We’re reaching what should be the end of the current console cycle. The XBOX 360 has been in homes since 2005, the PS3 and Wii since ‘06. This latest family of gaming machines has drawn out further than the typical five- to eight-year life span of previous generations. Generally speaking, though, it is at the tail end of a console’s life that audiences see the most interesting implementations in the hardware. Developers have had ample experience with the hardware to know its peculiarities and can make the most of the platform they are creating for. What the latter third of a hardware cycle lacks in blockbuster releases it tends to make up for with artistic flair, technical achievement and boundary-pushing graphics.
Picking a “best” among the strong field of candidate, across the most technically differentiated field of console competitors in a lifetime, is futile. Here is a personal Top 10, in ALPHABETICAL order because I love all my children equally.
Bastion (XBLA/PC/Google Chrome)
Supergiant Games, E10+
I hasten to call Bastion an Indie game. Yes, Supergiant Games is a small studio as far as triple A titles go, but what they crafted into their isometric action RPG is of the highest quality. On the surface it’s a cartoon-esque Diablo-style adventure, but it has a satisfyingly broad upgrade system, an ingenious challenge mode and a level of customizability that fits each player like a glove.
Batman: Arkham City (360/PS3/PC)
There is a middle ground between the camp of ’60s Batman and the grimdark realism of the recent Christopher Nolan features. Supposedly this is where the comic book lies today, but on last glance that seemed dubious. What Batman: Arkham City, and its predecessor Arkham Asylum, do so successfully is marry that technicolor insanity of Batman’s foes and environment with the grit and weight of a real fight. Arkham City’s Batman is richly detailed and thrilling, and super-heroics have never felt this perfect to embody.
Dead Space 2 (360/PS3/PC)
Visceral games, M
Survival Horror! Who would have thought that would come back so strong? Since Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill the survival horror genre has steadily tumbled downhill. One can only twitch at so many jump scares and zombies before desensitization sets in. Dead Space 2, and to a less popular extent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, brought the genre screaming back to the tops of minds. Space nightmare aliens mutate corpses and drive an engineer to insanity aboard a spoooooky space station; fun!
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (360/PS3/PC)
Bethesda Game Studios, M
What can you say about a fantasy where you can slay dragons, giants and goblins while scouring the frozen countryside for realistically rendered collectible wheels of cheese? The Fallout 3 team makes another pass of the iron over the wrinkly pantsuit of open world RPG and manages to flatten most of the game breaking jank. The result is a beautiful world full of awkward animations populating an addictive and engrossing landscape.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
Yes, it’s another Zelda game and yes, again you pit the green clad ur-hero against a nefarious force that has captured the princess Zelda and threatens to plunge the world into desolation. What pulls Skyward Sword ahead of the pack of Zelda also-rans are the Motion Plus sword controls. This last gasp of the Wii before Nintendo’s 2012 release of the Wii U is a strong contender in the Zelda lineage and an adventure that pushes the Wii back to the land of relevance.
LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3)
Media Molecule, E
It’s easy to call LittleBigPlanet 2 just a by-the-numbers sequel to the left-field PS3 delight LittleBigPlanet. But that would only go to show that you’ve never played an ounce of this wonderful January gem. There is ample well-made platforming here but LBP2 exponentially grows the creative promise of its parents. The tools at a player’s disposal for content creation and customization are frighteningly robust. As long as you’re sketching within the artistic style of the title, basically every type of game is buildable within LBP2’s workshop.
Portal 2, (360/PS3/PC/MAC)
Stephen Merchant’s deliriously inept robot Wheatley charmed gamers through hours of space-warping puzzles in the follow-up to the critical darling Portal. Again you are armed with a portal-creating gun and passive-aggressively marked for death in the name of science and as before it is a beautiful, delicious, moist treat. The new tools like physics-manipulating gels broaden the possibilities but it is the addition of co-op play that ices the cake.
Saint’s Row The Third (360/PS3/PC)
On one hand I probably shouldn’t in good conscience recommend a game where you club your foes to death with a wobbly baseball bat-sized “marital aid.” On the other hand Saint’s Row The Third is the smartest stupid game ever. Every dunderheaded trope of adolescent power-fantasy, up to and including Burt Reynolds, is gloriously wallowed in and gosh darn it, it is grand. Saint’s Row The Third ups the insanity of Grand Theft Auto abandon to eleventyone with thick layers of puerile humor and exquisite execution.
Trine 2 (360/PS3/PC/MAC/Linux)
The first time I loaded Trine 2 on my PC my jaw dropped. The rich color palette and gilded detail of the fantasy-archetype swapping 2-D puzzler is astounding. Whether you are besting the ingenious traversal challenges with the acrobatic thief, manipulating the world with the magic of the wizard or cutting through your foes with the burly warrior, Trine 2 delivers. It matches its sumptuous visuals with clever challenges and oodles of exploration.
Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception (PS3)
Naughty Dog, T
It is hard to top the cinematic archeology-adventure of Uncharted 2 when you want to show non-gamers what marquee gaming is all about. And Uncharted 3 may not, as a whole, accomplish that feat. Drake’s Deception travels leagues toward refining its multi-player to and the single-player story socks you square in the awe with a half dozen stunning action set pieces. Saying that the sequel to one of the top 10 games of the past decade doesn’t eclipse its ancestor but merely matches it is a bitter way to describe this amazing game.