Wednesday 30 June 2010

Halfway Through 2010: The Best Games

It's that time of year, I hear. Near enough the halfway point: the perfect opportunity to take stock of what 2010 has given us so far. What we should be grateful for, what travesties we wish we'd had the foresight to avoid. I'm going to run down my personal top five books, video games and movies - in that order - published or otherwise released between January 1st and June 30th. There'll also be a space for honourable mentions - as in, things I've loved that either came out before the period of eligibility began or else haven't yet hit shelves or home consoles or multiplexes - as well as worst disappointments, and any glaring oversights for each medium of entertainment.

So. We started with books, and yesterday we hit on movies. Today, it's the last stop on this celebration of the best stuff of the year to date. We're talking video games now. Those of you too proud or snooty or old to have a home console are off the hook - I won't hold it against you.

Well, not overly much.

Five Favourites

5. Just Cause 2
dev. Avalanche Studios

I'll get high and mighty myself in a minute, start in on some of the video games of 2010 that I'd assert have artistic merit, but allow me this one indulgence. I've had more fun - pure, unadulterated fun - playing Just Cause 2 than any other game this year. The story's a mess, the gameplay mechanics are notoriously janky, but the combination of a grappling hook and a parachute with a huge and beautiful world packed full of things to do and begging for exploration made Just Cause 2 an utter, and near-as-damnit unique pleasure. If you've overlooked this one because it looks a bit so-so, well, it is, but you won't have more fun with an average game than you will with this all year, guaranteed.

4. Metro 2033
dev. 4A Games

Based on the book by Dmitry Glukhovsky and developed in partnership with the self-safe Russian author, Metro 2033 has to be the most overlooked game of 2010 so far. Sure, the frame rate is a bit shit, and the gunplay has nothing on your triple-A blockbusters, but in terms of narrative, atmosphere and otherness, few recent releases approach Metro 2033. From hammering round after round into some mutated horror to the mad dashes you'll make for filters for your gas mask, Metro 2033 is packed full of tension and moments of sheer terror. After this, the underground will never feel the same to you again.

3. Alan Wake
dev. Remedy

Vapourware, we all thought; those of us who've followed the video game industry for the last decade would have put good money on Alan Wake never happening. At least five years in development, it looked by all rights to be another Duke Nukem Forever. Thank the gods it wasn't. Alan Wake marks the successful return to the medium by the Swedish geniuses over at Remedy, and it takes after their last games - Max Payne and its unapologetically noirish sequel - in just the right ways. Stalking around Bright Falls with nothing but a flare gun and a torch is a brilliantly unnerving experience, and though Alan Wake perhaps overstays its welcome, you'll gladly twiddle your thumbs through the last chapters just to see how it all ends. Stephen King, eat your heart out.

2. Heavy Rain
dev. Quantic Dream

The through-line between Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain is clear as day, and as with their first game, Quantic Dream's hugely anticipated follow-up will leave plenty of gamers balking at the minimal interaction between player and player character. But Heavy Rain, in the end, is hardly a game: it's interactive cinema, a new thing entirely, and slap my arse and call me Sally, it works. This is a revolutionary murder mystery, a mature and moving testament to the power of video games. It could do with better writing and some voice actors that can actually speak English, but if the industry latches on to Heavy Rain's game engine, just think of the possibilities. This is a gateway game, the first step in a tradition that I can only hope lives long and prospers, at that. It'd have been my very favourite video game of the year so far, too, had it not been for...

1. Red Dead Redemption
dev. Rockstar San Diego

Now I had high hopes for Red Dead Redemption - any game from the makers of GTA will get my blood pumping - but this remarkable piece of work exceeded every one. You're John Marston, an outlaw come good, or trying to come good in the last days of the old West when the government kidnaps your wife and son with the aim of forcing you to hunt down the remainder of the band of miscreants you used to run with. John's story is a quiet tragedy, an exercise in subtlety I hadn't expected from the very gents who gave an immigrant a gun and had him go wild not a few years ago. I hundred-percented it, and I'm not that kind of gamer at all - I finished every mission, story-driven or side-quest; I captured every bounty; I hunted every animal; I picked every plant. I did not want my time with Red Dead Redemption to end.

There are a lot of huge games set for release later in the year, and I'd be daft to call it without experiencing any of them first hand, but Red Dead Redemption was an experience and a half, the only game of its ouvre to truly succeed. Without a doubt my game of the year - so far.

Also, the musculature on those horses was incredible. It's all in the details, people. Details.

Runners Up

Button-mashing fun with Greek gods to beat on, basically. Fun, for sure; exactly the same sort of fun we've all had with these character action games in the past, however, if incrementally prettier and more polished (review). Not how I'd have liked to see such a stalwart franchise go out, but then, that'd be to presume that the third game in the God of War trilogy truly is that last. As if.

Honourable Mentions

I have a right soft spot for Silent Hill, and so many memories. Playing the first one into the night in the loft of my parents' house with an old friend; Silent Hill 2 haunting my dreams for weeks; bonding with the other half over a shared love of the old games; generally having the beejebus scared out of me on a regular basic. Resident Evil is fun and all, but it has nothing on Silent Hill. Sadly, the series rather went to the dogs after the original studio dissolved and development duties were handed over to a series of Western studios. The latest of that lineage, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, wasn't perfect by a long stretch - for one thing, it's on the Wii - but it did something different with a series close to my heart I'd thought exhausted. It gave me hope, and that's something. It also gave me a scarily accurate psychological profile of myself...

Worst Disappointments

Perhaps in this case, "worst disappointments" isn't exactly right. Bioshock 2 and Final Fantasy XIII aren't bad games at all, but neither captured the spirit of the franchises they spawned from. The slog through the first 25 hours of Final Fantasy XIII taught me that I might be over RPGs; a return trip to Rapture, the setting of perhaps my favourite game ever, just couldn't capture the same sense of wonder as the original did, despite being more technically accomplished and telling a fine, if somewhat awkwardly stitched-in tale. Sad but true.

Glaring Oversights

This I got as a birthday present, back in March, and I've been saving it for myself ever since. I loved Mass Effect, dodgy bits and all; I loved the story, the characters, the choice, the music. And by all rights, Mass Effect 2 improves on the original in every which way - or at least, so I'm told. Give me 50 hours to do the sequel justice and I'll gladly give up sleeping to immerse myself in this world all over again. Sadly, 50 hours haven't been forthcoming in 2010 so far. Here's hoping I'll find the time sometime soon.

Final Thoughts

Those of us who've been gaming since the dawn of time expect very little of note to be forthcoming from the industry outside of the rush of games released over the holidays. Thanks to Crackdown, I think - sequel soon! - that's changed. Year on year, the first half of the year has become more and more important. I for one can't think of a busier gaming Spring ever: developers finally getting to grips with the current generation of consoles have given us one blockbuster after another. It's been a tremendous time to be a gamer. The drought, I think, is over, and here's to that.

So, those of you out there will a console to call your own: what have your favourite games of the year been? Anyone else out there 100% Red Dead Redemption?


  1. I'm with you on FFxiii being a huge disappointment. Graphically beautiful, the gameplay was just to slow for me. Perhaps you're right. It may have made me realize that I, too, am finished with old RPGs.

    I loved Heavy Rain. I've never been so tense and anxious playing a game before, and by the time I finished it I was ready for a break.

    Red Dead Redemption is up on my list, but I don't know when I'll get to it.

  2. I've been a Final Fantasy girl from way back, and I couldn't get into this one, either.

    I promptly traded it in for Red Dead Redemption. The best game ever. I agree, these are the best horses in a game yet. The musculature and smooth movement and just everything is very striking.

    No 100% yet, but I'm getting there. I always have to rush through the story to see what the ending is (I can't help it), and then go back and clean up. With this one, more than others, I was so intrigued by the landscape and having so much fun just wandering around, I did do many of the side missions along the way.

    Reactions and movement of things struck by bullets are just great, too.

    A friend has recommended Just Cause 2, and it's next on my list, but it will be a while before I'm finished soaking up Red Dead Redemption. I'll keep these others in mind, as well! Thank you for the reviews.

  3. I just let my other half play most of the xbox games but I've watch him play much of Red Dead and he loves playing the online version. The best thing I think for him about the whole game...shooting people's horses out from under them. My other thoughts on the game were that is was interesting, graphics were pretty amazing and the story line was done very well. The ending was not what I was expecting.

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