If last generation’s defining games, the Grand Theft Auto series, feels like it’s past its best – a feeling that, I would suggest, is shared by Rockstar, given the reduced prominence of the franchise – what Red Dead Redemption did was prove that the formula itself is still full of life.
As much as I loved it, GTA IV was a very conservative entry, pulling back from the increasingly madcap antics that grew throughout the PS2 entries, and it received criticism for that. Red Dead, however, was a fresh start, and although it was similarly straight-faced, it had a maturity to its storytelling that I don’t think any game has matched. Here we had a fairly realistic period setting, largely populated by middle-aged characters, and all taking place under a solemn atmosphere as the pioneering Old West gave way to civilisation and the rule of law, leaving these characters robbed of their place in the world.
The game was full of moments showing this maturity, from the references not to modern pop culture but to things like Heart of Darkness; the clever, subtle use of music at key points in the story; the quite brilliant I Know You quest line; tough historical themes like the treatment of native Americans; and, of course, that ending. It’s supported by one of the most beautiful game engines I’ve ever seen, capable of staggeringly picturesque and surprisingly varied backdrops that were a pleasure to spend time in. I don’t find enough games nowadays that I’m tempted to jump right back into after finishing them, but that’s exactly what I did after spending 50 hours in this game world.
The fact that of all the games on this list, going back and watching some of my favourite moments on YouTube from Red Dead is genuinely eliciting an emotional reaction, feeling for John Marston and pining to go back into that beautiful world, is why it has to be my number one. It’s one of the handful of games that brings a smile to my face just thinking about existing in it, and I sincerely hope that its success will mean that it continues as Rockstar’s number one open-world adventure series.
I know for a fact that many of the first game’s most ardent fans will disagree vehemently with this, but for my money Mass Effect 2 will stand as one of the primary examples of how to improve on a game for its sequel. It may have jettisoned some of the RPG ideals of the first game, but I found its attempts at streamlining perfect, creating a brilliant action-RPG – emphasis on the ‘action’ – with one of the best open-ended stories in recent history. The important thing is that what the first game did best – creating a wonderfully vibrant and believable sci-fi universe – was preserved and expanded.
There’s a slim line between streamlining and dumbing down, and I think Mass Effect 2 is an example of it done right. While it was now more limited in being able to explore hundreds of largely redundant rooms on the Citadel, for instance, what was there was more detailed, more populated, and felt more like a real galactic capital. You couldn’t land on every planet any more, but the ones with missions were more unique and often looked beautiful, rather than constructed from a handful of set assets.
One area where I’ll give the first game a slight edge is in its story, as I liked the mystery around Saren and Sovereign more than this game’s Cerberus and Collectors, but the execution of this game’s finale was leagues ahead of anything in that game. The wanton way in which it would kill supporting characters, even making it possible for Shepard himself to not survive for Mass Effect 3, was extremely brave, the knowledge that it was possible for everyone to make it back alive – managing that was one of my proudest gaming achievements, definitely – made any deaths really hit home. It forced you to delve into everyone’s back story, which also made you care and caused every loss to hurt.
Mass Effect 2 is yet more proof, then, that Western developers are now the ones to watch when it comes to RPGs. BioWare had the courage to massively overhaul what was already a minor classic, and in doing so created what must go down as one of the generation’s best games. Bring on Mass Effect 3.
What is likely to be Bungie’s last entry in the series that it grew from niche Mac RTS to one of the biggest FPS franchises in history proved to be a fitting goodbye. It was almost like, freed of fitting another game into the Master Chief’s story and carrying the Xbox brand now that games like Gears of War can share the load, Bungie was able to flex its creative muscles, and while I’ll concede that it’s still super soldiers killing aliens, it was the most fun I’ve had with a game in this series since I first took it online.
Multiplayer-wise it’s certainly my game of the year, and I’ll take this straight challenge of who knows the maps and weapons better than the next guy over the unbalanced quick fix of Call of Duty, let down only by a limited map selection. Halo 3’s integration of multiplayer and its lobbies into everything is only just coming into touching distance of other games and the setup is just as formidable here.
Going back to the point about originality, it’s true that Reach doesn’t have a lot of it in its story. Nonetheless, as a Halo fan I adored it. Seeing a team of Spartans doing what I’d so far only read about would have been enough to make me go a little bit in my pants but, cliched as they were, I cared when they were inevitably cut down. Set against such a beautiful and varied backdrop and with so many memorable moments – the level that takes you from ground level into a space battle and on to low-gravity combat in a vacuum before its explosive ending is an obvious high point, but the melancholic final moments also deserve love – I have to give Reach as both my favourite Halo game and one of 2010’s greatest.
Considering the esteem in which the franchise is held, Metal Gear has a lot of disappointing instalments. This, however, wasn’t one of them, following up the best in the series – that’s MGS3, for those who aren’t keeping count – and absolutely stomping over the letdown of Portable Ops. This was a proper Metal Gear Solid game, originally planned as MGS5, and it’s a strong contender for my favourite of the lot.
Even if the story was mostly utter rubbish, taking a huge dump on some of the best characters, if you let that affect your enjoyment of Metal Gear games they’d never get anywhere near these lists. Cramming console games designed for dual analogue sticks onto portable systems rarely works, and indeed here it takes a period of acclimatisation, but in no time at all I had my head around it and, by the end, I found myself hoping that some of this game’s advances will get ported back to any future MGS games. This is the first one in which I’ve been able to make use of the CQC system, for example, now that it’s been slimmed down and the need to regulate pressure on the buttons as well as direction on the stick has been removed.
It’s looking increasingly likely that 2010 could be the PSP’s last year as Sony’s primary handheld console, and despite some of its most impressive games coming out – Persona 3 Portable also deserves a mention – it’s been an ignominious end, with mediocre hardware sales and almost non-existent software ones. This, though, must go down as evidence that the system had more to offer. Aside from its segmented areas – methinks as much down to hardware limitations as it is portable game design – this could have quite easily been a PS2 game, and as that seems to have been the Holy Grail of PSP development since the beginning, it’s one of the biggest compliments I can pay to one of its last great games.
What a finale, though, both to the Metal Gear Solid series and the PSP’s viability. I’ve had rocky relationships with both, but they’ll still be missed.
Having finally received a European release in 2010, we poor peasants on this side of the Atlantic finally got to experience what our American cousins had been telling us was the best thing since sliced bread at around this time last year. Those who dared to try it would find what will surely go down as one of this generation’s most challenging, most atmospheric and most original games. And in a gen that has so far severely disappointed with the quality of its RPGs, this one can largely stand alone.
While Demon’s Souls is famous for its difficulty above anything else, I don’t think that should be its defining feature. It’s got an amazing dark fantasy world that’s absolutely enthralling to explore, and the unrelenting bleakness of the tone is unusual in modern games.
And in its gameplay, From Software made huge numbers of innovations. The way that it makes death a part of your tactics has already started influencing other RPGs like Infinity Blade, and the unusual online functionality, which really disregards every convention – no server lists, no playing with your friends, no trading of loot, or anything that you might expect to find in an online RPG – yet still fosters a sense of community. The way that every trap can be foreseen because of the apparitions of dying players, or the notes that can be left to guide later players around traps – or into them. It’s brilliantly done, and I’d love to see even a modicum of this creativity in the designs of any games, let alone a genre as conservative as the JRPG.
Maybe I’m cheating with this one given that I originally played the US version, which was released in 2009, but with the subsequent European release and the fact that I didn’t play it until 2010, I’m happy to bend the rules a little to give games of this quality the recognition they deserve.
Considering that I generally don’t get on with the genre at all, the fact that I liked Bayonetta as much as I did is a minor miracle. Or maybe it wasn’t, because the Platinum Games connection always seems to guarantee a deep and polished experience, regardless of genre, and Bayonetta trumped the rest in almost every respect.
First and foremost, it played wonderfully, with accessible, balletic combat and movement that flowed hypnotically, whether you were a button-mashing beginner – or a God of War fan, natch – or took the time to learn it. And I loved how the deep combat mechanics avoided a common pitfall by offering a carrot rather than a stick – mastery of the dodging system conferred a benefit, rather than punishing those who failed to use it properly.
Of course, the glorious presentations deserves plenty of credit. Beyond looking gorgeous, it was a love letter to Sega gaming – within minutes you’re driving along to Magical Sound Shower – and never failed to impress when it came to scale. Show me another game that ends with you riding a motorcycle up the side of a rocket into space to fight God, and I’ll thank you because I want to play it.
I wouldn’t have given Bayonetta some of the more excessive scores that it obtained this year, but it stands as certainly the best in breed for this year, and is up there with Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry as one of the few that I might return to without a gun to my head.