TA Top Five: Rookie Debuts

By Mark Delaney,
Last December, right before our calendars turned to the new year, our TA Top Five segment covered the best swansongs, the last hurrahs from studios that would thereafter shut down for good. This week, we wanted to tackle what can maybe be seen as the opposite of that: the best games from studios doing it for the first time. While some of the studios below have yet to even share their follow-up games, there's no denying these "rookie debuts" deserve praise and recognition within their respective genres.

This was one of the tougher lists to compile because it turns out there are a surprising number of studios that get it right the first time. Like always, we couldn't mention them all here, so let us know if you think we've missed the boat on including any other deserving games.

Honorable Mentions

Crackdown Achievements

Kicking things off with a game I haven't played myself, I left it up to Matrarch, a big fan of the series, to school us all on how Real Time Worlds' debut stood on its own feet:
Sometimes, what moves units of a game isn't the game itself, but some other perk it includes. Such was the case for Real Time Worlds' maiden effort, Crackdown, a game that could likely attribute some of its commercial success to the inclusion of a demo for the much-anticipated Halo 3 Achievements. Gamers who ventured into the world of Pacific City were in for a treat, however, as Crackdown expertly allowed them to not only take on the role of a super soldier, but to actively feel they were playing the part as they bounded over tall buildings and effortlessly lifted cars off the ground before tossing them with similar ease at the enemies surrounding them. For a game many thought would be an average-at-best tossaway title simply given the benefit of its tag along, Crackdown managed to stand very well on its own as an example of how much fun being a superhero in a sandbox can be.
Remember Me Achievements
15/2/13 - Remember Me Screens - 20

While many gamers wait for the conclusion of Dontnod's sophomore effort, the time-bending Life is Strange Achievements, let us not forget that their first game, 2013's Remember Me, employed some similar mechanics to great effect. Remember Me gave action-adventure fans so much of what they love and expect from the genre: an awesome protagonist, cinematic platforming, a combat system both difficult and rewarding to master, and it was all set in a stylish but oppressive, dystopian version of a future Paris. Just months after it hit stores, the next generation of consoles would arrive and blanket this quiet June release in shadows. It's absolutely deserving of a playthough for the story alone, however, and would be considered a good game in the genre regardless of how experienced the creators were.

Bastion (Xbox 360) Achievements

This one might sting a little for fans of it. With Bastion, Supergiant Games gave us an isometric RPG in a lush environment with a classically silent protagonist. The Kid, as he was called, was proficient with many weapons and had a tumultuous past, which we learned from one of the game's best features, its narrator. As you played, the booming voice would recount your every action in real-time, leaving you feeling like your entire being was the result of predestination. The game is still seen as one of the best to ever hit the XBLA platform. The part that stings, as I mentioned, is that Xbox gamers never got to experience its spiritual successor, Transistor. Still, what an impressive debut it was.

Top Five

5. Forza Horizon Achievements
E3 4

I remember when I was a kid gamers looked at PlayStation's Gran Turismo as the leading racing sim series. The games held that reputation for years. Nowadays, though, nothing comes close to Xbox's exclusive Forza series. As great a job as Turn 10 has done with the circuits and tracks of the main series, Playground Games came along in 2012 and excitingly reinvented the series with Horizon. Now players could take their massive garage of exotics, sports cars, and whatever else they had collected, and hit the open road in a sandbox format. The rookie studio made a move that refreshed the series, and now gives racing fans alternating releases and the opportunity to double down on the king of racing.

4. LIMBO Achievements

The appropriately named Playdead Studios made their entrance into the gaming arena with 2010's Limbo, a minimalistic puzzle platformer with no pulled punches. Playing as a silhouette of a young boy, the colorless story is hardly dripped out by the end, but if you were paying attention, you'll probably figure out at least that where he resides isn't where anyone should want to. You can die many ways — falling a great height, buzzsaws, and within the webbing of one massive spider, most notably. Whenever death arrives, it's startlingly visceral, largely due to the game's effective audio design. For me personally, having bought my 360 at the end of 2008, I recall Limbo being one of the first XBLA games that really left its mark with me.

3. Titanfall Achievements

Not having played Respawn's massive shooter, I turned to one of staff's seasoned veterans, osubluejacket, to argue why size matters:
When I reviewed Titanfall back in 2014, I wasn't a huge fan of Call of Duty and wasn't the most skilled guy in a multiplayer shooter. 200 hours of Titanfall later and I'm somewhat changed. What Respawn pulled off worked all too well: juicing up Call of Duty's multiplayer, making it the sole focus, adding in an addictive upgrading and prestige system, and then dropping in some big f-ing robots. While the pedigree of Respawn makes it a bit of an outlier as a "new developer", what they produced as their first title is definitely worthy of a mention.
2. Metro 2033 Achievements
Metro 2033 Redux 2

I had to double check that Metro was really 4A Games' first piece of work. Though it does have some bugs and technical problems, the game overall doesn't feel like a debut. The story is arguably the best on this list, possibly because it's based off a famous Russian novel of the same name. In Metro 2033, you play Artyom, a subway dweller in a post-nuclear apocalypse where the idea of fresh air is about as foreign as free market economics. 4A found the sweet spot between first-person shooter and survival horror which they then refined in the game's sequel, Metro: Last Light Achievements. For years the game and series as a whole felt sort of under the radar, but the recent remastering for the Xbox One seems to have captured a bigger audience, as planned, and now many more people are familiar with the warring factions, dangerous railway lines, and mutants that have inherited the earth above.

1. State of Decay Achievements
SoD 22/8 5

Less than 25 people worked to bring State of Decay to the Xbox 360 in 2013. I was able to meet a few of them at PAX East a few months before release and I remember vividly how blatantly nervous for their ambitious zombie sandbox they were. It had so many systems at play, with its elements of base capturing, resource scavenging, permadeath, and multiple quests running at any point. Their apprehension seemed to come from their worries that it wouldn't all work out, not technically and not financially. As it turned out, the game blew up. It currently stands as the second fastest selling XBLA game of all-time and has since been ported to the Xbox One. It somehow found a way to make zombies fresh and quiet the protests of those who have felt the subgenre's fatigue. The most exciting part of the game, however, is how it exists as groundwork. Immensely enjoyable on its own, the game was also viewed as a proof of concept for a future MMO built with a similar structure. Whether that game will ever arrive, we can only speculate for now, but Undead Labs' "rookie debut" is as promising as it gets.

The TA Team will be bringing you The TA Top Five every Sunday until we run out of coolness to debate and discuss. If you have an idea for a Top Five you'd like us to do, be sure to let us know in the comments!
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.