The year is almost halfway done, and video game publishers will be announcing a whole new slate of games at the E3 Expo starting June 13. So this is a good time to assess the best games of the year so far. We’re lucky to have such a great slate of titles to choose from, since game publishers are finally catching on to the strategy of releasing games in off season. As usual, the bestseller lists don’t tell the whole story about innovation in video games.
One of the things that several of these games share in common is that they were in development for ungodly amounts of time, running up big bills and creating big risks for the publishers backing them. The budgets for development and marketing of these titles is starting to approach that of Hollywood blockbuster movies. Let’s hope publishers get big returns on these games so we’ll see more like them. The other thing these games share is that some of them aren’t necessarily games in the traditional sense, but are nonetheless truly unforgettable experiences.
1. Red Dead Redemption
Developer: Rockstar Games.
Publisher Take-Two Interactive
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Average Metacritic rating: 95 out of 100
My score: 97 out of 100
This game shows that the “open world” style of Grand Theft Auto works wonderfully well in the Wild West. You play John Marston, a farmer-turned gunslinger who has to hunt down an outlaw in order to save his family. You can wander through a vast fictional turn-of-the-century Western world full of towns, hideouts, grave robbers, swindlers, lawmen, and everything else you need to make a Wild West setting come to life. The graphics are beautiful, the characters are intriguing, and the Dead Eye slow-motion gunshooting makes you feel like a quick-draw artist.
The variety of activities — from horse racing to animal hunting — keeps you from getting bored. You can take on a hundred bad guys with a Gatling gun or just sit back in the evening and watch the wild critters roam across a moon-blanched prairie. There is so much ambient life out on the prairie that just looking at the landscape is relaxing — until a cougar attacks you. The whole time, you feel you’re making choices with consequences. You can wind up being a feared gunslinger, or a respected do-gooder.
Game developer Rockstar spent an estimated $100 million over six years to make this game, which surprised many industry watchers with its high quality. With dozens of hours of game play, it is clearly one of the best games of the year so far, and that’s why I’ve put it at No. 1 on my list. I suspect Rockstar will make its money back on this one.
2. Alan Wake
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Available on: Xbox 360
Average Metacritic rating: 83 out of 100
My score: 95 out of 100
This game’s strong psychological thriller story will hold your attention like a well-done thriller movie. You play Alan Wake, a bestselling horror writer who has writer’s block. His wife takes him to the idyllic Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, and then Wake’s life becomes a nightmare. Wake’s wife disappears, and he begins finding the pages of a horror novel that he doesn’t remember writing. The novel’s scenes start coming true, and a Darkness inhabits beings known as The Taken, who seek to murder Wake in the darkness. Wake has to use light — flashlights, flares, and flashbang grenades — to hold off the Taken and then dispatch them with weapons such as shotguns. Wake has to solve a mystery and seek out havens of light in the darkness as he deciphers what is real and what is nightmare. The story and game play are entirely original. This game also took six years to develop as an exclusive for the Xbox 360 (see our interview with storyteller Sam Lake on why it took so long). The reviews weren’t as strong because there are a few flaws in the game graphics. But Alan Wake is a much-needed breath of fresh air for video games, and I consider it to be a work of art, as I said in my full review.
3. Mass Effect 2
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Xbox 360, PC, PS 3
Average Metacritic rating: 96 out of 100
My score: 90 out of 100
The story behind this sci-fi game is a lot like the classic film The Seven Samurai, except there are 11 tales about the team members that you, as Commander Jon Shepard, have to recruit for a suicide mission to save the galaxy. It is a blend of BioWare’s traditional role-playing game with a lot of action blended in. You wander around the galaxy in what seems to be an open-ended universe, but the story pulls you into certain planets and scenes, where you encounter ethical dilemmas that force you to choose between doing what’s right, loyalty to your comrades, and fulfilling the ultimate mission of saving the galaxy. The stories along the way are emotionally engaging, like the tale of the super-caffeinated scientist Mordin Solus, who turns out to have a conscience behind his dedication to science. The execution on this game was much better than the first, as I noted in my full review. I’m glad to see EA’s shift to focus on high-quality games paying off in both critic scores and market sales.
4. God of War III
Developer: Sony Santa Monica
Available on: PS 3
Average Metacritic rating: 93 out of 100
My score: 90 out of 100
Any movie that is the third in a series is usually a dud. But video games can keep getting better with each sequel, since the developers learn to master the technology they are using and can build games with better and better graphics. That’s the case with God of War III. The graphics have a huge scale. You start with Kratos, the god of war, fighting in the woods on his climb up to Mount Olympus for his final battle with Zeus. Then the visual focus pulls out, and you realize that Kratos is fighting on top of the back of the Titan, Gaia. Kratos carries his Blades of Exile into the fray, and the button-mashing never stops. You’re constantly killing everything that gets in your way, from smallish skeletons to gargantuan gods such as Poseidon, Hades, Helios and Hermes. The game was more than three years in the making, and it may or may not have hit its breakeven point. This game suffered along with the rest of the game industry, when video game sales dropped 26 percent in April compared to a year ago.
I loved the originality of BioShock, the 2007 game that took us to the underwater utopia-gone-bad of Andrew Ryan, the megalomaniac who built the city of Rapture as a haven for intellectuals. That place was so unique, with its art deco architecture, 1930s music, and 1940s-style characters in cool period fashions. When it all went bad, it became a terrifying place. Add to that the unique game play that equipped the player with the ability to freeze, incinerate, or electrocute enemies. There was nothing like BioShock, and the BioShock 2 game certainly does it justice. It has the same great combination of horror, nostalgic art style, addictive game play and engrossing story. This is the first game from a brand-new studio. While there were some BioShock veterans on the team, this game proves the wisdom of putting fresh eyes on a game property and turning it into something wonderful. It’s too bad that, like God of War III, this one suffered from the April doldrums and didn’t have staying power. Take-Two had great ambitions for this game, but it didn’t sell spectacularly.
6. Heavy Rain
Developer: Quantic Dream
Available on: PS 3
Average Metacritic rating: 87 out of 100
My score: 89 out of 100
This game has lots of layers to it. You start out doing extremely mundane things, using your PS 3 game controller to take a shower, brush your teeth, and turn on your TV; and eventually you move up to more important things, like changing your baby’s diaper. That is your basic training to get you ready for the interactive story of the game. In the story, a serial killer is loose, and the only clue is an origami creation left on the body. Another person is missing, and the player has to solve this mystery before more bodies show up. The question arises: How far will you go to save someone you love? It is a psychological thriller like Alan Wake, but the game play is far different. It’s a cool story, and the interaction is interesting, but the action could be better. Still, this game gets kudos for its originality as well as its movie-like dramatic pacing. This game wasn’t a huge seller, but it is worth a look for anybody who has finished playing some of the other blockbusters.
7. Super Mario Galaxy 2
Available on: Wii
Average Metacritic rating: 97 out of 100
My score: 88 out of 100
The danger of making more Super Mario games is that players may get bored with the little plumber. That’s the way I felt before I played the latest edition of Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Wii. But Nintendo has managed to keep this franchise fresh with lots of little puzzles that you have to solve as you bounce around from planet to planet. There are cool new features like using a drill to get through the middle of a planet so you can access something you need to solve a puzzle. Nintendo has a devotion to getting the game play right so that it either makes you grit your teeth or smile. I suspect this game is going to single-handedly turn around the video game business in May. That’s because there are more than 70 million Wiis in the market, and a lot of those players have been waiting for this sequel since 2007. The only thing I truly wish Nintendo did with this game was make it multiplayer, much like the New Super Mario Bros. from last fall.
8. Battlefield Bad Company 2
Developer: EA Dice
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available on: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Average Metacritic rating: 88 out of 100
My score: 85 out of 100
EA wisely waited until the popularity of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 subsided before launching Battlefield Bad Company 2. In contrast to the deadly serious Modern Warfare 2, I enjoyed Bad Company’s mixture of modern combat and comic relief in the single player campaign, where you fight it out alongside some funny squad mates. The cool thing about the game is that you can destroy almost anything. Some things fall apart too easily under machine gun fire, but you can use the physical environment to your advantage. The game is also fun because you can pilot various vehicles such as tanks, jeeps and helicopters. The game covers so much ground that it feels like a full tour of the modern combat experience. The online game play is addictive, and if I didn’t have to look at so many games I would have played far more than I did. I loved the multiplayer team play where you take an objective, move forward to the next goal, and eventually win the whole map. Again, the lesson here is that doubling down on a good franchise and making it stronger in the sequel will pay off; Bad Company 2 has sold more than 5 million units, more than enough to make EA a good return, even if it isn’t near Modern Warfare 2’s 17 million-plus sales. EA keeps coming out with new maps for this game, but they are free; by contrast, Activision Blizzard is milking Modern Warfare 2, charging $15 for each new map pack.
I’ll end the list with a couple of honorable mentions. I enjoyed the beginning of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction. It could have been executed better, since I found it far too easy to get killed while lurking around in the shadows. I liked the direction the story took, bringing more emotion out of the cold fish covert operative Sam Fisher, who hunts down the killer of his daughter. But I just didn’t have time to play this one fully.
The other honorable mention is America’s Test Kitchen: Let’s Get Cooking for the Nintendo DS. This game has kept me well fed. I shared it with my eldest daughter, and she’s been using it to make home-cooked meals that turn out really well, including a Caprese-stye spaghetti dish. I laughed when I heard about this game, which is really not a game. It’s a collection of 300 recipes. It reads the instructions to my daughter, step by step on the DS, with pictures to show what your dish should look like. The results are delicious. I truly did not anticipate a “game” like this one. It just goes to show that games can truly change your family’s quality of life. Or at least my waistline.