Mr. Gerardi’s 2010 Game of the Year Spectacular, Part 2: The Top Ten (10-6)
January 12, 2011 2 Comments
Be sure to check out the previous entry in this series, the honorable mentions. And now my top games of 2010…well five of them.
Vanquish (Platinum Games, Sega – 360, PS3)
It’s impossible to question the fact that the third-person-cover-based-shooter has become a stale genre. Ever since Gears of War, publishers have been spitting these out with reckless abandon. Vanquish represents a Japanese take on this unquestionably western style and it shows. It’s slick, fast, beautiful and silly.
At its core Vanquish is one of those cover-based-shooters (it’s also a satire of them), but Platinum has added a few mechanics on top of the normal formula that completely change the way it plays: rocket knees, bullet time and weapons that matter.
Separately these mechanics don’t change much – rocket knees allow the player to get in close or escape a sticky situation in a speedy fashion, bullet time is bullet time and the weapon sallow for some minor strategy when entering a fray — but it’s the moments of mechanical coalescence that really shine.
Here’s an example: I’m fighting a pretty nasty robot. I blast him with a large gun that knocks him down. Next, activate those rocket knees and get my ass over to him and do a massive flip kick right out of the slide. Before hitting the ground I whip out my assault rifle, automatically activating bullet time. I unload a clip and switch to my shotgun, still falling in slow motion, another clip unloaded. I land, time returns to normal, and the big nasty robot hits the ground and blows up.
The game is thrilling. It has a fantastic sense of scale, only outdone by God of War 3 and the set pieces are simply outrageous. Fighting on a crazy space train as it spins around tubular track? Check. Battling on a crumbling highway? Yep. It’s all crazy, all the time.
Limbo (Playdead, Microsoft – XBLA)
Limbo’s prime achievement is its success in embracing minimalism. The art is minimalist in every way – stark black and white with never a single flourish of color. Its controls comprise only two buttons. Its narrative is told by a small handful of fleeting scenes and environmental cues. It’s smart, unique and unforgettable.
The first thing you’ll feel is dread. Death lurks around every corner and hits quickly. This is a mysterious world where bear traps can decapitate children like much like your player character. You’ll likely be decapitated a lot. Oh, and impaled….and crushed. Thanks to the sound design and the power of the human imagination, the deaths are incredibly grisly. They only add to the dark and dreary tone that Limbo oozes.
It’s also full of smart puzzle design. Early on we’re treated to a piece of flat land with two switches with giant weights hanging above them. The player will (likely) jump over the first switch, successfully avoiding being crushed under the weight. Next up the player attempts the same move on the next switch, only to be crushed under the giant weight before jumping. You see, the developers took our player’s expectations and flipped them. The solution is to jump onto the second switch. What’s more, the next task is to repeat that puzzle backwards, testing the player’s memory and again their expectations.
Game Dev Story (Kairosoft – iOS, Android)
It’s one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played. I’m talking Peggle levels. It hooks you by latching onto a part of the human psyche not often tapped in games: our constant search for approval.
Game Dev Story is devoid of typical goals or limits – it’s essentially a long form high-score hunt as players attempt to manage their development house into fame and fortune within a time limit. The driving force for continued play turns out to be impressing the critics.
Your first games will be panned and their scores tend to rise at a glacial pace. Every time a four or five would pop up in the little review bubble a real hatred began bubbling inside of me. My team worked hard on this damn game and who is he to shit all over it? Not next time. Next time I’m going to knock that bastard’s socks off. And so I press on only to receive another five. DAMN!
It’s this constant struggle for approval by critics — and also fans – that drives the game forward. The moment you ship your first project that is inducted into the “Hall of Fame” is elating. I, for one, stood up and threw my arms up in the air triumphantly.
Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, Sony – PS3)
What Heavy Rain does well is surprisingly not story. It excels at giving meaning to play by attributing meaning to death. It’s a strong departure from typical games in that failure doesn’t stop the story (game over screen), it only changes it and becomes a part of it. By making death permanent and essentially a huge punishment (it locks away story content the player would otherwise have been able to see) an underlying tension is created and amplifies what are already very intense sequences.
One particularly memorable scene involved navigating through an obstacle course of electrified wires — three mistakes and we could say goodbye to one of our main characters. After two electrifying screw-ups (ba-zing) the pressure to finish the rest of the maze perfectly was immense. My hands quaked, I lent forward on my seat and I proceeded to spout words of encouragement at the screen as Ethan Mars limboed his way through a pair of wires.
The game uses presentation effects to also enhance the tension, such as reflecting the character’s anxiety on screen by making your command icons quiver or fade. As the character struggles to act and decide, so does the player.
Heavy Rain isn’t a great game, but it’s a very important one. It’s actually mature and not in the way the video game industry typically sees it. Thematically it’s meatier stuff than we’re used to, dealing with loss, parenthood, failure, sex and sacrifice. The formula works. If only we could see it implemented in a better written (and acted) package.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games – PC, Mac)
The “survival-horror” genre has for the most part degenerated into a few third person shooters with jump scares and minor ammunition constraints, but your character is empowered — massive biceps, inventories overflowing with guns. There’s at the least usually some way to combat your pursuers.
Amnesia offers no such relief. The only way to avoid death is to run and hide. Not once does the player get to feel empowered or safe. It’s a horror design that works and boy does it work well.
The game is terrifying and how the horror is created is brilliant. The player is often tasked with delving deeper into areas and forced to confront the monsters that guard it. Light is normally our best friend, as darkness drains our character, Daniel’s, sanity – which leads to the game distorting your vision and increasing the amount of ambient creepy noises – but once a monster is involved, survival is dependent on a mad dash away from any and all light sources.
Amnesia has become a laughable video game trope but this game presents one of the first instances in which it’s used well. The tragedy of Daniel’s existence and the circumstances he’s found himself in unfold through diary pages and flashbacks with the ultimate revelation striking a pretty heavy chord. The reasons for Daniel’s amnesia are surprising and appropriately morose.
Amnesia is undoubtedly the scariest game I’ve ever played, but the scares almost never feel cheap or unearned. While it has its share of jump scares, the majority of the terror is self-induced. It comes from a constant feeling of uncertainty and that tension it breeds is almost unbearable. That’s the kind of fear that not everyone can manufacture. It’s the kind of fear that requires a deft hand to manipulate and Frictional have proven to be masters of its creation.