2010 saw relatively few ultra-blockbusters, compared to years past. Sure, we got a new Halo, a new God of War and a new magnum opus from Rockstar - but many of the best games this year were lesser-known titles from smaller developers. There are a great many games in 2010 that I would give a heartfelt endorsement to, but I can't include them all. Notable titles which are either hugely impressive or immensely enjoyable, but absent from this list are Alan Wake, Dead Rising 2, Vanquish, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Heavy Rain.
What remains are the seven best games of the year. Call it a top 5, plus the game of the year and its runner-up. If you're looking back at the year that was, wondering what games you missed that were remarkably fun, incredibly polished or just all-around awesome? Look no further. There are the titles that defined 2010. These are the games of the year.
Acknolwedgment - best performance (Liam O'Brein as War).
Honorable mention - best art direction.
All due props to Minecraft, Angry Birds and Limbo, but for me this was 2010's Little Game That Could. The first effort from Vigil Games is an explosion of imagination and an homage to the best in gaming. It is the structure of The Legend of Zelda, the shocking brutality of God of War and the ultra-stylish combat of Devil May Cry, thrown into a blender and pureed until smooth - pared back to become instantly accessible, and seasoned with a sprinkling of inspiration from some of the best moments in gaming of the past five years. Throw in fantastic art direction and a story that leaves you desperate for a sequel, and you've got the first must-play game of 2010.
Winner - best art direction, best presentation.
Sony Santa Monica have been putting other developers in their place ever since the Hydra roared in 2005, and God of War III is one of those rare shockers where a developer's first game on a new console is jaw-droppingly impressive. With expansions to gameplay and intuitive new improvements to the series' trademark quick-time events, God of War III is a pleasure to play - but like the first two titles, what sears the game into your memory are the boss encounters that redefine the (terribly-overused) term "epic", and presentation that puts all other games to shame.
Honorable mention - best soundtrack, best art direction, best presentation.
Winner - best gameplay.
We can argue about the controversial degree of sexuality in Bayonetta until we're blue in the face, but no one can suggest the way this game plays is anything less than sublime. Hideki Kamiya, who created the blueprint for the modern brawler with Devil May Cry a decade ago, redefines and refines the mechanics he pioneered with this ultra-stylish spectacle. Bayonetta is quite possibly the best brawler ever.
Acknowledgment - best performance (Felicia Day as Veronica).
Runner-up - best soundtrack.
Winner - best atmosphere.
Obsidian Entertainment may have shipped New Vegas with even more bugs than Fallout 3, but the rest of the package is an undeniable evolution on every level. Voice work is improved across the board, the world feels bigger, the writing is miles ahead of its predecessor and the sheer degree of viable customization and choice available to the player boggles the mind. Most impressive is a soundtrack that outdoes Fallout 3's fantastic offering, and a game world that feels infinitely more connected and believable than the 2008 title.
Fallout: New Vegas may be riding 3's coattails, but it is infinitely more thoughtful - its systems far deeper. Offering hundreds of hours of playtime, and seemingly custom-designed for players who like nothing better than the wholesome pleasure of exploration, it's easily one of the best games of the year.
Honorable mention - best atmosphere, best art direction, best gameplay.
Winner - best performance (Nolan North, Jessica DiCicco and Scott Menville as Vashyron, Leanne and Zephyr).
Resonance of Fate is, without question, the best "traditional" RPG of the year. It veers dangerously away from Japanese standards - keeping window-dressing features like quests, item drops, crafting and (gasp!) random encounters - and goes entirely its own route elsewhere, with presentation that neatly straddles the line between eastern and western development, and ends up feeling like neither. Further strengthened by a wonderful, original world, the incredible costume designs and the best voice work of the year, the title sets itself apart further with the deliciously subdued narrative.
Unlike, well, every JRPG I've ever played, Resonance of Fate never bashes you over the head with its story. It is gently explored in ways that reveal character, or left on the periphery for you to discover, should you choose. Tie in the most interesting battle system this side of Valkyria Chronicles and ultra-stylish combat that (even after 80+ hours) never ceases to thrill, and you've got one of the best - and least-known - JRPGs in years.
That's right - suck it, Final Fantasy XIII.
Honorable mention - best atmosphere, best presentation, best gameplay.
Winner - best soundtrack.
I must admit - I marvel at how I simply don't see BioShock 2 mentioned more often in the end-of-year roundup. Did everyone just forget that it's actually an improvement in almost every way over the spectacular original game? Better world, better story, far better gameplay and a final third that puts the original's to shame.
The title is simply a laundry-list of things done right. Patient, mature, reserved storytelling, an incredible soundtrack, wonderful voice work, sharp writing, clever twists on the familiar, an intimidating degree of depth and the chance to explore the fabled city at the bottom of the sea for the first time, again.
It is a fantastic otherworldly adventure. A world to lose yourself in. It's the reason we play video games.
"BioShock 2's greatest failing is that it was not our first visit to Rapture. We could never be as entranced by the city at the bottom of the sea as we were when we first glimpsed it through the porthole of a bathysphere - but that doesn't stop it from being a wonderful game.. . .
[It's] a worthy sequel to the game that did not require one, and not just because it gives us the opportunity to once more explore Rapture for the first time. It steps out of the shadow of its progenitor and becomes its own wonderful, beautiful beast - valuable and vital in its own right - not merely due to its exceptional heritage."
- from the review -
* * *
GAME OF THE YEAR
Honorable mention - best soundtrack, best performance (Rob Wiethoff as John Marston).
Runner-up - best atmosphere, best art direction, best presentation, best gameplay.
While some games have a uniquely strong soundtrack, boast the single most impressive technology of the year or fantastically well-realized gameplay, Red Dead Redemption is not reliant on any one facet to impress us. It doesn't have one or two exceptional aspects - it simply does everything really, really well.
No game this year has so clear a vision, so successful a realization. It is strength upon strength upon strength, and easily the best game I played in 2010.
"There's something discourteous about what Rockstar does. They're like Henry Rearden - it's almost unfair to have to compete against them. Other developers have tried for years to match the astounding milestones Rockstar has placed in the field of open-world games, and - while a few great and many good games have surfaced - none can really compare to the masterworks put forth by this developer and its seemingly limitless development budgets. Rockstar just shows up every few years, drops another phenomenal game, and shrugs "this is how it's done."
Well, Red Dead Redemption is here, and this is, indeed, how it's done. It may be the best open-world game to date.. . .
Everything in the game is bent towards the same end: realizing the unconscious expectations the audience has of a Western. "Western" as rendered by cinema, of course - the indefinite definition of that world which exists in the mind of anyone who's enjoyed the more violent, sultry West of the Spaghetti Western style.
The game is absolutely packed with visual, auditory and narrative nods to the genre, from the incredible use of light to the occasional punctuating cry of the Wilhelm scream. The "stranger" side quests - tiny stories unto themselves - exist solely to paint the world in richer colors, reinforcing the brutal conditions, terrible tragedies, shady characters and foolish hope of frontier life.. . .Red Dead Redemption succeeds on nearly all levels. Graphically, technically, artistically, in terms of immersion, in terms of gameplay, it is exceptional.
It's easy to slip into, like a comfortable jacket, and ride off into the wide open world to seek adventure - and when adventure finds the player, the intuitive controls and natural feel to the gameplay allows one to effortlessly translate intention to action. Perhaps most impressive is that, after investing at least fifty hours into the title, I am not yet bored of it.
Hours upon hours can (and will) be lost, just by whistling for your horse and heading into the sunset."
- from the review -