Monday, December 28, 2009

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection: My Top Ten Games of 2009

The best games of 2009, for me, were marked not by innovation, but rather by doing the very same things that games have been doing for a long time, but doing them better than they've ever been done before. (That's not to say that this was a year without innovation. On the contrary, GameSpot's pick for Game of the Year, Demon's Souls, is boldly innovative and utterly uncompromising, and I respect the hell out of it. I just didn't personally enjoy it all that much.) The two best games of the year for me were particularly exceptional in this regard. Forza Motorsport 3 and Street Fighter IV are like well-oiled, nearly flawless high-performance machines in their respective genres.

Forza 3 is a game of such elegance that I feel like I should be eating excellent French cheeses and sipping fine wine whenever I play it. But not in a stuffy, oppressive way. No, it's an elegance that's perfectly befitting of the beautiful, fine-tuned automobiles it celebrates. And the experience of playing it is about as close as a game has ever gotten for me to being transportive. The handling, the sounds, the visuals are all so convincing that I could almost swear I can feel my car soaring down the Sebring Raceway. I'm such a devoted fan of over-the-top arcade racers over simulation racers that I often catch myself wanting to press A to trigger a vehicle boost, Burnout-style. But where so many other simulation racers have left me cold, Forza 3 is one I can't stop admiring. In addition to the absolutely top-notch driving, the way the game rewards you for each victory, constantly opening up new cars, new events, and new benefits as you earn experience makes playing "just one more race" nearly irresistible.

What Forza 3 is for driving games, Street Fighter IV is for fighters. It hits the sweet spot between pick-up-and-play accessibility and tremendous depth. The incredibly tight controls and exceptionally balanced combat ensure that fights are always exciting and intense for me, and even losses feel rewarding as a chance to observe the techniques of more skillful players and very slowly get better. And the better I get, the more I appreciate how incredible this game is, as I slowly come to grips with things like the focus attack system that adds layers of depth onto the core, tried-and-true Street Fighter II model. If I could stop time for a while and spend unlimited hours playing any one game from this year, this is the one I'd play, because as much as I enjoy it now, I know that being a truly competitive, outstanding player would only deepen my appreciation and enjoyment of it still more.

The quest to capture big, Hollywood-style adventure movie thrills in game form is certainly nothing new. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 pulls it off more effectively than any game has before. Expertly paced, with one terrific setpiece moment after another, and an excellent cast of characters whose relationships make you feel invested in the story.

Modern Warfare 2 was far and away the year's best shooter for me. Sure, you can rightly criticize the brevity of its campaign, but its whirlwind globehopping adventure packs more terrific locations and more memorable moments into its five hours than most games four times as long can manage. Add in the exciting and challenging cooperative Spec Ops missions and the highly addictive competitive multiplayer and you've got a well-rounded and consistently outstanding shooter.

While I have a soft spot for the moody Burton-influenced visuals and catchy tunes of Sunsoft's excellent 1989 NES game based on the first Michael Keaton Batman film, I have to admit that Arkham Asylum represents far and away the most compelling and effective representation of the Caped Crusader in a game. Everything you love about Batman--his gadgets, his detective skills, his use of stealth and shadow, his scarred psyche--is manifested here to terrific effect. It's so effective, in fact, that even if you go into the game not knowing or caring much about Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the other characters who populate Gotham City, you'll probably come away from it with a real appreciation for what Rocksteady has done with them here.

There was very little doubt that The Beatles: Rock Band was going to be good, but I was nonetheless surprised at just how superb it turned out. Harmonix could have taken the lazy route with this one and still sold a bazillion copies on the strength of the Fab Four's catalog of timeless and incredible songs. But instead, they went all-out, creating a rich Beatles experience jam-packed with the kinds of little details that imbue the game with the warmth and reverence the material deserves. Time spent playing this with friends was perhaps the greatest source of pure joy I got from any game this year.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was perhaps the biggest WOW of the year for me. No other game revealed previously untapped potential in a platform as dramatically as Chinatown Wars did with the DS. No compromises here, this is GTA reimagined from the ground up for Nintendo's handheld, and it is fantastic.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the latest and greatest entry in AlphaDream's consistently excellent series of RPGs starring the Brothers Mario. Endlessly inventive, irresistibly charming and completely hilarious.

I'm still inching my way through Assassin's Creed II, one kill at a time. While I find the gameplay a smidge too easy to be completely gripping, the varied, richly detailed and atmospheric cities make this breezy ride a very enjoyable one, and pulling off a stealthy kill in broad daylight, then walking away and leaving no one the wiser is immensely satisfying. I recall the negative reactions of some to the concept of the animus when the first game was released, but here, I find that all the crazy conspiracy theory elements woven into the game make it feel all the more epic and compelling, creating a sense of high stakes and of an age-old conflict that extends far beyond Altair, Ezio or Desmond as individuals.

What Borderlands lacks in story, it more than makes up for in sheer addictive playability. It brilliantly merges the loot-finding and character-building that makes games like Diablo II so habit-forming, with...guns.

An honorable mention goes to Dragon Age: Origins, another title I haven't found the time to conclude yet. In fact, I've still got a long way to go on this epic journey. The pace lagged for me in the early stages, but now that I'm starting to make some serious progress on the main quest, I'm finding myself becoming more absorbed in the fully realized fantasy realm of Ferelden. Bioware's signature talents for creating richly detailed worlds and compelling moral dilemmas are in full effect here, and I'm determined to see this quest through to its blood-spattery end.

In my opinion, the year's best downloadable content was The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar continues to challenge notions of who and what games can be about. Terrific nightclub atmosphere brings a previously unseen side of Liberty City to life, and the outrageous missions help bring GTA IV to an explosive conclusion.

And since I'm listening to it right now, I'll add that my favorite original soundtrack this year belongs to Shatter. It's a catchy and gorgeous collection of electronic compositions that are as incredible on their own as they are in the game.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Going BIG: My favorite games of the decade

This is a quick personal reflection on the ten games (well, nine games and one series of games) I found the most meaningful and memorable over the past ten years.

SSX: I start here not because this is the least of all the games on this list, but because it's the first. It was very early indeed in this decade when I stepped into a may even have still been a Software Etc...and saw a PS2 demo kiosk showing off SSX. I was sold. With one glance, it seemed clear that the power of the PlayStation 2 was going to enable games to deliver bigger thrills than any console before it. How apt that the development studio for this game was called EA Sports BIG. The PS2 was the first new console of the decade, and SSX was its glorious herald, a speedy, stylish, adrenaline-drenched snowboarding game for the new era. It's certainly true that SSX 2 and 3 improved on the original in some respects, but when I think of SSX, it's that first glimpse of Snowdream that I remember most, the voice of Rahzel mocking and praising me as I boosted my way down the slopes.

Halo: Some of the very best gaming moments I had this decade were spent with friends crowded around my modest television, the screen split four ways as we assault-rifled and pistol-sniped each other endlessly. Halo 2 and 3 took the multiplayer online in a big way, but the best Halo times of all for me were those early days on Hang 'em High.

Burnout 3: What an exciting innovation this game was, building on existing arcade racing game conventions but making crashing and running your competitors off the road a spectacular, visceral part of the gameplay. I consider this the original Xbox's ultimate Xbox Live title. For several months, some friends and I ritually played this on an almost-daily basis,while games these days are unlikely to see consistent online play from us for more than a few weeks. It was also, for me, the first game in which custom soundtracks were an essential feature. I still can't hear certain Death Cab for Cutie songs without them conjuring up images of Burnout 3's environments.

Ninja Gaiden (Black): My favorite skill-based, challenging action game of the decade. When Ninja Gaiden first came out, I rented it and found it difficult to a fault. It was frustrating, not fun. Then the bargain-priced Black came out and I decided to give it another chance. I hit the same wall I had before but kept pressing on and somehow, at a certain point, something clicked, and I just naturally found myself getting better at the game. That sense of just feeling my skills improve, and the results of it--being able to effortlessly slice enemies to pieces (and look awesome doing it) who had previously made mincemeat out of me--was incredibly rewarding.

Metal Gear Solid 4: It's goofy and messy and totally absurd, and I admire the hell out of it. I think it's an inspired conclusion to this totally crazy series, and for all its flaws, I love the fact that it is so clearly Kojima's uncompromised vision. He may be the first auteur of games, and I think the series would have been far less interesting if it was made by committee and some of Kojima's crazier, more self-indulgent impulses had been reined in. It somehow creates a thoroughly satisfying conclusion that ties up all the loose ends, and it unforgettably pits the hero and villain against each other in a climactic fistfight that's also a brilliant summation of the entire series. Masterful.

Grand Theft Auto IV: I Heart Liberty City. Moral choice was a fun gimmick in a lot of games over the past ten years, but many of those games presented those choices in such extreme black and white terms. Grand Theft Auto IV was the first game in which I felt legitimately troubled by some of the choices I had to make, the first game in which pulling a trigger and taking a life often felt impactful and irrevocable. The writing is far superior to what you find in most games, with complex, damaged characters who, for all their flaws, are often trying their best to make a go of it in this ugly world. The cutscenes feature terrific subtlety and are willing to take their time to just observe the characters. For me, its themes of culture, cIass and consequences really work. It ain't The Wire, but for my money it's far and away the best crime story, and the best story of any kind, I've encountered in a game. The downloadable stories released this year, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, have kept the party going in style, adding exciting new gameplay elements and continuing to challenge our notions of who and what a game can be about. The Ballad of Gay Tony also features the most gorgeous menu music I've ever heard in a game.

"I keep on walkin'..."

Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door: Mario has starred in many exceptional RPGs throughout the past ten years. This is the absolute best of the bunch. It's charming, inventive, humorous, and even oddly poignant. I don't mind telling you that I got a bit choked up at the end of this tale of goombas and koopas. An absolute delight from start to finish.

The Rock Band series: When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic air guitarist, desk drummer, and sing-along-er. But these are all private, slightly embarrassing expressions of the emotions a song might conjure up in me. One of the biggest, most important innovations in games of this decade is the way that the music peripheral games have taken those private expressions and made them a shared experience. Performing songs with friends in a game like this is an absolute joy, and a totally valid and new way for people to experience music together. In the Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero battle, the Rock Band games are the clear winner for me. The atmosphere and the song lists deliver just want I want in my fantasy fulfillment, and the Guitar Hero games feel a bit crass and soulless by comparison.

And now, my two favorite games of the decade. I can't choose between them.

Super Mario Galaxy and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Super Mario Galaxy is as close as any game has come to perfection for me this decade. It's an absolutely incredible achievement, feeling both like a natural extension of the series' roots, and a totally fresh, at times exhilaratingly innovative experience. The level designs are nothing short of brilliant, and the music, visuals and gameplay frequently combined to foster a sense of ebullient joy in me akin to what I might feel at the most inspired moments of a great Pixar or Miyazaki film.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, by contrast, does not quite approach perfection. Instead, it's a sprawling, audacious, flawed but utterly incredible game. The story is not the serious tale of revenge or forgiveness that you find in GTA IV, but a fever dream of West Coast culture and styIe. The plot lacks focus, but the cast of characters is memorable, and the outstanding voice work (JAMES WOODS!) helps tremendously. And while the story is messy, the setting is unforgettable. I love it all, from the ghetto where CJ begins to the mansions in the hills. I love the small towns and the beaches. I love the huge bridges and the airplane graveyards. It understands Los Angeles hip-hop culture in the mid-90s, and its climax rings true in echoing some of the rage that fueled the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

I can't separate the fact that I've lived in LA for many years from my feelings for this game. Standing in the cul-de-sac where CJ's house is located, I can almost feel the warm Santa Ana winds. But the reason I rank it above GTA IV as one of the absolute best of the decade is not just that its setting is more personally resonant for me. It's also that I simply think it's a bit more fun. For me, this is the best entry overall in what I consider the definitive game series of the decade.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Natural Police and Other Characters--My Favorite TV of the 2000s

I suppose strong arguments could be made either that this was the best decade of television, with cable TV coming into its own and providing us with richer, more complex dramas than anything we'd seen in the past, or that it was the worst, with reality TV's rise to popularity signifying a low point in our culture. Well, I actually happen to think there's such a thing as good “reality TV,” but for now, as the decade comes to a close, I want to take a moment to focus on the earlier argument and look back on what were the standouts for me in TV drama in the 2000s.

  1. The Wire—Quite possibly the best television show of all time. This is the poetry of real life in America in the early 21st century. Over the course of five seasons, it turned its piercing gaze on the drug war, labor unions, big city politics, public schools, and the print media, opening our eyes to the world we live in. At the same time, it's a riveting and powerful human drama, with complex characters on both sides of the law that we come to love and to despise, to root for and to fear.

  1. The Shield—If The Wire is the television equivalent of the Great American Novel, The Shield is like a modern-day, extended take on a Shakespearian tragedy, about the way one man's gargantuan ambitions can inhale and destroy the lives of many. For my money, it's pound-for-pound the most exciting drama of the decade, rarely taking a false step from its shocking first episode until its pitch-perfect, devastating finale. Perhaps the most fascinating thing for me about The Shield is the way it so often made me feel so conflicted. Vic Mackey is absolutely, unquestionably immoral, and yet I often found myself cheering him on as he brought his own brand of justice to the criminals of LA's fictional (but thoroughly believable) Farmington district. Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis) pulls focus with his massive persona and his shiny bald head, but this is absolutely an ensemble show, and although I have much love for Vincent D'Onofrio's enigmatic and disturbed detective Robert Goren from Law & Order: Criminal Intent, my favorite TV detective is The Shield's slightly awkward, dogged, brilliant Holland “Dutch” Wagenbach.

    Watching this montage from The Shield finale still gives me goosebumps. If you haven't watched the show, this won't spoil anything. The snippets are too brief to give anything away. But to me and fans of the show, they speak volumes.

  2. Six Feet Under—Forget Touched by an Angel. This is deeply spiritual television, at least for this agnostic.

  3. The West Wing (The Sorkin Years)--I stopped watching when Sorkin was dropped, but in those early years of the Bush presidency, when it all still felt like some sort of bad dream, I know I wasn't alone in taking solace and inspiration in the imaginary presidency of Jed Bartlet. Sorkin's excellent “let's-have-snappy-conversations-while-walking-briskly-down-hallways” writing style and the top-notch work by Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and others made this show a delightful entertainment. (Yes, I know, it actually started airing in the final months of the 90s. Sue me.)

  4. Law & Order—Because after 20 years, there are still few things on TV as reliably satisfying as an episode of Law & Order.

In a category of its own:

24--While The Wire is the show people in the future should look at if they want to understand what our world was actually like in this decade, the show they should look at if they want to psychoanalyze us is 24. The pilot was actually delayed and edited because of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, but the entire show almost feels like a reaction to that day. Jack Bauer is absolutely a hero our society gravitated to in the wake of that attack. Like its hero, the show is ruthless and exceptionally effective. It's also the most video-game-like show ever (though the actual 24 game is pretty lousy), and I'm convinced that it has heavily influenced the outstanding campaigns of the Modern Warfare games, which do things with game narrative that previously just weren't done.

Honorable mentions:

Deadwood—Gorgeously vulgar dialogue and towering performances by a great cast.

Battlestar Galactica—I found the last set of episodes deeply disappointing. Still, it had a lot of great moments, and was the best sci-fi that TV of the 00's had to offer.

Dexter—Wickedly entertaining. Dexter (the show and the character) is still a work in progress, but it may deserve a place on a list like this in ten years' time.

Law & Order: Criminal Intent—Vincent D'Onofrio's Robert Goren is what has made this show so watchable, though it achieved heights with regularity in the earlier seasons that it has rarely been able to recapture in more recent ones, and I was crushed when Goren's rivalry with archnemesis Nicole Wallace, which was the source of some of the show's best moments, was brought to an end last season in the most unsatisfying way possible. Goren and Eames will be leaving the show at the start of next season as it becomes Monk 2: Jeff Goldblum's Kooky Crime-Solving Hour full-time. But I'll still watch it.