Brian P. (aka Cyanotic)
5: Plants vs Zombies (everything)
There are too many games about zombies, but not enough games in which those zombies wear football helmets, attack from pogo stick, or cross suburban swimming pools on children’s inflatable duck innertubes. Clever, cute, addictive, cheap real time strategy and puzzle game with solid replay value. Get it for your iPhone/Pad/Pod/what you have/has you.
[P vs Z]
4: Bioshock 2 (360, PS3, Windows, Mac version January 2012)
The first Bioshock introduced us to Rapture, the sunken, failed 1950’s utopia of Andrew Ryan, (a figure inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, because, hey, Aynagram). The game’s most clever conceit, revealed during its big plot twist/reveal, offered a fascinating commentary on the nature of games themselves: what is a ‘character’ in a medium in which control over (at least your) character is shared and conditional? What is the relationship between the ‘player’ and the ‘played’? How do games in which the player is given moral choices—indeed agency—coexist with the less cheerful reality that one’s character/avatar is nothing more than an automaton, to be used and abused as the player sees fit?
The sequel game returns us to Rapture, which has thrown off its male-led, libertarian dictatorship in favor of a female-led, socialist one, with equally disastrous results. The message here seems to be that EXTREMISM IS BAD. Fair point, but such a schema lacks even the barest nuance: why use these particular, diametric ideologies if their end effect is undistinguishable? In any case, Bioshock 2 had the greatest level I’ve played in years, in which, late in the game, your character’s consciousness temporarily moves out of the “Big Daddy” killing machine armor in which it normally resides, and is infused into one of the “Little Sisters,” small girls who roam the wreckage of the city, draining techno-magical A.D.A.M. juice off of corpses (and now that I’m typing this, it sounds rather unseemly). Getting access to the sisters’ perception is startling: the abattoir that you are used to is transformed into a candy-colored paradise, the corpses they seek now luminous angels. It is a transformative moment, equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful.
The “Minerva’s Den” expansion was released this spring, allowing my cheating inclusion of the game on this list. Storytelling in the Bioshock games, in which backstory is presented mostly through the voice recordings you find (of people now dead) creates a mood that is plaintive, affecting, and never more haunting than it is in this expansion, about an AI scientist’s doomed love story and its horrifying aftermath.
3: Batman: Arkham City (360, PS3, Windows)
A follow-up to 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, this installment allows you to take charge of the dark knight (and, if you buy the game new, Catwoman!), prowling Gotham’s new prison complex, expanded to the size of a metropolitan borough. Developer Rocksteady has done away with the tightly scripted experience from the first game in favor of an open world, not unlike the games of the similarly monikered Rockstar Games (see RDR, below). Just like the first time, production and gameplay is top notch: voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are back (originally from Batman: The Animated Series) to voice Batman and Joker, there are a thousand shout-outs to comics lore, dozens of villains and side quests to tackle, and a ridiculous amount or (re)playability with Riddler trophies and puzzles, unlockable challenge rooms, and piles of gadgets to experiment with: Catwoman’s whip and bolas are lots of fun, as are Batman’s spray-on explosive and newly remote controlled batarang.
Its undeniable excellence (I hereby gloss the fluid, frenetic, timing based combat, which plays improbably like a cross between a boxing sim and Just Dance 3) isn’t quite unimpeachable. You won’t be prowling the rooftops for long before you realize that there are a lot of ‘bitches’ in this game. Let me rephrase. ‘Bitch’ is the preferred diminutive used by the inmate-residents of Arkham City for Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Talia Al’Ghul, basically all four of the game’s women. Since you’ll spend some time playing the formerest, you’ll get called it a lot. As Batman, you’ll overhear it on the radio, as thugs complain about taking orders from Harley, or about those strange, cooty-esque things Ivy must certainly be growing somewhere (she pretty clearly represents fears of the fecund and feral monstrous feminine here). The bitch-ifying of these characters is so pervasive that attempting to justify it as realistic dialogue, the expected prison yard patois of Gotham’s grungiest criminals doesn’t seem doable. It is extremely disappointing.
And it’s a shame, because these four characters are well conceived and given sizable roles in the story. Catwoman and Talia are complicated anti-heroes, Ivy is of course Ivy, and Harley Quinn… kind of breaks my heart. Quick origin story (from The Animated Series): Dr Harleen Quinzel was a brilliant psychiatrist who dedicated her life to curing Gotham’s criminally insane, until she tried to treat the Joker. She became obsessed with him, and suffered a breakdown, which led her to don the motley, and follow her “Mr. J” as his lieutenant. What is most unsettling about the relationship is that it takes those feelings we are all more or less familiar with: the fear that our identity is so wrapped up in our partner that we might be losing ourselves, or that the person we’re in love with does not feel quite the same way about us, and then exponentializes them. The tragedy of course is that Mr. J’s indifference, his purely instrumental view of Harley is not (only) strategic, it is also all that he is capable of, being that he is an unredeemable, incurable psycho-sociopath. A large part of this game occurs against the backdrop of [SPOILERS] Joker’s slow decline and death. With Harley in charge of his criminal empire and her subordinates lacking the barest respect for “that crazy bitch” giving the orders, we have not only an unfortunate reminder of the difficulty that women in positions of power often face, especially in male-dominated industries like organized crime (the boardroom, the academy, everywhere else); we also can’t help but feel personally sorry for her. Should we? I think about this character a lot for some reason, and I always wonder how mad is she? How much of her sad adherence to Joker is a product of her diseased mind, how much of his corrupting influence… and how much is an attempt to carve out (an admittedly twisted) form of agency in an arena in which her prescribed role is victim. Because even if no one likes or respects her (even her beloved Mr. J.) she is still the only one at this party having any fun.
[Joker & Harley f4ever?]
2: Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (360 & PS3)
Rockstar Games is most known for a certain series of vehicular-manslaughter based titles, and so when Red Dead Redemption was released, doubters were quick to dub it “Grand Theft Horse.” What they missed was a beautifully realized alt-history American Southwest, some of the sharpest writing ever committed to 0’s and 1’s, and a gameplay mechanic (the nifty “Dead Eye” system) which perfectly evokes the best Hollywood gunfights and saloon duels. Undead Nightmare, the Halloween 2010 expansion, pits antihero John Marston against an army of zombies. More so than most gunplay based games, resource management is paramount: there are no stores to buy bullets, and anything short of a perfect headshot is ineffective, so you’ll be trying to beat ghouls down with torches, lure them onto exploding bait, or run them down with Revelations’ apocalyptic horses. This is a game in which you will talk to (and perhaps shoot) the last American sasquatch, hunt the Chupacabra, learn undead slaying tips from a convent of determined nuns, and tame the world’s ultimate mount: a unicorn bathed in swirling pink butterflies and which, galloping across the steppes, leaves (or perhaps poops) a trail of rainbows. The achievement for accomplishing this is fittingly called “Fan Service.” ‘Nuff said.
1: Mass Effect 2 (360, PS3, Windows)
This game’s “The Arrival” expansion came out in January 2011, and I didn’t play any of it (or its prequel) until after then, so I’m counting it. BioWare’s expansive action/roleplaying hybrid is the best thing I’ve played this year: 80 hours worth of it, according to my last gamesave file. It is easy to find its faults: it is a fairly blatant attempt to combine everything that is good about Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens, and especially Star Trek. The combat, while improved over its predecessor, is still far behind other cover-based shooters like Gears of War. The number of locations, the sense of unlimited discovery, and that feeling of optimism—the hopefulness that our future might be better than our present—are all less prevalent this time, as the game’s overarching narrative picks up more forcefully in this second installment. And that plot is itself not that original, basically boiling down to “The Dirty Dozen… in Space!” That’s actually high concept. Make a note.
But. I haven’t experienced a game prior to this in which I felt that the protagonist was interesting, that she (you choose your gender and appearance) was a real person, that her mission, if not original (save humanity!) was nevertheless real and important, and most strikingly, that she was a reflection of myself. This is a game in which you are given wide latitude to influence things, choosing the dialogue in all of your conversations, and making decisions as little as what exotic pet you want in your cabin (my fish always died) or as huge as which other characters, your crewmates and friends, will live and die. And, no mistake, these characters are all so well written that if you spend enough time with them, you will find yourself caring deeply about many of them (and you’ll probably hate a few, too). It helps that all of the game’s dialogue is voice acted, and that acting is some of the best going (Jennifer Hale, as the female version of the protagonist, aka “femshep” is especially good).
[A fan vid replaces the default male Shepard from the original launch trailer with their version]
This emphasis on choice is everywhere: if you retain your savefile, your choices from the previous games will even have an effect on future ones: do you allow the last Rachni Queen to escape captivity, knowing that if you don’t her species will face extinction, but if you do you might be setting in motion a repeat of the disastrous Rachni war? Do you help find a cure for the bioengineered phage that keeps the fast-breeding and ultraviolent Krogan in check, or are ethical concerns about their self-determination not to mention their reproductive rights hopelessly naïve? Do you continue your romance with the geeky, optimistic archaeologist Liara T’soni (member of an all-female race who reproduce through parthenogenesis), or break it off for the soulful alien assassin Thane Krios, who you’ve helped reunite with his lost son? Succeeding perhaps where Fable III fails, none of these decisions are easy, all of them have consequences, some of which have caused me to curse, some nearly to cry. When Kelly and Miranda died during the game’s final mission, I was nearly inconsolable, partially because I knew I couldn’t blame it on some nefarious videogame writers somewhere: their deaths weren’t plot points cooked up to create some false, easy pathos. Their fates could have been avoided. Commander Shepard’s actions—my actions—led to their deaths. And when games really work, this is why.
There you have it. Have a happy 2012. I know I will: StarCraft 2.2, Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Bioshock Infinite, and we’re only 62 days away from Mass Effect 3, not that I’m counting or anything.