Well, it has reached the time of year when we harvest the crop of retrospectives, the best-of and worst-of lists that one can accuse of gratuitous iconoclasm, corporate servitude, or trolling as suits your fancy. I continue my habit of not naming a “Game of the Year”, nor even a “Game (that I played) of the Year” because it’s a hollow designation, and (rightfully) nobody cares. That said, since it is customary to roll out some kind of year-end wrap-up, here is one.
Ten games that deserved your attention:
Brotherhood doesn’t alter the single-player formula too much from Assassin’s Creed II, and the major changes it does make mostly don’t really improve the game. It’s a decent expansion, but not much more than that. The multiplayer, however, was something special. More about that below, but for this space let me just say that I appreciate a major franchise that’s unafraid to experiment with its formula. Brotherhood isn’t a major departure for the series, but it’s more experimental than would be dared in many major franchises I could name.
The vision of Batman promulgated by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns has dominated popular views of the character for decades now, becoming increasingly tedious every time he appears. Unfortunately, lighter takes have tended to overreact, redounding almost all the way back to the odiously campy Adam West Batman. Not so with The Brave and the Bold, a TV series and game that manage to find the wry wit and personal awkwardness that make funny Batman work. The level design isn’t ideal and there’s a bit too much posturing for the kids, but the lovely artwork and great in-jokes made this simple co-op beat ’em up a joy to play.
BioShock 2 is mostly a game about examining the other side. The player is put on the other side of the Rapture ecosystem, confronting a philosophy that’s a mirror image of Andrew Ryan’s, with characters who were failures in Rapture, and even gets to see the city through the eyes of a Little Sister. Not all of these perspectives are as interesting or as persuasively explored as I might have liked, in part because the game just wasn’t very interested in Sophia Lamb’s ideals. Where it surpassed the original, however, was in producing an emotional connection to its characters. At the end, the Family was defeated, but family was triumphant. The exceptionally good “Minerva’s Den” DLC was also a worthy coda (see below).
Yes, I will put a game I disliked in this list. Deadly Premonition is not a great game, and in many ways it is not even good enough to be called mediocre. I could (and did!) spend hours cataloging the serious flaws in the driving, the writing, the interface, and especially the combat (about which more below). However, for a certain kind of person (an especial symptom is if you are a Twin Peaks superfan) Deadly Premonition is a very rewarding experience. The game is cheap enough that you owe it to yourself to find out if it’s for you.
The most ridiculous entertainment value on the XBox 360 comes from the Indie Games, where you can almost always find something fantastic for less than $5, if you’re willing to try to dig it out from underneath the scores of useless avatar games and massage apps. Epic Dungeon is a case in point: an action-battling rethink of the old turn-based Roguelike formula, with some interesting gameplay wrinkles and just enough humor to relieve the tension, all for $1. There’s no deep story or involving graphics here, but there is a lot of well-balanced fun.
Some people don’t like Limbo, and I can understand why. If you view a game as being a set of rules that the player must master, then Limbo is a terrible game almost by definition, since the rules change constantly, unpredictably, and without warning. That said, I don’t agree with, say, Mitch Krpata’s take, because in my view Limbo is about how it feels to inhabit a world full of rules that you don’t understand and seem to change capriciously at a moment’s notice. That is, it’s about the dark side of being a child. In that respect, I felt it was enormously successful, even if its creativity and atmosphere trailed off in the last third of the game.
The exceptionally resilient enemies you faced sometimes turned combat into a form of participatory comedy, and the game approached immersion in contradictory ways. However, Metro 2033 was one of the year’s best games when it came to creating atmosphere. The oppressive darkness of the tunnels, the desolation of the surface, and the tension and fear of working your way around the humans who are busy slaughtering each other were all magnificently realized. The level design and enemy AI could have done with a lot more work, but the visual and audio design were top notch.
Nier doesn’t do anything different from a dozen other games, but what’s notable about it is that those dozen other games all come from different genres. Starting from a basic set of third-person combat mechanics, Nier twists its core rules into new shape after new shape to suit what’s going on in its story at that moment, bouncing from classic JRPG to survival horror to isometric dungeon crawler to shmup to text adventure. Gluing this madness together is a group of truly unique characters that defy genre tropes, a story that’s emotionally resonant without being cloying or sappy, and some unusually clever loading-screen design. Oh, and an incredibly pompous talking book. If it hadn’t been for the fishing and the excessive light bloom, Nier would be just about perfect.
It stalls and nearly dies in its enormously wrong-headed second act set in Mexico, but Red Dead Redemption recovers for what may be Rockstar’s best ending ever, one that truly redeems its hero John Marston from his murdering ways. In a year where several of the best games were centered on relatively simple relationships between fathers and their adoring young daughters, Red Dead Redemption successfully tackled the thorny matter of a father trying to get along with a fitfully maturing teenage son. Add that to its wish-fulfilling Western gameplay, and you have what may be the best all-around game to come out of the GTA open-world model.
Atlus’ Trauma games have always let you play E.R., but the newest entry also gave you the chance to play House and C.S.I. while you were at it. By expanding the gameplay options and dialing back the difficulty they managed to produce a much more accessible experience, girded by strong characters who grow in interesting ways (albeit incompletely). Endoscopy was poorly designed and overused, and the story was not as grounded in actual biology as I would have liked. Nonetheless, the game overall was a real triumph and one of the most enjoyable I played all year.
Other games I enjoyed this year:
Fallout: New Vegas was a good game that just didn’t make the most of what it had to work with. Infinite Space was interesting and sadly inaccessible. I loved the combat and boss design in Bayonetta, but hated the QTEs, every character not named Bayonetta, and, you know, the general perviness. Bully and The Saboteur were both goofy and fun open world adventures that aren’t from this year. Costume Quest was charming, but its RPG battling was kind of dull once you got past how cute it was. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future was just more Professor Layton, which is fine but not very interesting anymore. Fragile Dreams had an interesting premise and lovely visuals that weren’t served by the game’s often-poor dialogue, dated RPG systems, and uneven treatment of its themes.
Pleasant Surprise: AC: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer
My expectation was that Brotherhood‘s multiplayer would be an extension of the parkour gameplay from the single-player campaign, resulting in deathmatches with a dozen people scrambling around on rooftops like idiots, trying to chase each other down for a splashy, leaping execution. Instead I got a mode based on acting like a Templar, that rewards calm, considered play, where it’s more important for offense and defense to approach your target without drawing attention to yourself than to get to him as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t say I’m great at the multiplayer, but I’ve really enjoyed it and will probably continue to do so for some time.
Unpleasant Surprise: Alan Wake
Honestly there are several games I could have put here. Alpha Protocol, No More Heroes 2, Singularity, and Mafia II all were serious disappointments to various degrees. Nothing was as off-putting to me as Alan Wake, however, a game that tried to pass itself off as a serious story about the interface between fiction and reality and ended up being a tiresome ten hours of a writer shooting mooks in the woods. He wasn’t even a good writer. What’s most disappointing about the game is that there were hints of an amazingly cool mechanic in its final seconds, where Alan is illuminating words to create the objects they denote. You’d think with all the development time that the game went through, somebody at Remedy would have realized that this was the way to go.
Best Moment in a Game: The ending of “Minerva’s Den”.
This was actually close, because the otherwise terrible Mafia II has a marvelous scene where protagonist Vito’s drunken friends sing along with “Return to Me” in the car, and this expansion’s parent game has two excellent and satisfying endings (as well as one that was less so) to go with the wonderful “little sister” segment. However, the quiet, reflective final moments of “Minerva’s Den” win the day for me. The combat-free exploration of Porter’s private area and his shrine to his wife provide a fitting denouement after the frenetic final battle, and implicitly recognize that a key attraction of the BioShock games is in coming to an understanding of Rapture’s characters and how they came to build and destroy the city under the sea. There’s no big reveal here, and nothing that definitively puts an end to the saga of Andrew Ryan’s city. But, after Sigma enters the bathysphere it’s obvious that there’s nothing left to say.
Worst Moment in a Game: The cathouse, Mafia II
This one was not as close. The Mafia II mission that terminates with the lovely moment in the car begins with a trip to the local cathouse, where Vito and his friends pay for the attentions of some women who, like most in the game, are nameless. One of the pals receives oral sex from one of the women, and later refers to her as a “fucking cum dumpster”. It’s the most gratuitously crude moment in a game afflicted with an embarrassingly juvenile and misogynistic take on sexuality. The terminally dull driving and by-the-numbers shooting made Mafia II a waste of time to play, but moments like the cathouse made it outright disgusting, and easily my least favorite game of the year (although the sheer incompetence of the craftsmanship forced me to give Alpha Protocol a lower score).
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: The combat system, Deadly Premonition
This was mystifying in several ways. The first was that it was included at all — as Dan mentioned in his series of posts lauding the game, the shooting doesn’t really have anything to do with what Deadly Premonition is actually about. Moreover, it’s incredibly awful. I can imagine a clueless executive refusing to greenlight a game without a combat system, but I cannot imagine anyone approving this. The system’s intention of mimicking Resident Evil 4‘s gunplay is evident, but incredibly, it manages to get absolutely nothing right about the implementation. The responsiveness of the reticule, the AI and movement patterns of the enemies, and their ludicrous bullet-sponging all conspire to make these the most startlingly incompetently executed gunfights I have ever played. The horrible combat was a significant reason why I saw Deadly Premonition‘s gameplay as a blundering, wrong-headed attempt at homage rather than, as Dan does, a sharp satire on genre conventions.