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Best and Worst of 2010

22 Jan

2010 was an exciting year for games, with Microsoft and Sony jumping on the motion bandwagon, indie games reaching new heights and some excellent mainstream releases. There was, of course, plenty of bad as well. We saw yearly instalments of the big-budget titles become the established norm as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty joined FIFA and the rest of the sports games in the stockings of the majority of console owners. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert denounced the idea that games could be art, and while initially this seems a negative, the fact it’s even being considered by someone like Ebert is a huge leap for the medium. California saw debate on censorship laws for games distinct to other entertainment, and the court’s ruling in 2011 may be a landmark moment in the industry. It’s been an exciting year for gamers, and with some great titles coming in early 2011, it’s time for a look back at the best and worst games of 2010, from the terrible to the pinnacle of 2010, GameGameBlog’s game of the year.

The Worst
Allow to me qualify this slightly. Of course there are worse games than those on this list, but these are the most derivative or disappointing of the year. A bad developer making a bad game is no surprise, but this list is for those games which got our hopes up only to dash them against the pointy, pointy rocks of reality.

Dark Void
This is the game where Nolan North, cover shooters and wisecracking leads all jumped the shark. On a jetpack. Featuring a flight element which defies all efforts at control and sends the player around in circles as they try in vain to find enemies, as all bad flight games do, Dark Void had an instant sense of cheapness. With Nathan Drake basically the main character, but with a different name and a steampunk aesthetic trying to hide the blatant theft of ideas, Dark Void did very little to stand out other than the jetpack sections. Unfortunately, having a jetpack in a cover shooter is a bit like having a bazooka in a boxing match – in the end you’re just going to kill yourself no matter who you take with you. With the ability to fly snatched away at random as well, it really is just Uncharted, minus the gameplay, minus the somewhat original ideas, minus the charm (that some seem to think the irritating Drake has) Dark Void is genuinely awful, but the developers at least were nice enough to create an 8-bit style version, which is infinitely better called Dark Void Zero, as well as advertising the game A LOT. If nothing else, at least they have a good marketing department, but all that made was a game that feels like the publishers getting focus groups to pitch ideas. ‘I liked Uncharted, and jetpacks are cool’ Gamers deserve better.

Final Fantasy XIII
For such a beloved franchise to fall so far from grace is sad to see, but much of that is down to Final Fantasy fans refusal to accept Square Enix moving in a new direction. It would be commendable, to be fair, were they making quality games, but Final Fantasy XIII is sadly a far cry from the level of quality that Square Enix should be producing. FFXIII has the problem of linearity without a compelling reason to continue playing. Now, the Final Fantasy games were never as open-ended as they seemed, but it was the illusion that made them work. Previously, Square created living, breathing worlds. You may have seen only a small part, but it felt open, like a real adventure. FFXIII is a series of corridors and really feels like it, the game world is bland and lifeless. This would be ok if the plot and characters were worth following, but the characters are as bland as the environment and incredibly annoying and cliched. The only interesting part is a large open field, but any freedom is hampered by the fact that the only thing to do is battle, and while the battle system is quite good, it rapidly descends into repeatedly pressing one button repeatedly. Final Fantasy has had some poor characters before, but Square always managed to create a world worth exploring, until now. XIII does a massive disservice to fans of the series, and while it’s great to see a new direction, here it does nothing but destroy what made Final Fantasy great, and fails to add anything to replace that.

Final Fantasy XIII

God of War III
The first two God of War games were good, but between Bayonetta and Darksiders, God of War’s third installment had been outclassed and rendered obsolete before it hit shelves. The game was more of the same, technically brilliant and with some excellent graphics, but the gameplay simply paled in comparison to the competition. Add to that the fact that niggling annoyances remained, such as the button mashing just to open a chest, and pointless quick-time-events to defeat a boss repeated ad infinitum. Worst of all though, was the fact that Kratos has evolved into a less and less interesting or likeable character. Essentially the game requires you to play as a nasty, cruel and sadistic moron with little motivation other than apparently being angry at himself for being stupid. He makes Squall from FFVIII look like the greatest character ever conceived and is an emo fringe away from crying as he gouges out the eyeball of a Cyclops. Without a decent plot and with both gameplay and graphics being far less impressive as they were on PS2 thanks to the advances made by other devs, GOW III traded on controversy with ill-advised sexual content and pointless violence, the kind of things that sold games in the early 90’s. Sexual content in games needs to have some maturity if it’s to be taken seriously, but GOWIII barely manages to depict an adolescent fantasy without seemingly impossibly tacky and cheap. Bioware showed that sex has a place in videogames, but games like this just make gamers look like 14-year old idiots who like breasts and blood. That’s not even mentioning the ridiculous levels of violence. Games can be violent, I’ve played plenty of them and I’m not averse to it, but some context other than ‘I’m angry so I’ll tear off your leg’ would be nice. Surely as a medium games have moved beyond the likes of this?

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days
Did anyone actually like Kane and Lynch? Didn’t think so, but no one told Eidos or Squeenix. It’s not without an original idea, I suppose, there’s an incredibly gimmicky and annoying youtube/grainy camera style. It’s not exactly appealing and clashes with the crime movie styling of the plot. In terms of gameplay, it’s a third person cover shooter, with another cheap gimmick – co-op focus. This makes what works best in single player utterly pointless played alone, and didn’t Army of Two beat IO to the punch? It’s amazing really that anyone bothered to play Dog Days, the characters are about as appealing as your average X-Factor contestant, and have even less to say. The plot is contrived, clichéd and frankly, boring. By-the-numbers gameplay really doesn’t add much incentive to keep shooting things. There are just so many better cover shooters out there. Dog Days is ultimately the Rocky V of third person shooters, it’s pretty much the same as everything else, yet somehow far, far worse.

Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
The levels are mostly well-designed, there’s plenty of colour and great visuals, it looks like Sonic and sounds like it too. It was a real treat to finally see Sonic return to his 2D roots, without a cast of annoying sidekicks. All was not well however, as despite all the great work that went into the design, Sonic 4 had one fatal flaw, the controls. It seems Sonic has slowed down a bit in his old age. Sure, he can get going, but maybe its arthritis or just muscle deterioration that makes him have similar acceleration to a tank. It takes so long to get Sonic to a decent pace that getting slowed down at all is controller-hurlingly frustrating. It promised so, so much, but Sonic fans who’ve suffered through the 3D years should have been more wary. Go buy a Mega Drive and Sonic 2 for the definitive experience and to remember why the blue hedgehog was the coolest thing in videogames, because now he’s just a cold shell of his former self. Here’s hoping Sega realise the mistakes they made with the physics for episode 2.

Halo: Reach
I’m being slightly harsh putting Reach here, it’s no less derivative than Black Ops or any of the other pointless sequels released this year, but Halo was actually a good game. The original, while a bit overrated, was fun and had some incredible moments, but Bungie conspired to remove the large scale and unpredictable battles which made Combat Evolved so enjoyable. Instead of the brilliant vehicle sections over open environments, or through ramp-filled corridors, there was only driving slowly and awkwardly between the same skirmish, with the same amount of enemies. The mistakes made in Halo 2, which forced the player into far more linear environments, with little choice in how to approach combat, remain. It was forgivable once, but a third time is just unacceptable, even more so when ODST, barely more than a mission pack, had more originality and creativity. In a vacuum it’s a decent game, but it really is a poor send-off for Bungie in their last Halo game, and considering how much Halo fans love the franchise, they deserved better.

Halo Reach

Bioshock 2
Bioshock needed a sequel even less than Army of Two (which almost made this list). It may have been a great game, but the story was totally self-contained, perfectly wrapped up and pointless to continue. But then, 2K love money… a lot. They love it so much they were willing to put a different studio (2K Marin) to work on a sequel to Irrational’s classic. It was a terrible decision. Obviously plenty of gamers wanted a sequel, but Bioshock is a game that attracted those who wanted something a little more cerebral, so it’s not just a case of putting a few new levels into an existing engine, it had to be more than that. Removing the quality of storytelling and replacing it with a bland, uninventive plot with dull characters is not redeemed by putting the player in the shoes of a Big Daddy, especially when it makes zero difference to gameplay. Even worse, the game revolves around protection of others, which I’m pretty sure everyone hates but a few very masochistic game developers. Bioshock 2 is as derivative as they come, it lacks originality and intelligence and is clear winner of the ‘cynical cash-in of the year’ award.

Aliens vs. Predator
If you remember the 1999 Aliens vs. Predator then this is possibly even worse a game than it already seems. AVP ‘99 was a wonderful mix of three games. Playing as the Predator was an FPS with some well-implemented additional skills like infra-red and thermal vision. You could use all the classic weapons and really felt like a monster, lopping heads off marines and generally causing mayhem. The alien was strange, but a lot of fun, with the ability to quickly crawl around ceilings and walls, using stealth and surprise to take out the humans. Then the marine was an FPS survival horror that created a great sense of tension, a bit like Dead Space. AVP2010 manages not only to be a poor game, but to totally ignore what made the ‘99 version good. Playing as the Predator feels slow and boring, with a focus on melee rather than the shoulder cannon and speargun. The alien is a confused mess of terrible controls, dated graphics and terrible level design. At least the Marine campaign is playable, but it feels less up to date than the earlier iteration and even amongst the current crop of cookie-cutter iron sights as standard FPS games, it falls flat in any attempt to create dramatic tension, or even a few shocks. Most incredible of all is that Rebellion developed both this and the previous AVP game. It’s shocking what a decade can do to a studio.

Aliens vs. Predator

The Best:

Game Dev Story
It seems strange to choose an iPhone game, but Game Dev Story is impossibly addictive, and far deeper than the majority of games for the system, yet without losing the simplicity necessary for a quick play. Angry Birds or Cut the Rope might have more immediate and obvious appeal, but GDS has much more to offer, it hooks and doesn’t let go in the same way classic sims like Theme Park did. With just enough options to make it strategic, and a great pacing which moves things along at a decent speed, creating games becomes a compulsion, as you try to get a little bit better, make a little more. There are plenty of little details and nods to gaming history that will raise a smile, and the sprites are well designed to the point that you become attached to your staff. Seeing ‘Intendro’ release a new console that looks like the Virtual Boy or NES is great, and a little knowledge of the past goes a long way. Finding combinations of genre and direction is well handled, encouraging a risk versus reward element to development, where innovation can lead to better games later, but a sequel or a genre you’ve made already is likely to sell better. Even after completion the desire to return and do a little better remains, GDS is a real highlight in the now rather impressive iPhone library.

Bayonetta
Platinum games must be the developer of the year, between this and Vanquish they’ve managed to release two of the most fun and playable games of 2010. Bayonetta is Devil May Cry sped up and camped up. An absurd plot, ridiculous heroine, oddly serene music and all manner of general craziness somehow makes the whole package even more appealing. It’s the gameplay though that really stands out. Bayonetta is sublime to play, an absolutely wonderful fighting system which becomes a savage ballet with a little practice and is an absolute joy to control, make it one of the best pure gameplay experiences in years. There’s a lot to be said about getting a combo perfect and being rewarded with a giant boot crushing your enemies, but it’s the precision button presses that add up to an intuitive game. It’s a little like a sped up Arkham Asylum at times, and is immensely rewarding. The difficulties that can be unlocked, as well as the compulsion to beat a high score make it a tremendously addictive title that has far more longevity than the average button masher, and far more intelligence behind those combos. Bayonetta may be a bit cringeworthy as a character, and her hyper-sexualisation is somewhat over the top, well a lot over the top, but it’s all in fun, and even if it’s not your thing, the gameplay is too good to ignore.

Bayonetta

Darksiders
Slipping in under the radar before God of War III, Darksiders showed the adventures of Kratos up as the shallow button mashers they are. Just as Bayonetta showed the slow moving God of War series how fighting should be done, Darksiders nailed the exploration and puzzle element, shamelessly ripping off Legend of Zelda. Its derivative, the art style is basically stolen from the mind of Todd McFarlane and the combat is very similar to God of War, but it all works brilliantly. The game has far more depth than most of this type, particularly western-style brawlers, which just don’t have the combat depth and need something extra. Darksiders finally delivers that, with a great Zelda-esque progression. The characters will appeal to some certainly, the voice acting is decent and the story isn’t terrible. The design is quite good, and the environments and enemies have enough variation that it doesn’t become stale. It’s not original, but manages to transcend its flaws and deliver an experience that outshines its competition easily.

Just Cause 2
Just Cause 2 was criticised unfairly at launch, critics citing a lack of depth, yet Just Cause 2 offers, at last, the ability to play the set pieces usually left to cutscenes – these the same critics who laud the likes of Assassin’s Creed, despite it being far too simple and repetitive. Just Cause 2 doesn’t bother trying to have an interesting plot, or good characters, they’re merely a footnote to the action. Some games will try to be something artistic, which is both important and interesting, but otherwise, they should be fun. For every ‘Citizen Kane’, there must be a ‘Commando’. Very few games try to be anything more than entertainment, yet they ignore the crucial point, that fun is paramount in that case. I can forgive a games flaws if it tries to tell an interesting story, but if, for example, GTA4 tries to shoehorn ‘realism’ into a cartoon world, it detracts from the experience. Just Cause 2 has a huge game world, no boundaries, and is bright and colourful. Basically, it’s everything a sandbox game should be. Probably the most fun game of the year, it suffers from the usual flaws of sandbox games, and the missions aren’t that much fun, but when you can hook an enemy to a gas canister and send him rocketing into the air, or climb to the highest mountain and leap onto a passing plane, or… well the missions just don’t matter, this is a virtual playground and it’s a crying shame that it’s so underappreciated.

Just Cause 2

Vanquish
Platinum’s other stroke of genius this year brilliantly redefined the cover shooter. Fast, action packed, and completely over the top, Vanquish has you sliding in slow motion along the ground while shooting giant robots within the first five minutes and never slows down. The intricate combat is a thing of beauty, allowing players to move with the sort of control not really seen in games like this. It’s precise, and encourages improvisation as enemies flood the screen, forcing you to dash to safety, move from cover to cover and never stop. It’s a far cry from the likes of Uncharted and Gears of War, which are littlemore than find cover, shoot, move forward. Vanquish is much more, you shoot while moving, constantly vary direction and take things on at a pace which defies logic. It takes a bit of getting used to but once you get it, it’s hard to imagine going back to the slow moving Marcus Fenix or Nathan Drake. As they did with Bayonetta, Platinum have stripped down and rebuilt the genre, making it more fun, more exciting and more intense in the process. Vanquish does what games have forgotten to do in their quest for realistic warzones, made the player feel like a superhero while retaining a high level of challenge. It’s a shame that that seems to have been lost between the iron sights of war shooters. The best thing about the game though, is that it really is great to see a Japanese company making unique, quality titles, despite the apparent decline in the quality of Japanese games

Super Meat Boy
Remember when platform games were a perfect blend of simplistic fun and complex challenge? When the game was hard enough that you might not finish it for weeks, but you kept coming back for more? Well Team Meat certainly did when they made Super Meat Boy. It’s one of the most unexpectedly charming games of the year, with oddly cute and likeable characters and a brilliantly unique visual style that continually surprises. The gameplay is the main thing though, and it’s unbelievably good. Tight controls barely begins to describe this, it has the same speedrun potential of the original Super Mario Bros. and the developers were keenly aware of the importance of giving the player total control. Its fast, but never too fast. It takes a few tries to figure out each of the challenging levels, but after a few goes you’ll be reaching the place where you died in seconds and getting that little bit further. It all culminates in one perfect rush, and a replay showing every last effort you made at once, possibly one of the simplest, yet most entertaining additions to a game this year. If you like classic platformers and aren’t afraid of a challenge, this could be your game of the year.

Super Meat Boy

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Nintendo just don’t get Mario games wrong. This is similar to the first Galaxy game, yet there’s enough new here that it still retains a freshness that most sequels can’t begin to match. The levels are as well designed as before, if not even better, and the challenge is just enough that it’s neither too easy, nor too hard. The music and general presentation are phenomenal, especially considering the Wii is little more than a GameCube in disguise. Nintendo know how to imbue a game with charm, and Galaxy 2 positively oozes it. From the gorgeous and varied worlds, to the inclusion of Yoshi, Nintendo have a sixth sense about knowing what to include to please their fans, and weren’t afraid to remove some of the less appealing elements of the first Galaxy. This is a game that revels in the innocence and fun of an adventure, it’s overflowing with imagination and creativity, both from an artistic and technical perspective. Galaxy 2 is a reminder, on the 25th anniversary of gaming’s most enduring and iconic character, of what it is that makes video games great, a flight of fancy like this would be almost impossible to achieve in any other medium, only Pixar and Studio Ghibli have a similar power to delight.

Deadly Premonition
This is an interesting one, wouldn’t you say, Zach? Deadly Premonition should, by all rights, be awful but it’s not even close, in fact it came close to being crowned best game of the year. Combining elements of disparate games and at times movies, it somehow manages to turn utter madness into a compelling and brilliant experience. There are plenty of flaws – the cars handle poorly, the combat is awful, the presentation is patchy and occasionally awful, the graphics are often terrible and it’s just a bit nuts, but it’s amazing in ways that can’t really be explained properly without having played it. The game begins as a poor Resident Evil 4 clone, nothing special, not really great, then becomes Alan Wake for a little while, adopting an episodic structure. After that it’s Shenmue, with your character questioning people and talking to everyone you can find. For a while it’s even Grand Theft Auto as you drive from place to place. Essentially it’s a sandbox detective game where you’re tasked with finding the killer of a local girl in a small American town. It’s also a survival horror at times. The plot and acting though, are the real draw. While the gameplay is good enough to keep things moving, the plot makes it special. Drawing on Twin Peaks, Stephen King and classic B-Movies, but ramping up the crazy, you play as Francis York Morgan, a mysterious FBI agent with a special interest in murders like the one you’re investigating. He veers from charming to delusional, and with a supporting cast of bizarre and suspicious locals, there’s not much that can be trusted and the game takes its time in revealing its cards. The plot is surprisingly good, despite being thoroughly odd, and it helps that the voice actors are mostly excellent, and the lead is simply brilliant. The soundtrack is the best of the year, despite being astonishingly ill-fitting. It really, really shouldn’t be good, but Deadly Premonition is so much more than the sum of its parts. If you like the idea of a game where the lead character talks to himself as he drives about 80’s movies (at great length) then you’ll adore this game, there really is nothing else like it, is there Zach?

Deadly Premonition

Alpha Protocol
This is a game that has a lot of flaws, to be frank, but it elevates itself above them. The early stages feel like any other cover shooter, but with some vague RPG elements. With a little perseverance though, the experience opens into something far more interesting. The choices you make become integral to the games developing plot, altering future interactions and challenges based on how you approach earlier situations. A dialogue system that encourages quick thinking leads to gut reactions, and makes for a far more impressive version of Bioware’s conversation system. Obviously Obsidian learned a lot from their work on Knight of the Old Republic II, and while New Vegas was the better of their 2010 output, the innovative Alpha Protocol is more deserving of praise. It actually handles the concept of player choice and consequence far better than New Vegas, as well as Heavy Rain in fact, without sacrificing the actual game in the process. It plays a bit like Mass Effect 2 minus the polish, but what AP lacks in that, it more than makes up for in the compelling nature of watching what you do change the world around you.


GAME OF THE YEAR

Minecraft
Minecraft isn’t even finished yet, which goes to show how impressive the concept is, and yet its so simple it boggles the mind that no one made this game before. The basic idea is that you mine for coal, rock, wood and such and create items, build a shelter and survive the night when monsters come to kill you. With simple graphics and a simple premise, the core mechanics are merely the gateway to a world in which your imagination is king. Online groups build cities, sculptures, vehicles, have even come up with games. Minecraft is phenomenally rewarding, and after a low-key start, where you simply survive the first few nights, suddenly you realise that the landscape is entirely yours to manipulate. Every block can be slowly moved and crafted into something totally unique. This genuinely puts the brilliant level editor of LittleBigPlanet to shame, and is the pinnacle thus far for games based on user-generated content. Forget LBP 2, this is the game for anyone wanting to join a community of creators. The amount that can be done with so simple a game is unbelievable, and this all came from a single developer. He now has a studio and a large staff, such is the popularity of a game that only very recently went to beta.

There is an incredible calm that washes over the player when the crafting starts coming together, a sort of zen-like appreciation for a simpler life. Just hacking away at stone becomes a blissful part of the experience, and the tranquil surrounding of trees, sand and water which give way to underground caverns filled with gems, iron and lave are all clearly crafted with an attention to detail unseen in most mainstream titles. The music too is wonderful, and the sound design is top-notch (no pun intended) in general. Red Dead Redemption got accolades for knowing when to be quiet, yet Minecarft should have earned that praise. The music only occasional breaks the serenity and when it does it only serves to draw the player in deeper. Such simple visuals may put off some, but they’re missing out on what is a victory for design and art over flashy graphics and explosions. The environment discourages conflict, and that’s only when enemies are even in the game, it is entirely possible to just build. Minecraft is what the Lego games always should have been, a virtual world of creativity, where only those with the imagination and drive to play and build are rewarded. There are no achievements or unlockables, just the joy of seeing, after hours of work, a huge structure, planned, designed and built by you, the player. It’s addictive, compelling and unfathomably clever, as well as being one of the best multiplayer experiences in gaming history. I must re-iterate, that it’s the idea of a single person, who at this point has done what minecraft allows players to, taken a simple idea and turned it into something enormous and utterly magnificent. Get in early and get creating because Minecraft will be the biggest thing in gaming soon enough, and no doubt one of the larger studios will snap up the rights to destroy it completely.

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