The decade has come and gone, with the passage of time once again showing that we live in a meaningless universe where we ultimately die. But hey! There were some cool video games along the way. Caught in that catalogue were countless games that were woefully misunderstood, never getting the limelight they deserved. This is an arbitrary list of the decade’s best but sadly unsung games.
Some ground rules before starting: I’ve tried to keep this list within the realm of AAA or AA indie games. Suffice it to say there’s an entire wing of independent and alt-games that many people tragically ignore, a wellspring of some of the best game concepts ever, too many of which could similarly be called “underrated”. I’ve done my best in my time here at Kotaku to catalogue many of those. Their creators are wonderfully talented, and I highly suggest checking out this list of games I’ve featured over my time at Kotaku. Play these games, buy them, support these artists.
While the major publishers and their buckets of cash have the potential to change the conversation in a way few games can, sometimes it's the indies, the diamonds in the rough, that rise above it all. Over the last decade, indies have had a profound effect on the industry. Here's some whose waves are still being felt today.
Even within well-known franchises and the works of established creators, though, there are titles wrongfully maligned or else criminally underplayed. This is my list of those games, cobbled together through the process of which ones my coworkers and I happen to remember. You might disagree about whether these games are underrated. You might shout out in the comments about another game that you think should be on this list. That’s cool. These are the games I personally wish folks gave more credit, along with a few game selections from some members of the rest of the staff.
MAG stands for Massive Action Game, because the video games industry still hasn’t figureed out how to name things normally. On the surface, it’s a multiplayer first person shooter, but its scale was truly ambitious for the time. MAG matches could hold 256 players, all battling on large maps with varied design. There were three factions to choose from, and its best game mode had all of them face off for domination. PlanetSide 2 would eventually dethrone it as the huge online shooter de jour, but MAG had a real grittiness that went underappreciated. The game’s servers turned off after four years of service, ending a game that paved the way for many of the large multiplayer experiences we take for granted now.
Alpha Protocol (2010)
Obsidian is well-known for its role-playing games, particularly the dynamite Fallout New Vegas. Working in established franchises only gets you so far, however, and one of the studio’s strangest projects was Alpha Protocol. It was an RPG about being a spy and trying to survive in a world where you never knew who to trust. Alpha Protocol’s combat sucks, but the amount of variables it tracks in its narrative is terrifying (in a good way). There are actions you take at the start of the game that can drastically affect everything later on, but also, other characters have comments even for small stuff like the shirt you choose to wear. Bosses had secret solutions where you could drug them beforehand or else sneak around the encounter altogether. Often, you could turn them into begrudging allies. No playthrough is ever the same. It’s clumsy and buggy, but I’ve never seen anything else quite so detailed.
BioShock 2 (2010)
I’ll never understand why BioShock 2 didn’t resonate as much as the original. Where BioShock just seemed impressed by its own cleverness, BioShock 2 opted to add genuine emotional stakes. It worked, resulting in a game better than the original. Players controlled an experimental Big Daddy whose decisions ultimately affected the moral path his grown-up Little Sister would take. Its choices were more complex than “do I kill these kids or not,” the weapons were more interesting, and its DLC, “Minerva’s Den,” laid the groundwork for games like Gone Home. Also, I’d rather play this than put up with BioShock Infinite’s tepid ideological slurry.
Dragon Age II (2011)
Here’s the truth: Dragon Age 2 is the best game in the series. It’s not as grand in scope as the other games—it wasn’t even originally planned to be a full sequel—but it has the most focus as a story. Equal parts funny and heartbreaking, Dragon Age II’s cast of characters stumble through their lives with a believable messiness. It is a story of power structures, persecution, and identity. I don’t want to hear anyone bitch about recycled assets ever again given that the game has writing this good.
Driver: San Francisco (2011)
Mike and Stephen swear by this game, which was unsung enough in its time that we ran an article titled “Driver San Francisco is the Best Game No One is Talking About.” The big hook was the ability to leap to any car in the game in order to complete your mission. Instead of hopping out of your car and stealing another, you could simply shift perspectives for a seamless car chase.
Binary Domain (2012)
What do you get when Toshihiro Nagoshi and the team behind Yakuza make their own spin on Gears of War? Turns out, you get one of the best science fiction titles of the decade. In a world where robots can now pass as humans, a team of special ops soldiers need to determine where these beings are coming from. Their mission will ultimately uncover evidence of a new form of life that pushes the bounds of what it means to be human. It’s a smart game, and the combat—you could blast off robot limbs and use voice commands to direct your teammates—is some of the finest action in the genre.
Sleeping Dogs (2012)
What if Grand Theft Auto had heart and was good? Then you’d have Sleeping Dogs. Not only does it feature one of the best acting performances in a game with Will Yun Lee’s portrayal of the protagonist Wei Shen, it also mixes its story and mechanics together. See, Wei Shen is an undercover cop infiltrating the Triads, and Sleeping Dogs strictly tracks if you’re a good cop or bad cop. Wei Shen’s story goes to dark places, and there’s a sense that everything could go wrong at any moment. It’s a genuinely good crime story, and the fact the series never took off is… dare I say, criminal.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry (2013)
Assassin’s Creed’s globetrotting, time-travelling adventures can often feel like a light excuse to meet famous people. Is that da Vinci? What’s Karl Marx doing here? But in the best cases, such as Freedom Cry, the series uses its various settings to explore important historical events. Black Flag was already a great game, a swashbuckling character study in personal responsibility. Freedom Cry builds on that, following the assassin Adéwalé in the lead-up to the Haitian Revolution. It tackled issues of slavery and violence with a surprising frankness. It wasn’t perfect—the game’s systems clash against its story—but it took a risk that largely paid off.
Remember Me (2013)
Another Mike Fahey favourite! This is Dontnod Entertainment’s first game, an overly ambitious action title about a memory manipulating resistance fighter striking back against a massive corporation. It’s standard cyberpunk stuff, but Remember Me has a great hook: you can rewrite and explore your enemies’ minds. Whether that’s finding hidden information by watching memories in real-time or trying to rewrite a corporate CEO’s mind to make her more empathetic, there are a lot of interesting scenarios. Remember Me sets a standard for Dontnod: it’s an intelligent game with a cool core concept and more than a little jank. That ambition has served the studio well, leading to similarly interesting games like Life is Strange 2 and Vampyr.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013)
It’s hard to think of a series as inconsistent as Call of Juarez. Coming after the abysmally fucked up Call of Juarez: the Cartel, Gunslinger abandoned grittiness for delicious penny-novel pulp. It’s a blasty arcade shooter based off the tall tales of a saloon drunkard named Silas Greaves who is more than he seems. His stories are unbelievable and often change in the middle of the telling. Silas might decide the story is better if he was actually outgunned, and the game will correspondingly take most of your ammo away. Sometimes, he’ll tell a story of what could have happened before telling the real thing. Combine this tongue-in-cheek silliness with some tense high noon duels and you have a recipe for a fantastic game.
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2013)
People complain way too much about Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels. The first game was rough, but the following titles smoothed out the combat systems and really expanded on the setting. Lightning Returns is the final game in the trilogy, and it plays out like a mixture of Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy X-2. With only 13 days to save the world, Lightning needs to unravel conspiracies and complete sidequests to save wayward souls. There’s tons of melodrama and fancy fashion, making for one of the secret best Final Fantasy games.
Virginia is a risky game. It’s a crime story without any spoken dialog. Instead, it uses music and editing techniques to reveal its greater mystery. Taking a page from games like Thirty Flights of Loving, it packs an intense story into a bite-sized experience that culminates in one hell of a climax. It was perhaps too experimental compared to contemporaries like Firewatch and slipped under the radar with relatively little notice. It’s worth checking out, lasting no longer than a movie you might watch on Netflix.
Watch Dogs 2 (2016)
Watch Dogs’ protagonist Aiden Pierce is a piece of shit. Watch Dogs was not a good game. But what if, instead of focusing on an edgy vigilante, we had a story about a likable counterculture hackers fighting back against state security and invasive tech? What if we ignored the bad comic book nonsense in favour of something that speaks to current issues? Watch Dogs 2 does just that, following young hacker Marcus Holloway as he exposed FBI corruption and Silicon Valley overreach. When I mentioned Watch Dogs 2 to my coworker Josh Rivera this morning, he agreed that it was a great example of a game that tackles some real issues.”I like that it’s mean in a real way,” he said. “Mean about something real.” It was a remarkable shift for what had, frankly, started out as a boring series.
When Riley reminded me of this game, I said “of course!!” so loudly that I got a few looks in the office. Echo is a stealth game in which enemies learn how to perform whatever actions you do. At first, they know how to walk around, and that’s about it. Whenever the lights are on in the strange facility you’re exploring, whatever actions you do are recorded and learned by the enemies. Jump over a hazard? They’ll be able to do it. Fire a gun? Well, shit, now they can too. If you avoid performing these actions for a certain amount of time, the enemies will unlearn them. Echo builds its levels such that it forces you to perform actions that make enemies dangerous, and challenges you to avoid using your best options lest they get turned against you. Part stealth, part horror, Echo is an absolute gem.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (2018)
The Missing starts with a message: “This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are.” On the surface, The Missing is a bloody and gory puzzle platformer. Underneath, it is a story of exclusion and depression, viewed through an explicitly queer lens. Director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro approaches these topics carefully. It’s a clever game, but more importantly, it cares about its characters’ pain. Deadly Premonition is SWERY’s best known work, but The Missing is certainly his best to date.
Pathologic 2 (2019)
The original Pathologic came out in 2005, telling the story of a plague-ridden town with dark secrets. That doesn’t really do the game credit as an explanation, however. It was an unsettling, hostile, and bizarre work where the fourth wall was fuzzy and nothing ever worked out for the player. Pathologic 2 reimagines that experience and hones it into an even better experience. This is a game where a single stray bullet can spell disaster, where wasting too much time creates a ripple effect of tragedy. Newcomers will bristle at how inhospitable Pathologic 2 is, but sticking with it reveals an uncomparable story of alienation and pain.