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