We don’t do scores on RPS, but sometimes we mourn for the inability to deploy a 7/10. The ur-score, the most double-edged of critical swords, the good but not great, the better than it deserves to be, the guilty pleasure, the bungled aspiration, the knows exactly what it is, the straight down the line. One score that can mean so much.
There is one particular type of 7/10 game that heralds joy, not disappointment: the solid, maybe ever so slightly wonky action game with no interest in being anything more than a solid action game.
You know the sort. Bit of shooting, bit of jumping, exaggerated explosions. often a war-torn sci-fi setting (for fantasy ones, substitute shooting and explosions for stabbing and magicking). Maybe a car or two. Pantomime villains. Collectibles. Protagonist who would fit the name ‘Jack’ even if he (and sadly it is almost always as he. I really do hope the stalwart developers of stalwart 7/10 action games will diversify their stalwart 7/10 output) is not, in fact, called ‘Jack.’ Bit wonky, but not enough to spoil the show. They are legion, and some of them are brilliant even though they could not, in good conscience, be scored higher than 7/10.
There is Good 7/10 and Bad 7/10, you see. A bad 7 is a game that was much-hyped and much-anticipated but fails to live up to early promise. A bad 7 is a game made with the expectation of 9s and 10s but is either too flawed or too routine to pull it off. I’m going to be mean and suggest the majority of the Assassin’s Creed series for that, or the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. (A bad 7 doesn’t mean the game is bad; it just means it’s not the game it thought it was).
A good 7 is one knowingly made to be a 7. (Paradoxically, this may mean it scores 8, but let’s stay pure for now). An action game with no ideas above its station, no attempts at Big Messages or narrative ingenuity or post-modernism or groundbreaking mechanics. A Solid Good Time. You dig? Good. These, then, are RPS’ favourite Good 7/10s. Brilliantly, perfectly average action games, this hobby as unadulterated adrenal escapism.
The game which inspired this feature, as I only just began playing it in earnest. Avalanche’s sandbox post-apocalypse title suffered somewhat at the time for standing in the tall shadow of Fury Road, the preposterously propulsive fourth Mad Max movie, but now it has a chance to breathe it stands out as the best contemporary example of the Perfect 7 I can name. Tons of space, crunchy fights, fast cars, great environments, wonderful skyboxes. Mindless destruction writ large. By and large has a strong understanding of how not to waste its players’ time. A game you cannot necessarily justify playing for dozens of hours, but a game you don’t feel awful about yourself playing for dozens of hours. Go forth and destroy.
The other game I had in mind as the ur-7 when writing this. Rogue Trooper never quite excels, but it never meaningfully fails. As a straight-up action adaptation of a war-themed sci-fi comics character (from 2000AD), it’s hard to ask more. A couple more missions, more escalation of difficulty, yes, but what’s there is a true-blue Good 7, with a solid mid-line of open violence and stealth, fun toys, appealing characterisation and an appropriately lean story. Rogue Trooper feels like the work of 7/10 Action Game experts, and I honestly do mean that only as a compliment. I feel real sadness that I’ll never know where Rogue Trooper might have gone with a sequel and a bigger budget.
Possibly cheating ever so slightly with this one, as there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s a Bad 7. Expectations were high, and many stars seemed to have aligned: Dawn of War dev Relic making a third-person action game in which you got to make a Warhammer 40K Space Marine squish a gazillion Orks was the wish-dream of a great many PC gamers of a certain age. What we got was probably more humdrum and certainly more repetitive than what we fantasised about, but despite its somewhat hollow nature it’s achieving much of what a good Good 7 should: meaty combat, ceaseless appetite for destruction, a certain amount of escalation, non-cerebral sci-fi setting (Only War!) that fits the mindless nature of the game and, yeah, that simple joy of making pretend monsters fall over forever.
Saber Interactive, 2007
Our first first-person entry here – third-person is the 7/10 norm, but FPSes with the same sort of ethos and execution absolutely count. I’m going on memory and can’t guarantee that it hasn’t aged appallingly, but certainly at the time this was yer quintessential Pleasant Surprise. Timeshift had seemed as though it could only be a mess from afar – delayed, redesigned, a (to me) memorable press briefing in which a brash developer had bellowed “who the fuck cares about puzzles?”, and a stylistic hodge-podge of generic-looking sci-fi. Somehow, it all fell together, having dispatched its higher-minded time-control ideas in favour of simple, slick pauses, slo-mos and rewinds with which to get the drop on tricky enemies. It is a Good But Not Great Shooting Game With A Gimmick. In a way, it was a precursor to the slick, focused, modern-yet-old-school action of Machine’s latter-day Wolfenstein games, although it’s simply too ordinary to hit those games’ high notes.
2k Australia/Marin, 2013
I know, I know! Bear with me on this. I was as disappointed as anyone that 2K’s initial attempt at an X-COM reboot went through various vague and didn’t-quite-get-it designs before settling on a fairly straight-up third-person shooter. Move past the sense of insult and the Bureau is not, in fact, anything like a disaster. It’s a 7/10 action game with many of the traditional problems of a 7/10 action game – perfunctory story, thin characterisation, repetition – that is harmed by being associated with a noble bloodline. Don’t think of it as X-COM (a sting lessened in any case by the fact we have XCOM, which is at least turn-based strategy game even if it does depart hugely from X-COM) and you get a third-person shooter with strong retro-sci-fi visual style, some absurdly elaborate environments (clearly leftover assets from earlier, more ambitious designs), oddball weapons and a nice line in simple squad controls which make surviving incredibly tough enemies feasible. As an XCOM game, this is Bad 7. As a third-person action game, it’s Good 7.
United Front Games / Square Enix London, 2012
Or “that GTA one in Hong Kong, wossisface, y’know, there’s kung fu and lots of sunglasses”, as I tend to describe it, which rather reflects the fact it’s a perfect 7 and nothing more. Sleeping Dogs is a sandbox shooting, punching and driving game which is both hard to outright praise and even harder to complain about. It’s just there, being perfectly adept at its city-sprinting and gangster-tussling, without ever conjuring up a solid-gold reason to recommend it over anything else. If you want a GTA-like that isn’t characterised by the mean-spirited characterisation and humour of Rockstar’s titles or the whack-to-the-max excess of Saint’s Row, can’t go wrong here.
High Moon Studios, 2012
There are so many terrible Transformers-themed third-person action games, so a Transformers-themed third-person action game which can be summarised as “yeah, fine” is the Citizen Kane of Transformers action games. (Something something Orson Welles’ final performance, etc). Fall of Cybertron has a clear love of 80s robot toys, tempered somewhat by overly sombre tone and dark’n’spiky aesthetics, but most of all it just gets on with being a shooty-thumpy game about pew-pewing bots who can turn into vehicles any time they like. Though being set on the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron costs us a sense of scale, at least it spares us the disappointment of another Earth-set game in which you’re not allowed to squish puny humans with wild abandon. (See also last year’s Transformers: Devastation, but I found a little bit too fiddly to truly scratch that 7/10 dumb shooty itch).
Double Fine Productions, 2009
The first in our Hall of Average that’s more about thwacking than shooting. There’s also a case to be made that it’s Bad 7 not Good 7, but I think it’s hopped categories over time, now the massive expectations around The Next Game From The Folk Behind Psychonauts has died down. Also, what keeps it a 7 is that it’s a very much a game of two halves: a joyful, metal-themed, cameo-littered button-mashing romp with wild visuals for the first few hours, then a well-intentioned but misjudged sorta-strategy game in later stages. Have a wonderful time for a couple of days then slip away, basically.
Earth Defense Force: All Of Them
Various developers, 2003 onward
I’m surely putting words into developers’ mouths here, but I am convinced that this is the only 7/10 Action Game that sincerely wants to be a 7/10 Action Game. Profoundly stupid, impossible to defend on any meaningful artistic level, always, always the same, and with a rich streak of self-awareness about it. EDF is the game you play when you just want to shoot a load of things and not be interrupted by anything else – or feel that the game wants you to be thinking about anything else. The series has seriously suffered for doing the same thing over and over again, but it remains a go-to 7/10 for mindless co-op mayhem.
Ninja Theory, 2010
Admittedly something of an oddity in this list, as I rather suspect Enslaved desperately wanted to be a 9/10 breakout hit. High culture inspirations, beautiful art, layered characters, Something To Say – but all attached to a wonderfully fluid jumpy-thumpy game which essentially impeded its other intentions. But it is beautiful and it feels great in the hand, so to speak, and a fine example of standard action game concepts being wielded by master craftsfolk.
One of the working titles for this feature was ‘THQ action games, 2007-2013’, as the now-defunct player was for something of an avatar of perfectly adequate 7/10 shooters for quite some time. 2009’s Red Faction: Guerilla is an exemplar of that: a sci-fi third-person shooter with loads of destruction, an open world with vehicles and strongholds, and a brown environment peppered by explosions. It doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, and as such could never suffer from the ‘wait, is that really it?’ issues of BioShock: Infinite or ‘alright, alright, you’ve made your point’ emotional blackmail of Spec Ops (to name two games that are 7/10 shooters wearing 10/10 clothes). Rest in peace, THQ. You 7/10ed so very well.
Ubisoft Paris, 2003
Sadly – or perhaps mercifully, as my memories might be way off – this early-noughties shooter isn’t available for legal download yet. Despite being perfectly ordinary in most respects, it made waves at the time for its then-striking cel-shaded, faux-comic art style (doing Telltale long before Telltale) and for starring the bemused voices of David Duchnovy and Adam West. I must admit, I feel a slight nostalgia for more innocent times, when we didn’t expect quite so much of our videogames and a fairly rudimentary, entirely linear, vaguely Bond-esque shooter with prettygraphics and loads of environments but nothing to say about anything seemed like a big deal. Naturally, I would go mad if all our action games were like this today, though.
Flying Wild Hog Software, 2011
Something of a prototype for Flying Wild Hog’s later Shadow Warrior remake (which is a 7 to me, but Adam unabashedly loves it so I’ll pretend it’s elevated above this category for his sake), Hard Reset is mindless robo-bothering in pretty places, with half a mind on old-school shooters in the Nukem idiom. One of those games where you sort of forget what you’re playing and what your objectives are as you play it, but you keep playing anyway because shooting robots is shooting robots.
Digital Extremes, 2012
This is 2K doing a THQ. A lesser sequel to its sadly not-on-PC forerunner, which attempted ambitious environmental design and some freeform structure in addition to its ridiculous tale of a demonic gangster who could summon ethereal tentacles from his body. The Darkness II is a more straight-up power fantasy wearing particularly lurid bodypaint, one you play through to end in a couple of pleasantly-diverted sittings then fail to remember anything specific about afterwards. Totes THQ, even though it’s not.
Double Fine Productions, 2011
And here’s Double Fine, in their second appearance in this feature, doing a THQ too – although, as it happens, it’s the only one of their triumvirate of games published around that time, the others being Costume Quest and Stacking, that was not published by THQ. Iron Brigade is the third-person shooter meets loose tower defence, and that means it’s primarily about making a walking tank mow down tons and tons of aliens while vague quips play. Not a lot to it, but every battle feels tense and tricky at the time, but entirely meaningless when thought about afterwards. Shooting and smiling and nothing else.
IO Interactive, 2007
Looked upon somewhat poorly at the time due to preconceptions about what kind of game Hitman devs IO Interactive should be making, and indeed due to the scoring’n’firing scandal that rocked Gamespot, in fact the first Kane & Lynch was a grungey, nasty, tight shooter which borrowed liberally from the movies and did the openly hateful protagonist thing long before GTA V shat out Trevor. Sequel Dog Days amped things up into a deranged nightmare, which seems to evenly split players between love and hate, but the first is yer classic 7 Shoulders’n’Guns affair.
Vigil Games, 2010/2012
Another Classic THQ 7, this is from the hack-slashy fantasy side of things rather than the shooty family, but it has the same compulsive, propulsive, Gotta Slay ‘Em All ethos. Vigil’s RPG-tinged monster-basher is a game you wouldn’t beseech anyone else to play, but one that you have yourself a damned good time with then never think about gain. God rest ya soul, THQ.
Raven Software, 2010
To some extent, Raven are the quintessential 7/10 studio – Activion’s go-to team for branded action fare and the shooter sequels id didn’t have the bandwidth for. To be honest though, much of their output was either Bad 7 (Quake IV, Soldier of Fortune) or actually rather good (Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Jedi Knight 2 & 3), and not that solid-gold average I keep banging on about. Singularity was their last attempt at the big leagues before being reduced to an odd job team for Activision – these days Raven mostly contributes bits and pieces to Call of Duty games – and is for my money the cleanest-cut 7 of their output. Singularity was an own-IP shooter With a Twist, that being a time manipulation device. I’d argue that it didn’t manage to be the good, clean fun of the ostensibly similar Timeshift, partly because it didn’t feel as sparky despite trying to achieve more but mostly because I suspect it wanted to be so much more than a Good 7, but it’s certainly got a whole bunch of silly ways to relentlessly kill pretend people.
Surreal Software, 2004
‘The Suffering’ – I mean, come on, it might as well be called ‘7 Out Of 10.’ Never has a title been more profoundly average. Prisoners, violence, horror, monsters, shooting, and an abundance of tropes from all of those things. Morality and insanity meters provided the required twists to straight-up action and all told it’s fine, albeit in that somewhat distasteful way that characterises the glut of 00s games that seemed to revolve around incarceration and retrograde interpretations of mental health.
Adam’s a big fan of Techland’s sandbox zombie survival knees-up, though is at pains to point out that it didn’t achieve true greatness until The Following DLC / Enhanced Edition. I’ve only played the original, and would stick an ‘I’M A 7/10 VIDEOGAME KISS ME QUICK’ boater onto it in a heartbeat. Awful characters, reedy story, collecting’n’killing frenzy, keeps you busy, disproportionately high-fidelity art’n’tech for what it actually is. I’m not entirely convinced it’s got that raw joy factor that some of my most beloved entries in this chart do, but it’s certainly the right kinda dumb.
Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
Monolith Productions, 2014
Oh come on, it’s a 7. Yes, yes, I know it’s got the nemesis system and a smashing melee combat system, but come on, the purest distilled essence of 7/10 beats through the veins of the delightfully dumb Lord of the Rings combat game. From Evil Ghost Elf advisor to mad psychic powers orcs’ WWE-style intros, it’s like a grimdark celebration of the solid killing and high concept twists of all the best seven-squadders. Between this and Mad Max, we have proof positive that the perfectly average 7/10 action game is still alive and well to this day, despite Assassin’s Creed’s best attempts to sap the life out of it. Long may it reign.
And now, quite naturally, I open the floor. Give me your average, your ordinary, your adequate masses yearning to breathe free.