GameFront 2010: Best Action Games

This year was a bit lackluster in the area of first-person shooters, which often seem to dominate the conversation when you start talking about a year’s big games. Instead, 2010 was something of a banner year for action games, which saw big releases in a number of marquis franchises that actually surpassed their predecessors and gave you the kind of experience that feels like it’s worth $60+. We got action games with stories and protagonists and multiplayer modes actually worth turning off Call of Duty to play — who knew. Below, we’ve built a list of our picks for the year’s best action titles and what made them stand above the crowd.

Red Dead Redemption

Shawn Sines’ pick

John Marston delivered the best Grand Theft Auto game I’ve ever played. Red Dead Redemption was a game I’d spent the better part of a year telling everyone I knew about. It was a western and a Rockstar game. It was also a continuation of the Red Dead franchise, one of my favorite original Xbox titles, so I was prepared to be wowed.

Luckily, Red Dead Redemption was everything I hoped. I spent hours cruising the American southwest looking for adventure. The quiet moments of searching, being one with the gorgeous environment that was so very different than the increasingly common Afghanistan setting that a lot of action games keep featuring. The quick-draw minigame, the brutal nature of wild-west combat, all these elements combined to make pull me into Red Dead and keep me going.

I played a lot of action games in 2010, including Battlefield: BC2, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Goldeneye, but none of them were games I continued to play once I’d finished my initial playthrough. Red Dead, however, still has me craving new content, and with the Undead Nightmare pack, shows this setting and its characters have legs.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Phil Owen’s pick

I briefly considered putting God of War III in this spot, but then I remembered there is a game like God of War III that doesn’t have a terrible story and that is more fun to play and that doesn’t blow its epic-set-piece load in the first five minutes.

From beginning to end, Enslaved is a satisfying gaming experience. It’s not difficult yet still feels frantic. It balances beating down robots and climbing around on stuff really well, and you can ride around on a hoverboard. It has a pair of compelling leads and a funny, fat sidekick. And it has one of the more thought-provoking stories in gaming.

Like Bioshock, Enslaved can be considered a treatise on gaming itself, though it’s more subtle than Ken Levine’s vision. It’s a game that asks you to question the purpose of the violence in which it forces you to partake; that could be seen as hypocritical, but it’s great to see a game that, when it’s all over and your TV is off, leave you deep in thought.

Alan Wake

Phil Hornshaw’s pick

There wasn’t another game quite as engrossing for me this year as Alan Wake. A few in the category came close, and I’m torn because Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood certainly deserves a nod for finally realizing that Assassin’s Creed can be really boring, and working to fix it. But Alan Wake has it in all places: it’s got a story worth hearing, an atmosphere that envelops you, play mechanics that are twitchy and tense and some powerfully cool DLC.

Primarily, Wake did it for me because of the story. Yes, creepy stuff is happening in Bright Falls, but wandering through the woods of the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t have been worth it if it hadn’t been for Wake’s desperation and confusion as he worked to find his wife. Remedy did a brilliant job in the telling, using Wake’s manuscript pages to bounce the player around chronologically — sometimes filling in gaps and amping up the horror of a past situation, sometimes giving us a heads-up of what upcoming awfulness was in store for the writer. Working through the whole game to answer the ever-burning question of “what the hell is going on?” was at least as enjoyable as being ambushed by the darkness-covered Taken at any given moment.

Not that those ambushes weren’t a great time in and of themselves. Every step through the woods, especially on Nightmare difficulty, has to be carefully planned. You never know when enemies are going to fall all around you, or hack away at you from just off-screen, and that kind of tension gets under your skin and makes for a creepy, jumpy experience. Plus with an insane number of collectibles to track down, each venture of the path in exploration carries a palpable risk. Is it worth it to go check this large open area that will likely contain absolutely nothing, just in case there’s another Manuscript Page out there, even though there’s a high chance I’ll be murdered in the attempt? Those kinds of decisions — fear versus curiosity, with both being very powerful motivators — are everywhere in Wake and keep the survival experience fresh the whole way through.

Vanquish

Mark Burnham’s pick

My GameFront bretheren have already chosen some great games that I, too, enjoyed, so I’m going out on a limb and giving Vanquish a nod.

You’ll find a lot of love-it-or-hate-it Vanquish reviews, but I loved this game. Platinum Games have merged flashy Japanese stylistic sensibilities with Western pop-and-cover third-person shooter action. The result is something very fast, satisfying, sadistically challenging and pretty unique — that is, if you can stomach a very steep, cruel, Japanese-grade challenge.

It’s the future and Russia is invading the U.S., starting with San Francisco, and then New York. You play as Sam, a special forces guy with a kick-ass mech suit who’s out to stop Russia. That’s basically the story.

Sam’s suit gives him all sorts of insane powers. You can manually trigger slo-mo bullet time, which is useful since a lot of the action is so frantic and…well, Japanese. You can also execute these pummeling custom melee attacks, one for each of Sam’s three equipped weapons. But Sam’s most prominent ability is the high-speed knee slide. It sends sparks flying everywhere and generally make you insanely mobile and evasive. But there’s a catch to all this fun.

The tricky thing is all of these abilities gradually drain the suit’s energy bar while in use. If the energy drains fully, the suit overheats and becomes inactive for a few seconds while it cools off. While the suit is inactive, Sam is basically just a regular guy running around with a gun. This means you can’t just spam all of the aforementioned kick-ass abilities. You have to execute them in short, controlled bursts, only at strategic moments. Part of the challenge is learning the rhythm of how to play the game right, which I actually appreciated.

Where these tactics are really put to the test is the game’s boss fights. They are epic in scale, length (they can last like 20 minutes), size, difficulty, flashiness and general epicness. Play the demo and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

One criticism you could level at Vanquish is there isn’t a lot of variety in the action. But I don’t think Vanquish lacks variety. I think what it has is focus. It’s a focused, intense game that tries new things and gets right in your face.

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