The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

Must-play games of 2010

Unlike the idiots at the A.V. Club, I actually play video games and enjoy them. So when I tell you what games you should play, I’m talking about actual games with actual play, and not writing a bunch of drivel about which games were short and had lots of cutscenes, making them easier to review because you can just kind of let them run in the background while you focus your attention on jerking off to ChatRoulette. So, in no particular order, here’s a list of games that you’re a bad person and will go to hell if you didn’t like, punctuated with screenshots that, because I’m a better journalist than anybody at the A.V. Club, are actually any good.

Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 (PC, X360, PS3)

Mass Effect, from 2007, was a fun game that suffered from not quite seeming to know what it was. It was kind of stuck halfway between being a shooting RPG, like Knights of the Old Republic, and being a proper shooter — it featured real-time combat that relied on the player to do the aiming and shooting, but lacked a decent shooter AI for either henchmen or mobs, resulting in the lot of them all just kind of running around aimlessly, like in goddamn Bioshock, and involving weird things like "accuracy" stats that make sense in RPGs but are just goddamn weird in a game where you aim the gun yourself.

Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have this identity crisis. It is a shooter, and it’s happy about that, and as a shooter it’s absolutely top-notch. The structure of the game is fairly repetitive — you run down a corridor until you see some boxes or pylons or like invincible glass walls, and then you duck behind them for cover, because you know a fight’s about to start. When the fight starts, it’s mainly about popping out of cover to take your shots at opportune times (the mobs all have to reload just like you do, and that leaves them vulnerable), and maximising the benefit from your special attacks; you can’t spam them like you could in the first Mass Effect, since using any of them puts them all on cooldown. This structure, though it’s fundamentally unchanged throughout every single encounter in the game, never really becomes boring, and that’s mainly because the encounters themselves are so much fun. Unlike in some games Bioware’s pooped out lately (cough), you don’t just fight the same pull over and over again the whole way through the game; there are many different mobs, and the pulls are balanced differently, and the differences in terrain can have a significant impact on the tactics from fight to fight.

When you’re not shooting things, there’s a bunch of talky-man stuff to do if it’s your thing. It’s mostly optional, though, so if it isn’t your thing, you can largely skip it and get back to the shooting. It’s pretty fun, though; the dialogue is entertaining, and Bioware does a decent job of creating the illusion of player control (remember all those places in KOTOR where it seemed like you had a choice, but then the mob’s response was obviously written to apply no matter which thing you picked? ME2 is much more convincing). The dialogue scenes are highly interactive, also, with the player getting to make a lot of choices, which reduces the feel of being story-d at while you want to play a damn game already.

The only real failing is, of course, that the minigames are fucking awful, and you play them constantly. At least they’re easy this time. PC owners can hax the iron ore gathering out of the game entirely; console owners will have to suffer through it. But, on the bright side, it’s worth suffering for.

Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

What is there to say about Super Mario Galaxy that hasn’t already been said? It’s good. It’s really, really good. It looks great, it sounds great, and (note to A.V. Club writers) most importantly, it plays great.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 is pretty much the same game but with entirely different levels, and it’s almost as good to boot. The interface is unchanged since the original — you run around, jump a lot, stomp on things, and spin. You can shoot star bits with the Wii remote, but that’s even less useful than it was in the first game. Every level is a platformer obstacle course, filled with Goombas and Bullet Williams and all those Mario things, just like you’d expect, and you have to navigate to the end of it to get the star. New this time around are ridiculous hint movie boards that let you watch a movie about how to do something, which I imagine is handy if you’ve never played a video game before in your life. I found them more useful because they reset the state of the level, allowing you to, say, collect the 1Up right next to the board in the first level over and over and over again. There’s also a useless "guide" feature that will auto-complete a difficult level for you and allow you to move on past it, but which won’t give you credit for the star. Does anybody use this? If so, what’s the point?

The problem is (and I risk repeating myself, I realise) the goddamn minigames. Nobody buys Super Mario Galaxy 2 because we want to play some idiotic glider bird game, Nintendo. We bought it to play a Mario game. How about you take out the idiotic glider bird levels — which are completely awful, by the way, and not even super easy like the awful minigames in Mass Effect 2 — and put in more Mario levels? Just a wild idea I had. Still and all, while there are far too many minigames, and they’re awful and horrible and terrible and dumb and bad and maggot-infested and bad and dumb, the levels where you’re playing a Mario game are really, really fun. If you liked Super Mario Galaxy, you’ll like Super Mario Galaxy 2. And if you didn’t like Super Mario Galaxy, then obviously you hate fun things and should probably go back to reading CNN or whatever it is you dull people do.


I know, I know. I know what it looks like. Sounds like it too, if you can believe that. It also plays like it — or, rather, it plays like what those ancient games would have been if they were designed by people with the cumulative game design knowledge of the intervening 25 years. Because VVVVVV is a tough-as-nails old-school platformer that nonetheless makes a lot of concessions to modern playstyles. Gone, for example, is the limited number of lives and few-and-far-between checkpoints; VVVVVV features at least one checkpoint on almost every screen, and, while it does count how many times you die, you never have to start all over. This, of course, allows the level of difficulty to be set very high, since it won’t take you ten minutes of play to get back to where you died.

The game is played entirely with the left and right arrow keys and the space bar. The arrows move you back and forth, as you’d expect, but the space bar is not the jump button you might expect in a platformer — instead, it flips you over, reversing your relative gravity and causing you to fall upward instead of down. You can flip only when you’re standing on a surface, so there’s no nonsense about juggling around in midair, and you can’t use it to "fly" horizontally by flipping at super speed. These controls combine with the simple but highly creative graphics and brilliant platform challenges to create a game with tremendous play, and it has bonus challenge modes to boot, if you finish the main game and want more.

I mean, really. It’s super fun. It’s on Steam. It’s on sale right now for two bucks, and there’s a demo too if that two bucks is just way too much risk for you. What else do you want?

Dragon Quest 9 (DS)

Probably because taking screenshots of DS games is hard, there are no good screenshots of Dragon Quest 9 anywhere on the internet. So instead of using a bad one, I used a picture of a Taloon action figure, because everybody likes Taloon. So that’s the way it’s going to be, bub.

Dragon Quest 9 is a very odd game. It’s a single-player RPG in the well-worn Dragon Quest tradition, but it has a lot of odd MMO-like aspects, such as the respawning treasure chests that almost always contain garbage, and the auction house-esque "DQVC," which downloads sets of items on a daily basis and allows you to buy them. There are also seasonal events and downloadable added content, giving the game a huge amount of play time (and it’s actual play time and not movie watching time).

The game plays like any other Dragon Quest game — you travel around the world righting wrongs and murdering slimes, and then eventually you do battle with an evil god and all evil everywhere is vanquished. Battle is turn-based and menu-driven, and each character gains different spells and skills, depending on his class. The skills, like in Dragon Quest 8, are mostly garbage you won’t use, which is kind of a letdown; oddly enough, the game appears to be designed to encourage the player to ignore the skills, since you get a damage multiplier for targeting the same mob consecutively, but only if you use the same attack — which almost always means just the "fight" option. There’s a good amount of character customisation, which is nice, plus the gear you have on finally shows on the blessed model for a change.

The main problem with Dragon Quest 9 is the appalling dialogue. I mean, it’s really, really bad. Riddled with obnoxious accents and idiotic puns and ironic "wacky" names. Thankfully, the game does not talk the dialogue at you, so you don’t have to hear some terrible ham corning up the stupid accents. There also aren’t very many cutscenes; most of your play time is actually spent playing, which is refreshing in a modern RPG. Overall, the game’s a reasonably straightforward and compelling console RPG experience with enough depth to keep you interested, and not quite so much obscurity of system to make you really really annoyed.

Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy (PC, Mac, X360, Wii)

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Super Meat Boy is incredibly, unbelievably stupid. I mean, middle school-level self-conscious wackiness. Whoa, he’s made of meat! And his girlfriend is made of bandages! And the villain’s a fetus! Hilarity abounds! Because it’s so aggressively stupid, I had a well-intentioned plan to hate the shit out of this game, which was sidetracked mainly because it’s so good.

And it is that: truly, honestly good. Your goal in any given level is to reach Bandage Girl, while not falling into any pits or hitting any obstacles (generally giant, spinning saw blades), either of which will kill you and send you back to the beginning of the level. There are a few hundred levels, but they’re all quite short, so being sent back to the beginning isn’t a tremendous pain. If you clear a level within a given time limit, you unlock the "dark world" version of that level, which is generally the same thing but much harder. In addition, there are quite a few unlockable bonus characters, which vary by platform, and are mainly characters from other indie games, such as Captain Viridian from VVVVVV.

The main draw in Super Meat Boy is that the platforming is incredibly precise and unforgiving; especially in the dark world levels, you frequently have only a very small patch of usable space in amongst all the spinning blades, so you need to aim your jumps very carefully indeed. As with most modern games, however, you aren’t limited in your number of lives; getting killed sends you back to start the level over, but you don’t have the ever-dwindling stock of Meat Boys adding unnecessary anxiety, and you’re never forced to replay large chunks of the game to get back to where you were.

The graphics and sound are adequate, if not exactly good; they very much betray the game’s Newgrounds heritage, and are frequently distracted by attempts to seem hip and "retro," which limits somewhat the game’s ability to form its own style. Still and all, they’re good enough; you’re not going to be playing this one because it’s a wonder to look at, but because it’s a blast to play. And, hey, this one’s on Steam too, and it’s on sale for $7.50. At that price, it’s a steal.

Civilization 5
Civilization 5 (PC / Mac)

Do you have any idea how hard it is to find an interesting screenshot of Civilization? It is not the type of game that lends itself well to the compelling screenshot. "Oh, look! A map! With lots of tiny little picky fucking dudes on it I can’t see very clearly, and some kind of complicated HUD! Clearly this game delivers." So instead of bothering with any of that, I just put up a shot of the Giant Death Robot, because that’s super funny and I don’t care what you say.

Civ 5 is easily the most approachable Civilization game to date. It’s the first one you can really just dive in and play, without some giant learning curve as you try to figure out the interface and what all the buttons do and what the picky little differences among the ten thousand options are. It’s much more streamlined, but it retains the same infernal "oh god I have to get up for work in five hours but I need to play just a little bit longer" tendencies that the older games had. It does sacrifice a bit of depth, though, which may turn off the more hardcore micromanagers, and the lack of espionage is sorely felt, but it’s still remarkably playable.

Which is, you know, if it will run on your computer, which there’s a roughly one-in-three chance it won’t. Even if it does run, the load times are long, and it apparently devours something on the order of fourteen petabytes of RAM just sitting there not doing anything, for which I cannot give a solid explanation. But it looks great, with the new art deco stylings, and it sounds great, and it plays like the same crazy old addictive Civilization it’s always been, so I can forgive it these faults.

The new policy trees are much more interesting than the boring old five-governments-with-one-obvious-best-one approach. As you accumulate culture, you unlock various social policies, which, like the World of Warcraft talent trees they’re very obviously ripping off, give you various benefits in different aspects of the game. Some are focused on military, some on science, some on expansion, so forth. The policy trees have a pretty wild statist bent to them, but come on — it’s Civilization. It’s not like crazy government fetishes are a new addition to the series.

Plus it has Giant Death Robots. That’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

So there you have it — 2010’s must-play games. Since I can’t be everywhere all the time, outrageously fat though I am, there may be one or two games I’ve overlooked; feel free to post in the comments any games you think are must-play material. But I have to warn you: if any of you tells me I absolutely have to play the Poop Age expansion because it has so many wonderful cutscenes about orcs and people being riddled with angst, I swear to god I’ll pop your eyes out with a claw hammer.

December 31st, 2010 Posted by | Games | no comments

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