Presentation, while influenced heavily by a game's graphics, is not only about how good a game looks. Of course, all things being equal, graphics will push a winner ahead of an otherwise equally-matched pack - but more than high polish, overall presentation is about how mastery of technology, art direction, sound design, story presentation, voice work and, heck, even the menus - all kind of jive together and form something that feels cohesive, enthralling, and at its best, unique.
When you play these games - regardless of their failings in other areas - you feel you're experiencing something very special.
Like its predecessor in 2009, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is just slick in all ways. A laundry list of things done right - voice work, animation, art direction, music, and a spectacular engine that manages to make Renaissance-era Rome even more gorgeous than one has a right to hope - Brotherhood is further proof that Ubisoft can hit the mark, when they shoot for triple-A.
Don't look so surprised. While Bayonetta was a technological disappointment on my platform of choice, that didn't stop its raw spectacle and total individuality from shining through.
Yes, it's pretty crazy/awesome that you fight angels whose very flesh strips away as you damage them, but the lasting impression Bayonetta leaves is a unique sense of female power. Your lock-on icon is a glowing pair of neon-red lips. The soundtrack is a zippy, jazzy affair that's feminine at all angles - from vocals to instrument choice - while the protagonist "looks less like a woman than an interpretation of one" and wields a controversial degree of sexuality that feels more dangerous than any other weapon at her disposal.
It's a nutso game - seemingly as exploitive as it is celebratory of what separates women from men - and that's something I've never seen before in the medium. It's a conversation I've never seen a game try to have.
More than any other game on this list, BioShock 2 gives the player an experience that feels consistent from tip to tail. Rapture may not have the same power to seduce that it once boasted, thanks to level design that's a bit more restrained, but the payoff is a world that feels more real - more lived-in - than it did on our first visit.
Production values are solid across the board, with voice work, music, art direction and writing all falling well above industry standards - but BioShock 2's real strength is how believable its world has become, and the way it manages to maintain a fabulous quality of design and engagement throughout its entire campaign.
"Gorgeous" is a good word to start with, in any conversation about Heavy Rain. This is one of the most graphically impressive games of the year - my jaw hit the floor during the opening, in-engine cutscene, and didn't settle back into place until the credits rolled. Most impressive is that the game often achieves its aim of making the player feel things no video game has ever managed - a remarkable feat.
Music, art direction, animation and often performances are all fantastic, but its overall delivery is marred by over-writing, the occasional weak voice actor and a story director who comes across as more showy than talented - which is why it isn't in the top two.
Red Dead Redemption is nothing less than another shocking realization of Rockstar's boundless ambition. There is almost no weak link in this game. Every. Single. Aspect of the title is as close to flawless as any open-world game has ever managed. Pitch-perfect voice work, wonderful, restrained, easygoing writing, fabulous art direction and a mastery of technology.
Red Dead Redemption is, simply, an incredibly well-put-together game.
Why isn't it our winner, then? Because although it has a better story, it also has loading screens, and lacks the raw spectacle and total technological wizardry of the next title.
That's right, no loading screens. You start the game, and you never have to see one. It doesn't hurt that God of War is just as strong as RDR from most any angle - music, voice work, gameplay are all great - but it pulls ahead with its never-less-than-stunning art direction and most of all graphics. Easily, easily the best presentation of the year, from a visual standpoint.
If it has a flaw, it's the way the story goes off the thematic rails a bit at the end, there - but that's not the final impression it leaves. When one thinks of God of War III, what comes to mind is a series of mindblowing sequences and sights. If one looks closer, it's a game that is always at its best. Every frame is gorgeous. Every sight, every texture raises the bar heads and shoulders above anything else.
"Instead of describing a series of moments from the game, let me simply say that God of War III is able to present a sense of scale beyond anything done before in an action game, and is still able to showcase liquid-smooth animation and the sharpest textures I've ever seen in a console game. It's just nuts.
And then there's the wonderful, unifying art direction. Then there's the incredible music. The voice work.
It goes on and on.
...Its design, pacing, and, more than anything else, execution make it the standard by which other titles - no matter the genre - are judged."
- from the 2nd review -