Many of my favorite video games in 2010 can't be found at brick-and-mortar stores. This happens for me most years, actually; I dig around for games with new, risky ideas, and they tend to come from small teams with low budgets (and no distribution deals).
In years past, my out-there picks drew complaints and confusion—"What's a Braid?" "Where the heck is Call of Duty?" etc. etc. Lucky me, the tide is turning. I wrote here in October about the rise of micro-gaming: the short, cheap games, like Ma used to make, have made gaming history repeat itself this year. A quarter in the early '80s, good enough for a game of Ms. Pac-Man, is close to a dollar today—the sweet price for downloadable games on your smartphone.
This year, the number of people who've downloaded a cheap game, or borrowed someone's phone to play one, has reached critical mass. The classic arcade appeal has returned to our pockets and our Internet-connected game systems (where downloadable games reign at $5-15 a pop), a fact that our friends at the Tech channel missed. So here's to the new arcade, and to some of 2010's best games that you might have actually heard of.
Two Games a la David Lynch
MORE YEAR IN REVIEW:
Eleanor Barkhorn and Kevin Fallon: The 15 Biggest Entertainment Stories of 2010
Eleanor Barkhorn and Kevin Fallon: The 10 Biggest Sports Stories of 2010
The Atlantic Editors: The Best Book I Read This Year
The mystery adventure games Alan Wake (X360) and Deadly Premonition (X360, PS3) turned out to be two of the year's best guilty pleasures, though their first blushes are deceiving. Alan Wake, which follows a Stephen King-like novelist on a search for his missing wife, overindulges in bad narration, and DP, a carbon copy of Twin Peaks' "who killed Laura Palmer" plot, has the looks of a 2002 game.
Yet these Lynch-appreciative games do more than employ Northwestern scenery, oddball townsfolk, and rustic diners. They toy with our gameplay expectations with a wink and a smile, through intentionally campy scripts, claustrophobic fear moments, and what-the-heck plot jolts.
Monday Night Combat
"Desktop tower defense" games have been around for years, in which waves of critters come your way, and you mow them down by setting up little turrets and shields. It's an addictive formula (see this year's popular iPhone/PC game Plants vs. Zombies), but a small studio in one man's apartment turned the idea on its head with the sleeper hit Monday Night Combat (X360, PC).
In this online shooting game, players split into teams of six to destroy the other's base. Each player picks a class, from a strong-yet-slow gunner to a wimpy-yet-helpful doctor, then works out on-the-fly strategies (build turrets, create helper robots, team up to attack, pull back to defend) to prevail. This beautifully honed bit of online combat borrows from many other successful games to seem both familiar and fresh, and the variety of classes and splash of humor make this easy to enjoy even for new players.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
If you ever want to believe that games can be compared to films—and legitimately so, not merely because the comparison pool is so diluted—then Enslaved (X360, PS3) is as close as the industry has ever come. Primarily, this plays like the popular God Of War series—run around, beat up robots, solve puzzles—but there's more, and it's not just the plot. The developers landed contributions from novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later) and actors like Andy Serkis (Smeagol in Lord of the Rings), yet the resulting story would be nothing without the game's facial animation tech. The main character Monkey's face lights up in ways that some of Dreamworks' dead-faced films could learn from, and Serkis' turn as the beastly hero is a complete performance—makes sense, since he helped with the motion capture, too.
Modern games wrestle with how to combine a great story with a game—maybe the actors should talk during the action, so as to not interrupt play, for example. Enslaved laughs off gimmicks and instead proves that when you bring a game character to life the right way, players will delight in wearing its virtual skin.
As of this year, every major home game console can run Netflix's streaming service with a downloadable app. This Trojan horse has been the tipping point to get video games into more homes—and to connect more consoles to the Internet, where people can find many of the new, downloadable games that folks like me go crazy for. If you want to call Netflix the "game" of the year, I won't blame you.
- Amnesia: The Dark Descent (PC): A horror game that, unlike most others, removes the weapons from your hands, instead chasing you around with particularly psychotic elements. The game asks you to play it with the lights out and headphones on. Do so at your own risk.
- Recettear (PC): This Japanese game mocks the RPG genre by focusing on the dinkiest part of those games: the item shop. Run a little shop of your own and haggle with anime-looking characters on the price of a broadsword. Think of it as Diner Dash for the D&D set.
- Risk: Factions (X360, PS3): Play the board game hit with classic rules or a nicely updated set of "objectives." The silly art style helps, as does the sped-up dice-rolling.
- Helsing's Fire (iOS): Move a candle around on the touchscreen to redirect light and destroy critters. Some critters get stronger when hit with light, which means you'll also need to use shadows to your advantage. An amazing mechanic.
- Ninjatown (iOS): Like most iPhone games, this one's a mindless timesink, but it's my favorite. Cute, bubbly ninjas crawl up an endless tree with oddball super powers.
- Minecraft (PC, Mac): Technically, this LEGO-like exploration game launches in 2011, but a playable "beta" version has already sold over 800,000 copies. Keep your eye on this one.
Retail Game Roundup
I also reviewed Halo: Reach last month, which I still believe is the year's best shooter. Not even Call of Duty can touch its mix of shameless, movie-level bombast, crafty enemies, and massive online portal. A few other faves are below.
- Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii): So beautiful; this game renders its world and inhabitants as if they're made of hand-knit fabric. Where this game really shines is how it scales. Kids and new players can get through with ease, but a "find all the jewels" system means obsessed players will have a lot of creative puzzles to solve, too. Consider it the Wii's best of 2010.
- StarCraft 2 (PC): The national sport of Korea got an upgrade this year, but even more impressive than its online tournament system is how Blizzard Entertainment transformed the franchise's blatant cheese into a solid, solo adventure. It's one of those rare quests where every objective makes logical sense, keeping the player enjoyably occupied (and teaching the game's complex military strategy without fans ever realizing it).
- Just Cause 2 (Xbox, PS3, PC): People rave about the open-world play of games like Red Dead Redemption, Fallout: New Vegas, and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, but I don't have time for their plodding plots and game-crashing bugs. If you want a big, open world to blow things up with little fuss, Just Cause 2 is the year's ultimate action-movie sandbox, full of Bruckheimer-level inanity.
Best of the Year
Video games allow us to fake our way through experiences that are otherwise out of reach. Control a full NFL team. Save a princess. Even the Wii's popular tennis and bowling modes are crude facsimiles of the real thing.
Dance Central, for the Xbox 360's Kinect add-on, is different. By using full-body motion tracking, this game delivers a 1:1 evaluation of real dance moves. The activity for which you score points is the same as the activity in your living room, and no other video game has pulled this off—let alone so successfully and with so much fun. With equal parts novelty, tech, energy, silliness, and accessibility, Dance Central is my easy pick for video game of the year. Here's to hoping the rest of Kinect's library can catch up.
The App Store ecosystem. It's hard to single out a game for iPhone this year, especially since many of the biggest hits saw their debuts last year. So I can't laud the hugely popular Angry Birds, but not just because it too launched in '09. The game's touch-to-fling mechanic feels great, sure, but the puzzle design is some of the worst in an iPhone game.
It's a funny thing, its success. Angry Birds had no promotional budget, and most outlets didn't step up with a review until the game had sold its millions. Yet business as usual doesn't matter in the App Store ecosystem. $1 games and ad-supported freebies are getting into millions of hands that otherwise don't play "traditional" video games. Still, inherently, people love games, as much as they love sharing and talking about them, and thus the "little" titles, like Strategery, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, Infinity Blade, and Lilt Line, keep getting word-of-mouth raves and selling big.
The new American gamer spends $1 at a time the way we used to burn through quarters.