For reasons both good and bad, here are the ten games that started the most conversations or got the most press in 2010. These were the video games that shaped the year, and won’t soon be forgotten (even though some of them might want to be). In (more or less) chronological order, here we go…
[Side note: It feels odd not to include a game from either Kinect or PlayStation Move on this list -- both motion controllers garnered probably more attention than anything else in gaming this year -- but this is a list of games, not hardware. And neither device has yet to have that one, defining game that realizes the hardware's full potential.]
Mass Effect 2
It’s hard to believe it’s been less than a year since Mass Effect 2 was released — particularly since Mass Effect 3 was just announced a few weeks ago. The developers behind RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic set out to create an entirely new scifi universe and mythology, and they created sophisticated new technology to make a role-playing game that would unfold smoothly, realistically, and without the awkward pauses the genre is known for. The groundwork for BioWare’s ambitious trilogy was laid in the series’ first game, but ME2 honed to perfection every last detail of the overall package. Mass Effect 2 was the perfect blend of first-rate science fiction, cinematic visuals and thrills, and finely-tuned gameplay. And for the earliest months of 2010, it was all anyone could talk about.
A game like no other, Heavy Rain took full advantage of the heavy-duty hardware offered by the PlayStation 3 to deliver a dark, moody experience with all the gravitas of a film noir masterpiece. Consider it the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure, with four protagonists to play through — and any or all of them can die at any time. Heavy Rain brought mature themes to an incredibly mature game that could foreshadow the future of gaming: a place where the emotional power of film is indistinguishable from what a game can do.
Red Dead Redemption
Bloody, Old West revenge. Impeccable game design. An epic, open world from Rockstar Games — the masters of the genre. This is what happens when you combine a powerful story with game developers who are at the peak of their craft. Those devs poured rich visuals, gorgeous music, and terrific acting into a game that’s one of the few bona fide games that’s justifiable at its $60 pricetag.
APB: All Points Bulletin
Perhaps the most unfortunate entry on this list, APB held endless potential — the pitch was “Grand Theft Auto as a MMO” — but it was so poorly received, developer Realtime Worlds was forced to pull the plug less than 100 days after it launched, due to lack of funding. Realtime even employed some of the most creative marketing tactics ever used for a video game, but the experience was simply too unfulfilling. It’s since been snatched up by K2 Network and is planned to relaunch sometime in 2011 as a free-to-play MMO, but it’s doubtful anyone has their hopes up. On the flip side, lowering expectations can often work in one’s favor, so maybe 2011 will be kinder to APB than 2010 was.
For many, there can be no doubt that 2010 was the year of Minecraft. Seriously, did a single day go by when somebody out there wasn’t writing about, talking about, or posting videos of their Minecraft creations? The game isn’t even finished yet, but the Alpha build (which released in June, followed by the Beta just weeks ago) ate up so much of players’ time that even major game studios famously confessed to having “succumbed to Minecraft addiction.” If you’re among the three gamers left on the planet who’ve never heard of Minecraft, it’s sort of a LEGO-inspired sandbox game where literally anything can be built, and player survival is based on the ingenuity of your creations when in-game monsters come calling. Minecraft proved to be that rare, magical combination of familiar elements and original gameplay mechanics. Not bad for a game made up of low-res textures and big, pixelated blocks.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
If somebody tells you the RTS genre is dead because of its virtual absence on consoles, point that depraved soul in the direction of the three million PC and Mac gamers who purchased StarCraft II in just its first month of sales. Fans who lamented the excruciatingly long wait for this sequel were overjoyed to find that their patience paid off, as Blizzard rewarded them with a potent storyline, slick production values, and beautifully streamlined gameplay that emphasized multiplayer. Above all else, StarCraft II‘s success is a beacon declaring that in the age of the console, both real-time strategy games and PC gaming itself are far from dead.
Microsoft’s flagship franchise was impossible to avoid in 2010, whether you’re an enthusiast or not — primarily because of the exorbitant (and at times, bizarre) marketing dollars that Microsoft threw around to promote Halo: Reach. All that money spent paid off, with universally-positive reviews and a fan reception that bordered on mushy/happy nostalgia. Which is exactly what Bungie was going for in its final opus from the scifi universe it created. Bungie’s departure from Halo doesn’t mean the series is over; Microsoft owns the franchise lock, stock, & barrel, so you can bet you’ll be back in Master Chief’s boots before long. But you can also bet that out-Bungie-ing Bungie is going to be one tall order, thanks to Reach‘s near-perfect execution.
Medal of Honor
Meant to be EA’s big competitor against the unstoppable juggernaut that is Call of Duty, this reboot of the Medal of Honor series was big on ambition, but even bigger on controversy. Thus it makes a dubious entry on this list because of its one aspect that no one could stop talking about: it allows you to play as the Taliban. Sure, EA gave the game an 11th-hour patch that changed all mentions of “Taliban” in the game to the cowardly generic term “Opposing Force.” But the damage was already done. It got decent reviews (it’s got a 72 rating on Metacritic), but the public at large couldn’t get past the Taliban flap, granting the game nowhere near the sales numbers EA was hoping for. There’s always next time.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
Every bit as riveting as the white-knuckling gameplay was the behind-the-scenes drama that unfolded between publisher Activision and the two heads of Infinity Ward, the studio that originally created Call of Duty. You don’t really need me to retell the story yet again, do you? It’s well documented all over the industry, and it’s an epic tale for the history books. On top of this, Black Ops developer Treyarch had the unenviable task of releasing the franchise’s next game after the IW fallout, with the impossible levels of fan scrutiny that would accompany it. Fortunately, the game lived up to the hype and went on to rake in more than $1 billion from rabid gamers.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
The word “bold” seems inadequate to describe this world-shattering expansion pack for World of Warcraft. With six years of gameplay under its belt, WoW was in danger of stagnation despite its legions of players, so Blizzard decided to do the unthinkable: shake up the entire game. Cataclysm takes the world of WoW and reshapes it entirely, not just altering the storyline’s status quo but all aspects of the gameplay itself. Change never comes with universal appreciation, but Cataclysm was one of the savviest moves Blizzard could have made, and it’s just what the doctor ordered.
Alright, so there’s my list. Let me hear it, gamers: what did I leave out? What should have been included? (Be sure to do your homework before mentioning a game you loved to talk about in 2010… that actually released in 2009.) Final Fantasy XIII? Bad Company 2? Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood? Super Meat Boy? Rock Band 3? Super Mario Galaxy 2? Epic Mickey? LEGO Universe? And what about handheld games? iPhone and iPad games? Or even Facebook games?
What games did you spend all of your time talking about this year?