It feels like every year I say this has been a great year for games — and for the most part that is true. The three-way horse race of consoles remains thrilling as each has its time in the sun. Since its release, I’ve lobbied hard for the PS3 as the system to beat, even in its lean launch year, and this time is no different. In 2010 XBOX Kinect and Playstation Move have fired into Nintendo’s dominance of the casual spastic-seizure-based controller demographic. Direct-download PC gaming made strong gains, propelled by the Steam online store and community as well as World of Warcraft’s latest expansion being available at launch as a download. On to the winners.
• Character Action game of the year: Bayonetta (PS3/XBOX)
In Bayonetta, your statuesque witch shoots people with guns, her hair and her shoes that have extra guns in them. It is deliriously over the top and challengingly fun in ways that Character Action games haven’t been since the first Devil May Cry.
• Arcade game of the year: Pac-Man Championship Edition DX (PS3/XBOX)
The downloadable Championship DX does for Pac-Man what Galaxy Wars did for Asteroids: add a ton of strobing neon and distill its addiction to crack-rock potency.
• Shooter game of the year: Vanquish (PS3/XBOX)
Platinum Games (who also made Bayonetta) hits two out of the park this year. Here a cyborg with rockets in his knees jet-slides through a future space station blasting Russian bots with a gun that is also a transformer. You really can’t beat that.
• Strategy: TIE — Civilization 5 (PC/MAC) & Valkyria Chronicles 2 (PSP)
Want Genghis Kahn elected to head the United Nations after 5,000 years of scheming and hexagonal warfare? Look no further than the latest Civilization. Playstation Portable owners finally get to gloat with Valkyria Chronicles’ excellent tactical strategy and delightful anime WW2 flair.
• RPG: Fallout New Vegas (PC/PS3/XBOX)
Everything good about Fallout 3 minus the old system-crashing bugs, plus the new system-crashing bugs, plus Wayne Newton. It’s frustrating to see a game this good released in such an incomplete state.
• Puzzle: Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (DS)
Yes, yes, it’s another 160 bathroom-reader puzzles in a cartoony Victorian-era Europe, but that trumps match-3 jewel shuffling any day of the week.
• Racing Game: Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (PS3/PC/Wii/XBOX/iPad)
Vroom! Vroom! take Burnout Paradise, multiply it by four and add cops-and-robbers gameplay and you’ve got fun in a box.
• Downloadable title of the year: Monday Night Combat (PC/XBOX)
Runners up: Cave Story (Wii/PC/MAC/DS) Beat Sketcher (PS3)
A $15 class-based shooter with a heavy dollop of light RPG/tower defense (a la Defense of the Ancients) may be the next evolution of the FPS. The update of 2004’s Cave Story brings the hardcore platform adventure to the anemic Wii and DS library. Art “game” Beat Sketcher makes the most of motion gaming to date by allowing you to draw cartoon obscenities all over your living room.
• DLC of the year: Undead Nightmare (Red Dead Redemption — PS3/XBOX/PC)
Runners up: Lair of the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2 — XBOX/PC)
Red Dead’s Undead Nightmare adds hours of B-movie horror gameplay to the already astounding pulp Western sandbox-style adventure. Defending desert outposts from straggling hillbilly zombies, sasquatch and zombie bears for $10 is a face-chewing great deal. A close second goes to Mass Effect 2’s tug at the heartstrings when the series’ favorite alien possible love interest makes her way back to playable character status in the excellent Lair of the Shadow Broker mission.
• Game of the year: Mass Effect 2 (XBOX/PC)
Runner up: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood (XBOX/PS3/PC)
Space opera hasn’t been this engaging and exciting since the Empire struck back. Cmdr. Shepard and his/her interstellar SWAT team sprawl heartily toward hardcore third-person shooting roots while maintaining a satisfying hold in their RPG roots. It doesn’t skimp on the shiny ’splosions but never lets them get in the way of [SHOCK] actually caring about characters! It’s also a solid contender for best of 2011 when the PS3 version is launched. Next to ME2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood can’t hope to triumph, but its open world 1499 Rome is a wonderful time and place to unleash your guild of stab-people-in-the-face-for-money specialists: Bellissimo!