2010 has been an odd year. It's been positively stuffed with action, brimming with blockbusters, with video games making a hell of a lot of noise, attempting to capitalise upon the enormous successes of 2009. We've seen some truly staggering achievements this year, games exhibiting such developmental technical brilliance that have dazzled our eyes , forced our mouths agape and, particularly now with everyone vying for a slice of MoCon pie, caused us to look very silly indeed.
There's been plenty of behind the scenes drama going on this year, as I mentioned in my retrospective glance at a few of this past year's highlights. But when it comes down to it, the games are what we have left upon which to judge the last twelve months. No one can deny it's been a pretty solid year in terms of the games themselves. Everywhere you looked there was another extremely polished would-be moneymaker preparing to ship. Gamers, in many ways, have been completely spoilt for choice this year. Throw Move and Kinect into the mix too and there really has been something for everyone - from basement dwellers to their grandmothers, from those with 5 minutes to spare to those with 5 days.
But for all of its pomp and circumstance, for all of the boisterous hyperbole, the PR stunts, swathes of adverts and headline-grabbing spats, speeches and slip-ups, 2010 has lacked something.
That something is soul.
Dave already alluded to this in his GOTY introduction when he said that we hadn't seen any goalpost movers this year, and I'm rather inclined to agree. There were plenty of fun titles and enjoyable experiences to be had but few, if any that blew my mind. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood earned its full marks for having the audacity to be released a mere year after ACII and not only top it but also wangle in some incredibly well-thought-out multiplayer too. But if you hadn't played any of the others it would have stumped you completely. It didn't really break new ground as much as perfect the old. Limbo, the other game I gave a ten to this year, is the only game I've ever played to really chill me to the bone. But it couldn't keep it up beyond a couple of hours and, whilst the second half of the game produced some excellent puzzles, it felt like the fireworks had passed.
The blockbusters this year have nearly all been sequels - louder, shinier and slicker: Mass Effect 2, God of War 3, ACB, Bioshock 2. The latter is a perfect example to encompass the year: better shooter, poorer game. Few, if any, of the mainstream studios this year (thank god for the indies!) have been prepared - except perhaps for SEGA (and I'm thinking here of the sheer lunacy that was Bayonetta) - to really be brave, to strive for the unique, the adventurous and the risky, and to truly push what it means to design video games. Not just building upon existing procedure, but shaking things up completely.
Except, perhaps for Quantic Dream...
Game of the Year: Heavy Rain
Unfolding like a virtual 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book, with some superlative graphical achievements bringing each and every character and their emotions to life, Heavy Rain did something that few games manage to pull off - it made your choices resonate. Too many games - including those constructed by my beloved Bioware - make those choices too transparent, often too binary. Things are never really black and white, but more often than not when it comes to video games we're simply choosing avenues. Heavy Rain surprised me by making me feel and emote and sympathise and care.
I loved Fahrenheit, and then cursed Microsoft for rendering it unplayable thanks to the emergence of Windows f***ing Vista. Heavy Rain was a continuation of the creed drives Quantic Dream - a dedication to power over consequence and narrative that extends beyond pulling a trigger or mashing some buttons (although the latter might raise a few eyebrows as it turns out). There will be those who question whether Heavy Rain should even be called a game, and that is precisely why it's my Game of the Year.
Beyond the game, David Cage and his team got people talking in a way that titles such as Black Ops were never going to be able to do. Is it a game? Is it interactive entertainment? What the hell does that phrase even mean? One of the best discussions I had this year was an argument one evening over a number of pints as to whether or not Heavy Rain was in fact good for the games industry. Yes, it was doing something different, but arguably only by delivering according to another medium's rules - that of cinema. For my money, though, it showed that gaming doesn't have to be about scores or competition, shooting people or hacking off their limbs. No, Cage's epic wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was certainly one of the most important games in recent years. It'll be interesting to see if anybody dares to try and follow it up...and my eye is on Rockstar.
Favourite Game of 2010: Super Mario Galaxy 2
This award was going to go to Halo: Reach. I wasn't overwhelmed by Halo: Reach at all. It's singleplayer campaign seemed to me to be an endless series of Firefight matches, with little variety. The vistas were fantastic, the levels really quite well thought out, but the variety was hugely lacking and I never once felt thrilled by it in the same way I had by Halo: CE or Halo 3. At least ODST had its own identity, and paced itself well, I never found myself bored or overloaded.
But, as Jon's already mentioned, it became a retreat at the end of the day, perfect for stress-relief, relaxation, catching up with old friends over XBL, or bonding with one's flatmate. The multiplayer sucked me in time and time again and it almost made the grade through the simple reason that for two months I couldn't take it out of my Xbox!
Ultimately, though, it's hard to see past Super Mario Galaxy 2. I've been constantly criticising Nintendo for really just resting on their laurels this year and I'm still waiting for Donkey Kong Country Returns to prove to me that it's something more than just a nostalgic throwback, but I can't find fault with SMG2. It's pure platforming perfection. It's so dazzlingly well put together that it brings a tear to the eye. In short, if Plato had gotten himself a Form for platform video games, this would be it.
If you own a Wii and you don't have it whether male or female, young or old, slap yourself in the face once for lunacy because you're clearly mad and play this game!
Infinite Space gets an honourable mention here for possibly being the best RPG I've played all year. And yes, that includes Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas.
Best Gaming Moment of 2010: Duke Nukem Forever
It could have been that swanky Bioshock Infinite demonstration in Cologne. It could have been beating 1UP's Thierry Nguyen at the new Mortal Kombat. It could have been the game of Reach where I threw off my mantle of Most Mediocre FPS Player EVER and sticky grenaded my way to victory and an MVP award.
But I think my best gaming moment of 2010 might have to be the London preview for Duke Nukem Forever. Randy Pitchford hit us with a passionate hour long speech, and no doubt a well rehearsed speech at that, of just exactly what had happened over the last decade. How a gaming icon, presumed dead, was now making a Lazarus-like comeback. I won't go into it now - you can read the account in my first preview here - but looking around the room as he spoke, it was clear that the belief was back.
I'm excited by the game, I got to play through the PAX demo that'll be available soon to those of you who bought Borderlands GOTY, but the way Pitchford and Gearbox's Steve Gibson talked about their experiences in taking on this mantle excited me even more. There might even have been hugging.
Most Disappointing Game of 2010: Final Fantasy XIII
We can be quite ruthless when it comes to reviewing. The run up to a game's release involves months of hype, lots of excitement, new features, characters, mechanics and more being trumpeted about. Of course, as the PR machines get louder and the hyperbole gets bigger, the chances of disappointment grow larger too. There have been a number of games that I felt disappointed this year, particularly for silly reasons. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow disappointed by ignoring most of what made the Castlevania series great to begin with and being a boring trudge. Fable III disappointed by being exactly the same as Fable II. Even Mass Effect II let me down slightly...divulging an enormous tidbit of shatteringly important twist-tastic information with a telephoned-in shrug.
But I think Final Fantasy XIII might have to take the biscuit here. Unlike so many games that start brightly and fade into inconspicuous mediocrity, Square decided to do it the other way around. Only after a good 15-20 hour slog of pushing up and pressing 'A' does the game finally release you and let you enjoy yourself. For an RPG I found it to be a horribly lonely and sterile experience and, by the time it did open up, all I wanted to do was throw the controller at the TV screen.
It was very very shiny, though.
Most Anticipated Game of 2011: LA Noire
I still haven't finished Red Dead Redemption. I will, at some point, because it's a good game. But, in exactly the same way that I got bored of GTA IV, I got bored of GTA Wild West. I'm quite glad, therefore, that Rockstar are going out of their way to do something a little bit different with L.A. Noire. We've already seen videos testifying to the truly inspiring technology that'll be utilised to squeeze and wring every last drop of emotion from the characters' faces, but I'm rather looking forward to a classic whodunnit. Team Bondi have been working on this adventurous opus for years, and there's a very real possibility that it could be a stunning game changer that really breaks new ground. MotionScan is impressive, to be sure, but how it's deployed will be far more important. Watching interrogations subjects shift and squirm, being able to read their movements, react to their expressions and pick up their tells, if L.A. Noire is half as good as I think it's going to be it'll be my game of 2011.
There are some astonishingly promising games that could have made it here - The Witcher II, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Bioshock Infinite, Zelda: Skyward Sword to name but a few. But I'm on a big trip with 'choice' in games at the moment, and L.A. Noire is going to be the itch I'm absolutely going to have to scratch this year.