Game publishers aren’t thrilled that video game sales are down 5 percent year to date. But for gamers, it’s been an awesome year because 2010 saw the debut of some of the best games ever made. From skinning cougars in Red Dead Redemption to shooting birds at pigs in Angry Birds, there was never a dull moment. The year’s biggest hits drew huge numbers of gamers much like the opening weekends of blockbuster movies, redefining the definition of a blockbuster game far beyond a mere 1 million units sold. If there was any weakness in the year, it was that the middle thinned out, with games falling into either the blockbuster bucket or the dud bucket.
The relatively nascent social network and smartphone platforms have begun to challenge the consoles and the PC. But rather than siphon away players, these platforms are helping games reach new players. With the list below of the year’s top game releases, you can begin to see how these new forces are reshaping the industry. Nintendo had some decent hits but failed to produce a game that resonated with everybody. By contrast, Angry Birds was a phenomenal success, with more than 50 million downloads. Never before has an iPhone game climbed so high on everyone’s favorite list. The progression is clear: iPhone gaming has hit a major milestone with its first blockbuster hit. And the games are getting better and better.
The common thread between the traditional console games and the emerging titles on the iPhone is that the best games keep players engaged, but also leave them the option of playing for a short time. These games give you the option of playing for 10 minutes or three hours. They can hold your attention because the quality is outstanding. The duality of quality and time efficiency makes games more accessible and more likely to draw in the millions of people who profess not to have the time to play. Even the longer games — such as the 30-hour Red Dead Redemption — can be broken down into shorter missions. As long as games focus on quality, engagement and accessibility, they will keep gaining a larger share of our entertainment time.
Check out the list and vote for your favorites in the poll at the bottom. Also, please leave comments explaining your vote. I’ve also included in the poll other titles that were popular this year.
1. Red Dead Redemption
Developer: Rockstar Games.
Publisher Take-Two Interactive
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Average Metacritic rating: 95 out of 100
Our score: 97 out of 100
This could have been a spaghetti Western, but instead it turned out to be an epic. Red Dead Redemption is a great example of cinematic storytelling in a genre of video games that hasn’t been done to death. It stands out as a Wild West game the way that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven stood out as a movie. And it 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 memorable, and the Dead Eye slow-motion gunslinging 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.
What worked in this game’s favor was that there weren’t dozens of Western games on the market. Game developer Rockstar spent an estimated $100 million over six years to make this game, which many called a masterpiece. I felt that it delivered on every front –right up to its ending — and that’s why it’s the best game of the year.
This game was just a hair away from being No. 1. It had a great and fresh setting in the Cold War, but it was just a tad too familiar to win the top spot. If you played last year’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, you could very well come away feeling that this game is an incremental improvement, which explains its relatively low Metacritic score. I didn’t mind the familiarity because I can never get enough of Call of Duty. Neither can anyone else. The title sold more than $650 million worth in its first five days of sales, breaking all records. It had an unfair advantage since its predecessor, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, was the previous bestselling video game of all time. But last year’s lousy story in Modern Warfare 2 sorely tested me as a fan of every installment of this series. And I was quite worried when the mainstay Call of Duty development studio, Infinity Ward, melted down amid a dispute between founders and executives. But Call of Duty Black Ops had a strong movie-like story at its core.
The single-player campaign focuses on a brainwashed covert agent and his CIA handler who embark on a series of clandestine missions behind enemy lines to stop a rogue Soviet conspiracy to use nerve gas against America. The agents have access to all sorts of experimental weapons such as Dragon’s Breath, or shotgun ammo that sets its targets on fire, and a crossbow with explosive bolts. Put that together with the Cold War environments such as Vietnam and the music of the 1960s and you have the makings of a great combat game. The story unfolds a bit at a time, and you eventually get to a revelation, much as you do with a good blockbuster movie. The online multiplayer combat is especially addictive. You can play it for weeks after you finish the single-player game. (I’m a brigadier general at multiplayer level 42). I expect to play the multiplayer version for weeks, at least until the next major game forces me to quit. That means a lot of games launching in the wake of Black Ops will find that their potential audience is still a bit tied up.
Everybody loves Angry Birds. During my Thanksgiving holiday, all of the kids were playing the iPhone game. I let my college-age nephew play it on an iPad and he was still playing it three hours later. The game has become the killer app of the iPhone, dominating the App Store for much of the year and launching phenomenally well on Android as well. The title comes at a special moment in time for the iPhone, since the smartphone is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate platform for real games. After Angry Birds, there can be no doubt that a mobile game can be as fun as the more traditional console and PC games. It stands out among 44,000-plus games on the App Store as uniquely fun. With Angry Birds plush toys on the market and talk of an animated movie, this title has become a cultural phenomenon. For the iPhone, this moment is a lot like when YouTube took off after kids started creating silly eruptions by combining Diet Coke and Mentos. The videos became viral and YouTube cemented itself in the culture as a site for quirky user-generated videos.
As a game, Angry Birds couldn’t be simpler. The evil green pigs steal the eggs of the birds, who become very angry. Seeking to retrieve their eggs, they slingshot themselves into the fortresses of the pigs. The touchscreen of the iPhone was a perfect interface for the slingshot mechanic, which was made all the better with accurate physics. Other games used the slingshots before, but Angry Birds was polished. When you fail to destroy the pigs, they smile and snicker. That’s enough to make you want to play it over and over again until you wipe out the pigs. Rovio had made 50 other games before Angry Birds. They finally created one that resonated universally. All I can say is, watch out, Nintendo, there’s a new player in town that understands how to make games that appeal to everyone from three-year-olds up to octogenarians.
4. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment/Activision Blizzard
Available on: PC
Average Metacritic rating: 93 out of 100.
Our score: 93 out of 100.
Blizzard’s greatest asset is patience. The first StarCraft debuted in 1998. It was a real-time strategy game where you played one of three races fighting for control of the galaxy. You create units to collect resources, then spend those resources building up your base and your armed forces. Then you let them loose against the enemy and fight on multiple fronts until one side gives up out of exhaustion. The first game sold 11 million units and essentially became the national sport of South Korea, where professional gamers still play it today.
Blizzard waited 12 years before launching the sequel. It was worth the wait. The game play was refined and the enemies were perfectly balanced through years of playtesting. And Blizzard connected the tissues of the story together much better, thanks to the heavy use of animated cut scenes that were movie-like. The cinematic scenes immerse you in the story and make you care about the characters and what happens to them. With superb multiplayer combat, I have no doubt that people will be playing this game for years, and not just in South Korea.
5. 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 game is at its best when it makes you feel like you’re in complete control of the direction of the story and that your choices will lead to the salvation of humankind in 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. The action sequences and battles are much more spellbinding than they were in the first title. If there’s a fault, it gets a little repetitive as you go through each character’s own tale and it is easy to predict that every character has some kind of deep dark secret. I’m glad to see EA’s shift to focus on high-quality games paying off in both critic scores and market sales.
6. Halo: Reach
Available on: Xbox 360
Average Metacritic rating: 91 out of 100.
Our rating: 95 out of 100.
Bungie’s swan song for the Halo franchise wasn’t a disappointment. The latest game in the sci-fi series that began nearly a decade ago lived up to its promise. This prequel takes us back to the beginning of the Covenant war against humanity. It has an overarching sense of fatalism about it, since you know how the story turns out if you played the earlier games. But you still want to follow the journey that is full of individual acts of heroism within the larger tragedy of a losing war. You play a member of Noble Team, a group of Spartan III super-soldiers who have to defend the planet Reach. The action in this game is first-rate and full of variety. You get to shoot all sorts of weapons, drive different vehicles, take to the air and even to outer space. The combat scenes in zero gravity are cool. And the multiplayer game is first-rate, making the game last a lot longer. This series has seen more than 35 million units sold, mainly because it has become a part of the fabric of youth culture. Microsoft will try to pump out more Halo games with its internal studio, 343 Industries. We’ll see if it can keep the quality up as original developer Bungie moves on to a new fictional game universe.
I never met a Civ game I didn’t like. When new versions of Civilization hit the market, productivity goes down around the world. The games are so addictive that you always want to take just one more turn and then find yourself looking up at the clock in the wee hours of the morning. Civilization V is a lot like playing Risk on your computer, but with many more sophisticated nuances and strategic considerations. It’s a thinker’s game, for those who want to savor each move without the pressure of a ticking clock. You can develop a good strategy in the game, but you can never completely prepare for the secret deals and treachery of your seven neighboring empires. Those rivals play their cards strategically, sometimes surprising you with their cunning. The game is graphically beautiful and gives you the option of being a micro-manager or running an automated empire. This version made the enemies more like characters. Perhaps the best thing about this game is that the user interface is simpler than it used to be, even though the range of options and strategies you can pursue is mind-boggling. This is the kind of game that’s going to save the PC as a video game system.
8. Alan Wake
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Available on: Xbox 360
Average Metacritic rating: 83 out of 100
My score: 95 out of 100
Alan Wake had the great misfortune of debuting on the same day as Red Dead Redemption. It was also panned by critics for some performance glitches. But I felt it was under-rated. 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. 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). Hopefully, the weak sales of this game won’t discourage further innovation in storytelling. Alan Wake is a much-needed breath of fresh air for video games. I consider it to be a work of art, as I said in my full review.
9. BioShock 2
Developer: 2K Marin, Digital Extremes and 2K Australia
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Available on: PS 3, Xbox 360
Average Metacritic rating: 88 out of 100.
My score: 90 out 100
This was another game that, despite an initial burst of enthusiasm, didn’t sell as well as expected. But I love its combination of imaginative setting and hardcore combat. The game is a sequel to the 2007 game BioShock. That title introduced us to the underwater utopia-gone-bad of Andrew Ryan, the megalomaniac who built the city of Rapture as a haven for intellectuals (much like in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged). That utopia 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 and was the perfect setting for a combat game where you had a dizzying array of weapons to choose from.
In BioShock 2, you return to Rapture in its earlier history and find yourself immersed in a fight for survival again. This time, you are playing a Big Daddy character (like the one pictured) where you are built like a tank and have to find and protect (or exploit — it’s your choice) the cute little girls known as Little Sisters. The enemies are terrifying and smart, closing in on you from multiple directions as you fire and switch weapons. The Little Sisters are so swift and deadly that you would swear there was a real person controlling them. Fortunately, you are well armed. In this game, you can wield two weapons, using one weapon to freeze, incinerate, or electrocute enemies and then another weapon in your other hand to finish the enemy. BioShock 2 has the same great combination of horror, nostalgic art style, addictive game play and engrossing story. If there is a flaw, it’s that some of the weapons are just too powerful.
10. Heavy Rain
Developer: Quantic Dream
Available on: PS 3
Average Metacritic rating: 87 out of 100
My score: 89 out of 100
Some games are complimented for being “movie-like.” This one was criticized for being more like a movie than a game. But it had a very unique interactive storytelling style, where you had to mash buttons quickly in the right sequence in order to move on to the next scene and the next cinematic story clip. Heavy Rain conveys great emotion, like the panic a father feels as he searches for his lost son in a crowded shopping mall. 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. The main character’s son is kidnapped and you play multiple characters who all have a role in trying to rescue the missing child. As the story unfolds, the question arises: How far will you go to save your son? 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 and drama.