While the industry divides the year into quarters, we realize that there are really three parts to the year: the barren (maybe not this year?) early months, the gimmicky, convention-filled summer and the action-packed holiday season. This time, we look at January through April.
Paul Bishop: Bulletstorm had a lot of potential to fail. It could have been too crass, too ridiculous or too over-the-top, but instead it nails so many great aspects of gaming. Story, characters, gameplay and visuals are all better than I ever dreamed, but more importantly it succeeds in being different from other games and truly fun to play.
Chris Ingersoll: No matter how stale each new iteration of Pokemon seems on the surface, Game Freak always seems to make enough improvements to keep things fun. Black/White really upped the bar on that account, with an entirely new set of over 150 critters — which are all you can use (barring trades) until you clear the game, making the entire game feel fresh — plus enhanced local wireless and IR options, an online flash component (that just went live earlier this month after an earthquake-inflicted delay), quicker and easier transfer of previously-collected mons from the other DS titles, and generally faster play overall. They even managed to correct some of the long-standing issues with the franchise, like over-reliance on HM moves to progress. Unfortunately, they lost a lot of the excellent touch screen utility they implemented in the Gold/Silver remakes, but overall Black/White is making a strong case for the best edition of the series yet.
Justin Last: I didn’t know what to expect when You Don’t Know Jack moved from retail PC games to a weekly web show before settling on a console game. I have fond memories of sitting around the computer in my living room playing You Don’t Know Jack with high school friends, and it was a big surprise to see just how well the concept and format hold up today. You Don’t Know Jack continues to be funny without giving up anything that makes a trivia game good. YDKJ is also surprising in another way – the PC version is terrible, and considering the title’s pedigree that is a very sad fact to realize. Two player multi on the PC versus four on the consoles and on online play at all. I still can’t believe that THQ and Jellyvision dropped the ball so severely there.
Andrew Passafiume: The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. I really enjoyed the first Dishwasher game when it came out back in ’09 and was pretty pumped for the sequel, but they delivered an action experience better than I ever expected. It improves upon the original in every way while still maintaining what worked so well about the first game. The game is still challenging, but the difficulty is better balanced, and you still get the same crazy weapons and combo attacks that you found in the first game. The addition of a second playable character, co-op, and a slew of new challenges makes this one of the best downloadable releases of the year so far.
Graham Russell: I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by Monster Tale. After all, it’s from the developers of Henry Hatsworth, and as such it had some buzz surrounding it for a while there. I wasn’t a big fan of Hatsworth, though: I applauded the innovation, but thought it was just a bit too schizophrenic for its own good. What’s more, the Metroidvania genre is just a bit tired at this point. But I gave it a shot, and I’m glad I did: this one’s great for everyone. (I’ll give honorable mentions to Slam Bolt Scrappers, though. Crazy fun! Just a bit too crazy sometimes.)
Shawn Vermette: Ghost Trick is one of those games that flies under the radar for most people, but it was a definite interest of mine once I found out it was being done by the team that produced the Ace Attorney games. I was totally surprised by how the game turned out though. It has one of the most interesting, and quirky, stories and gameplay mechanisms I’ve seen in a game in quite a while. This is definitely a game that no fan of story-driven games should miss out on.
Paul Bishop: Tomb Raider Trilogy was a must-have for me since I have loved the series since the PSX original, and I missed two of the titles included. Unfortunately, the games just don’t hold up with time, and the once-revolutionary platforming became banal. This is surprising to me since Underworld only came out three years ago.
Chris Ingersoll: The launch lineup of the 3DS. This is the first new Nintendo platform that I haven’t picked up at launch (or attempted to, in the case of both N64 and Wii) since Virtual Boy. Part of that has to do with my undying love for my DSi XL and it’s adult-sized screens, and the steep price point is worth at least a pause, but the bottom line is that there is absolutely nothing available for it that interests me. The remake of Star Fox 64 coming up soon is the first title that even approaches warranting a purchase, and even that can wait as far as I’m concerned. I doubt that I can hold out until the eventual — and inevitable — redesign (longer battery life and bigger screens, please?), but so far nobody is presenting a convincing argument to the contrary.
Justin Last: Parasite Eve is a good enough series that it deserves to be revisited. The 3rd Birthday ignores what made the first two games great – horror elements mixed with RPG elements – and delivers a third-person shooter with little challenge that bears more resemblance to the abysmal Mindjack than either of the proper Parasite Eve titles.
Andrew Passafiume: Yes, I did like Dragon Age II a lot; it did quite a number of things better than the first game. But the story felt like a huge letdown, especially considering the great characters they introduced. It all felt like a set-up for the third game, especially the awful ending. I don’t mind leaving some things open, but they resolved absolutely nothing by the end of the story and made you feel like your 30+ hour adventure was meaningless. BioWare has a team of great writers, but this game just fell way short of my expectations, despite still enjoying the final product as a whole.
Graham Russell: With all the hype I built for Pilotwings Resort, I guess it was inevitable. I mean, I loved the original, and the 64 version wasn’t enough to dampen my desire for a new installment. It’s here now! And… somehow the magic isn’t. I mean, it’s Pilotwings in every tangible respect, but it is missing the intangibles needed to connect. (Fans of Monster Truck, though… you’re in for a treat!)
Shawn Vermette: Probably the biggest news of the year (until Nintendo announced a new console) was the sudden and complete disappearance of PSN last week. The fact that it is still down would be big news, and a big disappointment, by itself, but word just came out, a week after the fact, that the reason Sony pulled the plug suddenly is because someone breached their security and may have stolen the entirety of the personal profile information databases for every member of PSN. (All 70 million of them.) While this could happen to anyone, it is almost incomprehensible that Sony would wait an entire week to tell anyone that their data was stolen. Biggest disappointment? You bet.
Paul Bishop: Dead Space 2 is a necessity for anyone who played the first. Taking great points from the original while expanding the wow-factor and the horror all make this a beautifully disturbed game. Most memorable sequence: finding out my friends are not-so-much friends, being blown out into outer space, being attacked by a necromorph on the outside of a spaceship, being blown back into the station to be chased by another necromorph… finally falling down a vent to safety. After 5 minutes I could finally breathe again. Awesome.
Chris Ingersoll: Certainly nothing on the Wii. As much as I love YDKJ, it’s obviously not Game of the Year material, and pickings have been slim otherwise. Luckily, the DS has been more than pulling its weight with gems like the new Pokemon games and Radiant Historia. My pick is Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, which combined original game play, a unique art style, a great storyline and memorable characters into a total package that has yet to be surpassed.
Justin Last: If not for Portal 2, I was sorely tempted to put Mass Effect 2 here (hey, the PS3 version released this year!) Valve has created something wonderful in Portal 2. The puzzles are fun without being frustrating, the new mechanics are interesting (I am especially fond of the light bridges), and the story and voice work are both superb. More things need to feature J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant – their performances elevate Portal from fun game to great experience. Add in some great cooperative play and you have a strong contender for Game of the Year.
Andrew Passafiume: By now, you’ve most likely read my review, so you know exactly why I love Portal 2. It makes the first game feel like a prototype for a much bigger project. It never falls short in any regard and it always keeps you on your toes. I can see this being a potential candidate for overall Game of the Year when the time comes, as I can’t imagine many games surpassing it. I consider it Valve’s best game yet.
Graham Russell: Portal deserves the love it’s getting, but it’s not the only great game to release so far this year. LittleBigPlanet 2 was great. So were Radiant Historia, Pokemon Black and White, de Blob 2 and Monster Tale. (Heck, that’s ignoring downloadable releases like Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes HD and Magicka.) Our job is going to be very hard at the end of the year. For now, though, my vote goes to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. Tactical strategy has always worked great on a handheld, and this one has just the right balance between Advance Wars-style one-shots and Fire Emblem-like progression, plus a feel all its own. If you have a 3DS and don’t have Shadow Wars, that’s just silly.
Shawn Vermette: While I would normally have an RPG taking this spot, that would be hard to do right now. Shogun 2 was just that amazing. It takes my favorite time period and culture from past Total War games and rejuvenates it with all the gameplay upgrades that have been added since Shogun: Total War was released, much-improved graphics and a much more difficult AI. This combines to create a game that will be tough to dislodge as the year goes on.
We’ve made our picks. What are yours? Comment away!