2010 was a strange year for videogames. Monster hits were released early while the fall felt strangely lacking in great games. Indie games consistently showed more inspiration and creativity than their big budget cousins and previously untouchable AAA franchises fumbled and underwhelmed. A disturbing number of highly anticipated titles wound up delayed until next year.
But even if 2010 wasn’t the start of a new golden age, we had our fair share of great games. Here, then, are Unwinnable’s picks for the very best:
Best Indie Discovery: Ancient Trader
Between Ancient Trader‘s gorgeous art mimicking old maps and its menagerie of bizarre sea monsters, it was pretty much a case of love at first sight for me. That it is a well-realized turn-based strategy game was a bonus.
Trader is essentially built from board game mechanics and, like the very best board games, the rules are straight forward and simple, but allow for a surprising variety of outcomes, all of which are engaging.
And it costs $3 on Xbox Live. What are you waiting for?
Best Strangly Compelling Mobile Game: Angry Birds
Imagine this scene: five guys (my co-workers), sitting around the lunch table, noses buried in their iPhones or Androids (or in one lonely case, a Palm Pre), with the sound of squawking birds and grunting pigs, triumph and heartbreak, all around. Now imagine this happening every day. Such is the power of Angry Birds. Not since Bejeweled or Snood reared their heads in the early part of the century has there been an indie casual game that has found its way so deeply into the mainstream. Finnish developers Rovio have grand designs on growing the Angry Birds brand. When you consider Bejeweled is still kicking around (see the recently released Puzzle Quest 2), they may have a shot. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to work on getting those damned boomerang birds to do my bidding in 6-12… (Don Becker)
Best Atmosphere: Limbo
At its core, Limbo is an unremarkable side scrolling puzzle game and yet, few games this year were so unsettlingly unique.
It was all in the atmosphere.
The swirling mists, the dark woods, the shadowy boy with glowing eyes, the haunting soundscapes, the brutally unexpected deaths – these are the things I took away from Limbo. As the game wears on, it loses some of its magic in the industrial environments and gravity puzzles, but that first third, with its giant spider and killer children, is something monumentally special.
Steeped in a beautifully macabre atmosphere, Limbo remains an unrivaled aesthetic experience.
Best for All Ages: Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Can a game be simple and cute enough to attract children, yet nuanced and challenging enough to draw the attention of adults?
Kirby’s Epic Yarn answers that question with an emphatic yes. With an abundance of yarn and silk and buttons and zippers constantly peppering the screen, its visuals seem stripped from your local crafts shop and death does not exist in its worlds. Epic Yarn boasts some of the year’s most unique and creative level design and the game still manages to provide a challenge thanks to the chase for gems and a plethora of unlockables strewn across its levels.
It all makes Kirby’s debut on the Nintendo Wii a fantastic game and one of the most versatile experiences of 2010. (Ebenezer Samuel)
Best Craftsmanship: Super Mario Galaxy 2
It’s easy to mention Super Mario Galaxy 2 as one of the top games of 2010 because, quite frankly, it’s one of the best platform games ever created. It’s better than the first Galaxy game and that alone is saying a lot. Not only are several new powers added to Mario’s repertoire, such as Cloud Mario and Rock Mario, he is also reunited with his dino-mount Yoshi, who has several power-ups of his own. The user interface is friendlier and they fixed the wonky comet system from the previous game, which adds extra challenge to certain worlds. The levels are diverse and astonishingly clever with fresh mechanics that leave you wondering “How do they come up with this stuff!?” The game is light-hearted and polished. My kids can play it, yet it’s challenging for platform veterans. Most importantly, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is friggin’ fun and isn’t that what it’s all about? (Rich Procopio)
Best Multiplayer: Battlefield: Bad Company 2
It was just after dawn when we parachuted in.
The hot sun beats down and absorbs all of the moisture from the ground. Dust and dirt are unavoidable and sting my eyes. I reach for my C-4 charges and place them around the foundation of a forgotten structure. My squad mate, known only as The Spaniard, takes his position. After I set the explosives, I take a defensive position across the street. We are defending position on the map known as C.
My headset squeals with life. “You realize you’ve set these charges to the building I am using for cover, right?”
“Just being cautious, sit tight. We are going to have to destroy their options if we are going to keep this position.”
As we wait an armored troop transport filled with our guys rolls through towards position B. We only need to hold this position for a little while longer before we get our orders that we have stopped in insurgents.
My headset comes to life, it is The Spaniard again, “I am picking up tangos coming from position B moving into C. Spotting now. They should show up on your HUD.”
With motion sensors locally around my position no one will be sneaking up on me anytime soon. However I can’t say the same for my squad mate.
“Spaniard, you have two tangos going into the first floor of the building be advised.”
I can see insurgent troops move past a window on the first floor.
“I can hear them,” whispers The Spaniard, “they are coming up stairs. I can take them.”
From across the street I can see one of their soldiers looking out the window. He knows we are here. He knows we are close. Two figures now appear in the window. The Spaniard silently takes down the solider with his knife. I see a kill register on my HUD. Three more insurgents move into the building through the lower levels. Red dots fill the HUD now. They are on to him.
“Get out of there! Get out of there now. More soldiers are coming in on the first floor! I am going to blow the building!”
“Wait, I can get them. Don’t blow the building.” A few seconds pass. “OK, forget it they are on to me. I am out of here.”
I see a sand colored ghillie suit leap from the second story of the building. The Spaniard runs toward the clearing, as two more insurgents rush into the building, they don’t see him leave. No one ever has. I can see on my HUD all enemy troops are in the building. Two I can see from my vantage point are at the second floor and see The Spaniard move for cover.
I hit the detonator and the six pieces of strategically placed Compression 4 ignite like a symphony. The multi-floor explosion blows out the walls and what is left of the windows like snow. The building collapses onto itself leaving only rubble.
I have yet to have multiplayer experiences in other games like I do with Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The success of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 comes down to two words, “destructible environments.”
If you don’t have a destructible environment you might as well be playing a child’s game. I am looking at you Call of Duty, air strikes where building don’t fall down? Give me a break. I truly enjoy playing Halo: Reach multiplayer with work friends on a weekly basis. In its defense maybe the building are made of a space age polymer of the future that doesn’t ever get damaged. I guess the trees are made of that same stuff too.
If you want a combat experience that isn’t based on how many newbies you can pwn look no further than Battlefield: Bad Company 2, now featuring the Vietnam expansion pack. The choice is simple. BF: BC2, all day. (Charles Francis Moran VI)
Best Black Hole for Time and Productivity: Civilization V
Up until a few days ago, this category was called Best Portable Game and the award was going to God of War: Ghost of Sparta. But then, on Christmas day, I signed on Steam and saw the advertisement for Civilization V and I suddenly knew exactly how I would be keeping my most favorite of Christmas traditions.
Civ V is an insidious game. It is, in many ways, a perfection of the turn-based strategy game (a genre, it should be noted, that is delightfully old school and not for everyone). It has some warts (the AI can be astoundingly stupid at times and I would have enjoyed a deeper diplomacy feature set) but they don’t really matter – when I fired up Civ V, I fell into a hole so deep it took me forty hours to climb out. Pausing only for sleep and meals, those forty hours were nearly consecutive. It usually takes me weeks to log that kind of time.
So if taking over the world a turn at a time is your thing, then Civ V is for you. Just be warned, your majesty – you might not see your friends or family ever again. (On the other hand, your majesty, nothing is quite so satisfying as dropping a nuke on a particularly troublesome opponent…)
Saga of the Year: Mass Effect 2
The continuing saga of Commander Shepard is the best science fiction you can find in videogames. The second installment overhauled the mechanics but left the best part of the series intact: the elaborate and emotionally engaging story.
By the end of the game, I truly gave a crap about the people who made up my crew and Within the context of the game, I couldn’t call them anything less than friends. During the climax of the story, a suicide run into unknown space to save sentient life in the galaxy from extinction, I was forced to make decisions that directly impacted their lives. Some of the decisions I made were the wrong ones – and people died. The fact that I still feel the twist of guilt and the weight of responsability for those deaths is testament to Bioware’s command of storytelling.
Mass Effect 2 provoked a personal investment in a story that I always hoped for from a videogame but never really thought possible. Until now.
Character of the Year: John Marston of Red Dead Redemption
“It ain’t no secret I didn’t get these scars falling over in church.”
Looking back on Red Dead Redemption, everything good and bad, from the gorgeous landscapes to the annoying fetch quests, is overshadowed in my memory by the looming presence of John Marston. I didn’t play Red Dead for the story or the poker or the animal skinning (ok, maybe a little bit for the hunting). I played because, for the first time I can remember, I was confronted by a character in a videogame that I found to be utterly compelling.
Marston is the exact opposite of Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard, who is a shell waiting to be filled by the player’s personality. No, Marston lives and breathes on his own. You can try a hundred times to get him to hire a prostitute and a hundred times he will remind you that he’s a married man.
Over the sixty hours I spent with Marston (an incredible length of time to spend with a fictional character when you think about it), I came to know a man driven by the conflict between what he wanted to do and what he felt he had to do, a man who reluctantly changed his outlaw ways and committed himself to a duty that ill-suited him and eventually betrayed him.
The true climax of Red Dead isn’t a gunfight or a duel or even a pitched argument. It is a sigh of resignation in front of a barn door.
And that is an accomplishment of characterization in a videogame that has no equal.
Game of the Year: Costume Quest
This year gave us videogames with some fantastic stories and characters, but we also got a game that had an impact beyond the television screen.
Costume Quest. It was fun, adorable and original, a title that at face value was well worth the Microsoft points. But it was also something else…
When it was released on Xbox Live, giddy excitement spread like wildfire among the members of Team Unwinnable. Tim Schafer and the gang at Double Fine tapped into some kind of wellspring of perfect Halloween-ness and beamed it straight into all of our heads. It reignited our love of the spookiest season – all of us took in more horror movies and Halloween parties than any other year in recent memory. Contributor Shawn Dillon put it best when he said Costume Quest was the only way he was able to trick or treat as an adult.
I wrote at the time that Costume Quest was part of “a childhood we may not have had but still remember profoundly.” And while I still believe that is true, I think, months later, that I can go further.
Costume Quest immediately became part of the vocabulary of Halloween. It joined a language that includes It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. ‘Instant Classic’ is a term that get’s bandied about too often, but how else do you describe something that changes your perspective on cultural experience so quickly?
For me, October is now the season of Grubbins and Trowbogs and, as long as there is plenty of candy, I am looking forward to hanging out with Reynold, Wren, Lucy and Everett for many years to come.