Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Image from The New York Times (A bat’s work is never done)
Batman: Arkham Asylum released at the end of this century’s first decade and set a new standard for what is expected in terms of quality and ambition from superhero games. Specifically, tailoring an experience that made you feel like you were controlling the character in question in an authentic manner, in this case the Caped Crusader.
Batman: Arkham City, at the beginning of this decade, expanded the scope of this bat simulator to make it almost akin to a reverse Grand Theft Auto. You don’t kill anyone, you fight injustice for justice’s sake and the only law you’re breaking is taking the law into your own hands: Bruce Wayne’s established Modus Operandi.
Arkham City is a great expansion on what Arkham Asylum started when it came to its excellent and initially unique set of gameplay systems, so much so that when you scan a room in another game or fight similarly to the Dark Knight in titles like the 2015 Mad Max or 2018 Spider-Man, it is called “Detective Vision” and “Arkhamesque”. Not bad for a licensed video game.
I will admit, as much as Arkham City did to expand the range of Batman’s traversal, stealth and combat options, which were and remain awesome, I kinda felt then and to some extent now that the length of the main story is foreshortened. The main set of missions and levels throughout Batman’s journey through a Gotham City district turned open air prison doesn’t feel long enough.
That could be compensation for the high number of side missions and collectibles to keep you and a playable Catwoman occupied long after you have saved the day,er, night. To be fair, the story that is told is quite good and a great escalation from the foundation of Batman’s struggle in the Asylum.
It has one hell of a unexpected gut punch( or two) to throw at the end, not to mention a far better final boss involving a certain shape-shifting bat foe. If that seems too obvious a hint, what you do want from me, the game is eight years old at this point.
Despite my likely not widely shared gripes, Arkham City is an important addition to gaming as a medium and I can see why it is considered the best Arkham game, let alone among the best games ever made.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010)
Image from Gamesradar (Mario’s space odyssey at its creative height,IMO.)
2007’s Super Mario Galaxy pushed Mario and the Nintendo Wii to new heights with its planetary-gravity based platforming and giddy sense of imagination that was basically without equal at the time. Mario Galaxy 2 is more of that in the best possible way.
Of the three main-series Mario titles this decade, aside from SMG2, there was Super Mario 3D World and Super Mario Odyssey. Both were critical darlings for their respective platforms of the Nintendo Wii U and Switch, but for me the best Mario adventure this decade remains Mario’s second Wii outing.
Don’t get me wrong, 3D World and Odyssey are both great games, more so the former than the latter( just for me!) and are worthy system sellers for their game systems. Mario Galaxy 2 stands out for me not just because it’s the first Mario Galaxy but with more stuff that I liked than last time but also was a rare welcome example of more than one main Mario game coming out in a single generation.
Put it this way: the first Nintendo, the NES, had three Marios. The SNES had two. The N64 and GameCube had one each. Having a second major title for Nintendo’s flagship was a welcome surprise. The reason for the sequel existing at all stems from how so many great ideas from the first game were left out due to time and budget restraints. Both Galaxy games are pretty big in terms of bang for your buck.
I really feel Mario deserves to have an entry on this list, even it is honorable rather than in the top ten. I found myself admiring the surprising creativity and ramped up challenge the sequel brought to Mario’s new interstellar adventures and having a less intrusive plot compared to the original also made you appreciate the visual and mechanical finesse of Nintendo’s A team development. Also, Yoshi the dinosaur. Can’t go wrong with him.
The one complaint I can really rail against SMG2 was the use of Luigi. In the first Galaxy, he was a surprise unlockable playable character that allowed you to replay the entire game with a slightly altered plot( an emphasis on slight) and a different style of jumping which could change well enough how you played the game. I have yet to play the closest thing Mario’s overshadowed brother has to an official main series: Luigi’s Mansion.
I have the third game for the Switch ready and waiting for me, but with the exception of Luigi’s bonus role in the first Galaxy, all he serves in Galaxy 2 is to find him on certain levels and switch out with him if you want, for reasons I forgot.
That being said, if you want the best proof that the Nintendo Wii wasn’t just a family and party game machine, Nintendo’s first party output was the answer. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was arguably the system’s finest achievement and just barely making it to the “honorable” section for this nearly done decade is no small matter of praise. Let’s a-go!
Far Cry 3 (2012)
Image from YouTube (The guy who will play the MCU’s Scorpion looks into your soul, as he is want to do.)
Open world games, as a checklist of things to see and do, predates Far Cry 3. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized and practically patented the concept of a 3D world to explore and do stuff in back in 2001, there has been a general idea that if you have a virtual world to partake in, marking down the activities via the map and doing them is the best way.
Far Cry 3 didn’t reinvent the open world sandbox so much as streamline it, while also adding an excellent first person shooter overlay to it. It certainly reinvented its own fledgling series into something more easily categorized. Most open world games then and now remain a third person affair, allowing you to view your character in relation to his surroundings.
Far Cry 3 is entirely a first person visual experience and takes advantage of that perspective to also suggest the perspective of someone going mad ironically from all the fun the game lets you wreak.
You pay as Jason Brody, the intentionally white-bread trust-fund millennial vacationer who gets stuck on an Pacific archipelago with a whole bunch of pirates and PMCs. His friends and family are held captive, most notably by the now iconic secondary antagonist of the game, Vaas.
While the actual main antagonist Hoyt Volker, one very amoral Afrikaner, is also quite great as a foil and perhaps more evil, Vaas is the one on the cover of the game and the one everyone will always recall first in their memory.
Far Cry 3 continues to be held in high esteem for its crafting and framing of how you go about your dozens of hours of play, setting new expectations for an exploratory sandbox that specifically involves liberating area after area from an occupying force. Less so for its narrative, which while well told and with some pretty great themes, also is scrutunized for some old and unfortunate implications.”cough”White Savior”cough.
You go area by area, liberating outpost by outpost, taking over radio tower by radio tower, revealing locations that range from activities both violent and benign to points of interest which may or may not have a story to tell. You unlock weapons and upgrades, not just from the money you earn but by becoming a professional hunter of the insane diaspora of animals of the Rook Islands you are on.
The sense of gradual but certain evolution from careless partying Californian frat-boy to legitimately chilling predator of man and animal alike is one of my favorite aspects of the game.
It’s not just that the loops of things to do in Far Cry 3 remains mostly consistent in staying satisfying the entire game, it’s how you feel about Jason and his motivations change so drastically due to a cocktail of taking in local, exotic drugs, manipulation by those surrounding him and a growing love for his successful bloodshed.
Whether this is a case of the game having its cake and eating it too and if it actually succeeds is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Ubisoft made a franchise that actually did influence open world design in a clear cut way, more so than for their more recognizable and marketed flagship Assassin’s Creed.
Even as the formula that 3 began has started to show its age with more recent entries like the still great( gameplay wise) Far Cry 5, the original Pacific Islands dark power fantasy still holds thrall over me as a considerable addition to the medium, just not strong enough to be in the top ten of the decade.
Far Cry 3’s unsung triumph is in making Vaas’ famous line about the definition of insanity applicable to what you actually do: doing the same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s**t to change. In some ways, Vaas was right, and in other great ways, he was wrong. Going insane did do the series and the industry well, for a time.
Max Payne 3 (2012)
Image from Green Man Gaming (Sad Max is at it again….)
Max Payne 3 is one of the stranger projects for Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead developer Rockstar to have tackled in recent years. All the more impressive considering the awesome results.
Rockstar’s bread and butter are pain-stakingly realized open-world sandboxes, especially of the authentic if satirical urban locale. GTA has recreated New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Miami. Red Dead a condensed Wild West and its varied locales, including 19th century New Orleans in RDR II’s case.
L.A. Noire, which was developed more so by the now defunct Australian studio Team Bondi, was a non-satirical recreation of late 1940s’ Los Angeles, hence the title. Max Payne 3 is certainly not open world.
It is a linear third person shooter with very little if any outstanding deviation from the chosen path. It’s how well you master Max’s shooting and “bullet time” skills with the incredible variety in how shootouts can play out where a new openness takes over.
Where Rockstar’s most clear cut footprint can be found in Max’s third noiresque adventure is in the still impressive attention to detail in every one of the game’s 14 levels. Some of it, like in Max’s first two games, made by Finnish studio Remedy who went on to make Alan Wake and Control after handing the series over to their publisher Rockstar, is interactive.
It’s not to the same level of interactivity like touching bathroom stalls, phones and other apparent objects for secrets, in-jokes or most importantly, items. It does feature a great new selection of watchable television, which is especially enjoyable when Max uses one in a Brazilian location, which is the main setting for the game. All the dialogue coming out of Brazilian TVs is appropriately Portuguese, with no subtitles.
What makes Max’s Brazilian misadventure stand out from his two New York/New Jersey tales is the hazy booze and drug filled atmosphere that permeates the tone and nature of Max’s story.
By the third game, taking place nine years after the second, Max is truly broken and is just trying to see what he can do next with his life if anything. He becomes a bodyguard for a Brazilian businessman and his family and as per usual, it goes to hell in nearly black comic fashion.
Forces within and beyond Max’s control places him in a series of unfortunate events that takes the player through breathtaking if visually overwhelming set-pieces like a shootout in a raving nightclub, a sun-drenched favela full of locals with reactionary tempers and a surplus of firearms.
There is a fight through and around a giant yacht in the Panama Canal. A dimly lit, desperate gauntlet to push through a Sao Paulo police station full of dirty cops. My favorite is a mad dash for safety through a bus station that ends up on hell of a crazy drive by shootout on a bus. This and so much more.
Punctuated by some of the finest shooting mechanics I can remember which makes you really consider who to shoot first, how much of your limited “bullet time” resource you should use for an encounter and if you jump and dodge in slow-mo here and now. You’d be surprised how much can change depending on how you move Max and when. It is an adrenaline rush that demands much more of your brain than you would think.
Max Payne 3 is one of the best third person shooters I have ever played and manages to captivate despite little else in terms of gameplay systems. It’s story, more so regarding Max’s own internal struggle over his self-loathing and question of deserving personal redemption than anything else, makes it a moving if belated trilogy capper.
Max Payne 3 did not push the industry forward. It did not need to. But it most certainly became a strong candidate for how one of the past decade’s most ubiquitous genres: the third person cover shooter, popularized by the prior decade’s Gears of War and Uncharted series, have a standout entry. For those who want some veggies to a meaty action experience, Max is your man.
As dour as he and his franchise is, you will likely be smiling when overcoming the challenges and the pain that will come with beating his tribulations.
Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain (2015)
Image from Kotaku UK (That is a Metal Gear on the right. Impractical? Perhaps. Dangerous? Certainly. Cool? Oh yeah. Japanese as all hell? Mochiron!)
The behind the scenes drama of the fifth( really sixth considering the 2010 entry Peace Walker) Metal Gear Solid game is as interesting a topic as what is in the last entry by legendary series creator Hideo Kojima, who has gone on to rebuild his studio free from Konami and make under Sony’s wing the bizarre and polarizing Death Stranding.
MGSV is a game with both intentional and not intentional echoes of the troubled development in which it was made under. Questions of Kojima taking too long to produce, using too much of the company’s resources or just in general not being completely on the same page as his superiors.
Whatever the case, MGS5 was affected to the point that Kojima was for all intents and purposes fired alongside the game’s September 2015 release. Since the second game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty all the way back in 2001, Kojima has wanted to make a final entry in the series under his direct supervision. Like Michael Corleone, he kept getting pulled back in.
He went on to direct to critical acclaim MGS3: Snake Eater, MGS4: Guns of the Patriots and MGS: Peace Walker. 2008’s MGS4 in particular was marketed and framed within its presentation as the true end to Kojima’s involvement. Chronologically within the game’s storyline, Guns of the Patriots was indeed the last game from Kojima.
Yet, the fifth title’s interquel nature, set between Peace Walker and the very first game in the series, simply called Metal Gear, from 1987, was the emotional conclusion to the series and one both hindered and aided by Konami and Kojima’s feud behind the scenes.
Metal Gear Solid 5 is a full price game with more than enough content to feel as if you have gotten your money’s worth and yet it is unmistakably unfinished. An entire major plot point is left forever in limbo by it’s conclusion being left on the cutting room floor. It feels like Kojima and co. had to work their best to make what was finished feel as polished as it could be.
In terms of sheer gameplay, The Phantom Pain is the most game the series has ever been. Notoriously, Metal Gear Solid and Kojima’s works in general as the recent Death Stranding can attest are cutscene heavy. You will spend a lot of time watching rather than playing even if what you’re watching involves something cool, strange, sexy or at least catches your attention.
This ties into the popular sentiment that Kojima, for all his talent at making fun gameplay is more interested in cinematic storytelling. Hence why he tries to make as many of his games be promoted as “A Hideo Kojima Production”. To critics who consider games not an art form, tell me this: can a field of something not artistic have auteurs?
Compared to most MGS games, The Phantom Pain is very interested in letting you play rather than watch the legendary Big Boss, a soldier commanding his own idealistic and supposedly altruistic private military company, Diamond Dogs. There are lengthy cutscenes still, especially during the horror-filled tutorial opening set in a hospital under siege.
If anything, presentation in the series now switches in MGSV in welcome fashion from long stints of cinematics and talking over the radio( called the “codec” in-universe) to be rewarded with generally short stints of gameplay to long stints of gameplay rewarded with somewhat shorter but fewer cutscenes. That you can manipulate the perspective of these scenes by pressing a button to zoom in is a nice bonus. At long last, a Metal Gear game for the player!
MGSV also innovates in a manner not dissimilar to the direction The Legend of Zelda series would take two years later with Breath of the Wild: going open world. The concept and execution of scanning an enemy outpost, base or encampment with your binoculars and then planning how you will infiltrate, loud or quiet, accomplish your tasks and exfiltrate is an outstanding and overdue addition to a series that since 1998’s MGS1 boasted of “Tactical Espionage Action”.
Your open-ended exploration of environments set in both Soviet occupied 80s’ Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region are ripe for discovery and new tactics that grow with your expanding arsenal of weapons, tools and support from your headquarters Mother Base, situated in the Indian Ocean.
It’s not just your skill in stealthily approaching any situation, it’s also the companions that you bring along with you that help make MGSV a near master of open-world stealth if not the only actual example around.
Companions that you can select to accompany Big Boss, preferably called Snake, include a wheeled bipedal robot, a horse, the most adorable wolf-dog ever with an eyepatch to match his owner and finally the visually polarizing Quiet, a mute sniper with teleporting abilities, dressed in what amounts to underwear and little else.
I won’t get much into Quiet as her presentation and role in the story of MGSV is a touchy subject, more so now in the PC outrage age we live in, but what matters is that these companions and the useful support they bring to you mastering the battlefields of the Middle-East and Africa helps bring together what works in one of the most technically sound games of the decade.
What keeps Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain from making it into the top ten is I can’t ignore, no matter the reasons behind it, that it is an unfinished creation. That it’s such a good game with provocative themes and messages, some well explored, some not so well is a testament to Kojima’s perfectionist tendencies winning some amount of victory in the end.
MGSV is a mournful but in some very odd ways, satisfying conclusion to what Metal Gear Solid is. Is the series great for its characters, themes and story, as needlessly and absurdly complicated as it was made out to be? Is it the legitimate quality of the gameplay there is, the cool features to make you a sneaky agent in a world of conspiracy and intrigue?
Is it the paradoxical combination of obsessive attention to detail for realism combined with some wacky, out there moments? MGSV was proof in the end it was all of those things and perhaps a little bit more. Even Kojima’s missteps and moments of over-reaching are more interesting than flat-out wrong.
The Phantom Pain is the definitive example that even a masterpiece can be flawed. It commands no less attention, maybe more so than something that is deemed subjectively perfect.