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My Top 10 Games of 2010: The Cubby Awards

Even before I worked at GameSpot, I posted a list of my favorite games of the year come holiday time. They are/were called The Cubbies, and in time-honored tradition, I am doing the same this year! But they come with a few caveats. Most importantly, this list is of my favorite games of the year, which isn't to say I think these are necessarily the best games of the year. But these are the ones that made the biggest impressions on me--the ones that defined 2010 for me as an individual. This is a very subjective list that casts aside the notion of objective criticism ("favorite," as opposed to "objectively the best"), and is not meant to replace GameSpot's official Game of the Year awards. Secondly, please note that I haven't played or finished every game released in 2010. For example, I loved what I have played of Red Dead Redemption thus far, but I haven't finished it, and my top 10 list is reserved only for games I have finished. (Or in the case of unfinishable games, for games I have played long enough to feel strongly about.) So Super Meat Boy, Dead Rising 2, God of War III, and other great games: I am sorry I haven't yet completed you.

So here you have: The 2010 Cubby Awards!

10) Heavy Rain

While I was playing it, I was convinced that Heavy Rain was one of the finest and most emotionally affecting games I've ever played. Once I was done, its many story and character inconsistencies dogged me. Then again, the fact that those unresolved plot strands still bother me is a testament to how memorable this story-driven adventure game is at a time when video game stories clearly have a lot of growing up to do. This was a good step towards making games an emotional medium, when Michael Bay-brand bombast still reigns supreme--and in a year sadly lacking in innovation. Here's hoping developer Quantic Dream can bring us an adventure that relies more on sincere feeling and character interaction and less on manipulation of the player.

9) Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

Brotherhood and Bioshock II share an important commonality: when a game's impact relies so much on its fresh sense of place and time, it's hard for a sequel to rise above the original. Assassin's Creed II featured a new protagonist, a new art style, and a lot more that was wholly new. Brotherhood is a baby-steps kind of sequel--evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I've often said that the most amazing games are the ones that give me "the tingle." Roger Ebert calls this feeling "elevation," but whatever you choose to call it, it's the shiver you get when you know you are experiencing something special. Assassin's Creed II gave that to me; Brotherhood didn't. But what Brotherhood did do was refine the things that the series already did superbly, enhance (but not overhaul) its weaker elements, and bookended its open exploration with some fantastic missions and other scripted sequences. And whether you loved it or hated it, it concluded with a humdinger of an ending that rivaled Assassin's Creed II's for pure shock value.

8 ) Deadly Premonition

Some people are fond of saying that Deadly Premonition is so bad it's good--but I think those people are missing the point. Sure, there are parts of this game that simply aren't good. The driving is terrible, there are major sound design problems, the combat is awkward, and so forth. But this crazy-kooky-funny-shocking-twisted game has a quality that few games possess: the power to truly surprise you. I tailed a local from her house to a nearby hotel, where she went to dine. I sat with her and we ate lunch together; we had an entire conversation. This was not a scripted mission--just a thing that happened because I was in the right place at the right time. The story, the characters, certain gameplay sequences, the final two hours of the game, the constant delights you could stumble upon by exploring and just doing stuff--nothing I played this year rivaled the pure entertainment value these moments provided. I can't explain everything that happened, but I will remember most of it for years to come. This game is good because it's good: So says Mr. Stewart.

7) Tie: Just Cause 2 and Mafia II

I am cheating a bit with this tie, but I think these games are important halves to an open-world whole. Just Cause 2 gave you a huge, gorgeous world to play with and make your own fun in. It provided the tools to go insane and says, "Do what you will." You could jump out of helicopters, fly to mountaintops, yank people off of motorcycles, blow up statues. It was all a riot--pure entertainment. It's too bad that some sour missions and an absurd, poorly-acted story had to intrude so often. Mafia II took the opposite approach, dropping a well-acted, self-serious story into a beautiful open world that was more window dressing than anything else. Neither game lived up to its promise, yet I loved both of them for what they were. They represent two different kinds of open-world design philosophy, but both fulfilled me, albeit in very different ways.

6) Battlefield: Bad Company 2

I like Modern Warfare, but I like games with heart and soul even more. Bad Company 2's campaign is terribly underappreciated; it's full of personality and awesome action, and as a result, kept me invested from beginning to end. Compare its campaign to 2010's Medal of Honor, which was one of the most predictable and boring shooters I've played in some time, and one of my great disappointments of the year. But it's BC2's multiplayer that kept me grinning for months. It doesn't quite fill that gaping hole that Battlefield 2 left in my soul when I stopped playing it, but it finds a nice middle ground between the pure unpredictability and team-based cooperation of BF2 and the accessible, pick-up-and-play action of MW. Bad Company 2 delivered everything a military shooter needs to deliver, and did it with great care, panache, and great humor.

5) Alan Wake

I crave games that make me feel totally involved in what's happening on the screen. The gameplay is on the simple side (the shine-shoot mechanic never evolves), but Alan Wake never became stale for me, thanks to great world design, great voice acting, and incredible atmosphere. Furthermore, I have great respect for the title character; he could be a dick, and that went a long way towards making Alan an authentic and empathetic leading man. Redemption is an important element in many a good narrative, and it only strikes the proper chords when the protagonist is flawed. And while some of my colleagues disagree, I also liked the ending a lot, in all its Lynchian vagueness. I was upset when the game was over, because I wanted it to keep going, indefinitely, and I think that says a lot about the world Remedy crafted, and the refined gameplay they stuffed into it.

4) Pac-Man Championship Edition DX

Just writing this entry makes me want to go play Pac-Man CE: DX right now. As much as I adored Limbo, it's not a game I want to return to. Pac-Man, on the other hand, ensnares me in its web of patterns again and again, inspiring me to do just a little better than the last time. There's something about its pattern recognition that triggers my brain's pleasure centers. It's tense and exciting, yet simultaneously tranquil in the way its patterns drill themselves into your subconscious. When I turn on my Xbox 360, this is the game I end up playing, even if I originally intend to play something else.

3) StarCraft II

You couldn't accuse Blizzard of delivering huge heaps of innovation, but the products they deliver are absolutely pristine. Yet I cringe when people complain that this amazing sequel is nothing more than a prettier version of the original. I played StarCraft and Brood War right before playing StarCraft II; the leap is astounding, and I don't mean from the obvious technological perspective, but from a design perspective. The single-player campaign is great, tying interesting level design to its narrative in incredibly sensible ways. Context is important--so important that I am hoping to devote an entire blog entry to it. StarCraft II does an excellent job at giving everything you do in the campaign context, which enriches both the gameplay and the narrative. Story is more than just plot and dialogue (neither of which StarCraft II excels at). It's also about the narrative that develops through gameplay. (Half-Life 2 is a perfect example of another game that delivers gameplay-based narrative remarkably well.) In one mission, you control a single unit running from an onslaught. This is simple click-click gameplay--no combat, no strategizing, just maneuvering a single unit down a linear path. Yet context makes this simple action feel exciting and intense, and gives this gameplay sequence narrative weight.

Of course, none of this would matter much if StarCraft II didn't also play as well as any RTS that came before it. But the way the game feels, the way units respond, the way your tactics unfold on screen are exactly right. I am also consistently amazed at how versatile the game is. I constantly see strategies I have never seen before, which forces me to scout and rethink my own approaches--and also encourages me to experiment and try things I never tried before. This was an amazing evolution of an amazing game, and I can't wait to see what the next installment brings to the table.

2) Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 has been rightfully criticized in some circles for simply removing things from the original Mass Effect rather than making them better. Yes, it is streamlined, and perhaps you think of it more as a shooter than as a role-playing game. I don't care what you call it, however, as long as you call it one of the best games of 2010. It's amazing just how well each part of this game comes together the way it does. Mass Effect 2's very structure gives you a chance to form bonds with each member of your crew, so that when the time comes to make decisions, every choice you make carries emotional weight. In my first hours of play, I was surprised that your initial shipmates--Jacob and Miranda--were also the most boring. After I completed their loyalty missions, however, I saw them in an entirely different way. Not every character can be as stringently scientific as Mordin, or as conflicted and brooding as Jack. But by balancing the more strident characters with subtler crewmates, Mass Effect 2 kept the narrative engaging and personal. The game's plot is no great shakes. It's the dialogue, the emotional arc, and the visual storytelling that make this a world easy to lose yourself in. Oh, and let's not forget: Mass Effect 2 is also a lot of fun.

1) Vanquish

Leave it to Platinum Games to figure out how to take a stale genre and make it seem fresh and exciting again. For all the attention I have given to games with stories to tell this year, my favorite game of 2010 has almost no narrative depth, though it self-consciously skewers itself and its testosterone-fueled brethren. We could argue for days about Vanquish's attempts to subvert the characters and stories you encounter in typical third-person cover shooters. What's important is that Vanquish was the best time I had with any entertainment product this year. It may have featured most of the same mechanics as other similar shooters, but by adding rocket-powered knee-sliding and limited bullet time, it felt less of a shooter than it did a high-octane action game in which you happened to use guns instead of swords. It felt exactly right, and it clicked with me almost immediately. And just when things started to feel a bit repetitive, Vanquish mixed things up with a clever level quirk, such as an awesome sequence with a collapsing bridge, or a gravity-inducing rotating tunnel.

You can (with good reason) criticize Vanquish for being short, and for not providing any multiplayer options. Yet like sweet candy, I think Vanquish would have been too much had it been any longer--and technical limitations would have made multiplayer Vanquish, by necessity, feel somewhat castrated. I love it for exactly what it is: fun without filler. And even if you don't love Vanquish as I do, it's difficult to not respect a talented development studio for their creativity, when so many other developers seem content to make what they think we want, rather than making something awesome that we didn't know we wanted until we had it.

Honorable Mentions and Special Honors/Dishonors

Most Awesome Game Not Landing on My Official List: Darksiders

Derivative for sure. Kitchen-sink game design to the extreme. And incredibly enjoyable--a dark fantasy thrill ride.

Most Wasted Graphics Engine: Tie--Final Fantasy XIV/Lost Planet 2

Great technology. Disappointing games. This is what happens when more development resources are poured into making your game pretty than into making your game fun to play. I take comfort in the fact that Lost Planet 2's excellent art design put its tech to good use, even if the gameplay fell far short. I lament that FF XIV's amazing tech was further wasted on wide open spaces and bland green corridors that exemplify the game's total lack of imagination.

Most Hated Good Game: Tie--Final Fantasy XIII/Supreme Commander 2

It's popular to hate Final Fantasy XIII for its slow start, its linearity and its cast of characters. I think it's an imperfect, beautiful, and fun game that takes place in a great world that I enjoyed inhabiting, and has a terrific battle system to boot. As for Supreme Commander 2, it's a high-quality strategy game that many hardcore SC fans bemoaned for being more accessible than its awesome predecessor. If it didn't have the words "Supreme Commander" in the title, I think the same people would have had a great time--just like I did.

The Huh? Award for That Great Game I Couldn't Get Into: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Great characters, for sure, but what else? The movement mechanics are awkward. The game is too in love with its own constantly adjusting camera. The combat is shallow to the extreme, and you fight the same enemies over and over again. Every year there is one "I don't get the love" game. Last year, it was Borderlands, a great tech demo utterly devoid of meaningful content. This year, it's Enslaved, an interesting experiment that has far too many gameplay flaws for me to overlook. That hook that grabbed everyone else failed to dig into my flesh.

The Silicon Knights Award for Awesome Development Studio That Needs to Get Its Act Together: Obsidian Entertainment

There comes a time when it's clear that a developer can't deliver on its ambitions. All the great and complex ideas in the world won't save your game if you don't have the resources to bring them to life. Fallout: New Vegas is one of the finest broken games I have ever played, but broken it is (yes, even after patches), and not just because it was built on an aging game engine that could barely support it. Alpha Protocol, too, had all the ingredients for a special game, but the moment-to-moment gameplay was a failure. Mediocre shooting, awful stealth, awful cover mechanics, and--shocker--major (sometimes game-breaking) bugs and performance issues sullied the experience. Obsidian can do amazing things. But perhaps it's time for them to scale back the ambition and deliver an awesome and refined product that's lighter on ideas and heavier on execution. Think of the amazing things Obsidian could be doing if only they'd work within their means. Until then, they may never escape their reputation for creating bug-infested games.

The Wasted Potential Award: Tie--Aliens Vs. Predator/Star Trek Online

Aliens Vs. Predator is a fan service game, so it has a following among those devoted to the license, but taken on its own terms, it simply isn't good. And that's frustrating, because the recipe was already solidified years ago with AvP2. Rebellion is a talented studio that inexplicably gave us 2009's truly awful Rogue Warrior, and then delivered a wholly mediocre sequel to a beloved classic. Cryptic Studios is in a similar rut. I liked Champions Online a lot, but Star Trek Online was even more devoid of content than its superhero-themed brother, and much of the content that was there was frustratingly subpar. Cryptic relies on a segmented MMO model that splinters content into chunks at the expense of a truly massively multiplayer world. That approach has served its purpose, but I think it's time for Cryptic to try a different one; the cracks in the foundation are showing.

The flOw Award for Game That Made me Feel Most Fuzzy: Chime

Philip Glass. That is all.

The Don't Forget This Awesome Overlooked Game Award: ModNation Racers

The single-player portion of this superfun racing game was shockingly difficult, but I persevered, because dammit, I was having a blast. But the most joy I had was playing online on user-made tracks. The ModNation community comes up with some outrageously cool designs, and the game makes it oh so easy to bring your own imagination to life. Or, if you lack imagination, it does a superb job of filling in the gaps.

The What's Wrong With Just Being Fun? Award: Singularity

Nothing, that's what. I think that a game needs to be more than "fun" to be great, however, and the most special games inhabit your brain and heart in ways that surpass being simply fun to play. Singularity isn't special in the way Bioshock, Half-Life 2, or No One Lives Forever were special, but it's still a quality game that makes it fun to shoot stuff. It's unoriginal. It isn't the prettiest shooter on the market. Its story is absolute nonsense. But its level design is great, its guns are a blast to shoot, and the pacing is fantastic. I appreciate good pacing a lot (Half-Life 2 may still be the best example of awesome pacing in a shooter), and bemoan games with no sense of tempo or timing (Too Human is still my go-to example of how bad pace can detract from an experience). Singularity moves along at the perfect speed, taking time to build tension, and then pushing you forward at exactly the right time to provide necessary release. Rebellion, take note: this is the game to use as inspiration for your next AvP game.

The It Doesn't Have To Be Easy To Be Awesome Award: Monster Hunter Tri

I still think the Monster Hunter series relies too much on overly long animations for providing a challenge; my single largest gaming pet peeve is when a developer can't tell the difference between challenging and cheap. Taking control out of the player's hands and forcing him or her to powerlessly watch events unfold is cheap, not a challenge, and Monster Hunter Tri doesn't always land on the right side of the fence. (It is no Demon's Souls, which always played fair.) Yet don't misunderstand the negativity--I love Monster Hunter Tri. It was tense and exciting, and some of the most memorable moments I had all year involved bringing down huge creatures with Justin Calvert and other players.

The It Doesn't Have To Be Hard To Be Awesome Award: Lego Harry Potter

On the other side of the fence are the Lego games, which are clearly aimed at younger players, and yet are rewarding for gamers of any age. Past games in this series focused too much on lame combat and slippery platforming. This time, Traveler's Tales fully embraced the smash-collect-rebuild mechanic that makes its games so delightful. I would like to see the developer fix this series' continuing flaws, but at least they weren't in the spotlight this time. Lego Harry Potter was super easy, but it was also super charming, and super satisfying.

On a more personal note, I wanted to express my gratitude to everyone that reads the site, and everyone I work with. I am extraordinarily lucky that I get to do something I love so much for a living. Games are a subject a lot of people have very strong feelings about. We have passion for these products that give us so much joy and sorrow, hence the strong words so many gamers use to communicate their thoughts about them. I get incredible messages of encouragement from fans and hateful messages from those that lament that I didn't say what they hoped to hear. But I am thankful for all of those people, and everyone else too. I have grown as a person, a writer, and a critic in the last few years. Ten years ago, I could never have imagined my dream of writing for GameSpot would come true, and not a day goes by during which I don't remind myself of that incredible blessing.

I wish all of you the same kind of blessings. I wish you health and joy. I wish you many years of gaming thrills. I encourage you to be kind to each other and to yourselves. And I implore you to stay passionate, because your passions will lead you to greatness.

With undying respect and admiration,

Kevin VanOrd

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