Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2010: The Year In GAMES


- In 2010, the videogame industry was in a state of transition, and I think it's very much to-be-determined where things go from here. This past summer, I was lucky enough to attend the annual E3 Expo, and it was once again an amazing experience - complete sensory overload. There were a ton of great-looking games on display from all of the major publishers, and yet ... you couldn't help but look around and wonder if the gaming industry as we'd known it was slowly but surely going away. Were the genres that all of us grew up with giving way to a new breed of "casual" gaming? Were games being dumbed-down in order to appeal to mom and grandma? Was there room for both gimmicky motion-control games as well as deep interactive narratives? In theory yes, of course, there's no reason why everyone can't have the types of games that appeal to them. But in practice, it was clear at E3 that the big players in gaming would now be devoting A LOT of their time and resources to attracting this newly-sought-after group of "casual" gamers. It was clear that top development teams at Sony and Microsoft - rather than working on the next big blockbuster games - were instead being tasked with developing content for the Move and Kinect. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with those devices, and they can be fun in the right context and with the right games. But I think gamers had cause to be nervous that their hobby was being marginalized by an oncoming wave of motion-control shovelware. Increasingly, it felt like the "hardcore" games were getting more complex, more demanding, more insular, to the point where the learning curve for a new player and the time commitment necessary was simply too high. At the same time, casual games were getting so simple that they lacked challenge or depth. But it's not just that ... because, let's face it, the reason I put "casual" in quotes is because most of the time, the term is just a euphemism for crap.

In any case, I think what most gamers want, regardless of where they fall on the scale of casual vs. hardcore, are just great games. That can mean anything from Guitar Hero to Tetris to Halo. Good games are good games, and everyone wins when they are released. In 2010, a testament to this could be found in the downloadable games sphere, where arcade classics, retro-styled games, serialized episodic games, and indie art-games could all be found and purchased with a couple of quick button presses. Some of the coolest games of the last few years have been downloadable, from last year's epic 2D adventure Shadow Complex to this year's retro-arcade-style-beat-'em-up, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game, which like the movie was full of epic win. In 2010, I could even download the old-school, six-player X-Men arcade game directly onto my PS3 ... aka, my life was complete (actually, that will happen when I can get The Simpsons arcade game, but you get my drift).

But here's the thing ... even though E3 left me feeling a little burnt out on all things Move and Kinect, I am feeling a lot better about things going into 2011. Having had some time to catch up on some of 2010's biggest releases, I am encouraged - as long as games like Red Dead Redemption and God of War III are being made, I am a happy gamer. And, looking at what's in store for 2011, oh man, there is some sure-to-be-amazing stuff on the way. Uncharted 3. Batman: Arkham City. Little Big Planet 2. Mass Effect 3. Twisted Metal. LA Noire. Nintendo's 3DS console is on the horizon, and I can't wait to see what the Big N has in store for their latest piece of hardware.

And when I look at franchises like Uncharted, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Little Big Planet - I am encouraged. These aren't "hardcore" or "casual" games - they are just awesome games, period. Relatively easy to learn. Difficult to master. Great worlds, characters, stories, and gameplay - and that, my friends, is what it's all about.

I do sort of worry about the rise in iPhone and mobile gaming. While there are some innovative, fun games out there, I worry about a.) the lack of quality control, and b.) the lack of a true gaming push from Apple and others. Until Apple creates a device that is designed specifically to faciliate great gaming experiences (and sorry, but a touch screen won't cut it), I have serious reservations about counting the iPhone and iPod as a legitimate competitor to Nintendo or Sony. I feel like iPhone development is currently motivated simply by the device's huge user base, and not because there's anything inherently great about the experience that it offers. Some very clever games have felt 100% natural on the iPhone (Angry Birds is a great example), but most have not. I think Apple could be a great contributor to the gaming space if they dedicate themselves 100% to it. If Apple wants to create a gaming console, it would be a very interesting entry into the market. But do I want a platform on which gaming is still a relative afterthought to be a key player that sucks up development time and resources? Not really.

I still think that gaming is the future. When I look at a game like Uncharted, and I see how it eclipses every big-budget adventure movie of the last few years in terms of the overall experience it offers, I feel good about where games are at and where they're going. But games won't realize their potential through gimmicks, no matter how novel they may seem. There is a landfill somewhere filled with Power Gloves, Power Pads, and U-Force controllers that can attest to that. It's the overall experience that counts. It's the fluidity of gameplay, the immersion factor, that means the most.

There is definitely reason to be cautiously optimistic about the future of games. And there was plenty to play in 2010. So, keeping in mind that there are way more games out there than any one man can play, here are five games from 2010 that kept my thumbs busy and my imagination active:



- Rockstar Games continued to push the boundaries in 2010, creating an open-world Western adventure that features one of the most immersive, fully-realized worlds ever seen in gaming. This is the complete Wild West experience in game form - shoot-outs, saloons, outlaws, lawmen, horseback riding, and the open range. This is a game where you can uphold the law, break the law, or just ride around the vast countryside and admire the view. While there are times when the control can feel a little loose, the sheer magnitude of what you as a player can do in the game is insane. I'm still amazed that Rockstar took an underperforming franchise in a genre (Western) that was rarely seen in gaming and created *the* must-play game of 2010. I can't wait to see what happens when Rockstar takes a similar concept and applies it to 1940's Los Angeles in the upcoming LA Noire.


- God of War I and II on the Playstation 2 were some of the best action games of all time - balls-to-the-wall experiences that just kept bringing the pain. God of War III is quite simply God of War on crack. From its opening moments, the game propels you into the heat of epic man vs. god battle. The graphics are absolutely sick - perhaps the best and most impressive yet seen on next-gen consoles - surely the best this side of Uncharted. But to me, what makes God of War so incredibly fun is that the controls are near-perfect. So many action games feel too loose, to twitchy. Especially when we're talking 3D, action games often feel like you're only semi-in control of the action. Sure, God of War III can be a button-masher, but the instant response time means you feel directly responsible for the carnage being unleashed onscreen. Action gaming at its finest.

3.) NBA 2K11

- I'm not a diehard sports gamer, and I have to admit that I get annoyed with the fact that it's long been standard practice for new entries in the major sports franchises to get released EVERY year, usually with only minor upgrades from the previous edition. So when a sports game actually comes out that feels like something all-new, I sit up and take notice. And that's what happened with NBA 2K11, a basketball sim that feels like *the* definitive basketball sim for this generation. The game looks amazing, it controls like a dream, AND it's got the career mode to end all career modes - the ability to play through some of the biggest games and moments in Michael Jordan's career. And not only can you play as the classic Bulls, but fans who grew up with 80's and 90's basketball can select vintage versions of The Blazers, Jazz, Hawks, Celtics, and more. Now that's badass.


- If you're like me and grew up with arcade beat-'em-ups - games like Final Fight, TMNT IV, X-Men, River City Ransom, and more - then Scott Pilgrim is a highly-concentrated dose of retro goodness. The game looks like I dreamed games would look when I was 10, filled with gloriously colorful pixel art and hi-contrast hand-drawn backgrounds. The music is pure 16-bit-style goodness, and the in-game cut scenes will make those who grew up on Super Nintendo weep with joy. The game perfectly captures the spirit of the Scott Pilgrim comics and movie as well, filled with little touches that will make fanboys smile (The ability to summon a pissed-off Knives Chou to wreak havoc on badguys? Awesome.). Scott Pilgrim is the perfect example of what a great downloadable can be. For the low price, this one is also a must-buy.


- One thing that makes me a little sad about the current gaming landscape is the overall lack of high-profile made-in-Japan games. Back in the day, I grew up on a steady diet of Japanese weirdness, and with so many games now coming from America and Europe, I miss those unique Japanese sensibilities that characterized videogames in the 80's and 90's. Well, Bayonetta is the personification of the classic genre of "100% insane Japanese action game." From the makers of Devil May Cry, this game has you controlling a shapely, glasses-wearing witch who takes down legions of monsters with swords, guns, magic, and her hair. Yep, it gives whole new meaning to the term "whip that hair." Despite the crazy aesthetic trappings though, Bayonetta is just a great, full-throttle action game, very much in the tradition of DMC.

SPECIAL MENTION: It was released in early 2009, but in 2010 I finally got around to playing through RESIDENT EVIL 5. I'll admit, at first something felt a little off to me about the game. Perhaps it was just difficult to readjust to the older RE control scheme after playing games like Uncharted with much less-restricted motion. But once I adapted to the controls, I found RE to be just as intense and rewarding as previous entries in the storied series. With some of the best graphics I've seen on the PS3 and some unique co-op gameplay elements, I'm glad I took the time to revisit RE5.

SPECIAL MENTION: I know that one game that's conspicuously absent from my list is MASS EFFECT 2, which has been heralded as one of the best games of 2010 by numerous websited and publications. To be honest, I am dying to play this one, and I do in fact own it. Only problem is, I'm still slowly but surely working my way through Mass Effect 1. I kind of put it on the backburner for a while, I guess. But, rest assured, I'm eager to continue on with the series at some point in the new year.

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