Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Top Ten Games of the Decade, Part One

As I've been feeling a bit reflective as of late, I felt that it would be appropriate to take a look back at some of the best gaming experiences I've had during the past ten years. As such, I've narrowed down my top ten choices for what I consider to be the best games of the decade. Yes, I am aware that it's quite cliché to create a list like this (and even more cliché to assume that the decade will be over this year; it's not a new decade until 2011, folks). I am confident, however, that there's quite a bit there.

You see, this decade saw my interest in gaming pass turbulently through several peaks and valleys. There were a few times when (gasp) I was about to throw in the towel for good. “Gaming's just not worth it anymore,” I'd say.

And then one of these games would come along, drawing me back into the hobby that I've enjoyed for so long. This list, then, is less of a “best of” list and more of a collection of my favorite games of the decade – games that for whatever reason left a lasting impression on me.

So, without further adieu, here are my personal choices for best games of the 2000s.

Honorable Mentions

Okay, so a bit more babble before getting to the “good stuff” – though don't make the mistake of assuming that the following games are not good. These are just a few of the games that, though quite influential to me, didn't quite make the final cut. Nevertheless, they deserve mention here, so here they are (in alphabetical order).

Batman: Arkham Asylum (360 - 2009)

Pretty much every single Batman game I've ever played has ranked somewhere between mediocre and godawful. To be fair, I haven't played a whole lot of Batman games – I never played the highly regarded NES installment, for example. To be even more fair, however, I've tended to avoid the franchise's video game outings altogether due to negative word of mouth. For whatever reason, it's just been a commonly accepted fact that Batman games suck.

Batman: Arkham Asylum changed that, and now, as Heath Ledger's Joker so poignantly stated, “There's no going back.”

Rocksteady Studios deserves a lot of credit for crafting what might well be the truest Batman experience ever created. Players can be stealthy and swing from lofty pedestals and rooftops, yet still have the sense of might and mystique that the Dark Knight holds over his enemies. Even the villains are true to form, with the entire lineup of baddies – from Poison Ivy to Killer Croc – providing at the very least interesting cameos. The Joker, voiced brilliantly (yet again) by Mark Hamill, is as unpredictable and dangerous as ever.

Granted, the game has a few major sticking points, such as repetitive and uninspired boss battles. On the whole, however, Arkham Asylum stands as the finest example of Batman done right this side of The Dark Knight.

NCAA Football 07 (PS2 - 2006)

I'm a college football maniac, so it's little surprise that I've been an advocate of EA Sports' NCAA Football series since the mid-90s. Throughout that time, I've purchased the game on a yearly basis on four different systems (PS1, PS2, Xbox 360, and even PC), but one installment stands head and shoulders above the rest: NCAA 07.

NCAA 07 was the game that finally managed to bring everything together in a solid package. The gameplay was smooth and tactical, with all the speed and pageantry of the college game. Playbooks were diverse and accurate, finally incorporating the crazy motions and versatility of the spread option offense. The dynasty mode was robust and intriguing, with fairly accurate simulated statistics (unlike its immediate predecessor, NCAA 06), the ability to accept transfer players, and in-season recruiting. Furthermore, the recruiting did not become needlessly cumbersome as it did with the move to the current gen consoles.

About the only thing missing from 07 was the Bowl Playoff option from the PS1's NCAA 01, a marvelous addition that allowed players to determine their champion the way the sport should: by using BCS standings to seed a playoff using the bowl games. Regardless of that omission, NCAA 07 stands both as the crowning achievement of its generation and the best college football game of the decade.

Portal (360 - 2007)

Yes, I played Portal on the Xbox 360. So what? It's one further trend of the decade: PC gaming is slowly but surely dying out.

Besides, Portal is one game that is outstanding no matter what system it's played on. I'm still impressed by just how much was able to be done with such a simple idea: a gun that creates doors. While seemingly the most boring concept of the decade, it is presented in a manner that's unforgettable. A shooter with no killing? Intriguing puzzles? A story that's not only present but presented well? Portal caused me to reevaluate my opinion of FPS games – and then feel sad, because its lessons have yet to be heeded.

The interactions of GlaDOS in particular left me feeling great about the experience. Cold, calculating, and with a distinctly inhuman sense of humor, the main antagonist evoked within me a sense of both purpose and sympathy. I wanted to kill her for what she'd put me through, but at the same time I couldn't help but wonder whether she was simply a product of her programming. Of course, numerous other musings of a philosophical nature resulted, all from the depths of a simple two-to-three-hour puzzle FPS. It's all a bit hard for me to believe, even after experiencing it for myself.

The cake is a lie – or is it?

Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2 - 2004)

Don't let its kiddie exterior fool you – the Sly Cooper series is the best platforming series released in a long while, and Sly 2 is the best of the bunch. It's better than Jak, better than Ratchet and Clank, and better than “insert your favorite platformer here.” It's got all the basic ingredients for a 3d platformer: solid controls, varied mission types, and a fair mix of challenge and accessibility.

What it has that the others don't, though, is a heaping dose of character... or is that characters? The cast of Sly is incredibly endearing, with the charm of the best written animated shows – think of the love-child of Darkwing Duck and Gargoyles. The lineup of villains is twisted and hilariously appealing. The heroes are no slouch either, forming a noble thief trio that works incredibly effectively together: Sly, the skilled thief; Bentley, the tech wizard and logician; and Murray, the slow but big-hearted muscle. Combine that with top notch writing, a simple yet effective core game design – a central chapter hub with various missions that build toward a final climactic heist – and a presentation that rivals the best animated productions, and every ounce of Sly 2 screams of quality fun.

Xenosaga (PS2 - 2003)

A lot of my regard for Xenosaga comes from my admiration for its predecessor. Xenosaga's first episode not only lived up to its pedigree, but even surpassed it. Its gameplay, though fairly standard for the genre, is varied enough to maintain interest. Its cast of characters, though heavily influenced by sci-fi anime stereotypes, is endearing and easy to relate to. Its story... well, it's the story that makes the game, and that's both a boon and a major drawback.

The game's epic saga of a spacebound human race searching for their planet of origin is the yarn from which the greatest sci-fi is spun. This first episode (of a planned six) laid the groundwork for what most likely would have been a masterful tale. Unfortunately, several problems at developer Namco – including the firing of the series' creator and its lead writer – led to the severe truncation and eventual destruction of the series' potential. The two other chapters that were released exploited and ruined the strong foundation laid by the first, with the story devolving into utter nonsense with some religious symbolism arbitrarily thrown in.

Since the first chapter's approach depends largely upon its successors for legitimacy, it must be taken as part of an ambitious yet horribly flawed trilogy instead of the highly promising beginning to one. It's unfortunate, though, because what a beginning it was.

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