There has been debate over whether or not video games constitute “art.” To be sure, the advances in technology have allowed games to offer better graphics, more gripping storytelling and more immersive excitement. Of course, many games have been criticized for “style over substance” and not paying off as promised. Watch Dogs is a key example, as it was pushed as a great experience only to end up a massive disappointment. Many games have seemed to be perfect for a movie adaptation but, except for the first Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, the track record for those has been horrible – something Assassin’s Creed will try to beat when it opens later this year. Still, you can understand why gamers love to brag of so many games being as great as any Hollywood movie… and in some cases, even better.
Games, of course, have the advantage of being far longer and not restrained by the realities of filmmaking. They can do anything from letting you blast up streets to taking you to far away places in space, time, or other dimensions. You can be a giant robot rampaging in cities or a black ops soldier pulling off major attacks. The production values are amazing with major Hollywood stars doing voice work and the animation simply stunning. Of course, all that means nothing without backing it up with good game play. When the elements come together, you get something truly terrific. Here are 20 games that mix together the proper features to offer better story, action and characters than any summer movie. Perhaps, the best blockbusters are found on your gaming shelves, rather than the cinema.
20. L.A. Noire
Rockstar is well known for the Grand Theft Auto series but this game gave gamers the chance to play on the right side of the law instead. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, rookie cop Cole Phelps rises to become a detective, handling cases ranging from a serial killers to arson. He gets tangled up with studio heads and mobsters alike before being set up to take a hard fall. The story is pure noir, capturing the era perfectly in location and setting.
The action can be good with chases and shoot-outs with old-styled weaponry. The game has Cole turning up the heat in interrogations with animation so top-notch that you can see every micro-expression to tell if people are lying or not. The plot is complex and rich to pull you in. You genuinely care for Cole as he fights for justice. The ending is perfect for its tone and reminds you how rare a richly done noir tale can be in any media, let alone a video game.
19. Metroid Prime
No video game fan of the late 1980s can forget the moment when they beat the first Metroid game and discovered that under the armor, bad-ass bounty hunter Samus Aran was a woman. It was a great twist that gave the industry a much-needed heroine lead. Sequels followed, but the Prime trilogy is considered the high mark of the franchise. The first-person style adds thrills like Samus turning into an explosive ball and unlocking new suits and weapons to use. The storyline also adds to it, as Samus uncovers a deadly disease that can ravage the galaxy, which creates her own evil doppelgänger. Through it all, she remains unbowed, able to handle any challenge and overcome monster odds. That this lady has yet to hit the big screen is amazing. These games prove how, even in outer space and under armor, the female can be the deadlier and hotter of the species.
18. Max Payne
The 2009 movie got attention, but almost everyone can agree it pales next to the actual games. The storyline is straightforward as the title character finds himself investigating a murder case that leads to a massive crime boss through a snowy New York. The game is still one of the very few to make “bullet time” work right, slowing down for Max to use twin pistols, machine guns, and shotguns to take down guys while engaging in fights in gritty spots like subways, warehouses and more. Its sequel could get even darker with sexy Mona tossed in and more gripping scenes. The long-awaited third game showcased a darker and broken Max in South America. It had enhanced the action with cutting-edge graphics for some blow-out sequences. As if John Woo directed a video game, this series is far better than its film and most action movies to be sure.
If ever a game should have been a mega-hit and wasn’t, this is it. This wonderfully quirky platformer has Raz, a kid who hangs at a summer camp for psychics, discovering a sinister conspiracy that is literally stealing kids’ brains. Tim Schafer imbues the game with a lovely humor, laugh out loud lines and fun characters as Raz starts exploring the camp for clues before gaining psychic powers, giving him the ability to enter the minds of others.
Their mindscapes are fantastic in a way Pixar animators couldn’t dream up: an opera singer’s stage, rampaging around a city like Godzilla, a conspiracy freak’s whacko topsy-turvy world and more. The inventive ways you fight and jump around are great and the story shines beautifully. Criminally ignored, it’s a true delight for those who like an uplifting but fun hero tale. With a style all its own, it really stands out.
16. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
All of the GTA games are notable for creating the “open world/sandbox” format that’s become incredibly popular since. In terms of story-telling, San Andreas is still the tops. Set in 1993, C.J. returns to his neighborhood in Los Santos and immediately finds himself framed for murder by corrupt cop Tenpenny (Samuel L. Jackson). At first forced to do the cops’ dirty work, C.J. organizes his old gang to help the place until they’re betrayed. From there, C.J. is working in backwoods, then to cities based on San Francisco and Las Vegas in a quest for payback. The missions are wild – from parachuting onto a plane, stealing a jet pack from a desert military base, pulling off a massive casino heist. Like all GTA games, you get slews of side quests from starting gang wars to mugging people but the storyline is better than most with fun and engaging characters. It also captures the ‘90s vibe well with the great soundtrack. For a game that mixes the wild fun of the era with a gripping crime tale, this the top among its series.
15. The Last of Us
Hailed for its stunning cinematic format, this game starts off with a virus that turns its victims into cannibalistic beings sweeping the world. Hero Joel, who lost his daughter in the infection, is a smuggler working jobs in the “free zones”. He is soon talked into taking care of Ellie, a teenager who may carry the cure to the virus. The storyline is no quick thing, taking place over the course of months as they track across the country, from ruined cities to forests, avoiding both the infected and soldiers wanting to use Ellie for themselves. The action is good but the deep characters are what win you over. You really care for Joel and Ellie through their experiences and truly love them as they go on. The peaceful moments make the action more thrilling and you feel the stakes rising as things go along. Imagine The Walking Dead with more thrills and deeper characters and you get an experience that reminds you how humanity can sometimes be the true horror.
14. Sleeping Dogs
The rare case of a game with a long and anguished development process that turned out really great, this 2013 entry plays straight out of a Hong Kong action flick. Wei Shen is a cop going undercover in the Triads, who soon finds himself balancing his loyalty to the law and his friendship with the mobsters. There are shoot outs with some nice slow-mo sections and chase scenes utilizing a variety of trucks, cars and boats. Much of the action utilizes martial arts in great combat scenes. On top of all of that, the story is great, showing things getting rougher for Wei but balancing it out with him dating a variety of hot ladies. It’s all showcased in a perfect recreation of Hong Kong from the downtown to the slums, making you feel like you’re in the city. A good voice cast carries gunfights in hospitals, fighting at a wedding and more to show a seedy crime drama that fits the action motif perfectly for any lover of that genre.
13. Metal Gear Solid
A groundbreaker for gamers, this revival of an old property put emphasis on stealth play before moving into more military adventures. Solid Snake is a true bad-ass, able to take down guys easily while handling the upped stakes from simple black ops missions and taking on cyborgs in other lands. The storylines have been hailed for their intricate writing. The voice acting/animation scenes were also way before their time. Each entry raises the stakes as Snake gets older but still refuses to back down. The twists and turns plentiful and backed up by great action that put most spy thrillers to shame. This makes one blow-out adventure and shows how smart action movies should look.
12. Kingdom Hearts
It’s a wild idea: Final Fantasy meeting the stars of various Disney movies, but damned if it doesn’t work. Sora is a young boy who finds himself wielding a key-shaped sword and soon on a quest to rescue his friends, running into Donald Duck and Goofy. From there, you’re whisked into various landscapes to meet a who’s who of Disney icons: Mickey, Minnie, Aladdin, Jasmine, Simba, Ariel, Belle, Peter Pan, Jafar – basically every Disney character. On top of the coolness of that, many of the Disney characters are voiced by the original movie actors. The animation is stellar, as you leap from each world and it’s still linked by the overall story of a young boy coming into his own as a hero. The kids may love the storyline but the gameplay is a great mix of role playing and action, pushing it (and its sequels) to great heights. It’s a must-play for any Disney fan, and a great adventure in their own right to beat many of their animated offerings.
The game that made the Xbox a must-get and redefined the first-person shooter is also a damn good sci-fi adventure. The Master Chief is a great warrior, a Spartan soldier who leads the fight against a deadly alien armada in some brutal fights. The game has you in the middle of the action, blowing away aliens with a variety of weapons. The story flows well with the holographic aide Cortana as Master Chief battles the odds to win the day. The main trilogy is great, as is the fourth and the Wars prequel, all of which add up to a great adventure. While there’s been talk for years of a movie version, it’s unlikely anyone can capture the same power of the game that’s become a backbone of the modern video game landscape.
The overwhelming choice for 2007’s Game of the Year, this game kicks off a gorgeous cinematic look from the start as you survive a plane crash and then go underwater to Rapture, a glorious city that has fallen to darkness. Populated by murderous people driven mad by super-drugs, the city is now home to them as well as “Big Daddies,” huge armored figures. You utilize both guns and a variety of super-powers as you explore this amazing city and the story flows quite well with a genius plot twist later in the game. The sequel puts you inside a Big Daddy for even hotter action and exploration. Infinite then tops it by having you on a floating city with a rather racist view of America and evolves into a wild time travel adventure. The design work and amazing detail help each game shine and remind you what a thrill it is to have you in these adventures.
9. Red Dead Redemption
You’d think there would be more Western-themed video games as it’s a natural fit, but there aren’t. That makes Rockstar’s hit so much more notable. The storyline flows like a classic spaghetti Western as John Masterson rides across a brilliantly realized setting, going from ranches to towns, caves to mines, and other places on a quest to help his family. We see classic stuff from gunfights in the street to hunting, rustling cattle and more. While the action scenes are well done, John is also a compelling hero, wanting to do the right thing in a dark time while haunted by his shady past. It all leads to a brutal finale that fits a Western well. Between the open world setting and gripping story, this is a fine take on the Western and much better than any Hollywood has given in years.
8. Final Fantasy
A joke in the video game community is how the FF series is “better to watch than play.” Turn-based combat isn’t everyone’s thing but the animation for this series is simply glorious to watch develop as it brings about some terrific stories. FF VII is still beloved for a heartbreaking character death while FF X wowed with its adventure tale, mixing time travel into the mix. The online games get attention too, but most prefer the console versions for its powerful female characters and some truly stunning animation. This game is the battle of good and evil in a style that beats anything most animation studios can bring to the table. As each game is basically a stand-alone, you can enjoy it without monster backstory but still enthrall with these settings that put most fantasy movies to shame.
7. Tomb Raider (2013)
After years of lackluster efforts, Lara Croft returned to glory with this fantastic reboot of the iconic franchise. It’s a younger Lara, still an academic until she’s shipwrecked on a remote island packed with mercenaries and insane cultists. The presentation is so great, you can see the detail of the forest as Lara makes her way across waterfalls – leaping about cliffs and cables, and exploring tombs for hidden items. While you can use guns, it’s fun utilizing a bow and arrow to take down enemies. It also has some thrilling sequences, like a collapsing ship. The story is good as Lara realizes there’s more going on here than can be explained by science. Seeing this survivor character born is terrific. With all due respect to Angelina Jolie, Camilla Ludington’s voice work makes the perfect Lara and this (as well as its sequel) are a reason the franchise is more popular than ever.
6. Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic
It’s not only longer than all seven Star Wars movies, but better than at least four of them. BioWare’s masterpiece is set 4000 years before the films, when the Jedi and Sith are at war and your character (male or female of your choosing) is put on a quest to become a Jedi and win a war. The quests flow very well with top-notch voice acting and terrific characters, especially the hysterical homicidal droid HK-47. The plethora of quests and adventures mean plenty of replay value and the story flows away, climaxing in one of the single greatest plot twists in video game history. Even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, you’ll love this as a fantastic adventure, which actually does much more for the franchise than the prequels.
5. Call of Duty Modern Warfare
After various entries taking place in World War II, the COD franchise made a bold move for modern times. The result was one of the most popular franchises around that continues to be a hit for fans of first-person shooters. While it’s better known for its multiplayer, the storyline for the games is great in its own right. The first entry has simple fights against terrorists mounting to the stunning sequence of a nuke going off in the Middle East and a harrowing crash. The sequel amps it up big time as a controversial airport shooting sequence leads to Russia invading the U.S., so you’re battling in neighborhoods and D.C. itself. The final part of the original trilogy starts with war in New York and a submarine before leading to a gunfight on a London subway train and a clash in Vegas in an armored suit. That’s all not to mention Black Ops, throwing you into the 1960s adventure, and Ghosts, having sequences where you actually battle in space. The multiplayer gets the buzz, but the storyline of COD offers fantastic action thrills that put Michael Bay to shame.
4. God of War
One of the most notable PS2 entries, the first War game immersed fans in the story of Kratos, a warrior out to avenge his family murdered by Ares. Armed with a pair of gauntlets that can become flaming whip-swords, Kratos proceeds to maul his way through temples, mazes and the Underworld on his quest for vengeance. The brutal and bloody battles were against every Greek monster you can think of and Kratos still found time to bed some very hot ladies along the way. It got bigger with each installment, with Kratos getting the Titans to invade Olympus, a battle taking place on one Titan the size of a mountain and finally battling Zeus himself. The twists and turns came amazingly well, with a man who may not be a “hero” per se but is still amazing as one of the best powerhouses around. The installments had true cinematic action that made Clash of the Titans look like a pillow fight.
3. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time Trilogy
Forget the bad 2010 movie, this is the Prince experience to love. The first game, released in 2003, wowed gamers with its gorgeous presentation as well as the story of the Prince unleashing a deadly curse and having to fight it. This involves fantastic acrobatic moves, running across walls and solving puzzles. The big pull is the ability to rewind time to redo a fall or a bad move, something gamers love. The story is also great with the Prince loving the feisty Farah but having to give her up to save the world.
The sequel, Warrior Within, does come off a bit dark but the ability to move back and forth in time is cool and a nice ending to it. The Two Thrones brings it all to a close as the Prince transforms into a “Dark Prince” with a deadly whip weapon as his past sins come calling. The presentation is glorious with the various buildings, tunnels and traps, fun boss fights and beautiful animation. I mean, the sequence where you scale a building hundreds of feet over the city is a thrill. It’s a classic case of the source material being so much better than the movie adaptation.
2. Mass Effect
BioWare is known for their amazing work with role-playing games but this one is still stunning as a space epic set centuries in the future. You can make Commander Shephard male or female of your own design and lead him/her on a quest to stop the ancient and powerful mechanical Reapers, who are intent on destroying the galaxy. The voice work is great with terrific characters, including noble Garrus, Miranda (the spitting image of a sexy Yvonne Strahovski, who provides the voice), psycho telekinetic Jack, the hysterical alien scientist Mordin and more. The action is good with battles involving various weapons and planets. The slew of choices you’re offered means you can play this a dozen times and never have it be the same game twice. The monster quests you get into also allow you to be either a pure hero or more a dark rogue depending on your mood, and people react to you in different ways with that. It also has some of these characters die, which can be amazingly powerful after you’ve known them so long. While some criticized the ending of the third game, it still brought things to an amazing conclusion, making this a true thrill for the ages, and perhaps BioWare’s crowning achievement in gaming.
At first slammed as “a male Tomb Raider,” the PS3 mega-success has blown away critics and audiences alike with its fantastic Hollywood-style action. Rough and tumble adventurer Nathan Drake is a great hero, often prone to running if he can but able to stand his own in a gunfight. Backing him is long-time partner Sully, a wonderful sardonic face to provide good humor to things. The action scenes put anything of Michael Bay’s to shame: a running gunfight on a roaring train, Nate trying to escape a sunken cruise ship, a chase/battle across burning rooftops, fighting a guy on a cargo plane hatch, an incredible chase scene through a city with Nate leaping from jeep to motorcycle and back, and more running from explosions than Indiana Jones. The storylines are great, with Nate tracking treasures that lead to grand mysteries and conspiracies, several hot ladies abounding and some bad guys you’ll love to hate. The recent fourth game is said to be the last, yet it’s hard to imagine Nate Drake down for good. The planned film adaptation will have a major task ahead if it hopes to capture even half the blockbuster magic of this fantastic franchise.