Its hard to believe that we’ve reached a point where most of the current generation of video game consoles are now four or five years old. The traditional technology curve of video game lifespans would suggest we should be on the cusp of a new generation of consoles but so far, none of the big three companies have blinked and all are pushing ahead with their current models. The cost of game production has soared and in the current economic climate, it doesn’t seem to make sense for any company to launch a new console that pushes the graphical boundaries much further. In particular, the once mighty Japanese software companies seem to be struggling with the existing generation of consoles with both the latest instalments of Final Fantasy and Gran Turismo taking the better part of half a decade to produce.
That said, all three major hardware developers have dipped into some kind of hardware peripheral upgrade to keep their consoles fresh. Last year Nintendo released the Wii Motion Plus which has turned out to have some rather shitty software support. Only a handful of titles came out this year that require Motion Plus and I can’t really think of any of them that captured the gaming public’s attention. This year, Microsoft and Sony both launched their casual-market targeted add-ons: The Playstation Move and the Xbox Kinect. The Move promises to be a more refined variation of the Wii remote and the Kinect eschews the concept of a physical controller entirely and lets the player control the game with voice and body movement. I haven’t tried the Move yet but the Kinect is certainly an interesting offering. I’ll write in more detail about the Kinect soon.
One gaming market that completely died in the arse in 2010 for me personally was the handheld market. I never really got a whole lot of use out of my PSP but in year’s past, some of my favourite titles were played on the Nintendo DS (Mario Kart, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Professor Layton etc). This year, my DS was collecting dust for most of the year and even the most recent offerings of Professor Layton and Ace Attorney felt pretty tired. Happily in 2011, Nintendo will be releasing a new hardware product called the 3DS which should liven up the portable gaming space significantly. It is expected that Sony will follow suit with a successor to the Playstation Portable. Rumours suggest a hybrid game device/mobile phone is in the works.
Anyway, here’s my ten favourite games of the year. As with 2009, it’s pretty heavily slanted towards the Playstation3 and the Xbox 360. Although there isn’t a great deal of variety in the consoles, there is a healthy variety amongst the games themselves with a mixture of old IPs and new across a range of different genres. I’ve added in brackets which format I played the game on.
Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360) – Game of the Year
An excellent continuation of Bioware’s big budget expansive space opera franchise. For players who completed the first game, it is a treat to be able to take the same personalized character and build upon their story even further. Key decisions you made in the first game also directly influence your experience in this second instalment. The overall story arc, although more functional than inspired, is still hugely entertaining to see unfold.
Halo: Reach (Xbox 360)
The final Halo game from Bungie sees the developer go out at top of their game. This is easily the most cinematic and expansive campaign mode of the series and I loved how they tied the ending to the game directly to the opening scene of the original. The introduction of powerups into the multiplayer mode gives it a new lease on life and the quality of the multiplayer maps and the size of the community playing it make it one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences to be had on the Xbox 360.
Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)
This open world Western from Rock Star has a tendency to overwhelm at the start. There is just so much to see and do. Yet despite the scale of the environment, there is plenty of care that has gone into the minutae of the world with plenty of secrets to unlock and some wonderfully imaginative side quests and characters. The highlight of the game for me though is the memorable ending. Although most people should be able to pick what will happen, it makes it no less thought provoking or interesting to experience. I only wish more games would put the time into delivering such a satisfying closure. On a final note, the soundtrack is also of an uncommonly high standard.
Rock Band 3 (Xbox 360)
This latest instalment of Rock Band fine tunes the campaign mode, adds a litany of filter options to help navigate the hundreds of tracks that are on offer and adds options that will teach you how to play the actual keyboard and guitar tracks on songs, note for note. Too bad hardly anyone bought this game because it is rhythm gaming at its finest.
Dance Central (Xbox 360, Kinect)
Currently the best Kinect game on offer, Dance Central takes the template Harmonix created with Rock Band and applies it to dancing. Put simply, it works. The game has a broad enough range of tracks and moves to be accessible to both nightclub regulars and wallflowers like myself. Its incredibly fun to play and hopefully one day they can get around to adding Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Surely it has to happen!
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (Xbox 360)
This game flew under the radar during its development but Ninja Theory’s video game adaptation of the Chinese literary tale Journey to the West is an entertaining action adventure game made all the better by the strong script from Alex Garland (The Beach) and voice acting from Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings). The ending is kind of a letdown but the journey itself is plenty fun.
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
The sequel to one of the greatest 3D platformers ever made shows Nintendo still have plenty of fantastic ideas and incredible imagination in their level design. Just like the first game, SMG2 is a toybox full of different play mechanics, colourful environments and pixel perferct platforming. As someone whose video game passion came intially from a love of platforming games, it bums me out that the genre isn’t as popular as in its heyday fifteen years ago. That said, as long as Nintendo keep releasing games like this, I’ll be a happy camper.
Yakuza 3 (Playstation 3)
This third instalment in Sega’s crime family franchise starts off rather unexpectedly. Protagonist Kazuma Kiryu has retired to the island of Okinawa where he runs an orphanage and is kept busy for the first few chapters of the game keeping his new family of children out of trouble. However, a corrupt land deal with a politician and a family member once thought to be dead soon bring the Dragon of Dojima back to Tokyo with a score to settle. This remains a uniquely enjoyable series that blends light RPG elements with side scrolling beat ’em up gameplay. I like that it references actual political issues like the prescense of American military bases in Okinawa, something you rarely see in video games. A curious series that happily, keeps on chugging along despite its rather tepid commercial fortunes.
Final Fantasy XIII (Playstation 3)
This game has some absolutely terrible characters and an incomprehensible story. It also eschews RPG staple features such as explorable environments, sidequests and experience points. What it does do well is deliver an absolutely brilliant combat engine and it has gorgeous graphics. For me, thats pretty much what I was after and Final Fantasy delivered those elements in spades. A highly polarizing title that disappointed many fans, for some reason I was able to derive immense enjoyment out of this game despite some of its very noticable shortcomings.
Heavy Rain (Playstation 3)
A bit of time and reflection has made me appreciate this game more than when I first played it. David Cage’s latest go at interactive cinema is an enjoyable thriller about a serial killer on the loose and four different interconnected characters who are in some way connected to the killer. Some of the dialogue is a bit ropey and I still feel like Cage has a bit of a weird attitude towards women that comes through in his games but then there’s still plenty to appreciate about what is attempted in this unique game.
Some other great games that didn’t make my top ten list:
Kinect Sports (Xbox 360) – some of the events are hit and miss but everyone should give multiplayer Track and Field a go. Its a bona fide party game classic.
Alan Wake (Xbox 36) – the execution was a little disappointing but I’m still happy that someone decided to have a go at making a video game homage to Stephen King thrillers.
Call of Duty Black Ops (Xbox 360) – the latest yearly instalment in Activisions biggest cashcow borderline fetishizes military conflict and seems surprisingly blase about its portrayal of torture and killing real life political leaders. Yet its hard not to get sucked into some of the incredible set pieces that the campaign mode has to offer with its high production values and excellent graphics.
Bayonetta (Xbox 360) – A hilariously absurd action game centred around a Sarah Palin look alike who summons demons with her hair and wears stilettos that shoot bullets out of the heels.