With all of this year's major releases now out, I thought I'd do a roundup of what have, for me, been the best and worst games of the year. It's been a funny old year as far as I'm concerned. A few games that I was very much looking forward to have been huge disappointments, while others that hadn't been on my radar at all have bowled me over. I think if I were to run through my own top 10 for the year, it would be something like this:
10) Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii): Badly dated in many ways, clinging to outmoded cliches such as a "lives" system. The control system is also horribly imprecise for a game that contains more than a few precision platforming sections. However, there is some really, really clever level design in there, which raises this above many other entries in the genre. Therefore, it just about squeaks into the top 10.
9) Valkyria Chronicles 2 (PSP): In many ways, a huge disappointment, as the game felt horribly crippled compared to its predecessor due to being shoehorned onto the PSP. However, the core gameplay and storytelling techniques are still strong enough to deliver a really, really impressive game overall.
8) God of War 3 (PS3): Another brutally uncompromising puzzle-brawler from Sony, which features some of the most spectacular set-pieces ever seen in a series which already had a substantial reputation for this. Somehow, the combat doesn't feel quite as polished as that in the first two games, but this is still very, very good. An honorable mention needs to go to Ghost of Sparta on the PSP, which is, I suspect, the most visually impressive game we'll ever see on that platform. I'm bundling the two games together here, really, as they're so similar.
7) Supreme Commander 2 (PC, also Xbox 360): One of the better (though not the best) RTS of the year. Delivers a slightly less sanitised experience than its predecessor, but still gives plenty of opportunities to command truly huge armies into battles whose scale dwarfs anything you'll see in other RTS franchises.
6) Vanquish (Xbox 360, also PS3): Incredibly fast paced third person shooter. Basically, think Gears of War where the player character is wearing rocket powered roller-skates. The game has been criticised for its length, and for having absolutely no multiplayer components. However, it delivers a tightly focussed campaign, and the fact that they haven't had to balance it for multiplayer means that they've been able to do some really fun things with the weapons.
5) Castlevania - Lords of Shadow (Xbox 360, also PS3): A God of War clone that manages to beat God of War at its own game, while liberally borrowing from Shadow of the Colossus at the same time. A massive game by comparison with others in its genre, with a deep yet smooth-flowing combat system. The first 2 hours of the game are disappointing, as the game is a little bit too slow to give you full access to the magic system (without which the combat doesn't really work), but once this gets going, it's an amazing game.
4) Starcraft 2 (PC): I confess, I hated the original Starcraft. Really, really hated it. However, this is a highly polished sequel that delivers the best singleplayer campaign of any RTS I've played for years. I really loved the "Wing Commander" feel. There's some great mission design in there, particularly once you get past the first few missions. Multiplayer is still a fetid pit of willy-waving and ego-polishing, but you can't have everything.
3) Recettear - An Item Shop's Tale (PC): The only Japanese RPG to make it into my top 10 this year (Valkyria 2 isn't an RPG, it's a strategy game), and it's a port of a several-years-old indie game. A cute and well designed game is enhanced by a hilariously well done translation. This is a short game by Japanese RPG standards, but that's no bad thing, given how much padding the genre usually contains.
2) Mass Effect 2 (PC, also Xbox 360): I spent the first few hours hating this. The move to an ammunition based weapons system feels like a step backwards and planet-scanning is incredibly tedious. However, there's a truly impressive game in here, with great combat, storytelling and atmosphere. It feels like the natural middle-installment of a trilogy and I can't wait for Mass Effect 3.
1) Fallout - New Vegas (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): The ultimate flawed masterpiece. Yes, as absolutely everybody has commented, this is a very, very buggy game, though it is slowly improving via updates. If you play this, you're going to be running into crashes, quest bugs and enemies that slowly sink into the floor. However, Obsidian have done a great job of taking the strengths of Fallout 3 and building on them, with a more densely populated and interesting game-world that ties more closely into the Fallout lore established by the first two games. A basic playthrough will take 30-40 hours and you could easily spend 3-4 times that on exploration. Those are the kind of numbers normally associated with Japanese games, but New Vegas's most impressive achievement is to manage this epic playtime without ever feeling like a grind.
There were a few other games that impressed me this year, but which I couldn't quite put into the top 10. In alphabetical order, these are:
Alan Wake (Xbox 360): Clever and atmospheric survival horror game, though it did start to feel like a bit of a one-trick pony by the half-way point.
Amnesia - The Dark Descent (PC): the scariest survival horror game I've ever played, bar none. The complete lack of any combat ability and the clever use of lighting turns this into a nightmarish experience. Sadly, the game is let down a bit by an atrocious user interface, but it's still worth a try, particularly given the low price-tag.
Bayonetta (Xbox 360, also PS3): Possibly the least subtle game of the year, but also one of the most spectacular. The difficulty curve on anything above the bottom difficulty level is probably a bit too extreme for everybody apart from creepy Japanese otaku, but this is still one of those games that has to be played to be believed. The plot makes no sense at all, but there's so much going on that it's hard to really care.
Civilisation V (PC): Impressive new installment in the long-running PC series. Plenty of nice new tweaks, but I cannot alt-tab it without it crashing to desktop. Unfortunately, for a game like this, this is a critical flaw and keeps it out of the top 10.
Dante's Inferno (Xbox 360, also PS3 and PSP): This got a bit of a critical mauling, but I must confess that I quite enjoyed it, despite the liberties it takes with its source material. It can't compete with God of War or Castlevania, but there's still fun to be had here.
Dragon Age Origins - Awakening (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): Very decent expansion pack to one of the better games of last year. Cuts out some of the less interesting elements of the original in favour of plenty of well designed dungeon crawling.
Limbo (Xbox 360): Clever and creepy little downloadable platform/puzzler. Uses minimalist lighting and sound to great effect. Sadly, it's over very quickly and the second half of the game fails to live up to the expectations established by the first.
Persona 3 Portable (PSP): Nicely updated version of the PS2 classic. However, I did find myself wondering whether it really needed another update. Please, get on and give us either (or both) of Persona 4 FES or Persona 5!
Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, also PS3): Yes, it's Grand Theft Horse, but it's still pretty fun. Some of the base mechanics of the core design that Rockstar keeps recycling are starting to creak a bit, though.
Sakura Wars - So Long My Love (Wii, also PS2): There's a lot wrong with this game. Incredible amounts of cheese in the dialogue, an underdeveloped combat system and an intensely frustrating Wii control system that had me rapid-fire swapping between the nunchuck and the classic controller. However, the game has such an innocent, bouncy energy that it's hard to hold these against it. Definitely worth playing, even if only for the scene where the Statue of Liberty launches giant technicolour missiles at a flying Japanese castle. Probably best to go for the PS2 version rather than the Wii version, if it's available in your territory, as by all accounts the older console's version is superior in every respect. Also notable for being a Japanese game with RPG elements which is completely 100% devoid of any need to grind for experience.
Sky Crawlers - Innocent Aces (Wii): I really wish this had been for a better platform, but it's still a decent air-combat game. I had no idea how they were going to make a game adaptation of Sky Crawlers, given the... unique... nature of the source material. This starts off feeling wrong, but over time, it becomes clear that this is the only possible way an adaptation could have been made to work. Very clever ending.
Spider-man - Shattered Dimensions (Xbox 360, also PS3, crippled versions on other platforms): I was hoping this would be the new Arkham Asylum. It isn't, though the underwhelming stealth sections still want to be. That said, the platforming and brawling sequences are excellent.
Transformers - War for Cybertron (Xbox 360, also PS3 and PC, with crippled Wii and DS versions): Decent, pacey third person shooter. The flying levels were definitely the high-point for me and it's a shame there weren't more of them.
Y's Seven (PSP) - decent, but decidedly non-groundbreaking, Japanese RPG. Even competence within this genre, let alone excellence, is starting to feel rare these days, so this came as a bit of a relief.
And now the disappointments. As I said at the start, there were far too many of these this year. While not actually bad games, the titles below (again in alphabetical order) spectacularly failed to live up to expectations:
Aliens vs Predator (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): The first half of the marine campaign is great; with alternating scares and adrenelin rushes. The rest of the game is a badly-thought out mess. The Predator campaign in particular is about as scary as Sesame Street.
Dead Rising 2 (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): Once again, a decent concept is slaughtered by Capcom's usual crappy execution, with an emphasis on needing multiple playthroughs and suffering through fiddly, unbalanced boss fights.
Final Fantasy XIII (PS3, also Xbox 360): Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Yes, it's pretty, but you spend the first 25 hours of the game runing through a linear tunnel. It opens out a little later on, but not to the degree of previous Final Fantasy games. The plot starts well and has potential, but it's clear they have absolutely no idea how to bring it to a conclusion. Still, it wasn't Square-Enix's worst game this year. Oh noooooo...
Front Mission Evolve (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): Clearly the "evolution" of a clever turn-based tactics series is an dull, flat, sub-Mechassault third person mecha shooter. And they say that progress is a good thing...
Gran Turismo 5 (PS3): Good in parts, but the actual racing experience is profoundly disappointing. Dismal AI, laugable collision physics and a general lack of any kind of adrenelin (or even fun) all conspire to give the impression that Polyphony Digital just can't keep up with the talented chaps at Turn 10.
Halo Reach (Xbox 360): The same boring combat and atrocious dialogue we saw in the original Halo, but now updated with a noxious coating of po-faced self-satisfaction. One or two of the set pieces work quite well, but the rest of the game is a mess.
Kingdom Hearts - Birth by Sleep (PSP): I was looking forward to this. Unfortunately, a reasonable combat system and decent graphics can't hold up against serious performance issues and some of the most hideously cliched writing in the history of gaming. Still not Square-Enix's worst game of the year, though.
Medal of Honor (PC, also Xbox 360 and PS3): The good news, I suppose, is that the autosave bugs managed to extend the campaign's playtime to around 5 hours. The bad news is that everything else about the game is half-arsed. Lazy mission design, stupid dialogue, bad checkpoint placement and badly mishandled set-pieces all conspired to create a game that promised the earth and failed to deliver more than "meh".
Metroid - Other M (Wii): An ambitious attempt at reinventing the Metroid franchising, which ends up failing in many, many ways. Poor controls and hammy writing are the worst offences, but this is still a deeply lacklustre experience in many other ways.
Nier (PS3, also Xbox 360): I feel a bit sorry for Nier. There are elements of a really good game in there somewhere. The combat can be fun and the bullet-hell sequences in boss fights are certainly innovative. Unfortunately, the good bits are buried under PS2-level graphics, creaking performance issues, monumental load times even with an HD install, huge amounts of grinding and some unutterably tedious fetch quests.
Sonic 4 - Episode 1 (Xbox 360, also PS3 and Wii): The first level is really great. After that, this gets fiddly and unforgiving far too quickly.
And now - the outright bad games. These are incredibly rare in these days of multimillion dollar budgets and huge development teams. That said, a few still slip through the net.
Final Fantasy XIV (PC, PS3 coming next year): The worst game of the year, bar none. An MMO which is not only primative compared to WoW, but which actually manages to be a worse experience than its own (badly dated) predecessor. Even with Square's deep pockets behind it, I'd be surprised if this was still running in 18 months time.
Lost Planet 2 (PS3, also Xbox 360 and PC): The original Lost Planet was hardly great. This only makes things even worse by making the single-player campaign virtually dependant upon having co-op partners. Virtually unplayable.