15. Dead Rising 2 [official site] (2010)
Developer: Blue Castle Games
Zombies, eh? Fear not, however, for these are daft zombies, the sort that would be more at home in the splatter-comedy of Peter Jackson’s Braindead than the grisly misery of The Walking Dead. Whether you’re improvising some bizarre crafting project that reduces corpses to chowder or dressing up as the world’s worst team mascot, Dead Rising 2 encourages silly behaviour. There are guts and bucketloads of blood everywhere you look, sure, but this is the Saints Row of zombie games.
Slapstick alone may not be enough to win a place this high on the list, however, and Dead Rising’s true brilliance is in its structural oddities. It’s a game in which time passes and things happen whether the player is in a position to react or not. The entire story can happen elsewhere while you’re trying to find the final piece of the Mega Man costume you promised you’d wear when you finally got round to clearing out those final few toy shops.
The original game’s contentious save system is still in place, although there are extra slots to save your progress so you’re not stuck with a single playthrough at a time. To save, you must find a safe area and that creates a delightful tension when a desire for shenanigans leaves you knee-deep in the dead and cut off from the quickest route back to sanctuary. Rightly criticised for the sometimes inconvenient time between saves, it is nevertheless a smart feature that creates moments of high drama amidst the cartoon carnage.
Notes: The Off The Record remake is the definitive version, improving various elements and bringing back the first game’s lead character Frank West. His photography gimmick adds another layer to the game, and his backstory and attitude don’t clash with the game’s sillier sensibilities in the way that Chuck Greene’s occasionally do.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Saints Row IV is just as silly while Ubisoft’s Zombi is an altogether different but similarly interesting take on open world undead-bashing, with some clever systemic twists.
14. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag [official site] (2013)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
The Assassin’s Creed series is the main villain in the ongoing saga of UBIquitous collectibles and joyless missions in open world game design. Maps cluttered with tokens that we’re supposed to hunt down, following from one point to the next, barely noticing the technical magnificence of the reconstructed and reimagined historical cities around us. To play an Assassin’s Creed game is like travelling the world but never taking your eyes away from the Lonely Planet guidebook, your nose buried between the pages as you travel from one point to the next, ticking off marks on a checklist as you go.
Even when there are invisible motorbikes, possessed wigs and transparent faces, the AC games are remarkable technical accomplishments. It’s easy to shrug off the scale and beauty of the urban environments, partly because the design of the game encourages efficiency rather than awe, but there are sights capable of astonishing. Unfortunately, the games are so determined to tell you their convoluted and cumbersome story while introducing cookie-cutter characters that even sightseeing feels weighted down with excess baggage.
Enter Black Flag. It was the remedy to Assassin’s Creed’s many ills, injecting levity and a sense of wild joy. The setting helps, the piratical adventures plugging new systems and objectives into the game as well as adding some colour, but the sense of freedom doesn’t spring entirely from the new time and place. There are still tedious missions and erratic stealth mechanics. This is not Assassin’s Creed perfected. Instead, it’s Assassin’s Creed with a horizon and a sense of escapism. Dropped into a fantastic period piece, you’re allowed to shake off the shackles of obedience and The Cause so that you can enjoy everything that’s on offer. If the majority of the games in the series are episode of Quantum Leap, trapping you inside the body of a person trapped in a restrictive quandary, Black Flag is more like a theme park.
That people reacted to Unity’s bugs with such bitterness and yet celebrated the Black Flag’s Flying Dutchman is a perfect encapsulation of the joy that the latter brought, and the dull ache of the former.
Notes: Lead character Edward Kenway is voiced by actor Matt Ryan, who played DC’s Constantine in the recent TV adaptation. A good friend of RPS insists that his Welsh accent is the most unbelievable thing about the game. Ryan was born and raised in Swansea.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Sid Meier’s Pirates!
13. Red Faction: Guerrilla [official site] (2009)
Sometimes a game doesn’t need to be great to the end to be a great game. Guerrilla is one of the clearest examples of that. An open world third-person destruct-me-do, it eventually winds its way into a place that’s far too difficult, and far less fun. But wow, the fun you have getting there.
The socialist fury of the destructible series began in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2009’s third game that it shifted away from shooting and really put its emphasis on knocking things down. And so good it was at it.
It’s outrageous that more games haven’t adopted its extraordinary freedom in wanton destruction, which Volition get so right here – they understand how great the system is, and the game is built around encouraging you to enjoy smashing down buildings with a giant hammer, or planting charges all over to spectacularly take out enemy encampments.
The later Red Faction: Armageddon remained entertaining, but rather forgot the joy that came from being a truly open world, instead feeling too restricted. Guerrilla remains the real star of the series – a series that tragically has shown no signs of reappearing since the demise of THQ.
Notes: Unlike many of THQ’s licences, Red Faction was actually canned before they went down, due to poor performance, because the public are sometimes twits. A Guerrilla Collector’s Edition, due to contain a 20” statue, never appeared. Presumably because shops.
Read more: Kieron’s review.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing if I like this: Do have a play of Red Faction: Armageddon, which while not as good, is still a fun time.
12. Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time [official site] (2003)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
The revival of Jordan Mechner’s classic platforming series was met, at announcement, with some skepticism. It looked a bit too much like Tomb Raider with a gimmick, and people weren’t at all sure. And then people played it. Sands Of Time, despite a further four PoP games having been released since, still stands as by far the best in its lifetime – a masterful piece of third-person platforming, some middling combat, and a gimmick that proved to be a masterstroke: reversing time.
It remains utterly bewildering that twelve years later, it’s still not the default for third-person platformers to let you rewind a mistake, but instead rely on the clunking, hated checkpoints that SoT so clearly demonstrated as anachronistic and unnecessary. Combining wall-running, elaborate climbing, and the enormous pleasure of entering a new chamber and discovering the path around it, SoT offered a fluid and deeply satisfying time.
But then, even Ubisoft themselves didn’t get what made it so great. While Warrior Within and The Two Thrones were decent, neither was as great, and then the subsequent further reboot was a colossal disaster. But we’ll always have Sands.
Notes: Science has proven that Sands Of Time has one of the best closing jokes in a game of all time, while credit must also go to The Two Thrones for recognising how ridiculously none-more-goth Warrior Within made things, by having the two styles of Prince interact.
Read more: Alice persuades you to play.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The Assassin’s Creed series is probably its natural descendant.
11. Hotline Miami [official site] (2012)
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
You start as if it’s a stealth game. You’re infiltrating a building inside which guards patrol, you’re unarmed, and a single stab or bullet kills and spins you back to the beginning. So you start slow, you hide around corners, you nip between patrol routes. And you die and you die and you die.
Somewhere between the fifth and fifteenth death the pounding, electronic music seeps into your brain. You loosen up. You lunge recklessly at the nearest guard, time your punch to knock them to the ground, grab their spilled baseball bat and use it to burst their head in a bloody explosion.
Then you die, shot by the next guard. Next time, you don’t hesitate. Punch the guard, kill him with his baseball bat, turn and throw the bat at the second guard before he can fire, run over and grab his gun and shoot him dead when he stands back up.
The music continues to beat and so do you. You kick a man to death against a wall, then use his knife to slit the necks of two more. You smack a dog across the face with a pool cue then use it to kill a peeing man before he can turn around. Each violent act slides into the next and you’re learning the moves like the notes of a song.
It’s horrible but you’ve been bolted into the brain of this silent, terrible man committing senseless, violent crimes in a scuzzy, neon 1980s. You speed through levels. Kill then dead then more then again, kill then dead then more then again.
Notes: Hotline Miami was co-coreated by Jonatan Söderström, who was a prolific creator of free indie games under the name Cactus for years before making this first commercial release. His many strange games are still available for download and still worth playing.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The sequel, obviously, but you might also like Nuclear Throne. It’s a top-down shooter set in a post-apocalyptic world, which tones down the gore and has procedural levels.