OLD-SCHOOL KICK IN THE ASS: Dark Souls
In some ways, Dark Souls is actually quite modern. It features multilayered combat, a gigantic open world, deep character progression and customization, and some of the most innovative multiplayer in recent memory. On the other hand, Dark Souls has no interest in holding your hand or explaining much of anything, leaving it up to you to discover its secrets. Whereas most modern games have drifted to the point that Hard mode is now what Normal mode was 20 years ago, Dark Souls has only one difficulty level: Evil.
Why would anyone submit themselves to that when a game is meant for entertainment? Dark Souls' brilliance is that its insidiously compelling structure can bring out the inner masochist in players who never knew they had it in them. If you've only heard the horror stories of Dark Souls and decided “that's not for me,” you may have unwittingly passed up your new favorite game. Many of us at GR never thought we were that type of gamer until we played this game. Dark Souls is unique, gorgeous, tense, and exciting in ways no other games out there accomplish. Give it a chance, and you may learn you're more old-school than you thought.
Runner-up: Rayman Origins
BEST SOUNDTRACK WE DIDN'T EXPECT: Saints Row: The Third
From a strict gaming standpoint, Saints Row: The Third’s over-the-top style of gameplay could have merited a soundtrack that was a mere afterthought to the wonders of things like The Penetrator. Throw some generic hip-hop beats, turntable scratches, instrumental tracks featuring heavy guitar riffs and maybe a few bass-thumping pseudo-electronic tunes in, and we probably would have been fine with it. After all, when you’re busy claiming turf with a rocket launcher, does it really matter what you have playing in the background?
Thankfully, the folks at THQ thought differently, and compiled a thoughtful – and surprising – compilation of songs that brought the experience of running the streets in Steel Town to a new level. The juxtaposition of hearing the lyrics like, “I need a hero / I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the end of the night” while we shamelessly beat our rivals’ faces in was something we continuously found delight with. Aside from the now-ubiquitous use of Kanye West’s “Power,” most of the songs included in the eight in-game radio stations veered away from the mainstream and scratched beyond the surfaces of whatever genre they were representing. We imagine that Saints Row: The Third could easily be listed as a game that broadened musical horizons.
We liked the selection so much, we compiled all the songs we could find on Spotify into playlists organized by the radio stations found in the game:
80.9 Generation X (rock/alternative/punk) | 95.4 KRhyme FM (hip-hop) | 97.6 K12 FM (electronica) | 102.4 Klassic FM (classical) | WDDT CPDG (Adult Swim) | Kabron 104.2 (Latin) | 106.66 The Blood (metal) | The Mix 107.77 (‘80s/’90s)
INDUSTRY TREND WE LIKE: Free-to-play
Seriously, who doesn’t like getting a game for free? This year has seen an explosion of high-quality, pay-to-play games finding a second life in the world of free-to-play, providing premium experiences for no money down. While this trend isn’t necessarily new, the fact that the industry is actually doing it well is. In the past, most developers didn’t know what to charge for microtransactions, so they would throw out game-breaking additions with sky-high prices that would completely unbalance the game.
Now, thanks to games like Lord of the Rings: Online, publishers know what to charge for, and how much to charge for it, letting gamers get a good bang for their buck without ruining the games’ precarious balance. This year, DC Universe Online, Age of Conan, EverQuest II and a bunch of other games successfully made the switch, and set the stage for more AAA titles to do the same.
Runner-up: Cloud storage
BEST GAME YOU'VE ALREADY FORGOTTEN: You Don’t Know Jack
We’ll forgive you if you were too young to remember the pop culture sensation that was You Don’t Know Jack. 1996 was a while ago. That “4th of July” Achievement, less so. But that doesn’t mean that Jellyvision’s comeback doesn’t deserve another spin in your disc drive. Quiz games don’t get much better than YDKJ’s mental curveballs, sarcastic approach, and demented multiplayer.
If you are old enough to remember the old games of years past, remember how you had to buy all those expansion packs? This remake has plenty of new DLC to dive into and smear your friends. It might be easy to forget a game that came out last February, but you shouldn’t. And if you haven’t played it yet, make it the centerpiece of your holiday time off with friends!
Runner-up: Shadows of the Damned
OKAMI AWARD FOR GAME DOOMED TO DIE A BEAUTIFUL DEATH: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
When this game was first announced in 2010, several of us in the office predicted it was a future winner of this award. It looked strange, had an odd name, and when we found out the game's director had been lead artist on Okami, that at the very least secured it a nomination. Then we played it, and it fell into place perfectly (or imperfectly, if you want a sequel).
El Shaddai truly is too beautiful to live and will almost certainly never be replicated. Each stage is a unique visual wonder that's backed up by one of the year's best soundtracks. It's the result of an unprecedented amount of creative freedom unseen in a game of its size. Artistically, the gamble paid off big time, but El Shaddai sadly failed to pay off in any monetary way for its publisher. In fact, El Shaddai was so beautifully doomed that it died before it even came out. In a move usually saved for after the sales numbers come in, publisher Ignition ceased internal development of games months before Shaddai even hit stores. If a game’s own publisher shows so little faith in the title, why should the public have any?