Yeah, I’m putting together this list more than a week after the New Year. My resolution wasn’t to stop procrastinating, so you’ll just have to pretend that the subject of this post is still topical and interesting.
Anyway, 2010 was a good year for games. If you, like me, own all three consoles (plus both handhelds,) then this year was absolutely inundated with quality releases. I can’t think of a single month this year when something that wasn’t at least a little bit interesting came out, and this year was thankfully lacking in the lull of quality releases that has usually defined the summer months. Sure, this non-stop barrage of quality games may have caused irreparable damage to my social life and GPA, but I’m not complaining; 2010 kept me busy with games and I still haven’t managed to play all of them.
Obviously in a year as prolific as 2010 was, it’s hard to narrow down my selections to just five games. I’ve put a lot of thought into this (probably more than I should have,) and, well… This is the list I came up with. Like I stated earlier, I still haven’t managed to play all of this year’s big titles (including Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, which I’m really looking forward to finally getting my hands on, as AC2 was my personal game of the year for 2009,) so I can’t say this is a definitive list or anything. Plus, there were a lot of games that I really loved but simply didn’t have room for on this list, such as Sega and Platinum Games’ amazing, fast-paced shooter Vanquish and the buggy but otherwise excellent Fallout New Vegas. Regardless, I assure you that the following five games are absolutely worth your time and money:
#5. Dragon Quest IX
Handheld games often go ignored on these year-end best of lists, and that’s really a damn shame, because nowadays both the DS and the PSP offer titles with as much depth and polish as some of their console counterparts; and out of all of those excellent handheld games, Dragon Quest IX was my absolute favorite. While the Dragon Quest series has long been celebrated/derided for it’s refusal to evolve past it’s simplistic, classic 8 and 16-bit J-RPG formula, Dragon Quest IX actually makes a number of substantial changes that manage to modernize and widen the appeal of Japan’s favorite role-player. While on the surface it looks like your standard Dragon Quest game, the designers have wisely made a number of progressive choices that widen the series’ somewhat limited appeal: First and foremost, a number of elements usually only seen in Western style RPGs, such as an emphasis on non-linear sidequests and character customization, make DQIX feel like a hybrid of the best elements of both Japanese and Western RPGs. Those elements, coupled with the game’s fully-featured multiplayer and weekly free downloadable content, all combine to make Dragon Quest IX one of the most charming, addictive, and lengthy games available on any platform, console or handheld, this year.
#4. Halo Reach
I’m not a huge fan of shooters normally; while I do play them from time to time, I find most of them to be far to generic. This generation has been inundated with shooters starring stone-jawed, ‘roided out soldier-types who blast their way through artistically bankrupt brown and gray environments while on a quest to save America from commies / terrorists / aliens or some other poorly written, jingoistic, macho-bullshit excuse for a story.
But Halo has always been different. Where as I simply tolerate most shooters, I find myself enjoying every second of Microsoft’s flagship franchise, as the series has always delivered on the one thing that’s most important: gameplay. The single player campaigns are always interesting, finely tuned, and challenging, while the multiplayer is balanced, addictive, and full of strategy and depth for those who are willing to put some time into learning all the intricacies of the game’s maps and weapons. Halo Reach takes all of the traits that made the first 3 Halo games great and manages to perfect them, creating what is inarguably the best game in the series and what could possibly be the best shooter of all time. After finishing Reach, series developer and creators Bungie have since left the future of the franchise to the untested 343 Studios, but regardless of what the future of the series is, there’s no denying that Halo Reach set a precedent that will be tough to beat.
#3. Alan Wake
Survival horror games aren’t scary. In my opinion, they aren’t scary now, and they never were to begin with. Still, I love the genre despite it’s inability to inspire fear in me, as the best “horror” games, like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, have always managed to deliver on quality gameplay. They understood the idea that games should play well first and foremost, and any other aspects, such as the ability to scare players, are tertiary to that.
It’s a concept that Microsoft’s newest franchise, Alan Wake, understands as well. While the game isn’t going to make you cower under the sheets, it does manage to deliver exciting, tense gameplay. Trying to survive through Alan Wake’s living nightmare, where he must use light as a weapon, was one of the most intense, satisfying experiences I’ve had in an action game in a long time. The game makes clever use of it’s light as a weapon gimmick, often putting you into creatively designed situations that reward you for thinking strategically as well as relying on your reflexes.
But while Alan Wake’s gameplay is great, its it’s well-written story, which manages to evoke the best elements of Twin Peaks, Stephen King novels, and even a hint of Lovecraftian horror, that really makes the game memorable.
#2. Super Mario Galaxy 2
There were a lot of great platformers this year: The Xbox 360’s Limbo managed to prove it’s possible to create an artistic, thought provoking indie game without resorting to pretentious, James Joyce-esque monologues about relationships (yes, that was a not-so-friendly jab at Braid,) while the Wii was flooded with quality platformers like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the amazing Donkey Kong Country Returns, and the flawed but fun Epic Mickey. Hell, even Sonic, Sega’s king of shovelware, managed to turn in a surprisingly good performance with Sonic Colors, which managed to avoid all the pitfalls and bad design decisions that have ruined Sonic games for the past decade (including this year’s epically disappointing Sonic the Hedgehog 4).
But out of all of those quality games, one stood out the most for me: Super Mario Galaxy 2. The original Super Mario Galaxy took the platforming formula established in the original Super Mario 64 (a formula which has since been iterated on hundreds of times by other developers,) and expanded on it and perfected it. Then Super Mario Galaxy 2 came along, took the original game’s perfection, and somehow managed to make it even better. It looked good, controlled with pixel perfect accuracy, and had some of the most challenging, cleverly designed stages and boss battles to ever grace a game. Mario defined what a good platforming game should be with the release of Super Mario Bros. for the NES, and now, 25 years later, he did it again. An absolute masterpiece of a game.
#1. Mass Effect 2
My #3 choice was Alan Wake, a game that had a superb story. My #2 pick was Super Mario Galaxy 2, a game that had perfect gameplay. My number one, game of the year for 2010 is Mass Effect 2, a game that combines both excellent gameplay with perhaps the best story and writing to have ever appeared in a game.
While old school PC gaming elitist curmudgeons like to complain that Mass Effect 2 as too dumbed down, I felt that the game was instead elegantly streamlined: Sure, your inventory and ability to customize specific weapons is gone, but the RPG elements that were most important to the original Mass Effect– the epic, non-linear story filled with memorable, awesome characters and the ability to shape the state of the galaxy based on your actions– were still there, and the action-based shooting sections of the game, which were arguably Mass Effect 1’s clumsiest and weakest aspect, have been fine tuned to the point where I think the action sections in this game more than rival most dedicated shooters, Halo and Call of Duty included. Sure, Mass Effect 2 edits out many of the original game’s core elements, but it takes what was left and makes them perfect, and adds so much more in the process.