- Mar 5, 2011
1. Gravity Rush ; The reason Gravity Rush reigns above everything else I played this year is due to its unrivalled sense of wonderment; that certain kind of magic that one can’t intentionally create from the outset but just falls into place as things go along. It’s inherent in the game’s every facet, from Kohei Tanaka’s enchanting score to the Studio Ghibli-meets-steampunk art sytle, from the interactive 3D comic book panels that chronicle the story to the heroine and city do-gooder Kat - an iconic and instantly likeable lead, mercifully free of any angst or brooding temperament but endowed instead with a bubbly personality and selfless dedication to always helping others. Graphically it’s a visual feast, a game that seemingly incorporates black magic to look as astonishing as it does on a device so miniscule, while the game’s signature gameplay mechanic of Kat’s gravity-manipulating powers provides an endlessly liberating means of traversing the city of Hekseville. There’s a satisfaction that cannot be put into words as Kat hurtles through the sky, sweeping past a series of monolithic structures, only to land swiftly on the side of a rooftop spire.
It’s a game that made me feel like a kid again, constantly in a state of awe at what I was seeing while frequently being reminded that this is something I’ll probably look back on with much nostalgia in twenty years time. And in a way, I can’t give Gravity Rush higher praise than that.
2. Journey ; It was to my good fortune that I was able to experience Journey in the most ideal way intended during my first playthrough. From almost the very beginning I had met my fellow wanderer and in one single sitting (although I do recall having to take the world’s quickest toilet break) we never left each other’s side through the course of the entire experience that this game had to offer. Needless to say, it roused inside me emotions that a video game have not given me since the tender age of 11, when I first saw Aeris slain at the hands of Sephiroth. By the end I was a quivering wreck; desperately trying to maintain my masculinity as I held back the tears. There are those who’d prefer to argue semantics about whether Journey constitutes as a ‘real’ video game or not… I feel sorry for those people.
Dat “Oh shit” moment –
Sand-surfing while the camera pans sideways to reveal the mountain top destination in the far off distance, all the while Austin Wintory’s unforgettable crescendos to a delirious high.
3. Silent Hill: Downpour ; In this day and age, a moderately budgeted survival-horror that adheres to its genre’s foundations is a rare thing. As such, I applaud Konami (almost begrudgingly) for keeping Downpour relatively traditional to the Silent Hill name. Continually hindered by some unfortunate technical issues, and lacking majorly in effective enemy design, Downpour nonetheless has the good grace to deliver some genuine survival-horror thrills in a console generation that has led us to believe the genre is irrelevant. An emphasis on exploration not seen since the second (and still the best) installment, the town of Silent Hill in this iteration is a semi open-world haven with a series of side-quests to discover; some of which are perfunctory at best while others offer some of the most memorable sequences in the game. Fixed camera angles make a welcome return, disempowerment is focused upon again, puzzles and combat can have their difficulty altered and even a fully-fledged inventory system is included! It’s a game seeping in atmosphere, with Vatra’s eye for detail paying dividends in making the ghost town feel simultaneously lived in, yet wholly abandoned. The story itself is a gripping enough cautionary tale on the ramifications of revenge, but benefits the most from the presence of its leading man. The greatest protagonist to feature in a Silent Hill yet, escaped convict Murphy Pendleton is a dubious individual to begin with, yet becomes quickly relatable as events progress. He’s no pushover, yet his vulnerability is expressed more than adequately as he reacts convincingly toward the horrors that continue to engulf him. Even by Silent Hill standards, the man is a truly tragic figure, and by the end I sympathized with him immensely (although it does ultimately depend on what ending you get).
If you’re not biased toward the petulant notion that the only good Silent Hill game is a Japanese-developed one (The Room and Shattered Memories can attest to that not being true anyway), then I urge anyone who hasn’t to check out Downpour. You’ll be surprised.
Dat “Oh shit” moment –
Witnessing a gramophone-assisted retelling of a family killing spree… and then having to deal with the murderer.
4. Sleeping Dogs ; In my experience, sandbox games usually sacrifice atmosphere and detail for abundant scale and empty, lifeless environments (hello Just Cause 2). Not Sleeping Dogs however, and that’s what I loved about it. It doesn’t feature the biggest world to roam around in, but what’s here is chock full of detail and ambiance, with its setting really feeling like a living, breathing, accurate depiction of Hong Kong. A melting pot of influences that range from Infernal Affairs to Grand Theft Auto to the Batman Arkham games, Sleeping Dogs is derivative for sure, but pulls off its multitude of differing gameplay mechanics sufficiently. It's packed with content and a wide variety of things to do, and straddles a fine line between and the realistic and the absurd, keeping the tone consistent throughout and avoiding the pitfalls of GTA IV. Hell, even some of the hacking mini-games are fun.
At best, it represents the most unexpected delight of the year. And at the very least, it acts as an extension of the middle finger to Bobby Kotick and the rest of the spawn of Satan over at Activision who axed such a great game in the making.
5. Uncharted: Golden Abyss ; Uncharted 2 was partly the reason I bought a PS3. Golden Abyss is partly the reason I purchased a Vita. This, apparently, is a good trend to follow, so bring on Uncharted 4 for Sony’s next console I say. Not quite the Hollywood blockbuster action of its home console ilk, Golden Abyss sets aside the elaborate set-pieces for something a bit more measured. There’s no event during its campaign to leave the mouth agape like escaping the confines a capsizing cruise liner, but the fact that an Uncharted game is even on a handheld device, and successfully replicates the formula at that, is hugely commendable. Nate and Sully remain as endearing as ever, Chase outdoes Elena in the love interest stakes and the gyroscope-enhanced aiming is perfect for fine-tuning those all too important headshots.
6. Max Payne 3 ; So it doesn’t reach the high-water mark attained by Max Payne 2, but Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 is worthy of the name, and in a year of underwhelming AAA releases has managed to stand proud as one of the very few threequels that actually delivered. It forgoes much of the pulpy noir of Remedy’s winning formula for a darker, grittier tone that I wouldn’t exactly say is a change for the better, yet still manages to retain the gravitas of before by telling an absorbing, suspenseful story that’s beautifully complimented by the best mo-cap performance of the year in James McCaffrey. What has been refined to an absolute tee is the gunplay, and it’s here that the game shines brightest. The Euphoria engine, through its dynamic use of physics and animation, permits gunfights to be as exhilarating and brutal as they’re likely going to get this gen, with series staples like shoot dodging and bullet time never feeling more satisfying to pull off.
Dat “Oh shit” moment –
Max storms an airport terminal to the noisy strains of HEALTH’s ‘Tears’. Let the audio/visual harmony commence.
7. LittleBigPlanet Vita ; I love LBP Vita for much the same reasons I loved Golden Abyss – it’s a handheld iteration of a beloved home console franchise that has had nothing taken away from it in its conversion to a smaller, less powerful system. Can’t say I’m all too fond of the newly implemented touch controls, but otherwise it’s almost graphically identical to the PS3 games, it’s a small step up in the platforming stakes from previous installments, and Sackboy and his world are still the epitome of charm.
8. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale ; It still amazes me that this game managed to accrue as much controversy as it did. Is it a Smash Bros. clone? On a surface level… yes. Dig a little deeper though and it’s its own game for sure. The Super system, a point of contention for many, takes some getting used to, but plays a huge tactical role when trying to beat your opponent that gives matches a hefty bit of tension as you try to find that key opportunity to unleash your own character-specific super move. Yes, SuperBot/Sony dropped the ball majorly when it came to the third-party representation. Yes, there’s a distinct lack of classic PlayStation characters that many are still pining for. Yes, Good Cole and Evil Cole as separate characters is sheer stupidity (blame Sucker Punch for that one). But for all its problems, the game is pure crack online. It is, honest to goodness, one of the most addictive gaming experiences I’ve encountered. Kicking the shit out of the God of War with Sony’s ultra-lovable Japanese mascot Toro never gets old.
Dat “Oh shit” moment – Killing off all three opponents with a level 1 super in a ranked match. Your self-satisfaction will know no bounds.
9. Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward ; I’m new to this visual novel malarkey, and I’m new to the Zero Escape series, yet much against everyone’s advice I skipped 999 and delved straight into the mysteries of its sequel (I also really needed a Vita game to play for the Fall). I’m more than willing to concede that doing so probably diluted the impact of some of the twists that occurred, but all the same I thoroughly enjoyed Virtue’s Last Reward. The cast was engaging, the story was instantly intriguing, the escape rooms brought out my inner point ‘n’ click adventure game fanboy and the segments requiring me to ally or betray were always nerve-shredding moments. A minor annoyance is that the game is privy to scenes with drawn out, yawnsome exposition that do their best to kill the pacing.
10. Spec Ops: The Line ; *WARNING* Contains slighty spoiler-ish details for both this and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
I normally keep tabs on anything narrative-heavy when it comes to video games, but I wrote off Spec Ops: The Line upon release as the very personification of generic, glorified war-porn that I had become allergic to somewhere during 2008. A cursory glance at some screenshots and the cover art, and I had made up my mind that it was another Homefront or Medal of Honor to be instantly forgotten about… how wrong I was. Spec Ops, for all its flaws, is an unforgettably harrowing experience that’s practically subversive in its critique of the military shooter. Oddly enough, it reminds me of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, in the sense that the game has a very short, concise campaign, shorn of filler and supremely effective in establishing a tight, compelling narrative and stringing the player along in its twisted rollercoaster ride. Unlike Shattered Memories however, Spec Ops suffers from an anti-climactic twist ending that doesn’t feel like the pay-off that a game of such intensifying madness deserved. The beauty of Shattered Memories is that it escalated and escalated, got progressively more surreal as it came to its conclusion, and then it hit the player with the mother of all twists right at the end to leave the player with a sense of satisfaction. Spec Ops was following that same trajectory for me and then fell at the last hurdle. If it had culminated in something more memorable, I’d wager the game would be in the top half of this list.
Dat “Oh shit” moment –
Rendering a military base a burning pile of destruction with white phosphorous is bad enough, only to realize you’ve made a grave mistake.
x. The Walking Dead ; Three episodes in and this was all geared up to be my GOTY… then it all started to fall apart at the seams. I started to cotton on that the moral choices weren’t really choices at all, that events were already predetermined no matter whose side I picked or who’s cranium I decided to bash in, depriving the game of most of its tension. Say what you will about Heavy Rain, but at least its ‘rubber band’ narrative gave actions a weight to them. The last two episodes are poorly paced, certain characters act in a schizophrenic manner at times and the game only has a single outcome. Terrific start, disappointing conclusion.
x. Machinarium (PSN) ; Adorably charming point ‘n’ click adventure game set in the traditional mold. It tells a heartwarming little fable, while the hand drawn art style is gorgeous to behold.
x. The Last Story ; The only game I bought for my Wii this year, disappointingly. Rollicking good fun though, ignoring the fact that it ran like crap, utilized a muted and reserved soundtrack by the greatest video game composer in existence and contained some sorely misplaced British voice-acting.
x. The Unfinished Swan ; I was often in awe of what I was witnessing, but unlike that other indie-developed, artsy PSN-exclusive, this does not reach the necessary lasting emotional impact to honour it a complete success.
x. Dishonored ; The open-ended nature at which you could approach your mission and deal with your targets was great. The uninspired story, lifeless cast and dreary setting of Dunwall however was not. I know this is a city ravaged by plague and decay, but geez, at least give it a little glitz! Dunwall makes Victorian London look like Disneyworld for crying out loud.
2011. inFamous 2 ; Got this when it was made available free on PS+ this year. It remedied a lot of the issues inherent in the first game I think. The cast was vastly improved, with Zeke somehow transformed into a legitimately likeable fellow. And the acting chops of new Cole Eric Ladin really bolstered the character from what came before. I've seen Ladin in Mad Men, Generation Kill and The Killing - he's an excellent actor. Less goons shooting at you with pinpoint accuracy at every turn; that was a big plus. More variety in the missions and cooler powers to obtain during the campaign. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was definitely a step up, and I liked it enough that I would actually welcome a third game from Sucker Punch if it ever happens.
2013. DmC: Devil May Cry ; Most fun I’ve had with a hack ‘n’ slasher since I can remember.