That blockbusters such as Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops top many of the end of year game lists is of no surprise.
Not to belittle their great accomplishments, but these titles have been praised with such predicable enthusiasm over the past month that their celebration can seem a little rote and dry (Gamasutra’s perspicacious praise notwithstanding).
Far more interesting are those titles that have been overlooked by the bulk of the gaming populace, games without the marketing budget equal to the GDP of a developing country who, by failing to match prevailing fashions or by choosing the wrong moment in the release schedules to make their appearance, fell by the wayside in 2010.
Here are five such games, experiences that offer something different and fascinating, games that you won’t find on many of the Top 10 Game lists of the year but who, by rights, should feature on each.
An alternative Top 5 list, these under-rated games of 2010 deserve your attention, if only to encourage their makers to keep swimming against the tide in order to keep this medium both diverse and stimulating.
5. Chime (Zoe Mode/OneBigGame, XBLA/PSN)
Zoe Mode’s music puzzle game may seem derivative of Lumines in style and approach, but in mechanical terms it’s by far the more interesting proposition. With an inverse goal to that of most block-clearing games, Chime has you attempting to fill a grid with pentomino shapes.
The musical aspect to the game is then overlaid on top of this, each shape triggering a sample whose pitch is dictated by its position in the grid, generating a composition that's at once unique and familiar.
With pieces of music licensed from artists who rarely feature in video games, including avant-garde composer Philip Glass, Chime would be one of the most interesting downloable titles of the year even if it hadn’t been created for charity.
As it is, this, the first release from OneBigGame demonstrated that the philanthropic initiative is just as interested in creating interesting, innovative games as it is making the world a better place. The result is anything but a charity case.
4. Hot Shots Tennis: Get a Grip (Clap Hanz/ Sony, PSP)
The RPG-ification of games has continued apace in 2010, with games in a huge range of diverse genres doling out experience points for the most unlikely of virtual accomplishments.
But none has committed to the design approach with such forcefulness or success as Sony’s Hot Shots Tennis: Get a Grip (known as Everybody’s Tennis everywhere outside of the U.S.) on PSP, a game that awards Exp. on a per-shot basis.
The endorphin micropayments for every ace served and on-the-baseline lob successfully landed work wonders on the handheld. It may be a cheap trick, designed to artificially heighten the sense of accomplishment for otherwise routine actions, but it’s done with such flair and abandon here that it’s difficult to begrudge the designers for it.
With the leveling and doll-dressing couched in a J-Rocky-esque narrative with heroes and villains and pacts and rivalries you have one of the most exciting tennis games of the decade, albeit one that owes as much to Pokemon as it does the sport it riffs upon.
3. Resonance of Fate (Tri Ace/ Sega, Xbox 360, PS3)
Tri-Ace has long been the Japanese RPG developer most willing to take risks with what has always been video gaming’s most conservative genre. Released mere weeks after Final Fantasy XIII, the developer’s latest effort, Resonance of Fate is by far the more exciting game.
Not every one of its innovations could be considered a success and certainly the convoluted battle system reveals its complexities over the course of hours of play, not minutes but nevertheless, this unusual mixture of Victorian weaponry, John Woo-esque acrobatics and board game metagame is fascinating in its creativity.
Even the world in which the game is set subverts convention, turning the traditional hero's journey from pastoral village out to the ends of a troubled earth on its head into a vertical climb up a decaying steampunk tower of Babel.
The story may be transient and esoteric, but with pared back cut-scenes, and a reassuring turn from voice actor-du-jour Nolan North, it’s palatable. The result is a game that transcends its frustrations with creativity, bristling with quirky charm and ideas ripe for plucking by the JRPG’s less daring artisans.
2. Just Cause 2 (Avalanche Studios/ Square Enix, Xbox 360/ PS3/ PC)
The Achilles heel of so many sandbox worlds is the distance between missions. No matter how exciting the assignments placed before you, so often the sense of pace and excitement to a sandbox world is nullified as every journey between targets is turned into a commute. The trick then is to make the journey as exciting as the destination, and it’s one that Just Cause 2 excels at.
Of course there’s still the opportunity to hijack a car or plane to traverse the terrain, but the combination of parachute and grappling hook makes launching into the sky a two-button sequence, allowing you to shift your view into the beautiful island of Panau in an instant, making the ground around as important a factor in negotiating space as the vehicle between your legs.
As a result Just Cause 2 may have the opposite problem to many sandbox titles, its thrills front-loaded and the somewhat lackluster mission structure in the latter stages dulling what has gone before. But nonetheless, few 3D spaces have been such a joy to navigate.
Moreover, developer Avalanche Studios nails that other, impromptu appeal of the sandbox game, offering a playpen in which you can tether enemies to gas canisters and watch the resulting rag-doll spectacle, or attach two jumbo jets with a wire and see them spiral out of control across a blemish-less sky. No other game in 2010 offered a world filled with such explosive joy.
1. Sin and Punishment: Star Successor (Treasure/ Nintendo, Nintendo Wii)
The sequel to one of the Nintendo 64’s strongest titles exhibits a great many of those traits that has maintained developer Treasure’s position as Japan’s leading boutique developer. This on-rails shooter, like so many other games in the company’s oeuvre, offers a relentless conveyor belt of inspired ideas, distinct, discrete moments of brilliance that dizzy the mind with their intensity and inventiveness.
It’s un-sustainably expensive game-making, the fixed positions of enemies and immovable set-pieces leaving no room for padding with procedural battles. Rather, every moment in this rollercoaster ride of twitch shooting has been meticulously orchestrated with a brand of care and creative attention rarely seen today.
As with its forebear, your character exists only on a 2D plane, firing into the screen as per Space Harrier. But the camera wheels and dives around, shifting perspective in ways that thrill and changing the language of interaction from side-scroller to top-down to vertical shoot-'em-up and back again.
Being a Treasure game, the spectacle is buoyed by score attack mechanics that inspire repeat play long after the visual treats and surprises have grown cold. Despite the level of craftsmanship and inspiration, the game is perhaps something of an anachronism, its workmanlike graphical assets failing to draw the attention of the Wii audience.
Nevertheless, Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is one of the strongest titles of the year, bold evidence that Japanese developers on many counts still produce the most thrilling and inventive video games for those with eyes to see.
Darksiders (Vigil Games/THQ, Xbox 360/PS3)
Army of Two: The 40th Day (EA Montreal, Xbox 360/PS3)
Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions (Beenox/Activision, PC, PS3, Wii, Xbox 360)
Split/Second (Black Rock/Disney, PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Singularity (Raven/Activision, Xbox 360, PC, PS3)
Patchwork Heroes (PlayStation C.A.M.P./Sony, PSP)
Blur (Bizarre Creations/Activision, Xbox 360, PC, PS3)
R.U.S.E (Eugen Systems/Ubisoft, PS3, Xbox 360, PC)