20 Highlights of the 360/PS3 generation – part 4

Call Of Duty: Black Ops 2

Love or hate the series, the fact remains that they really tapped into what a large number of people want from a first person shooter.  The latest (well, technically Ghosts is out soon) iteration is more of the same.

It’s easy to highlight what makes this game so good – it’s the makers absolutely nailing the niche they’ve carved out.  That’s 60fps fast paced squad combat, with a good variety of weapons and maps.  BO2 has some of the best maps I’ve seen, especially those released as part of the four expansion packs – for example Studio and Pod.  The controversial target finder attachment curbed both aided and hindered camping – but what I appreciated about it was no more straining to see shadows against dark grey.  The balance is also pretty good aside from assault weapons being a little on the weak side – but you won’t notice that if you play Hardcore mode, which is a throwback to the good old days of 1 hit kills and somewhat more strategic play.


Since the game is massively popular, it’s always easy to find a lobby and instances of lag are rare – the network code really is as good as it can be, on the 360 at least.  I’ve heard the PS3 didn’t fare quite as well in that respect, hopefully they’ll get this right in Ghosts for the PS4.  I think the popularity was also a major cause of the vocal backlash against the series, especially from a minority of obnoxious PC gamers who just can’t stand it that a good FPS exists on a console.  Just give it up already, the series is here to stay.

Of course it’s worth mentioning that shortly after the new one comes out, this game will start to die off online, there is a story mode which has some great levels although the narrative is pretty scattered and requires some knowledge of the plot from previous games.   Obscurity is the eventual fate of all games which were best online, a shame but that’s just how it is.


Dead Space

One of the first games I can think of to really nail sci-fi horror.  Out of nowhere EA / Visceral came up with some actually new IP, and straight away from the previews I knew it was going to be something special.

As Isaac Clarke, the player is sent to a planet cracker mining ship called the Ishimura.  Planet crackers in the Dead Space universe, are vast ships which literally pull the cork out of planets to mine them.  At once an impressive and pretty depressing idea which I’m sure we’d build if we could.  After crash landing the rescue ship on the Ishimura with few survivors, they find the ship to apparently be deserted.  Then it all goes downhill in very bad ways.


The Ishimura is one of the all time great game settings.  It’s very creepy and feels abandoned – the bridge when you reach it is particularly eerie, with all the screens still running and the entire crew missing – it has giant glass walls so the effect is amplified by seeing space outside.  Of course you’re not really alone, those crew who aren’t dead have mutated into hideous and incredibly violent necromorphs.  They’re actually really nasty looking, most have spikes jutting out where limbs should be which they like to raise up and bring down at you, flailing wildly.  The game walks the fine line between enemies and solitude perfectly, something the sequels failed to appreciate.  Occasionally this can lead to moments of genuine panic where you want to just run.  They’ll catch you.

Fortunately there are various weapons available, but your best friend will be your trusty engineers plasma cutter.  This is a simple 3 beam laser which can change between horizontal or vertical orientation.  The only way to kill the mutants aside from filling them with all your ammunition, is to remove their limbs – and that’s exactly what the cutter can do.  Weapons and your suit can be upgraded throughout the game and this is one of the weapons you should invest power nodes in.  The use of the cutter adds some finesse to what would normally be a very typical combat system.

The bulk of the gameplay involves travelling around the Ishimura trying to bring systems back online, and eventually leave the ship and go planetside.  Along the way there are some real set piece locations like the gravity chamber, or the turret cannons you need to firstly reach by traversing a trench, and then control to take out a meteor storm.  There are also some boss battles, the one in the cylindrical chamber is unusual and welcome, the final boss suitably large and ugly looking.

Dead Space looks great, if I had to name a film it reminded me of in visual style, it would have to be Event Horizon to some extent.  The locations are all very well designed, the necromorphs hideous, and it maintains a very solid 30fps frame rate throughout.  The audio is fantastic and really helps the atmosphere, music is used sparingly but effectively – I got goosebumps from the small amount of singing later in the game.

So, best in the series and – pretty much an essential title.  Unfortunately due to poor sales of Dead Space 3 (no shit EA – you tried to turn it into Gears Of Space), another sequel is not planned.


Red Dead Redemption

Open world games can be hit and miss.  The amount of investment required to create a believable world which people can explore without it feeling like a movie set is so significant that few take it on and succeed.  Rockstar have a good track record on this front with the Grand Theft Auto series, but to be honest I thought they’d lost their touch when I played GTA IV and got bored half way through the main story.  It just didn’t have the quality of San Andreas, or the magic of Vice City.  They’ve most recently released GTA V which is pretty good, but it isn’t as good as people say, and it’s certainly nowhere near as good as Red Dead Redemption.

Set in the wild west, RDR sees the player take on the role of a retired outlaw, John Marston.  Unfortunately while John is making a real effort to take his life down the straight and narrow path, his past catches up with him in the form of some government agents who have his family taken from him to coerce him into bringing to justice the rest of the Williamson gang he used to ride with.  The story is long and satisfying, the player is free to play John as a virtuous man or a violent outlaw and it affects how the rest of the world treats him.


As with several of the other games I’ve highlighted for the generation, the star of the show is the setting and the environment.  Transplanting the open world GTA gameplay into the old west just works perfectly, if anything it works a lot better since it’s always hard to swallow someone being able to casually carjack 30 times a day without any consequences.

The west looks beautiful, it was a joy just to ride around and see the scenery, the towns and saloons looked authentic to anyone who grew up watching westerns, and it really put a smile on my face the first time I saw a steam engine rumbling past.  The draw distances are huge and the frame rate much better at sticking to the target 30 than the GTA games have ever managed.  It’s also incredibly detailed, even the AI of the wildlife helps to convince the player that they really are in the west, especially the horses which quickly become an outlaws best friend.

Also setting the scene is truly superb audio – the soundtrack changes according to where you are and what you’re doing in a seamless manner rarely seen outside of big budget films.  The ambient sound effects are perfect, as the weather changes you’ll believe it’s happening – thunder storms show this the best, you can almost feel the rain.

There is a multiplayer mode, I tried it out briefly but it just didn’t seem worth the effort, the main game is huge and packed with side missions, games and objectives which are actually fun to do, and I felt like that was enough.  I’m just sad I never got to try out Liars Dice online, but I didn’t know anyone who wanted to buy that expansion.  While this is my highlight reel for the generation, if I had to actually name a game as being the best, I would hand it to Read Dead Redemption, nothing else is even close.


Tomb Raider – Anniversary

By 2006, the popular Tomb Raider franchise seemed to have run out of steam.  Each game was getting progressively less enthusiastic reviews, despite all being decent in their own right, so Eidos handed the game over to Crystal Dynamics to come up with something new.  What they came up with was Tomb Raider: Legend, which did two things.  Firstly it vastly improved the controls for Lara, movement and combat were extremely fluid.  Secondly it put more of an emphasis on story and action than constant puzzles.  It was a solid game if fairly short, and received strong reviews.

The next thing Eidos came up with, was quite a surprise.  They took the Legend engine, and re-made the entire original Tomb Raider game with it.  End result?  The best Tomb Raider game in the entire series, from a long term fan viewpoint.  It improved on the original version in every possible way.


The puzzles and platforming were better than they’d ever been, the graphics obviously were a huge leap ahead from the original Playstation ones by the time the game landed on the 360, although sadly it did suffer from frame rate issues.  The audio was improved with a lot more use of atmospheric musical interludes and ambient sound effects.

Ultimately this is one of the best 3D platform games of all time, although I was in two minds about including it here due to it being a remake of a Playstation title and additionally a port of the PS2 version.  However, it was released in the right era and is good enough to get a free pass.

They have been two more Tomb Raider games since Anniversary – Underworld which was built on the same engine but was an all new game, and the recent ‘reboot’ of the series which is confusingly just named ‘Tomb Raider’ again.  The newest one isn’t as untrue to the roots of the series as some people have said – I played the whole thing and thoroughly enjoyed it, but Anniversary is Lara how we remember her.  This one seems to be creeping back up in value, so grab a copy while you can – the digital version won’t be around forever now that the Xbox One is coming.



“Aw…what did they do to Jenny?”

And my final pick for 20 of the most entertaining games of the generation, has to go to The Darkness.  It’s a comic book adaption, telling the story of Jackie Estacado, whose family has been possessed by a demon known as the Darkness.  Jackie is a mafia footsoldier, but after failing to complete a task for the mob boss, he orders him killed.  While hiding from the mob closing in on him, the Darkness awakens.

The Darkness manifests itself as two snake like limbs which appear over Jackies shoulders, while it has to inhabit a human body it’s actually a separate entity, driven by bloodlust and delighted by carnage.  While Jackie can use various weapons, he can also attack with the Darkness as long as he’s not in direct light – lashing out, grabbing enemies and tearing them apart (including regaining energy by eating their hearts).  The Darkness can also summon Darklings – like imps with a bad attitude, they’re the comedy relief in the game, often finding amusing ways to make life difficult for Jackies enemies.


It would just be an above average and enjoyable game if it weren’t for two things.  Firstly is the story, it’s excellent – especially when Jackie is sucked into a hellish limbo and forced to confront the origins of the Darkness.  However (and this is a huge spoiler), the real hook in the story is the death of Jackies girlfriend.  Early on in the game there’s a scene with the couple just watching TV.  It’s simple, it’s effective, it’s believable.  When Jenny is killed and the Darkness prevents him from saving her, you feel Jackies loss.  It’s an emotional hit rarely seen in games.  The other thing which sets this game apart is the script and voice acting – particularly that of the Darkness.  It’s voiced by Mike Patton, the lead singer of Faith No More.  He growls, screams, and goads the player throughout – it’s a masterclass performance which was repeated in the sequel.

The graphics also bring the Darkness to life, regardless of what Jackie is doing, in the dark the Darkness is looking around, baring its teeth, and sitting there just waiting for something to kill.  The soundtrack isn’t quite as good, but it’s more than made up for by the voice acting.

The Darkness received a sequel, it’s also an excellent game and actually superior in gameplay due to more flexible use of the Darkness arms, but the first game just wins for me due to the emotional punch and a stronger story.