Here it is, New Year’s Eve, and I have exhausted all of my other list opportunities. Now it’s time to consider the best games of the decade. I procrastinated on this one because it wasn’t easy to do. But then I started seeing all of the other best of the decade lists being posted. I disagreed with them, and the annoyance built up so that it overflowed and I felt compelled to retaliate with my own list. So here’s my favorite games of the past 10 years and my reasons for liking them so much. Please leave your own comments if you agree or disagree, and pick your favorite game in the poll at the end. I’m grateful that a lot of these games were fairly recent, meaning that the game industry just keeps getting better and better. Please enjoy and thanks so much for reading in 2009!
1. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001, Bungie, Xbox). I am a believer in the cult of Master Chief. Don’t laugh at me. There are about 30 million of us. This game showed you could do a first-person shooter game on a game console instead of the PC. That sounds like a mere technical achievement, but it brought a wave of new gamers to the consoles, including me. The game was put together like an opera. It had a haunting musical score that sounded like chanting Gregorian monks. The sound of the assault gun’s fire and the clinking of bullet casings was immersive. The story line was deep and imaginative. And there was the wonder of Halo, a ring-like planet with vast beautiful areas where you had to fight for your life against overwhelming numbers of Covenant aliens. The combat was frenzied. You had to switch weapons and grenades to deal with a variety of smart aliens. You were able to drive tanks and bounce around in dune buggy style Warthogs. And there were some scary moments when you didn’t know what was coming next, underscored by the pulse-pounding music. There were some godawful flaws, like the long Library level. The story was saved by the game’s main relationship, between the slayer Master Chief and his artificial intelligence companion, Cortana. Their banter showed rare glimpses into Master Chief’s sense of humor, which made him seem all the more Clint Eastwood-like. It all came together as something that approached a work of art.
2. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009, Naughty Dog, Sony PlayStation 3). Regular readers have seen me opine for much of the fall about this unexpectedly good game. Developer Naughty Dog managed to created a polished game that resembles a summer blockbuster movie. As Nathan Drake in this third-person shooter, you are always in an Indiana Jones style pickle. Mercenaries are shooting at you and you’re trying to climb a wall above a huge precipice. You’re trying not to fall off of a moving train, staying out of the line of sight of a helicopter gunship, and trying to shoot the armed soldiers coming after you. From the story dialogue scenes to the combat, everything is well done. The story is engrossing and there is a lot of tension between the characters of Drake and two women who appeal to different sides of the man. The environments have beautiful, vibrant colors and they evoke a sense of wonder. You move through jungles, war-torn cities, an ice glacier in the Himalayas, underground temples and a monastery carved into a cliff. And the special effects in this game tap the power of the PlayStation 3 and produce scenes that I’ve never seen in video games before, like when you stand on top of a building in a Nepalese city and gaze for miles in any direction.
3. Gears of War (2006, Epic Games, Xbox 360). This third-person shooter game showed that Microsoft could commission a winning title that wasn’t about Master Chief. The grunts like Marcus Fenix in Gears of War are among the biggest badasses in the history of games. They fight in close combat with extremely tough Locust horde enemies who come from underneath the earth and cause a near apocalypse as they undermine all of the human cities on the planet of Sera. You have to claw your way back amid the destroyed beauty of the planet. Since you aren’t invulnerable, you have to hide behind barriers and use smarter tactics to defeat enemies who often have a lot more firepower than you. Like Halo, the story, graphics, game play and overall dark mood come together in this game. Fighting General RAAM at the end of the game was one of the most difficult boss battles ever.
4. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007, Infinity Ward, multiple platforms). The Call of Duty franchise made its name by putting gamers into the shoes of World War II soldiers in the midst of hellish combat. But all of the previous games were just basic training for the experience that Infinity Ward delivered with the leap to modern combat with Modern Warfare. The first-person shooter had a flare for the dramatic. You didn’t just board a helicopter at the end of a mission. You ran and jumped for the deck, nearly fell off, and had to be pulled to safety by your friend. There was a scene inside a television station where you had to charge in and fight off hordes of soldiers tossing grenades at you and firing automatic weapons at the shattering TV monitors. It was a noisy game, full of intensity, and it had a good story with mature themes that respected the intelligence of gamers who had grown up playing games and were well aware of how terrorism has made the world a dangerous place. The multiplayer combat was so addictive that many played it for months.
5. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009, Infinity Ward, multiple platforms). Yes, I never met a Call of Duty game that I didn’t like, and I’m partial to shooters if you haven’t figured that out yet. And this game’s silly plot and the poorly executed scene where you mow down Russian civilians at an airport both sorely tested my loyalty. But the combat situations in this game were a step up from its predecessor. You see a wide array of modern combat scenarios, from escaping a firefight in a snowmobile to raining from above aboard helicopter gunships. From Afghanistan to Siberia, you have to fight your way out of every pickle, one shot at a time. And the multiplayer combat is even more fun, with so many rewards for your accomplishments that you just want to keep on playing.
6. BioShock (2007, 2K Boston, Xbox 360). This game came up on everyone like a sleeper. It was a shooting game set in an underwater utopia that had turned into a horror show. It was so creepy that you felt like you were inside a horror movie where the director deliberately builds up your fear and anticipation. The game creators set their imaginations loose, coming up with terrifying but original female characters who laughed maniacally as they tried to dismember you. You could fight back with weapons that you assembled yourself from things called plasmids. You could electrocute your enemies, shoot them with flamethrowers and hear them scream, or blow them away with shotguns. Then there were the Big Daddys, the villains or friends who were like battle tanks when they were fighting you. Bringing one of them down is a task akin to Ulysses taking out the Cyclops in the Odyssey. The game was as deep as they come with a kind of fantasy setting that you would expect to spring from the mind of someone like the Joker in the Batman movies. And you had to decide whether to be good or evil toward the little sisters in the game, and your decision affects the outcome. The plot twist at the end is one of the most memorable in game history.
7. Guitar Hero (2005, Harmonix, multiple platforms). Music games were largely a small sector of the game industry until this one came from out of the blue and broke all the rules. It introduced a faux toy guitar as the interface with the game console, immediately making non-gamers feel more comfortable playing a game. The game play put you on stage, performing like a rock star and trying to keep the rhythm of the song playing. You didn’t have to know how to sing or play a guitar. You just had to press the buttons on the guitar at the right time. While it sounds simple, it took a lot imagination to create a game that could pull gamers away from hardcore shooters. This year, the bottom fell out of the music games market. But it just goes to show that fans always expect originality and reward it when they see it.
8. Wii Sports (2006, Nintendo, Wii). This game is one of the most important in the history of games because it showed off what the Wii could do. Nintendo foresaw that the graphics arms race was turning off non-gamers and it needed to create something that could pull the broader market in. Wii Sports was simple. You swung the motion-sensing Wii remote to hit a tennis ball or a baseball. It was a more intuitive way to play and it has set in motion huge changes in the game industry and revived Nintendo’s fortunes. Anybody could play, from a three-year-old kid to a 72-year-old grandmother. I know because I watched that happen in my own home, and it was one game where it was just as fun watching the interaction among players as it was watching the screen. With more than 60 million Wiis in the market and this game bundled into every one of them, Wii Sports has influenced and delighted an entire generation of gamers.
9. The Sims (2000, EA Maxis, PC). The quirky mind of SimCity creator Will Wright came up with this idea for a game, which was inspired by everything from architecture to dollhouses. You created your own family, moved them into a house, and watched them live their own zany lives. People became attached to their Sim characters and loved to micro-manage them. It was hilarious watching your Sims learn how to cook and then burn the house down. The game drew in more girls and women into games, broadening the appeal of the market and defusing criticism of games as useless and overly violent. After it was published, users took the game into their own hands, posting their own stories on the web about what they did with their Sims characters. Electronic Arts went on to sell more than 100 million copies of the game and its many spinoffs.
10. Civilization IV (2005, Firaxis, PC). This game is kind of like a bridge to the bygone era of computer strategy games that no one makes anymore. It paid homage to the tinkerers in all of us, but had plenty of pretty graphics and eye candy for those who didn’t like boring simulations. You could spend hours building up your civilization, creating your armies, and then figuring out how to cooperate with or conquer your neighboring societies. You didn’t have to win by conquest; you could achieve the pinnacle of human society instead by sending someone to the moon. The earlier games were fun too, but this one ran smooth and had exorcised all of the earlier bugs from the system. As an aside, I can’t wait for the Facebook version of this game to come out.
The many honorable mentions include: Portal, Wii Fit, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Grand Theft Auto 4, Resident Evil 4, Diablo II, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Spore, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Call to Power 2, Battlefield 1942, Left 4 Dead, Counter Strike: Source, Age of Empires II, God of War, Warcraft III, Mass Effect, Resistance: Fall of Man, Flower, Kingdom Hearts, Fable, Final Fantasy VII, Fallout 3, Metal Gear Solid IV, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Super Mario Galaxy, Killzone 2, ilovebees.com, and Metroid Prime.
[Update: honorable mentions I overlooked: Plants vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, LittleBigPlanet]
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