What a great year for video games! The top two here are up there with my favorite games of all-time, and there isn’t really any filler in the rest of the list. The best part about the games this year has been the diversity. I’ve complained in the past (notably in my list of my favorite games of the last decade) about video game developers’ seeming inability to expand beyond the typical sci-fi/fantasy/crime/WWII genres, but this list bounces from modern-day Seattle to Hogwarts, from Renaissance Italy to the Old West.
As always, this is not a list of the best video games of the year, it is a list of my favorites. I don’t play everything that comes out, obviously. I don’t play a ton of sports games, and I play barely any first-person shooters, which explains the absence of both Call of Duty: Black Ops and Halo: Reach. I love third-person open-world games, as evidenced by my top five here. So read this list through that filter. Let’s get started!
10) Heavy Rain (PS3, February 23)
Sometimes I don’t finish a game because I lose interest. Sometimes I don’t finish a game because the last boss or battle or mission or whatever is frustratingly hard and I give up. And then sometimes I don’t finish because I try to download a mandatory PS3 firmware update and Sony bricks my machine and I lose my save data when I send my system in to them for repairs. That’s what happened with Heavy Rain. This is a game that takes a lot of time to really get going, and the control system (and the mundane tasks it controls, like brushing your character’s teeth) can be a bit boring. But I do want to know how it ends, so I’ll likely return to it sometime in the near future. That’s enough to earn it a spot in my top ten, I suppose.
I originally picked it up because I’d read that women were enjoying it more than the average video game, both because of the more intuitive controls and the more “grown-up” subject matter. Knowing her love of mystery novels, I thought Johanna might want to give it a try. I just played the above trailer on my computer and, hearing it, she asked what it was. When I told her it was Heavy Rain she said, “Here I was thinking it was a movie I might want to see.” Maybe she should give it a shot.
As I implied above, my wife is not much of a gamer. She will, however, spend hours playing Tetris or Snood, she enjoys singing in Rock Band, and she gives a fitness game a chance every once in a while. Because of this I’ve played a few of them myself. Most are terrible. Wii Fit is probably the best one I’ve played in the past, because it is actually pretty fun, but it doesn’t really feel like a work out. This game, however, definitely does. It’s the first time that I can actually picture people getting in better shape and figuring out a fitness regimen based on their interactions with a video game. The first time I played it I was asked to do a basic set of lunges, without any weights or anything, and it was hard! My legs were totally sore the next day! Guys, news flash: I really need to do more lunges.
8 ) NBA 2K11 (Xbox 360, October 5th)
My favorite sports game this year, unless you count dancing as a sport (if you do you really need to stop watching so much America’s Best Dance Crew). I should say, in the interest of full disclosure: I never got around to playing the new FIFA game. I think I was burnt out on video game soccer after spending so much time with last year’s excellent FIFA 10 and this spring’s World Cup branded extension.
This was an excellent year for 2K’s NBA series, though. They did quite a bit to quiet critics who complain about the unnecessary annualization of sports video games, both improving gameplay and adding a ton of content beyond roster updates. For instance, if you watch television ever you likely know that Michael Jordan is in this game! And Kobe Bryant just drafted him to the Lakers or something. The Jordan stuff is really, really well done and an inspired idea in a genre, sports games, that doesn’t seem to try to innovate very often.
I dropped this game a few spots because, frankly, it was kind of hard. I never really got the offense totally figured out. I’m awful at sports games and almost always play them on one of the lower difficulty settings. This frustrates me, so I’m taking it out on this game’s position on my list.
7) LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 (Xbox 360, June 29th)
I’ve found each successive LEGO game from Traveller’s Tales to be slightly more boring than the last. This is partially because I’ve been less interested in the source material as the series went on (first Star Wars, then Indiana Jones, then Batman), so, being a big Harry Potter fan, I was bound to be more interested in this one. But it was also because the gameplay itself gets a bit boring after a while. Luckily, this game tweaks things just enough, with the addition of the various spells and potions, to add complexity and breathe new life into the series. I anxiously await Years 5-7.
6) Dance Central (Xbox 360 Kinect, November 4th)
I ordered the Kinect on Amazon and got it the day it came out, mostly because my wife had to do a presentation in her User Interface class the following week on a unique interface design, and the Kinect seemed like the perfect subject. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, and I’m optimistic about its future, and the future of motion-controlled games in general, but for now, I would say hold off on buying one. The price will probably go down, and the games just aren’t there yet.
But this is the best of the lot so far. It’s very responsive and really feels sort of like magic the first time you play. It’s also legitimately fun, in an “I know I look stupid, but I just can’t stop smiling!” type of way. If you can get over your insecurity of dancing in front of others this would be a much more fun social/party game than Guitar Hero or Rock Band.
One last thing about the Kinect before we move on. As has been reported in every story about it, you really do need a ton of space. My living room is not at all what I would consider small, and even after moving our coffee table out of the room, we still barely have enough room to play some of these games, particularly with two players. Suffice to say, with moving the coffee table as a prerequisite for playing, I’ve probably spent less time playing all of our Kinect games put together than I have playing any of the other games on this list individually.
5) Fable III (Xbox 360, October 26)
I was a big fan of Fable II. Considering how big of a leap in quality and depth it took from the first game in the series, I had high hopes for this third installment. Those hopes were reinforced when I first popped this disc in and the game opened with an animated short that was so pretty that it caused my wife to stop in her tracks on the way through the room and compare it to a Pixar movie.
I must report, however, that I’m sort of disappointed. This game just feels like more of the same. Considering how much I liked Fable II, that wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing, except in some cases, particularly graphically (or at least aesthetically) this game almost seems like a step back from its predecessor. I don’t know what’s missing, but it just hasn’t really grabbed me. In fact, taking into account bugs I ran into with the gold trail I’m supposed to follow around and occasionally having allied characters get stuck behind objects, I have to wonder if this game was rushed through development a bit.
Bitching aside, I obviously liked this game quite a bit; I do have it ranked at number five. There is a lot to like here, but not as much to love as I was hoping.
4) Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Xbox 360, November 16th)
Here’s another example of a game that followed perhaps too closely in the footsteps of the prior installment in the series. The difference, however, is that the Fable team had two years between II and III and might have even taken a baby step backwards, whereas it’s only been a year since the previous Assassin’s Creed game and while not much has changed, enough new features have been added to warrant a sequel. The addition of assassin recruits, which was disappointing to some reviewers, was actually a lot of fun for me. I really enjoyed sending the other assassins on missions and building up their stats, and deploying them in fights added a bit of strategic complexity. I also thought the modern-day story in this game was really interesting and fleshed-out. I’m actually curious to see what happens to these characters in the next game.
Not that I have no complaints. In a reversal of my real-world opinion of the cities, I think I actually prefer the Venetian setting of Assassin’s Creed II to this game’s Rome. And I have some small, stupid complaints, such as the lack of logic in placing wanted posters on rooftops. Also, I played this immediately after finishing Just Cause 2, and there were definitely points at which I missed that game’s grappling hook, but I suppose I can’t blame Assassin’s Creed for that. Maybe next time, Ezio.
3) Just Cause 2 (Xbox 360, March 23rd)
Here is a good example of why I insist that these lists are technically of my favorites, and not necessarily the best of whatever it is I’m listing. This game is INCREDIBLY repetitive. Seriously, you just end up doing like the same three things over and over again for the majority of it. But I happen to have a very high tolerance for repetition in open world games and can happily spend an afternoon doing nothing but parachuting around an island blowing up water towers and searching for crates over and over again.
As I alluded to above, I’ve run into few things in video games that are as fun as the grappling hook and parachute in this game are. Considering that I’m just sitting on the couch with a controller in my hand, it’s an odd thrill, but it is undeniably thrilling to shoot across a village or to the top of a building at the click of a button. It makes me want a grappling hook in every single game. I hope you’re listening, Mass Effect 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2.
The main problem I had with this game (and this is also true of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood above) is that it is too back-loaded with missions. I’m playing the game at my own leisurely pace, with no real sense of urgency, collecting things and blowing things up whenever I feel like it, and then it throws the last few long, difficult missions at me back to back to back without a break. Work on your pacing, guys.
2) Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, May 18th)
Yeah, so, there was basically no chance that I wouldn’t love this game. I love the Grand Theft Auto games, and I loved Bully, and I’m willing to buy anything that Rockstar Games publishes. Couple that with my love of a well-done Western, and this was an obvious contender for my favorite game of the year before it came out. It did not let me down.
Rockstar is great at bringing their games to life by focusing on depth and detail in the worlds they are creating, and Red Dead Redemption is no exception. I was impressed at the amount of geographical variety they crammed into a game set in the American West (and Mexico), and the fascinating diversity of non-playable characters running around the towns and villages really help to immerse you in the game. I never got bored playing this game.
My one problem with Red Dead Redemption is that the only character in the game that I thought needed some more development was the protagonist, John Marston. His story never really grabbed me. But I always thought Seth Bullock, Timothy Olyphant’s character on Deadwood, was really boring too, and that didn’t keep it from being one of my favorite television shows of all time.
1) Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, January 26th)
I play video games for the action, not the story. I tend to view cutscenes as an opportunity to check my email or skim through my Google Reader. Mass Effect 2 and its predecessor are perhaps the only games in which I’ve been this actively invested in the story, and I anticipate the third game not just because I know it’s going to be fun, but because I can’t wait to see what happens. This universe is remarkably rich and complex, and rivals that of almost any sci-fi movie or television series. It’s no surprise that this game was made by BioWare, the same studio that took the Star Wars universe and completely made it its own in the Knights of the Old Republic games. Just like with Rockstar Games, I’ll happily buy anything they put out.
I didn’t even really mind the resource mining aspect of this game that so many people complained about. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that I find the voice of the actor who plays the protagonist, Commander Shephard, to be incredibly flat and bland. I don’t know if they wanted it that way to allow the player to project themselves into the game, but it bothered me CONSTANTLY.
And, just for fun, the teaser trailer for Mass Effect 3, the early favorite to head up next year’s list: