Friday, January 28, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 1

Welcome and make yourself comfortable as I bring you my favorite games of 2010. You'll notice I didn't say "Game of the Year" as while I played many games this past year, some of them great and not so much, I couldn't whittle my choices down to one game I thought was the best or most represented what the year was about. Instead I've chosen my three favorite games of the year. I greatly enjoyed each of my three selections but I found each one had certain flaws that I just couldn't look past, which I'll discuss as I move through each selection. I'll start with one for now, with the other two in subsequent posts. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Halo: Reach (Bungie Studios)
In case you didn't know, the Halo series of games are some of my favorite. The original Halo: Combat Evolved pretty much made me a convert to console gaming, something I completely avoided throughout the better part of the 90s, preferring to stick with PC games, most notably Diablo 2 and the venerable Starcraft. Halo changed all that for me as it showed that a shooter could be played with a controller instead of keyboard and mouse, plus it had great mechanics, and was a delightfully whimsical blend of sci-fi tropes from the past 30 years (Larry Niven's Ringworld combined with Giger's Aliens, Schwarzenegger's Predators, holographic AI buddy Cortana looks like she's from Tron, and my favorite character 343 Guilty Spark is like C-3PO is he went insane and became murderous).

The Halo trilogy, opening in medias res as our hero 'Master Chief' escapes from the surprise attack on the human stronghold 'Reach', tells the tale of Master Chief and humankind's struggle to overcome the alien religious conglomerate known as 'the Covenant', only to discover in the process the parasitic alien life form referred to only as 'the Flood', ultimately defeating both in Halo 3. I loved Halo 3 and thought it had an utterly appropriate ending to a series that came to define console shooters (and did I mention how I'm convinced the special ending (@7:00) you get by finishing the game on the highest difficulty is a nod towards the end of The Beatles' A Day in the Life?).

So when Bungie announced they were doing one more Halo game I was a bit shocked, though simultaneously delighted. I was intrigued as this time Bungie decided to make a prequel, with the game taking place during the fall of Reach. This is something fans had been clamoring for for a while, as the only account of the fall of Reach was in book form, sanctioned by Bungie as official canon. I especially loved the initial reveal trailer for Halo: Reach, with it's almost 9/11-meets-Hindenburg disaster sense of confusion and dread.

So how is the game? Well, Bungie have finally perfected their craft, with the overall gameplay feeling butter smooth. The weapons are a delight to use, and the artificial intelligence of the enemies is hands down some of the best in any game. The graphics have been improved, the options expanded, and Bungie have added in a progression system to make the addictive multiplayer even more so. From a pure gameplay standpoint, this is my favorite game of the year. From the story standpoint, not so much.

Bungie have never been very good storytellers. The story suffers from some poor writing, poor character development, and for the hardcore fans, they basically retconned the entire story of the book, causing the fan forums to explode in anger. The last part didn't matter as much to me as I never read the books, but still, I have no idea why Bungie changed the story so much when previously they've been so particular about making sure the story kept its logical integrity (there's even a mysterious 'Halo Bible' Bungie consults to make sure nothing contradicts anything previously established). I did however enjoy the ending, as we got to see a few characters we hadn't seen since the original Halo, and I loved how the final scene (@1:27) is the original opening from Halo.

Actually, my main gripe is with some of the presentation and options Bungie mysteriously left out. It's a little too much to go into here, but I do miss the old version of Firefight, and why they removed the Lowball gametype is a mystery to me. Mainly, Bungie promised the most comprehensive Halo possible, complete with all the bells and whistles from previous games but with MORE. Funny though how I feel that there's fewer options than in Halo 3.

In the end I suppose it doesn't matter, because as long as the gameplay is good (and it is very, very good) I will keep coming back to it (according to my profile I've already logged more than six and a half days of continuous play). At the same time I'm glad that Bungie have signed off on the Halo franchise, giving control to Microsoft's newly minted 343 Industries.

Stay tuned next time as I reveal my second favorite game of the year, a black and white game that features no words and almost no music.