Reminder: Try not to stress out too much about the order of the items on this list, what games made it and which ones didn’t. Just use this as an excuse to talk about / praise / eviscerate games we might not get to discuss very often. Read the intro to learn why we’re doing this.
Also, the header image is embarrassingly easy this time. Sorry. I made them before I realized people were going to be treating them like a puzzle, but they aren’t really balanced in a meaningful way.
16. Civilization IV
Civilization is one of those games that seemed to spring fully-formed from the mind of its creators. It took us several years of iteration to figure out adventure games, or shooters. But the essentials of Civilization were there from the earliest stages: Cities,taxes, tech tree, accelerating timescale, diplomacy. Since then it’s been a matter of balance and refinement.
Any of the Civ games would be worthy of this list, and I debated whether Alpha Centauri should be counted as a Civilization game. Clearly it’s of the same lineage, and the only reason the name is different is because of business reasons. And when you’re compiling a list of “top games”, the last thing you care about is the politics of idiotic IP wars between ninny publishers. From a purely gameplay standpoint, Alpha Centauri fits in the series better than Civilization V, which greatly altered the combat by moving to hex grids and removing unit stacks.
But ultimately I think I want to give the top honors to Civ IV. It’s a stellar entry in the series (although they’re all pretty good) and it has Baba Yetu.
15. Sim City 4
In contrast to Civilization, Sim City is a series that seems to have struggled to nail down which elements worked and which didn’t. Is this supposed to be a simulation of something realistic? Or is this really just about creative building? Or is the player here to build a city that can survive random disasters? Is the player looking for options, or challenges?
The first game was pretty shallow and doesn’t hold up well at all today. The next three gamesSim City 2000, Sim City 3000, and Sim City 4, because sequential numbering is for people who can count. were all fine entries, but I’m giving the place of honor to Sim City 4 because it’s the last one that was good.
This game isn’t nearly as smart as it pretends to be, but it’s pretty smart for a shooter. It’s not nearly as deep, complex, or open as its “Shock” forebears, but it’s practically an RPG sandbox compared to its contemporaries. Everything after the meeting with Ryan is pretty much a dumb waste of time, and the final boss fight is stupid and infantile in both a mechanical and narrative sense – but the Ryan meeting is still one of the best in modern gaming. And its atrocious DRM was the first of a bad breed of obnoxious customer abuse, a trend that lingers to this day.
And now that I’ve said all that, I have no idea what this thing is doing so high on the list. Ultimately I guess I have to give BioShock credit for keeping the flame of “smart(ish) exploration-driven shooters” alive. Also it was very pretty and the water effects still look glorious seven years later.
13. Batman: Arkham City
Batman has been in a lot of videogames, and most of them are not goodProbably due to the fact that most of them were terrible movie tie-ins.. In fact, superhero games in general have always struggled to reconcile the need for challenging gameplay with the inherent empowerment of the superhero genre. But the Arkam Batman games did for superhero games what the Marvel Movieverse did for superhero films. They didn’t just top everything that came before, they did so by a long shot and made it look easy.
Sure, you could button-mash your way to victory like a thug, but the game made you feel like an ass for taking the lazy way through. It was exhilarating to get the rhythm of the game down and dispatch a whole crowd of mooks without taking a single hit. The animations were both fluid and brutal. Add in exquisite art, the best voice acting in the business, some serviceable puzzles, and a solid grasp of their source material, and you have a formula that no other team has been able to match, not even when they were handed the blueprints.
Which Elder Scrolls should make the list? Should it be the talky, obtuse, deep and vast world of Morrowind? Or do we give the spot to Skyrim, the shallow glamorous meme-spawning dragon-punching spectacle that served as fertile ground for a massive library of aggressively ambitious mods?
While I’ll always love Morrowind for its depth, it’s exquisite world-building, its fascinating themes, and its fantastical environments, it also gave us cliff racers. So Skyrim it is.
11. Left 4 Dead
There is some debate among the community between Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. While I don’t have the numbers to prove it, I have this sneaking suspicion that if you asked them, a lot of the staunch L4D1 fans would be co-op players and the L4D2 fans would be PvP fans.
I’m all about the co-op, and I’m all about the first game. It launched a little sub-genreIs it large enough to be called a genre? Maybe we should call it a fad. of 4-player co-op games like Killing Floor and Payday. It was fun and funny and completely nailed the direct-to-cable action schlock vibe. The AI director gave the game massive replay value and the varying banter kept the quiet moments fresh. Also, the game had quiet moments, which is something games still struggle with.
It also has a bit of a personal legacy with me: Left 4 Dead is how I met Josh, Randy, and Rutskarn. Which means the seeds of Spoiler Warning and our weekly podcast were planted in L4D. It also inspired Pixel City. It inspired Left 4 Dumb.
10. Knights of the Old Republic
When people talk about “classic BioWare” they’re only really talking about three games: KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass EffectMaybe you could include Dragon Age in this list. The line is pretty blurry.. Those are the upbeat, character-driven, lore-rich, tonally consistent games with lots of worldbuilding and really awkward RPG mechanics. Earlier games aren’t as celebrated and don’t have those quirks that we came to associate with the BioWare name. And the later games went the way of broad spectacle-driven power fantasy.
But for a brief time BioWare gave players something they just weren’t getting elsewhere, and in that time they built a rabid fanbaseThat subsequently turned on them when BioWare spurned them for a larger demographic.. It’s very possible that everything we’ve come to associate with the “classic BioWare” aesthetic came from a tiny handful of writers. (And possibly just Drew Karpyshyn all by his lonesome.)
KOTOR was the first game of that brief BioWare golden age, and it was one of the rare titles to capture the mood of classic Star Wars.
We’ll never forget you, Trask.
9. Master of Orion 2
It’s been 18 years, and this game still stands at the top of its genre. (I’ll allow for the people who insist MOO1 is better than the sequel. They’re very close to each other and very far above the alternatives.) Every game since then has lost their way by adding endless and pointless complexity (Master of Orion 3 is abominable) or leaves out a lot of really appealing depth. The focus on sleek graphics has harmed a lot of the newer titles by robbing them of their ability to gracefully abstract concepts into click-and-drag icons.
 Sim City 2000, Sim City 3000, and Sim City 4, because sequential numbering is for people who can count.
 Probably due to the fact that most of them were terrible movie tie-ins.
 Is it large enough to be called a genre? Maybe we should call it a fad.
 Maybe you could include Dragon Age in this list. The line is pretty blurry.
 That subsequently turned on them when BioWare spurned them for a larger demographic.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
Why The Christmas Shopping Season is Worse Every Year
Everyone hates Black Friday sales. Even retailers! So why does it exist?
This is Why We Can’t Have Short Criticism
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The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Grand Theft Railroad
Grand Theft Auto is a lousy, cheating jerk of a game.