Just in time for the end of 2010, here is my top ten video game list for the year. Looking back at last year's list, I think I would've made one small change. At the time, I had no way of knowing that Activision would charge $15 for each downloadable map pack for Modern Warfare 2 (with 40% of each one being old content). Map packs up until that point were never more than $10, so the higher price and the old content put a bad taste in my mouth. I also had no way of knowing that Activision and Infinity Ward would have a soap-opera-like falling-out which is still taking place today. Whether it was directly or indirectly because of it, the level of technical support and online bug-squashing would not be comparable to Call of Duty 4. With this knowledge, I would have to say that Uncharted 2 was my favorite game of 2009. That's what makes these lists fun. It's a small snapshot in time of my favorite hobby. Speaking of time, I have to caveat this list by saying there are a few games that I regrettably didn't get the chance to play this year, so they were not considered for this list. Those games are:
-- Enslaved (I liked the demo, and Ninja Theory told a great story in Heavenly Sword)
-- Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (Loved the original on PS1, and it got good reviews)
-- Alan Wake (I got a copy for Christmas, so I'll be diving into it soon)
-- Singularity (a highly overlooked title from the summer that got some Bioshock comparisons; it's on the way from GameFly now)
-- Gran Turismo 5 (Reviews were hit-or-miss, but you know what you're getting with this series, and what you're getting is a top-quality racing simulation)
Okay, so the caveats are out of the way. Let's dive into 2010!
10. Pinball FX2. I absolutely loved Pinball FX when it hit Xbox Live Arcade a few years ago, and the sequel is just as good. They gave a free table away if you download the game launcher, and free is awesome. They also put out a Marvel table 4-pack recently, and the tables are all fun, but very different from each other. The only negative I can put on this is a couple of tables (Rome, Biolab) have a female voice actor who's really bad, but I just stream my own music so it's not too distracting. Voice acting notwithstanding, this is the best video pinball simulation ever made, and will be sapping a LOT of my hours in 2011.
9. Halo: Reach. I had very low expectations for this game, because I didn't care for ODST. I liked what they were trying to do with the pacing, and the score was fantastic, but the hub world was beyond annoying and killed the entire experience for me. However, since this is Bungie's last Halo game, I figured it would be more of a love letter than an experiment. Fortunately, that's exactly what it is. The story isn't a surprise to anyone who's paid attention to the canon, but it was handled well, and has some nice ties back to the original game. I also liked the different loadout choices in multiplayer, as they enhanced it without radically changing the experience. It's not a shooter I'll 'reach' for very often, but I could still hop into a game right now and enjoy it.
8. Bayonetta. So THIS is what happens when a famous game creator goes to an S&M bar after taking a near-lethal dose of LSD. At least, that's how I imagine the first production meetings went. This game makes Devil May Cry look like digital Lunestra. There's a story, but like most Japanese action games, it's not worth paying attention to. How much story do you need to be ready to punch a god through a galaxy? The controls are tighter than the slots at the Vegas airport, and the level score leaderboards can really hook the perfectionist crowd. Even the end credits are different and brought a smile to my face. Full disclosure: I work for the publisher that made this. However, a good game is a good game.
7. Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Think of a survival horror game. Now take away all the weapons! Yeah, this game is INTENSE. They took the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft and made them interactive. It's not a run-and-gun like most other survival horror games, and it's all the better for it. The contrast between light and dark is what really makes it great. The longer you stay in the dark, the more insane your character becomes (and the screen fades in and out and sound is warped, as if it's happening inside your head). Staying in the light gains back sanity, but stay in it too long and evil beings might track you down. The sound design is flawless, and if you have a good pair of surround sound headphones, it will destroy you. I'm not kidding. During my last session, I heard something behind me, and I turned around and had this staring back at me. As you might understand, I can only play it in 20 or 30 minute increments before it becomes too much to handle. It may not have any replay value, but at $20 (or less if you catch it on a digital promotion), fans of intelligent horror will find it worth every penny.
6. Fallout: New Vegas. Yeah, it's 'Fallout 3' in Nevada. Yeah, it shipped buggier than an Alabama August. However, Fallout 3 may be my favorite game of this console generation, so being 'more of the same' is hardly a strike against it. The Vegas setting isn't as compelling as D.C., and aiming down the sights isn't as big of an improvement as I'd hoped. Still, it delivers on almost everything else. The weapon modification system is better than the 'blueprint' system in the last game, and the ammo creation is deeper anyone could've hoped. Also, the standing you'll have with different factions leads to a lot of second-guessing and 'what-ifs' before choosing quests. I haven't put nearly as much time into this game as I'd like, but I've been saving it for later, like a rich chocolaty desert.
5. Mass Effect 2. This is at or near the top of many other people's lists for 2010. However, because it's so story-driven, I don't find it has the replay value that other people think. I have a version of the story that I played, and to play it again for other endings feels like a 'choose your own adventure' book instead of a great role-playing game. Speaking of, in many places, the sequel feels more like a third-person shooter than an RPG. Having said all that, I can still put it this high on my list because it's THAT good. The graphics and audio are top-notch. The story is worth the price of admission alone, and being able to load your completed save from the first game and have it affect what happens in part 2? That's a real game-changer. They recently announced the final opus in the trilogy, and like many of my friends, I'll be there the day it releases with my sixty bucks in hand.
4. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I didn't get to play Assassin's Creed 2 in time to make my Top Ten list last year. It was a shame, because I would've made room for it. The first game had potential but didn't quite deliver, but the sequel improved upon it in every major category. Now, a year later, we have another sequel, but it follows the same character from part 2 in the same country. Is it worth your time? If you played part 2, absolutely. The story picks up right where that one left off, and eventually takes you to Rome, which was teased at the end of part 2. Rome is a phenomenal setting, and the playable map is gigantic. A few of the later missions are too 'trial and error' for my tastes, but by that time, you'll be invested enough in the story to want to push through. Plus, if a mission is too hard, this time you have assassin recruits that you can summon to assist you. It gives the player a feeling of power that's quite addictive. The swordplay controls have been tweaked again, and are even better. Then there's the score, which is another masterpiece from Jesper Kyd. On top of all this, there's a new multiplayer mode, which is different from the 'shoot first, ask questions later' that we get in so many other games. Unfortunately, that part still needs some work. Many matches feel controlled by luck and random spawn points than skill, and the party system is iffy. Since this year's Splinter Cell lacked a true PvP mode, I was hoping this would take its place, but it's not ready for that. Still, as a first try, it's promising. If you found anything enjoyable about Assassin's Creed 2, you should pick this one up.
3. Call of Duty: Black Ops. This might be the biggest surprise on my list. Considering how much of a mess the last Treyarch CoD game was, Black Ops is a big improvement. The single-player campaign uses a flashback format, which brings a nice variety to the level design. The 'Nazi Zombie' mode is more complicated, and the 'War Room' level you get after you beat the campaign is full of lulz. Then we get to the competitive multiplayer, which is the true meat-and-potatoes of the series. At this point, I can't honestly say it's an improvement over Modern Warfare 2. Most of the maps are just big squares with lots of entry points. That, combined with the nerfing of long-scoped weapons, leads me to believe that Treyarch has zero-tolerance for snipe-campers. As someone who snipes in most first-person shooters, "I resemble that remark!" Still, there are some improvements. Having to buy weapons after you unlock them isn't ideal, but gaining XP and CoD cash is addictive, especially with the Contract system which can add a whole new level of pressure to games. Treyarch has done a commendable job of patching online glitches, and I would even say they've done better than Infinity Ward did with MW2. Then there is the Theater mode, which allows YouTube video uploading of any footage from your last week's worth of games that you choose. This is by far my favorite feature that came out of gaming in 2010, and I've waxed poetic about it already on this site. My YouTube account is filling up with great kills and funny moments, and I couldn't be happier. Activision announced the first downloadable map pack coming to Xbox in February, and it doesn't look like old content will be in this one, so I will probably be paying the $15 for them. If that's not a compliment, I don't know what is.
2. Red Dead Redemption. The haters were vocal about this one as soon as it was announced. "It's Grand Theft Horse!" "No one buys Western games!" True, and up until May 2010, true. Then this game finally shipped, and every other game that released that month felt the ripple effect from this juggernaut. The RAGE engine that made GTA IV look so pretty AND intentionally ugly works even more wonders here. The story, while lagging a bit in some of the Mexico levels, is still worthy of Peckinpah or Leone. The soundtrack is perfectly evocative of both the untamed West and Mexico. The multiplayer took what worked in GTA IV and added an improved level progression system. It's hard to say if this game is as good as GTA IV, but it mainly comes down to the player's taste. However, I can say that the last couple of hours in the single-player campaign are flawless. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, but I'll just say that you won't expect to be doing what you're doing, but it makes perfect sense and adds a ton of gravitas to the final mission. Then they pull a switcharoo that will have your head spinning until the credits roll. I was so impressed with the ending that I kept playing afterwards until I got 100% completion. If a few hours in Mexico hadn't dragged, and if I'd spend more time with the multiplayer, this could've easily ended up at the top of my list this year.
1. Battlefield: Bad Company 2. When this game came out in March, I was quietly impressed, but didn't expect to spend a lot of time with it. Fast forward nine months, and it's the only game from the first half of the year that still gets regular play.
I've been a fan of the Battlefield series for a while. I really liked Battlefield 2 on the original Xbox. It was the first console game to bring sprawling maps and a variety of vehicles into a modern military shooter. It was a little buggy, but was unlike anything else out there, and got a LOT of my gaming time. The next console game in the series was Bad Company, and it was worthwhile. It introduced a level of environmental destructibility that hadn't been seen in a shooter since Red Faction. However, it released in the wake of Call of Duty 4, which flipped the script by bringing role-playing level progression to the shooter genre. All of a sudden, blowing a hole in a wall with a noob tube came in second to unlocking the next weapon or emblem.
As any regular reader of this blog can attest, I played Call of Duty 4 for two years straight. However, since then there's only one FPS that's had a comparably long shelf life, and that's Bad Company 2. The maps are enormous, and sniping across them feels amazing (especially since the gravity of the bullet is taken into effect). The advance-and-retreat style of play in Rush mode feels more like real war than any other game type in any other shooter out there. The enemy spotting system has completely changed the way I think in-game. I find myself pushing the back button while aiming at opponents in other shooters, then cussing at the developers of the other games for not having a tagging system. And then there's the four different character classes, which are as balanced as any shooter since Team Fortress 2. You're given as much XP for doing class-based team actions as you are for getting a kill, and sometimes even more so. The level progression system isn't as polished as some other games, but that also means the higher-level players aren't playing it for achievements or new weapons, but because it's THAT fun. DICE has done a great job of supporting the game with free content, and there's the Vietnam expansion that released last week, which will have me playing long into 2011.
What keeps me coming back to this game? Everything feels rewarding. Playing as an Assault class soldier and dropping ordinance for appreciative teammates who have been defending a position? Spawning as an Engineer and planting mines that destroy an incoming tank, or using your repair tool to fix an attack chopper while it's in-flight? Controlling a UAV mini-copter and slamming its blades into an opponent's face? Playing as a Medic and using defib paddles to revive a recently-deceased teammate? Being a sniper and calling in a mortar strike on a building that houses an objective, then watching the building collapse, taking out the objective and every opponent inside? Strapping explosives to a four-wheeler and driving it into a broken building full of bad guys, then leaping off at the last second and pressing the detonator? These are the most satisfying moments I had in gaming this year, and for that, Bad Company 2 deserves to be at the top of my list for 2010.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order):
-- Vanquish -- It's a short ride, but a very fun one. Rocket-sliding up to a robot and flip-kicking it is just as fun as it sounds.
-- Metro 2033 -- While it's basically S.T.A.L.K.E.R. without the RPG elements, the graphics were immersive and the story was surprisingly affecting.
-- Super Meat Boy -- Comparable to N+ in terms of difficulty, but with a lot more personality. Some levels felt like the devs weren't playing fair, which is the only reason why it didn't squeak into the top ten.
-- Alpha Protocol -- With a little more polish and bug-squashing, this could've been a big hit. The story was solid, and some of the dialogue was laugh-out-loud funny. Steven Heck gets my vote for Gaming Character of the Year.
-- Limbo -- This year's Braid, without the rewinding. Minimalist graphic style works very well. If you don't hate spiders now, you will after playing it.
BONUS LIST -- MOST DISAPPOINTING (in no particular order)
-- Splinter Cell: Conviction -- In what felt like an attempt to gain more mainstream sales, they tried to make it a run-and-gun stealth game. They also took out the cult-garnering-yet-high-learning-curve Spies vs. Mercs mode from the multiplayer. As a humongous fan of the series, these were both very bad decisions. Let's hope they get Sam Fisher back on track in the next one.
-- Medal of Honor -- Devs who worked on the original Medal of Honor games left EA to form Infinity Ward, who made Call of Duty. Call of Duty became immensely bigger than Medal of Honor. Now was EA's chance to respond with a revamped modern-day game. They hired DICE to do the multiplayer, which got a lot of peoples' hopes up. What we ended up with was a spotty single-player campaign and a weak Battlefield-lite multiplayer with fewer character classes and no destructible environments.
-- Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days -- I'm one of the few people who defends the original Kane and Lynch. The controls were a little loose, the cover system wasn't very good, and the squad mechanic was worthless. However, the story was one of the best in this generation, and the longer version's ending was worth getting to. So I had a small level of enthusiasm for a sequel. I shouldn't have. The grainy YouTube video look of this one is cool for about five minutes, but doesn't replace the lack of plot, and the controls are still weak.
-- Just Cause 2 -- The most bug-filled game I played this year. It crashed so many times, I brought a broom into my game room so I didn't have to get up from my chair to reset my Xbox. Audio dropouts during cutscenes are so common, you'll think you're playing a silent movie. Then there's a save glitch that wiped out almost seven hours of gameplay. I don't know if they've fixed any of this stuff since then, but considering I paid full price for it back in March, I don't really care anymore.
-- Dead Rising 2 -- Another sequel to a promising game; another epic fail. Once again, the save system and mission structure get in the way of the fun. The multiplayer is only good for campaign cash farming. It's still surprising to me that someone can make such a beautiful looking game about killing zombies in unique ways and make it such a chore to play.
-- God of War 3 -- It looks great, sounds great, and plays great. So why is it down here instead of up higher? Simple: They turned Kratos, one of the greatest characters in video game history, into a one-dimensional rageaholic. You might think this is a minor complaint, but as video games become more and more of a story-telling medium, connection to the lead character is important (especially when it existed so strongly in past games). Fortunately, the PSP game that released this year (Ghost of Sparta) helped reinstall his pathos while still maintaining most of his anger.
Okay, I think that's enough lists for now. I'll post a similar one for music later this week, although it'll probably be a lot shorter. Have a great week everyone.