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Games of 2010

In years past, I would have dedicated an entire entry to each of the games that I liked the most over the span of a year, but I know I don’t have the time (nor particular love of that format) to do that this year. My favorite games of 2010, then, will instead be talked about in a long, rambly, largely unorganized list. I wish I could write entire entries about some of these games (and I may still at some point), but that’s unlikely to happen. So, for now, my favorite games of 2010:

Jump to: Vanquish :: Bayonetta :: Dragon Quest IX :: Halo: Reach :: Cladun :: ZHP :: Gravity Hook HD :: Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker :: Lost Planet 2 :: Other

Vanquish
As a result of reading too much pre-release hype about Vanquish, I went into the game expecting a ridiculous, over-the-top, shoot-em-up-styled third-person shooter where speed, accuracy, and weapon choice were all that mattered. Upon playing the game for the first time, though, I was disappointed to discover how much of a role cover played in the game. I died a dozen or so times in my play-through of the first chapter of a game due to continually attempting to play the game more like The Club than, say, Uncharted or Gears of War. There were always moments where I was enable to enact the shmup-styled projectile absurdity that I went into the game hoping for, though, and that made the first half of my play-through of Vanquish more than enjoyable enough for me.

It wasn’t until I hit the 75% mark of the campaign that I realized how I was supposed to be playing Vanquish. It’s not a cover shooter, it’s a cover-to-cover shooter. If I was ever picking off an abundance of enemies in any given encounter from one single piece of cover, then I was, basically, playing the game wrong. The role of cover in Vanquish is solely to cool down your overheat bar (which is what your power slide, melee, and “bullet time” is based on) before you do another slide through the encounter space taking as many enemies as you can with you. And with this play style mindset, Vanquish is one of the most superb shooters I’ve played.

Much like the Halo series, Vanquish is also one of those games where playing on the harder difficulties makes the game much, much more enjoyable (and challenging). The one systemic aspect of Vanquish which remains a mystery to me, however, is the option to piecemeal weapon upgrades by collecting a weapon pickup for a weapon you have full ammunition for (with this method, three weapon pickups equals one weapon upgrade pickup). This design choice makes the most efficient play-through of the game require players to avoid using the weapons they actually want to use until they have maxed out the upgrade path. What’s more, weapons lose an upgrade rank whenever players die — something which is avoidable if you quit to the main menu at the time of death rather than just reload a checkpoint. These are curious design choices which I have yet to figure out a decent explanation for.

My minor issues with the game aside, Vanquish remains a great game with solid mechanics, great gunplay, gorgeous environments and effects, and an appropriately campy and absurd story.

Bayonetta
I’ve written about Bayonetta in the past and, really, my love of the game has not changed since I wrote that piece. The two active weapons that you can set for Bayonetta allow players to customize the “feel” of combat to an extent that isn’t replicated in any other game in the genre I’ve played. That PlatinumGames manages the fluidity it does given the variety of weapons and moves that the game has continues to impress and amaze me. The combat and movement from encounter-to-encounter in Bayonetta just feels so good and it all has such a remarkable energy to it.

While Bayonetta‘s story is entertaining and thoroughly campy and while Bayonetta herself is one of the most thoroughly clever and original characters to enter the game industry in ages, the integration of this story with the actual gameplay remains my sole issue with the game as a whole. The game sits alongside the Metal Gear Solid series as a poster child for how not to convey a narrative in a video game. The cut scenes are frequent and, what’s more, they are all surprisingly lengthy. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience my first time through the game, my subsequent play-through of the game was almost ruined by the frequency of the interruptions amidst such a superb pace of play through any given level.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies
Generally, when I play a JRPG, I only care about playing the games that are systemically complex or incredibly confusing or are simply well-made strategy RPGs. I care nothing for story or dialogue trees or anything like that, so most of the recent Final Fantasy games, Lunar, Dragon Age (not a JRPG, but it’s so long and dull that it felt worth mentioning) and so on are all remarkably unappealing to me. Dragon Quest IX — hereby referred to solely as dqicks — is not a particularly deep game. dqicks is, however, an incredibly well-designed, simply and solidly presented, and an exceedingly well-written game in areas that most games simply ignore quality writing in. dqicks also does something that, for whatever reason, a lot of JRPGs seem to ignore: the value of “loot” and the enjoyable aspects of putting a lot of cool-looking shit on your digital dude/dudette doll.

dqicks is spartan JRPG game design done better than, I think, any game before it. No particular aspect of it is complex, but all of the individual parts that compose the game come together well. The hallmark Level-5 shine only adds to the experience and the US release of the game has a brilliant translation full of charming puns and alliteration whether the text is in a dialog text box, combat updates, or ability/spell names. None of this is to say that the game doesn’t have some rough edges, the occasional grind-requiring section, or anachronistic design elements (like the ability to “miss” a target when casting resurrection), but it is, by and large, a remarkably solid game.

It’s a strange thing to commend a game on, but one of the aspects of properties that I enjoyed the most about dqicks is how “portable” it felt. It’s one of only a few DS/PSP games I’ve played over the years where I could play for five minutes or two hours and the game would, generally, feel like it was accommodating to either time window.

Halo: Reach
This one is simple: it’s a “best of” Halo, Halo 3, and Halo: ODST. The campaign feels surprisingly fresh, the multiplayer is exceptional, the dual-wielding has been removed, and it all looks very pretty.

Cladun: This is an RPG!
Cladun is, at times, my favorite game of the year. It is after the times where I only play Cladun for a ten-fifteen minute game session that I think this is the case. I still like it if I play it for more than a ten-fifteen minute session, but the game loses something when played for longer durations. It’s a PSP game, though, so I consider this a positive feature of the game.

The reason for Cladun‘s excellence in short bursts is that it’s a game made, primarily, for those condensed windows of gameplay. Any given level can take anywhere from thirty seconds to three minutes to complete, and a particularly lengthy level may take upwards of eight-ten minutes (though such instances are rare). The Cladun gameplay cycle is this:

  1. Choose which character you want to use.
  2. Update that character’s equipment.
  3. Update that character’s magic circle layout.
  4. Start a level and play through it fairly quickly in a Diablo-ish, action/RPG-ish manner.
  5. Finish the level, see which of the characters in the magic circle leveled up, and repeat as desired.

The “magic circle” is the primary factor in character development and customization and it is filled with a combination of other characters and various upgrade/customization elements. All characters that you place in a magic circle receives experience from a play-through of a level and, in practice, they basically act like shields around your active character that suck up damage on your front, rear, and sides. Once a given character (or pair of characters) in the magic circle dies, your main character becomes vulnerable to attacks from that side and when the main character runs out of health, he dies. What’s generally worse, though, is that when a character in the magic circle dies while playing through a level, you lose access to any upgrades that were dependent on that character’s mana pool. This could mean that your skills cost more to use, that you move slower, take more damage, and so on. It’s a remarkably clever — if a bit complicated and overwhelming at first — system.

Basically, Cladun is one of the most numerically-governed games I’ve ever played and, for this reason, I like it a lot. It also helps that the actual game systems and control response for the action/RPG dungeon gameplay are solid as well.

ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman
ZHP is a Rogue-like from the same studio that makes the Disgaea series; this should be enough of a description to convey what kind of tone, style, and feel the game has, I think. Beyond that, though, ZHP is the best Rogue-like I’ve ever played. It maintains the “if you die in a dungeon you lose all of your stuff” convention that most Rogue-like games adhere to, but what it changes is that there is a persistent character level and dungeons are not infinite. Every storyline beat has a lengthy dungeon that players go deeper and deeper into, but at some point that chapter of the narrative ends (at either a staircase or a boss battle) and the player goes back to the home base with all of the items/equipment that were found and any levels that were gained on that trip are added to the total character level.

The total character level allows persistent stat growth, but it’s on a much smaller scale than per-dungeon level growth. So, while dying is still a setback, it’s not the “screw everything” setback that these sorts of games generally elicit. And aside from this means of character development, ZHP also has the “shadowgram,” which is a grid-based representation of the character’s body that you can fill with items and boosters that all take their power from a different power source (one on the head, one on the torso, one on each earm, and one on each leg). And, to be honest, I still have yet to fully figure out how the shadowgram works and what allows me to sometimes place upgrades and be completely unable to place upgrades at other times.

In some ways, ZHP is a very similar game to Cladun, just with different goals and focuses. There are still an absurd amount of ways to customize your character, but now you’re focusing exclusively on one character and the goal is to make him as persistently powerful as possible through the “slow burn” total level-ups, statistical modifications to the character’s body in the shadowgram, and continuing to gather more and more powerful item. ZHP is, unlike Cladun, a game which is very easy to sink hours and hours of gameplay into in any given session. Since playing both games, I’ve come to think of them as companion pieces; one which excels in short-bursts and one which excels for long-sessions. This summation is somewhat unfair to ZHP, though, as it works just as well in short gameplay sessions as it does in long ones, it’s just hard to ever stop playing it after a few minutes.

If no one else has figured it out by now, I have an extreme amount of love for games which have a lot of numbers. And speaking of games with a lot of numbers…

Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker
Peacewalker is a dreamy, portable combination of traditional Metal Gear Solid games, X-COM, and Monster Hunter minus the endlessly long cut scenes that the Metal Gear Solid series is generally known for. If this one-line description doesn’t sound like the best game ever then, well, I don’t know what does. Peacewalker is not the best game ever, but it is excellent.

What really struck me about Peacewalker was the approach that Kojima Productions took to making the Metal Gear Solid series work on a portable platform in ways that I don’t think Portable Ops succeeded in doing. Most of the missions in the game take no more than eight-ten minutes to complete and there is a surprising amount of variety in the type of missions that you can undertake. Some of the the missions are solo-friendly, others are designed more for co-op experiences, but most of the missions are somewhere in the middle. It’s all so very similar to the way that Monster Hunter is structured and this absolutely works in the Peacewalker‘s favor. Well, most of it anyway. Peacewalker has moments — almost all of which are related to boss battles — where the difficulty of the game and the amount of time a mission takes to complete seem to absolutely skyrocket before settling back down into the excellent groove where most of the game resides. This is not true of all boss battles, but the ones that it is true of are enough to drag the whole experience down a bit. That said, some of the boss vehicles are superbly designed and the ability to acquire them for your own private army is a nice touch.

The critical design change that Kojima Productions adopted for Peacewalker that manages to make the game far, far better than it would have been purely on its own merits in a more traditional Metal Gear Solid structure is the way that the Outer Heaven hub and in-mission gameplay work together. By knocking out (instead of killing) enemies you can choose to send them to Outer Heaven at which point they will join your ranks. Every enemy that joins your ranks has a particular set of skills and, depending on what a given soldier excels in, you can send that soldier to be a soldier, chef, researcher, medical worker, or mechanic. Soldiers can form mini-armies that you send out on missions for additional items/experience/”money”, chefs bolster the Outer Heaven food supply to support everyone, researchers allow you to developer new items and weapons, medical workers fix up injured soldiers, and mechanics can repair your personal Metal Gear (which I have yet to be able to use) or any vehicles that you acquired from boss battles. It’s an incredibly fun little metagame that serves as the backbone of the entire game. Also: numbers. Lots of numbers. I love it so much.

Gravity Hook HD
Even more so than Osmos and Canabalt, Gravity Hook HD is, in my mind, the benchmark for how to make a game for the iPhone. Any given session of the game is short enough to fit into the kind of downtime I’d have if I’m already pulling out my iPhone and the level of interaction it requires of me is perfect for what I’d want to be playing on my phone in public. It’s actually a surprisingly difficult game to get used to at first — and I remember telling people that the flash game felt better for the first few days I was trying to play Gravity Hook HD (the flash game is also unlockable, as I later found out) — but once that initial learning curve has been passed, it’s just a solid game that I always can rely on for being a quick shot of enjoyment.

Lost Planet 2
I’m firmly convinced that Lost Planet 2 is the most underrated AAA game of the year. It’s a true co-op game that almost requires you to have two-four players playing to get the most out of at least a handful of the missions throughout the game but, hell, I enjoyed the game a great deal playing it as a strictly single-player affair. It’s a solid third-person shooter with, yet again, a Monster Hunter flair to the whole game. It’s not particularly well-presented and has one of the worst interfaces I’ve seen in any game this year, but if you can get past that whole thing, Lost Planet 2 is a strange, varied arcade shooter with a fair amount of character customization possible as you get random pick-ups from giant enemies.

The slot machine is the devil, though, pure and simple. As you play through Lost Planet 2 you’ll acquire enough credits to be able to purchase a spin of the slot machine and, every time, you’ll get something new, but what you really want is a new weapon. And the game taunts you as the weapon icon scrolls by and, instead, you get a new Street Fighter IV-like “title” to attach to your personal license plate-like construct.

And it’s great.

Other
There were some other games I played this year that I can’t quite fully argue their excellence to others or even myself, but that I still find noteworthy. I also wanted a section to briefly mention games that didn’t originally come out in 2010 (or that I did not play until this year).

The first and best examples of this are Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Alpha Protocol. I’ve already written about Kane & Lynch 2, but I still feel it’s a series which has a lot of potential. If nothing else, the visual style and atmosphere of Kane & Lynch 2 alone are worth playing through the game for (but it’s also a pretty okay third-person cover shooter as well). Alpha Protocol has an amazing dialogue system and a host of decent ideas all of which are executed at a mediocre level. That said, Alpha Protocol is closer to the kind of action/RPG that I keep hoping Bioware will make some day; it’s interesting, works at times, and provides a lot of dialogue and gameplay choices that are actually interesting instead of the throwaway shooter segments and ridiculous paragon/renegade system of Mass Effect 2.

I also tremendously enjoyed aspects of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (and, more recently, Battlefield: Bad Company 2: Vietnam). The single-player component of Bad Compnay 2, as I wrote about earlier this year, is a thoroughly disappointed change in design from the original Bad Company. Instead of a uniquely-Battlefield approach to a single-player mission (taking place in large, wide-open, mini-sandboxes), Bad Company 2 chose to move in a more heavily scripted, prescriptive Call of Duty-like mission design. It’s an experience which is saved solely by the excellent core systems which make the game up. The multiplayer of both Bad Company 2 and Bad Company 2: Vietnam is, however, absolutely superb. And the select button “spotting” mechanic which automatically marks a target for everyone on your team (or sets a squad order, depending on the context) is an incredibly clever feature.

I never got a chance to play Persona 3 when it was out Playstation 2, but with the reworked release of the game on PSP earlier this year I got my chance to play it. And, as everyone already knows, it’s great. It’s systemically deep, it’s got catchy music, the writing and universe is superb, and it’s simply a very well-made, unique, polished JRPG.

Some of my systemically favorite games that I played this year, though, all came from a Japanese studio called Sting Entertainment; specifically, Knights in the Nightmare, Riviera: The Promised Land, and Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone. Each of these games is unlike any other game I’ve played before and they’re all remarkably well-designed considering how different they are from one another. Knights in the Nightmare is a SRPG combined with a bullet hell shmup. Yggdra Union is an SRPG card-based game where you have a variety of characters on a grid and you can only attack once per turn. Riviera is an item-based SRPG whose closest resemblance is Ogre Battle in terms of its combat flow, but with a character customization/development scheme based entirely on mastery of individual (and limited-use) items. I haven’t really played any of these games enough to do a proper write-up on them yet, but that will happen some day.

And that’s 2010.

Trend-‘naughts

I feel compelled to follow the trend of making “of the Decade” lists. So here are the trends in games over the decade. I had a hard time determining my own criteria for what I considered to be an important trend. I decided on the following: an important trend is a recurring adherence to and iteration on a mechanic, setting, and/or execution of design over the course of the decade in games which appeal to the critical body (reviewers and pure critics) and myself or gamers I consider to share similar gaming interests. I’m also going to limit myself to a two paragraph maximum per trend (other than the first one) because, if I did not, the discussion of each trend would span several disparate walls of text. These are in no particular order.

Social Play

No particular order, but it seems almost negligent to suggest that any trend in this list trumps the emergence and popularity of social gaming. And I’m not referring to anything that Zynga or Playfish are doing with Facebook games right now because their long-term relevance seems somewhat dubious. It would be absurd to not mention their existence given their popularity the time of writing. No, social gaming is embodied in games like LittleBigPlanet, Rock Band: Beatles, Halo, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, World of Warcraft, and so many others. So essential is social play to the modern gamer that there have been a slew of games such as Left 4 Dead and Army of Two which put a focus on playing with a partner or friends (at the expense of the solo experience). And, more than any other major technological or game design advent of the decade, no one deserves more credit for this trend than Microsoft for Xbox Live. They’re not the first to have the idea of a major social gaming platform, but their execution, especially at the time, was unmatched.

It’s fascinating to watch the evolution of long-running series as they adapt to the changing gaming climate (and the cultural/economical relevance of Generation Y). Started in 1996, Resident Evil has had seven major entries into long-running franchise over the years. When the series trademark gameplay started wearing a bit thin around the days of Code Veronica (2000) and Zero (2002), Capcom retaliated with the critical and commercial hit Resident Evil 4 (2005). Capcom’s next major release, however, despite there being no need to deviate from the core design of Resident Evil 4, was the cooperative-focused Resident Evil 5.

Given the absolute cultural domination of broadband internet and services like Facebook and Twitter, which promote an enthusiastic mindset of the sharing of daily minutiae, the elevation of games as an active, social bonding experience between people is hardly a surprise. World of Warcraft is the logical next step from playing Dungeons and Dragons or simply growing up on games like Final Fantasy. Why play alone when your best friend is also on Xbox Live playing the same game?

Enjoyable Realism

For a form of entertainment whose consumers commonly cite the benefit of the medium being a supreme “escape from reality,” the biggest games of the decade are fundamentally grounded in reality. The Sims, one of gaming’s biggest mainstream phenomenons, is a game where players manage the day-to-day operations and routines of humans called Sims. Games like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport popularized the simulation racer with absolute commercial and critical success. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare took its trademark gameplay to the modern day and put players into implausible but topical scenarios in our shared concept of the world we live in. Grand Theft Auto 4 brought gave us a New York City sandbox to drive, kill, and steal in. Sure, they’re power fantasies, but they’re incredibly successful power fantasies that don’t reach to the depths of science fiction or high fantasy for their subject matter.

This is the one trend that I don’t have a thorough understanding of and any explanation I make is reaching into unfamiliar sociological depths. If I had to guess, I’d say the Internet and modern communication has had such a profound impact on the modern gamer and game developers to the point where real life is ceaselessly interesting. The days of sole pen pals from other countries are gone; every day, any day, anyone with an Internet connection can look up factual information on other countries and cultures and talk to people from them. Why go to space when games like Far Cry 2 can portray the beautiful, harrowing reality of Africa? That’s not to undercut the role of fantasy and science fiction, as the success of Halo and Harry Potter are huge, but the tight-knit integration of these titles with our own concepts of reality still holds true.

Emergent Story-Telling

Something that most of Nintendo’s games and every sports game in history realized ages ago is that the story the player tells is always more enjoyable and interesting than the one that a designer or writer tells. This is something that Maxis realized and embraced with The Sims (and even moreso in its two sequels). Designing zany behaviors and allowing (and encouraging) players to experiment with zany situations for their Sims will yield the most amazing play experiences. And looking at some of the major successes in gaming over the last decade which are actually major AAA games in genres that typically rely heavily on static storylines, it looks like designers are starting to try and adopt an emergent narrative design.

Games like such as Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2, and Portal all provide story layered on top of player-driven gameplay experiences. Left 4 Dead focuses on the interplay of very defined, well-written characters in a semi-random gameplay environment to flesh out the story of its game world as players engage with the game systems. Far Cry 2 provides a narrative impetus and little else as it lets its players loose into its world to achieve a given goal while the gameplay systems provide for a consistently dynamic and unpredictable experience. And Portal, while not actually having any emergent story-telling mechanics, has an entertaining antagonist provide the atmosphere for gameplay in a short game progression which ends up feeling far more free and dynamic than it actually is. None of these games are overly heavy-handed in the way they tell their story: once they give the player control of a character, they let the player define the experience. This is one strategy that Nintendo seems to have known all along.

Musical Play

We late-teens and twenty-somethings like music. A lot of us like video games too. Almost no one realized this quite like the partnership of Red Octane and Harmonix when they released Guitar Hero in 2005. Harmonix aced the utilization of plastic instruments as a medium into the cultural collective’s dream of being a rock star like no one before. It was popular and it worked well. When Neversoft took over the reigns with the forgettable Guitar Hero 3, though, Harmonix took their thought train to the next level: we like music and music is a shared experience. Harmonix realized that video games, like nothing else in the world — not even alcohol — has the power to bring four adult males together into a single room to pound on plastic instruments and sing “Don’t Step Believin'” at the top of their lungs. Alcohol is still nice, though.

I said almost earlier because, to me, no one realized the sublime combination of music and video games like Tetsuya Mizuguchi and the crew at Q Entertainment with 2001-2002’s Rez. A game which took some traditional ideas of what games were (reflex-dependent and progressive) and put that experience inside a digital soundscape unlike any other. The game provided a static musical track as a base line and every gameplay interaction layered ever-fitting audio cues on top of that to create what is still, in my mind, the ultimate music game.

Reward

Nothing keeps a game sticky like the Skinnerian model of reward smoothly integrated into game design. Let’s just set aside our thoughts about ethics for a moment.

I mentioned earlier that Microsoft was ahead of the game, so to speak, with the design of Xbox Live for the Xbox 360. One such way was the addition of persistent per-game achievements for every user. The advent of Xbox Live achievements introduced operant conditioning into the mainstream gamer’s expectation set for current generation games. And, as to be expected from such a form of reward, achievements took on a life of their own with every platform catering to seeming to cater to the commonly understood “core” gamer (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Steam) adopting some form of the mechanic. “Achievement whoring” is a commonly used and understood term in the lexicon of a current generation gamer and is likely to continue being so in the future. Even World of Warcraft, already the video gaming analog to a slot machine (putting aside virtual slot machines for sake of the comparison), added achievements to its arguably ethical list of ways to keep people playing.

The Loneliest Space Marine

Halo 3: ODST is about a group of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that drop into allied territory to fend off aggressive, hostile forces and complete some secret mission under the veil of a general liberation of the city of New Mombasa. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, all of the soldiers get off course and land in varied parts of a large city, isolated from one another, and in the middle of an urban warzone. If this sounds like material borrowed from the historic exploits of the 101st Airborne when they dropped into Normandy, I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence. What this setup allows ODST is the opportunity to cast the player as “The Rookie,” the archetypal new guy.

The Rookie begins ODST alone in the African “mega-city” of New Mombasa when he wakes up in his drop pod six hours after the initial ODST drop. When the Rookie comes to — presumably in the middle of the night — the city is largely abandoned by its human civilians and, instead, Covenant forces are idly patrolling the streets. With no real objective nor any idea of the events which have transpired while he was unconscious, the Rookie begins a trek through the city to piece together the events that transpired throughout the course of the day and reconnect with the rest of his ODST squad. The Rookie’s progress through the story is determined by a series of somewhat hackneyed narrative devices“relics” which he finds scattered about the city. The Rookie, presumably, uses the placement of these relics in the environment to interpret the entirety of the event (which all involve the happenings of his fellow ODST squad-mates) that caused this relic to, uh, exist. The mild awkwardness of the narrative presentation aside, the Rookie’s lonely escapades in the largely desolate night-time streets of New Mombasa contrasted against the more standard Halo mission fare present in the relic-inspired flashbacks is actually a gameplay structure that works very well.

It’s remarkable that in a franchise as ubiquitous as Halo, Bungie chose to take ODST in a direction that actively attempted to avoid the typical “War, Fuck Yeah!” space marine ethos. Over the course of the ODST single-player campaign, players spend about 30-40% of the game simply wandering the streets of New Mombasa as he/she makes her way to the next mission segment. During the course of this gameplay there are somewhat ‘random’ enemy encounters spread throughout the city. Sometimes players can evade these encounters, sometimes they can’t, but they’re pretty trivial combat scenarios in generally-designed encounter spaces. Then again, an encounter in a Halo game is rarely dull or routine. The Rookie’s gameplay sections do nothing if not to prove how durable Halo 3’s general combat systems are. Bungie also proves how much more interesting their combat system is when they limit the abilities of the player character rather than continually add systems on top of an already powerful Master Chief. The complete removal of dual-wielding, for instance, shows how much more interesting the Halo gameplay is when players have to make hard choices. When dual-wielding, players can have an energy weapon and a ballistic weapon in the same weapon set due to one-handed variations of each type of weapon. In ODST players can only have one weapon active at a time, which makes the typical yin (plasma) and yang (ballistic) combo all the more difficult — and rewarding.

The primary dilemma with the solitary exploration of New Mombasa’s post-invasion night life is that it’s an anemic experience unfitting the Bungie pedigree. Players are given a loose objective at the beginning of every segment and that’s the extent of the guidance given. The player then chooses to go from A to B via one of a two-or-three paths through the city streets (and occasional buildings). There just is not a whole lot to do along the way other than, maybe, find one of the thirty audiovisual logs spread throughout the city. And finding these bits of side-story are interesting, but they’re not enough to build a gameplay experience on. The gist of the exploration through New Mombasa is taking in the atmosphere and fighting. While Halo 3’s combat is pretty consistently engaging and interesting, combat for the sake of combat is rarely an enjoyable endeavor for players.

Players typically need their actions in games to feel like narrative progression, character progression, or the mostly intangible personal progression. Narrative/forward progression is progression from a starting point to an ending point in a game’s directed “campaign.” This is the primary means of progression in most single-player-enabled games. Character progression is the advancement of the character a player assumes in a game. In a lot of ways, character progression happens in parallel to narrative progression, but, especially over the last few years, there are a great deal of examples of character progression independent of story progression (especially in multiplayer shooters and MMORPGs). Personal progression is the player’s mental state of feeling like their skills are obviously progressing through their endeavors; most games teach players the skills they need as they ramp up from starting a game to finishing it. Some games, like EA Blackbox’s Skate series, actually utilize personal progression as the driving force of the game and offer players targeted opportunities to improve their skills throughout a thin narrative progression. It is incredibly difficult for games to properly frame personal progression in a way which feels obvious and meaningful to players. Skate accomplishes it by having the gameplay revolve around an entirely skill-based inner loop where no modifiers are ever made to the gameplay throughout the entire game’s progression. The entire game is centered around a skill-based control mechanism that never changes, but that is always guiding a player’s advancement through the thin character and narrative progression via the in-world treatment of the player’s character as some “rising star.” In a sense, reminding the player that the he has learned skills that maybe he only recognized in his reflex/subconscious memory.

Halo 3: ODST’s New Mombasa sections fail to ever make the player feel like he is accomplishing something. In ODST’s missions, which work in the typical Halo trappings, the player encounters new enemies, characters, and constant narrative progression. The dynamism of Halo 3’s combat mechanics prevent these segments from ever really getting dull; but that stark contrast that is drawn from the jumping back-and-forth between The Rookie and the more linear, structured missions in the ODST flashbacks constantly reminds the player that his time in the dimly-lit streets of New Mombasa are filler… Which is incredibly unfortunate because the solo experience in New Mombasa is absolutely beautiful; it’s a dedicated solo experience, encourages thoughtful progression through gorgeous blown-out, ember-filled buildings all taking place amidst a fantastic Film Noir-inspired score composed by Bungie veteran Martin O’Donnell.

As a quick aside, it seems completely irresponsible to see so many reviewers ripping on the ODST price. Having played the game now I am somewhat frightened over the amount of “price versus content” discussions surrounding the game. The single-player campaign is the length of a typical Halo campaign except, this time, there are no Flood. Not even a single Flood mention. Well. There’s a flooded city, but there are no Flood. And Firefight. ODST also includes the full Halo 3 multiplayer along with every map pack ever released for the game (which, arguably, is of negligible value since Halo 3 is an Xbox 360 staple, but the map packs may not be). Plus Firefight.

Oh, Firefight. Let’s talk about Firefight for a second.

Halo 3: ODST has a mode that is essentially Geometry Wars reskinned as Space Marines versus Aliens. And it is glorious. Four players in co-op have the opportunity to fight against wave after wave of Covenant within the space of a single, confined arena. Unlike Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, which is conceptually similar, Firefight feels like a mode that was actively treated different from standard gameplay. As four players advance through a Firefight session, ODST applies a number of the skulls from Halo 3 to the ruleset which force all involved players to rethink whatever strategy has gotten them to where they are. There are skulls which cut the amount of ammunition that the Covenant drop by about 75% (ie, ruthless), one which only allows players to regain stamina by meleeing enemies (more ruthless), and a skull which makes ballistic weapons useless against shields (not ruthless until famine is active at which point it’s evil). Basically, Firefight is Halo 3’s typically excellent combat system modified per-round and per-set to require players to think on their feet even more than normal while also providing a scoring system that is providing constant feedback and rewards to players who excel. It’s heaven.

ODST is a strange little package. It’s the best campaign the series, the glorious nature of arena shooters and intense four-player cooperative gameplay is alive and well in the game’s Firefight mode, and and the refined Halo 3 gameplay make for Bungie’s best production to-date. It somewhat saddens me to think that Halo: Reach may revert back to ever-powerful (and completely uninteresting) Master Chief, as going from the ODST marines to Master Chief in Halo 3 multiplayer was a completely deflating experience. That is, however, neither here nor there. Play ODST and experience Bungie’s least-hyped and most well-executed Halo since the series’ debut back in 2001.

Epic Scale

Narrative is an essential part of any game; I don’t think anyone ever denies that point. Even the most emergent game design has the goal of presenting some sort of narrative to its players. Story sets the stage for meaning (of gameplay). It frames the player’s context for the actions he engages in within a game world. When I rail against cut scene heavy games or completely non-interactive, heavy-handed delivery of a writer’s script to players, it’s not the story that’s the problem, it’s the presentation. In an ideal world, we, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing — the actions that players engage in and the feats they undergo.

When games give players the epic scope of saving the galaxy, destroying some reawakened ancient evil, or whatever other classical portrayal of good versus evil on a grand scale, they’re fulfilling gamers’ power fantasies. It’s hard to infuse any real intimacy into these scenarios. They’re inherently “cool” and maybe some of the characters were memorable for some specific reason, but the emotional bonds with the people met and the events that occurred are so far removed from anything resembling our every day reality. When gamers recall the events of Halo, the destruction of Halo and the invasion of the Flood. When we think about most Final Fantasy games, it’s hard not to think about the generic world-ending event that was the central story conflict. Even Mass Effect, a game which put such an emphasis on the people around the player for the beginning of the game, has its most memorable moments when some ancient alien race enters the picture to destroy the galaxy. If it weren’t for the sex scene, would we, as gamers remember any of the personal events in the game?

To look at the majority of games, one might think that gamers care only about saving the world. What happened to saving the guy/girl? Having an arch-nemesis that was bad because he was a believable form of corrupt human being that didn’t have a final form that takes up numerous screens?

When I think of The Darkness, I think of Jenny.

I recently finished playing through this game and while the premise of the game and the game mechanics is the existence of The Darkness — a thoroughly corrupt, evil, other-worldly force bent on death and destruction — the story was about love and vengeance. There is an absolutely brilliant scene in the beginning of the game where the game’s protagonist, Jackie Estacado, sits on the couch with his girlfriend Jenny. She makes some comment about it being her apartment so she gets to control the television remote control and she puts “To Kill a Mockingbird” on. At this point, Jackie and Jenny simply relax and watch the old movie. Jenny gets cold and cuddles up with Jackie, the two hold hands, and eventually she falls asleep. The player, at this point, can choose to just sit with Jenny as long as he wants and watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird. At some point, though, the player has to progress with the game and the story, and the mere choice of getting up and leaving Jenny on the couch while she sleeps is actually kind of a hard decision to make. Any player who allows himself to get immersed in the game should feel a sense of security and love during this scene while understanding the complete violence that lay ahead for the player and Jackie once the choice to leave the apartment is made.

Soon after, the game makes a stark, wide-reaching tonal change and becomes a story of revenge against a pair of, admittedly, very two-dimensional villains (though the villains remain very human, defeat-able foes). Despite how crazy The Darkness gets, the theme of the real-world portions of the game remain not only grounded in reality (aside from the player’s Darkness abilities) but focused on traditional mafia movie values of family, tradition, and respect. The game utilizes the fantastical nature of The Darkness to externalize the protagonist’s inner struggle with violence amidst a profound love he feels for Jenny. The Darkness (the entity) also happens to serve as the player’s entry-way to some fascinating and enjoyable gameplay mechanics.

The Darkness works so well as a game due to its focus and cohesion. Despite actually sending the player to an unbelievably insane vision of “hell” (it’s not hell, but it’s a good descriptor for people who haven’t played the game or read the source material), somehow it never feels like the player is blowing up the Death Star. It remains grounded in the conflict of its four central characters: Jackie, Jenny, and the two villains. It’s an intimate story that expertly informs the entirety of the player’s gameplay experience.

And as a result of that intimate focus, The Darkness is one of those games that will stick with me.

Revisiting Halo 3

Bungie’s original Halo, released for the Xbox in 2001, was a landmark console game. Aside from giving Microsoft’s freshman entry into the console arena a system seller and a uniquely Xbox cultural character, Halo was the best first-person shooter to be released on a console since the days of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. It had intelligent single-player gameplay consisting of varied enemy encounters in open terrain, solid gunplay, support for 4-16 player local multiplayer, and a perfect control scheme and input response. When Halo 2 was released three years later (with an astonishing increase in visual fidelity over Halo), the campaign remained largely the same but the multiplayer took advantage of Xbox Live and quickly became the multiplayer game of the console generation.

Halo 3’s predecessors made for a pretty rough act to follow. Aside from being the first Halo game on a new generation of consoles, what could Halo offer to the series that would have the same gravity as Halo 1’s general existence and Halo 2’s standard-setting multiplayer? The non-ending, second game in a trilogy sort of ending that Halo 2 had didn’t really leave Halo 3 much room as far as story and game universe goes; Halo 3 had to continue the saga of Master Chief, the Covenant, the Flood, the Brutes, and so on. As such, the single-player campaign for Halo 3 was left to gamers’ minds as a foregone conclusion: there will be more Master Chief, the loathsome Flood would have to come back, something about Cortana, the come-uppance that the Prophet of Truth has coming, and all of those other story threads that exist within the Halo universe as established by the first two games.

And that’s exactly what happened. Halo 3 is the kind of game that everyone expects to be excellent, polished, and all-around amazingly-crafted game experience. And it is. The problem with the single-player portion of the game is just that: it’s as expected. The original Halo came out in 2001 and its core design principles are still heavily intertwined into every fiber of Halo 3’s existence. It’s a game where none of the weapons have an iron-sights aiming mode, where players can run and shoot their assault rifle without noticeably increased bullet spread over standing still or crouching, and where players have one movement speed with no spring or stamina. In some ways, Halo 3 echoes of first-person shooters of yore, which focused on action, cool weapons, and input simplicity. Halo 3’s core mechanics are focused in a completely different area than so much of its competition.

What Halo 3 does is to provide a series of wide-open and interesting encounters for players to utilize every strategy, play-style, and tactic they have in order to complete the encounter. Halo 3’s best “levels” are not the ones with the most awe-inspiring scripted events or action-packed shooter segments. Halo 3 is at its best when a level is composed of a series of discrete encounters that span wide, open outdoor environments (which is in line with Bungie’s “30 seconds of fun” mentality). It’s a game about surveillance, execution, and reaction.

When a player first enters an encounter space, the enemies are almost always unaware of his presence. If there are marine AI entities following the player, they will stand still and remain inactive until the player makes his first move. During this time, the player is free to wander around areas which are very clearly outside of the enemy’s viewing range. Players can get an idea for enemy groupings and patrols, what kind of weapons they’re rocking, any hidden snipers, and valuable mid-battle weapon caches that will be of use once the encounter starts. The caches are particularly of note because regardless of a player’s first move: the resulting battle will never end with a swift, tactical execution of actions. Halo 3 is not a game like Rainbow Six where the best room entry is one where all enemies are neutralized simultaneously; Halo 3 is a game where players have to weigh the threat level of every enemy and attempt to take out as many high-threat targets in the first phase to ease the difficulty of the ensuing chaos.

A high-value target in the game is very dependent on circumstance. In some cases, the high-value targets will be vehicles or turrets which, if a player is on foot, are almost always more deadly than any single enemy soldier. In the absence of vehicles, the high-value targets are group leaders. Halo 3’s AI is organized hierarchically so in the absence of generally dangerous vehicles roaming the battlefield, the high-value targets for players are the leaders of a group. A group of Grunts will have a Brute as a leader and while that leader is alive, the Grunts are an organized and somewhat formidable arrangement of enemies. Once the leader is dead, though, the grunts are scatter-brained, frightened, and prone to just running away and hiding. I am unsure if group AI exists within a formation of higher-level enemies like Brutes, as later in the game there is a clear “Brute Leader” in a given pack.

Once the player has his plan of attack internalized, the execution phase begins. The player’s first action will be to take out the high-threat targets that he noticed during his surveillance; if he’s lucky, he can get maybe a fraction of what he had intended (the reality of his plans will become more clear through trial and error). At that point, all of the enemies in the battlefield are actively engaged in combat and will act within their series of groups.

And everything after the initial attempt at execution is, essentially, the reaction phase. When every enemy is in battle, players have to constantly be reacting to the death of squad-mates (who are only sometimes useful), the movement of enemy groups throughout the entirety of the encounter landscape, and the player’s own shield. A player’s shield can’t take much of a beating before it sends players into what feels like a near-death state when the shield bar is flashing red and the player feels like just one more hit would kill them. This is an interesting phase since, really, even up to Heroic level diffculty, players can actually take a surprising amount of punishment in the near-death phase. Halo 3 just makes that phase feel like near death to signal that players need to find cover imminently. At this point players will move from cover to cover — as Halo 3 is a “loose cover” game unlike the “hard cover” of Gears of War or Killzone — as they attempt to eliminate enemy by enemy on the battlefield.

Also during the reaction phase is the concern of weapon type, ammunition, and vehicle usage. One of Halo 3’s most prominent and important design principles is the focus on player motivation/movement through resource scarcity. Since no single weapon ever really allows players to fully “stock up” on ammunition, every player has the constant goal of finding ammunition or new weapons to use mid-battle. This forces players to adapt a roving point of attack throughout the duration of an encounter. Aside the inherent tension and urgency this gameplay feature adds, it forces players to see an outdoor environment as more of a “level” than simply an unnecessary, although attractive, vista. And the utilization of Halo 3’s incredibly fun and well-implemented assortment of vehicles lends an entirely new layer of complexity and replayability to the encounter as a whole.

The entire surveillance, execution, reaction concept is, essentially, the idea behind Far Cry 2 design Clint Hocking’s intentionality and improvisation idea (presentations: Intentionality and Improvisation). Which is that a well-done game based on emergent gameplay design allows for players to spend time formulating a plan of attack and then have a given game turn that plan upside down and force the player into a quick improvisational phase (reaction) where he forms a new plan of attack based on his new situation. It’s an excellent way of keeping players continually immersed in their combat experience by, essentially, tossing a wrench into the innards of what they thought was a well-laid plan. For most players, the fun of combat isn’t having everything go according to plan, but rather adapting to a plan gone haywire as a result of external factors.

Halo 3, like its predecessors, breaks down when this gameplay model is violated for the sake of narrative continuity and “variety.” Unlike the complex AI that governs the Covenant forces that players fight throughout most of the Halo games — the heirarchal AI that is incredibly easy to recognize by any player due to its human-like behavior in combat — Halo has always had “The Flood” come into the game at some point. The Flood are savage, unintelligent, and incredibly aggressive enemies that follow no real recognizable AI patterns other than: see human then attack human.

This strategy would entail its own set of player strategies and reactions if handled properly, but one of the issues with the Flood in the Halo games is that their introduction into the game world is almost always coupled with terrible, confined, indoor-heavy level design. The most egregious offense of which is the “High Charity” level in Halo 3 where players enter a Flood-invested ship from Halo 2. In this level, the entirety of the aesthetic is an orange, red, and brown-heavy color scheme coupled with thick murky atmospheric effects, and a constantly feeling of claustrophobia. This level is also incredibly confusing to navigate and results in numerous points of player confusion due to a complete dearth of recognizable interior landmarks and an overly organic architectural style which is not conducive to any player-recognizable sense of flow.

The Flood’s issues run further than any given level, though. Bungie has valiantly tried three times to make this alien race more palatable to its players, but the issue each time is simple: the Flood are visibly-brainless creatures in a game which has no need for them. The foundation of one of Bungie’s most talked-about design principles is the “30 Seconds of Fun.” I can’t find a definitive reference for this, but the gist of this principle if Bungie can make an encounter or scenario as fun as possible for thirty second bursts, then they can string together those scenarios back-to-back for an enjoyable gameplay experience. If this is the company’s approach to Halo 3 — a game which has a six-to-seven hour long campaign — why is there the need to add an entirely different enemy type which provides for a completely different play experience more than half-way through the game?

Hypothetically, a game’s campaign from a ludological perspective is the slow progression of a player’s mastery of the game up through the ending, which is the culmination of all of the player’s skills in some glorious ending segment. If we take this as the case for Halo 3, then the player learns the ropes of the game in the first level, runs out of new content for his primary toolbox around the half-way point, and is then required to think about everything he was taught in new, more profound ways as he is pit against increasingly difficult combinations of enemies as he nears the end-game.

The introduction of the Flood is essentially forcing a completely different style of play on Halo 3’s players just as those players are interested in taking everything they have learned about the game up to that point into bigger, more dangerous battles. Instead, they are forced to play a simpler, more run-and-gun play style against a variety of enemy who are strong and stupid in some of the game’s most uninteresting and traditional level designs. It’s a strange, undesirable thing to force upon a player who is, at that point, feeling like they “get” the game and are looking forward to applying their mastery on an entirely new level of encounter complexity.

This is all made worse by Halo 3’s treatment of the Flood being a surprisingly complex one. While the basic operations of the Flood are to attack the players with absolutely no care for their own well-being, the Flood this time around — and I didn’t play Halo 2 as much as the first or third game — are an incredibly dynamic, ever-changing enemy force. There is one Flood enemy that, from its base form of a squirmy, crawling Spore-like creation, can turn into a turret capable of mounting on any floor, wall, or ceiling or, alternatively, can turn into a hulking beast with enormous strength that’s incredibly hard to take down. And, while all this is happening, Flood spores are roving around the level looking for new bodies to infest and breathe life into that, but if the player manages to kill all of the spores then there will be less enemies to deal with. It’s a completely different type of enemy than the human-like tactics of the Covenant that the player sees throughout the other 80% of the game.

It’s hard to definitively say whether or not a Flood-less Halo 3 would have made the ending stretches of the game a repetitive, painful endeavor to complete. At the time of writing, I have played through the entirety of the Halo 3 campaign three or four times and I have played through the gorgeous, intuitive, and and well-paced introductory handful of levels a couple more times than that, so I know my response to that scenario. The Flood levels aside, a number of Halo 3’s more wide-open levels (some from the beginning and some from the middle) have always stood out in my mind as being some of the finest examples of what an action game can be if games open up their levels and expand the capabilities of their AI a little bit.