Far from an objective declaration of the best video games out there (you’ll notice a distinct and shameful lack of Wii games), the following is a list that we have compiled of our favorite games of the past year. These are games that we had the chance to play, and that we loved not just for their value proposition or for their genuine ability to entertain, but for their undeniable beauty. For the most part, this is a list of experiences. The great thing about games, is that they are experiences that can be recommended and passed on. That’s what we hope to do with this list.
1. Limbo – Xbox Live Arcade
Limbo doesn’t look like much, and in truth it’s not. It starts with a simple title screen. The controls are uncomplicated. There is no multiplayer and no long list of features. Once you start the game, there’s no words of any form, and no color. It’s just the silhouette of a boy, and the things around him that want him dead. Trying to articulate exactly what makes Limbo a harrowing, haunting and ultimately hopeful experience is impossible, but I can tell you that it’s well worth the small price tag you’d pay to play it on Xbox Live, despite the lack of features and special modes. It’s a game that causes you to remember what it was like to be young and alone, that reminds you what it was like to long for someone, and ultimately, it’s a game that changes you if you let it. -Richard Clark
2. Bioshock 2 – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Recommended Reading: “Bioshock 2 and the Power of Influence,” “Time to Revisit Rapture – Again”
After such a complete and artistically flawless experience as Bioshock, the announcement of a sequal drew a large amount of skepticism, and I’ll be the first to admit that the skepticism was indeed fair. The sentiment only got worse when it was revealed that Irrational Games, the studio behind the original Bioshock wouldn’t have anything to do with the sequel. Throw in an arbitrary multiplayer mode and you’ve got all the ingredients for a disaster.
Instead, 2K Marin made Bioshock 2 their own, and in doing so managed to unequivocally improve the gameplay while also embracing an entirely different mood and theme than the first. While the original Bioshock contained a satisfying mix of mystery and philosophical rumination, the sequel embraces the emotional and relational impact of certain ideas. Yes, this is a game about collectivism and its affect on a community, but more importantly it’s a game about its affect on families and individuals. If I can make one recommendation, it’s this: if you are a father, and you play games, you should absolutely play this one. -Richard Clark
3. Red Dead Redemption – Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Recommended Reading: “Read Dead’s Particular Brand of Redemption,” “Read Dead Redemption’s Squandered Potential,” “The Dastardly Achievement.”
Red Dead Redemption is on the top of most everyone’s list and for good reason too—it’s graphically beautiful, boasts an intricately detailed game world and a dynamic main character. All that said, what was most memorable about RDR was how much it frustrated me. If you make it to the end of RDR, you will never forget the way the story was brought to a close and the way in which the game forces you to take part in that ending. I wish I could say more, but I would ruin for many who really ought to give this game a try, but in short, I would say that the story was as memorable if not more so than the original Bioshock.
Red Dead Redemption, as the name implies, is meant to be a story of redemption, but it’s certainly muddled in the way that redemption comes about. If you are like me and like to play the hero in video games, you will find that although there is much to be done that is heroic, being a true hero in RDR is impossible. That frustrated me and forced me to step back and observe John Marston and the story that is RDR. In fact, I would say RDR refuses to let you take ownership of Marston and forces you to deal with him as he is. Despite my disgust at some of Marston’s decisions (mostly his compromises to help shady characters), I began to empathize with him. Sure there are lots of things I didn’t like about Marston, but by the end I wanted redemption for him because there was much about him worth redeeming. This journey of hating and growing to love Marston was intentional and makes the games’ ending all the more brilliant. -Drew Dixon
4. Halo Reach – Xbox 360
If you think Halo Reach is stupid, that is partly because you have never been involved in one of our CAPC and friends’ multiplayer matches. Reach deserves to be on this list if for no other reason than it is the best console multiplayer experience available right now. That may sound like overly boastful praise and perhaps it is, but Reach excels at giving its players a myriad of options for how to best enjoy multiplayer. If you like to play co-op you can play with 4 people in both campaign and survival modes. If you like to play small games you can do that. Large games? Yep. Lots of vehicles? Yep. You just want to play on the same team with your friends? Sure can. Want to play with 3 other friends online on one Xbox? Of course. Want to play against uber competitive people? Yep. Want to play just for fun? Indeed. Basically, Reach makes every effort to make your multiplayer experience enjoyable. Finally, I feel like I have found a multiplayer experience on a console that is pretty much everything I want it to be. What games like Call of Duty: Black Ops get horribly wrong on multiplayer, Halo gets consistently right.
I have had more fun playing Halo online with good friends than any game I can remember. Its almost as fun as the massive LAN parties I used to have with friends in college playing Halo 1 and 2, but at least we don’t have to lug our consoles and TV’s around anymore to have nearly the same kind of experience. If you haven’t joined in one of our CAPC multiplayer games, now is the time to start—tweet me your gamer tag and we will invite you to the next game. We are going to tentatively shoot for having a CAPC game most every Monday Night around 10:00 P.M. Eastern time. -Drew Dixon
5. Mass Effect 2 – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Recommended Reading: “Mommy, What is that Alien Doing?”
Mass Effect 2 improved on its predecessor in many ways—numerous critics have hailed it due to the lessening of RPG elements so as to appeal to shooter-fans—in so much as they succeeded in that goal, I applaud them if only for putting this fantastic game in more people’s hands. ME2’s greatest achievements, however, have been largely overlooked—its world and its characters kept me playing to the very end. The world of ME2 feels massive, complex, and detailed. To me it rivaled the world of a good science fiction book. ME2 is less linear than the first installment but still a largely linear game and yet, I never felt forced to do anything in the game. I wanted to complete the quests, I wanted to do more than I had to do to complete the game and I think this is due mostly to the compelling characters of ME2.
ME2 gives you quests to complete on behalf of each of your playable characters and each quest reveals more about the characters who are helping you on your quest. I found this fascinating because the people helping you are complex and their desires often conflict with each other and their pasts intertwine to make every decision you make, to support them or not, very important. Most of the characters have at least a few redeemable qualities and this makes your decision to support them all the more difficult. These characters, their back-stories, and your interaction with them kept me coming back to ME2. I would have liked to see ME2 make more of my decisions in ME1, but nonetheless, I think ME2 is a tremendous example of character writing in video games is capable of rivaling that of other mediums. My ability to influence these various characters in their growth made that element all the more fascinating. -Drew Dixon
6. Super Meat Boy – Xbox Live Arcade, PC
In what world does a game titled Super Meat Boy deserve to be on this list? That is an excellent question and it is worth noting that SMB’s story is less than moving in comparison to many of the games we have included here, but SMB, after all, pays homage to Super Mario Bros (also SMB) as its spiritual successor. It plays like a 2D Mario game on steriods. The hero is Meat Boy—a boy with no skin who is determined to save bandage girl from certain peril at the hands of evil Dr. Fetus. I am not making this up and yet I promise you this is a great game. SMB will take you back to a time when game consoles didn’t have hard-drives and finishing a game felt like a significant achievement. In short this is an incredibly difficult platformer that will frustrate you. Still, the accomplishment of actually beating some of its most difficult levels is so rewarding that I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about this game.
Some of SMB’s levels will take you dozens of attempts to finish and there are no checkpoints. You die and you go right back to the beginning. Thankfully the levels are all rather short and once you finally do finish a level, you get to watch a replay of every single attempt you made to complete the level at once—all the struggle that led up to your eventual victory is summed up in a 10-15 second clip. If you could beat every level on your first try the game would probably take less than 30 minutes to finish. Unless you have super human dexterity and concentration, you will surely be playing much longer than that and yet despite your failed attempts, none of these levels will ever feel unbeatable and when you finally beat them you will relish the replay of your every failure and your final victory. If you are like me, you will be so delighted you’ll save many of them and reminisce on the insanity of their difficulty. Although SMB is single player, this is a great game to play in groups and take turns seeing who has the chops to take on various insanely difficult levels. SMB will make you laugh, cry, and potentially break your controller and its this combination of emotions that it will produce in you that makes it one of the year’s best. -Drew Dixon
7. Fallout: New Vegas – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Recommended Reading: “Fallout 3: The Challenge of Gaming Morality,” “Gamer’s Choice”
The Internet tells me I should warn you about the myriad of bugs that are a part of this game, but to be truthful, I haven’t experienced even one of them. What I have experienced is a game of limitless possibilities in a haunting environment with a heart-wrenching series of plotlines. Sure, some of the games narrative turns are silly, but the most resonant moments are those when you are forced to make hard choices between two equally good or bad ideas.
One of the most interesting changes from Fallout 3 is the inclusion of factions, which seem to basically represent different ways of looking at the world. Each of these factions see the world differently, and it’s up to you to decide not only who you most relate to, but who you’re willing to allow to exist. -Richard Clark
8. VVVVVV – PC, Mac
What’s so special about a bare-bones pixelated 8-bit style platformer? At first, nothing, but the longer you manage to stick with this game, the more depth you’ll find in every facet. The gravity switching mechanic never seems to get old, as the game iterates on it in increasingly unique ways. The concept of an 8-bit open world platformer is carried out flawlessly. Bring up the map at any given time and the sense of endless possibilities is inescapable.
By the way, have you ever noticed that when a sense of endless possibilities is inescapable what that really feels like is a sense of being lost? Welcome to VVVVVVV, where it’s all about being lost and helping those who are lost. The varying characters may only consist of different colored stick-people, and their expressions may not span beyond huge smiles and distraught frowns, but you will get to know them, and eventually you will care for them. As an experiment in minimalism, it’s a huge success. As a game, it’s creepily affecting and undeniably resonant, not to mention a steal at $5. -Richard Clark
9. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Recommended Reading: “Assassin’s Creed 2: Shot Through the Heart”
Many dismissed Assassin’s Creed:Brotherhood as Assassin’s Creed 2.5, and in some ways they’re right. More than anything, this game is an iteration on the previous, picking up immediately where AC2 left off and adding a few intriguing mechanics to an already full gameplay experience. The final product, though, is markedly more satisfying than its’ predecessor. With the tech mastered and the format established, the team that made AC:Bros were able to take that foundation and build one incredible game on top of it. On top of all of that, the game includes a multiplayer mode that’s by far the most unique we’ve seen all year, rewarding patience, focus and subversiveness rather than indiscriminate killing and destruction.
But of course, for Christians there’s a bigger question: does Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood continue the precedent set by AC2 in its excessive railing and preaching against organized religion? The answer is complex. The game builds on the foundation that was set in AC2, operating on the same assumptions of the world and the characters within the fiction. Still, the game also manage to call a number of those assumptions into question, and very little of the game is spent trying to convince us of any truth at all. Instead, Ezio and Desmond’s quest is a search for answers. As the game progresses, we actually become more and more unsure of the truth that was set forth in AC2, even if organized religion is still portrayed in a less than stellar light. In perspective, it’s set against organized religion, but unless you’re paying attention, you’d never know it. All the more reason to play this game, and pay attention. -Richard Clark
10. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit – Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, PC
Racing games have always been a fun diversion, but they have also felt a bit shallow and monotonous. After all, there are only so many variations of beating other cars to a finish line. Games like Mario Kart and Burnout have given the genre some much needed variety, but only by adding arbitrary and disconnected elements. With Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Criterion (the studio that brought you Burnout: Paradise) managed to develop a racing game with something the racing genre has never really had before: import.
You know that feeling you get when you’re speeding, and you realize too late that you’ve passed a cop, only to see him turn on his lights and pull up behind you? It’s a truly sickening feeling. Dread, panic and guilt set in all at once. It’s a feeling you’ll get the first time this happens playing NFS:HP. Having the opportunity to keep driving is truly a guilt-ridden fantasy come true. When the roles are switched and you are that cop, the feeling of fighting for justice at the expense of order and caution is exhilarating. The climactic moment in that game, when you “bust” a racer and his car flips spectacularly across and off of the road, is a moment you will not soon forget. -Richard Clark