Like most of my entries I have to start this one with a disclaimer: I have not played every game this console generation, nor have I owned every system for an extended period of time (although I do currently own a PS3, 360, and Wii). This entry is going to focus on the Xbox 360, the system I put the most time into by far.
Mr. P and myself had a conversation on live not too long ago trying to figure out what our quintessential game of this past console generation would be. It's hard to pick just one.
My gut reaction was to go with a game that advanced storytelling first as I personally feel that's something much harder to do in a medium that changes dramatically all the time. Bioshock is such an accomplishment to me in this sense. I know full well that there are some amazing indie games that have really pushed the notions of video games as an art form, or focused on abstract emotions (LIMBO comes to mind) and storytelling, but Bioshock is one of the rarest titles to come out in the past 8 or 9 years. The very fact that it's a AAA title making political commentary extremely effectively garners major points from me. And it isn't that the game makes the political commentary just on the screen but in the gameplay itself. This is the leap that most other games haven't made yet in my opinion: using the very format of a video game (particularly game play) to produce great storytelling and emotions for the player. I see so many games using primarily cinematic cut-scenes to achieve this. I don't have a specific problem with cut-scenes in games (hell I love cut-scenes most of the time), but any game that is exploring and perfecting game play to convey a story is simply fascinating to me because it's so complex a task. Bioshock is just a tremendous achievement in my eyes.
The more P and I talked, the more I realized Bioshock was a mind blowing experience, but it didn't "mark this console generation". I think there's a specific difference there. It's not my favorite game, or the game that I personally have the fondest memories of, or appreciation for. It's more about the game that said "hey the next generation of gaming is here." I had to eliminate Bioshock on the grounds that it didn't say that exactly. It said a whole shitload of other important things but not that.
The next game that came into my mind was Halo 3. I can't look at stats to see how much time I spent with P playing doubles and big team in that game, but let me tell you I spent the better part of 3 years completely obsessed with killing the red or blue team. Pinellas and I basically explored every facet of that game. I remember watching back film with him to actually pinpoint our weaknesses in matches we played. I remember looking at heat maps (highlighting where we died most in a given level) from bungie to show areas to avoid. Most of all I remember developing an insane chemistry with the only person who I think is as good as I am (actually I think P is better) at Halo. This game is definitely a hallmark of my time on this console generation but I still don't think it answers my question. It certainly innovated don't get me wrong. I love Halo 3 and spent more time playing it over any other game this generation. It just didn't announce next gen games had arrived.
It's kind of amazing that Halo 3 didn't fit the bill for me considering I spent the most time with that game. It did however, bring something important up as P and I discussed the question. What type of game really marks this console generation for us? Is it a single player experience like Bioshock? Could it be considering the amount of time you inherently put into a multiplayer game versus a single player game? Does that matter with our question?
The short answer for me was that looking at multiplayer focused games versus single player games is important. I don't think that the overwhelming amount of time put into a multiplayer game matters in relation to our central question though.
With all of this in mind I've come to conclusion that the first Gears of War is the game that marks this console generation. I got my 360 around launch and the first gears was the game that showed me the future of console gaming. Graphically it was like nothing I'd ever seen. I remember being in a firefight in the first level while playing Co-Operatively with a friend and I just couldn't believe how the game looked. The camera got low and shook when you ran! The lighting of the barrels from the guns were illuminating characters faces! People were getting blown into chunks from shotgun blasts! There was blood everywhere! I was sawing people in half! IN HALF!
From a gameplay perspective gears was a completely new direction for a shooter. Third person? Cover? Elimination? Winning rounds to win a match? An incredible focus on teamwork? Wow. All of that was new for me.
Gears also pushed live to a whole new level. I had played online since halo 2 but this was the first time I was truly part of a gaming community of friends. My friend STEVE (his name will always appear in caps in this blog...don't ask why) and I met a core group of fellow gamers from around the globe because of the party system and gears promoting interaction with other people. Pinellas and I first met via gears matches. The entire party system, private chat and ranked and player matches really became cemented in Xbox live users consciousness because of this game.
When I look back at playing the first Gears of War it has to be the game that announced the next generation of console gaming was here. It's a classic that shocked me and made me fully realize the direction games were heading.