My end of year content (term used loosely) has been delayed through a combination of procrastination, lack of inspiration and illness. And now, because it’s probably easier than writing about my albums of the year, you get this first. Sorry?
Anyhow, this is basically me taking most of the games I’ve played this year and handing fairly arbitrary awards to them. Most will be good, but some will be bad. There may well be spoilers for pretty much every game I talk about in this article, so consider this your only warning.
Worst Story/Gameplay Balance: Mafia II
Mafia II felt like it was making pretensions at being a classic Mafia tale to stand alongside the likes of The Godfather and Scarface. Now I’m no film critic and I haven’t actually seen either of those films (yeah yeah, I know), but it strikes me that such comparisons wouldn’t hold much water for long. While the acting is passable even if it tends to stick strictly to stereotypes, the story itself struggles to justify the sheer volume of killing that you end up doing throughout the game. Vito and Joe’s motivations become increasingly flimsy as the game wears on, basically revolving around a combination of money, revenge, and simply doing stuff because someone else told them to. There’s one point where you’ve shot up half of Chinatown searching for answers about the death a close friend/business partner that really hammers home how ridiculous the game can be. I kinda found the ending unsatisfying as well – granted I guess I shouldn’t have expected everything to be all sunshine, lollypops and rainbows, but it left a bad taste in my mouth nonetheless.
But I haven’t even got started on the gameplay yet, which basically involves driving around a lot, some servicable cover-based shooting, the most rudimentary fist-fighting system ever, and tedious walking around between tedious tasks. Put simply, there isn’t actually very much game here, and what is there isn’t desperately thrilling. I actually had more fun watching my brother play the game, if only because he’d have the tendency to play it like it was Grand Theft Auto and thus liven up the dull driving sections with constant police chases.
That said, Mafia II does occasionally have its moments – usually when you’re driving around and the perfect song comes on for the situation Vito finds himself in. Take the Chinatown scene I mentioned earlier – during my getaway drive, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself when “Chow Mein” by The Gaylords came on the radio (Lyrics: “no more chow mein!”). Equally, there was a real sense of loss when, after having his house burned down by Irish thugs, Vito is forced to steal a car to escape – and what should come on the radio? “Rags To Riches” by Jackie Wilson (Lyrics: “must I forever be a beggar?”). But such moments are, sadly, not enough to save Mafia II from its failings – namely, that its story doesn’t particularly stand out as worth telling, and that its gameplay feels like little more than a clumsy vehicle driving you towards the next cutscene.
Best Story/Gameplay Balance: Mass Effect 2
The first Mass Effect did a good job of spinning its space-opera yarn, and the story was certainly more than enough to carry the game through some slightly wonky combat and an over-cluttered inventory system. Mass Effect 2 arguably improved both aspects. Story-wise, not only did it take into account your actions from the first game, but there were other features big (loyalty missions that delved deeper into each character’s backstory), and small (paragon and renegade interrupts that allowed you to make snap decisions mid-conversation) that enhanced the storytelling. But the biggest refinement was in the gameplay – the cover-based shooting felt more solid and accurate, special abilities felt more meaningful because you didn’t have so many of them, the inventory became super-streamlined and your teammates were generally more reliable. Some may have felt that the lack of customisation was a step backwards, but I was never all that keen on faffing around for ages in the inventory screens. Shame about the planet-mining mini-game though, eh?
Most Original Multiplayer Mode: Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
The single player mode of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was pretty much more of the same as last time round in Assassin’s Creed 2 – not that that’s a bad thing, and there were plenty of nifty new features to keep things interesting. However, AC: Brotherhood’s most interesting new addition to the series was undoubtedly its multiplayer component. Multiplayer modes in games that are historically single-player only can feel tacked on and rushed – but not AC: Brotherhood’s.
Presented as an Abstergo (the single player mode’s main antagonist) training simulation for new Templar recruits, the game’s standard ‘Wanted’ mode sees you attempting to track down and dispatch one particular renaissance killer, whilst simultaneously avoiding death at the hands of others. So far, so team deathmatch, but the key difference is that the world is populated by dopplegangers of all the player characters – so you’ve got to keep an eye out for any suspicious movements from both your pursuer and your prey. You’ll have to wait to unlock certain abilities via a fairly rudimentary leveling system, but ultimately, it’s up to you how you decide to play. You can keep a low profile and use abilities such as morph (change part of a crowd into clones of yourself) or disguise (temporarily change into another character) to throw off your pursuers and surprise your victims. Or you can dick around on the rooftops to get a better vantage point, then pick off your prey with the hidden gun ability or perform a deadly leap from above.
Generally, charging around like an idiot will get you killed more often than not, but by the same token being constantly on the move can make it more difficult for your hunters to track you down – unless, of course, you run straight into the welcoming embrace of whatever sharp object they’re carrying. There are also team-based modes to mix things up, and Ubisoft is regularly rolling out new maps and modes to keep things fresh. Granted, it’s not perfect – sometimes it seems to take forever to find a game and I’ve suffered from occasional glitches like not being given a contract (and thus being unable to kill anyone). Also, as in the single player game, control issues will occasionally rear their ugly heads – mainly when you find yourself hanging onto a wall when you’d rather be running for your life – but generally the gameplay is pretty fluid.
In a world where the twitch-reflex gameplay of Call Of Duty is king, it’s a brave move for Ubisoft to try something different with AC: Brotherhood’s multiplayer. Even better is the fact that they’ve created something that both works very well in its own right and feels like it makes sense in the Assassin’s Creed series. Credit to Ubisoft then – this is definitely some of the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game all year.
Best Overall Multiplayer: Halo: Reach
Now, there’s obviously a bit of series bias from me here – I’m not a great fan of Call Of Duty’s hectic multiplayer pace, nor am I a fan of ‘realistic’ shooters in general. But what makes Halo: Reach the best multiplayer game this year isn’t just the core offering itself – it’s also the additional features that Bungie have put into the game. Theatre mode and file sharing allow you to share your epic moments of glory or hilarious failures with your friends, while Forge mode lets you play the game in any way you see fit. If, like me, you haven’t got the patience or creativity for it, there are plenty of others out there who have – and their creations are all up on the file share, so you too can try out all sorts of wacky race maps, or play a Halo-ised version of Quidditch with your friends. Even if you were to just stick to what the game designers had provided you with by default, Halo: Reach is still a fantastic multiplayer game – everything else is just gravy. Delicious, delicious gravy.
Most Annoying Difficulty Spike: Sonic 4: Episode 1
After years of languishing in the realm of increasingly bad 3D platformers, Sega finally decided to take Sonic The Hedgehog back to his roots with Sonic 4: Episode 1. Although in this case – taking him ‘back to his roots’ means ‘making a new 2D Sonic game that rips the old ones off wholesale’. Nevertheless, it was a reasonably entertaining romp, marred by a massive jump in difficulty when it came to the final level. Not only do you have to fight your way through all the bosses that you’ve already defeated (which in themselves are all rip-offs from previous games), you then have to fight the final boss from Sonic 2 in a three stage battle. The first stage is an easier version of the battle from Sonic 2, the second stage is a a version of that battle that’s a tremendous pain in the arse, and the final stage is the kind of piss-annoying “IF I’M GOING DOWN I’M TAKING YOU WITH ME!” attack that’s straight from the Sonic Adventure school of boss design. I’d managed to accumulate 40 lives in the run-up to this final stage – as I proceeded to lose about half of them, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Were the final bosses in the old games this unreasonably dickish?” I don’t remember them being so – although that might just be me viewing things with rose-tinted spectacles.
Hardest Game: Super Meat Boy
I may have complained about the difficulty of that one level in Sonic 4, but when it comes to truly taxing difficulty, Super Meat Boy makes it look like a walk in the park. But crucially, it very rarely seems unfair – even though the controls are fairly simple, you have all the tools at your disposal to successfully navigate the myriad saw blades, spike-filled pits, crushers, rocket launchers and other death traps that stand between you and the end of the level. You just need to have quick reflexes, expert timing, and a lot of patience to succeed. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you enjoy a challenge then Super Meat Boy will keep you coming back for more.
Game Of The Year 2010: Super Mario Galaxy 2
I’ve already waxed lyrical about this one, and of the (relatively few) new games I’ve played this year, I’d still say that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the best. I was replaying it again recently and was reminded just how much fun it was, both in terms of gameplay and as an experience in general – well, apart from the bits that make you shout obscenities at your TV, but as I said in my previous article, that’s your fault more often than it is the game’s. Fun, inspired, crazy, colourful and pretty damn challenging at times, Mario Galaxy 2 is a perfectly formed gaming experience.