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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.