Is the gaming “awards season” dead? Five of The A.V. Club games writers’ top six games of 2010 were released by the end of July, turning the industry’s usual autumn Game Of The Year slugfest into something of an anticlimax (at least around these parts).
The reality is that 2010 was an unusually good year from start to finish. There were even pleas among the games staff to make this a Top 20 list. Instead, we went through two rounds of voting—with writers assigning a total of 100 points across their 10 favorite games, Pazz & Jop style—to whittle our favorites down to the list you see here. Because of ties, it’s a Top 11 instead of a Top 10, but this year felt about 10 percent better than usual, so we’re okay with that.
And since gaming doesn’t have to be all about the major studios, this year we’ve also honored five games that appeared in the Sawbuck Gamer column over the past 12 months. These more modest titles are unlikely to crack many game-of-the-year lists, but they’re still worthy of a second look.
9 (tie). Vanquish
Too many games come bloated with unnecessary features or modes that detract (and distract the development team) from the main event: the single-player campaign. Vanquish is not one of those games. It’s a ridiculous joyride and also an unapologetically lean adventure that has you sliding around on your knees in outer space, puffing on cigarettes, and firing off headshots on skyscraper-tall robots. Little gets in the way of the relentless gunplay, which is refreshing amidst a year of over-intellectualizing blowing up crap in a videogame. Best of all, Vanquish doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s disposable fun, sure, but more memorable and enjoyable because of it.
9 (tie). World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm
World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm significantly improves the game, whether you’re at Level 1 or Level 85. With the update, old zones have gotten a much-needed overhaul, bringing them up to speed with the graphics and gameplay innovations introduced in the expansion’s predecessors, Burning Crusade and Wrath Of The Lich King. There’s fantastic flavor for the two new races, and the high-level content is appropriately epic, with your character befriending and battling gods and ancient powers as the world around you seethes and burns. There’s nothing revolutionary enough about Cataclysm to change a hater’s mind, but there’s plenty to get any fan hooked all over again.
9 (tie). Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
A few sequels this year—like Crackdown 2 and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II— were thin attempts to squeeze a few more dollars out of an existing development team before shutting the whole operation down. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood defied that trend, broadening the horizons of an already-exceptional game, Assassin’s Creed II. The single-player story, which follows an aging Ezio as he transforms neck-stabbing into more of a team sport, is a fun journey. The real bonus is the multiplayer mode. Ubisoft avoided the BioShock 2 trap and created something that made sense for the broader game: a tense hunt through the streets of Rome where all the players have an assassination target—and a target on their backs.
8. Super Mario Galaxy 2
The medium’s most enduring experience remains the perfectly timed leap and subsequent landing found in any Mario game. It’s been around since 1985, and if Super Mario Galaxy 2 is any indication, it won’t lose its novelty any time soon. This follow-up to the 2007 original hits on plot points that anyone can recite by heart: Bowser is back. Peach is kidnapped. Mario must rescue her. Mario has a few new ho-hum suits at his disposal, but the real draw, in addition to those aforementioned leaps and landings, is the white-knuckle platforming action.
6 (tie). Fallout: New Vegas
Bugs be damned. Fallout: New Vegas is a meaty, quirky, and all-around mean follow-up to Fallout 3. There’s no touchy-feely parental relationship to weigh the plot down. And as a courier who got killed for the package they were delivering, players aren’t trying to save the world. Rather, the game is about survival, revenge, and comeuppance. Serving up those particular dishes is more complicated than it might seem, thanks to a tangled web of quests and conflicting allegiances. Players could easily get lost trying to work out all the angles. That’s the point.
6 (tie). Deadly Premonition
There are few games that exemplify a designer’s ambition outpacing their skill more than Access Games’ Deadly Premonition. The open-world horror game is at times staggering in its incompetence. The textures covering the landscape of Greenvale, Washington wouldn’t look out of place in a budget Nintendo 64 game, and the zombie-shooting sequences serve mostly as a barrier between the player and the fun parts of the game. That said, Deadly Premonition offers something downright inspiring for every one of its technical shortcomings. There’s an ugly world thick with idiosyncrasies and history, a vast cast of memorable weirdoes, and a fascinating lead in Agent Francis York Morgan. It’s better than getting to play Twin Peaks; it’s like getting to be Dale Cooper.
This small, damp smudge of a game arrived, inappropriately enough, in the beach-going months of summer. That partially explains the surprising, out-of-nowhere impact Limbo had. The simple mechanics, spare black-and-white aesthetic, and exposition-free narrative made Limbo less of a traditional game experience and more of a psychological—or perhaps even psychotic—episode. Helping this blinking shadow-boy through a dank forest on a quest to find his lost sister turns Limbo into the video game the Brothers Grimm never made.
4. Heavy Rain
Nothing about Heavy Rain made sense because it didn’t resemble any other game. And it still doesn’t. It’s a story-driven title that puts you in control of four flawed characters whose lives are all connected to a serial killer on the loose. Speaking of controls, everything is a series of quick-time events and the joysticks alone don’t make your character move. Even more unusual, your actions as these characters yield irreversible, rippling consequences. Though not a perfect game, it’s not hyperbole to say that Heavy Rain pushes gaming toward the next notch on its evolutionary chart. Risky and emotionally charged, Heavy Rain shows that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible in what we all can expect from games.
3. Red Dead Redemption
The developers at Rockstar aren’t perfect. Their dialogue tends to be painfully on-the-nose, their philosophizing on American values rarely transcends dorm-room levels of sophistication, and their lack of an editing eye leaves too much fat in the final product (case in point: Red Dead Redemption’s overlong Mexican sojourn). So how the hell does Red Dead manage to be so freaking good? One reason is John Marston, the conflicted mercenary who holds our attention as he seeks absolution, despite the Sisyphean futility of his quest. Rockstar’s social commentary may be ham-fisted, but they know how to tell the story of one man. Another key: the game’s entrancing sense of place. After earning perennial praise for its buzzing cityscapes in the Grand Theft Auto series, Rockstar’s ability to evoke the beautiful desolation of the West may be its greatest triumph.
2. Super Meat Boy
Indie developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes have heard tell of this “motion control” business. They have a vague awareness of “casual gaming” and other buzzworthy trends. The thing is, they don’t care. Gleefully frenetic, difficult, and family-unfriendly, Super Meat Boy is a virtuoso example of games’ hoariest form: the 2-D platformer. The sentiment is old-school, but the level design is decidedly fresh. Practically every level—and there are hundreds—has some signature twist of ingenuity, such that it’s hard not to admire Team Meat’s creativity, even as you’re hurtling into that deadly buzzsaw for the thousandth time.
1. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 pushes the limits of the traditional role-playing game, jettisoning the fiddly details of loot, stats, and gear into the cold vacuum of space. Good riddance. This streamlining allows players to invest more emotion in the plot and the many decisions they must make as they assemble a ragtag team of allies to confront an alien threat. The plot, cribbed shamelessly from Seven Samurai, has been thoroughly explored by filmmakers, but in a game where your choices determine who will live and who will die, the venerable story feels fresh again.
THE SAWBUCK FIVE
Five notable free or cheap games from 2010.
Angry Birds (Android, iPad, iPhone, various mobile phones; free-$4.99)
Unlike Farmville—that other game that proved impossible to escape this year—Angry Birds is hard to hate. The difference is that Farmville feels engineered while Angry Birds feels crafted. Though it made its debut in December 2009, the game only became a phenomenon as it was updated throughout 2010. With countless spinoffs planned, the rage might be on the verge of flaming out, but don’t underestimate the staying power of a simple idea executed gracefully.
Digital: A Love Story (Linux, Mac, PC; free)
Placing the player at the helm of an Amiga workstation circa 1988, Digital: A Love Story is an affecting tale of relationships forged over a series of 1200-baud connections. Jumping from one bulletin-board server to another, you pursue new friends despite the reality—dawning slowly in these early days of cyberspace—that a person’s online “identity” is as unreliable as the analog modem on which it rides.
Norrland (PC; free)
The sprawling oeuvre of indie developer Cactus grew further in 2010, most memorably with this pulsating, hallucinatory journey into the loneliness of rural Sweden. Norrland’s graphic rawness can be exhausting, yet the game’s bizarre visions are all the more vivid for it.
Space Miner: Space Ore Bust (iPhone; $4.99)
The digital storefronts for the DS and the PSP are ghost towns compared to Apple’s App Store, where elaborate, addictive titles like Space Miner: Space Ore Bust made iOS the darling of gamers with a commute in 2010. On the flimsy foundation of the arcade classic Asteroids, Space Miner builds a space RPG with depth and affable wit. The only downside: It’s so engrossing, you might miss your stop.
Super Mario Bros. X (PC; free)
Mario fans who are unsatisfied with Nintendo’s pathetic commemoration of Super Mario Bros.’ 25th anniversary—a no-frills Wii port of the 17-year-old Super Mario All-Stars—might soothe their sorrows with this fan-made gem. Remixing elements from all the NES and SNES Mario games, Super Mario Bros. X is a huge compilation of inventive levels and novel play styles, an extended riff that continues to grow as the SuperMarioBrothers.org community adds new episodes.