John Bellomy, AKA Cowboy, is a programmer at Naughty Dog, and not, as his nickname might imply, a real cowboy. At least, as far as we know. He's pretty enigmatic.
I thought the hardest part of this list would be finding enough games to fill it. Not for a lack of titles but because of the amount of games I didn’t get to this year (I really need to play Saints Row). Naturally as I worked my way back through my catalogue I ended up having to make some really difficulty sorting decisions. Games like Mortal Kombat I want to give props to because it got me hooked into fighting games to a level I hadn’t experienced since Super Street Fighter 2 on the SNES. For obvious reasons I exclude games I had a professional hand in, namely Uncharted. Still I would be remiss in not acknowledging the quality of the team and that awesome talent I get to witness first-hand. The development talent continues on display here and I am fortunate enough to admire and enjoy their hard earned work with perhaps a bit of insight and appreciation into just how nuts making video games really is.
10. InFamous 2
After playing the first Infamous it was clear Sucker Punch was onto something special. Refined and distilled Infamous 2 takes a lot of small steps in the right direction making it a great iteration in the franchise. It does well what any open world game needs to, which is making traversal fun. Hurling my body upward on spikes of ice to bound across rooftops had such an intoxicating rhythm that this is clearly more about the journey than the destination. One may criticise that the missions themselves don’t feel that much structurally different than the random street fights but the fact that I had fun doing both is a credit to the design of their systems. A lightning bolt to the face or a well landed grenade remains a simple expression of joy for me.
9. Renegade Ops
I really loved Just Cause 2, so to see Avalanche take their particular style and flair for action and apply to a new genre meant I was there day one. Let there be no mistake: stuff blows up real good and with a zany story to match; thus completing my games-from-Avalanche requirements checklist. So much the better then when the absurdity scales beyond linear when adding your friends into mix with coop. The game swings between laser-like efficiency of purpose and straight bedlam. The game is exhibit A in the case of chaos theory, I just can’t tell you for which side. Now if only I could beat that last mission on hardcore...
Easily one of my favorites this year if for nothing else but the production quality alone: the character design, the writing and voice acting- to say nothing of that fantastic music. A video game that is truly funny is a rare treat and Shadows of the Damned brought the light of comedy to an area once abandoned to the insipid and uninspired: juvenile humor. This game has almost as many dick and sex references as listening to five un-muted minutes of Xbox live chat. Yet it’s crass is compelling; a wonderful mix of subtle and overt without making you feel dirty for watching it. If Infamous can be described as story being in service to the combat then the opposite goes true for Shadows of the Damned. To have competent combat was perhaps one of the biggest surprises for the game yet I still found myself shooting dudes primarily to see what that cabal of artists had in store for me next- and they did not disappoint. One thing is for sure: I will never look at story time the same again.
I had many fond memories of the original Deus Ex so to say I was, like so many others weary of what Eidos had in store. Cheap, delicious words promised a return to form where a solution was as unique a snowflake as the players themselves. The reality is perhaps a bit more closer to it being a game with a golden path but said path ended up being right in my wheelhouse. Armed with my dart gun and an innate obsessive compulsion to clear areas without any alerts or kills each scenario became a puzzle. No matter how insurmountable the setup I could always find the right combination of darts to the face, stealth take downs and tazed bros. Set it to a Tron-esque soundtrack and add a non-embarrassing hacking mini game to boot and I’m in.
Double Fine was in fine form this year, completing the last fruition of their Amnesia Fortnight and demonstrating their deft ability to leap from one genre to the next each time delivering a tasty morsel worthy of Ferran Adrià himself. One in particular stood out for me though with Iron Brigade. Building Trenches and testing their mettle in the forge of battle, only to return with more loot and more combinations to experiment with meant I was stuck in that feedback loop until I had rocked every level with Kings and Mr. Pancakes. There are enough found weapon and gear combos to tailor yours to your particular play style and they’ve done a good job of making them all nearly matched in effectiveness. Still much like good food this one is best when shared with friends. After coordinating strategy and ridiculous firepower against the horde of tubular menaces you’ll have earned that victory scotch, victory cigar, and victory second scotch.
So much of this wonderful game has already been written and covered here that it’s hard to imagine adding anything of meaning to the conversation. Having watched that game come together through the Building the Bastion series I was expectantly pleased with the narrative structure, quality voice acting and visual style. What I did not expect however was the elegance of the combat design and the game’s ability to cover a wide difficulty span without feeling cheap or stupid. Idols tempt you with the promise of accelerated rewards if you have the chops but they don’t come easy. Everyone weapon feels unique and effective, but not overpowered. Challenge maps force you to not only experiment with new weapons but learn their strengths and weaknesses if you hope to earn the gold. All these pieces come together to form a lovely piece of craft like so many chunks of Caelondia.
The best value for money by a country mile, Terraria had always intrigued me but I didn’t really get around to it until late in the year. I had picked it up for a song during one of Steam’s sales of insanity. While working at home I decided to try it as a palette cleanser for my mind. While I have not played Minecraft, I suspect the process is very similar to what I went through. I would get in, harvest a bit of resources, clumsily try and divine how to do anything with them, build out my shelter a little bit more and try and survive the night from the bastards that swarm when it gets dark. I may make it a few nights or only just one but I would always get exasperated at cycle and call it quits. This is where the true evil genius of Re-Logic comes in because my mind would start to imagine better defenses, better strategy and more elaborate construction and soon enough I was back in grinding resources out and zombie faces in. Before I realized what was happening I went from a sad wooden hole to a flying castle in the sky. What I really enjoy though is that the game isn’t primarily a survival game, it’s a game of exploration and challenge. Areas and boss battles that once destroyed you can be plunged and their treasures, so gratifyingly won are a sweet testament to how much your little survivalist has developed. I went from merely surviving the world to conquering it... with a jetpack.
3. Portal 2
Seems like a no brainer but as a developer I have to hand it to Valve for improving on the original Portal in nearly every way. The puzzles continue to make you feel smart for solving them and the new gel elements didn’t strike me as overwrought in their design. Still what I perhaps more than the puzzles themselves were all the supporting elements. Portal 2 had more than a couple of my favorite characters this year with stellar voice actors delivering that rapier wit. Traversing through the world I found to be a fantastic example of passive storytelling. You learn the story of Aperture not just through narration or by cutscene. You witness both their vast excesses and the collapse under their own weight walking through their environments and examining their relics; never feeling forced. I was happy to soak it all in all the way up to that exquisite spike of genius that was the ending. What I really loved though was the coop. Playing with a friend working out some truly epic I-can’t-believe-that-worked puzzles together on the couch was the most fun I’ve had playing with friends I wasn’t actively seeking to destroy. Like a good book I couldn’t put Portal 2 down and I have to tip my hat once again to Valve for advancing the craft.
I’ve always felt that the key to any good action videogame is that it makes you feel like a badass while playing it. Rocksteady has created my favorite personification of this ideal with their Batman franchise. With every gliding boot to the face, strung up thug and batclaw escape up into the night, my mind is reinforcing that I am the god damned Batman and Arkham city gave me even bigger grounds for me to hunt. Combat continues to feel tight as a drum with the quickfire gadgets adding smart nuance to a deceptively simple fighting system. What surprised me the most however was just how much I enjoyed collecting every Riddler trophy and completing every challenge (including the rather devious augmented reality ones). Arkham City was the only game this year where I pulled a full on all-nighter, ticking off every last collectible box. With the hundreds of Riddler trophies I found there to be a lot less repetition in their solutions than I was expecting. I say solutions because so many of them were phrased more as puzzles rather than finding the hidden nook of the map where the designer could hide them. I relished into divining the subtle twist on my Batman talents required to get some of that sweet, sweet green. While fine, the story worked better as the sinew connecting big fights and awesome characters. Mark Hamil’s Joker and Nolan North’s Cobblepot being particular standouts here. Arkham City was a game I gorged upon and came away feeling satisfied, feeling like the god damned Batman.
With the odometer turning over into triple digit hours and I find myself planning more than one new character builds it’s no wonder that Skyrim tops my list this year. I have yet to find my fill of the seemingly endless world Bethesda has put together. I absolutely love games with good atmosphere and tone and Skyrim provides it in spades. Whether it’s traversing gusty snow peaks, stalking in quiet meadows or emerging from battling in a dungeon to discover a beautiful night sky lit by the northern lights set to a quiet melody it feels like there is always something new to see. I have yet to feel like any dungeons repeat themselves or to encounter a new city that I had already seen before. Skyrim is a world of discovery and immersion where each step forges my character, crystallizing their talents until I find myself satisfied with that play style and seek to view the world through a brand new lens. This I will continue to do for the foreseeable future. Exploring the world, cleansing dungeons, macing faces and rending dragons.