And the best game of last year was . . . Mass Effect 2. That was the verdict of the British Academy Video Games Awards voters, anyway. I can't say I agree with them.
That's not to say I dislike Mass Effect 2. I enjoyed playing it -- much more than the first game, not least because they removed a very irritating side quest that involved driving endlessly round barren planets in search of minerals. (Admittedly, they replaced it with an equally irritating side quest where you simply stayed on your ship and scanned for minerals.)
The characters were well realised in terms of backstory, dialogue and voice acting; the gameplay was fun and intuitive; the graphics were often beautiful. My only real quibble would be with the plot, which felt like moving through a checklist. Befriended nails-hard assassin? Check. Painstakingly upgraded all armour and weapons? Had BioWare's signature softcore alien love scene? Check. It's telling that I had to go and look up what happened at the end, because I couldn't remember six months after playing it. (By contrast, I can still clearly recall the story of the first Mass Effect.)
That aside, it's no surprise that ME2 picked up such high review scores -- its Metacritic average was 96 -- because it's rare for a game to do everything so well across the board. But to me, that's not what a Game of the Year award should recognise. I think it should be something that surprises you, that shows you something new is possible in the medium. It's the same reason that I wish the Best Film Oscar had gone to Inception, rather than The King's Speech -- and the year before that, I would have picked Avatar over The Hurt Locker.
There are several reasons ME2 didn't blow me away, the primary one being that it was a sequel. It took many of its most successful elements from the first game and others were simply refinements of them. For that reason, I don't think the award should have gone to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, either -- despite Naomi Alderman's very persuasive championing of it -- or Super Mario Galaxy 2. I'm not saying that a sequel couldn't be amazing and unexpected; just that it's harder.
What does that leave? I can't really comment on Fifa 11, having not played a football game since Championship Manager 97/98, but I doubt that it's much of a trailblazer, either.
Two contenders remain among the nominees: Limbo and Heavy Rain. The former was definitely the plucky underdog: a downloadable game costing under £10, developed by a small Danish independent studio. The British Academy host Dara O'Briain spoke for many in the audience when he said that he wished it had won something, and it's a tempting argument. Limbo showed smaller developers that there is hope; that digital distribution via Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network should make it easier for them to get breakout hits.
But although Limbo was a beautiful, thoughtful, wonderful game -- see the NS review of it here -- I don't think it should have won best game. It would be like a poem winning the Booker Prize.
Which brings me to Heavy Rain. It is, so far, unique in its gameplay mechanic (entirely dependent on quick-time events and controller movements) and it's the first time I've seen such a domestic, gritty, realistic story told in a game. If you had told people 20, even ten years ago that games would be dealing with child abduction in a mature, emotive way, they'd have scoffed (and then gone back to running over prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto 3, probably). Then there was the storytelling mode -- four playable characters, whose plots interweave -- and the multiplicity of potential endings, rather than simply a "good" or "bad" one as we've come to expect.
It feels weird to champion Heavy Rain when I didn't enjoy playing it as much as some of the other nominees (QTEs make me profoundly nervous) but it is the game that most changed the way I think about what games can do. Its real value lies in being a stepping stone, I hope, to a whole new avenue in gaming.
So huge congratulations to BioWare, who made a great game and should be praised for it. But I can't help wishing it had been another studio up on that podium.