Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Mass Effect is arguably the flagship of BioWare’s “decisions in this game affect future ones!” brand of RPGs. A shooty squad action game rather than turn based fantasy, this middle instalment in Commander Shepard’s epic sci-fi adventure provides you with aliens to smooch, friends to reunite with, and high concept shenanigans to have.
Alice Bee: Mass Effect 2 will always be the ultimate Mass Effect for me. The combat controls were a massive improvement on the original, and putting Shepard in the employ of a shady independent company gave an extra frisson to the Y/N moral choices you make in a Mass Effect game. But playing Mass Effect 2, in the very specific context of having played the first Mass Effect, was an experience that no other game has equalled since. Maybe that’s too much to ask of other games, though.
When I played Mass Effect, it was at the behest of my university housemate, who’d already played both. He told me to tell him when I got to the mission in Mass Effect 2 where you recruit the sniper Archangel, so he could sit in and watch my reaction. Reader, when Archangel took off their helmet, I nearly fell off my chair with joy.
Alice0: The first Mass Effect made the galaxy feel big. Mass Effect 2 made it feel alive, and made me realise why — and for who — I was fighting to save it. What good friends.
Sin: Years before I invaded RPS, I made a novelty Twitter account that posted alternative endings to Mass Effect 3, which I still haven’t played. Shockingly, everyone loves Mordin and everyone loathes Miranda (jokes about Thane being a sex pest, Morinth and Jack being teenagers, or Grunt eating Jacob’s many pets were a mixed bag). But I hated Mordin at first. Then I did his loyalty mission, and in that short level he became the complex character such a huge storyline deserved. Having Wrex, the best character in the whole series, welcome me as his old friend, only made the whole thing more perfect.
I’ve not played it for many years but I remember all these names, their real characters, and the ones I made up. RPGs needed Mass Effect 2.
Sid Meier’s Civilization 5 (2010)
The first fresh civ game of the decade, 2010’s Civilization 5 – complete with its transformative Gods & Kings and Brave New World expansions – arguably set the high water mark for the series to date. As ever, Civ 5 was about taking a human population from the age of fistfights in sheds made of bone, right through to spaceman times, via the foundation and development of cities, the research of new technologies, and the knackering of other peoples’ cities through war.
Nate: Despite having plenty of love for the games to either side in the series (Graham still reckons 2005’s Civ 4 is better), something about Civ 5’s iteration on uncle Sid’s original recipe, especially once it had all its DLC in place, was magic. It enjoyed the perfect combination of being absolutely massive in scope “it’s all of human history, and you’re driving it”, while presenting itself in a way that was intuitive and easily comprehensible – and not just by the benchmarks of the strategy genre. It was even pretty, in a way that holds up well 10 years later.
True, It didn’t reinvent too much of the classic formula, but the changes it did make – hexifying the formerly square-based world of Civ, and complicating war by allowing only one fightsperson per map tile – were perfect choices. Most so-called “4X” games (it stands for eXclaim, eXcoriate, eXtreme, and X-men) since Civ 5 have used these design decisions as founding principles, so there really is a solid case for calling it a genuine game changer.
I’ve played Civ 5 more than any other game on Steam by a margin of hundreds of hours (Civ 6 is my runner-up), and I couldn’t ask much more from it. In fact, at this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a better iteration on the premise at all, without completely reinventing it. And in fact, total reinvention is what I want to see from the next decade of 4X games – let’s see something new.
Alice0: I like when I escape world-ending war by making enough high-quality television shows that everyone declares I’ve won history so they can stay home and watch my content.
One of the earliest examples of the platformer-with-a-twist genre. In VVVVVV, you can’t jump, but instead you can reverse gravity to flip your character back and forth between the floor and ceiling – an act illustrated by the zig-zagging lines of its hard-to-pronounce name. Released on January 11th 2010, it’s also the oldest game on this list.
Graham: VVVVVV feels like being grabbed in a bear hug by videogames. It wraps its big warm Spectrum game art hands around you, flashes its pixelated half-moon smile, and broadcasts relentlessly upbeat chiptune music into your ear. It’s so clearly in love with the games – specifically the legacy of British computer games – that the hug is welcome rather than uncomfortable. You don’t even mind that VVVVVV is also standing on both your feet, crushing your toes.
VVVVVV is a hard platformer, but it’s not cruel. Or, wait, that’s not right. The opposite. It’s cruel but not hard. Frequent checkpoints and instant restarts mean you can brute force your way through its many varied challenges without too much difficulty and zero frustration, but the game uses this as an opportunity to be cheeky. I’d enter a new area and laugh and curse at the same time. “You prick!”, I’d shout, delighted at what the game was expecting of me. And when I’d achieve it, I’d feel amazing. VVVVVV was one of the first puzzle-platformers to hit it big, and nearly ten years later, I reckon it’s still one of the best.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
After Bethesda bought up and revived Fallout as an Elder Scrolls-y first-person RPG, for a follow-up they turned to Obsidian Entertainment, a studio founded by folks who worked on the original game. Obsidian took us to the wasteland around Las Vegas with casinos, slavers, The King, a cyborg dog, and Chandler off Friends.
Dave: I’ve never wanted to punch a character more than when I played Fallout: New Vegas. The game begins with the no-good double crossin’, 50s impersonatin’ Benny attempting to execute you, and it was a slight that I could never get over. When I found him in the game several hours later, he was trying to be chummy, with all the suaveness that Matthew Perry could ever muster. I still hate him.
It’s the effect that good storytelling can have, and New Vegas has it in spades. It also has bags more character than Bethesda’s grim post-apocalypse, thanks to the Mojave Desert being more alive, and more stuffed with imaginative weirdness, than the Capital Wasteland ever was. Take Benny’s gang, for example, a bunch of desperately cool lads wielding flick knives and giving it the old “Now listen, see!” come on. Or the White Glove Society, flouncing around in black tie and opera masks. And, of course, the brigade of lunatic fascists pretending to be Ancient Romans.
Sure, New Vegas has its problems, like all RPGs do, but at the time it really showed what Obsidian could do with an open world. It’s something special to see the neon lights of New Vegas shining down on unsavoury gangster types, and a desert full of savage beasts and extremely ill advised historical reenactors following a man calling himself Ceasar. His real name is Edward. Incredible.
Portal 2 (2011)
The sequel to The Orange Box’s surprise hit first-person puzzler drags us deeper into sciencehell to once again escape a malevolent AI. Accompanied by new friends we learn more of what happened at Aperture Science as we warp through portals and spray new highly scientific gel. Much as the original Portal was inspired by student game Narbacular Drop, Portal 2’s gels draw from Tag: The Power of Paint. And yes, this one ends with a song too.
Alice Bee: Much as I loved the first Portal, I feel the sequel really picked up the potato and ran with it. And I’m sure others will wax lyrical about the new puzzles and the bouncy moon goop, or the co-op levels (excellent and infuriating in equal measure), I want to shout out the voice acting.
Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley really begs the question “Why doesn’t Stephen Merchant do more voice acting?” His chirpy little eyeball robot, created specifically to be an idiot, is the perfect foil to terrifying bondage AI GLaDOS. And GLaDOS herself, voiced by Ellen McLain, must surely be one of the most iconic antagonists in video games at this point. The dearth of actually funny video games proves that it’s very difficult to make video games funny, and yet Portal 2 manages to have two very funny characters. That they are also both menacing seems an impossibility. And yet!
I actually have a tattoo of a companion cube on my thigh. That’s not even a joke. That’s real. It has a text ribbon that reads “AD LUNAM”, which is, in fact, a reference to the end of Portal 2.
Graham: The first Portal was such a perfect three-hour dose of novel puzzle-solving that a sequel seemed unnecessary, but it turns out that making a great thing longer and funnier is justification enough to return to the well.
Once you add in the co-op levels however, Portal 2 becomes both necessary and essential. Working through its puzzles with a friend was challenging and delightful in new ways, and adds the brain-melting twists that I didn’t get from the bouncy paints. Also you can make the robots high-five, and that’s nice.
Alice L: Portal was my gateway to Valve, and also the reason why I’ve become so very hooked on puzzle games over the past years. Portal 2, though, really is my favourite of the pair. Maybe because it’s longer, or has more fleshed out characters, or maybe because of the aforementioned Stephen Merchant. There’s no one thing that makes it, but it’s still one of my all time favourite games to replay. And boy, Caroline and the sad turrets get me every damn time.
It’s a game I’ve always asked new friends if they’ve played, but it doesn’t really matter what the answer is because I’ll always ask if they want to play it co-op. It’s a true test of friendship, and luckily, no matter how many times I’ve replayed levels, I reliably forget most of the solutions. But Portal 2 also has a life beyond the original release. This year I’ve been playing community test chambers with a pal on stream, and it’s so much fun figuring out brand new puzzles.
When I was on Tinder, I had Cave Johsnon’s lemon rant as my bio for a while. I had numerous people ask me what I was talking about and why I hated lemons so much. Someone, once they were told it was from Portal 2, said we should play it naked together some time. That doesn’t even make sense. Wearing clothes has no bearing on puzzle solving competence. But really, what the actual fuck?
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim (2011)
Bethesda’s open-world RPG series trots off to the icy Norse north to shout at people so hard they fall off cliffs. Plough through quests, follow people about their daily business, try to steal everything, murder NPCs you take a dislike to, set up a home, get married, or just wander the wilds. It’s a large snowy sandbox to play in, and the possibilities are particularly wild thanks to the many and varied mods players are still making.
Sin: Skyrim is flawed. It’s clumsily written. It barely improved over its predecessor’s worst bits. It’s unwieldy and annoying. It’s still irresistible. You have to mod it, really, and once you start modding Skyrim, you may never stop. But gosh, what a world. No, it’s not as alien and original a world as Morrowind. Yes, the artificial life feels less alive than some much older games. Yes, I complain and fuss and nitpick but that’s because there’s almost nothing that can really beat Skyrim at what it does. I love living in its world, to the point where I spent months writing a diary about it for my own amusement, never even doing much besides walking around picking flowers, hunting, and making up stories about what I saw.
I have never fought a dragon or looked at the map. My character doesn’t have a magical real time map, see, and she can’t teleport back to town. She’s a person and she walks. She can’t reload the game if she dies, either. She makes medicine and she likes giants. She lives in Skyrim. Sometimes I visit her.
Alice Bee: I worked in a Gamestation (RIP) when Skyrim came out, and I and all my friends got a copy because it went on offer for about £20. It was that trailer, wasn’t it? That music. It’s still an extremely good trailer. I went back to watch it for this article and now I want to play Skyrim again. It was the first RPG that convinced me of the benefits of being a sword-and-board warrior rather than a dramatic mage. It just felt right to hit things with a sharp bit of metal, in the cold, unforgiving North.
Bethesda games are some of the best at creating an entire world and then making you the only competent one in it. You really feel special, because nobody else is capable of doing so much as deliver a note. And honestly, the first time I got to do a proper Dragon shout in the game, and yell a wolf over a cliff, it did live up to the hype. Plus now you can replace all the dragons with trains from Thomas The Tank Engine.
Matt: I downloaded a mod called ThuuMic that let me actually yell dragon shouts, then gleefully Fus-Roh-Dah’d a goat off a mountain. Videogames peaked that day.
Dave: Sorry, I’m afraid nothing is more terrifying and hilarious than modding majestic mountain hermit dragon Alduin into Macho Man Randy Savage.
Nate: I always like fighty, first-person RPGs in principle, but in practice I almost always get bored with them really early on. There comes a point where, no matter how well a world is built, I can infer pretty much all the boundaries I haven’t already spotted, whether they happen to be the limits of the game’s physical world, the variation built into its mechanics, or the range of sensations elicited through play. With Skyrim, it took me an extraordinarily long time to reach that point.
And in all honesty, given that I’ve not played in four years at this point, I feel like I could do it all over again. I won’t bother with alchemy this time though: what an absolute dog spleen of a mechanic. And so begins the train of thought where I remember absolutely everything that was busted or pointless about Skyrim, and somehow end up only wanting to play it more.
Alice L: Skyrim was the first Elder Scrolls game I ever played, and now I’ve bought at least five different versions of it and my social media handle is a reference to Mjoll the Lionesses sword. It’s ok. I love it.
Katharine: My super stealthy elf warrior is still stuck in one of Skyrim’s many caves to this day, and I don’t think she will ever leave. Mostly because she picked up every cup, goblet, sword, barrel, book, axe, shield and other assorted ‘things that might be worth something’ in the last town and now she’s acutely overencumbered. She walks at a snail’s pace, and the cave doesn’t seem to ever end. But it’s nice down in the cave. Mushrooms grow on the walls, and herbs bloom underfoot. I imagine she’s built herself a shack out of all those chairs and table legs she’s nicked, because hey, who needs to fight horrible dragons when you can live forever in your underground prison grotto?
Alice0: I do not like Skyrim but I did enjoy shouting a full banquet spread for twelve into a king’s face. And the sexy mod adventure with Cara when a dragon attacked our big-dick bath house
FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
A lone loyalist Federation spaceship flees across the galaxy chased by the rebel fleet in this roguelikelike tactics game. Jaunt across solar systems, upgrade your ship with new facilities and weapons, recruit new crew, complete sidequests, and get into a whole lot of real-time spacebattles. Win or lose, within an hour you can start a whole new escape with a new ship, a new galaxy, and a new set of encounters and obstacles ahead.
Nate: If I’m being honest, it’s FTL that sold me on the concept of the roguelike. Or whatever it is you want to call a game where you have to get through a semi-random series of obstacles, improvising success from the things you find, and having the slate wiped clean when you die. It’s replayability incarnate; a game that is, by definition, more about the journey than the destination.
Something which earned my particular respect was FTL’s ability to entice me into hours and hours worth of further replays, purely to earn the option to start with different types of spaceship. I never, ever bother with collectibles in games, but here, I was willing to go to extraordinary lengths (surviving the game in the Engi B hull, for a start, not to mention the faff involved in unlocking the Crystal ship), just to win… more ways to replay the game. Once I had them all, I stopped and never returned, but I think it’s fair to say I got my seven quids’ worth in the process.
Hotline Miami (2012)
Hotline Miami is the inspiration for the past seven years of ultraviolent shooters with stylised looks and rude ‘tude. At the bidding of messages left on our answering machine, we head into the neon night to murder mobsters in shorty, punchy levels. It’s a stealth puzzler as much as top-down shooter, a game of fast deaths and faster resets until everything comes together in a murderplan as slick as the floors now covered in your enemies’ viscera.
Graham: Other games use pounding synthwave beats as an aesthetic, but the music in Hotline Miami is essential. It’s the music which scores your murderous dance, setting a rhythm for each door kicked open, each head caved in, each knife tossed into a thug’s chest. You try, you die, you try again, but the music binds each fleeting life together so that it doesn’t feel stop-and-start.
Instead, you’re propelled through its small levels until you’re an unstoppable force. You know where the enemies are, where they’ll go, and your foreknowledge makes it look as if you have superhuman reflexes. The way every other character talks about John Wick in the John Wick films? They could be talking about you in Hotline Miami.
There is a sequel, which tips the story further into edgelord territory and makes the levels larger and more frustrating. The original is still the best, and none of the videogame nasties that followed it get close.
Crusader Kings 2 (2012)
Any fool can lead an army to victory in a strategy game but it’s more of a challenge to win a war while also plotting to off your brother-in-law so your bastard son can claim their throne, foiling assassination attempts against you, sewing heresy to weaken the religion of rivals, surviving the Black Death, and amassing a concerning number of cats. Such is Crusader Kings 2, Paradox’s strange and complex medieval dynasty-building strategy game.
Sin: I’m the angry queen who united Ireland, and I liberated this bit of France from the Almoravids. The Pope said it’s mine now. Sure my entire army was only about 1,800 men – barely 2% of the crusade – but we got here first, we led the charge, because I’m all about that Godly biz, and my friend in the Vatican knows how it is. So you can all just shut up and send your peasants to put down this rebellion for me, alright?
I’m the beleaguered king of Castille, surrounded by numpties who keep starting petty wars against each other’s tiny kingdoms, inviting 20,000 angry Muslim soldiers from the South to come up and take even more of Iberia. My court swells yearly with useless, often malevolent nobodies who refuse to serve in any court that isn’t Catholic, but will happily plot against me unless I marry them off to toothless octogenarians on the other side of the world. My surviving daughter, the inbred twin dwarf, is conspiring against me so ineptly that nobody has joined the plot for years, and I pity her too much to intervene. My hyper-intelligent Georgian wife is definitely going to kill me but in the meantime she might help me do a slight child murder so that our grandchildren will eventually inherit the whole of Aragon. I am 28 years old.
I’m the gay countess of… honestly, even I forget. At this level, you can simply disappear into the Holy Roman Empire and not even understand whose armies are marching around your land if you’re busy. Like actively recruiting as many gay, dwarf, disabled, or any other characters who seem like they’re getting a crappy deal to my court, for no real reason but to see what happens. Until someone kidnaps my infant son, and my life becomes a mission to turn my castle of small, tired lesbians into a device that can somehow kill a duke and get away with it. Nobody gets that big without making enemies. I just have to find them.
Crusader Kings 2 is a behemoth. An enormous, sprawling mess of simulated political events and people even on its original release; it’s a whole field of rabbit holes now that it’s on its twelve thousandth slice of optional DLC. I only ever had a couple of those though, and that’s more than enough for it to consume me. No game has ever brought the personality so well into politics, let alone war, and all this on a ridiculous scale? It shouldn’t be possible.
It works because it’s about machinations. Whatever level of authority your character is at, you will be plotting something. You don’t have to be a child murdering bastard at all, but sooner or later it will happen. Bringing three kingdoms together in peace through a savvy betrothal of an obscure prince? Surely that’s worth one tiny little shove off a rooftop. He’d have probably died soon anyway. Pox, or something. Right? Right. It’s fine. I’m the king, after all. There couldn’t possibly be consequences for this 20 or 40 years from now.
Nate: As Sin has demonstrated, CK2 is one of those games, like my beloved Dwarf Fortress, which it’s virtually impossible to talk about without segueing into a story of something that happened to you in the game. It’s the same sort of urge that leads you to want to talk about your dreams, only in this case, other people have a shared frame of reference, and so will usually enjoy hearing about it. You don’t really get “good” at CK2, so much as you get better at knowing what levers to pull to make it tell stories. In fact, you could even argue it was better at being a toy than a game, which in my opinion, is a much harder goal to achieve.