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.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war