Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of the 2010: The Rest

As the holidays are quickly coming to a close and my work load is about to increase, I've decided to be a lazy bum and condense the rest of my faves from 2010 into one post. Without further ado, I bring you The GAMES of 2010!!!

In no particular order...

Epic Mickey
I've written about this one a lot -- and not always favorably -- but if you can get past that your playstyle doesn't matter as advertised, it's still a wonderful linear platforming adventure. The world and characters has more charm than just about anything I played this year, the story was fantastic, I found the moment to moment gameplay compelling, and it was up there with Nier as having the best soundtrack of the year. Not quite the masterpiece I was expecting, but a noble effort that really stood out to me.

The second most original game I played this year (next to Deadly Premonition). It doesn't do any one thing new, but its constant shifting of genres and tones made it feel extremely fresh all throughout. Characters are extremely memorable and don't fall victim to the usual stereotypes we see in these sort of games, and there's at least half a dozen fascinating vignettes placed throughout. Few games this generation have managed to consistently surprise and delight as well as Nier.

Deadly Premonition
The most moving game I played this year. It's rough as all hell with terrible combat and driving mechanics -- making it one of the only games I'd recommended having an FAQ handy for -- but if you get past some poor mechanics it's got a good story and probably my favorite protagonist in any game, ever. Francis York Morgan has stuck with me all year and I expect will stick with me for years to come. Deadly Premonition's unusual brand of offbeat humor and disarming melodrama make it stand out among anything else I've played in years. It's not "so bad it's good," as some reviewers have claimed, but genuinely fantastic.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
I know a lot of people have written this off as a God of War clone, but I thought it was better than that series in almost every conceivable way. The combat system, the biggest component of the game, was head and shoulders better than that in Kratos' swan song. I loved the light and dark magic mechanic which really encouraged players to vary their attacks. Elsewhere, it had great pacing (after the first couple chapters anyway) with an increasing focus on puzzles, marvelous atmosphere and art direction, and an epic scale. The storytelling was perhaps the only weak link in this otherwise grandiose action/adventure.

I reviewed this one over at Gamecritics. I don't have much to add that isn't in the review, but I'll just say that I don't usually like cover shooters, yet Vanquish managed to subvert that into a very fast-paced, tactical, shooter unlike any I've ever played. We've seen cover, slow-mo, and sliding before, so why did it take so long for someone to combine them?

Tales of Monkey Island: Season 1
Okay, so this came out last year, but its definitive console port on PSN came out this year and that's how I played it. I've not played a point-and-click adventure since Grim Fandango that's lived up to how I remember them being in my youth... until now. Not perfect by any means, but it got all the charm and whimsy of the Monkey Island series spot-on and more importantly showed me that I still have the patience and passion for these games that I thought I'd outgrown.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
I never expect to like these first party Nintendo games so much. Every time one comes out I think I've outgrown such shallow silly games, but when it's done right there's nothing else quite like it. SMG2 is hands-down the most fun I had with a game in 2010. While it's easy to write off as not very innovative, I'd argue that practically every level has some new idea in it. There's no major surprises -- it doesn't all of a sudden become a text adventure (like a certain game on this list starting with an N) -- but the devil is in the details, and every little facet of Mario's second romp around the cosmos is filled with unexpected goodness.

And to be comprehensive, I already wrote about Donkey Kong Country Returns and Bayonetta. I guess that makes it a Top 9. Beyond that, there's a few other standouts including:

Super Meat Boy - Very fun platforming goodness. I loved it, until I could take its abuse no more.

Limbo - Best graphics of the year, imo. Very stylish, well designed platformer/puzzler. I wanted a little more narrative depth, but hey, that's just me.

Enslaved - I'm still a bit peeved at this one for some major plot holes at the end, but it's otherwise got some of the best characters and art direction I've seen in a game this year. Really great time all around.

Bioshock 2 & Minerva's Den - I feel like Bioshock's gameplay has grown rather stale, which is why these aren't higher, but they otherwise both feature some really outstanding stories and end on a high note (unlike the first Bioshock which started strong and ended with a whimper).

Lara Croft & The Guardian of Light - I don't think anyone expected this. I for one still like Tomb Raider, but making it co-op and top-down seemed to defeat the purpose of exploring a 3D environment. Then I played it co-op and it had some of the best 2-player puzzle design I've seen.

There you have it. There's plenty of games this year that I didn't get to play (Amnesia, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Minecraft, etc...) so it's by no means a definitive list, but this is what stood out to me. May 2011 be as full of surprises. Happy New Year and happy gaming!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best of the 2010: Bayonetta

While I've always liked third-person hack-and-slash games, the Devil May Cry series has always held a special place in my heart for its unique blend of melee and ranged combat. Going back to God of War or Ninja Gaiden, which focus almost exclusively on the former, just felt tame and flat in comparison. Bayonetta, from Devil May Cry creator Hideki Kamiya, is very much the successor to that series taking what worked (guns + swords) and sprucing it up with a better camera, bigger bosses, and zanier setpieces.

The result is Devil May Cry on crack. It doesn't stray far from the formula, but so what? It's a great formula. Combat is quick with incredibly deep customization so you can alter it to your particular playstyle. I'm perhaps not the most experimental with this sort of thing, but I still found myself using more weapons than I usually do in this sort of game.

Then there's Bayonetta herself, the somewhat controversial overtly sexualized ass-kicking nun. Some find her insulting or pandering, but I found her empowering (I also didn't find her sexy, for what it's worth). She's flirty as all hell, but not in a way that's pandering to the audience. Being flamboyant is just part of her personality and her winking at the camera to me says less "come hither" and more like a teasing "keep up with me if you can." She's a handful, that one.

It wasn't perfect though and there were a few painful flaws that I never see anyone point out, so I will. Checkpoints are too generous, often appearing multiple times during a single boss fight. Dying simply sets you back at the last checkpoint with full health, so you're practically encouraged to get a game over when the next phase of a boss battle begins. Unless of course you're going for a high score, but if that's the case, the game fails as well by making levels far too long with insta-kill quick-time events that are sure to ruin your streak. And finally, the game's central mechanic, witch time (slow-mo executed by a well-timed dodge), is disabled in harder difficulties. Other equipment netting counter-attacks for successful dodges make up for this somewhat, but it's still disappointing they couldn't have found a way to make the game very hard, yet still grant one of the game's best features.

Flaws aside, Bayonetta was the most fun I've had with an action game since Devil May Cry 4. I played through it three times in as many weeks and writing this makes me want to play it again right now.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best of the 2010: Donkey Kong Country Returns

In honor of the year winding down I've decided to recap on some of my favorite games of the 2010. I'm not going to do a top 10 list per se, as I find it futile to rank such diverse offerings, but would rather dedicate a short blog post to each game that really meant something to me this year. So today we'll start with...

Donkey Kong Country Returns.

I wasn't that excited for this one initially. My memory of Donkey Kong Country is foggy at best, having only rented it when it came out a decade and a half ago. I remember liking it at the time, but given my age it didn't take a lot to impress me. Prior to DKCR coming out, I'd assumed that the series was mostly known for its graphics, not gameplay. There was nothing I could gather from trailers or my time with it at trade shows that made me think DKCR was anything more than nostalgia for nostalgia's sake and that a recreation of our early childhood memories wouldn't hold up in the modern era.

Still, My girlfriend was a big fan of the series, though, so for that reason alone I decided to take the plunge and check it out.

And boy am I glad I did! Initially, it didn't do anything to change my preconceived notions. There was nothing particularly innovative about jumping, swinging, shooting out of barrels, etc... But what I hadn't expected was just how fun it would be. Controls are tight and responsive, levels are lush and gorgeous, and the cute animals are genuinely cute. Like really, really cute. The way Diddy runs over a rolling Donkey Kong still fills me with delight every time I see it.

It's also plain exciting. There's a real momentum to some of these sequences as the levels crumble behind you as you desperately try to acquire the hard to reach KONG letter. It's definitely challenging, but rarely frustrating with frequent checkpoints and a liberal dose of lives.

Co-op was fun too. It's not perfect and you'll hemorrhage lives this way, but they're not hard to replenish. Playing through the campaign with my girlfriend was seriously one of the highlights of the year for me in gaming.

Once we'd completed it I asked her what she thought. She said she liked it, but was a bigger fan of the older games. My memory is too rusty to accurately compare, but I'll say that it effectively captured the feeling I got when I was 12 and a 2D platformer needn't be innovative or deep for it to be just about the best thing ever.


And for record keeping purposes, here's some stuff I've written over the past few months:

Defying Design: Dead Lines Rising. On how time limits can enhance or hinder an experience. Looking specifically at Dead Rising: Case Zero and Majora's Mask.

Defying Design: Cloak & Dagger. A look at competitive stealth-based multiplayer.

Defying Design: New Moon. On what makes a good reboot. Looking specifically at Castlevania and Silent Hill.

Defying Design: Gaming up the Wrong Tree. Analyses of games that misdirect the player from their true goal.

Defying Design: You Bet Your Life. A look at the role of luck in action game.

Defying Design: The Buddy System. How co-op has evolved in 2D platformers over the past few years.

Defying Design: Epic Mickey's Epic... Failure? How choice works, and does't work in Epic Mickey.