The most exciting thing about video games is that, relatively, the medium is still so young.
Increasingly powerful hardware allows developers to build stunningly convincing virtual worlds, but the ambition extends to storytelling too. OK, so a lot of them still predominantly involve shooting endless hordes of moronic grunts, but in the last 10 years we’ve seen games mature further.
This was the decade of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, with each boasting its fair share of superb exclusives. A big talking point in the 2010s has been the fear that traditional single-player experiences are being phased out in favour of never-ending live-service games, but while it’s true that global multiplayer phenomenons have grabbed a lot of the headlines in recent years, we’ve also seen (and will talk about below) some of the finest campaigns of all time.
Away from the AAA titles, this decade has also seen indie gaming explode, and as we enter 2020, the appetite for smaller, more focused experiences is just as huge.
Indeed, these days there are so many games being released all the time that it’s impossible to play them all, but we’ve (somehow, eventually) managed to come up with a list of 25 that we think mattered the most.
Words: Matt Tate, Tom Wiggins, Chris Kerr, Sam Kieldsen
25. Fortnite (2017)
Whether you’ve played Fortnite or not, you’d be hard pressed to argue that Epic’s incredulously popular battle royale shooter isn’t one of the most influential games of the decade. The title has transcended the world of games to become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring goal celebrations at the FIFA World Cup finals, playing host to the first ever live virtual concert, and breaking down eSports barriers with an open format ‘Fortnite World Cup’ featuring a staggering $30 million prize pool. We’ve not even mentioned the game’s 250 million registered players or the fact it brought in a reported $2.4 billion in 2018 alone, but those things aren’t really important. What’s important is that Fortnite is no longer just a video game: it’s a social playground, a global concert venue, inclusive sports arena, border-defying cinema screen, and much, much more.
24. Far Cry 3 (2012)
There are many reasons Far Cry 3 is up there with the best games of the decade – and the fact that you can weaponise tigers is just one of them. That, by the way, never gets old. Neither does exploring the fictional pacific paradise of Rook Island, liberating outposts and learning new combat skills to help in your fight against the pirates that have taken control. None of its sequels quite managed to strike the balance so well and it even became the template for countless subsequent open-world shooters. It might even make you hate those annoying gap yah poshos a little less too.
23. What Remains of Edith Finch (2017)
Often sneeringly referred to as a “walking simulator” Giant Sparrow’s interactive tale about death, life and family may not require fast reflexes or advanced puzzle solving skills – but a sense of empathy and capacity to wonder certainly come in handy. Set in a bizarre house on the coast of Washington state, it asks the player to explore, experience and uncover the mysteries surrounding the fate of the Finch family. Easily completed in a single sitting, it’s possibly the finest example of how games can function as interactive artworks.
22. Tetris Effect (2018)
Anyone who’s sampled the dizzying highs of Tetris Effect will already know it’s one of the best games of the last 10 years. Enhance’s trippy reimagining of the classic puzzler is a hypnotising smorgasbord of sound and shape that probably shares more in common with an hallucinogenic mushroom than it does a video game. It’s a trippy, eclectic, and yet strangely pure experience that’s quite unlike anything we’ve encountered before (or since).
21. Rocket League (2015)
We’ve tried combining lots of sports in our time – badminton and ten-pin bowling, cricket and darts – but it wasn’t until Rocket League mashed football and motorsport together that we realised how wrong we’d been doing it. As addictive as Angry Birds, as competitive as Mario Kart, and as satisfying as Sensible Soccer, the fact that it was given away free through PlayStation Plus just made it all the more appealing. A true underdog classic.
20. Bioshock Infinite (2013)
Is BioShock Infinite the best in the series? Perhaps not, but it’s undoubtedly the most ambitious. The shooter yanked the franchise forward by letting players blast, zap and grapple their way through Columbia, an expansive floating city that allowed for more dynamic gameplay than the underwater corridors of Rapture. And yet, despite leaving the damp halls of Rapture far behind, Infinite somehow managed to deliver a story that unified the entire franchise without feeling contrived. It’s a narrative that culminates in one of the most memorable (and deserved) mic drop moments in video game history, and one that’ll leave players’ heads spinning long after the credits have rolled.
19. Destiny (2015)
Bungie’s first post-Halo project married some of the most satisfying gunplay in video games with an MMO-style shared world and addictive loot-chasing mechanics – all with incredibly high production values (and a cheese-fest of a theme song by Paul McCartney!). It hasn’t always been a smooth ride for Destiny (now free-to-play), but when it shines – such as in its beautifully designed, fiendishly challenging six-player raids – it really shines.
18. Titanfall 2 (2016)
The original, online-only Titanfall had its moments, but those who played its sequel’s single-player campaign mode were treated to one of the finest first-person shooter experiences of this console generation – possibly even all time. While many FPS campaigns just rely on bigger and more spectacular set pieces, Titanfall 2 is packed with brilliant Ninty-esque ideas that make the most of your characters abilities, from platform-hopping through a gargantuan working construction plant to dimension-hopping through time in order to traverse two wildly different versions of the same landscape. And to top it off you get to stomp around inside a massive robot. Sensational.
17. Alien: Isolation (2014)
The idea of having a perfect killing machine stalk you through the near-deserted halls and ductways of a creepy space station, causing you to flinch or freeze at every sound and spend hours hiding in cupboards may not sound that appealing – but Alien: Isolation did it so incredibly well! Delivering the best depiction of Giger’s xenomorph in games, it’s a masterpiece of tension and fear – even if you’ll probably one want to play it through once.
16. Stardew Valley (2016)
Some people might claim that Stardew Valley, a laid back farming sim that lets you tend crops, raise livestock, and take dungeon-crawling detours, isn’t for everyone. Those people are wrong. Stardew Valley is a game that every jaded soul needs to experience at least once; a delightful, joyous, and unashamedly wholesome slice-of-life simulator that whisks players away from the rat race into a rustic world where you decide what matters. Maybe you want to grow prize turnips, become a renowned cheese maker, or explore the murky depths of the local mine. Or maybe you just want to fall in love and settle down in your little corner of nowhere. In Stardew Valley, the rural life you’ve always dreamed about is waiting just behind the pixel art curtain.
15. Celeste (2018)
Kicked off by Super Meat Boy in 2010, this was very much the decade of soul-crushingly difficult 2D platformers. And while Celeste definitely belongs in that camp, it’s superlative design means that it never feels unfair, and you feel like you’re improving with each attempt. You play as Madeline, a determined red-headed girl who is trying to make her way to the top of a death trap-covered mountain that’s just as determined to stop her. It soon becomes apparent that this mountain is in fact a quite moving metaphor for dealing with mental health issues, which only makes you more determined to help our hero successfully reach the peak.
14. Super Mario Odyssey (2017)
Nintendo kicked off the decade with an equally (if not more) brilliant sequel to Super Mario Galaxy, but Odyssey‘s plain weirdness stayed with us longer. The game turned the plumber’s famous red cap into a sentient possession tool, and while Mushroom Kingdom animal rights activists could make a strong case against the ethical justification of borrowing the body of a dinosaur to reach a power moon, it didn’t half make for some fun levels. Whether you’re rounding up sheep in the desert or bouncing off taxis among the kinda creepy humanoids that occupy New Donk City, Super Mario Odyssey is Nintendo at its inventive best.
13. Forza Horizon 3 (2016)
Like Eurogamer, we very nearly copped out and included all four Forza Horizon games here. Every one of them is brilliant. But we’ve gone for the third, because it’s hard to think of a better location for the most relentlessly entertaining open world racing series ever made than Australia, mate! Whether you’re tearing a supercar along the white sand that surrounds the magnificent 12 Apostles, or dodging crocs in the outback, the game never lets up. Welcoming hardcore petrolheads and arcade thrillseekers alike, Forza Horizon 3 is a jubilant celebration of motor sport, and few games make us grin more.
12. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
Ah, Skyrim. Since it launched in 2011 the dragon-smothered RPG has been re-released on every conceivable console, become an endless font of internet memes, and aged with all the grace of a 12 quid merlot. Although its flaws are now more visible than ever, when Skyrim arrived it was a genuine revelation, bringing with it a gorgeous new aesthetic that imbued the high-fantasy franchise with a sense of muddy realism that made the misty peaks and soggy grasslands of Skyrim feel tangible, despite the monstrous dragons swirling overhead. A flexible progression system did away with the rigid classes of previous entries, an intuitive dual wielding system and dragon shouts gave combat much more weight, and hand crafted dungeons lent a sense of history and gravitas to even the most surplus side quest. In short: it raised the bar for The Elder Scrolls series and open-world RPGs in general, and while other titles have come along and rocked the boat since, it’s worth remembering that Skyrim was here first.
11. Inside (2016)
Inside will only take you an afternoon to play through but those couple of hours are more memorable than many games that’ll take over your life. This side-scrolling spiritual successor to Limbo puts you in the shoes of a young boy lost in a sinister factory complex, with only a zombified workforce, a team of vicious guards and the occasional dead pig for company. With minimal colour, no tutorials and no dialogue, Inside is happy to let you figure things out for yourself, but it’s so brilliantly put together that doing so is never demoralising – even if the ending will leave you with more questions than answers.
10. Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Every game in Rocksteady’s magnificent trilogy of Batman games was significant. The first introduced the series’ balletic combat system and stealth mechanics in a brilliantly realised Arkham Asylum, while the last gave us the keys to the Batmobile. But it was the second game in the series that presented players with a grimy Arkham City to explore at will, and it turns out that an open-world Batman game is as good as it sounds. The gameplay was a near perfect cocktail of fighting thugs, solving puzzles and gliding across the night sky with your cape spread, but just as memorable was the story. Mark Hamill as the Joker is every bit as good here as he was in the cartoons, and he features heavily in a remarkably bold ending that shocked every comic book nerd to their core.
9. Mass Effect 2 (2010)
It’s only a cliche because it’s true, but with Mass Effect 2 the folks over at BioWare achieved the impossible in making their very own Empire Strikes Back. The super sequel somehow managed to improve on everything folks loved about the original, pushing the story forward in a bold new direction (the opening scene alone cemented the game as a modern classic), adding interesting new characters into the mix, while bringing back fan-favourites without making it feel gratuitous. It also jettisoned a lot of the guff that made the first entry feel bloated, with those topsy turvy Mako missions and sloppy gunplay making way for a refined combat system, tighter RPG mechanics, and a more spontaneous dialogue system that delivered memorable moments in spades. Mass Effect 2 is a rare example of a studio delivering the goods on every conceivable front, and that’s why it remains a bonafide great almost 10 years on.
8. Portal 2 (2011)
Before you say it, we know it’s not as good as the original, but that came out in 2007, so only some help from an interdimensional portal of some kind would allow us to include it here. Fortunately, Portal 2 is also magnificent, with the same perfectly pitched learning curve that makes you feel both incredibly stupid and incredibly clever with each puzzle you complete. It’s longer than the first one too, with a more developed storyline and extra tools that help you to escape each room without unnecessarily overcomplicating things. If only Stephen Merchant would shut up for a minute…
7. God of War (2018)
Were it not for Kratos’ familiar bald head and signature red tattoo, you’d have been forgiven for not realising that last year’s PS4 exclusive was a God of War game. Gone were the perennially furious Norse god’s famous double chained blades, replaced by a hulking battle axe. The series reboot also used an over-the-shoulder camera, with the game unfolding as one continuous shot with epic results. But more than anything else, God of War was different because it humanised Kratos, giving him a son to protect and form a bond with while chopping up demons. It all came together in one this decade’s truly exceptional games.
6. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
There are some games that can never hope to live up to the hype that surrounds their development – and then there’s Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar’s sprawling, bustling recreation of southern California offered enough of a playground to keep you busy for months – and that’s before you even tackled any of the missions. GTA V‘s three-pronged storyline and larger, more complex heist missions helped to avoid the occasional tedium of the previous game, while the online mode has an active community that’s still evolving six years later. It just makes you wonder how they’re going to top it for GTA VI.
5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
The first couple of Witcher games were serviceable RPGs, but Wild Hunt is something altogether more special. There’s a vast and rich open world to explore (the greatest ever made until Red Dead Redemption 2‘s), hundreds of hours of beautifully written quests and side quests to undertake, an epic plot concerning war, love, betrayal, fatherhood and much, much more and a cast of well-drawn characters to meet (and sometimes have sex with, or kill). Underpinning it all is the titular monster hunter himself, Geralt of Rivia – one of the most loveable killers in video game history, and a pleasure to spend 200+ hours controlling.
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018)
Viewed from a game design perspective, Rockstar’s open-world Western is far from perfect: combat often feels woolly and lank, and straying even the slightest bit from a mission’s intended path will result in failure. And yet, and yet: Red Dead Redemption 2‘s impeccable presentation, heart-wrenching story, memorable characters and beautifully rendered, intricately detailed recreation of 19th century America make it a triumph of creativity and craft. Rockstar built a rare open world that feels alive – and lived in. A remarkable video game.
3. Dark Souls (2011)
Its predecessor Demon’s Souls may have cast the template, but Dark Souls was the title that popularised a whole new subgenre of video games: third-person action RPGs characterised by extreme (but fair) difficulty, tight combat, iconic boss fights, intricate level design and a minimalist approach to storytelling that leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It’s difficult to convey the true magic of playing Dark Souls though: the lure of exploring new areas weighed against the risk of what might befall you if you push too far forward, or the wonderful moments of realisation as you activate a lift or push open a gate to find that you’ve looped back to safely familiar surroundings.
2. The Last of Us (2013)
When most people talk about The Last of Us they wax lyrical about the storytelling, the terrifying Clickers, or the incredibly realised post-apocalyptic world that you must navigate Ellie and Joel through. These things are all brilliant, but we’ve got one word for you (and if you need a spoiler alert for a game that came out six years ago, here it is): giraffes. The moment that tower of long-necked lads came round the corner just confirmed that there was something a little bit special about this game. Well you’d never get a drove of donkeys or a gang of weasels in a Call of Duty game, would you? The imminent sequel will no doubt be one of the upcoming decade’s highlights, but Naughty Dog will need to have made something pretty special to top this all-time classic.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017)
For all of its undeniable creative genius, Nintendo isn’t typically one for abandoning the tried-and-tested formula when it comes to its most beloved franchises. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a glorious exception. In Zelda games you typically progress by exploring an overworld until you reach a dungeon, where you’ll find an item that helps you complete puzzles and move on to the next one. It’s familiar – comforting even. In Breath of the Wild, you’re given near enough every tool you need in the first hour of the game, before being unleashed into a truly open-world Hyrule with very few rules dictating what you do next. So many games in this genre sell themselves on the freedom they afford the player, but BOTW is one of the few that is actually worth exploring every inch of. With its clever combat, inventive dungeons, memorably wacky characters and endlessly impressive physics (and chemistry) system, we kept poor Princess Zelda waiting in the castle for well over 100 hours. Easily the best game on the Nintendo Switch, and for our money, the decade’s greatest.
Honourable mentions: Bloodborne (2015), Journey (2012), Dishonored 2 (2016), Resident Evil 2 (2019), Pokemon Go (2016), Mario Kart 8 (2014)