When you bring up the topic of video games in conversation there’s a good chance that your friends will conjure up images of Mario, Link, Samus, Sonic, and Tetris. These storied franchises are embedded in our very core as gamers and are often the reason that we remain gamers to this day. As our hobby continues to evolve, both in terms of hardware and software, our favorite franchises add new iterations to each console generation. For example, the Mario brand has seen innovative updates across multiple home-based and handheld console generations for over 20 years!
However, while it is interesting to observe and play the progression of historically successful franchises, each console cycle also brings with it the opportunity for new IPs (intellectual properties) to appear on the scene with fresh narratives, new gameplay mechanics, and untested interactive possibilities. While these IPs are much riskier for game makers to create and sell than the latest Call of Duty installment, they have the potential to create a whole new realm of enjoyment and exploration for gamers.
That said, I present to you the top 7 new franchises of this console generation. You won’t see any games on this list that had a published title in a previous generation (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, for example); only brands that first appeared in the current console cycle.
#7 – Left 4 Dead
I first experienced Left 4 Dead during my inaugural visit to the Penny Arcade Expo in 2008 and it ended up being the surprise hit of the show for me. Valve managed to create a truly cohesive coop experience that actually forced you to work together with your teammates in order to survive and progress through the game. The fact that they took that concept and threw it into a zombie apocalypse only made it that much more appealing. While the sequel arrived a little too quickly for some fans of the series, Left 4 Dead 2 ended up making several necessary and exciting improvements to the franchise, such as dynamic weather and melee weapons, and is still going strong today.
#6 – Portal
The tale of Portal is a true underdog story. Originally conceived as a class project for a group of students at Digipen, this game was bought by Valve who then developed it into a release title as part of their Orange Box release. Portal became an instant hit for its witty writing, innovative puzzle-based gameplay, and endearing characters (despite utilizing a silent protagonist) and spawned numerous internet memes. Valve followed up this left-field hit with a recent sequel that added an excellent coop mode and cranked both the hilarity and gameplay variety up to 11.
#5 – Bioshock
“Would you kindly?” That one phrase alone may be enough to seat this game among the best of the current generation. Bioshock made its mark on the gaming community by creating a unique experience where one of the main characters in the game was the environment itself, Rapture. 2K Boston (now called by its original title, Irrational Games) used Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlus Shrugged, as a jumping off point to weave a haunting tale about the dangers of a completely unrestrained society. Bioshock, through the use of plasmids, offered players a free-form FPS experience, where they could experiment with different combat strategies to progress through the game. The sequel, Bioshock 2, was a competent successor to the original, even if Bioshock’s creator, Ken Levine, refuses to acknowledge its place in the series’ canon. Bioshock: Infinite, Levine’s true successor to his ambitious first installment, comes out sometime in 2012.
#4 – Gears of War
Thanks to its “Brotacular” swagger and over-the-top violence, Gears of War often gets passed over during discussions about video game innovation, but in reality we owe a lot to this popular franchise. Of course, Gears is known for its cover mechanic; a feature it wasn’t the first to utilize (that honor belongs to Killswitch) but was the first to do well and bring into the mainstream. It also was one of the first modern titles to incorporate coop throughout its campaign in a way that worked and made sense. Throw in the fact that the game is absolutely gorgeous in its “decayed beauty,” that chainsawing a Locust in half is immensely satisfying, and that it contains an incredibly popular multiplayer feature and you have a game that stands among the best of this current generation. Gears of War 2 ramped up the intensity of the campaign and introduced the concept of Horde Mode, an element that has been copied ad nauseum by many Triple-A titles. The next installment of Gears is coming on September 20, 2011.
#3 – Assassin’s Creed
This powerhouse franchise has made waves in the gaming community since the original Assassin’s Creed launched back in 2008. Ubisoft Montreal created a truly immersive title that told an engrossing story about the conflict between Assassins and Templars in the Middle East with a unique science fiction twist. However, while the story has many fans, the gameplay is what elevated this game to legendary status. The developers were able to construct a rich open-world experience that offered players plenty of choice when it came to both action and movement. The parkour element that serves as the focal point of the gameplay has yet to be done better by any other game. Assassin’s Creed 2 expanded on the success of the first edition, offering players far more depth in both gameplay and narrative. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood managed to side-step becoming stale despite a one-year turn-around by introducing both a multiplayer element and a recruiting mini-game. The fourth chapter, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, is due in stores on November 15, 2011.
#2 – Mass Effect
Bioware took a huge risk with this franchise, announcing from the very beginning that the story would span three titles and that the decisions you made would carry over to the future installments. Their gamble paid off as Mass Effect was a smash hit, offering an expansive, interesting universe to explore; a deep relationship system; and an engaging story arc. The conversation wheel mechanic alone managed to elevate the series by allowing gamers to control an interaction while at the same time keeping it cinematic. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the experience and proved that Bioware was serious about having player decisions impact the game’s universe. The third and final installment is due on March 6, 2012.
#1 – Uncharted
This franchise is my top IP of the current generation. Nothing created since the release of the Xbox 360 has managed to bring as many new elements and evolutions to the industry as this Naughty Dog franchise. Its creators went to great lengths to tell a compelling story with believable characters voiced by some of the top talent in the industry. As for gameplay, the game managed to combine platforming and gunplay seamlessly, always pushing the line back and forth between the two to keep things fresh. On the technical side, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better looking game as Uncharted has colorful, beautifully-rendered locales and amazingly fluid and varied animation. The series only got better with the multi-Game of the Year winning Uncharted 2 which took storytelling to unprecedented levels, improved on Uncharted’s incredible graphics, and introduced severely overlooked coop and competitive multiplayer options. Uncharted 3 looks to improve the series yet again on November 1, 2011.
Honorable Mentions: Infamous, Borderlands
You can check out the podcast discussion that spawned this article by tuning in to the Weekly Blend Podcast.