It is a very rare occurrence in video game history for the first entry in a video game franchise to be the best entry of that particular franchise. The make or break moment for most gaming franchises comes with the inevitable sequel to that first title. Most sequels can usually be classified as “slightly better”, taking small steps to improve upon the previous entry without changing what made the first game great. A handful of sequels can be labeled as “disappointing” or games that changed too many things fans loved in an effort to be fresh and new. Every once in a while, however, a sequel comes along that blows its predecessor out of the water and fully realizes what the vision of what the first entry probably was. This is my personal list of the top ten direct sequels in modern gaming history. (HD generation to the present.)
10. The Last of Us, Part 2
I know that the decision to even include this game on my list will probably be controversial to most readers but I must stick to my guns on this one because of how simply fantastic this game actually is. The story obviously did not go how everyone envisioned it, and for many that is still a sore subject, but there is no denying that the narrative of this game was not thrown together as a quick cash grab that many of those types of stories are guilty of being. It may not be the game that you wanted, but the one we got was an absolutely tremendous tale of tragedy, vengeance, and pure hatred that rocks traditional character development in stories to its core. Naughty Dog took a major risk in making the game that it wanted to, and I ended up finding it all the better for it.
9. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
As much as I loved the revival that was Wolfenstein: The New Order, nothing could have prepared me for how much better Bethesda’s second go at BJ Blazkowicz would actually be. The story is weird at times, but captivating from start to finish. The gameplay is hectic and over the top, resulting in moments that makes you feel mortal and yet completely unstoppable. The gunplay is greatly refined over the first game and yet still retains that weight and punch that other shooters try but fail to have. This game seems to have been swept under the rug of history far too quickly in my opinion, as I find it to be one of the best raw first person shooters of the last ten years. If you like explosions, killing alternate-reality future versions of Nazis, and insane, over the top story moments then there is literally no better title for you out there.
8. Assassin’s Creed 2
Even though the release of Assassin’s Creed 2 was well over a decade ago, the effect that it has had on the gaming industry as a whole can still be felt today, not just in the titles that Ubisoft has released since then but in many of the other open-world or action-oriented franchises as well. To give you an idea of how good it actually was, it spawned a series with almost more titles in it than any other modern franchise (save for Final Fantasy and Call of Duty) and the core gameplay loop of the game can still be found in the Assassin’s Creed titles releasing today. Ezio’s journey from boy to man to assassin is a captivating one and plays out beautifully in Ubisoft’s second go in the Animus.
7. Half-Life 2
In all honesty, I was a little late to the party when it came to Half-Life 2 because i didn’t play it until it was almost ten years old, but the fact that it not only held up to my expectations but exceeded them only goes to show what kind of ground-breaking and innovative title this game was. It is the oldest game on my list by a handful of years, and anyone who plays it now will definitely feel that as they play. Do not let that fact deter you from playing through this series if you have not yet had the pleasure though because the ground-breaking gameplay brought about by Valve is still an awesome thing to experience. Half-Life 2 was one of the first games to do away with the concept of a traditional cutscene and it is all the better for it, making you feel the more emotional beats of the story without just simply witnessing them. The only downside to all of it is that you may be waiting a while to get any kind of actual resolution to this otherwise exceptional tale…..
6. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Anyone who has ever played their way through this marvelous masterpiece of a video game knows exactly why it deserves to be placed on this list. At times it does feel like it plays itself, like many Naughty Dog titles are guilty of, but the cinematic experience and spectacle of this fantastic game are nearly unparalleled in any storytelling medium. When I replayed through the entire series a few years ago, I did note how this game is beginning to show its age a bit, but with that being said, it is still wholly worth-while to anyone who has yet to cross it off their list. Uncharted 2 has some of the most memorable set-pieces and pulse-pounding moments in all of gaming and even though the game does feel “on rails” sometimes, the spectacle of it all has kept me coming back to this awesome franchise whenever I need a little adrenaline rush.
5. Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham Asylum came onto the scene in 2008 and proved to be a major early success for Rocksteady Studios. Two years later, with the release of Batman: Arkham City, Rocksteady released a game that was not only better in every single way than its predecessor, but one of the best all-around games of its generation. It also happens to be one of the best Batman stories, a character that has literally hundreds of stories spanning decades of writing and comic books. The combat system remained largely the same as the first game, but a major overhaul of the way combos and gadgets worked helped to make it both difficult to master yet enjoyable to learn. The world building of Gotham is on full display here as well, showcasing a ruined and helpless society as the city is turned into a literal prison for every villain imaginable before your very eyes. The boss fights in this game alone are worth the price of admission, but there is plenty more to enjoy here if you have the time to find it all.
4. Rise of the Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider’s revival in 2013 was a delightful surprise in a gaming landscape that was being filled with half-hearted remakes and remasters. It’s ability to convey raw emotion and physical pain in an empathetic way was both remarkable and refreshing. Two years later, the Rise of the Tomb Raider proved to be an even better and more immersive experience while also adding a quick-craft system for combat that made its way to many games in the following years. It also greatly improved the quality of its side quest puzzles, making them innovative and creative where the first game felt average at best. Although the story is not nearly as memorable as many of the other games on this list, a handful of the individual moments found therein will stay with me for a very long time.
3. Portal 2
Portal 2 took one of the most brilliant and well-narrated fictional environments and added a dizzying amount of the most creative and innovative puzzles that gaming has ever seen. Although it did not add as many characters to the lore of Aperture Science as some may have liked, it fleshed out every new arrival in delightful and surprising ways. In addition, its dry and relentless humor was also given a perfect platform to shine through in a way that just wasn’t fully realized in the first title. These things and several others helped Portal 2 to be not only one of the best puzzle-oriented games of the last generation, but one of the the best video games of all time.
2. Borderlands 2
When Borderlands released in 2009, it introduced an entire generation of first person shooter players to the concept of loot hoarding, dungeon crawling, and raids all without them really even realizing it. It also spawned a small sub-genre of video games that have become known as “looter-shooters”. Borderlands 2 took almost every aspect to a whole new level and became one of the most beloved and enduring games of the last generation, with many still grinding out perfect armor and weapon variants to this day. With almost no duds in its characters, story-arcs, gameplay mechanics, environments, and humor, Borderlands 2 is one of my personal favorite games and I can’t picture a day any time soon where that won’t be the case. (It also helps to have one of the best video game villains of all time as well.)
1. Mass Effect 2
BioWare released the original Mass Effect to mostly positive reactions and reviews, but it wasn’t really a game that pushed too many boundaries and played it safe in many regards. Its combat system was also a bit repetitive and underdeveloped, leading to a par experience for most RPG enthusiasts. Enter Mass Effect 2, BioWare’s unhindered vision of character-based storytelling and team building that is unparalleled in any form of media to date. Mass Effect 2 quickly set a new standard for what was possible in the immersive narrative of a video game, making you care deeply for each of its diverse and unique characters that you add to your crew, and culminating in one of the finest final missions in all of gaming. Mass Effect 2 is a game that cannot be missed by lovers of masterful storytelling.