Western role-playing games are easily the pinnacle of gaming achievement, for me. They’ve always been at the forefront of new concepts and ideas in video games and are even gradually influencing many other genres.
I say ‘Western’ as I have never ever considered, or even been a fan of, JRPGs. Let’s just leave it at that: I am not a fan and I never will be.
So with that in mind, here is my very Western-centric list of my favourite RPGs of all time:
11. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This was not a video-game series that I had ever played, so I went into Deus Ex: Human Revolution very much a Deus Ex virgin. However, once I entered the completely revamped and updated world I was entirely sold.
The renaissance/cyber-punk world was, at once, both familiar and new. It was like nothing I’d experienced in such a beautiful, polished game before. I explored as much as the limited ‘open-world’ would allow and I read every scrap of information or magazine/book I came across, wishing to totally envelop myself in this remarkably believably, not-to-distant future.
The gameplay was fresh, the characters were new and real, the world was unique and, most importantly, believable and I wanted to live in it.
But for me, the biggest positive of the game was the stealth elements which grew from the body mods that you could implement into your character. Crawling through air vents and tunnels, loitering around corners and being able to complete the game without murdering a single other soul was an amazing achievement and just showed off the kind of genuine choice the game gave you.
I hope that we get a sequel, but if not, I will be happy to keep DE:HR on my list of favourite RPGs for many years to come.
10. The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
The biggest and most impressive part of Daggerfall? The world. It’s abso-fucking-lutely enormous. It tops lists of the gaming worlds’ largest worlds by absolute miles. It dwarves the cities in GTA games, it makes Skryim look like a children’s sandbox and is apparently the largest video game world ever created.
I’ve read some articles stating the size of Skyrim by comparison but you only had to walk from North to South in Daggerfall to appreciate the sheer size of the world; it was vast and took hours.
That aside, the game itself is still very good. Compared to Skyrim it doesn’t feel as fleshed out or involved and many character models are repeated hundreds of times, not to mention that there are about 6 different building types which are repeated time and again.
I have never, ever completed the main story. I will be honest about that but it is for the same reason I almost forget to chase down the main story in Oblivion and Skyrim: the world is so awesome that I created my own story.
And that is what makes Bethesda – and Elder Scrolls games – some of the greatest gaming achievements ever – they create worlds that you’re content to simply be in.
9. Neverwinter Nights
This PC classic is a piece of nostalgia for me, as I first discovered it during a time when I spent over 3 weeks away from work after a road traffic accident and NWN was a means of escape during a fairly depressing and tough time.
The game itself has a relatively typical story, involving the usual fantasy fare: demons, dungeons and magic but, in typical Bioware fashion, it is in the characters and world that you find yourself enveloped from the start.
Like in many Bioware games, you start off as a lowly soldier who rises to become the saviour of the known world. Unlike later Bioware games however, the main flaw of the game was in the poor, dated graphics. However, they more than made up for this with great voice-acting and dialogue.
The games expansions and community made sure that an already fine RPG was kept alive long after the world of video games had moved on to bigger and brighter things and will be remembered still when more recent RPGs have long been forgotten.
8. Fallout: New Vegas
For a long time after playing New Vegas I would’ve put this above Fallout 3, as I much preferred the soundtrack and the much less gloomy world. Not to mention that the Ranger armour was bloody brilliant!
But as time has passed I’ve re-jigged things a little and now feel that Fallout 3 is still the better of the two.
This doesn’t mean the New Vegas is any less a game because of that – it would easily run Fallout 3 close any day of the week as both are so similar, and yet, so different, in many ways.
New Vegas has an atmosphere all of it’s own and unlike many ‘post-apocalyptic’ video games it doesn’t feel bleak and desolate; it feels alive and vibrant and this is only helped by the many small, interesting communities dotted about the state, not to mention the larger area of New Vegas itself which includes vast, complex casino spaces and drunken NPCs.
In this game setting you feel like a cowboy as you ‘mosey’ on into each town, garnering bits of information from overheard conversations and bartenders and picking up new and unique allies on your way to finding out who ‘killed you’ at the games beginning.
Whereas Fallout 3 was morose, yet poetic, New Vegas was bawdy and colourful. Somehow managing to recreate the debauched and sinful feel of Las Vegas and yet retain it’s Fallout skin and this is what makes it such a stand out RPG from the current gen.
7.Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn
Like a number of the games on this list, choosing between an original and it’s sequel is a tough choice but in the end, SoA wins out over it’s predecessor, simply by being a big improvement on all the things Baldur’s Gate got so right.
Baldur’s Gate itself was a game which thoroughly revived the RPG genre in the late ’90s and paved the way for some of the more recent greats that you will later see in this list.
However, it’s sequel took all of those positives and went on to create one of the greatest examples of how to make a near-perfect role-playing game in a D&D framework.
With great characterization, a deep, involving storyline and plenty of humorous exchanges between yourself and your parties members Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn is a wonderful experience that takes place of some beautifully, hand-drawn backgrounds and even if a HD version never surfaces in the future, it is still well worth a play-through, even if only to say you’ve experienced it.
6. Dragon Age
For me, Dragon Age is effectively what Bioware were trying to do when they made Neverwinter Nights. It takes all of the typical fantasy RPG tropes and uses them to perfection.
There are dragons, demons, dwarves and wizards. You get to play the hero and build your character up through some insanely deep and typically D&D level of customization. You get your relationships and your branching storylines and everything you’ve come to expect.
However, you also get political intrigue, racism, sexism, bigotry and more besides in what can only be described as a very ‘grown up’ RPG.
Dragon Age’s graphics will never stand the test of time. They didn’t even look good at the time but much like some of the earlier entries in this list, you can easily forgive that once you become involved in this incredibly deep and dark world.
5. Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords
Games set in the Star Wars universe have always been a mixed bag, which is strange considering how much developers have to work with.
The problem for me though, is that all too often they try to place you in the same time-frame as the characters that we came to love throughout our childhood and that is always a recipe for disaster, even George Lucas made a mess of it when he returned to his beloved trilogy with his prequels.
What KOTOR and the Sith Lords got right was taking you to an entirely different time in the Star Wars universe and allowing you to create your own path through it.
Many may ask why I chose Obsidian’s follow-up, despite KOTOR being the more critically acclaimed and it was a very tough choice but as KOTOR: the Sith Lords was the first of the two I played I have to choose it ahead of the original.
Like many of Obsidian’s sequels it is nowhere near as polished as the game it followed and, if I’m honest, the ending is a let-down, not to mention a bit of a mess but everything up to that point literally drips Star Wars from every pore.
Both of the games from this series are incredible but the Sith Lords holds sway for me mainly because I believe it contains better party members, more interesting enemies and locations and a ship that can almost rival the Millennium Falcon – the Ebon Hawk.
I genuinely hope that this sci-fi RPG classic is updated over the next couple of years, as it deserves a HD remake, if only so I can have the added incentive of playing through one of my favourite games, only a bit prettier!
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
What can be said about Skyrim that hasn’t been already? It is one of the greatest games of all time and probably the best of the last couple of years.
When I bought Skyrim it was the only thing I did besides work and eat for about 6 weeks and every day I would discuss my progress and new and unique discoveries with my work-mate each morning, revelling in how different both of our play-throughs were.
The world may not be as vast as that of Daggerfall or as varied as that of Oblivion but I don’t ever remember being able to ‘hike’ to the top of seemingly insurmountable mountains in either of those, with the wind and snow whipping around me, as the world and cities below became tiny dots and then marvelling at the view when, after what felt like hours, I finally reached the pinnacle.
While previous Elder Scrolls iterations were grand, beautiful worlds Skyrim, for me, is the first that was all of those things but also felt real and lived in, much like that of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
Being a big fan of Vikings and Nordic history, it was an easy sell for me given that the Elder Scrolls V was set it what may as well have been called the Elder Scrolls V: Medieval Norway and the grim, stoic characters and freezing cold climate make you feel as if your main aim is to get to the next blazing fire-place and just stay out of the cold.
Skyrim is a remarkable achievement by Bethesda; a technical marvel and one which I hope to return to many times over the coming years.
3. Mass Effect 2
It was a hard choice to make to omit Mass Effect 3, in favour of some of the other games in this list but it is still too recent and I feel I will need to play through it (and all of it’s DLC) at least one more time to really classify it as one of the best.
First and foremost, the ending is the biggest let-down. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those nut-cases that petitioned Bioware to change the ending to their game; it ended that way and it was a conscious, creative decision. I wouldn’t have it any other way than the way they intended it. But it was still a let-down.
Mass Effect 2 however, is a near-perfect game. In many ways, it was this near-perfection that made ME3’s task so tough in topping it. It is the “Dark Knight” of the Mass Effect trilogy, taking us to darker, more unsettling places and showing us how the events of the first game have changed old friends and allies. Sometimes not for the better.
It builds on everything that came before it and turns up the stakes to 11. From the – *spoiler* – chaotic opening and Shepard’s death, to the final act of taking a death-trip to an uncharted part of the universe, Mass Effect 2 take intelligent sci-fi to a whole new level of detail and enormousness and peppers it with all of the touches that make Bioware experiences so great.
2. Fallout 3
My choices for 1 and 2 are games I played very close together back in the mid-00’s and both are some of the most profound entertainment experiences I’ve ever had. Sure, that sounds dramatic, but when you’re going through a tough time in your life you always remember the things that helped you through and that is what these two games were for me.
Fallout 3 is a testament to Bethesda’s ingenuity and fearlessness. It could’ve been a disaster, taking a much-loved PC franchise, from which two cast-iron classics had already come and turning it completely on it’s head.
The level of detail and desolation that permeates every part of Fallout 3 make for an intense, almost suffocating experience at times. Whether you’re in the open, wandering through bombed-out towns and the hollow shells of old schools or crawling slowly through the old subway systems and metro stations of Washington DC.
From the moment you step into the glaring sunlight, following a childhood spent in the ‘Vault’ to the moment you have to make the choice to live or die and save humanity, there are amazing set-pieces and moments galore.
A stand-out for me came as I first emerged from a subway station into old Washington DC, having followed Three Dog’s radio broadcasts for what seemed like hours, only to stumble into the middle of a pitched battle between a group or super mutants and a team of Brotherhood of Steel troops. Not knowing where to put myself I crouched behind a low wall to watch as bullets and laser-beams whizzed by overhead only to hear a huge crash.
On turning around I was faced with my very first super mutant behemoth towering over me with a set of traffic-lights in it’s had as a cudgel. The rest is a blur but by the time it was over all around lay dead super mutants and I was having to dodge around the enormous body of a behemoth in order to follow my new-found allies into Three Dog’s radio station.
It was utterly unique, organic moments like that these that remind me what joy and happiness gaming brings to people and what means Fallout 3 thoroughly deserves it’s high placing in this list.
1. Mass Effect
I could wax lyrical for hours about why it is that Mass Effect is my choice for greatest RPG (and probably game) of all time.
In ME Bioware created a universe as deep and detailed as anything George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry ever did. Not only that, they made it thoroughly real and believable, with science and physics very much grounded in reality. Everything that you come across in Mass Effect feels like it really is possible and could exist in the real world. So when you step onto an alien world for the first time you feel like you’re in a living, breathing, vast universe.
Prior to Mass Effect I had fallen out of love with video games for a long time, so I guess you could say that I was ‘out of the loop’. But after having seen some stunning TV adverts for the new franchise I decided it was time to dip my toe back into the water.
It’s fair to say that the rest is history, as from 2007 onwards I haven’t looked back and it’s a testament to everything Bioware put into this incredible game that it reaffirmed my belief in the gaming industry.
From the scary-deep character creation screen, to the moment you return to the Citadel for what feels like it may be the last time, you can’t help but be in awe of the sheer weight of effort and creativity on display.
Everything from the Citadel, the Normandy, the Mako, to the freedom of exploration on alien planets, the characters that fill out your squad and the unique and varying alien races helps to create a universe in which you would be genuinely happy to exist.
And, like all great Bioware games, it contains a protagonist and twist that hints at (and eventually leads to) an even greater threat, as you build up your character and squad to go out and save the universe.
All the choices you make on the way and in the final hours of the game feel like they have real weight to them and the branching dialogue tree adds a much greater level of personal involvement in a game that allows you, the player, to leave your own, very personal mark.
I really can’t do Mass Effect justice with words but I feel that it represents the high-water mark in gaming and, while it’s two sequels improved upon and added to an already great experience over the next 4-5 years nothing will top the brand-new experience of stepping out into the Mass Effect universe for the very first time.
Mass Effect 3
Birthright: the Gorgon’s Alliance
Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings