Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 PSB Game of the Year Awards

Another year gone by and another pile of great additions to the shelf of all-time classics. As this generation of consoles reaches its 5th year on the market, the combatants still show remarkable momentum and no signs of slowing down, especially with plenty of room for price drops and two big new peripherals--Kinect for Xbox 360 and Move for PlayStation 3--entering the fold. Before we peek into the exciting year ahead of us, let's reflect back on what was a great year of gaming from start to finish.

MASS EFFECT 2 // BioWare
Despite being one of the first games to be released in 2010, BioWare's space epic's dark second act stood tall against stiff competition throughout the year--and now stands as arguably the best game of all time (so far). There are countless reasons why Mass Effect 2 deserves such an honor, so many that it'd be near impossible to name them all here. The game simply must be played. Better yet, the game simply must be played with a character who you as a player has personally taken through the events of Mass Effect 1. That's because Mass Effect 2 is the first true direct sequel to a video game; it is the first to take actions and choices that you personally made and applies them to change the game you're playing now--and saves some for yet another that you'll be playing in the future. You take one Commander Shepard--your Commander Shepard--from one chapter of the saga straight into the next without missing a beat. Delivering on this promise is probably the greatest of Mass Effect 2's lasting legacies, and it's a concept that's already spreading (Fable III accounted for some world changes based on Fable II saves). On the other end of that, it is actually possible for your Shepard to die--permanently--at the end of Mass Effect 2. The basic mechanics of the first game are back, but refined in every way. Combat is more fluid and simply more fun, feeling a lot closer to a Gears of War. The cumbersome inventory system was replaced completely by streamlined customization and loadouts. The leveling mechanic was simplified to emphasize the different abilities of each squad member. The graphics have been improved to a silky smooth rate and are heavily detailed to a point that they are used for all of the cutscenes. And at the center of those cutscenes, which are heavy in character interaction, is the same innovative conversation wheel, but now certain moments allow you to interrupt the talking with a Paragon or Renegade action--provided you've gone far enough in either of those directions. The conversations themselves are also improved, taking a lot of cinematography techniques from Hollywood and applying them so that conversations seem less static and mechanical and instead more natural.

And I'm just getting started. Mass Effect 2 features some of the best voice acting in the business, and, as you've read below, has one of the best video game soundtracks ever. The theme of choice is prevalent in everything you do, including choosing what order to tackle missions or whether to do them at all--except at pivotal moments when you are forced to confront the Collectors. The fact that you must do these whether or not you want to adds to the sense of urgency and tension of the missions. The choices you've brought over from Mass Effect 1 are everywhere, big and small, and the world truly feels like something you've affected. The narrative and the overall fleshed-out universe behind it is incredibly detailed and intelligent, having scientific reasoning supporting it and possessing references to various sociological problems we have today--but all the while, it never calls these out by itself, and instead just lets it be there in a natural state where the player can interpret the meaning for themselves (or ignore them altogether). The other characters that populate your squad and the rest of the world are also astoundingly fleshed out with incredible personal stories. It is obvious that so much passionate work has poured into this story and this universe. Mass Effect 2 is the greatest example from top to bottom of the game industry's potential to tell a compelling narrative while using the medium's unique interactive qualities to enhance it. By the time you get through its heart-pounding conclusion--which itself has its own qualities to be praised of--you're left salivating for the final act in Mass Effect 3 and excited to see how two games' worth of choices ultimately coincide for a thrilling finale. Because Mass Effect 2 does all this--and so much more--it is the 2010 Game of the Year.

honorable mentions: Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, Limbo

2010 was a banner year for the studio run by the AIAS Hall-of-Fame "Doctors". They started off the year with a bang, launching Mass Effect 2 in January...a game that would turn out to be the yardstick by which all Game of the Year contenders were measured from there on out. They continued support of their 2009 hit Dragon Age: Origins with a steady stream of downloadable content... and simultaneously kept players engaged in the Mass Effect story with its own stream of DLC on top of in-game daily "news" updates. They revived their heralded Knights of the Old Republic series by showing off Star Wars: The Old Republic, their first MMO and the first such game to bring a level of detailed storytelling usually reserved for tightly-orchestrated single player adventures--something that, with the Star Wars license, has some critics saying this game has a legitimate shot of going after World of Warcraft. They even developed a Dragon Age sequel that will be dropping in early 2011, before The Old Republic takes PCs by storm in the middle of the year and Mass Effect 3 closes the epic trilogy in the fall. Most of all, through everything listed above on top of their critically-acclaimed pedigree and all they've been able to accomplish and everything they have going for them in 2011, BioWare has cemented itself as one of the premier studios in the industry--and, arguably, the best of them all.

honorable mentions: Quantic Dream, Remedy, Rockstar San Diego

Downloadable Content has become a staple of this generation of games--and so has empty promises to provide it. The original Mass Effect was one such empty promise, and many had doubts whether BioWare would come through on recent promises to bridge the second and third installments on the trilogy via DLC. Well, let's just say nobody doubts them now. After a solid first effort with "Stolen Memory" and an excellent, thought-provoking follow-up in "Overlord", BioWare came back with its best downloadable effort yet. "Shadow Broker" is the first DLC to take place after the main storyline of Mass Effect 2. It reunites Commander Shepard with a major party member from the original game, continues a love story with said character (provided your a love story exists for your Shepard), solves a major mystery in the story's universe in the identity of the Shadow Broker, provides some new twists to gameplay, and refines what's already there, most notably the interruptable cutscenes. Hell, there's even an awesome car chase sequence that's as cool as the scene in Attack of the Clones should have been. "Shadow Broker" is a meaty, fast-paced tale that executes on all fronts and is one of the best examples of how to create compelling DLC for a successful game. Even better for the Mass Effect lovers out there, it continues in the series mold by introducing choices that will have major ramifications in the final act.

honorable mentions: "Minerva's Den" (BioShock 2), "Undead Nightmare" (Red Dead Redemption), "Overlord" (Mass Effect 2)

This indie-darling-turned-Xbox-Live-Arcade-centerpiece was one of the great games of 2010--period. Despite being a $10 download, Limbo is one of the best examples of interactive media as an art form ever created. At first glance, the game seems deceptively simple: it's 2D, there's no color, no music, and the controls are comprised of two buttons and a joystick. That's it. But it is exactly that simplicity that makes Limbo so special. There is such a low barrier of entry that the game allows the player to fully become engulfed by the experience of it. At its heart, Limbo is a 2D puzzle-platformer. But the way it delivers that mold and the way it encourages you into trying anything you can think of makes for a truly mesmerizing game. The trial-and-error design is normally a recipe for headaches, but developer PlayDead designed the game in a way that checkpoints are frequent and automatic, and you never get frustrated by having to do something complicated all over again. It's hard--impossibly, really--to describe Limbo in a short paragraph; it simply needs to be experienced.

honorable mentions: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, Shank, RISK: Factions

There is something special to be said about a truly great musical score. A good score infuses such an elevated sense of emotion--sometimes subtly--into what our eyes are already seeing that it takes those special moments to a whole different level. Jack Wall's for Mass Effect 2 was exactly that despite not only the inherent challenge of creating musical company for a player that dictates what happens, but also for the sheer variety of settings in BioWare's game. Wall evokes Shepard's heart-throbbing excitement at the new Normandy, the hypnotizing futurism aboard the ship, the raucus techno inside one of the galaxy's biggest dance clubs, the romantic tension of two lovers staring at their doom, and most importantly, the pure desperation of Shepard & Co. as they try to solve the secrets of the seemingly indomitable Collectors. Wall ties it all together with a couple staple tracks that are appropriately epic for a sci-fi tale of this magnitude.

honorable mentions: Red Dead Redemption, Halo: Reach, Super Mario Galaxy 2

ROB WEITHOFF as JOHN MARSTON (Red Dead Redemption)
2010 was one of the best years to date when it comes to digital acting performances in games, and no doubt the quality of these performances will only continue to rise. Among the great crop this year, Rob Weithoff's John Marston stood out as a shining figurehead. Weithoff took an excellently-written character and brought him to full life in Rockstar's epic Western, absolutely nailing the accent and idiosyncratic behaviors that define the renegade-turned-family man we all grew to love. No matter how you play Red Dead, Weithoff provides an anchor for the kind of man that John Marston is, and he keeps you deeply invested in this man's story to the very end.

honorable mentions: Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man (Mass Effect 2), Matthew Porretta as Alan Wake (Alan Wake), Yvonne Strahovski as Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect 2)

Developers love to set their games in the future, but few can capture the full magic of the genre in a way that rivals cinematic greats like Star Wars--something that BioWare has absolutely done so far with its Mass Effect trilogy. The distant-future tale has you commanding a ship and a ground team as you run all over the galaxy recruiting the best of the best to take out a mysterious threat. Like any great sci-fi story, Mass Effect uses its distant setting to provide subtle commentary on issues we deal with today, through its character-focused mini-serials to its overarching racial tension and social structure that is much-criticized by more minor characters. The weapons suit does not disappoint either, and of course the Force-like biotic powers add another element of futurism. Perhaps the most impressive thing is how meticulously and rationally BioWare's writers have accounted for everything in the universe, and it's this grounded and explained realism that truly adds a unique weight to the setting. Even the DLC expansions likewise do an excellent job of tackling whole new science-fiction issues within the Mass Effect context.

honorable mentions: Halo: Reach, StarCraft II, Fallout: New Vegas

Rockstar San Diego did something truly magical this summer: they successfully captured the spirit of the Old West in a video game. Redemption had just about everything you could ask for, from train robberies to Mexican shootouts and everything in between--and then some. The open world formula that Rockstar perfected with its Grand Theft Auto series shines like never before in this wide-open adventure that will have you galloping up and down the wild countryside between scattered towns and outposts. The lawlessness of the West also comes through well, and although you play a character with good intentions at heart, you can be as sly and dirty as you want to be, be it by cheating at poker or ending a dispute with a bullet. And then there's the incredible cast of lively characters, headlined by the cowboy  protagonist John Marsten, all of whom have been written wonderfully with unique personalities and motivations. An excellent (albeit somewhat dragged-on at parts) plot that fully captures its Western themes brings Redemption home as one of the great history-based stories.

honorable mentions: Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Call of Duty: Black Ops

Vigil Games' debut effort is a spin on the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that evokes equal parts God of War, The Legend of Zelda, and a sort of gothic-comic art design. The game deserves praise for both its fresh approach to setting while channeling two of the best franchises in the history of games, which combined create an engaging (albeit slightly flawed) experience that will no doubt improve in the upcoming sequel. The real star of the game was the stylistic art and character design, which is not surprising considering the game was headed by comic book artist Joe Madureira. A couple tweaks on combat design could have made Darksiders one of the true gems of the year, but it still stands out as this year's Best Fantasy Game.

honorable mentions: Bayonetta, Fable III, Final Fantasy XIII

Pickings were somewhat slim for horror fans this year as most "horror" games to come out in 2010 were not really scary, but more tongue-in-cheek efforts like Dead Rising 2 and Red Dead Redemption's "Undead Nightmare" expansion. That being said, Alan Wake stood out as one of the best--and freshest--horror games of the whole console generation. The game invokes a constant sense of dread at night as the "darkness" envelopes and takes control of everything around you, twisting it into some demented possessed being. The folks at Remedy successfully designed an action-based horror title by heavily involving the use of light and guns into the combat without artificial limitations like scarce ammo. The narrative particularly stands out as a multi-layered mystery that keeps you on edge and guessing while you eerily find clues of what's to come--and what has passed. This game is a unique experience from the top-down and delivers for horror and action fans alike.

honorable mention: Limbo

Nintendo brought back their go-to man for a second tour of duty around planetary platform puzzling, and the results were nothing short of what you'd expect from a main-line Mario game. The second Galaxy improves upon the first (already phenomenal) game while bringing a whole ton of new flavor, most notably everybody's favorite dinosaur sidekick, Yoshi. The brilliance of Nintendo and head honcho Miyamoto-san are well-documented and Galaxy 2 is no exception, having become of the best-reviewed games of all time. The magic of Mario is still there, and better than ever, and if I have to tell you anymore than that then you need to go pick up this game right now.

honorable mentions: Donkey Kong Country Returns, Epic Mickey, Mirror's Edge (iOS)

Developer Criterion Games--best known for their acclaimed Burnout series--did something truly spectacular this year: they made Need for Speed relevant again. Perhaps that's not entirely fair given last year's successful Shift, but at least in terms of the arcade line of Need for Speeds, Criterion's debut completely revitalized the series by bringing back the fan-favorite Hot Pursuit sub-series and modernizing it for the new generation while adding a lot of elements that made Burnout so fun. The game is flat-out gorgeous and channels the high-speed intensity of Burnout Paradise, but with the added layer of a well-integrated cop chase element. Criterion took full advantage of their first opportunity to use license cars with a bevy of high-speed gems and even licensed cars for the mundane civilian traffic. Finally, the Autolog--a kind of social network meets constantly updating leaderboards--pulls the whole package together to drive that competitive spirit in every gamer, even while playing alone. In a year of many arcade racers, Hot Pursuit stood out.

honorable mentions: Blur, ModNation Racers, Split/Second

Remedy's long-gestating "Psychological Action Thriller"--which had first been announced at E3 2005--finally made its way to the market this year...and then it hit a wall coming out the same day as mass-market friendly Red Dead Redemption. Don't let lower than could-have-been sales figures fool you; this is one of the best games to come out in 2010 (as is its same-day release brother). Alan Wake is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, melding together in perfect harmony action-based gameplay and a tightly-written and engaging story, the combination of which keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. The game scares you not with artificial limitations like scarce ammo, but rather with an enthralling atmosphere and a pervading sense that you are surrounded by the unknown. Remedy does a fantastic job of tapping into that childhood fear of darkness, and a couple added gameplay elements--most notably the fantastic use of light as both a weapon and puzzle tool--combine for a game that truly shines as an example of what can be done when the interactivity of story and gameplay merge so gracefully.

honorable mentions: Heavy Rain, Limbo, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

First off, let me clarify that this award is for a video game adapted from a medium other than video games. Often times movie-based games are derided for rushed and lackluster quality (often rightly so) but movies are not the sole source material for game adaptations. Case in point: War for Cybertron is based on the revered cartoon and comic series, rather than the recent Michael Bay popcorn flicks that have inspired the recent poor Transformers games. San Diego-based High Moon Studios brought to life a world set amidst a conflict before these giant robots came to Earth, and the result is by far the best Transformers game ever made, a thing of many of our childhood dreams. From an appropriately action-packed summer-blockbuster-style campaign to a suprisingly deep and engaging multiplayer suite, High Moon executed with much praise and cheers from the fanbase, creating a new benchmark for future entries in the beloved series.

honorable mentions: Risk: Factions, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions

There's a reason Blizzard's original StarCraft was an RTS revered by its fans so much that even more than a decade after its released, it spawned a UC Berkeley class, 2 (two!) dedicated Korean TV channels, a canceled stealth-action spin-off, and the advent of e-sports terms like APM (actions per minute): the multiplayer was so thoroughly competitively balanced that it provided one of the truest yardsticks by which to measure the aptitude of a competitive RTS gamer. The long-awaited sequel arrived fulfilling all its astronomical expectations, and while its campaign/story is nothing to sneeze at, it's still the game's uber-balanced multiplayer suite that has captured the hearts--and free time--of countless gamers. Blizzard's gem has reinvigorated the PC platform unlike anything in recent memory and simultaneously provided a launchpad for the studios revamped 2.0.

honorable mentions: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Developer Crystal Dynamics completely retooled their iconic Tomb Raider heroine for her downloadable debut, including a new perspective (isometric), new gameplay mechanics (twin stick controls), and even a new name (notice the explicit absence of the words "tomb" and "raider" in the game's title). All these changes proved to combine into a thoroughly enjoyable game, but there was one more ace the studio had up its sleeve that truly made Guardian of Light great: a human-controlled co-operative pal named Totec, armed with different abilities than Lara. While the game was entirely playable in single player, CD was wise to tweak the gameplay for the two modes. The addition of Totec in co-op provides some incredible puzzle and combat scenarios that require the two players to think creatively and work together, all the while keeping the action-packed essence of the source material.

honorable mentions: Splinter Cell: Conviction, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach

MORDIN SOLIS (Mass Effect 2)
Of all the colorful characters BioWare has created for Mass Effect 2's dynamic cast, the "scientist Salarian" Mordin Solis stands out even above his peers. He is equal parts intelligent and hilarious, and his character has a myriad of underlying wrinkles, from a dark past, a distinct-though-unique moral compass, and even some hidden singing talents--the latter of which forever cemented his place in the heart of gamers everywhere. He also proved to be a valuable member from a combat perspective, where he continues to charm gamers with his one-off quips on the battlefield. Finally, he single-handedly allows for in-game upgrades to various other characters, weapons, and the ship itself; what more can you really ask for out of such a wonderful character?

honorable mentions: John Marston (Red Dead Redemption), The Illusive Man (Mass Effect 2), Alan Wake (Alan Wake)

Turns out, David Jaffe wasn't exaggerating when he said that Santa Monica Studio's latest entry in the blockbuster God of War saga was one of the best games he has ever seen. The game is simply stunning as is the true pinnacle of graphical design thusfar in the short history of video games. But it's not just the sheer beauty that impresses; it's the way it's all presented. The opening scene of the game in particular is one of the most mesmerizing bits of any piece of entertainment, particularly since you are in control of it the entire time. At the same time, the scene is expertly choreographed in a way that truly makes your jaw drop as you try to fully comprehend the details of everything happening on screen. There are so many moving pieces, yet you never feel lost or pushed to the background. All the while, the game maintains its sexiness throughout.

honorable mentions: Limbo, Red Dead Redemption, Halo: Reach

Developer Kairosoft brought a wonderful idea to the iOS App Store this year: a simulation game about running your very own game development studio. The premise is simple, but the execution is outstanding. You begin with a low-budget start-up and grow your studio into an industry powerhouse while along the way managing talent, game direction, employees, finances, etc. The whole thing is wrapped into a charming package that includes humorous nods to real-world game development, such as console manufacturers named Intendro and Sonny, employees named Gilly Bates, and even a trade show called Gamedex that you can hire booth babes for, a la E3. Once you get a game or two under your belt you won't be able to put this game down, especially if you are a big fan of games to begin with.

honorable mentions: Cut the Rope, StarCraft II, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

Austin, Texas-based Retro Studios already wowed the world in 2002 when they revived another key Nintendo franchise with Metroid Prime. This year Nintendo tasked them to bring back the revered Donkey Kong Country from its SNES glory days (and also to help people forget about the existence of Donkey Kong 64). The final product is akin to what Nintendo itself accomplished a year ago with New Super Mario Bros. Wii--an old-school 2D platformer that channels the spirit of its predecessors while providing all-new graphics and gameplay hooks. If you are a Wii owner, this is not a game you want to miss.

honorable mentions: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shank, Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Ep. 1

Quantic Dreams' PS3-exclusive title is, in a word, peerless. It is simply a unique approach in today's market, a type of game that sits much closer to cinematic Hollywood films than early mechanic-heavy games like Super Mario Bros. Despite what from a glance may seem like a distancing from "traditional" game design, the variations in the games story based on each of your actions actually takes better advantage of the interactivity of the medium than most games could ever hope to manage. The revolutionary control scheme immerses you in the story and the protagonists' actions, forcing you to make split-second decisions in intuitive ways; failure to react can have adverse affects on the characters themselves as well as the overall plot. Simply put, Heavy Rain is a blueprint that will no doubt be mimicked in some capacity in many games to come.

honorable mentions: Dance Central, Infinity Blade, Rock Band 3

"FIGHT FOR THE LOST" (Mass Effect 2)
This was BioWare and EA's final trailer before the release of Mass Effect 2 in January 2010. The GotY-candidate-to-be got a jump start of excitement with this absolutely phenomenal trailer that is on par with the best that come out of Hollywood. The way the images and dialogue are cut together, coupled with the fantastic track in the backgroud, set the stage for Commander Shepard's heart-pumping suicide mission. It's rare that a game trailer takes the cinematic angle, but even almost a year later, this "Fight for the Lost" still sends chills down my spine. Best of all, this is 100% in-game footage. (Actual trailer posted below, links provided for runners-up).

honorable mentions: "Deliver Hope" (Halo: Reach); "MJ's Greatest Moments" (NBA 2K11); "There's a Soldier in All of Us" (Call of Duty: Black Ops); "Go to Hell" (Dante's Inferno)

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