7, 8, 9
#9 - BioShock 2
This sequel to one of the more original AAA games in recent memory sends you back down to the underwater dystopia as a prototype Big Daddy, the most recognized (and feared) character from the series. Somehow more powerful and agile than the later versions of diver-suited guardian, you’re tasked with tracking down the Little Sister with whom you share a psychic connection. Dual-wield new weapons and plasmids to kick the asses of all sorts of insane denizens, rescuing or exploiting other Little Sisters you find along the way. Don’t worry, the atmosphere and cinematic narration make non-combative segments just as enjoyable.
I should mention the tacked-on multiplayer and irritating consolitis, which combine with a weak story to result in a game that doesn’t quite live up to the greatness of its predecessor. But what sequel ever does? Lightning never strikes the same place twice, so instead of chasing it with a bucket, put up a tall metal rod and make it come to you. (It looks like that’s what they’re trying to do with BioShock: Infinite.) Still, Bioshock 2 is a lot of fun and does well to shed more light on the history of Rapture, one of the most interesting settings ever seen in a video game.
#8 - Metro 2033
The only new IP on this whole gosh-darn list, Metro 2033 was the sleeper hit of the year. Endlessly compared to STALKER because of its setting and atmosphere (and because some of its creators used to work at GSC Game World), Metro actually provides a far more polished and story-driven experience. Of course, this means it is comparatively linear with much less replay value, but it’s a hell of a ride while it lasts.
I’m a fan of realism in my post-apocalyptic shooters, and this game has plenty of that in the form of scarce ammunition, minimal HUD, and mandatory breathing apparatuses. You can even shoot the gas masks off of your human enemies, causing them to scramble around looking for a replacement before choking to death! Throw in some tense encounters with all sorts of creepy critters, a surprisingly well-developed stealth mechanic, and a style of immersive narrative that rivals some of Valve’s best efforts, and you’ve got a new franchise that deserves everyone’s attention.
#7 - S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
Speaking of post-apocalyptic shooters, the third game in the STALKER series might be the best one yet. I enjoy all of them, even the wildly experimental Clear Sky, but CoP foregoes those organized faction wars in favor of returning the focus to what made Shadow of Chernobyl great: exploration and survival. Three huge, new maps are in the game (technically we’ve been to Pripyat before, but not long enough to take a look around), chock full of roaming mutants, scheming scavengers, ruthless mercenaries, and stashes of tasty loot. You’re on your own right from the start, with few supplies and only a vague idea of where you should go, and the rest is up to you.
Whether you decide to heed the Call of Pripyat and follow the main quest line or wander around taking odd jobs and living off the land, there’s plenty to do. Intrepid explorers will be glad to know that, unlike previous games, stash locations are always populated regardless of whether or not you learned its location from an NPC beforehand. Knowing where to get a bunch of free stuff will give the veteran player an advantage, but the first time you find something hidden inside a bush or in the corner of an attic, it’s pretty awesome. Especially if you were chased up into that attic by a pack of feral cats, and that stash contained a few boxes of ammo for the rifle that had just gone *click click* on you.