The Illusive Man in Mass Effect 2

My top 12 (ish) games of the decade

Surely not another “games of the decade” post, I hear you moan? Yep, absolutely. Everyone’s been doing these, so why not me? For no particular reason other than to organise my own thoughts and take a nice trip down memory lane, here they are. I’m not saying these are necessarily the best (everyone will have an opinion), just the ones I’ve personally enjoyed the most. Also Xbox only, since I really only play on Xbox:

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

If Mass Effect was Star Wars, then Mass Effect 2 was its Empire Strikes Back. More confident, more personal, and a stellar opening half hour, ME2 got its hooks into me straight away.

I was incredibly excited to pick up the story of Commander Shepard following our defeat of Sovereign at the end of the first game. Had humanity earned its place on the Citadel council by saving the Destiny Ascension? Were Shepard and Ash still together (yes, I chose the space racist but I think I got her to see the error of her ways)? Did Conrad Verner ever make Spectre? So imagine my surprise when in the first ten minutes, the Normandy is destroyed, my crew scattered, and Shepard blown out to space! Without a doubt one of the most incredible opening sequences in any game, and a clever excuse for resetting all of our abilities and skills acquired in the first game.

Mass Effect 2 improved on the original in almost every way, and remains, in my opinion, the pinnacle of the series.

What followed was an incredibly well realised story supported by a diverse and interesting crew for whom I developed a genuine emotional connection. I really wanted to understand what made Mordin tick, how Garrus had fallen so far from his principled ways, and what drove Miranda to become Cerberus’ corporate ice queen. As I worked with these NPCs and helped them through their well developed personal missions, it felt like really breaking down barriers and bonding as a team. Naturally this made the game’s final suicide mission all the more nerve-wracking: one wrong move and I would lose someone with whom I’d spent real time building a relationship.

While the final “baby Terminator” boss left a little to be desired, Mass Effect 2 remains the pinnacle of the series for me, and Mass Effect as a series is right up there with my all-time favourite gaming experiences. ME3 never managed to reach the same heights in my eyes, despite the increased stakes, and I just haven’t taken to the characters in Andromeda. If I had to pick my top game of the decade, I don’t think I could see past Mass Effect 2.

Halo: Reach (2010)

Bungie’s Halo swansong at the start of the decade was a fitting way to end their involvement with the franchise. A darker tone, and feeling that you were just postponing the inevitable as you reached the conclusion of the campaign was the perfect analogy to the uncertainty around the Halo series at the time. While 343 Industries have debatably fallen short of Bungie’s standard so far, Reach felt like the ultimate Halo package. A little like Bungie were sending their kid off to university fully laden with all the new clothes, food, and stationery they would need to face the real world on their own.

Darker, grittier, and with incredible variety, Reach was the culmination of Bungie’s Halo, and a fitting send-off.

A turbo-charged Firefight mode appeared, along with an evolution of the superb multiplayer. Not to mention a superb campaign leading nicely full-circle to the opening of the original Halo: Combat Evolved. Reach was a love-letter to Halo fans everywhere, and a stellar way for Bungie to say farewell.

Fallout: New Vegas (2010)

Following Bethesda’s success with 2008’s Fallout 3, the reigns were handed off to Obsidian for this follow-up. At the time, Obsidian were rather known for making sequels to successful games, having shipped Star Wars: KOTOR II and Neverwinter Nights 2 in recent years. There were question marks over their QA processes and Fallout: New Vegas finally arrived in October 2010 absolutely riddled with bugs, which made the game unplayable for some. Like other Fallout titles it was never going to win any awards for beauty (even at the time it looked decidedly average), however the gameplay and world building were right up there with the best.

Look at all those lovely shades of brown!

It’s a testament to the game that despite all the bugs, the world had that trademark future-through-a-1950’s-lens feel, the characters were flawed yet loveable, the storylines suitably bonkers, and the gameplay was wide open. The freedom and oppressive environment have always been key points of Fallout, and New Vegas delivered in spades.

I sunk an immense number of hours into New Vegas and its DLC (despite a bug that kept crashing my 360), and I still look back fondly on that wonderfully quirky world of greys and browns.

Battlefield 3 (2011) or 4 (2013)

I never really had a gaming PC capable of playing games like Battlefield and I managed to miss BF2: Modern Combat, so it was Battlefield 1943 that really gave me my first experience of the series. I’ve been a massive fan ever since, and Battlefield 3 was the first one that really got its hooks into me. At the time there were a few of us playing regularly so we often got a squad together and jumped in. A decent, if cliched single-player campaign was a fun but short-lived showcase of the game’s graphics and destruction, while the co-op campaign provided a nice distraction, especially the “Drop ’em Like Liquid” level in which you and your co-op buddy had to fight through the streets of Paris and deal with a hostage situation by simultaneously sniping enemies.

Battlefield 3 was a marketing masterpiece by EA, who wanted the single-player element to compete with Call of Duty.

But as with all Battlefield games, the multiplayer was the main draw. BF3 had some technical issues at launch, including one that rendered the game practically unplayable for me, but it overcame those to become a memorable entry in the series. BF3 is probably (at least in my opinion), the last time Rush mode was truly great. The showpiece map Damavand Peak involved capturing objectives in a starting are before base jumping from a mountain-top helipad down to the next objectives hundreds of feet below, while the meat-grinder Operation Metro has been resurrected in almost every Battlefield game since. Some decent DLC support followed, adding new maps, weapons, vehicles, and game modes, keeping the game alive until the release of Battlefield 4 in 2013.

Battlefield 4 upped the ante with its “Levolution” mechanic but definitely felt like more of an iteration, rather than a full sequel. It’s really hard for me to choose one or the other here. Battlefield 3 was great, but I think I sunk more hours into BF4 than I have any other game (including Destiny).

Taking tags is the ultimate BF disrespect move, especially when you counter someone trying to grab yours.

It was more frantic, had bonkers (and just plain broken at times) netcode, and what felt like a larger scale. I think I probably played more and had more fun with BF4, but I’d say BF3 was possibly the better game overall.

Either way though in the early part of the decade, Battlefield was a huge part of my gaming life and one I look back upon fondly.

The Walking Dead (2012)

The demise of the point-and-click adventure genre was a long running topic of discussion. Once upon a time, the likes of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango ruled supreme. So it was with some surprise that Telltale’s modern take on the genre took off so much.

The mature storyline and sympathetic characters (who in their right mind wouldn’t do whatever it took to protect Clementine?) brought the old genre back to life and delivered a seriously compelling episodic experience. Sure the gameplay could be wonky at times and the NPC reactions to choices weren’t always logical (go f**k yourself, Kenny), but it generally held together very well. The final episode had me at the point of tears (no spoilers), and I really connected with the story on an emotional level.

Lee and Clementine are one of the most memorable gaming duos of all time, up there with Marcus and Dom, Master Chief and Cortana, or Sam and Max.

Sadly the engine has aged and shown its cracks, and Telltale themselves are no more (at least in their original guise) amid stories of toxic management and horrendous working conditions. Fortunately their relaunch under a new parent company offers some hope for more quality story-driven point and click adventures in future, and more importantly, employment and better conditions for a lot of the original staff.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown (2012)

Back in the mid-late nineties, one of my friends and I used to spend hours playing UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense to our cousins across the ocean). The level of customisation in all aspects of the game was incredible, from building your bases, to researching tech, equipping (and naming) your soliders. Even the most emotionally closed-off individual couldn’t help but shed a tear when their star Colonel, veteran of 25 missions, misses her shot (90% hit chance) and then gets torn asunder by the recently zombified civilian she was just about to rescue.

X-COM; Enemy Unknown must be one of this most successful updates/reboots in gaming history, managing to stay faithful to the original while totally modernising and releasing on console.

After various misguided attempts to resurrect the franchise in the early 2000’s, 2012’s X-COM: Enemy Unknown came out of nowhere to re-imagine the series. Incredibly, it was fantastic. Not only did it capture the overall feel of the original, it brought the rock-hard difficulty and overall feeling of terror along for the ride. Firaxis brilliantly modernised lots of the systems in the game while keeping its heart and soul intact. The feeling of abject dread when you make the wrong move and expose your soldier to enemy attack, and the attachment you feel to each and every one of your troops is unsurpassed to this day, in my opinion.

And in a time when it feels like most games are becoming increasingly connected and fast-paced, there’s something really refreshing about a slow-paced, turn-based strategy game that you can take your time to enjoy.

GTA V (2013)

What can I say about Grand Theft Auto V? Each new release seems to build upon its predecessor: Vice City added bags of style and depth on top of GTA3, and then San Andreas absolutely blew it out the water in terms of size and breadth of content. It’s been no different with the more recent entries. GTA IV established the series on a new console generation, rebuilding the engine and modernising the controls, and then along comes GTA V to completely dwarf its predecessor.

Quite simply, GTA V is the best GTA yet. Perfect in scale, big enough that there are loads of distinct areas to explore while avoiding overwhelming players. The series’ trademark attention to detail: NPCs are worth following around just to listen to the crazy stories they tell on their mobile phone, you can hop on a bus for a tour of the stars’ homes, or just pop to the golf course and play a few holes. No other game provides so many pastimes that are so well constructed they could almost become games in their own right. If anyone remembers Rockstar Table Tennis, I’m amazed we’ve never seen Rockstar Golf, Rockstar Racing (I guess Midnight Club could count?), or Rockstar Triathlon.

GTA V was simply stunning on release.

Introducing three playable protagonists for the first time, GTA V’s story was a typically sprawling, diverse, and utterly bonkers affair with all sorts of famous voice talent to lend an air of Hollywood authenticity. And for the first time, there was finally an online component that has exceeded all expectations to become a hugely popular sandbox spawning all sorts of content, from Rockstar’s own Heists, to YouTubers making kids’ videos showing Spiderman racing the Incredible Hulk. Despite a rocky start where there were obvious capacity issues, GTA Online still has a healthy player base to this day, thanks to continued support and updates from Rockstar.

Many of the previous GTA games haven’t aged all that well, feeling clunky given the modern control systems we’re used to. Chances are by the time the next entry comes along, GTA V will feel the same, but for now over six years on from its original release, GTA V is still not just the best title in its series, but one of my favourite games of the last decade.

Destiny (2014) or 2 (2017)

This may be cheating a bit, as I can’t really decide between Destiny or Destiny 2. While I think a lot of people will vote D1, I never really got totally involved with the social side of Destiny until D2 came along. And if there’s anything Destiny really needs to make it complete, it’s a fireteam. Yes, you can do solo, but it’s really not the same experience.

What can I say about Destiny that hasn’t already been said? Probably nothing. But I may as well anyway. It’s been a funny old time playing Destiny over the last five and a half years or so. While so much noise was made about the level of player freedom and breadth of activities ahead of the launch of D1, the beta and full launch quickly left a lot of players feeling betrayed. Repetitive quests, confusing story, and empty environments, there was a lot to be disappointed with. But still… there was something. That Bungie magic that made the movement and combat feel buttery smooth. The space-wizards flinging glowing orbs of energy around. The (albeit somewhat hidden away in Grimoire cards) deep lore around the universe. There was just something to this new world that pulled me (and many others) in. I drifted in and out of D1 a fair bit (I even missed most of The Taken King, which is widely regarded to be the pinnacle of Destiny’s life), only really coming back for Rise of Iron, but I was never in doubt of the quality of the game, I just struggled for time and always had something else to play.

Destiny is at its best when played with a team.

Destiny 2 has really cemented Destiny as a marmite experience. Many people gave D2 a shot to see if it righted the wrongs of the original, and certainly through the campaign mode it seemed Bungie had recognised they needed a more cohesive story with greater direction to bring players in. But beyond the Red War it seemed that a lot of the same problems were still there. Was this Bungie or Activision’s doing? There’s still some debate about that. I certainly enjoyed D2 at first but again quickly drifted away to other things. It’s only really since the release of Forsaken in 2018 that I’ve consistently stuck with the game, with the exception of the Black Armory where I slipped into Red Dead Redemption 2, Battlefield V, and Assassin’s Creed: Origins.

But while there are complaints about the grind and the addition and subsequent removal of content under Bungie’s new “season pass” model, I’m finding reasons to play the game than ever, to the point where I’m finding it hard to spend time playing other things. I know that every time I log on to D2 I have a huge range of activities to choose from, and a massive backlog of quests to get through (some ranging back to release in 2017, damn you Rat King!), meaning I always have something interesting to do.

I have fond memories of that one time I managed to hit max light level before the end of the season!

In Destiny, Bungie have crafted a truly unique experience. It still has that perfect combat gameplay and the depth of the lore these days is incredible. It’s crazy that people like My Name Is Byf are making a living out of learning and interpreting the lore of Destiny. It truly rivals the likes of Star Wars in that manner. The Grimoire Anthology collections Bungie are now releasing in hard copy are a personal highlight. I’m hard pressed to come up with any game (or series) that has grabbed my attention in the way Bungie have with Destiny. Maybe Mass Effect has come close. Certainly Halo (spot a thread here?).

When I look back on the last decade in gaming, Destiny is absolutely going to be one of the first things to spring to mind.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)

Wait. What? How did this come out in 2015? That would make it coming up for 5 years old? That’s insane. Incredible. Just amazing. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a technical marvel. A massive open world full of life and danger, and absolutely stunning graphics to boot. And the fact that it still looks and plays great after five years is testament to the quality job CD Projekt Red did with their masterpiece.

Despite a fair bit of interest I never quite made it round to The Witcher 2, meaning this was my first Witcher game. It certainly took me a little while to get into it but once I got my teeth into the story I was absolutely hooked. The characters are superb, the story and quests nuanced on occasion and spectacular on others. The Bloody Baron quest series is well documented by now but still manages to challenge your morality. Despite the rather black and white premise of playing as a contract monster-killer, this is a world of greys, where it’s often hard to tell who is the bigger monster, man or beast?

“Toss a coin to your Witcher…”

The Witcher 3 is at its absolute best during contracts. These are semi-detective stories where Geralt has to follow some vague clues about people disappearing, or monster sightings, investigate telltale signs to identify the type of creature he’s after, and then prepare with the right tools and potions before hunting down and stopping the best once and for all. There are plenty of these CSI: Novigrad moments through the game, and despite adhering to the same premise, they somehow manage to avoid being repetitive and remain fun throughout.

To top it all off, The Witcher 3 received two absolutely massive DLC packs which further extend the adventure. I still haven’t made it round to playing these yet, but having recently finished watching the excellent Netflix TV series, I’m inspired to go back to the game for more monster-hunting fun!

Rocket League (2016)

It takes a special type of game to produce that “just one more go” feeling. Games short enough that it feels like you always have time for another, addictive gameplay, and that special something that makes it stand out. Thinking back I’m reminded of games like Sensible World Of Soccer or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, that just have that innate sense of replayability. It manages to be extremely accessible (my 4 year old is able to play) yet takes true skill to master.

Rocket League is an excellent example of how to make a live service game work.

It’s testament to the quality of Rocket League as well as the support it has received post-launch that it is still up there in the Xbox Live Most Played Games list year after year and has a vibrant competitive scene. Here we are four (or five if you’re on PC/PS) years after release and Psyonix still support the game with new cosmetics and other updates, while most sports games are forgotten after the new version comes out 12 months later. But perhaps therein lies the key. Rocket League is a sports game only in part. It is also a car game and an arcade masterpiece.

Rocket League has shown how to make live service games work, and even four years on from its Xbox release I still haven’t seen any talk of a sequel, and I am extremely fine with that.

Forza Horizon 3 (2016) & 4 (2018)

It seemed a little remiss of me to compile this list without any racing games on it, but in truth, there’s been a huge Project Gotham Racing-shaped hole in my gaming life since 2007. While Forza Motorsport is undoubtedly stunning, there hadn’t really been anything that grabbed my attention until Forza Horizon 2: Fast and Furious dropped free of charge in 2015. I’d watched the series from afar prior to that. Interested, but not quite ready to commit. I thoroughly enjoyed my free taste of Horizon, so when FH3 dropped the next year I knew I had to get involved, and it didn’t disappoint.

Forza Horizon 3 screenshot
Forza Horizon 3 is quite simply, stunning.

Having a microcosm of Australia as a playground was an absolute masterstroke. Horizon somehow manages to effortlessly blend the style and arcade replayability of the PGR series with the attention to detail and hardcore DNA of it’s bigger sibling (the Forza Motorsport series). With a superb mix of modes thrown in, from “standard” races, to drift zones, speed traps, massive jumps off danger signs, there is always something different to do. And that’s before you include the series’ trademark Showcase Events. These banner events pit you in a pre-selected vehicle in a point-to-point race against all manner of contraptions: hovercraft, trains, jets, the more ridiculous, the more fun and frantic the race!

Forza Horizon 4 didn’t reinvent the wheel, but built on its predecessor in every way, and the fact it was set in the UK (along with a brilliant recreation of Edinburgh) just made it all the more enjoyable. I’m still disappointed that the Project Gotham Racing series is gone, but Forza Horizon is a worthy spiritual successor.

Sea Of Thieves (2018)

I’ve spoken at length about Sea of Thieves before so I’ll not go into too much detail here. I was rather unconvinced by Rare’s pirate epic on first glance, but once you round up a first mate and the rest of a crew, this game really comes to life in a way few other games can match (I think GTA Online is probably one of the few comparable experiences out there). Yes, you can go and complete some bounties, but those looking for drip-fed story and guidance will be left all at sea. In fact, I think this is where a lot of the criticism for Sea Of Thieves originates. As gamers we’ve become so dependent on hand-holding that unstructured freedom can be daunting.

Fire has been a welcome and magnificently chaotic addition to Sea Of Thieves.

Sea Of Thieves excels at this freedom, and is at its best when this is embraced. Have a read of my full thoughts on the game here if you like, and you’ll hopefully understand why I feel it deserves a place on this list. It’s well supported by Rare, with regular updates, and a totally unique experience well worth a shot.

Conclusion

It’s been good fun compiling this list and thinking of some of the games I’ve played over the last decade. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how much has changed in that time (marriage, kids, career, etc.). It’s also incredible to look at the change in the gaming industry over the last decade. From loot boxes, to live service games, subscription services. Even just general Internet connectivity that’s taken as a given these days. It’s been an incredible decade, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

If you’re still here, thanks for joining me on my walk down memory lane. Please feel free to share your own favourite games and moments of the last decade in the comments below.

Solutions Architect at Indicia and Final Boss of picnicerror.net. 1600HP. Vulnerable to Tequila. Data geek, football fan, and Xbox gamer.

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