1. Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman--Without question, this is my game of the year. It wasn't among GameSpot's editorial selections for this year's awards, and it's sufficient to say that I strenuously objected to its omission.
On the surface, Z.H.P. is a pretty simple game. It's a JRPG grinder from Nippon Ichi where the player explores randomly created dungeon to build their stats and acquire loot. The immediate draw of the game is its bizarre sense of humor, which will be familiar to players of Nippon Ichi's biggest franchise, Disgaea. And while I love that sense of humor (I laughed out loud multiple times in the opening cutscene), I worry it will cause people to overlook the game's legitimate brilliance.
Z.H.P. tells a story and conveys a message in a way few other titles even attempt, much less achieve. In most games, the story is divorced from the actual gameplay. The player spends an hour lining up cross-hairs with enemy noggins, then watches an unrelated mini-movie for a couple minutes before going back to target practice. Maybe if the developers are feeling particularly ambitious, they'll kill off a character to classical music (that's how you know the game is epic).
But Z.H.P. is different. In Z.H.P., the themes of the narrative and the themes of the gameplay are interwoven such that each reinforces the other. Every moment you are playing the game, it is hammering home a simple, beautiful message: losing builds character. To be more precise, accepting adversity as a necessary and sometimes painful path to growth can coax greatness from the most modest of beginnings. The story begins with the protagonist, a bystander saddled with the mantle of the Unlosing Ranger, facing off against the villainous Darkdeath Evilman with the fate of the world at stake. Contrary to his new moniker, the Unlosing Ranger gets crushed, and goes off to train. Then he comes back, and gets crushed again. And again. And again. The entire game plays out like this, with each training session seeing the hero help one or two people through a major personal crisis before returning to get creamed by Darkdeath Evilman.
The gameplay mirrors the themes of the story on several fronts, most obviously that you will regularly pick fights you have no hope of winning. It's not uncommon to start a dungeon crawl knowing full well you won't survive to face the level boss (much less beat him), but you do it because you recognize the value in it. While you'll always start each dungeon as a pathetic weakling, every foray (successful or not) improves your base stats and the rate at which they increase. It might amount to baby steps, but it's a progression that inevitably pays off, like water wearing away a stone.
Just like the protagonist, the player must learn to accept failure and adversity as the cost of growth. As a result, your actions as the player and those of the protagonist are functionally the same. When characters in the story mock the Unlosing Ranger for his repeated thrashings at the hands of Darkdeath Evilman, they are mocking you for the same. And when the Ranger's recurring sacrifice eventually wins over those same people, it's more meaningful because they could just as appropriately be reacting to your own perseverance.
Even when examined apart from the gameplay, Z.H.P.'s story is substantial, thought-provoking, inspiring, and touching. It's also hilarious, which is what you'll probably hear about it if you go poking around for reviews and impressions. What you might not hear is that the distinct Nippon Ichi brand of absurdity pervades an anthology of stories dealing with suicide, child molestation, terrorism, the horrors of war, broken families, and other often sobering subjects, all of which Z.H.P. addresses with upbeat idealism.
The result is a work that evokes a spectrum of emotions wider than any game I've ever experienced, a work worthy of more study, respect, recognition, and financial success than it will ever receive. In short, Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is the perfect answer for a creative medium too often driven by skepticism, pessimism, and fear.
2. Dead Rising 2--Blue Castle's sequel to the 2006 original is a five-star effort all the way, but the fundamental things that make it great were already present in the original Dead Rising. The mission structure, the save system, the social satire, and the feeling that there's always something else you need to do or discover were all faithfully retained from the first game. I'm really impressed with Blue Castle and Capcom as a result, because a lot of that stuff was divisive, and could easily have been scrapped in the name of playability due to focus group-driven design. The game is also genuinely hilarious, whether the comedy comes from things developers scripted into the game (some of the weapon combinations, the Borat thong) or more emergent, sandbox-style humor (reviving a co-op partner with a spoiled hamburger to get him back on his feet, but vomiting profusely).
3. Vanquish--Vanquish exceeded my expectation more than any other game this year. Despite the involvement of Shinji Mikami, I was deeply skeptical after seeing the original trailer. It looked like a generic sci-fi shooter to me, a pale imitation of Halo with a Japanese twist. It turns out the game is actually a brilliant take on the cover-based shooter that flips the genre's conventions on their head. In Vanquish, the fun starts when you leave cover, zooming around levels to take on enemies from all angles and hopefully making it back to cover (or clearing the area of enemies) before exhausting your energy. There's a good bit of thinking on your feet involved, something I find more common in fighting and action games than in cover-based shooters.
Some people have said this just feels like Gears of War, but I don't think I could disagree more strongly. For me, Gears (like most cover-based shooters that came after) was methodical. It was about choosing a defensible piece of cover and popping up from it just long enough to kill one enemy before the hail of incoming bullets wore down your recharging shield (repeat as needed). Dramatic movement in a firefight was discouraged because you were too slow (even in roadie run, which also limited your control and awareness of the battlefield). And even if you were to survive a blind charge on the enemies, the actual process of splitting them from groin to gullet was time-consuming, leaving you open to enemy fire. It wasn't so much a viable tactical option as a cool finishing move to dispatch the last remaining opponent.
Vanquish is different. It's about suicidal charges on 40-foot-tall mechs, rocket-sliding between their legs, taking them down with shotgun blasts to the back of the knees, and then slo-mo diving behind cover, taking parting shots at their now exposed weak points with a heavy machine gun as you go. Stay back there just long enough to grab your breath and recharge the meter, then go do something else rash and ill-advised. You'll die a lot. A whole lot, even if you're doing it right. But when everything clicks and the Audie Murphy routine comes together, it's exhilarating in a way no other game this year could match.
4. Dragon Quest IX--The first role-playing game I ever really got into was Final Fantasy Legend on the Game Boy. I'd toyed around with Wasteland and Ultima before, but just to see what kind of crazy stuff I could get away with in those worlds. Final Fantasy Legend was the first time I got acquainted with The Grind. It was the first time I spent an hour killing sand beetles in the desert so that I could afford a sword, the first time I had to consider whether it would be better to turn back from a dungeon and fight my way to a save point to keep my progress or forge ahead and hope I had enough supplies and stamina left to polish off the boss. As much as I loved that game, I grew tired of the formula after Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI for the purists) on the Super Nintendo, and I almost never play old-school Japanese RPGs now.
Dragon Quest IX is undeniably old school, but it's also undeniably different. The grind is still there, and the story features many of the same staples of JRPGs past (the entire world is threatened, you're the chosen one, and there will be a supposedly shocking betrayal along the way), but the game has tweaked everything just enough to keep things fresh. There's a punishment for dying in the field, but it's not overly harsh (you lose half your gold and resurrect at your last save point). There's a definite formula to most of the story (find a city, solve its problem, move to next city), but each section stands alone as an engaging episode all its own, often with full and rewarding character arcs.
I haven't actually finished the game yet, as the last boss is proving a bit tough for my crew, and a bit of grinding is in order. However, the 40+ hours I've already spent with Dragon Quest IX were enjoyed to the hilt. Level 5 deserves praise for breathing new life into a formula that has been done to death, simply by doing it better.
5. BioShock 2--Disclosure: I've counted BioShock 2's lead level designer among my closest friends since I was a freshman in high school, and that could easily be coloring my assessment of the game.
So I think 2K Marin was given a pretty thankless task here. BioShock was a fantastic game in a unique world with a truly wonderful twist near the end, and a self-contained story. In short, it didn't need a sequel at all. 2K Marin had to not only make that sequel, but to justify its existence as well. I think the game not only has a reason to exist, but surpasses its predecessor in a few important ways.
First off, BioShock 2's gameplay is better than that of its predecessor. The dual-wield system that lets you equip a plasmid and a weapon simultaneously makes it that much easier and more intuitive to try out a variety of combinations, exploring the various ways you can kill off splicers. The Little Sister harvesting segments also add a second rewarding layer of opt-in boss fights to go along with the standard Big Daddy encounters. Instead of going in with the biggest guns blazing, the harvesting sequences encourage you to use more of the otherwise neglect-able weapons and plasmids to cause indirect damage and limit the number of places an attack could come from.
I not only had a blast playing the game, but I dug the story as well. With the original BioShock exploring the downfalls of a supposedly objectivist society, it was somewhat natural for the second game to swing the pendulum in the other direction and see what happens when you put Andrew Ryan's opposite in power. Like the original game, the story has its share of flaws upon close examination, but it at least provides plenty of food for thought as you play. Too often in games, the story and cutscenes are used as places for the player to shut their brain off and watch stuff explode. In BioShock 2, you digest the story over time, as you play. Audio logs provide a steady drip of story as you run around shooting things in the head, giving you ideas and notions and possibilities to turn over in your head slowly. I love when movies keep me doing this for an hour and a half (see Sam Rockwell in Moon. No seriously, go see Sam Rockwell in Moon. It's awesome.); I'm especially impressed when games have me doing it for 10 hours at a time (as with Z.H.P. and Dead Rising 2).
Red Dead Redemption
Pinball FX 2
Super Meat Boy
Army of Two: The 40th Day