Friday, January 29, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV

It's tempting to believe your own hype. If you're Mike Myers coming off the success of Wayne's World, Austin Powers, and Shrek, you can honestly believe that spending five years perfectly honing the art of the fart joke really is a kind of genius. If you're hotshot producer McG, creator of The O.C. and Supernatural, you can think that Terminator 5 and The Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious are high-concept masterpieces that a salivating public desperately needs to consume.

And if you're Rockstar Games, you can come to believe that people buy Grand Theft Auto games to experience their gritty realism, superlative storytelling, and deep, believable characters.

I say this not to denigrate the GTA legacy. The strange little trilogy consisting of GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas are the definitive gaming experience of the last decade. Most games would settle for any one of exciting high-speed driving, visceral explosive mayhem, or a vast and lovingly detailed urban playground to explore, and GTA has, up until recently, consistently nailed each of those elements with laserlike precision.

Sure, GTA is a franchise about stealing cars, driving them very fast, and then blowing some shit up. But it does it on an epic scale. Which is where, I think, the brain crazies eventually set in. Because it's an easy bit of carelessness to think that an epic scope requires an epic story.

This is something that GTA developer Rockstar very much wanted to do. They wanted to create a protagonist as deep and as complex as their faux-American sandbox cities. They wanted to introduce gamers to a man whose pain and angst they could virtually palpate, even as they fired an endless stream of rocket-propelled grenades at police helicopters. A man who aspired to the heavens even as he stuffed dollar bills into the G-strings of coked-up strippers. This is Niko Bellic, recent eastern-bloc immigrant determined to chase the American Dream and outrun his past as a violent madman - no matter how many innocent civilians he has to beat to death with a baseball bat along the way.

What's being aimed for here is tragedy. It's the story of a man held hostage by his past and repeatedly sodomised by circumstances beyond his control. In the PR for Grand Theft Auto IV it played out pretty attractively, but in execution it was something different. Rockstar promised their game would make tragic violin music play in our heads, and we were all pretty excited about that until they showed us the skull drills and the tiny, tiny violinists. This was not a game of subtle storytelling. It was the equivalent of opera rendered in musical farts; lowbrow, off-putting, and hard to remain in the room with after the first five minutes.

"I'm not gay," declares Niko's cousin Roman in one cutscene. That's good to know; it's not really something we had any lingering questions about, but as exposition goes it's pretty to the point. No one asked him about his sexuality; it's something Roman volunteered. Everyone loves a chatty character, right? Two missions later, Roman says it again, and the point becomes clear - homosexuality is hilarious. Homosexuality, and also "titties", which Roman takes the opportunity to discuss every time he opens his mouth.

This isn't observational comedy. Nobody's suggesting human sexuality is wryly humorous. This isn't a stand-up comedian enquiring, "So, what's the deal with gay people?" It's that schoolyard brand of funny where merely using the word "titties" is enough to provoke sniggers, year-in, year-out. You don't have to understand what "titties" are - the important thing is that everyone else is laughing, and you should too.

That's - let's be fair - exactly what GTA has been serving up in lion-sized portions for more than ten years now. It's nothing new to say that Rockstar is endlessly happy to use the words "woman" and "prostitute" interchangeably, and off-handedly equate "gay" with "mentally unwell". They paint their entire cast with the same psychopathic brush, whether they be male, female, or Jamaican, so there's some equality there, but you're still left with the impression that it's less of a deliberate artchoice than simply that they don't know any better.

Shallowness has never been the bane of a good game. The Mario Bros would not be noticeably improved by attempts to subvert Mario's broad Italian stereotypicality. Pacman requires neither motivation nor backstory (animated TV series notwithstanding). And similarly, an optional layer of depth is rarely anything but a boon to a game. It's great to know that Mega Man has a rich and storied continuity, and at the same time it's perfectly okay to just not care.

Where it all goes wrong is when the developer ties you to your chair and demands at gunpoint that you take them seriously. "This is modern day Shakespeare," screams Rockstar, waving their snub-nosed pistol alarmingly for emphasis. "This is the finest goddamn story ever told by humans. In the future, when Facebook replaces Wikipedia as the font of all knowledge, the group entitled Dictionary Definition Of Pathos will have pictures of our game in its gallery." And then they pause, and add, "Titties," and snigger.

The game opens with a close up of a fat man having sex - because sexuality in the overweight is inherently hilarious - and moves quickly to the apparently unrelated exploits of our protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko's a man who's just made the journey from Somewhere-That-Used-To-Be-Called-The-Soviet-Union to the balmy shores of America, and is quickly disappointed to find it's not quite the land of milk and honey he'd envisaged. He's pretty conflicted about what to do with his life, and he'll talk about that conflict in endless, vague detail as he takes long, dull drives across the city, goes on extended, half-assed fetch quests for people he can barely stand, and engages a succession of girlfriends on chorelike excursions the game refers to as "dates". Those dates! Never has the process of trying to get laid felt so mechanical and unexciting.

It's GTA as told by a cut-rate Martin Scorsese, where action and plot progression are implied but not seen, and gameplay and interaction are replaced by long, slow cinematic pans, and the sight of neon lights reflected in dark puddles on rain-slick streets tells more than clear goals and understandable missions ever could. The sandbox is gone, and while you may briefly believe you're driving around a large, living city, in reality you're chained to the wheels of a giant, diabolical Simon Says. GTA IV has a series of hoops, and by gum, you're going to jump through them.

The awful mission design is best evidenced by an early job given to you by a Jamaican acquaintance. You're given a description of what you have to do, but it's in Jamaican so thickly-accented that even Niko confesses to not having understood it. Which is a great joke, until it's time to actually complete the mission. Lucky there's some monosyllabic onscreen mission text to get you going. It's a five minute drive from where you get the mission to where the associated gameplay actually starts (a drive that must be repeated each and every time you fail out of the mission), and when you get there you're shown a drug dealer and asked to "follow him without being seen".

This is the game's first on-foot tailing mission, and there's no explanation of the relevant mechanics. The goal has nothing to do with "not being seen" (the dealer looks straight ahead at all times with neck-brace intensity) and more to do with staying within about four to fifteen metres of the dealer while he moves. The limits of the safe tailing zone are not explained, or graphically indicated in any way. When you fail out, there's no indication of what you did wrong - the dealer just starts running, and after a while you lose him.

The dealer's path is a masterpiece of bad game design. It takes him down a back alley, into a residential apartment building and out of the same building through its backdoor, and then across a road to enter yet another building, where he eventually ascends to a third-floor apartment. Who does that? Who walks through somebody else's house to get to their own? Moreover, you could have reached the final destination quite handily by car, but the game for unspecified reasons makes you do it on foot.

The mission ends with a sudden and violent firefight against a half-dozen heavily armed thugs. It transitions from stealth to combat without warning, and of course when the ambush inevitably kills you it's back to the start for another five minute drive and extended stealth sequence before you can try the fight again. It's terrible, but what's more terrible is the central conceit - that the task is put before the outcome. The goal of the mission is to eliminate a nest of drug dealers. A good game would give you the end goal and ask you to find a way to execute it, with tailing this dealer being a strong contender for the dominant strategy. A bad game - which this is - orders you with laughable sternness to do some tailing and then asks at the end, "By the way, can you kill these dudes now?"

What happened to driving around and blowing some stuff up? What happened to those games that revelled in letting you bring your own unique style to a non-stop orgy of velocity and violence? How did the sun-drenched fantasies of Vice City and San Andreas metamorphose into the dingy, depressing muck of GTA IV? I was buckled in for sixty hours of fun but the game I ended up playing couldn't have been more pretentious if it had been wearing a beret.

It sickens me - it physically sickens me - the critical acclaim that many outlets showered GTA IV in. Not every game needs to be Citizen Kane, but even in the shallower end of the art pool there's a difference between something as fun as The Rock and something as misguided as Dead Silence starring Donnie Wahlberg. This isn't big dumb fun, it's big ponderous tripe. It's bloated and self-important and good heavens we can do better than this, people.

It's appropriate, I guess in a way. And all I can say is that whoever stole the GTA franchise and took it on a joyride through the unnattractive clums of GTA IV had a whole bunch more fun stealing it than I did stumbling across its burned out chassis afterwards.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Games of the Decade: #5 - #1

#5: The World Ends With You (2008)
Nintendo DS
There is more innovation in The World Ends With You than in the rest of the decade of gaming put together. In every single gameplay mechanic it flies so far away from what we've seen before that it's daunting. And yet it is without misstep; from an adjustable difficulty scale directly tied to rewards, to a system wherein you both influence and are influenced by city-wide fashion, to the controversial dual-screen combat mechanics, its eccentricities are both brilliant and consummately executed. And it uses them to tell a story about individuality, teamwork, and culture that's thoroughly worth telling.

#4: Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001)
PlayStation 2
Its sequels were equally outstanding games but it's Metal Gear Solid 2 that to me had the greatest impact of the franchise. There is nothing about Metal Gear that is small in scale; like a gaming Titanic, everything is epic, historic, possessed of a gravitas that slams you in the chest at every opportunity. It's utterly unafraid to abandon its own past successes and explore new ground, it's packed with hidden detail, brilliant twists, and thrilling set-pieces, and the production values put Hollywood to shame. Metal Gear knows how good it is; the game is confident that were no one to ever play it, it would still remain one of the greatest games ever made, and that confident shines through every polygon and infuses every line of dialogue, leaving you awestruck before it.

#3: Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 3
I'm still upset about the callousness of Dragon Age's ending but my outrage would not be possible had not the proceedings up to that point been so perfect. The characters who populate Dragon Age - and particularly your party companions - are the best written characters to ever appear in a video game. You care about them as real people. They are multi-faceted, never stereotypical (well, maybe Oghren), and their approval or disapproval of your actions really matters on a powerful, emotional level. And on top of that the game constantly presents choices that matter - not because of their impacts on the game (although they do, unfailingly, have impacts) - but because you're left knowing that you made that choice. Real meaning comes from within.

#2: Portal (2007)
PC, XBox 360, PlayStation 3
No one hates Portal. No one. I don't think there is anyone who was ever born who hates Portal. It's so incredibly rare for the gaming community to come together as a single voice around one game and say, "This is ours." And yet Portal manages it. It's not the portal puzzles themselves, although those are certainly decent, but something about its short, self-assured scope, its mood, its dry humour, and its now ubiquitous cake references and ending theme. We all love Portal, and absent being given a sequel truly eye-gouging in awfulness, I think we probably always will.

#1: World of Warcraft (2004)
There's no real doubt about it - this is World of Warcraft's decade. It's the game that ate a genre - for five years it's had no serious competitors in the Western MMO world, with everyone else squabbling over the meagre second place scraps. It's conquered gaming culture, it's enervated the mainstream, it's inculcated, launched, and raked in the profits of a multi-media marketing empire. It's the single game responsible for the majority of the profits of Vivendi's gaming division (when such a thing still existed) and the driving force behind the merger of Blizzard and Activision into the monstrosity I like to call Blactivision. It's been parodied in print, in song, in film, and in a memorable episode of South Park, it's the worldwide face of online gaming, and as 2010 rolls around despite being five years old in an industry that punishes titles not released this month it's still trending upwards.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Games of the Decade: #10 - #6

#10: FarCry 2 (2008)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
There is nothing quite like FarCry 2. Certainly there was nothing in its flawed predecessors to suggest this game was coming. It simultaneously operates on many levels - as a free-roaming sandbox game and as a top notch FPS certainly, but also as a breathtaking safari through the African savannah and as a suprisingly deep and introspective meditation on the cycle of violence that plagues that continent. Long after the game finishes it's the quiet moments that will stay with you, the times spent in the long grass, vision tinged yellow with malaria, as this astonishing virtual world turns around you and without you.

#9: Prince of Persia (2008)
XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The Sands of Time games were perfectly good games, but the 2008 Prince of Persia is a masterpiece. From its opening moments it has a command of storytelling, of metaphor, of pacing that few games can even comprehend from a distance. It has only two characters, it explores them with perfect rhythmn and grace, and it makes every challenge a mirror reflecting back on their relationship. It culminates in a powerful ending that offers the only real and meaningful closure the story could have borne.

#8: Bejeweled (2001)
Bejeweled is a strong game in and of itself but here it stands for that entire uncounted legion of games that have represented the single largest growth in gaming over the past ten years - the casual downloadable market. The match-3s, the hidden object games, the small-scale sims and the entire cyclopean empire of PopCap Games. For the world's x-million serious gamers Bejeweled will be the game on this list that they care about least, and for the ten to twenty times as many people who aren't serious gamers but have nevertheless engaged their credit card to purchase a title or two, Bejeweled may well be the only one they've played.

#7: Mass Effect (2007)
XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
I named this my game of the year in 2007 and in purely personal terms I stand by that. In Mass Effect, Bioware brings their long and saluted history in the development of Western RPGs and adds to it a focus, precision and vision that they'd not quite reached before. Mass Effect isn't a playground for players to find their own path; it's a coherent beginning, middle, and stunning finale, a tightly wound story that encourages and supports not mere exploring and levelling-up but honest-to-God roleplaying. It's the computer RPG grown up and it deserves every bit of praise it's received.

#6: Rock Band (2007)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Guitar Hero came first but Rock Band outstripped its predecessors and kept growing from there. Implementing a full four-player band and supported by two years' worth of weekly song expansions, Rock Band is the definitive music game of a decade in large part defined by music games. Rock Band is going to be the shared cultural touchstone which to a huge cohort of people will represent this decade in gaming; its place in gaming history as storied as Pac-Man, Golden Axe or Super Mario Bros.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Games of the Decade: #15 - #11

#15: Animal Crossing (2001)

Actually to be honest it's the DS Animal Crossing, Wild World, that was the one I fell in love with but whether you played that, the original, or the recent Wii City Folk (published in Australia under the lamer title Let's Go To The City), it's pretty much the same game. There's no action in Animal Crossing, or narrative in the traditional sense of the world. There's not really any goals, other than a few collections to complete. It's pure social play; you interact with and build friendships with the quirky animals who live within the game, explore and decorate your town, and then share your achievements with friends. It sounds like a kids-only proposition but instead it's deeply compelling and it's one of the most memorable titles Nintendo's ever produced.

#14: Braid (2008)
XBox 360
Braid isn't about time-bending puzzles, retro game homages or a demand for infuriating precision, although it has all those things. It's about emotions, and the game's final level is one of the most powerful ever included in a videogame. The game presents, through gameplay, a hypothetical - what if time ran backwards and allowed us to take back our mistakes - and then goes on to show what mistakes we might take back.

#13: Crackdown (2007)
XBox 360
Crackdown rediscovers what we knew about videogames when they were first born - that the sheer act of virtual movement should be inherently enjoyable, whether or not that movement has a goal or destination. Roaming the streets and rooftops of Crackdown in giant building-spanning leaps is the the most perfect single item of gameplay ever created. Were the game to be nothing more than jumping from rooftop to rooftop it might still be one of the best games of the decade.

#12: Half-Life 2 (2004)
Half-Life 2 is an amazing achievement in and of itself - excessive time spent in sewers and trainyards notwithstanding - but when you add in its two episodic expansions it becomes very near immaculate. The breathtaking set-pieces alone, from the game's beginning to the introduction of Dog through to the heartbreaking finale of Episode 2, are the very best gaming has to offer, but on top of that the characters of Half-Life 2 are some of the most astoundingly realised in a virtual environment. Their expressive faces and realistic eye movement engage you on a subconscious level that others do not and Alyx Vance becomes one of those few creations who is not merely a character but a companion.

#11: Desktop Tower Defence (2007)
Credit for creating the tower defence genre technically goes to a Warcraft custom map but credit for perfecting and popularising it rests entirely with Desktop Tower Defence. The gameplay is simple - use limited resources to buy stationary turrets in the hope of shooting down a line of advancing invaders before they cross the screen - but despite the obscene proliferation of imitators, DTD remains one of the kings of this quirky genre. It's exemplary of the rise of Flash gaming and it's easily possible to put more hours into DTD than many fully-fledged retail games.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Games of the Decade: #20 - #16

#20: Katamari Damacy (2004)
PlayStation 2
When I say Katamari Damacy, really I'm talking about its sequel/remake We Love Katamari, as the original never made its way to Australian shores. But the games are by and large interchangeable so this entry stands for the entire franchise. Using a giant ball to "roll up" items as diverse as paperclips, watermelons, people and the Eiffel Tower is an inherently enjoyable premise, and the quirky visual style and unforgettable soundtrack are the touches necessary to make this one of the most feel-good pick-up-and-play games in gaming history. You just can't help but love it.

#19: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (2007)
XBox 360
Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards. One of this decade's best games is only barely visually distinguishable from something from the 1980s. Geometry Wars brought the dual-stick shooter back into fashion. You fly around a playing field with the left analogue stick, and direct your never-ending flow of bulllets with the right stick. Besieged by an ever increasing swarm of enemies, it appears as if you should die within seconds. Every moment you defy that expectation feels amazing and the whole experience adds up to a visceral, addictive, adrenaline-fueled adventure that more sophisticated games struggle to replicate. Geometry Wars revitalised a genre, gave a kick start to Microsoft's now-successful Live Arcade service, and is a hell of a game entirely on its own merits.

#18: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Seeing as I regard Grand Theft Auto 4 as a vile and unwarranted mutation in the GTA lineage, best quickly forgotten, the pinnacle of the GTA games must surely be 2004's San Andreas. A serious and well-defined protagonist, a sprawling free-roaming landscape of unprecedented size, and a depth and vitality to the gameplay that outstripped its already excellent predecessors all came together to make this the defining sandbox game of the last console generation. It stands here to represent its entire franchise, a franchise that redefined - for better or for worse - the public face of videogaming and invented the urban crime sandbox as a genre quickly populated by imitators both weak (True Crime) and strong (Crackdown).

#17: The Sims (2000)
No analysis of the decade could be complete without mentioning The Sims, one of the world's all-time best-selling games and one of the key steps in placing gaming as a mainstream hobby. Will Wright's little virtual people ensnared the hearts of a legion of gamers and soon millions of people worldwide were recreating their housemates and making them have sex. The Sims 2 and 3 were merely iterative embellishments rather than evolutionary ones so the original will here stand in for the entire franchise and all its expansions.

#16: Saints Row (2006)
XBox 360
Anything Grand Theft Auto can do, Saints Row can do better. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but every so often it substantially improves on the original and that's the case here. The Saints Row franchise has a clearer and more focused concept of what makes GTA fun than GTA does; it's systematically addressed each of GTA's mechanical weaknesses in terms of navigation, mission pacing, scripting, and difficulty, and answered them in clear, unambigous, and obvious terms. It's hard not to see it as the pure and undiluted source of the increasingly murky rivers GTA is floundering through and it's inconceivable that anyone who's spent any length of time with both franchises could continue to prefer what GTA is offering.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sienna Reads: Muscle March

An individual of my acquaintance has commenced reading ESRB game rating statements in a phone-sex-line voice, and YouTubing the results. That's a resounding WTF right there but its application to homoerotic Wii posing game Muscle March takes the above and bonds it unwholesomely to a double-digit exponential. Damn exponentials. Sitting there in their superscript. Mocking me. Their day will come.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Games of the Decade: #25 - #21

#25: Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)
PlayStation 2
There's some debate about which is the best Silent Hill; we're all agreed that it's one of the first four games, and if you're one of the luddites who favours Silent Hill 2 then insert it here because only one of them is making the list. Silent Hill is - or was, before its recent misadventures through Origins and Homecoming - gaming's pre-eminent survival horror franchise. With none of Resident Evil's campy schlock, and with a wholly unique and disturbing fog-drenched body-horror atmosphere, it was as a fine bourbon to the cheap beer of its peers. The Room was the one that most impressed me; it starts with you awakening in your apartment to find the front door chained shut from the inside, a mysterious hole in your toilet wall, and a series of bloody handprints visible through the fish-eye lens set into your front door. Out the window, the world seems normal - at first. The set-up brough the claustrophobia and malaise of the Silent Hill world home in a very real way and moved past the film-derived tricks of previous titles to really make unique use of the gaming medium.

#24: Max Payne (2001)
PlayStation 2, XBox
Max Payne may well be the best-told story in a videogame. It's a simple story - a noir tale of violence, madness, crime and revenge - but it's told masterfully, with a confidence and maturity few games reach. That the gameplay lives up to the story is all it needs to be one of the best games of the decade. Much like The Darkness it's filled with a glorious attention to detail but there's a self-assuredness here that The Darkness lacks. The sequel is similarly excellent. My hopes for the forthcoming third installment - not developed by the original team - are low.

#23: Kingdom Hearts (2002)
PlayStation 2
Either you're the target audience of Kingdom Hearts, or you're not. If you grew up with Disney movies and Final Fantasy games, then Kingdom Hearts will push more buttons than you knew you had. The initially absurd pairing of Goofy and Donald with SquareEnix characters such as Cloud and Squall quickly convinces you of its genius, and the mindbending trip through a plethora of twisted Disney worlds - including a Hundred Acre Wood where Pooh thoughtfully contemplates his own impending extinction - is one of the most memorable experiences delivered by any game, ever. The sequel improves the gameplay at the cost of some of the first game's originality and accessibility; they're equally fine and this entry stands for both.

#22: Beyond Good & Evil (2003)
XBox, Playstation 2
Michael Ancel's masterpiece Beyond Good & Evil is another game that sold poorly despite being critically lauded. Unhelpful cover art and a title with no relationship to the actual game probably didn't help it. But if you take the time to explore what it has to offer you'll find an expansive, heartwarming world, a dynamic, engaging protagonist, support characters who seem to jump out of the screen, and the best use of photography-based gameplay to tell a thrilling espionage story ever made in a videogame.

#21: Left 4 Dead (2008)
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Valve's co-operative zombie apocalypse shooter is one of the most fan-loved games of the decade. Unique, fast-paced multiplayer gameplay and memorable characters combine to make it a gaming icon. A lack of content and less than a year between its release and planned obsolescence don't seem to have diminished the love that people continue to show for Bill, Louis, Zoey and Francis.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Games of the Decade: #30 - #26

#30: Guitar Hero 2 (2006)
XBox 360, PlayStation 2
There's no doubt the Guitar Hero franchise is one of the defining icons of this gaming decade, but singling out a particular entry is tough. The original is certainly a candidate, as is World Tour, which appropriated the Rock Band idea of four-player fun. But the one I personally had the most fun with was Guitar Hero 2, which had the perfect mix of on-disc songs, co-op action, appropriate difficulty, and replayability. Let that stand in for the entire franchise here, as the gaming name that brought plastic instruments into every gaming household.

#29: Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Once again I'm letting one title stand in for an entire franchise here. Halo is not, and has never been, the best first person shooter, or the most innovative, or the one with the best story. But by some indiscernible magic it's the one that penetrated a sports-loving car-tuning pot-smoking beer-guzzling male demographic and made them hardcore, committed XBox gamers. It's the franchise that sold a million systems and its protagonist, Master Chief, has become the Sonic or Mario of this gaming decade. And you know, it's not a great game, but it's a pretty damn decent one.

#28: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
Nintendo DS
Each and every one of the Ace Attorney games is equally wonderful so I may as well highlight the original. These courtroom detective stories ride entirely on the quality of their convoluted, hilarious, heart-pounding scripts, and it's amazing that through iteration after iteration that quality remains undiluted. Playing an Ace Attorney game combines the best aspects of a point-and-click adventure and a well-written pulp detective novel and it's hard to see how anyone who's interacted with one could fail to wholeheartedly love it.

27: Disgaea (2003)
PlayStation 2
This is the best turn-based strategy game ever made. No ifs, no buts, this is it. It doesn't leave room for improvement. Levels of depth are themselves built on levels of depth; whenever you think you've fallen all the way into the game another trapdoor opens beneath you offering hundreds of hours more play. Characters level up, who hold items that level up, which hold within them multi-level dungeons which themselves contain items and characters. A political system allows you to pass votes to rewrite the laws of reality; at the point when you've done everything you can vote the game up to yet another iteration of difficulty and the hunt begins anew.

26: Devil May Cry (2001)
PlayStation 2
God of War isn't going to feature on this list, for three reasons: it came after Devil May Cry, it's derivative of Devil May Cry, and it's less enjoyable than Devil May Cry. Everything that Kratos did, Dante did first and better (although I'll give Kratos credit for all those threesomes, Dante hasn't yet gone there but it seems fair to give him time). The smooth, free-flowing aerial combat of DMC gave birth to the "stylish action" genre which includes such entries as God of War, Wet, and Bayonetta, but despite it all DMC remains the bar that the others have yet to jump.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Games of the Decade: #35 - #31

#35: Super Smash Bros Melee (2001)
Substitue Brawl if you prefer it but Melee is the Smash Bros title that won my heart and it remains my favourite GameCube title of all those that I own. The gameplay alone would be enough to win it a star placing in any list of fighting games or party games, but the illustrious cross-franchise roster of characters (that lets you beat Pikachu with a baseball bat) and the obsessive level of Nintendo fan service contained in every aspect of the title take it shooting out in front as one of the greatest titles released on any platform, ever.

#34: Final Fantasy X (2001)
PlayStation 2
I personally think Final Fantasy X is the best traditional JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) released this decade and its lifetime sales figures seem to agree. Whether or not it compares to to the much-loved Final Fantasy VII is open to debate but it kicks the spit out of the anemic and lifeless XII. Yuna's Sending dance remains one of the best and most beautiful cinematic cutscenes in any game ever, the Sphere Grid was a levelling system possessed of extraordinary depth and flexibility, and the characters were lively and filled with a real energy and personality that the angst-ridden archetypes of other games only aspire to.

#33: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
PC, XBox
If Morrowind isn't the best Western RPG of the decade it's only because of the surprising depth and vitality that that genre has engjoyed over the last ten years. Offering a wide, vibrant world to explore that allowed players to set their own goals and their own methods of achieving them, it was an experience of a scope and ambition not seen since the excellent Ultima VII. It was marginally superior to its more linear successor, Oblivion, and were it not for Bioware's twin offerings of Mass Effect and Dragon Age it could easily have claimed the decade's RPG throne.

#32: The Darkness (2007)
XBox 360
The Darkness takes a break from running and gunning - although there's plenty of running and gunning - to let you sit down with your in-game girlfriend and watch the entirety of the film To Kill A Mockingbird as your girlfriend drifts off to sleep. The scene lasts 128 minutes (the length of the film) or until you get bored and turn off the television. It's the most notable example of a dedication to characterisation, pacing, and miniscule details that permeates the entirety of one of the decade's most masterful and criminally overlooked games.

#31: Mirror's Edge (2008)
PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC
To say that Mirror's Edge is anything less than an amazing achievement says more about you than it does about Mirror's Edge. The game has only grown on me with time. It offers a sense of speed, mass, momentum and agility that no game before or since has captured, it delivers a clean and beautiful visual aesthetic, and it says more about the role of guns in videogames and in society with two simple mechanics than the entirety of the gaming industry combined has said before or since. Good film has never had to be accessible film and the same is true of good gaming; Mirror's Edge is good - damn good - and that's something that I believe that more and more people will realise with time.