I said in my blog yesterday that I only write when an idea happens to jump into my skull.  This morning, while brushing my teeth, one did just that.  I got to thinking about last night's gaming session with the caped crusader and remembering how impressed I was with the combat system in both this and the original game.  That led to thoughts of other games and what they were doing better than anyone else, and then it hit me: why not blog about it instead of washing this idea down the drain with my mouthful of toothpaste?

So I set a criteria for myself, which ended up being games that I felt were doing something to push the industry forward, in some cases things that no one else is doing.  And I came up with 5 that I believe are setting the standards for what we as gamers will expect in the future.  These are in no particular order, and this is not intended to be a mini review.  Instead, I want to discuss why I believe these franchises are setting the bar in their respective areas.  First up, I'll talk about the series i just mentioned, Batman.

Batman: Arkham Asylum & Batman: Arkham City

Famous last words: "If the Batman were here right now, I'd..."

Let me set the tone for what this blog is about right now.  I'm several hours into Batman: Arkham City now, and I platinumed it's predecessor.  I don't believe this game is near perfect, or even one of the best games of the year.  The stealth gameplay, graphics, and story aspects have all been done before and done better.  If I had to score it right now, I'd probably give it an 8.5.  Granted, I've got a long way to go, so that has every possibility of going up.  But what this game does do better than anyone is two things: combat and atmosphere.

The freeflow combat system in Batman is a marvel (forgive the ironic pun for those who get it) to behold.  Watching Batman dart from enemy to enemy, seeing him pummel them in increasingly brutal ways, and taking in the sheer variety with which it all plays out is amazing.  It's melee combat taken to an art form, and is worthy of the Dark Knight himself.  But the true beauty of the system is that it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be.  Almost every combat can basically be completed with two buttons, attack and counter.  And if those were the only options you used, it would still be a beautiful sight.  But when you add in the cape stuns, dodging, disarms, and an impressive array of "wonderful toys", you are presented with a system that presents true masters with one of the most rewarding combat experiences available today.  It just doesn't get better than this.

And the environment...well, it speaks for itself.  Rocksteady has somehow managed to bring Gotham City to life.  The graphics and draw distance are fantastic, but that's only a small part of what makes the visuals so impressive.  This is Gotham incarnate, with some of the most amazing art design I've ever seen.  You actually feel like you're prowling the rooftops of Batman's stomping grounds, and it makes it that much easier to really get a sense of what a day in the life of the World's Greatest Detective is all about.  Hollywood studios should take note of this one.  There are lessons to be learned.

There is one other thing this game does that leaves the competition in the dust, but I will introduce another one first that does the same thing and address them both afterwards.

Red Dead Redemption

99 bottles of beer on the wall...

No discussion about environment and game world can ever be complete again without a nod to Red Dead Redemption.  I, along with plenty of others, was skeptical to say the least of what Rockstar was attempting with this ambitious idea.  A GTA-style game set in the old west?  How the hell are they gonna make that work?  Well, they didn't just exceed expectations.  They took a sledgehammer to them and demolished any preconceived notions into a million tiny bits, in the process leaving our faces in a perpetual state of slack-jawed stupor.

Just riding your horse across the plains of this fictitious Texas landscape is an enthralling experience.  Never before had a game so totally captured the essence of "being there".  Many a time I would sit on my horse atop some random hill, just watching the sun set or taking in the meandering river below.  Of course, the west was a dangerous place, and staying in one spot too long can get you mauled by a cougar or bear.  Occasoinally, your horse would freak out in mid-trot as its path inconveniently clashed with that of a rattlesnake.  Moments like this were prevalent in Red Dead, and they were glorious.

Another area of RDR that shines is the behavior of its NPCs.  These aren't static characters that just stand in one spot day after day.  They walk, talk, and occasionally ride through town whooping and hollering, terrorizing the townsfolk and giving you something else to shoot at.  Rockstar is the best in the world at making a game world feel alive, and Red Dead Redemption is their masterpiece of that art form.

Size Matters

As I mentioned previously, both of these games have something in common that dwarfs almost every other game on the market, and that something is scale.  These games are massive.  You can put sixty or so hours into them and still find things to do.  Whether it's solving Riddler challenges, skinning wild animals, tracking phone calls from a deranged serial killer, hunting down bandits whose faces are plastered on wanted posters, or so much more, these games define the terms replayability and value.  Add to that the variety of challenges that both titles entice you with and you have something much more than just a game.  These are full-blown experiences.