By Rick Warren / Gfn2112
Well, here we are. The big one. I've thought a lot about this list, as it was a real pain to narrow it down to only five games. I had to cut out so many titles that I love in order to find my absolute favorites. This list feels right to me, though, and I think I'm ready to release it.
It should be obvious, but this is my personal ranking and mine alone. Games you love may or may not be here. You may agree with my list or you may think that none of these games deserve to be on it. That's okay. I feel like it's important for me to be honest, both for myself and for anyone who reads this Top 5. This will probably be the longest one that I ever make, as I'll be telling you my personal experience with every game on the list. If you have the time to read my lengthy explanations, you should be able to get an idea of what these games mean to me...
Time to get started!
I know, I know. By now, pretty much everyone is tired of hearing about this game. Still, I won't wrongfully leave it off of my list because of how hyped up it is. Overwatch is a game that came out of nowhere and caught so many people by surprise. On the other hand, just as many people thought it was ridiculous that this game was winning 2016 Game of the Year awards instead of something as terrific as Uncharted 4 or Inside. I'm the perfect example of both sides, and perhaps my story will help you understand why this game is one of the all-time greats for me. It's one that I've been wanting to tell, but I haven't had the opportunity to do so until now.
Oddly enough, my first experience with Overwatch was a trailer that played when I had gotten to a showing of the Deadpool movie early. I wasn't impacted by it in any way, and I even remember myself sneering as the trailer played. All the talk of heroes, the music, the characters all looking like they came from different games... it seemed unbelievably cheesy. Looking back now, I can see how ignorant I was. I had missed the point. I didn't understand what Overwatch was and I didn't care. Three months later, during the Summer of 2016, the Overwatch beta released on PS4. I had seen some gameplay here and there, but the game didn't seem like anything special. For some reason, though, with two days left in the beta, I downloaded it. I've always had the mentality of trying every game myself and forming my own opinion. Thanks to this, I felt it would be unfair to ignore a chance to actually play this game that I had laughed off in the past. So, I started it up and played one match against the AI. I had fun. Then I tried a match online. Then another, and even more after that. I didn't notice that night, but I was already hooked. I told everyone to download it, including The Level Up Show's co-host Mike. He had the same outlook I did going in, yet he gave it the same chance I did. Today, he has a reputation as "The Overwatch Guy" among our community. Today, I have 400 hours of Overwatch playtime, and that number continues to grow. Today, Overwatch has well over 30 million active players.
What is it, exactly, that made the world fall in love with Overwatch? I can't speak for everyone, but for me, it was the diverse cast of heroes that I initially found ridiculous. Every nationality was represented, which was commendable on its own. More than that though, every character was unique. They were not just stereotypes of the people that they represented. They all had their own stories, some of which I had never seen in a game (and still haven't to this day). I grew attached to their personalities and character designs with every line they spoke and every ability they activated in-game. I adored their interactions with each other. I enjoyed watching the animated shorts and reading the comics that told their stories. I browsed the Overwatch Reddit constantly, growing attached to the voice actors and developers. The community impressed me with every cosplay, every art piece and every meme. Overwatch had become a part of my every day life, whether I was playing it or not.
Even then, my personal attachment to the universe is only one reason as to why I love this game. See, Overwatch was and is just as strong for me on the gameplay side. Basically, it's everything that I have ever wanted from a multiplayer game. When I was younger I was always that kid in online games yelling at the TV. With games like Call of Duty, I was angry at the fact that I was the only person on the team trying to win. I was competitive, but multiplayer games were not fulfilling that need for me. The competition they promoted was more about kill/death ratios than winning; I hated that. When I'm playing multiplayer games, I have fun when I'm actually trying. Eventually I got into Battlefield, which gave me something closer to what I was looking for. Without friends, though, I didn't have nearly as much fun playing it. Overwatch was different. I loved playing with my friends and I loved playing on my own just as much. The people around me wanted to win like I did. It was satisfying to succeed, and it was crushing to lose. I found out that Overwatch was the multiplayer game for me, and truthfully, Overwatch is the happiest I have ever been when playing online. I'm focused, but I'm no longer angry (don't get me wrong, I still get annoyed here and there, but it's no longer a constant thing). With consistent updates and a massive amount of free content that few developers offer, Blizzard has kept my attention since launch. I don't see myself stopping anytime soon. I'm permanently and proudly attached to Overwatch's universe, gameplay and community. I'm constantly having fun with it. What more can any gamer ask for?
With one game down, let's move on to choice #4!
4.) Mass Effect 2
The 2011 PSN outage. Many people remember that long month. Some for not being able to play online. Others for the great games that became to make up for the service being shut down. Me? I remember it because it helped get me into one of my favorite games, and series, of all time. Back then, I was hooked on multiplayer. I was still playing Uncharted 2 online, and whenever my friends were on we were playing Call of Duty: Black Ops. Further, one of my best friends had gotten into Battlefield 3 and was trying to get me into that, too (eventually he did, and it led to 600 hours of playtime). Looking back, I don't know if I would have the multiplayer/single player balance I have now without the PSN outage. Eventually, the aforementioned outage happened, and after a week I decided to get into the hefty RPG's games that sat on my backlog. I opened Mass Effect 2 and put the disk into my PS4. For the rest of the network outage, it stayed there.
This wasn't the first time I had come into a beloved series late, and it would not be the last. With just one playthrough of Mass Effect 2, I immediately understood all of the love fans had for Bioware's sci-fi universe. I have written before that Metal Gear Solid 3 was the first time that I had seen an amazing story in a video game. With Mass Effect 2, for the very first time I felt that my actions had an effect on the story. Every Paragon or Renegade action mattered. Every dialogue choice I made when talking with my crew had an impact. Every difficult decision I made as the Commander of the Normandy changed the universe in some way. I wasn't choosing options on a wheel that ultimately changed nothing... I was making a Mass Effect universe of my own, and a Commander Shepard that matched my beliefs as to how it should be shaped.
I enjoyed the third person shooting aspects of the game, sure, but it was the dialogue and choices that defined Mass Effect 2 for me. I think they mattered so much simply because I cared about what was going on, and carefully considered the fallout of every decision. I cared about my crew, and I did every loyalty mission there was to prove it to them. I cared about my injury-prone pilot. I cared about my alien best friend that was obsessed with calibrating the ship. I cared about the doctor, the cook and the minor characters I walked by as I approached the galaxy map. I cared about every person that was tasked with helping me save the universe... I cared about Mass Effect.
My appreciation for the game I was playing grew even greater when I reached the ending. The concept of the suicide mission had been used in entertainment so many times before, but games rarely got it right. The heroes almost always survived and saved the day. What was expected usually happened. How could players put hours in and be rewarded with failure? That would lead to outrage. Yet Mass Effect 2 made the effort to be different. Every member of your squad could die, Commander Shepard included. You could fail the mission completely, and there would be no "retry" button. The Reapers would arrive and nobody would be there to fight them. Yet, you could also be successful. If you built trust with your crew and assigned the right tasks to the right people, they would live and the mission would succeed. Mass Effect 2's ending rewarded the players who put time in and appreciated what they were playing, and it punished the players who rushed. The uniqueness of this ending has made it one of my all time favorites, and it's helped the game itself become one of my favorites too.
Up next, my #3 spot goes to the third and final game in a massive series...
3.) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Like Mass Effect, I was late to the Witcher series. With how great Wild Hunt looked, though, I decided it was time to jump in. To this day I have not attacked a game with such ferocity. Within 3 weeks, I had over 9 days of playtime and the platinum trophy. I also had a new favorite RPG.
The sheer amount of content in the game was dumbfounding. I spent 10 hours in the first section of the game's massive world, White Orchard, doing only random activities around the map (and playing more Gwent than any sane person should). I felt like I had already gotten my money's worth, and I hadn't even progressed the story or taken on side quests. When I did, I found out what awaited me. One of the largest open worlds I had ever seen, Velen, was covered with the question marks I had just spent hours clearing. As I explored, more popped up. I had a large task ahead, and unbeknownst to me, there was yet another location to explore. The Witcher 3 kept delivering new things to do, and I had a blast completing them.
Eventually, after 50 hours, I has cleared the map. It was finally time to begin on the long list of quests I had collected. As I progressed in the story, I became attached to Geralt and Ciri, as well as the characters they met along the way. I wanted to continue on, but I became hooked on the greatest strength of The Witcher: the side quests. Each of these told their own story, with strong voice acting and writing making them special. Unlike basically every RPG, these were more than just fetch quests or killing the same group of enemies on repeat. I was meeting new characters, learning their stories and choosing how they ended. Some side quests even intertwined, making their own lengthier storylines that required me to pay attention in order to reach the best ending. Best of all were the monster hunts. Tracking unique, massive creatures to their dens. Preparing my sword with oils they were weak too. Battling as intense music played in the background. These well-written and exciting smaller tales made me feel like a Witcher. Ultimately, isn't that the purpose of an RPG? So few of them today actually understand that. They get the mechanics, like skill trees and dialogue, but most don't grasp how to make the player become who they're playing as. The Witcher 3 achieves that, and it is truly deserving of the term "role-playing game".
When I finished the Witcher, I was exhausted. I had played nonstop for weeks and done everything there was to do. Sure, I loved absolutely everything about it, but I needed a break. I took one, eventually finding the number 5 spot on this list and focusing on that for quite some time. This past Summer, though, I went back to The Witcher 3. The game's expansions had released, and I was ready for the new adventures that awaited Geralt of Rivia. Within seconds of starting the game back up, I realized how much I had missed it. It had been too long since I played, but the expansions were the perfect way to dive back in. CD Projekt Red essentially delivered another full game for $25 with these two gems. They are, without question, the best expansions I have ever played. I played through both of the two great stories, adding an additional 50+ hours to my Witcher 3 save. I had reached 100% on the trophy list, my maps were clear and my quest log was empty. I finished the Witcher 3. Writing this now, I've ended up back in the state I was when I started the game back up to play Hearts of Stone/Blood and Wine. I miss playing The Witcher 3. I probably always will, because I'm not going to replay it. I don't want anything to damage the memory I have of that original playthrough.
Time for #2... the game that changed my outlook on video games and made me the gamer I am today.
2.) Metal Gear Solid 3
If you read the MGS V retrospective that I wrote a few weeks back, you'd have an idea of what this game means to me. In short, it changed my entire outlook on what a video game could be. I was still a young kid, and saw everything in the way that you'd expect a kid to. Games were just fun for me. I played them constantly because of that, and I became skilled at them because of that. I loved them, but they were nothing more than entertainment. With the story and the characters of Metal Gear Solid 3, I began to appreciate games for what they really were: art. Exactly like movies or music, a video game can do many different things. They can teach lessons, tell stories, elicit emotions or simply entertain. Metal Gear Solid 3 did all of those, and it did them all so well.
At my young age, I missed plenty of the clever intricacies of MGS 3. I never picked up on Ocelot being The Boss's daughter during my first playthrough. I never knew of all the clever ways to defeat The End (such as moving the system clock a year forward, and having him die of old age). I missed out on the deepness of the gameplay. I struggled with the great stealth mechanics and smart AI. I didn't understand how amazing the boss fights were, simply because I had so little to compare them to. I did understand one thing about Metal Gear Solid 3, though. I understood the ending.
The realization that the villain was the hero, the heroes were the villains, and the beloved character that I was playing as was only a puppet had hit me hard. My mind was blown, simply because it all made so much sense. I had never seen something like this done before, certainly not at this level of deepness and quality. I suppose this is when my appreciation of endings where the villain wins began. Not only are they rare, but when done right these endings can mean so many things and change so many characters. In the case of Metal Gear Solid 3, the ending led to the creation of my favorite character in gaming history: Big Boss.
Whenever I replayed the game, I found more things to appreciate. The older I got (and with the more games that I played), I began to see those great, small and large touches that I once missed. I played through MGS 3 so many times. It became a huge part of my childhood. I went back and played the other Metal Gears because of 3, and only because of 3. I fell in love with them, too. Metal Gear Solid 3 was a game that gifted me so much. My favorite character, my favorite series and a new way to look at video games. Whenever someone insultingly asks me why I spend my life playing video games, I often reply with a question of my own: what makes movies or books better than video games? Why are they more acceptable forms of art? Metal Gear Solid 3 made me feel happy, sad, angry and so much more. It made me look at the world in a new way. It told me a story I had never seen. Only the best pieces of art can do that.
Finally, we're here. My favorite game of all time. Some of you reading know what it is, but I can still go into why it's in my top spot...
1.) The Last of Us
When asked what my favorite movie, song, book or show is, I always struggle to make the choice. Ever since it released, though, The Last of Us has been my favorite video game. That confusion that I feel whenever I'm asked those other questions simply doesn't exist when I'm asked about my favorite game. Making this list was a challenge, but there was never any doubt about my top spot. What made The Last of Us the best game for me is that I saw it as the best in so many individual areas.
Voice acting. I can confidently say that The Last of Us features the greatest performances I have ever seen in a game, as Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson do such a tremendous job that I can never see anyone else playing the roles. Every single conversation they had felt real. The actors played just as much of a role as the writing did for making Joel and Ellie the great characters that they are. Combined with the top-notch facial animation and well-directed cutscenes you'd expect from Naughty Dog, the greatest gaming duo of all time was created.
Gameplay. This is the area of The Last of Us that those who dislike it criticize the most. While I can see why some found it boring, I personally loved it. Every encounter was intense, violent and realistic; fitting for a post-apocalyptic world. Clickers were terrifying and appropriately deadly. The gameplay worked just as well in the multiplayer modes, too. Factions could have easily been an awful and tacked on multiplayer experience like the Tomb Raider reboot's, but it became yet another great part of this game. The meta-game, where you had to keep your own camp of people alive for 12 weeks, was a smart touch that kept the experience interesting. Online play prioritized stealth and teamwork. The crafting mechanic worked even better online, as being able to make weapons and armor in addition to bombs and shivs added a unique layer of strategy. I had plenty of fun playing it with friends, too.
Story. This one is obvious given Naughty Dog's other work. Still, the concept of telling a story that covers an entire year is no small task. Neil Druckmann, Bruce Straley and the rest of ND took on that challenge though, and the team truly delivered. At the end of every Season, I was hit with a dark and powerful moment that matched the world Naughty Dog had created. Even then, it wasn't just these scenes that had impact. Iconic moments like the giraffe scene, the surprisingly great fight with David, the distant conversation after Ellie ran away... The Last of Us is a brilliant game the entire way through. Great optional conversations and a perfect soundtrack only spotlight this brilliancy more. The most talented studio in gaming managed to take an overdone genre (that had seemingly told every possible story there was to tell) and make something that was brand new.
I could keep going, but I feel like I've said enough. The game speaks for itself, and if you somehow haven't played it yet, I truly encourage you to do so. You won't regret it. Despite being over four years old, it still remains right on par with today's games graphically. It's still light years beyond them when it comes to storytelling and voice acting, too.
Often, when a person shares their personal favorites, their only focus is on older games and what they loved as a kid. Funnily enough, my list has been the opposite (the only high-ranking game from my childhood was Metal Gear Solid 3). Why is it that I'm less nostalgic, leaving out all the classic Zelda games that pretty much every gamer has on their list? Honestly, it's just because I'm younger. I didn't grow up in the time of Pac-Man. I didn't grow up during the time of Super Mario 64 or Goldeneye or Ocarina of Time. I grew up during the time of Shadow of the Colossus and Kingdom Hearts. When I went back and played all the classics I had heard about for years, whether it be Zelda or Mario or Castlevania... I thought they were fine. I was used to better sounding games, better looking games and games with smoother, stronger gameplay.
The reality of the video game industry, and the one area where games do differ from movies and music, is that video games are always improving. The technology is getting better every year. The wall that stops originality and innovation has not been hit yet. Twenty years ago, I doubt anyone could imagine a game that looks like Horizon: Zero Dawn actually existing. What will games be like twenty years from now? I can't say exactly, but I have enough foresight to admit my own list will probably be outdated. Someone my age will have a list of entirely different games. Today's games will be just as hard for them to connect with as the games from the N64 era were for me. The important thing, though, is not which games are on their list, or yours, or mine. The important thing is that there are video game lists to be made at all. If you've read this far, you clearly love games as much as I do. While our favorite games may differ, the truth is that we both love gaming. Millions do, and I'm excited to see what comes next as that number grows even larger.
I hope you enjoyed this list. It took days of writing and thinking, but for something that matters to me as much as this list of games, I feel like the effort was worth it. I needed to end the debate that I've had with myself for many years now. I know it was lengthy, but if you took the time out of your day to read even just some of it, I'm grateful.
Below in the comments you'll find multiple honorable mentions with a few words about why I love each. Going forward I plan on continuing the more casual, shorter Top 5's that I've posted prior to this. Next up is "My Top 5 Indie Games".
See you then! - Rick