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Ask anyone who has played Far Cry 2 and mostly their reaction is the same: A heavy sigh, a shake of the head, a comment about how the game had so much potential, that just fell short of achieving greatness. I cant find fault with this sentiment, but I dont share it. And with so many people currently enjoying its successor, I think its worth some time considering what made the middle sibling in this series so wonderful, yet so tough to love.
Far Cry 3 starts you out as video games favorite protagonist, the reluctant hero. A fish-out-of-water dudebro who is kidnapped by pirates, along with his dudebro friends when their south pacific funtime vacation romp goes horribly wrong. He takes his first human life at knifepoint while escaping the pirate camp after his older brother was murdered, and as luck would have it, joins the resistance of indigenous islanders. In short order, Jason Brody (thats you) is taking over pirate camps, hunting bears with shotguns and getting tons of sweet tattoos, which are linked with you being a more effective killer.
If I was trying to convince you that Far Cry 3 is no fun, Id be failing miserably because it isnt. Far Cry 3 is a raucous riot from beginning to end (with a few disappointing quick time events, but thats another story). But any attempt to build up a narrative of how Jason is a lamb in a world of lions is tossed right out the window in the moment you pick up your first AK47. From that moment you blaze a path of relentless destruction through the Rook Island archipelago. As you rescue your friends, they comment on how youve become some kind of ruthless monster, but the sentiment is over as soon as the cutscene is finished. Which is just fine, because Jasons got goats to butcher and wallets to craft. Survivalism, you get it.
Going back to Far Cry 2, that game begins with you selecting your character from a bunch of mercenary dossiers. War criminals, slavers, expats, every single one of your options is a hardened bastard with a checkered past. The plot of Far Cry 2, if it has since escaped you, is pretty simple: Your mercenary of choice is dropped into a civil war-stricken African nation. Your mission is to work with the warlords of both factions, working your way up the chain of command to find the identity of the arms dealer responsible for arming both sides - and eliminate him. Early on, you contract malaria, and your weapons, unless you are diligent with their upkeep, will jam and break on you. Because the missions you take on for the warlords are secretive, both sides will have it out for you because you are operating as a free agent and an outsider. Apparently in this nation, the enemy of my enemy is still an enemy.
The result of all this is the feeling that the entire game is stacked against you - in a game where you should be a legit badass, Far Cry 2 is the opposite of a power fantasy. You have to make your moves very carefully. Your health, ammunition, wear and tear on your guns are all in short supply. The enemy checkpoints constantly respawn - and this is where people make their biggest gripes about Far Cry 2 - mean you need to make careful choices about if you want to engage with them or take the long way round - maybe you need the health kit in the camp, or maybe youll use more morphine syrettes in the firefight than you would get as reward. Or maybe by the time you need to take a clinch shot to complete your mission, you find youve put to much wear on your rifle and it jams - or worse, it breaks and youll need to get much more up close and personal with your assassination target.
The missions of Far Cry 2 are light on narrative and very systems-driven. The joy of this is your ability accomplish your goals by any means you choose. The end result of this is that unless you are actively creative in your approach to missions, many of them can feel repetitive. And because the game is so actively hostile to you, youre likely to end up completing them by the two or three methods which you, the player excel at, or find the most satisfying. Or the most efficient. When everyone in the country so actively hates you, your gun keeps jamming and youre almost out of malaria pills, theres precious little time and energy on flourish.
Far Cry 2 is a game you play with careful planning. Its a game you play with a tense knot in your stomach. Its a game that makes you feel mean. I like to think that when the developers were making this game, the suggestion came up to correct this problem. I like to think that his idea was shot down because, at its core, Far Cry 2 is about the experience of being a mercenary in a hostile environment. When the entire world is out to f**k you, how much are you willing to take before the last shred of altruism is gone? Your hunt for this arms dealer, to ostensibly bring him to justice, has in its process turned you into a war criminal yourself. Yet, theres very little in the game that beats you over the head with this message. Only at the very end, when you confront the arms dealer, does he explain the effect that will to power has on a person caught in civil conflict. But by then, its too late. You realized quite some time ago that you are no better than the men you are hunting.
With no overt narrative, no pleading NPCs, no insisting dialogue, just constant and relentless violence Far Cry 2 managed to subvert so many of the thematic tropes of first person shooters that so many have tried so desperately to do this year. The game is so very often a bitter pill to swallow, but the end result was a transformative experience for me. As a game to have fun with, Far Cry 3 stands far above the shoulders of its predecessor. But the conclusion of Jason Brodys adventure left me empty, it taught me nothing. If nothing else, this suggests how powerful a narrative tool that gameplay can be, and within the context of video games, should be used as a storytelling factor more than scripted events and cutscenes.
10. Grand Prix Story
Gaming on the Android platform is essentially the gaming ghetto. At best games come six months after they debuted on iOS, or they come in the form of cheap knockoffs. Or they never show up at all. Even though Grand Prix Story came to Android first, that's not what got it a place on this list. No, the reason its here isn't even because it combined Kairosoft's patented addictive gameplay with my favorite sport, its because it absolutely captivated my attention even while I was lying on the beach on vacation in an island paradise this summer. If that's not a recommendation, I don't know if I have a better one.
9. Shadows of the Damned
Much to the chagrin of my coworkers and colleagues, I've never enjoyed a game by Shinji Mikami, and to my own astonishment, I'd never played a game by Suda 51. That alone ensured that Shadows was going to be on my play list for this year. But when I heard that the game was going to be an homage to films like From Dusk 'Til dawn, I was sold. What I got was a game filled with outstandingly tense gameplay, terrific sound design, hilarious dialogue and a memorable cast of characters. What's more, I've never heard any other character exclaim F**ker! when they imbibed their health potion of choice.
8. Forza Motorsport 4
The biggest problem that Forza 4 faces with being higher up on this list is Forza Motorsport 3. Which sounds a bit like saying the biggest problem with Lauren Vickers is that she has a twin sister. But the problem here is that Forza 3 was so outstanding that it left very little room for Forza 4 to improve. Improve they did, with better physics, more environments, and a stonking great new way to play online, but it did feel a bit like we had all been there before, even if we were all happy to return. But that intro video - and everything that followed - provided the perfect cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine straight into the veins of petrolheads the world over.
That there was going to be a game helmed by the art direcor of Brutal Legend was enough to get me in the door on Stacking - but that it was going to provide a modern interpretation of classic adventure games, using Russian stacking dolls as their tools and an animation style derived from the likes of The Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer? Brilliant. Great storytelling and Double Fine's patented craft for hilarity made for a game that was sure to charm the pants right off of you.
6. Uncharted 3
Loads of people gave Drake's Deception short shrift because, in comparison to Uncharted 2, it was supposedly a bit of a letdown. I loved the 2009 entry, but I haven't played it since then, so its memory is a bit grubby. And if anyone had prefaced my entry into Uncharted 3 by telling me it had a much heavier focus on combat, maybe I wouldn't have liked it as much as I did - the combat of this franchise has never been my most compelling reason to play. But this time around, I loved the nimble, punchy impact of it all. I loved the way it kept you on your toes and forced you to constantly re-prioritize your targets. I loved getting some closure on this great cast of characters, being part of their globe trotting adventures, and seeing some of the biggest jaw-dropping spectacles I'd seen this year in interactive entertainment. Like so many of the films the Uncharted series draws upon for inspiration, its a fantastic romp, and I can find no fault with that.
5. Saints Row the Third
Saints Row: The Third reminds us all of one valuable lesson in this era of cynicism and dismissiveness - that just because something is a guilty pleasure, doesn't mean it can't also be of very high quality. Everything in this game - from Kanye West's seranade of violently crashing a party to the anthemic "I Need a Hero" that plays during the game's overdramaitic conclusion - tells you that you should be ashamed to be enjoying it. But there's the rub - everything in the game is executed at such a high quality that there's no reason to be.
4. DiRT 3
I'll admit two things going into Dirt 3: First, I didn't think that Gymkhana was the sort of thing that was going to translate into fun gameplay. Second, You never bet against Codemaster's Racing studio. I was right about one of these things. Despite Codies dropping my first name from their list of Audio Names (A mainstay since GRiD), everything else about this game just breathed quality. Their return to Rally racing in all its forms, including hill climb cars and the group B series was an adrenalin filled romp, but adding in the combo-based trick system of Gymkhana, which reinforced all of your basic driving skills and forced you to polish them to a mirror sheen was one of the most inspired additions to a franchise that we've seen in years.
Its time to owe up to a little editorial bias - we're allowed in this sort of format, right? Greg Kasavin is some one who I always loved to chat about games with in our time that we shared here at GameSpot, and so I was very eager to play a game that he had such a creative hand in. And Bastion didn't exactly come to me at the best time - it came out during Comic-Con, and then immediately after I had to pack up my Xbox and the rest of my apartment in a foreclosure-driven panic move. But that narrator, that gameplay, and man, that music is all stuff that lands with an initial soft touch, but resonates so deeply that you not only never forget it, but like language, becomes a part of how you experience everything else after that.
2. Rayman Origins
Ubisoft pushing out a traditional 2d platformer out on November 15th to compete with Saints Row the Third, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3 and their own Assassin's Creed: Revelations might be seen as the biggest dick move a publisher has pulled this year. But to me, that timing couldn't have been better. Because Rayman Origins came into my life as a breath of fresh air into lungs reeking of stagnant, tired ideas too scared to take a risk, to alienate an audience, to leap out into the great unknown and try something different. Gorgeous art design, tack sharp controls and a buoyant soundtrack only begin to paint the picture of Rayman Origins. More significantly, this is a game that was made as a craft of love - and you could see it in every facet of the game. It reminded players that games should be fun - that they should make you smile, and that they should be hard if you wanted to reap any sense of reward from the time you spent with them. Like so many situations you find in the game, Rayman made a bold leap into the unknown. In doing so, it may have not found a home in many this year, but it did in me.
1. Portal 2
Portal 2 is a testament to what games can be. We're all gamers here, and in being so, we all have those skeptics in our lives that think we're all clinging to some peter-pan fascination of our childhood in our devotion to this hobby. This year showed us that its time to pack up those Gran Turismo graphics showcase titles, the hyper-interactive 3d displays, and the clever party minigame collections. Portal 2 should be the game that shows the doubters why video games are so important. Portal 2 is the testament to the incredible depth of craft and artistry that drives this medium forward.
Its not just a matter of its incredible gameplay - it has the original Portal, and its predecessor Narbacular Drop to thank for that - nor does the game's infectious humor push it up to the top of this list. Its the way in which Portal 2 combines all of its aspects in a way that every individual aspect heightens your appreciation of the others instead of diminishing. The way it uses characters, music and storytelling to make a world so alien feel so inviting. The way a story arc is so well crafted that a complete doofus can be so menacing, or the way that characters are so well acted that someone who was your arch nemesis can admonish you so genuinely. Portal 2 is a testament that games deserve all the attention being given to them. It earns it with so much craft and attention to detail that you have to really squint to find fault with it. Portal 2 is a game made with love, and is a game that I love and will do so for many years to come. And while this distinction will mean more to me any most reading this, its the most rewarding time that I spent on a couch with my better half this year. And that ending - that ending! For a sequel to a game that really didn't need a sequel, you really couldn't ask for a better send off for a franchise loved so much by so many.
I'm not going to say it any differently: I'm good at picking out favorites, but I'm ruddy awful at putting them in any sense sort of order. So what you've got here is a jumble of special achievements, honorable mentions, purposeful besmirches, and a far and away favorite. Enjoy.Best Gameplay Moment: Hitting the Turbo in Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit
Racing games are full of boost buttons, turbo buttons, NOS, buttons, and plenty of other things that essentially boil down to "hit this button to squeeze out a little more speed" and the Need for Speed series is pretty much the worst offender. It seemed strange when Need for Speed: Shift didn't have one. Need for Speed has a NOS button that you get access to at the beginning of the game, and you gain access to its use in the usual burnout-ey ways by drifting, driving in the oncoming lane, making close passes on traffic, etc. And predictably, it gives your car a tasty little poke in the rear to pick up the pace a little.
About 2-3 hours into the game though, you get the Turbo, which seems silly, since the game has been a pretty white knuckle thrill ride thus far without it. Its one of the abilities you get, like the EMP Burst, the Jammer and the Spike Strip, and when you activate it, it takes 2-3 seconds to wind up, which is the perfect amount of time for you to reconsider the wisdom of that decision. Because what comes nest is the best giddiest of rushes I've had in a good long while, as your car rockets towards a point on the horizon, propelled by unforeseen and uncontrollable forces. Everything, traffic, racers, cops, engine roar, music, becomes a numb blur as you thread yourself between obstacles a half mile down the road, because if you wait any longer, its too late. Many games pass up on the opportunity to provide moments that make your heart drop into your stomach. Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit isn't one of them.
Best Musical Moment: "Bad Voodoo" by the Kreeps, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
If you just take a look at our Sound Byte blog over 2010, its pretty clear that it was an outstanding year for music in games, particularly experiences that paired gameplay with music to create an electrifying and memorable moment. Fighting the Taken while hearing Poets of the Fall's "War" in Alan Wake, arriving in Mexico for the first time while listening to the lonely tones of Jose Gonzales's "Far Away" in Red Dead Redemption are moments that will stay with me for a long time, but the one that stole the show happened in the Zombie Apocalypse of Red Dead's Undead Nightmare pack.
When you get ready to start in on your final mission, you'll find that you need to cross nearly the entirety of Mexico from east to west. Perhaps hoping there's an option to skip the journey, you mount your horse, and as you do you hear the opening notes of some crazy-ass surf rock psychobilly song. I'm sure you can find the lyrics online, but I remember them being something about preachers, nosferatu, graveyards, ghouls, and killing baddies with a crucifix. Suddenly you find that this journey can't last long enough - just to prolong the experience - especially if you're racing across the desert on a flaming horse. For me, this moment pushed my happy button over and over until it broke, then fixed with with some baling wire, and pushed it over and over again.
Most Involved: F1 2010
As a dyed-in-the wool petrolhead, its not hard for a quality sim racer to worm its way into my heart. But F1 2010 did it with a deft combination of punishing difficulty, intuitive controls and Codemaster's patently outstanding AI. The game makes it clear from the outset that race wins are both rare and hard-fought in your rookie season, but once you get a taste of the podium celebrations, you'll make use of every practice and qualifying session to set up your car and plan out your pit strategy so you'll be in with the best chances. Races are long and taxing, forcing you to make the most of your replays, and you'll get a palpable sense of wearing down the nerves of your AI opponent until they make a mistake. F1 is a taxing and demanding game, and it doesn't suffer fools lightly, but what it gives in return is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding race experiences I've ever had, shy of gridding up for a real life race - and that's a lot more expensive.
My First Genuine "Role Playing" Experience: Mass Effect 2
Most role playing games these days offer some manner of morality system, rewarding different play styles... differently. And many of them ring hollow, either because the game's plotline does a pretty obvious job of ushering you down the 'good' path, or because its usually not very hard to see the raw mechanics of the systems designed to handle he most noble or dastardly of players. What Mass Effect 2 did brilliantly was force you to walk the path of being a good guy, but let you decide exactly what manner of hero you wanted to be. The Paragon/Renegade spectrum was a refreshing departure from the typical good/evil divide, and it allowed a lot more freedom for players to explore the grey areas in between the two poles to express their own play style.
For instance, having recently finished Red Dead Redemption, I was more than happy to adopt a "peace through superior firepower" approach to resolving conflicts with those who wanted to impede my progress. But as I built up my team, I realized the value of their loyalty, and was sympathetic to their personal goals. In short, I acted as a paragon to my crew, but a renegade to all others, and yet the dialog and gameplay never seemed disjointed, despite my somewhat schizophrenic approach to diplomatic relations. More importantly, I felt like I was making my own choices, not the ones the game was urging me to make.
(to be fair, I'm sure this system was well in place in Mass Effect 1, but the rough edges and inventory management kept me from enjoying that game, so Mass Effect 2 was a new experience for me)
Game I Wish I'd Treated Better: Alan Wake
Coming into 2010, I quickly realized that my two most anticipated games, Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption, were releasing on the same day. I suspected that Alan Wake was the shorter game, and I definitely didn't want to divide my attention between the two, so I was hardset on finishing Alan Wake first. I was lucky enough that I was able to get my hands on some Alan Wake code a little in advance, but it wasn't enough for me to feel the need to rush through the final two episodes of Alan Wake's outstanding story, atmosphere and gameplay. Its not a perfect game by any means, but it was a game that really deserved to be savored, and treated it like an Amuse Bouche to my main course. Sorry Alan Wake. You deserved better than that.
The 'Set Dressing and Cutscenes really do Count for Something' Honorable Mention: Halo Reach
Its plainly important to really scrutinize and evaluate the moment to moment gameplay of anything we put our seal of approval on, and let's be honest: Halo's core gameplay has always been great, and Reach has it polished to a mirror shine. But looking back on the experience, it was all the other trappings that pushed it over the top for me. The cutscenes and radio dialog set up every firefight to be a desperate struggle for survival, and every note in the soundtrack made every kill feel like a glorious victory. I'm not the biggest fan of the halo series, but these subtle touches went a long way to making Halo Reach some of the most enjoyable moments I picked up a controller in 2010.
Hollow Experience: Limbo
To be fair, artistically quirky, absurdly violent, well animated puzzle platformers are the sort of thing that attract me like a moth to flame. And to be fair, the pacing, game mechanics, set pieces and puzzles that were never too hard, but still occasionally stumped me were a consistent delight. But as more and more XBLA or PSN games begin to use defining art styles as their calling card, I expect that they'll do more to justify them. Call me picky, but its not enough for me that a game has a great art style. I want them to justify it through their story or gameplay, and Limbo just seemed art for art's sake. Even as a minimalist experience it didn't work, because it seemed like there was something to be fleshed out, that just never was. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my time that I spent with it, but a game with so much umbrage about atmosphere and art design should have resonated far beyond its conclusion. Limbo was over for me the moment the credits rolled, when it should have haunted and resonated for beyond that moment.
Best New Characters: The B-List
Our list of best new characters is a great list, but there's a handful of great new characters out there that weren't quite memorable enough to make the cut. Here's my picks, in brief:
Barry Wheeler: Alan Wake's constantly bellyaching agent really deserved a solid slap in the mouth every time he was on screen, but whenever he was off of it, his endearing character made you miss him, even if it was just to work up the urge to slap him again.
Flynn: A pinko commie pacifist hippie might not be your first pick for your helicopter pilot in a guns-n-glory military shooter, but that's what makes Flynn such a memorable part of Bad Company 2's story.
Emile: Halo Reach's Noble Team is full of predictable story tropes disguised as central characters, but Emile was the one who I enjoyed the most. Maybe it was because he was a no-nonsense soldier that bordered on the psychopathic, or maybe because he wasn't named after my least favorite professional motorcycle racer.
Landon Ricketts: Whether its because he's paying homage to every character ever played by Lee Van Cleef or because he looks like a leathery talking dustbroom, the wizened gunslinger of Red Dead Redemption has an unarguable charm.
Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption
If you've heard our Game of the Year Special Edition of The Hotspot, you have already heard many of my thoughts on why Red Dead Redemption was my Game of the Year, so I'll try not to repeat myself here. As game journalists, we tend to keep our expectations of games in check, both out of a sense of professionalism, tinged with a dash of pessimism. But from the first trailer, I couldn't help but have exceptionally high hopes for this game. I was a massive fan of the LucasArts classic Outlaws, and have carried a latent craving for a great western epic ever since. This craving came up pretty heavy again after spending a shameful amount of time playing Fallout 3, which captured much of what I wanted of the themes of a western: bleak landscapes, punctuated by lawlessness, violence, and the explorations of what happens when men are left to write their own code of survival. At the time I was also reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road and listening to a lot of Murder by Death, and while each subsequent trailer revealed that Red Dead was going to be something special, it was becoming harder and harder to keep expectations in check. But when I finally got my hands on it, it was such a joy to find that not only was the game able to meet my aspirations for the game, it was able to surpass them. I had no idea that such a memorable character, an unforgettable story, a gloriously haunting soundtrack set in a thoroughly mesmerizing world awaited me.
My Recent Reviews
Excerpt from a longer interview - BioWare doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk reminisce over the fun they had playing Duke Nukem 3d.
Look back upon Greg Kasavin's long years at GameSpot.
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