Sweet shoot-’em-ups and video nasties

A round-up of the best – and worst – games of the year.

Though 2010 wasn't exactly a vintage year for games, it certainly had its moments. Whether you wanted to try to assassinate Fidel Castro in Call of Duty: Black Ops, agonise over moral decisions in Heavy Rain or jump around your living room like an overexcited spaniel in the hope of getting your Kinect to acknowledge your existence, there was something out there for you.

Here's my thoroughly unscientific award ceremony, meant to recognise the best – and worst – ideas and innovations this year.

The Ronseal Award: Cut the Rope (runner-up – FlingSmash)

In the attention-deficit world of iPhone and iPad games, there is no glory to be gained from having a clever and richly allusive name. No, what you need to persuade people to part with their 59p is something snappy and to the point. So this year brought a slew of games that did exactly what it said on the tin: the Moron Test, Fruit Ninja, and the spew of nouns that was Touch Pets Dogs 2.

Most faithful literary adaptation: Dante's Inferno

Inferno is the first part of the 14th-century poem The Divine Comedy, where Dante Alighieri is guided through the afterlife by Virgil, rejecting sin and achieving grace through a combination of personal humility and soaring, epic poetry.

Dante's Inferno, on the other hand, is a third-person action-adventure game about a Templar general who cheats Death (and steals his scythe), sews a red leather cross directly into his flesh, and embarks on a spree of combat and Quicktime events to save his beloved Beatrice from the Devil. A sort of medieval Die Hard: With a Vengeance, if you will.

To its credit, at least it was only taking liberties with a work of fiction. The final boss of 2009's Assassin's Creed II was none other than Pope Alexander VI, otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia. He tries to smite you with the Papal Cross.

Trend that (literally) won't die: Zombies

Enough is enough. It's bad enough that the market is crowded with actual zombie games (Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Dead Nation, arguably Dead Space) without the undead intruding on everything else, too. Both Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption tossed in a few shambling, rotting corpses as an aside, with mixed success. What next, Viva Undead Piñata?

Best Soundtrack: Limbo

There was plenty to love in the Xbox arcade game Limbo, as Iain Simons notes here. The bleak, minimalist graphics infused the game with a sense of quiet despair, but it was the soundtrack of ambient noise and creepy effects that really made you feel sorry for its nameless protagonist, condemned to death by endless traps, saw-blades and odd hallucination-inducing glow-worms.

Punctuation Mark of the Year: ":"

Colons were everywhere this year (a horrible mental image, but never mind). The trend was mostly down to sequels; someone in the games industry once decided to free themselves from the tyranny of having to put just "2" or "3" after the original game title, and soon everyone else followed suit. This year alone, we had Battlefield: Bad Company 2; Prince of Persia: the Forgotten Sands; Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit; Fallout: New Vegas; Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty; and Halo: Reach. The overall winner for most grotesque abuse of the colon (again, sorry) has to be Club Penguin: Elite Penguin Force: Herbert's Revenge.

Largest Player Body Count: Super Meat Boy

Who said video-game protagonists weren't diverse? In Super Meat Boy (Steam/Xbox Arcarde), you play a skinless cube of flesh. Whose kidnapped girlfriend is a bandage.

Anyway, don't question the concept, just accept – critics loved this old-school platform game despite its punishing difficulty level, which leaves your character smeared up walls and dripping blood, often hundreds of times per level.

PETA Award: Red Dead Redemption

About 90 per cent of the gameplay in Red Dead Redemption (I'm sure they meant to put a colon in there somewhere) consisted of shooting, then gutting, various blameless animals. What started off as a mildly entertaining way to get important supplies soon became a tedious gore-fest, as you were forced to sit through the same unskippable animation of John Marsden squelching his way through yet another carcass.

Occasionally, there was a distinct sense that the Wild West fauna were out for retribution for all this; the bears in the game had some kind of spidey-sense, so that as soon as you fought off one giant killing machine, another one would turn up and mercilessly savage you.

More needless PETA-baiting came from the developers of Super Meat Boy, who goaded the animal rights organisation into making a spoof version called Super Tofu Boy.

Recession, What Recession? Award: Rock Band

Back in the mists of time, Microsoft hinted heavily that its motion-sensing Kinect add-on would cost around £70. When it eventually appeared in November, it cost a sturdy £129.99 – on top of the £199 price of an XBox 360. Then it asked you to buy a bigger house so that its sensors could detect you.

Still, probably the biggest "ask" was the collection of Rock Band Pro Instruments, with a limited-edition $300 wooden Fender guitar (ability to play "Freebird" on the expert setting not included).

Is That It? Award: Black Ops

There were a few pieces of cheeky eking out this year (making the fun but undeniably slight Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood a £49.99 stand-alone game rather than downloadable content springs to mind). But none was so brazen as Call of Duty: Black Ops. The princely sum of £54.99 got you roughly eight hours of gameplay, most of which involved you being simultaneously shouted and shot at by various groups of burly men. Not the most relaxing experience.

The One That Got Away Award: Heavy Rain

There were plenty of games I regret not playing this year (spending too much time down the Halo mines stopped me from buying Fallout: New Vegas, for example, even though I loved Fallout 3). But the one game I really regret not playing is Heavy Rain. Here was the promise of something seriously emotive and cinematic, with origami swans and film-noir references and interesting weather.

The "What Next, 'Crazy Taxi: London Commute Edition'?" Award

Just as Britain's overheated housing market threatened to collapse, video games decided that building up buy-to-let empires was not only great fun, but the best way to level up. From Fable III's tedious flat repairs to Brotherhood's quest for Pret A Manger-style retail ubiquity, it was pure busywork.

Game of the Year: Halo: Reach

Yes, yes, I'm a terrible conformist, picking one of the most heavily hyped and marketed games of the year. Really I should be picking some obscure PC shooter to make myself look intelligent and urbane. But there's no getting away from the fact that, for sheer playability and longevity, Halo: Reach is streets ahead of anything else I've tried this year.

Bungie has got the combat cracked – the difficulty levels are perfectly pitched, the levels nicely varied (love the space fights) and there's still a spark of satisfaction when you get a sweet grenade stick, even for the hundredth time.

So, those are my thoughts. Are there any categories I forgot? Should I run out and buy a PlayStation 3 immediately? Is there an earth-shatteringly good game I've missed?

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor at the New Statesman

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue