10 DARK SOULS
Release 2012 Last position 46
Wes Where most games bend over backwards to give us what we want, Dark Souls makes us earn every victory. This attitude pervades every aspect, but especially combat: mastering the speed and reach of a weapon is a large part of why we play Dark Souls over and over.
Ben I'm a sucker for a good virtual world, and Lordran is a place of unimaginable, unforgettable beauty. When a seemingly random door reveals itself as a link between two areas, you have to stand back and applaud the artistry and execution.
Tom “Moreish despair” is the core emotion I experienced playing Dark Souls. You walk into a world that's slipping into entropic darkness, and all that's left are mindless husks, and the remnants of a magnificent civilisation you'll never see. I'm getting sad just thinking about it.
Cory Too often, I'll try to rush through a fight or an area, and I'm punished every time. I take a breath, calm my nerves, and try again. It's a very Zen-like experience for me.
Release 2007 Last position 14
Cory Look past the meme-worthy songs and the geek-culture-defining in-jokes, and there's a pretty brilliant puzzle game here. I loved wrapping my head around how to use blue and orange portals to break the laws of physics, especially the momentumbased puzzles. That this was a sideproject is just astounding.
Tony If they'd just given us a game where we could solve puzzles by opening holes in reality, that would have been enough. A lot of developers would have played it safe like that. Portal takes that concept and hits it side-on at 150mph with the freight-train of wonderful that is GLaDOS, and when you pick yourself up from the wreckage you find you've been smashed right into another, bigger game.
Ben That's it. The best bit, for me, was disobeying the charmingly demented AI GLaDOS and going on the run through Aperture's back rooms. I loved its fourth-wallbreaking effect, as if Valve never meant for this. They did, of course, and that's why they're lovely people.
8 MASS EFFECT 3
Release year 2012 Last position New entry
Evan Number eight? C'mon, guys. Don't do this to me.
Chris I loved it heart and soul because it had both of those things. As someone who was tremendously, novel-readingly invested in the series, I don't think I've ever felt this rewarded by a game. And yes, that includes the original ending. Lower your pitchforks.
Samuel The sense of finality was really something. I almost tear up just thinking about Liara resting her head on Shepard's shoulders. It's not weird. You're weird.
Tony It's got the drama and the characterisation that made the previous games so memorable, but an urgency, and a poignant sense of things coming to an end, that's all its own. It also has Citadel.
Richard Citadel is my favourite DLC ever.
7 TEAM FORTRESS 2
Release year 2007 Last position 4
Tyler I take competitive shooters seriously—most of the time. In Team Fortress 2, I'm allowed to be an idiot, and I've always had fun running around with a Huntsman bow telling everyone I'm Robin Hood. No one gets mad. Everyone has fun.
Evan It's become a bit cluttered with content and features at this point, so I'm surprised to see it this high. That said, TF2 is a textbook on how to integrate whimsy and personality into a multiplayer game without undermining much of its competitive focus. Every class in TF2's zodiac has a meaningful relationship—mechanically and thematically—to the others.
Craig I had to go cold turkey a few years ago, but the recent Conga Line taunt has brought me back to TF2. That says it all.
6 XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN
Release year 2012 Last position No change
Tyler I get that X-COM loyalists take issue with it, but this is XCOM, no dash. It's great for different reasons.
Evan I love what fragile dioramas the levels are. You can relish the outcome of your choices—like cracking open a gas station with a rocket to give your sniper an angle.
Tom RIP Sergeant Yolo Swaggins. Impaled by a Chryssalid, zombified, and shot dead again by his own men. XCOM generates the best heroes.
Phil XCOM: EU encourages you to be cautious, to protect the soldiers you've worked to advance. I love that XCOM: EW makes you risk lives to get its cool mechs.
Cory I had a distinct emotional attachment to every one of my team's squaddies. When ace sniper Tyler “Mad- Eye” Wilde was cut down by a plasma rifle blast, I cried. Just a little.
Release year 2007 Last position 7
Chris I'm a bit red-faced about how meaningful I thought BioShock was at the time. Looking back, it's not the most subtle implementation of political metaphor you'll ever encounter, but it is tremendously effective and atmospheric—and it proved that games could set their sights high and achieve critical and commercial success. The FPS genre is now getting to the point where it needs its next BioShock, its next creative leap forward. That's a testament to the extent of Irrational's original achievement.
Wes BioShock's combat could be as simple as walking around bashing splicers in the head with a supercharged wrench, but it could be so much more than that. Combining traps, plasmids and specialised ammo to booby trap a corner of Rapture—before leading a Big Daddy to its unwitting doom—was just as satisfying as ferreting out an item cache or following BioShock's brilliant story.
Evan Ryan is the centrepiece for me, not Rapture. Irrational created a villain that you fear, respect, and come to understand despite being invisible to you for 99% of the game. It's a wonder we don't see more Shodanised antagonists.
Samuel For a generation of people who'd never played System Shock 2 and for whom this was their first Irrational title, BioShock was something else. It was the idea of interactive environmental storytelling without cutscenes that impressed me so much. I also thought Ryan was terrific—but BioShock is about Atlas for me.
4 DEUS EX
Release year 2000 Last position 5
Andy The first game I played that gave me a real feeling of freedom. Deus Ex rewards exploration and experimentation, with huge, detailed levels that are rich with things to do, AI to exploit, secrets to find and vents to crawl through.
Phil There is a guy acting suspiciously near Jock's helicopter. I have noticed that he is acting suspiciously, but I don't do anything about it. I figure there'll be a clearly marked moment in which to register that I have noticed him acting suspiciously. There isn't. In Deus Ex, unlike in other games, action speaks louder than cutscenes.
Tony Human Revolution has the looks, but Deus Ex is the better game. It's more freeform, it's more untidy and open-plan. The sheer scale of its environments enables a level of freedom modern games just don't seem able to repeat.
3 HALF-LIFE 2
Release year 2004 Last position No change
Chris Nobody has paced a singleplayer shooter this well since. That's the key to Half-Life 2's genius: that you are always moving, always being given new guns and gadgets, always being shown something new. At launch, that was combined with environmental detail and physics tech that you'd never seen before. Now, it's a paean to level design.
Evan I'll be the odd man out: I don't think it holds up this well. The clumsy physics puzzles, the loading screens, the vehicle sequences that don't belong in an engine that hates vehicles, the mundane enemy design. More of its modern appeal is owed to Valve's terrific sound design and grounded sci-fi aesthetic.
Tony I'll defend the vehicle sections: attaching wheels to Gordon Freeman was an inspired idea. The speed increase made the game faster and more fun, the freedom of movement opened up the world and made it a bigger, more believable place. Simply getting to the next setpiece became a pleasure in itself. Especially with Alyx Vance sitting in the passenger seat beside you. Half-Life 2: part world-saving adventure, part scavenger hunt with a scientist's hot daughter.
Phil And I'll defend the clumsy physics puzzles, because the flipside is enjoyable physics combat. Take Ravenholm. Played straight, it's a tense and eerie survival vignette. Played with the gravity gun, it's a playground of flying buzzsaw blades and radiators. Both are valid, but it's that variety—and Half-Life 2 is a game filled with variety—that makes it worth replaying time after time.
Andy The peak of Valve's environmental storytelling. You slowly learn about the Combine, and what they've done to the Earth, through clues in the world, dialogue, and other details. But the dialogue is always natural, and you don't have to sit and wait as characters reel off endless exposition.
Samuel I didn't like the driving sections at the time either, but I can forgive a game of otherwise such unparalleled variety and ambition. Half-Life 2 is still a masterpiece.
2 THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM
Release year 2012 Last position 1
Ben Skyrim has the best mods. There are epic mods that add new armour, new followers, new monsters and entirely new lands. There are tweaks that clean up the UI and remove loading doors from cities. My favourite is Fus Roh Dance, which makes anyone you shout at spontaneously boogie. It's the game that keeps on giving.
Tom I always have a modded-up copy of Skyrim on my hard drive because I sometimes still get sudden, overwhelming urge to go back there again. Loaded up with script-extenders and advanced shaders, it looks gorgeous, but still retains a sense of mystery. One day I'll have raided every dungeon and had every conversation, but that day is still years away.
Andy A game I still come back to, despite having played it for close to 300 hours. Pick a direction and walk and you're bound to come across something interesting in this colossal, detailed world. After the fairly generic fantasy of green, pleasant Cyrodiil, the frozen north of Skyrim was a welcome change, where pseudo-Norse mythology created a place that felt ancient and storied.
Ian I almost always avoid playing as a wizard in fantasy games, but the Mage's College storyline in Skyrim sucked me right in. Unlike the sometimes-janky melee combat, wielding the elements always feels smooth and powerful. It's my favourite evil-sorcerer experience.
1 MASS EFFECT 2
Release year 2010 Last position 2
Ben Give me a sci-fi suit of armour, an assortment of alien pals, total command of my own spaceship, an arsenal of futuristic weapons, the face of a Dutch super model, and free rein to go wherever I want in the galaxy, and I'm happy. Honestly, it doesn't take much.
Wes Mass Effect 2 dropped the deeply customisable weapon system I loved in Mass Effect. I also missed Mass Effect's optimistic tone and wide-open, explorable galaxy. It's a testament to Mass Effect 2's loyalty missions that I think it's the best game in the series. By making characters the focus of the game, BioWare spent most of its time developing the Normandy's crew into an amazing cast of characters I'm deeply attached to years later.
Evan This is BioWare character design at its best, but it's hard to imagine ME2 without its captivating score. Jack Wall's pounding synth (and ponderous electronica, out of combat) defines the aesthetic of the game for me as much as any character, chapter, or art asset.
Cory The loyalty missions gave me not only a stronger sense of each teammate's strengths, but a window into their motivations. I want an entire game of Jack side-missions.
Chris I was almost heartbroken by this—I loved Mass Effect, and at first glance I worried that its sequel had removed too much, become too slick. The repetitive structure of the companion missions; the last-minute sweeping changes made obvious not only by the game's unused files but the abrupt shifts in focus imposed by the Illusive Man. But I also appreciate how important ME2 was to the overall series. BioWare stepped up the environmental design, the combat, and the performance of each character. The game hosts some of the best writing in the series despite being thematically limited (it's a space adventure that is entirely about daddy issues) and lacking its predecessor's sense of escalation and discovery. It's probably the best game out of the three, but—overall—I think it's the least interesting. The Lair of the Shadow Broker was very good, mind.
Samuel Fuck you, Chris! This is a leaner, refined sequel that offered the most interesting narrative choices of the trilogy, with a fantastic, shocking intro. I didn't mind the original's cast but I never truly had an affinity for them—Thane, Miranda and Grunt were a different deal for me. The DLC was like an anthology of sci-fi stories featuring these characters, each with a killer ending, especially Overlord and Kasumi—Stolen Memory.
Andy This was the Captain Picard simulator I've always dreamed of. I'll never forget that feeling of being on the CIC of the Normandy, my own spaceship, with a galaxy full of possibilities spinning in front of me. BioWare created a cast of characters with genuine personality, making the suicide mission at the end one of the most intense experiences I've ever had in a game. If someone died, that was it, and it made every decision weigh on you as much as they did Shepard.