Throughout the week, Joystiq celebrates its tenth anniversary by revealing each writer's favorite - not "best" - games of the last decade. Aside from selecting a number one, each list is unordered.
For his top game of the last decade, Contributing Editor Earnest Cavalli discusses the dark world of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – Troika / 2004
Developed by Troika in 2004, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was the second Activision-published game to explore the gothic world made famous by White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade pen and paper game. Unlike its third-person predecessor, Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption, Bloodlines offers players a first-person tour of a world much like our own, only every major event is controlled from the shadows by a cadre of blood-sucking vampires. In the modern world, it's seen as gauche to simply murder humans en masse and drink their blood like so many horrific Slurpees, so the vampires of Bloodlines use political machinations to control things from behind the scenes.
At least, that's how things are supposed to go. Bloodlines appeared in an era where roleplaying games continually relied on freedom of choice as a major selling point, and while most could only boast the illusion of choice, Troika infused its dark, first-person RPG with a massive attention to detail. It wasn't just possible to have different experiences each time you played the game, it was almost impossible to recreate the same game without retracing your steps exactly.
Unlike most roleplaying games, Bloodlines doesn't award players experience points for killing other denizens of the World of Darkness. Instead, all player progression is achieved by completing quests, though each quest offers a myriad of ways to reach your goal. Say you need to find a bag of plasma at the local blood bank. You can walk up to the crooked attendant, throw down some cash and walk away with a delicious sack of human essence. Alternately, you can pick a lock, sneak behind the attendant and raid his stash while he's lazily attending to his duties. More subtle players could use their vampiric powers to seduce the attendant, or terrify him into forking over a bag of blood. Or, if you're feeling especially evil, you can simply kill the guy and take whatever you want.
My favorite example of this freedom of choice is presented to players at character selection. Bloodlines offers a choice of seven vampire races, from the brutish Gangrel to the erudite Toreador. Choosing six of these races results in a largely traditional RPG experience where you manipulate characters, make allies, and kill foes where necessary. Choosing the insane Malkavian class, however, drastically alters how the game functions. Almost every character interaction receives new dialogue appropriate for your mentally-unstable character, and you can even meet entities unavailable to the other races. Of course, these entities may only exist in your mind – a lengthy hallucinatory conversation with a Stop sign stands out as one of Bloodlines' high points – but each is a testament to how much care Troika poured into every aspect of its game.
Unfortunately, Bloodlines was the first Source engine game to hit retail, arriving on the very same day that Valve debuted Half-Life 2. As a result, Troika was unable to foresee the numerous bugs that plagued Bloodlines and the developer went out of business less than a year after the game reached store shelves. Despite this, Bloodlines earned a rabid fanbase which continues to release patches to improve the roleplaying epic to this day. Those people, like me, were willing to look past the game's bugs to a game that offered unprecedented freedom – and the best depiction of the World of Darkness before or since.
Objectively, Bloodlines is not the best game on this list, not by a long shot. But it is a sterling example of a developer crafting a deep, engaging world, complemented by gameplay mechanics that, while overly ambitious, delivered far more entertainment value than almost any of its competitors. Warts and all, it's very easy to lose yourself in Bloodlines, and if your tastes in RPGs tend toward the modern and gothic instead of wizards and dragons, there's no better adventure than Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Arguably the single most important video game released in the past decade, Half-Life 2 launched exclusively on Valve's then-nascent Steam platform, a move that cemented the company's vast fortunes for years to come, and introduced many gamers to the future of their favorite hobby years before console manufacturers would hop aboard the digital distribution bandwagon. More crucially though, Half-Life 2 offers players tight, first-person shooting action within a story that presents a fleshed out, compelling world, and a pitch-perfect sense of progression. From the horror movie set piece known as Ravenholm to the introduction of the Super Gravity Gun, Half-Life 2 stands as a perfect example of a gripping story told in the only medium capable of conveying its nuances, and the gaming industry is immeasurably better for it.
Where Valve pushed video game storytelling to a new high with Half-Life 2, Epic Games took the opposite approach in crafting Unreal Tournament 2004. The apex of the Unreal Tournament series, UT 2004 ignores heady tales in favor of pure first-person combat distilled to its most engaging form. Featuring a selection of guns and maps unrivaled in their variety, utility and compelling destructive potential, UT 2004 gave players an entertaining toolbox, then unleashed them on one another via the Internet. Epic lucked out, as UT 2004 arrived at a time when broadband was finally becoming de rigueur for most households, and while it never spawned as many user-crafted modifications as its predecessors, UT 2004 had a lengthy post-launch life thanks to the efforts of one of the last dedicated user communities of its kind. Objectively, there are better first-person shooters, but it's hard to argue that any one game offers more pure entertainment than Epic's magnum opus.
When Street Fighter 4 debuted in 2008, the fighting game genre was on life support. The hardcore set were still dropping quarters into Street Fighter 2 cabinets and throwing down at Marvel vs Capcom tournaments, but the average person had all but given up on virtual fisticuffs. Capcom changed that by offering fans all their favorite classic characters alongside new fighters who were just as memorable as the original World Warriors. Through four permutations, Street Fighter 4 has remained the world's most popular fighting game, not only because Capcom has gone to great lengths to balance and re-balance each game time and time again, but also because the developer has crafted basic gameplay concepts that, like all of the best competitive pastimes dating back to chess, is easy to pick up and play, but nearly impossible to truly master.
I spent five years playing World of Warcraft, and while that half-decade has seemingly burned me out on the MMO genre for good, I don't regret a moment of it. You'll hear stories about friendships forming via MMOs, and that's exactly what happened. I could praise Blizzard for its clever use of a cartoonish art style that gave the game's aesthetics far more longevity than any of its competitors, or the massive amount of detail the developer packed into every inch of Azeroth, but the truth is, I adore World of Warcraft because it introduced me to the members of the Gypsy Cab Company, a group of people I still value as close pals. MMOs are a deep form of escapism, and though our guild did retreat from the rigors of real-world stress in favor of the glories to be found in Azeroth, we also celebrated meatspace weddings, births and graduations in Blizzard's virtual world. I long ago stopped playing World of Warcraft, but I'll never forget the people I met in Azeroth.
What Harmonix began with Guitar Hero, it perfected in Rock Band. A quartet of tiny plastic instruments seems silly on its own, but with even a small sampling of the immense DLC setlist the developer issued for the game over the years following its debut, Rock Band offers a modern take on the classic fun of karaoke that's exponentially improved with each additional band member. Whether you prefer modern pop or have taste enough to exclusively play classic Bowie, Rock Band is the ultimate party game – specifically because it's a video game that requires almost no prior knowledge of the medium. All you need is the ability to keep rhythm, a fondness for music and a willingness to look just slightly silly while you get as close to rock stardom as most people will ever come.
Peggle's spot on this list isn't the result of my fondness for the game. Don't get me wrong, I've spent hundreds of hours carefully aiming those little metal balls and praying for a lucky bounce, but Peggle proved something special the moment I introduced it to my mother. She's never had any interest in games, beyond their ability to provide her child some sort of livelihood, but after introducing her to Peggle, I spent weeks watching her topple every high score I'd ever set. Peggle's careful balance of accessibility and simple, visceral reward is the perfect epitome of why people enjoy video games. It's one thing to woo a games journalist who willingly seeks out the newest games, but it's an entirely different, far more impressive feat to turn a middle-aged woman with no attachment to the hobby into an instant addict who craves just one more turn to rack up a few thousand more points.
After years of Rockstar games that swiped their plots from Hollywood classics while wooing players with immensely detailed sandboxes designed to appeal to their every sociopathic whim, Red Dead Redemption offered players something new: a vast world complemented by an original, gripping, emotionally taut story that rivals any of its Western influences. Players expected the ability to hunt bears, stalk bandits and hijack trains, but the real beauty of Red Dead Redemption was in its plot. Those final few missions, where the hero of the story goes from typical action protagonist to someone deserving pity were truly heartwrenching, and the finale was both unexpected and dramatic in all the right ways.
There's a beautiful, elegant simplicity to Dragon Quest 8. Though it was the most expansive, fully-realized Dragon Quest entry to date, the game hewed close to classic Japanese roleplaying game standards, and even the final battle came down to the simple staples of spell-casting, item usage, attacks and dodging. Graphics rarely make a game, but the PlayStation 2 was able to offer fans a fluidly-animated adventure that perfectly complemented the aesthetic designed by Dragonball Z creator Akira Toriyama. This combination of whimsical looks and a plot that pits classic heroic archetypes against world-ending evil results in a classic of the genre, and, I'd argue, the most pure example of a quality Japanese roleplaying game seen before or since its debut.
As a game developer, Hideki Kamiya operates on an entirely different level from any of his peers. Bayonetta could easily have become another sex appeal-driven heroine, existing purely to move units via the size of her breasts and proclivity for ludicrous weaponry, but in Kamiya's hands, she becomes a lovable heroine who's not just a match for her male counterparts, but is their superior in nearly every way. Combine this with the most fluid action gaming of the last generation of consoles, an addictive set of bonus content to discover and an immensely gratifying yet surprisingly intuitive combat system, and the result is a game that's not just a classic of the genre, but a classic of gaming as a whole.
[Images: Activision, Valve, Epic, Capcom, Blizzard, Harmonix, EA, Rockstar, Square Enix, Sega]