5. Batman: Arkham Asylum [official site] (2009)
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
After two Rocksteady sequels and one third party prequel, Arkham Asylum is still the best of the Batman games. The Asylum setting is tight and pleasantly limiting, ensuring that the Metroidvania nature of the game doesn’t allow it to unfold so many times that it loses its shape entirely. Even when Bruce Wayne is bristling with fully charged gadgets and a suite of combat moves that would put Bruce Lee to shame, the focus of the game remains the same – deal with the escaped inmates, deal with Joker, ensure the violence and mayhem doesn’t spread.
City and Knight both take the fight to the streets of Arkham, forcing Bats to spread his attention across several key locations. The threat level rises, the tone and scale shifts and warps, and the clarity of Batman’s mission wobbles in and out of focus. It’s not that Arkham is a smarter game – the Great Detective’s greatest insights still come through fists and feet – but the scale of the setting is perfect for the sort of One Long, Bad Night story that Rocksteady seem so keen to tell.
It’s easy to forget how surprising the game was when first released. A licensed game that didn’t tie-in with any specific new Batman thing and that borrowed from obscure corners of the DC universe, it was a new part of the Bat mythology rather than a product to prop up a story first released in another medium. The combat’s fluidity is simple enough to allow almost any player feel monstrously powerful but has intricacies that slot into place as new enemy types are introduced. And while the boss battles are the weakest part of the game, there’s an admirable confidence in the use of comic’s most impressive rogues’ gallery.
Notes: Mr Freeze and the Mad Hatter were originally considered for inclusion, as were other villains, but Rocksteady decided to stick with characters who they could convincingly place in the aftermath of the breakout. Everyone needed a motivation to stick around and had to fit the game’s overall tone.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Arkham City is bloated but occasionally brilliant and if Arkham Knight ever reappears on PC, it’s also worth checking out, improving on City but never reaching the compact excellence of Asylum. The best superhero game on PC is actually Saints Row IV but Freedom Force’s tactical approach is top stuff.
4. Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor [official site] (2014)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Monolith’s return to form picked up action gaming and shook it. One of the best surprises of 2014, this enormous, open-world, combat-focused fight-them-up barely needed its Lord Of The Rings license so superb is its content. Bridging the stories of the Hobbit and LOTR, even the most Tolkein-adverse need not worry about bloody elves ruining their fun. This is a grisly orc-bashing festival, combined with one of the smartest developments in action gaming for years: the nemesis system.
Goodness knows why the fruitcakes at Warner tried to bury this game, refusing review code to journalists, but paying off YouTubers to give it positive coverage. A murky mess, concealing a game that would go on to become a critical darling despite it all. And a deserved one. After an awkward first hour, the game finds its feet and you begin to understand why it insists on telling you which wretch it was that killed you. Because as you’re revived (you’ve a ghost inside you, naturally), that enemy gains notoriety and power, and you’ve a greater incentive to chop them up.
As things develop, this becomes incredibly smart, letting you take over the minds of orc champions, and then control squads of them against particularly tough baddies. The dynamic system allows any enemy to rise through the ranks and become a critical boss battle, and for you to undermine them in clever ways.
Importantly, it does all this with meaty and satisfying combat, as well as a broad range of quests to complete in an ever-growing world.
If everyone else doesn’t copy the nemesis system, then we will despair until our souls run dry. Monolith have shown a wonderful direction for action gaming, and we hope many will follow it.
Notes: It’s especially of note that this is Monolith’s first attempt at a third-person action game. Having wowed us with NOLF, and FEAR, and then been a touch disappointing for a while, it’s all the greater achievement to have created one of the best action games ever first time.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Monolith also made online arena game Guardians Of Middle-Earth. For more brawly action, there’s Darksiders, and perhaps look at Kingdoms Of Amular: Reckoning.
3. Beyond Good & Evil [official site] (2003)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpelier
If we did a 25 Best Lovely Games, Beyond Good & Evil would surely be number one. Ancel’s not-Rayman project was a bold statement that games could be deep, involving, affecting and packed with interesting combat and puzzles, without needing Simon McAngry wielding dual pistols. Lead character Jade is a bad-ass photojournalist, on a mission to rescue her, er, pig uncle.
BG&E dares you to think it’s going to be twee in its opening scenes. Green-lipped Jade is tasked with taking photographs of all the species living on her island, making this the first first-person shoot-em-up using a camera lens. It’s nice and all, but… And then trouble breaks out. Porcine Pey’j is kidnapped, her home is brutally attacked, and it’s time to grab her combat staff, throwing discs, and start kicking some butt.
But, rather wonderfully, Jade is a photographer first, and the game never steps away from encouraging you to take snaps of all flora and fauna you encounter on your way. That, and sneak your way into government installations in an effort to uncover a conspiracy involving alien attacks, missing people, the rebellious IRIS Network.
It’s packed with superb characters, like gung-ho IRIS operative Double H, and an AI in your backpack called Secundo. And the story is enormous, and wonderfully crafted, offering far more than comparable third-person action games like Ratchet & Clank or Jak & Daxter. And, perhaps most importantly, it also contains lots of interesting combat, and a whole bunch of stealthy sneaking and puzzle solving. It’s the complete deal.
No, despite continued noise from Ubisoft and Ancel, there just won’t ever be a sequel. We’re coming to terms with that, even though the satisfying ending hides a little cliffhanger. And this original game is enough, all on its own.
Notes: BG&E went through some dramatic changes in its development, from a far more open-world game with an Ico aesthetic, to the more linear story-led product eventually released.
Read more: John’s Eurogamer retrospective.
What else should I be playing if I like this: You could play the Perfect Dark games on console, or indeed the superb Ratchet & Clank series. On PC, have a look at Ancel’s wonderful Rayman: Origins.
2. Grand Theft Auto IV [official site] (2008)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive
Let’s skip explaining a series everyone already knows and move straight onto: so, why not GTA V? There’s no doubt that Rockstar’s more recent GTA is a bigger, more complex, more overwhelmingly detailed game, of course. And if it pleases thee, replace this entry in your mind with your particular favourite in the run, be it Vice City, the original top-down Grand Theft Auto, or perhaps a spin-off like The Ballad Of Gay Tony. Just not San Andreas. But we’ve picked IV, and here’s why:
The GTA games are consistently incredible. But on only one occasion have they managed to do something far more difficult than create a sociopathy simulator. In GTA IV they created a broken monster of a player character with whom you could – if not empathise – certainly sympathise. And this added a whole new dimension to the game, while still letting you drive a bus into a crowd of pedestrians then go bowling or find a hooker.
Niko Bellic, a war vet and Eastern European immigrant to faux New York, Liberty City, is a very different character for Rockstar. Quiet, wracked with an unspoken (but eventually horrifyingly revealed) guilt, and not looking for fame and attention, he’s possibly the only vaguely likeable character they’ve ever created. Which is impressive, since he’s a murderous lunatic. In fact, Niko’s hopes of making money are dashed when it’s revealed that his cousin Roman has been conning him, along with everyone else. A mess that drags Niko into a war he doesn’t want with the Russian mob.
This reluctance adds such an interesting dimension to the morality-free universe Rockstar have so exquisitely created. It gives the game a greater sense of severity, of meaning, while still featuring the crazy police chases, outlandish action, and mallet-like satire that draws in the crowds. This greater weight to the tone allows for some remarkably affecting scenes of sadness and desperation, which in turn gives more meaning to your ludicrous actions in the rest of the city-wide playground.
It’s also a great pleasure to play a GTA that isn’t desperately trying to ape any number of movies, but rather confident enough in its own story. That, and flying helicopters into buildings, and mowing down pedestrians for getting in your way.
Notes: Rockstar were so determined to include music by Skatt Bros. that they hired a private detective to trace family of the late band member Sean Delaney, in order to secure the rights to put it in the game. On release, GTA IV was claimed to be the most expensive video game ever made, at $100m. Pocket change today, of course.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Clearly the rest of the GTA games. But also many of those it’s inspired, like Watch_Dogs, Sleeping Dogs and, well, click on to the last entry.