A little over a year ago, the powers-that-be in gaming decided that the time had come, and released the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, bringing to a close the longest console “generation” in gaming history: Seven years for the PlayStation 3, eight for the Xbox 360. This nearly decade-long era saw major shifts in the video game industry and its consumer base: Microsoft rose to new heights thanks to great first-party titles and Xbox Live; Sony handily won the new optical media fight as Blu-ray rose to prominence over HD-DVD; and Nintendo opted to fight on their own terms by releasing the Wii on unsuspecting consumers worldwide.
The “console wars” raged on… sort of. As people who grew up playing games got older, started families, and began earning “grown-up” amounts of money, it became commonplace to have more than just one console in the house. Hell, I can’t think of a single friend with even a passing interest in games who didn’t own at least two systems, and most households had all three present. Exclusives still exist, but the majority of titles (including many of those on this list) are now cross-platform at launch, or “timed exclusives” that eventually ended up on every platform.
Thanks to that, this list is not limited to just one system from the past generation, though I did tend to play more things on the 360. This list is in no way meant to be “comprehensive;” there will be things missing that you might have included, or things I included that you might have hated. I’m not claiming these are the best games from the past generation, or even that these are my absolute favorites. When I think about the last eight years, though, these are the titles that stand out most sharply.
Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360)
No, I don’t mean the entire franchise, though the Ezio trilogy is certainly one for the ages; I mean Assassin’s Creed, the much-maligned, admittedly imperfect first entry in the series. Many people may have forgotten that this blockbuster gaming giant started off as a PS3 exclusive, and after the reveal trailer, I was ready and willing to spend $500 at launch. The mission structure got a little repetitive, but watching Altair go from a real asshole to a real assassin was genuinely moving, and the open-ended free-running inspired greatness in later titles such as Infamous and Sleeping Dogs.
Battlefield: Cad Company 2 (Xbox 360)
Of all the games on that list, I don’t know that any approach the return-on-investment provided by “Bad Co 2.” We played the single-map beta for this game all night, every night while it was active; the full game consumed weeks’ worth of our lives over the next year; and the Vietnam expansion pulled us back in well after the fun should have run out. For me, this game is the standard by which all other multiplayer shooters are judged, and found wanting. Find me another game where “ram the objective building with a tank until it collapses” is a legitimate strategy, and then we’ll talk.
BioShock Infinite (PC)
I struggled at every turn with which BioShock game to put on this list, and it wasn’t until I was writing these blurbs that Infinite cinched the win. I still think the original has better atmosphere, the supporting characters are stronger, and Rapture still kicks Columbia’s ass in terms of environment. As a representation of this past generation, though, I think Infinite stands above its predecessor, because when you get right down to it, it is a better game. The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth maintains perfection from start to finish, and in my opinion is far more worthy of accolades than the title’s admittedly muddled metaphysical elements.
Borderlands (Xbox 360)
Erich literally had to trick me into playing this; after nearly a week of bugging me about it, he came over under some pretense, installed it on my 360, and shoved a controller in my hands. Six (maybe eight?) hours later, he finally managed to get the disc and leave for home, despite my protestations. For weeks after that, it was almost impossible to get a copy in Tuscaloosa, as anyone with a friend and a console snatched them up. I know the sequel is seen by many as some sort of co-op mecca, but for me Borderlands will always come back to fighting Nine Toes (he also has three balls) in split-screen at 4 am.
Dead Space (Xbox 360)
I have one word: Fear. Few pieces of entertainment have ever instilled in me the fear that the first Dead Space managed. Playing it became a catch-22, trying to balance my desire to keep going with the almost physical dread that came with being in Isaac’s boots. The next two iterations were greeted with mixed feelings and open hostility, respectively, but I don’t think anyone would deny that the original helped break new ground in horror. On some level, games like Amnesia and Outlast owe their success to Dead Space, just as Dead Space built from the foundation established by Resident Evil 4.
Fallout 3 (PC)
I own the collector’s edition of Fallout 3 on the 360, lunchbox, bobble head and all; I even used a friend’s GOTY edition disc to install all of the extra content. It wasn’t until I picked it up this past summer on a Steam sale, though, that I really took the time to appropriately explore the Capitol Wasteland. The game is still captivating: The landscape is simultaneously beautiful and desolate; the characters are appropriately realized; the sheer amount of content is staggering; and finally, the number of nods, homages, and references to all things sci-fi warmed my insides. The moment that still sticks with me the most is when I snuck up behind a feral ghoul sitting near a fire, took him out, and searched him to discover that his only possession was a teddy bear. It was heartbreaking.
Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360)
Beth and I received Far Cry 3 as a very generous gift from her parents, but it came at a cost. After we each unwrapped ours on Christmas morning, her mom sat us down and pointed out that the cover prominently features a man holding a gun, a person buried in the sand, and dead bodies hanging in the trees; she then read the laundry-list of reasons the game is rated Mature by the ESRB. After acknowledging that we were adults, and could make our own choices about what to play, she politely wrapped up with, “I don’t know if there will ever be a ‘Far Cry 4,’ but I can guarantee you it won’t be under this tree.”
Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360)
I knew I would have to buy an Xbox 360 after playing the first Gears of War at a LAN / System Link party in my dorm; I had to be physically restrained from going to Wal-Mart that very instant after my first chainsaw kills. Gears of War 2 only improved upon that formula, with Horde mode being the best inclusion by far. Few cooperative experiences match the thrill getting everyone settled into the right location and rhythm during the early waves, only to have everything fall apart at the claws of a well-placed ticker. It only gets better when one person, alone and out of ammo, manages to finish the wave using nothing but the stock of their shotgun.
Halo 3 (Xbox 360)
There is not a game on this list I am more ambivalent about at times, or one I have said more terrible things about in the heat of the moment. I picked Halo 3 up at midnight, played some multiplayer, and then finished the campaign in one sitting after everyone else had logged off and gone to bed. I hate the story, yet have played the campaign multiple times, and some of the set-pieces still get my heart pumping. The multiplayer options opened up by Forge are staggering, and we still played custom games (Said the Liar!) for hours at a time years after release.
Mass Effect (Xbox 360)
I had no interest in Mass Effect when it came out. Our friend Oz got a copy the first day, then convinced Erich to play it, and several months after the fact I borrowed it and decided to give it a chance at their insistence. I play for six hours, and the next day was overjoyed to discover that a store nearby still had a collector’s edition in stock. To this day, I feel the Mass Effect series is the closest we’ve gotten to games that genuinely capture the spirit of something like Star Trek, and the vast galaxy exploration still impresses with its sheer size.
Metal Gear Solid 4 (PlayStation 3)
I bought a PlayStation 3 to play this game; in fact, I bought the system bundle that included the game. I’ll admit that the cutscenes can get both tedious and extraordinarily silly, but the core gameplay and story remain true to the excellence that is Metal Gear Solid. I could write pages about this game, but all that needs to be said is that the opening moments of your return to Shadow Moses brought tears to my eyes. Those tears evaporated shortly thereafter, of course, when I found myself using *(@^ing Metal Gear Rex to fight Metal Gear Ray as building crumbled around us.