Another year, another breakdown of the year's best games—according to me.
Looking back, 2010 was an odd twelve months. Catching many players and critics by surprise, a large number of the most hotly-anticipated titles ended up being unexpectedly disappointing, leaving the top honors wide open for a number of lesser-known, smaller-budget projects. Unfortunately, while many of these smaller games displayed promise and creativity, most of them were flawed or uneven enough to give pause. The result? A year where (in my view, anyway) there really was no single runway pick for the year's best.
With very few games standing head and shoulders above the rest, I certainly had a bit more trouble putting this year's list together that I have in the recent past. I should probably also note that there were several titles I would have loved to have gotten around to, but simply didn't have the time to play. However, I did sit down with quite a large number of things this year, and the group below represents the best of what I spent time on.
Without further ado, take a look at the titles I've selected and see what caught my fancy. If you agree, let me know. If you disagree, I'd like to hear that, too. If it so happens that I've called out that some titles that you haven't had the interest or opportunity to investigate, I hope that this list encourages you to track them down.
And now, the best of 2010…
Epic Dungeon (Xbox 360)
One of the finest titles to hit Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie channel in the last twelve months, Epic Dungeon is an absolutely stellar labor of love created by one man in his spare time. I talked about it extensively on the GameCritics podcast, reviewed it, and did an interview with the developer. Even after doing all that, I still feel as though I should have worked harder to put the spotlight on this game. Without a doubt, it was the best dungeon-crawling Roguelike I've played in quite some time, and with an asking price of one dollar, there is absolutely no reason not to take the plunge.
Dante's Inferno (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Dante's Inferno is a game that by all rights should not have been good. Creating an intensely violent me-too action title based on a classical work of literature seemed entirely wrongheaded from the start, and the poorly-conceived PR campaign surrounding the game was done with incredibly bad taste, serving only to irritate and inflame. I fully expected to hate this title before ever laying hands on it, but you know what? I was wrong. Once I put my preconceptions aside, I was quite pleased to discover that Visceral Games had crafted a smooth, engaging, and fast-paced adventure with some interesting ideas and powerful imagery. Laying waste to the underworld with the holy light of heaven was one of the most satisfying experiences I had all year. I'm genuinely looking forward to a sequel.
Super Meat Boy (Xbox 360, PC)
Super Meat Boy has received so many well-deserved accolades this year, I hardly feel like it's necessary for me to say anything about it at all. Still, for the one or two of you out there who may have somehow missed out on all the buzz, the adventures of this animated cube of meat are not to be missed by anyone who can appreciate ingenious design, clever humor, and quality craftsmanship in 2D platforming. The game is certainly as hard as nails and demands much precision and skill on the part of the player, yet it never feels cheap or unfair even after a thousand bloody deaths—that's quite a difficult trick to pull off these days. The challenge may be a bit stiff to please everyone, but there's no denying the sky-high quality on display.
Dead Rising 2: Case Zero (Xbox 360)
An unconventional and innovative approach to demos, Capcom's Case Zero marks the beginning of a new trend I suspect that gamers will be seeing quite a lot of. Rather than the usual "section of level one" or the out-of-context, mid-game fragment that most developers offer, it was a stroke of genius to craft a stand-alone prequel that not only perfectly illustrated what the full Dead Rising 2 experience would be like, but actually rewarded players and gave them incentive to invest in the main game thanks to experience and money that carried over. Case Zero was an absolutely brilliant idea, and this $5 DLC ended up being a fresher, more enjoyable experience than the $60 full-sized game that came after.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
This download title was one of the year's highlights for me for two reasons: First, it took a well-known, well-established property in danger of wearing out its welcome and totally re-imagined it in a way nobody expected. The second was because it offered some of the most entertaining cooperative play I've ever seen. While the title can be completed by a single player on their own, the puzzles and action absolutely shine with a partner. Rather than simply placing two players in the same environment, this game asks them to actively work as a team in order to progress past obstacles. It seems like a simple, no-brainer concept, yet very few developers have ever managed to make it happen on a level more complex than two players pulling a switch at the same time. Crystal Dynamics jumps several steps ahead of that worn-out implementation and utterly nails an all-new level of co-op here.
Vanquish (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Before playing Vanquish, I would have been hard-pressed to generate interest or excitement for another third-person shooter. 2010 had seen a string of subpar titles in the genre that had already been starting to feel worn-out, and I was a little leery of Vanquish in particular after coming away from its demo with very mixed feelings. However, I'm extremely glad that I decided to give the full version a shot, since I ended up going gaga over it. Shinji Mikami and Platinum Games have delivered a fresh, new spin on third-person action that explodes with energy and maintains a furiously high pace from start to finish. Toss in a story and characters that know not to overstay their welcome or bore the player to death, and the result is a delicious sci-fi adventure that brings it hard and easily bests the competition.
Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)
Heavy Rain was a very interesting title this year since it started out being a white-hot phenom, only to find its status cool off to sub-Arctic levels in a relatively short period of time. Much has been said about the problems in this game, from everything such as the heavy reliance on quicktime-time events (QTE), awkward voice work, or the story that isn't nearly as waterproof (haha!) as it should've been for a project that lives and dies on its drama. However, for all its flaws (and to be sure, there are many) I have to say that the work of David Cage and Quantic Dream was often intensely emotional in a way that many games fail to deliver. I also have great appreciation for the subject matter, and welcome any effort such as this one to deliver an adventure that doesn't revolve around zombies, space marines, or grinding for experience in any way. I certainly think that Heavy Rain is a step in the right direction for a genre that has not fully coalesced yet, and I hope that we see more like it.
Nier (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
While I have definitely fallen out of love with Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) as of late, I was surprised and impressed with Nier—in fact, it can be reasonably described as the Anti-JRPG in many ways. Eschewing the usual "ragtag group of emo teens" tropes, the care given to the offbeat characters pays off as the player's party genuinely grows and evolves over the course of the adventure. The subject matter focusing narrowly on the relationship between a father and his daughter was a refreshing change of pace that struck close to home, and the gameplay is just as smart as the script, with numerous instances of genre meta-commentary found in absolutely ingenious dungeon and world designs. It was extremely unfortunate that Nier became known more for a poorly-implemented three-minute fishing minigame than for the many areas it innovates and bucks expectation, but it was definitely the most provocative and interesting JRPG of 2010.
Limbo (Xbox 360)
A perfect blend of form and function, Limbo proves that developers don't need multi-million-dollar budgets and a small country's worth of programmers to create something that makes players sit up and pay attention. Not only did it hold its own with absolutely amazing visuals and clever puzzles, the entire experience was pleasantly concise and sold at an extremely affordable price point. Short, sweet, and entirely to the point, this enigmatic gem kept me glued to my controller from start to finish. Special mention must also go to whoever came up with the concept of being chased by "that thing" in the first section of levels. I'm still having nightmares.
Deadly Premonition (Xbox 360)
If you listen to the GameCritics podcast, my number one pick for the year will come as no surprise. I have to admit that I struggled with the choice for a while, given that it's so rough in terms of control, production values, and many other areas. The game is certainly not perfect, and I don't think anyone holding it up as 2010's most memorable experience will say that it is, either.
…And yes there are more than a few of us.
However, giving a title top honors (for me, anyway) is hardly about the best graphics or the most polish. I genuinely feel that Deadly Premonition is one of the most challenging, creative, brave and underappreciated titles to make it to domestic shores. The work of director Swery 65 more than makes up for the various technical shortcomings with an extremely intelligent and mature storyline, and some of the best-written characters I've ever seen—protagonist Francis York Morgan is someone I'll never, ever forget. Supporting its cerebral side, the game also offers a brilliantly fresh take on the open-world genre that manages to avoid the usual "blow everything up" chaos and keeps razor-sharp focus on the riveting story.
There is no question that this game will be anathema to a certain segment of players out there, and that's quite all right. However, for gamers of a certain bent (like me, and hopefully you) this title will be an absolutely unforgettable one.
So that's it, the best of 2010, according to me.
Feel free to post a comment here whether you agree or disagree, and especially if you have some lesser-known games that you think were overlooked. Also, thanks very much for taking the time to read yet another top-ten list. Breakdowns like this one may have fallen out of favor with certain people, but I'm an old-school gamer, and I'm not afraid to admit that top-ten anything for me is hard to resist.
Also, as a final note before ending this year's coverage, I'd also like to give a quick shout-out to three titles which very nearly made the list. Although none of them earned a spot in the top ten, they were all immensely enjoyable plays, and are well worth the effort of tracking down. These titles are Patchwork Heroes (PSP), Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP) and Faery: Legends of Avalon (XBLA). If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and give these titles a shot. I'm sure you won't be disappointed.