So, did anyone watch the Spike Video Game Awards last night? If you did, I’m terribly sorry. If you did and you’re not someone who plays games, I’m sorry and let me reassure you that that terrible show is not an accurate representation of the gaming industry or the people who play games. Every year, that event makes me embarrassed for the industry.
That unpleasantness aside, let’s talk about my favorite games of 2010. I’m not going to come up with some arbitrary list; lists imply that one thing is objectively better than another. Instead, I’m simply going to go through the two games I played this year that I found to be absolutely amazing experiences.
Up first is Red Dead Redemption. Westerns are a near-untapped market in video games, but it’s understandable. The whole western movie craze died out quite a while ago and the films themselves are generally hit-or-miss. In games, the last western I played was Sunset Riders on the SNES. The first time we heard about RDR, it was an interesting idea but warranted some skepticism. The Grand Theft Auto model of game design has a lot of perks in regard to open-world games, but we hadn’t really seen it put to use outside of a dense, urban setting before.
Thankfully, it worked out flawlessly. The first thing I noticed while playing RDR was just how open it actually feels. The wide empty space of the prairies and desert is a real sight to behold and the art design makes the environments surprisingly colorful and livid. I suppose it shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise; Rockstar games always have amazing environments and presentation. One of the worries about an open-world western was that the wilderness would be boring, but this was not the case.
One way Rockstar kept the vast world from being too empty was by adding random events that can happen when you’re on the road. There are so many distracting and interesting things to pursue while exploring that for the first ten hours or so I couldn’t even make it to the main story quests. I kept getting sidetracked by all the crazy things there were to do: meeting interesting strangers, taking up side jobs, completing the addictive in-game challenges, and everything else the game has to offer.
Often times with open-world games, those random activities are the point and the story is just something else tacked on. Again, RDR begs to differ. When I finally got around to trying out the story, I found that the main character (a former outlaw named John Marston) is one of the most interesting protagonists in recent years. The way he talks and reacts to the absurd things happening outside of his control is extremely interesting, but I don’t want to spoil any of the story, just in case anyone out there hasn’t played it yet. I had some problems with the final act of the story and felt the pacing ground to a halt near the end. Thankfully, the game recovered and finished with some real satisfaction that isn’t common in game narratives these days.
To me, the most memorable moment of RDR wasn’t even a specific occurrence. Rather, my favorite experience in the game was wandering in the wilderness in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm. The sky and clouds in RDR look amazing, almost like a sweeping painting of the American west. When thunderstorms roll in, the clouds flash with the most atmospheric lightning effect I have ever seen in a game. The crack of thunder is a huge bonus to the effect. Red Dead Redemption was an ambitious game and it delivered on everything it hoped to. Because of that, it’s one of my most memorable gaming experiences of 2010.
The other game that was released this year that really stuck with me was Mass Effect 2. ME2 was such a great game that after playing through the PC version I went out and bought an Xbox 360 just so I could run the Mass Effect series on my TV.
The first Mass Effect was not without problems. The interfaces felt laggy, the driving controlled odd, the cover mechanic was clunky, and more. What Mass Effect did right was establishing an amazing and deep universe to tell a story in. It also started the merging of third-person shooter and RPG that ended up being refined into greatness in ME2.
The story established by the first Mass Effect was so great because it was driven by the characters and the interactions between them. The fact that there’s all this backstory to each alien race that influences how they see each other and how humans fit into the mix is pure genius. ME2 took this character-driven, culturally and racially charged narrative and expanded it into something that’s such a success that it’s hard to explain.
A great boon to Bioware’s effort to get the player emotionally involved in Mass Effect was the ability to import your character from Mass Effect. Every choice you made in the first game is addressed in the second game, and it really adds an atmosphere of consequence to the series. It also makes you think doubly hard about the choices you make in ME2 because you wonder what effect they’ll have on the upcoming third game.
Another reason it’s so easy to get deeply involved with the ME2 story is because the characters are extremely well written (with the exception of one; you can guess who I mean if you’ve played it). Each and every character that you recruit to your team has his own motivations and dilemmas. Mordin, the scientist, having to face the ethical repercussions of his work on sterilizing the entire Krogan race, was so interesting that I could listen to him discussing it for hours. Every character has something like this eating away at him. Pulling these characters through whatever is bothering them so that you can face a greater evil works really well.
From a gameplay standpoint, ME2 merged RPG elements like progression and equipment while making the third-person shooter aspect of the game feel much smoother and more deliberate. The entire experience from the first game was just streamlined and smoothed out to make the game respond and play so much better. The improvement from Mass Effect to ME2 is one of the greatest improvements in gameplay between two games in a series since Uncharted and Uncharted 2.
I could continue talking about ME2, but I feel the need to cut myself off before I just start rambling. As I did with Red Dead Redemption, I’ll go ahead and share my most memorable moment in ME2. There’s a point where you can ask Legion, your Geth (a race of rogue artificial intelligence) recruit, if he knows anything about when the Geth became self aware. He responds by playing an audio recording of a Geth asking its master if it has a soul. The recording is incredibly atmospheric and chilling.
Mass Effect 2 was a straight-up improvement to the series. It took everything that was great about the first game and smoothed out the technical problems to create an incredibly cohesive and fun experience that’s easy to get lost in. Because of this, I would consider Mass Effect 2 to be my favorite gaming experience of 2010 (even more so than Red Dead Redemption).
Last but not least, I’d like to mention my biggest disappointment of 2010. Lots of games are disappointing because they don’t meet their potential (Mafia II, for one), but this one was so bad that it was a serious bummer: Final Fantasy XIII.
The combat system in FF13 had potential in that it harkened back to the look and feel of the classic FF games. Sadly, it didn’t quite meet that potential. FF13 is a game that loves to play itself for you. The environments are one-way hallways. The auto-battle option is so well designed that there’s no reason not to use it. The cutscenes are way too long and way, way too melodramatic. All of these elements made it feel like I was watching instead of playing.
You can pick your own commands in battle, but the auto-battle always seemed to pick what I wanted anyway, from what I can tell. That’s great for the repetitive random fights that plague JRPGs, but it also causes you to not really learn the mechanics you need to know when the game ramps up in difficulty. Like Capcom, SquareEnix needs to take a step back about Final Fantasy and put some thought into where they want to go with the series.
That about does it for me. Looking back on the previous year of gaming is always exciting because you can wonder if the coming year will be even better (I’m betting so). If you’re looking for something to do over the holiday break and haven’t tried RDR or ME2 yet, check them out. You won’t regret it.