’s a bit of a hot take in some circles, so let me back that up. Burnout Paradise is, in my view, a perfect racing game. It sits firmly in its niche of racing with a heavy slant toward vehicular mayhem, but it doesn’t force that slant onto you. Want to have just a standard race, you can! But engaging in the takedown systems, driving recklessly to gain boost, and doing stunts make that core racing all the more engaging. The variety of events on offer kept gameplay fresh every single time I booted up the game, and that variety carried over online. In fact, I’d argue that Freeburn was a revolution in multiplayer design overall in how seamless it made online play. No waiting in lobbies to race, you got to just stay on the open road, waiting for the host to trigger a specific task for everyone to do. It had the vibe that games like Skate would later ape completely, and this more free-form style of online play kept me on those servers for years.

In fact, I think that’s the reason I love Burnout Paradise so much. Yes, the fact that it had custom soundtrack support on PS3 meant I spent many hours speeding to the sound of Slaughterhouse and Minnie Ripperton. Yes, its high frame rate and vibrant color palette made the game a visual feast for me. And yes, this game made me a fan of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”. But this game took the open world and applied it to a genre I only thought of as being confined to predetermined paths. This change trickled down to every design choice in the game, from collectible billboards to crash through to events having to be discovered at stoplights rather than being unlocked and selected in a menu. It made for a game that felt freeform as if my orange Carson GT Concept was an extension of myself rather than a car I was just controlling. This, and the overall more over-the-top tone, made the game feel less like the sterile raceways of Forza and Gran Turismo and more like the batshit twisted metal-fests of Hot Wheels. So, considering I was that kid that had the 50 car chase of those bad boys when I was a toddler and played the PS2 Hot Wheels game at Morgan’s sleepover when I was a little older than that, Burnout Paradise is my childhood dream come true.

13) Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time

I’ve already simped for Insomniac Games several times in this list, and I’ve already alluded to my love of the Ratchet and Clank series with my mention of its PS4 reboot. While my love of the series started way back on the PSP, it wasn’t until the PS3 that my relationship with Ratchet and Clank went from a fling to a marriage. And the engagement ring in this bizarre metaphor is Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time.

By the time the game was almost out, I had played plenty of games in the series. So, while I was excited to get another entry with the same familiar gameplay I love, I was equally blown away by the new aspects it brought. The arsenal was kept fresh with new weapons like the Plasma Striker and Dynamo of Doom, but the Constructo weapons sprinkled in some much-appreciated customization into the weapon pool. The scope possible in the levels was increased tenfold with the massive and intricate spaces of levels like Molonoth Fields. And even the narrative was more engaging than ever before, as the stakes and twists in this game were the highest and most surprising ones I’ve seen in the series.

But A Crack in Time doesn’t stop with improving the core aspects of its gameplay, it also adds never-before-seen aspects as well. There are a bunch of levels that let you play as Clank for extended puzzle sequences. Puzzles are nothing new to the series, but these mind-bending conundrums that are reminiscent of Braid are some of the most original parts of the game, and often also the most challenging. But the part that really blew me away was that Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time is technically not the first open-world game, but open galaxy, game I’ve ever played. There are planets you have to visit in the main story, but there are over a dozen more that are completely optional, all with their own bolts, collectibles, and other goodies to find. And the unique camera perspective you get when on them really drives home how small these planets are and gives heavy Mario Galaxy energy.

So, yea, me loving an Insomniac game is no surprise. Their combination of rewarding progression systems, vibrant worlds, unique weapons, and jovial spirit always attracts me to their titles. But the way they gave me all the stuff I wanted with a bunch of new twists and additions that I never even asked for is what made me love this game so much more than the others in the series. I mentioned how, despite being an incredible refinement of the series, the PS4 reboot pales in comparison to A Crack in Time. Well, the sheer amount of original ideas and potentially risky home run swings make that so. It might be the most ambitious Ratchet and Clank game, and mostly because of that, it’s not only the best, but also my favorite.

12) inFAMOUS 2

Remember way back in the list when I discussed how inFAMOUS was my introduction to the open world, superhero genre? Well, that genre went on to be one of my favorites in all of gaming, to the point where even the most mediocre among the genre are still deeply enjoyed by me (see Prototype 2). But I didn’t yet know the heights to which this genre could go until I salivated over, pre-ordered the collector’s edition of, and feverishly consumed inFAMOUS 2.

The PS3 generation was full of cinematic games thanks to the popularity of franchises like Uncharted. inFAMOUS 2 decided to make itself more cinematic as a result by adding motion-captured cutscenes, better facial animations, and a great deal of increased graphical fidelity. These additions made the admittedly tropey story of superpowered heroes and villains way more grounded, and therefore, more believable. I ended up getting super invested in Cole, Zeke, Quo, and Knix’s tale, and I found myself downright sobbing at the emotionally devastating endings of my evil and good playthroughs.

Now, a gripping narrative is enough to get you on this list. But the fact that the gameplay from its predecessor returns, and is smoother and more diverse than ever before, is the reason it gets such a high spot. I was already in love with its fast and fluid movement system, but the improved animations made traversal feel so much better. I already loved the electrical moveset of the first game, but the addition of ice and fire powers made gameplay even more varied and dynamic. Hell, even the electric power set was expanded, including a lightning tether that made traversal feel like the best Spider-Man game I played on PS3.

By 2011, I had played a whole lot of games, mainly through gifts and PlayStation Plus. Up to then, I understood that all games that played like in inFAMOUS would be graphically inferior and lack a compelling narrative and that all games that looked like Uncharted would have grounded gameplay that wouldn’t scratch my desire for acrobatic movement and over the top power fantasies. But upon the release of inFAMOUS 2 that year, I was proven totally wrong, I could have both in one game. A game I loved so much that I not only got its platinum trophy in it within a week, but it was my favorite game of all time for several years. But it was later knocked off of its throne by…a game I will get to soon.

11) Life is Strange

By now, I’ve certainly set a trend of overlooking flaws with a game if its best aspects shine bright enough. Life is Strange is another example of this, because the internet is vocal about just how many issues exist in this game. Sure, its artstyle makes some items look unrealistic to the point of breaking immersion. Sure, some of the dialogue can be inauthentic to the point of being cringe-worthy. And the inconsistencies in its time-bending, supernatural plot are hard to ignore to the most hardcore of sci-fi fans. But none of that matters because Life is Strange manages to do perfectly what very few other games even try to do: nail a consistent vibe.

This game takes the common tropes of high school drama found in shows all over The CW network and time travel tropes found…also all over The CW network to create a weirdly comforting combination of the two. It has that familiar feeling of watching an episode of one of those numerous high school dramas and sci-fi shows that rerun on TV all the time, and that’s a feeling that I can’t find anywhere else in games. The music and artstyle help hammer that vibe home even more, with the soft edges of its visuals and chill tones of its soundtrack bringing me to a state of zen when playing. The characters fitting so rigidly into these classic stereotypes make the universe even more comfortable to exist in. Overall, it leads to a universe that encourages feelings of nostalgia, despite never having visited it before. This vibe made all of the traumatic twists and turns of the narrative all the more impactful, because these characters felt like people I already knew. So, yes, I’ve never been a teenage girl with time controlling powers and a self-destructive best friend. But this game did such a great job of putting me in her shoes, that I truly felt like I was, if only for a few hours. Man, I should really get around to the prequel and sequel, huh?

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