Friday, December 17, 2010

Gamer Melodico's Favorites of 2010

Ah, the end of the year. That glorious time when all publications, regardless of focus, like to take a moment and look back on the year that was. To weigh every single experience against all of the other ones, taking into account the myriad aspects of 365 days worth of criticism, writing and art. And then say "screw it," put on a blindfold and just pick one. It's fun, it's annoying, but hey: it's tradition.

Game of the Year lists are no different. This year's GOTYs have already caused enough pearl-clutching to shame a master jewel thief. We've seen Slate's always-entertaining gaming club go from kinda boring to really boring to really, really not boring. We've seen at least one publication run a top-20 list that so decimates all other lists in terms of scope and right-onitude that it almost seems pointless to attempt to compete.

So hey. We're not really here to name the "best" game of the year. We're here to talk a little bit about our favorite games from the year, as well as a few notable disappointments and games we didn't have time for but are still looking forward to checking out.

So, after the break, Gamer Melodico's favorite games of 2010.

Annie: My favorite game I played in 2010 was Machinarium. Yes, I know. Not the most action packed, nor the fanciest. I'm normally more of the "hack-and-slash" type, or the "ignore the mission and blow shit up on the veldt for no reason until I run out of malaria meds" type, but Machinarium was so compelling to me that I played the entire thing in one sitting over the summer while housesitting for some friends, getting up only to pee, take dogs outside to pee, and once to grab some take away curry from up the block, a tiny bit of which narrowly missed landing on my laptop. I mention the curry only to demonstrate how deeply entrenched in this game I was, that I could not turn away from it even for panang.

Thanks to a recurring DHCP issue in Airport cards, the existence of which Apple seems to deny entirely (and trust me, I did try everything), I did not have internet connectivity to my laptop that weekend, but I am actually glad of this in retrospect, because there were a few moments where I am sure I would have been tempted to look for a hint beyond those built into the game. But when you finish this game without one, you feel like a motherflipping genius.

When I finished at approximately 5 a.m. Sunday morning, I was triumphant, but also a bit sad. I knew it had been a singular experience, and there's not a whole to be gained from a replay of puzzle games. To ease my melancholy, I drifted off to sleep with the soundtrack (which comes bundled with the game, and is amazing) in my ears, and dreamt of making repairs to the robot city, and rescuing my robot loved one from the vile black-hat robot confederacy.

Runners up: Deathspank/Thongs of Virtue, Red Dead Redemption, Limbo

Biggest disappointment: Nier. Let me be clear on this: I still loved this game, and the aspects of it that I found disappointing were not the one typically cited, which include the text adventure section, the notorious fishing quests, or the idea that the characters all look as though they've gotten dressed by "running full speed into the bin behind a fetish shop". What bothered me most about this game was the ham-fisted boss fights. A fair amount of the bosses can only be defeated in very specific, clumsy ways, and you will be stunlocked to the point of chewing off a joystick in frustration.

That being said, I like the whole cross-genre, variety pack concept. Sometimes you can jump off a cliff and die, sometimes you can't. It's mysterious. I just wish it had been taken further, or made some self-referential nod in acknowledgement that the whole thing was intentional and meta. Otherwise, you end up writing long-winded crap in its defense, bracing against the inevitable barrage of "That game sucked!" and "You have daddy issues!". Fun fact: Nier's lead character was originally supposed to be an older brother trying to save his sister. I kind of wish they'd have left it that way.

Wish I'd played: Alan Wake, Mass Effect 2 (Shut up, the PS3 port's getting released in a month).
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Dan: There was a lot to love in 2010, but when I hear the words “Game of the Year” I can’t think of anything more deserving than Red Dead Redemption. Much has been said on this very blog about the game’s narrative missteps, to which I could add a volume of griping about the game’s wonky controls (particularly while Señor Marston is on foot). But when you get right down to it, the joy of riding, horseback, through the richly rendered border country was simply unmatched in any other experience I found this year. Between the desolate range of New Austin, the scorched geography of Nuevo Paraiso, and the snows of West Elizabeth, the world of Red Dead Redemption was a tourist’s paradise—and I enjoyed it to the last drop.

But let’s get back to that storyline for just one second, because I have to gush for a moment about one of the best closing chapters I’ve ever seen in a videogame. John Marston’s homecoming was more than just an antidote to the drunkards, quacks, banditos, and tavern whores that populate the rest of the game—it was also one of the most emotional, portent, and frankly cinematic presentations I’ve ever seen in the medium… And one that gives me a great deal of hope for the future.

Honorable Mentions: Limbo, Mass Effect 2, Fallout: New Vegas

Notable Disappointments: I have a feeling I’d have more ammo for this if I’d swallowed the Fable 3 hype this year, but I left that one on the shelf. And I’ve pretty much said my piece about Final Fantasy XIII, a game for which I had flutteringly heartfelt anticipation but ultimately left me cold. And while New Vegas sits in my honorable mentions pile, I have to admit to feeling a bit torn—on the one hand, I’m hooked! But, it’s also more of the same, and it’s hard not to feel like there’s something better I could be doing with the time that I CAN’T STOP MYSELF from investing in it. If 50 caps were sufficient to break the addiction, I’d probably pay up.

Wish I'd Played: Starcraft II (facepalm), Alan Wake (despite many opportunities to play this game, I failed to progress past the beginning of Chapter 2), Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (although I really haven't missed it just yet, I'm frustrated that I have yet to play it).
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Sam: Honestly, my Game of the Year is Mass Effect 2.  I think that it was brave enough to ditch what didn't work in Mass Effect, experiement with some new concepts and tried to push forward the narrative in some new ways, even if it understandably played things somewhat conservatively.  The addition of the DLC's, particularly Lair of the Shadow Broker, were really worthwhile both from a gameplay, narrative, and writing perspective, and the music for the game was pretty kick-ass overall.

Honorable Mention: Red Dead Redemption, Civilization V

Notable Disappointments: This is sort of unfair, but whatever: Fallout: New Vegas was a disappointment. THERE I SAID IT.  It's not that it was a bad game; in many ways it was excellent.  But overall, I was expecting more than what I received. I think the key issue here is that Fallout 3 was just a brilliantly executed title, but Fallout: New Vegas just felt like Fallout 3 DLC to me. There were great moments, but somehow things just rang hollow in total. Maybe it was the glitches and broken quests, maybe it was the fact that world just felt smaller, but New Vegas just wasn't what I was expecting. Again, I think this has to do with some overarching narrative weaknesses along with the more confined world feel than any one element.  If I'd never played Fallout 3, I think I'd've been stunned by New Vegas.
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David: "I beat Hot Wings in my quest to unite Patch Land and defeat the evil Yin-Yarn."

"That's nice. Do you know what time it is?"

"Oh right, sorry. Good night."

There have been many late-night conversations like this thanks to Kirby's Epic Yarn. My poor Nintendo Wii has been neglected as of late since most games that have caught my fancy are either on the PS3 or the PC these days. Kirby has brought me back into Nintendo's warm comforting arms. I don't hate Kirby like my fellow Gamer Melodican, Dan. I learned to respect the pink ball of cute when I was playing Super Smash Brothers years ago. 

Kirby's Epic Yarn is the videogame equivalent of Frodo's Phial of Galadriel. It brings light into dark places. Had a bad day? Play Kirby. Drug companies are probably losing sales from people quitting their anti-depressants and just playing Kirby instead. Yes, the game is kiddy, but there is a lot to appeal to the hardened gamer if you want to be a completest and collect everything. The game is so creative and wow, do I love the music. It reminds me a little of Vince Guaraldi in parts. Put down your Black Ops: real men play Kirby. Maybe I will make a t-shirt that says that.

Honorable Mention: Costume Quest- The Great Pumpkin of holiday-themed games. Please make another one, Tasha! Amnesia: The Dark Descent- Opposite of cute. My favorite Lovecraft-inspired game. Play in a darkened room with headphones and prepare to get creeped out.

Notable Disappointments: Epic Mickey. Such potential, but sadly unrealized.
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Kirk: Okay. I played a lot of games this year. I also read, wrote and talked a lot about games this year, and I have no problem admitting that the way that I think about games has changed a lot since January. If you'd asked me back in June what my GOTY would be, I would have told you Mass Effect 2, no question. That game swept me off my feet with its scope, vibe, humor, attitude, writing and incredible confidence. But then... the year progressed, and so did I. I read some great criticism of the game. I played it again, and re-evaluated my opinions. I played some other games.

Limbo made me stretch myself as a critical writer. I am thankful to that game for making it clear that often, the traditional product-review format we use when evaluating games simply doesn't apply. But although I loved it, Limbo was too cold, too dark (and with too muddled a third act) for me to call it my favorite game of the year.

I dismissed Just Cause 2 after only a few hours and then regretted it, all but publishing a retraction of my earlier post. I play that game to this day, and love it more every time I do. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light was a smashingly fun time in single player, and playing through the co-op with Dan made me realize just how incredibly well-made it really was. And I had a whole paragraph here about how Pac-Man Championship Edition DX was my favorite game, but I changed my mind because it seems too recent, like I haven't had time to critically parse the experience yet.

My favorite game of the year was Bayonetta. When I think back to everything I played this year, that game still stands apart in my mind. The screaming colors, the crazy-pants enemy design and soundtrack, and the crackerjack gameplay, with intent and execution flowing from my controller to the screen like a hornet swarm gone beautifully bananas... I'd never seen anything like it, and I still haven't.

Despite the controversy surrounding its larger-than-life, oversexed protagonist, I personally loved Bayonetta and felt empowered when I played as her. I loved her not because she was a leggy babe, but because she was a strong protagonist who didn't take shit from anyone, who leapt from her motorcycle and punched the gods in the face. I'm not very good at DMC-style combo-attack/juggle-your-enemies-in-the-air kinda games, but Bayonetta made me feel fast and capable. The action is insanely great—balanced, fast and ingeniously paced, and the witch-time mechanic is probably the most satisfying application of slow-mo since the original Max Payne.

When it comes right down to it, I haven't seen a game as confident or flat-out ballsy since, nor do I expect I will anytime soon. Whenever I return to it I'm struck by the depth of imagination on display (cheers, Hideki Kamiya), and even more than that, there's an unquantifiable aspect that so, so many games lack but that Bayonetta has in spades: Joie de vivre.

Honorable Mention: The games listed above, Deathspank, Halo: Reach, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, Minecraft, Costume Quest

Notable Disappointments: Fallout: New Vegas, CODBLOPS, Darksiders, Final Fantasy XIII

Wish I'd Played: Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Deadly Premonition, Starcraft 2, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, More of Super Meat BoyMetro 2033, Rock Band 3
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And that's a wrap! But we would love to talk with you in the comments about the year in gaming, your favorite titles, and to hear why our GOTYs are awesome (or why they suck). And if you would like to include a picture of your goatee, that'd be cool too.
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