GameFront 2010: The Year’s Best Games
This is it — the year is over and we’re looking back at the absolute greatest video games the industry had to offer us. Some of this you’ve heard before — it will likely surprise no one that Red Dead Redemption is featured prominently on this list. The best games have come up more than once on our other lists, but here you’ll find the games that were the standouts of the year, and the ones we couldn’t stop playing all year.
Red Dead Redemption
Phil Owen’s pick
Rockstar is king in the realm of video game world-building. We were treated to some stunning worlds this year in gaming, but none came close to matching that of Rockstar’s vision of the Old West.
New Austin is simply a thrilling place to exist in, and on top of that we get one of the best told stories in gaming in the tale of John Marston’s, yes, redemption. It’s an epic tale the likes of which is the next step in the evolution of video game storytelling; this is perhaps gaming’s first example of literature, although one could make that claim about GTA IV as well.
But, above all, what sets Red Dead apart from everything else this year is its epilogue. It has probably never even occurred to most developers to try to include true falling action, but Rockstar included it and f–king nailed it. Appreciate this, gaming community.
And Mark Burnham’s pick, too
I sort of hate that I’m agreeing with the Spike VGAs on this, but whatever. I’ve had this in mind for a while. Here’s why.
More than any other game this year, Red Dead Redemption invited me to completely lose myself. I forgot there were “gamey” things like goals, rewards, consequences, cutscenes, etc. Rockstar gives the player so much breathing room that the game just sort of unfolds, rather than making you play it. I mean, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard words like “open world,” or “sandbox.” But what Rockstar proved with RDR is they are masters at crafting the scope of that world, so that it’s neither too constrictive (Mafia 2), nor too empty (Mass Effect 2. Yeah, I said it. Too empty).
RDR is right on the money. Everything is enjoyable, from shooting rabbits and coyotes, to finding flowers, to flushing out gang hideouts in ghost towns, to just walking down the main drag of a town and watching drunks stumble out of saloons.
I’m not even bringing up the great cast of characters, the refreshing humor, all the other great things about the game. It’s enough for me that the game nailed that balanced sense of place so well.
Mass Effect 2
Ben Richardson’s pick
I spent a lot of my young life ogling screenshots. As a child of the eighties, my video game upbringing often focused itself on the drive for visual realism — each successive issue of GamePro seemed to mark a milestone along the way. 2D gave way to 3D, bit numbers continued their geometric march toward infinity, and all seemed right and good in the world.
The first time I saw an Xbox 360 being played, it didn’t really dawn on me. But over the course of the last 5 years or so, it became crushingly obvious: the realism race was run. Sure, there are still plenty of kinks to be ironed out, but I am nevertheless no longer willing to buy a game simply based on its incredible graphical fidelity, something that I would have done gladly a decade ago.
Instead, the technical detente has created a new hierarchy, based on a quality I often glossed over in my puerile search for the newest and brightest eye-candy: writing. As much as fancy pixel-counts and vertex shaders can inspire temporary awe, they don’t often evince emotions, and they certainly don’t stick with you for very long after you put the controller down. Writing — along with its handmaidens, story and character — does.
In this new era, there is one undisputed king of writing: Bioware. Though their roots in the nineties demonstrate obvious bona fides, it wasn’t until Mass Effect hit the market that the company’s full potential was made clear to a wide audience. The quality of the writing — expressed through the characters, the story, and the world itself — was what made the game a hit.
The sequel, Mass Effect 2, is a love letter to writing, and the gamers who love it. There is no silly MacGuffin, no captured princess, no unassailable keep. The game, all 30-odd hours of it, consists entirely of character development. The designers created fascinating characters and let their writing staff run wild, crafting a panoply of stories that are engrossing, affecting, and ”mature” in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with the ESRB.
Of course, you have a choice: you can pursue these character developing side-missions, or you can choose not to. The introduction of choice and consequence (initially developed in pen-and-paper RPG’s) has been the other big triumph of writing in the modern gaming era. If there’s anything more empowering than giving a player a gun that can clear out an entire room in one shot, its giving him the option of bypassing that room altogether, or making a choice during an earlier dialogue to avoid the entire planet entirely.
For these reasons and more, Mass Effect 2 is my pick for the best game of the year; the series as a whole will merit serious consideration when I get around to picking the best games of the last quarter-century. Unless Mass Effect 3 is successful in turning my brain into gibbering, elated mush. As it stands, there’s about a 50% chance of that happening.
Phil Hornshaw’s pick
At the risk of being mocked mercilessly by Phil Owen (and probably everyone else), I have to go with Heavy Rain. Yes, I loved Mass Effect 2, but Ben Richardson has already richly explained what was great about it. Yes, I had a great time in Red Dead Redemption. Yes, Alan Wake was a finely made, scary game.
But when it comes to a purely engrossing experience, it has to be Heavy Rain.
Say what you will about the writing — I know it was bad, in a lot of respects. It was also great in a lot of respects. Sure, the plot’s a bit porous, but the characters are powerful, even if there are moments that are a bit contrived, and the game pulls you in.
There are incredible moments in Heavy Rain. Most of them concern Ethan’s plotline, but I was hard-pressed to find a game that created more tense moments, using controls and play methods that go against the grain of punch, kick, run and jump.
Heavy Rain’s downloadable content is a pitch-perfect example of how great the title could be when it was on its game. Madison Paige, serial killer-hunting journalist, runs down a lead on the trail to the Origami Killer, breaks into a house, and starts investigating. She finds bodies set in plaster. And then the killer comes home.
In the next 10 minutes, you have to sneak Madison out of the house without getting caught by the killer — who knows you’re in the house. The tension is ridiculous, and Heavy Rain challenges you not only to get yourself out of the situation by being a master of its control scheme, but also by being smart enough to think it through.
Heavy Rain might be a series of set pieces with some interesting characters, but they were some damned engaging set pieces, and characters whose stories were kept me intrigued. And I didn’t have to scan planets for minerals or ride a horse all over Mexico. For a purely intense and complete experience — it was Heavy Rain.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Ron Whitaker’s pick
For my money, there wasn’t a better game in 2010 than DICE’s return to PC. Since Battlefield 1942 landed on the scene in 2004, the series has defined first-person shooter multiplayer on PC. It was a great relief to see it come back to the platform this year. Sure, the singleplayer wasn’t the greatest around, but if you are buying Battlefield games for the singleplayer, well, you’re doing it wrong.
Nearly everything about Bad Company 2 was well-executed. There is a tight balance of classes, weapons, and vehicles. Maps routinely provide advantages to both teams, and player skill matters more than spamming explosives. All in all, it’s a clinic in how to create a multiplayer shooter, and one I wish some other popular titles would attend.
Great game modes, great maps, a slew of unlocks for each class, and now a Vietnam expansion before the end of the year. I’ve put well over 100 hours into BC2 so far, and you can pretty much plan on me getting a bunch more in the Vietnam expansion.
While I’d love to see Dice design another game based around the PC with 64 player servers and all the trappings of the classic Battlefield games, Bad Company 2 is as close as gamers have had in a long time to a great multiplayer shooter. If you haven’t played it yet, shame on you.