The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have ridden off into the sunset, replaced by the PlayStation 5 (go. pcworld.com/nv12) and Xbox Series X (go.pcworld.com/10nv). But what do we care, right? This is PCWorld, and my graphics card will function just as well (go. pcworld.com/gcls) next month as it does today, new consoles be damned.
But there’s no denying that hardware changeovers tend to drive the industry forward. Freed from the constraints of aging consoles, games leap ahead—not just in the living room, but on PC as well. By this time next year, today’s best games may well look… well, old. Time marches on, even children get older, consoles embrace modern SSDs (go. pcworld.com/mssd) and Ryzen CPUs (go. pcworld.com/rcpu), et cetera.
Thus the end of a console generation is also the perfect time for a retrospective. We’re feeling nostalgic about the last seven years and the games we played along the way, and we thought we’d celebrate those games one last time before they fade into the depths of our Steam libraries.
From Alien: Isolation to The Witcher 3, here are some of our favorite games of this generation, in no particular order.
1. ALIEN: ISOLATION
The presence of the Alien (read: Xenomorph) in Alien: Isolation (go.pcworld.com/alis) is still my least favorite part. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a marvel of artificial intelligence and a true hunter. Being its prey is as frustrating as it is fascinating though, with the Alien’s unpredictable nature a challenge that all-too-often results in your death—and a reminder that yes, you’re playing a video game. Tension broken.
But for all my complaints, Alien: Isolation has stuck with me. Creative Assembly’s rendition of the space station Sevastopol is brilliant, drawing on the look of the films and then extending it in ways both big and small. It feels like you can reach out and touch Alien: Isolation, from its charmingly overengineered save stations to the tactile motion detector that’s often your only companion. It feels real and weighty in a way few worlds manage.
It’s a real shame Creative Assembly hasn’t gotten the chance to work on another project like Alien: Isolation since. I love Total War, but honestly Alien: Isolation is their best game this generation.
2. RAINBOW SIX SIEGE
Back at E3 2014, I called Rainbow Six Siege the first “next-gen” shooter (go.pcworld. com/1gsh). Little did I know Siege would still stand alone (go.pcworld.com/sieg) more than six years later, as the console generation came to a close.
Much of this generations games focused on refining or making good on old ideas. Games got larger, longer, more photorealistic—but very few of them got more complicated. Rainbow Six Siege (go.pcworld. com/rn6s) is one of the only games to take the power of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 (and the PC of course) and use it to create an all-new experience, one that wouldn’t have been possible on older consoles. Siege went small instead of large, creating intimate multiplayer maps where nearly every surface was destructible, and where out-thinking your opponent was every bit as important as reflex shooting.
Going large got its due this generation as well, and battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (go.pcworld. com/bgrn) and Fortnite (go.pcworld.com/ frtn) deserve to be in the “next-gen” discussion for broader cultural impact as much as their impact on the industry. But Rainbow Six Siege is still my favorite, and for all the hours I’ve put into it since 2015, I’m only sad I didn’t play more.
3. KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO
I’ve joked before that Kentucky Route Zero (go.pcworld.com/knr0) is the “Game of the Generation,” if only because it took the entire console generation to release. The first chapter arrived in January of 2013, before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 even launched. The final episode wasn’t released until seven years later, in January 2020.
It is a vast and ambitious and messy story. It’s an intensely personal study of a handful of characters, and a broader tale about America in its latter-empire days. It’s a magical escape to a world of unmapped highways and quirky museums, and a grimly familiar parable about capitalism and the people it allows to fall through the cracks. It’s an awe-inspiring work, featuring some of the best writing that’s ever graced the medium.
And it’s inspired so many other developers to do their best work as well. You can draw a line between Kentucky Route Zero and so many other games this generation. As I said in our review (go.pcworld.com/kzrv), it’s gaming’s Velvet Underground. Not that many people played it, but all the ones who did? A decent chunk decided maybe they’d like to make video games as well.
4. DISCO ELYSIUM
Disco Elysium (go.pcworld.com/dcel) is one of the games that drew inspiration from Kentucky Route Zero—and plenty of other places, as well. If there were a reward for most text in a game, Disco Elysium (our 2019 game of the year [go.pcworld.com/19gm]) would probably win it. Over the course of 15 to 20 hours, its story covers everything from Communist theory to cryptozoology to disco, religion and music, detective’s intuition, the perils (and wonders) of drug use, and more.
You might see all of that or none of it, because Disco Elysium is less about quantity of-text and more about how all that writing is used. It’s a role-playing game, superficially resembling the Infinity Engine CRPGs of old, but your stats also play a part in your conversations. Invest heavily in Shivers, you might become more in-tune with the city’s mysteries. Dump points into Encyclopedia and your inner monologue will interject with information that may or may not be relevant to the task at hand, filling you in on not just the make and model of a nearby car, but who invented it, and why the factory eventually went out of business.
It’s an incredible piece of interactive fiction, and one begging for repeat playthroughs. Be an upstanding detective or run through the story as a corrupt grifter or a bumbling amnesiac. Disco Elysium not only supports the latter, but even rewards failure in ways that make it more entertaining to be incompetent.
I’ve told this story before, but the moment I knew I’d love Prey (go.pcworld.com/prgm) came at a preview event here in San Francisco. I was lost in thought, mulling over an elevator shaft I’d missed out on during my hands-on time because I lacked the skills to repair it. Then I heard someone mention they’d made it to the top—by force, using Prey’s GLOO Cannon to create platforms they could hop up.
That sort of systems-driven ingenuity is what I love most in Arkane’s games, and hell, in games in general. And Prey didn’t disappoint (go.pcworld.com/prrv). Somewhere, someone is (probably) still working on a proper System Shock 3, but for my money we already got it. Talos I is up there with Alien: Isolation’s Sevastopol for this generation’s best-realized environments, and the open-ended (almost Metroid-esque) nature of Prey made it a joy to explore, from its Art Deco offices to its industrial underpinnings.
I loved the story as well, from disorienting opening to equally disorienting end. Prey is pulp, but its characters are entertaining caricatures and Arkane has a knack for picking the perfect moments to subvert expectations. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the run-based expansion Mooncrash, which I’d pick as another of my favorites this generation (go. pcworld.com/moon) were it not intrinsically tied to Prey.
A lot to love. To be honest, it’s a toss-up whether Prey or Dishonored 2 (go.pcworld. com/dis2) is Arkane’s best work this generation, with the latter’s Clockwork Mansion and Stilton Manor being some of the finest level design…well, ever. But I love Prey, and I still feel it was criminally underrated and underplayed, so here it is.
6. KERBAL SPACE PROGRAM
When I reviewed Kerbal Space Program (go. pcworld.com/kerb) in 2015, I called it “the embodiment of everything that’s noteworthy and valuable about PC gaming.” High praise, and I stand by it.
Kerbal Space Program (go.pcworld.com/ kspr) is the kind of niche experiment that only ever thrives on the PC. Putting you in charge of your own NASA, it asks players to learn actual rocket science in order to thrive. Do you know how to airbrake? Or how to feather the throttle to optimize fuel usage during takeoff? Maybe not—but if you want to get off the planet Kerbin, you’re going to have to learn. I spent many nights with Kerbal Space Program open on one monitor and Wikipedia open on the other.
It’s entertaining though! That’s the best part. “Edutainment” is a dirty word in video games, and for good reason. A lot of edutainment is thin, like a layer of chocolate over green beans. But with Kerbal Space Program, you learn not because you’re being force-fed rocketry facts, but because you want to build something better. That’s so rare, and it’s so rewarding when you overcome your previous failures and finally land on Mun or orbit Eeloo—or even just parachute back to Kerbin without exploding.
And to think that Kerbal Space Program began with a single employee, Felipe Falanghe, at Mexican marketing firm Squad. The story of Kerbal Space Program’s development is just as strange and surprising as the game itself. I can’t wait to see what 2K does with Kerbal Space Program 2 (go. pcworld.com/ksp2), nor can I wait to play more of Falanghe’s Balsa Model Flight Simulator (go.pcworld.com/blsa).
There are games I struggle to describe because they’re so strange or complex. Then there’s Celeste (go.pcworld.com/cete), which I struggle with because laying out what it is in prose oversimplifies and cheapens the experience.
Celeste isn’t all that complicated. On its face, it’s a precision platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy—and a great one, I might add. A lot of people have tried to imitate Super Meat Boy over the past decade, but Celeste is one of the few that managed to give me sweaty palms and aching thumbs.
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