Shinji Mikami is still playing the game of Telephone he started in 2005. With Resident Evil 4, he revitalized Capcom's stagnant survival-horror franchise by turning it into a strictly paced shooter, where standing your ground (you couldn't move and shoot at the same time, remember?) was the only way to advance. The idea made it all the way across the ocean -- mostly intact -- and eventually found its way into Epic's Gears of War.
The Mikami-led team at Platinum Games, in turn, heard all the bits about military meatheads and enemies that can be demolished without remorse, but the part about lumbering man-tanks got garbled. Instead, we get a protagonist that can slide across the battlefield in the blink of an eye.
At its nuclear-powered core, Vanquish still honors Resident Evil 4's balance of risk and reward. It's an exceptionally hectic shooter where rocketing in and out of critical engagements is key -- but if your suit overheats, you're slow again. And then you're dead.
Even Gears of War's train level comes back a little warped. Now there are two trains, and one of them is upside-down.
Whereas Justin adopted many of this year's downtrodden strays (and he's right -- you should play Metro 2033!), I clearly reached out to the ones afflicted with rabies. Bayonetta is so deliberately insane that it's impossible to take seriously, and I applaud anyone who managed to do so long enough to castigate all that embarrassing near-nudity.
Though it's important to put aside Bayonetta's magical hair dragons to focus on its successes as an action game, like the massive variety in weapons and combos, the agility of its heroine and all the neat nods to classic Sega games, that's being unfair to its in-your-face creativity. I'd like to think that video games can be a po-faced platform for involving, measured storytelling just as easily as they can make something fun out of unabashed nonsense. Bayonetta is really good nonsense.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
This time, Namco turns Pac-Man into a game about putting off pleasure for as long as possible. Let's skip the sexual metaphor (I'd rather leave that in the experienced hands of Kieron Gillen) and just go with the ghost train.
Pac-Man Championship Edition DX is brilliant because it erodes the procedures you've come to associate with Pac-Man for years. You get the pellets, you eat the ghosts and your score goes up. And now the game is telling you to shut your mouth and bide your time? As you dash past slumbering specters and lure them into a multicolored tail, you'll want to eat them so much. You have to wait for it.
Wait. For. It.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
You can read my review for a more elaborate evaluation of this game, but I think the basics are worth repeating. It's a traditional Castlevania not in level design, but in spirit. It's an excellent action game filled with varied, impressively animated enemies that fight back and punish perfunctory participation, and gorgeous environments that capture the gothic atmosphere that you could only imagine when you played Castlevania on NES.
Lords of Shadow is a bit like God of War, yes, but it has more in common with 2004's Ninja Gaiden. No wonder some people didn't like it.
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
The disastrous launch of Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness seems to have left a toxic mushroom cloud over the brand, even obscuring an excellent trilogy of games from talented developer Crystal Dynamics. Every time I feel a tinge of annoyance when I see a commenter asking, "Has there even been a good one since Tomb Raider 2?" brand director Karl Stewart must have an urge to punch through a Facebook wall.
Guardian of Light isn't the quintessential Tomb Raider game, but it's an interesting rearrangement of the franchise's priorities. The feeling of disquieting isolation is necessarily lost when a second player joins in, replaced by a more forgiving, experimental approach to puzzle solving. It's an essential co-op adventure that I hope gives Lara Croft a boost before she attempts to clamber out of her own tomb in 2011.
Blur is the kart racer for people who hate kart racers. Power-ups aren't randomized, can be avoided with some skill and aren't even a guaranteed shot at the first place. Bizarre's stint as an Xbox-only developer shone through in smart online lobbies that could support up to twenty cars in a mad, bumper-to-bumper race. I loved the tracks (all presented through a neon-colored J.J. Abrams filter), but couldn't get stuck into the difficult single-player mode that, oddly, ran in parallel to the progression system in multiplayer races.
Bungie's storytelling came across as insincere and inconsequential in Reach, and that's a huge failure when your game revolves around a doomed planet. However, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of what Halo always gets right -- distinct sound design, perfect weapons and battles that are more dynamic than scripted. And as with Halo 3, I'll be playing the multiplayer for years. Bungie's major addition in the form of equipment seems insignificant to an outsider, but I don't think I nor anybody in my group of friends could live without it now.
Donkey Kong Country Returns
Well, that'll teach me to doubt Retro Studios. In making the opposite of Metroid Prime -- a game about immersion, exploration and discovery -- Retro has made a fast-paced gamer's game, much like Super Meat Boy. It's got the kind of "Aha!" level design that can be deciphered immediately, though not mastered as quickly. I could not get through the section pictured above if I blinked.
Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is problematic in its periphery, but the actual game lies in the combo-driven combat system that ditches micro-managed repetition in favor of constant, high-level decisions (not unlike Final Fantasy XII did). To me, most JRPGS feel like a race to the point where you can pick your main party members, once and for all, and level up so as to nullify the combat and just enjoy the story. Final Fantasy XIII came across as a tutorial because it was so deliberately composed -- you're granted specific characters, specific enemies and several abilities in each segment. Rearranging those possibilities, again and again, and finding effective combat strategies in each of Final Fantasy XIII's "tunnels" is the kind of grinding I'd rather be doing.
Tilt to Live
Aesthetically, the iPhone's Tilt to Live is even simpler than Geometry Wars. It's just an arrow, some dots and some power-ups -- oh, and some leaderboards.
Here's my sole resolution for 2011: I will guide my arrow through the deadly red dots with flawless precision and dash toward destructive power-ups without fear. I'll build up a ridiculous multiplier and wipe Justin McElroy and Ben Gilbert from the scoreboards. And then I'll phone them in the middle of the night (because of the time zone difference, you see) and LAUGH. HAHAHAHAHAHA.
Joystiq has revealed its 10 favorite games of 2010! Stay tuned to see those games that didn't quite make the cut in Joystiq's Best of the Rest series.