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2010..the best bits...games

Been quite a year in games, with quite a few titles that I have a feeling will be remembered for many years to come.

Best of the year...

Two games really stood out above all others for me this year. Mass Effect 2 and Assassins Creed: Brotherhood. Both were sequels, and most importantly, both took the weaker elements of their previous incarnations and dramatically improved upon them.

Bioware's effort removed the banal driving sections, the tedious inventory management and polished up the controls. Mass Effect 2 decided what it wanted its core mechanics to be, and it wanted to be a cover based shooter, and it then focused on making that smooth, and more importantly, fun. They succeeded. Basically it took what didn't quite work in its first installment and fixed it. Something all sequels should aspire to.

The voice work and story went up a notch as well, which in itself was a tall order given that the first outing wasn't half bad in that respect. Roll on Mass effect 3...I want to help Sheppard and company save the earth...

I had somewhat of a lukewarm opinion of the Assassins Creed franchise heading into Brotherhood, but like Mass Effect 2, this time out the folks at Ubisoft had taken the elements that didn't work smoothly in the previous installments and crafted a proper, genuinely improved and refined, sequel out of what many assumed would simply be a multi-player cash-in.

Setting things in a single city, and tying the restorative elements into the city itself, really made it feel more involved for me. The added watchtower mechanic (and decoupling it from the story progression meaning you could approach it as you desired) also strengthened the feeling that this was a real place, and the actions of the player character could be felt.

More importantly though, also just like Mass Effect 2, they refined and improved the gameplay. It played much smoother, was just the right amount of forgiving and allowed you to focus on which means of destruction you would use, rather than which weapon you could actually pull the game actions off with.

..so both those games provided me with smooth, fun, compelling experiences that I enjoyed playing through, and enjoyed replaying...

The ones I wanted to be even better...

There are two games I wanted to mention here, because they were games that I was really looking forward to, enjoyed playing, and deserve much praise for what they achieved...but...they also let me down in their own ways. I wanted these two to be thee best games I played this year, I really did, and they just didn't quite get there. I held these two to high standards because of what they could have been to me. The culprits? Red Dead Redemption and Heavy Rain.

Just to be clear, both were good games, really good games, and deserve the acknowledgement they are finding in many other 'top 10 of 2010' listings. I just felt that I could have gotten more out of them, because the few rough edges in each effected my enjoyment of them.

Taking Rockstar's cowboy opus first, Red Dead Redemption, was neither high fantasy nor a modern day setting, so immediate bonus points from me. It has a well crafted, neatly written, and well voiced story, woven into a lovingly rendered depiction of the final days of the old west. What was not love?

The controls started it for me, it wasn't that they were bad, but they just lacked enough polish to mean that frustration sneaked into the gameplay. In the two games mentioned in the first section I never once felt the inclination to swear at my controller...this game made me do that, and much more often than I thought I would. (and don't get me started on the Horse breaking mechanic, I hated those sections). The cover mechanics were simply not as smooth as some of their contemporaries, and the horse riding controls suffered a similar fate (compare them, for example, to those in Assassins Creed). Not bad by any means, but just lacking that little bit of responsiveness and polish that makes control truly accessible.

Then there were the random events in the wilderness that, for me at least, were a touch too random and came upon you on occasion far too fast (damn cougars!). That meant, from a design perspective, I found myself avoiding the wilderness for fear of activating them, which I am pretty sure was not the designers intention.

I did love the game, I just wanted to love it more...personally I'm hoping for a sequel that improves upon the elements mentioned above.

...which pretty much sums up my final thoughts on Heavy Rain. I loved the fact that a game like this did well, sold copies, and made lots of people's best of year lists. Just like with Red Dead though there were enough rough edges that made me feel I wasn't quite getting what I could have gotten. There were a few things that were just plain disappointing to me once I had finished it.

I don't want to ruin any of the excellent story for any of you who haven't played it, but I will say that my dissatisfaction centered on some pretty arbitrary choices the designers made. I don't mind some good well thought out red-herrings, or bait and switch storytelling tricks, but I really dislike random arbitrary ones. My reaction was actually close to being angry during the big 'reveal' towards the end of the game, because I felt slightly cheated by the design choice there. By inserting something previously unseen into an earlier scene, that involved the actions of a character I had control of at the time, they made a very poor design choice in my eyes, because it undermined the relationship the player has to the characters, and the choices you make for them.

Also, for a game that did so well to not make the quick time style events seem pivotal, and made great efforts to be forgiving of the occasional failure on that front front, to then throw in a single event, right at the end, that completely and utterly changed the entire ending if you missed one single button press just seemed a little cheap. (but I guess it did promote replaying that chapter - which does allow me to mention the cool chapter mechanic that allowed you to replay from any chapter onwards so you could go back and see how differently things ended up if a major choice was changed, or a task failed)

All that said, if you haven't played it yet, then you should. It is a different kind of game and is, overall, a good experience. I am glad it was a good game...and I want more like it. I just so wished it could have been a truly great game...

On the PC...

It was a good year for my strategy fix, with both Starcraft 2 and Civilization 5 getting a lot of playtime. I found both to be worthy additions to the franchises, and pretty good evolutions rather than any kind of massively innovative revolution for their respective genres.

On handhelds and mobiles...

It was a good year for the PSP with Metal Gear Solid: Peacemaker and the latest installment of the Kingdom Hearts franchise coming out. Peacemaker was a great game, and one that was perfectly fashioned for it's platform. Like many others I have also ended up spending many hours on both Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, it is genuinely quite cool to see where mobile gaming is going, and I am looking forward to seeing what we get over the next 12 months!



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