Each year, our staff plays hundreds of games as we separate the good from the bad and the great from the good. Now, we separate the year's truly exceptional from the rest, and crown our singular Game of the Year. Drumroll please...
Starcraft II - Wings Of Liberty
Years from now, PC gamers will remember 2010 first and foremost as the year that StarCraft finally returned. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty hasn't just wowed the hardcore PC faithful, it's a beacon that's drawn hordes of gamers back to their PCs, and reminded them what they've always loved about the kind of gaming experience you can only get here.
Its accomplishments are dazzling. With outstanding and innovative campaign mission design, and a meticulous, artful graphical update to its classic factions and multiplayer battles, it's revitalized and restored confidence in the traditional resource gathering, base building realtime strategy game formula. We've heard suspicions voiced over the years that this formula had become outdated or in need of reinvention to be relevant, but StarCraft II has proven that the old-school model didn't abruptly become un-fun five years ago.
What's more, by applying the between-mission story mode (which harkens back to classic PC games like X-Wing and Wing Commander), to realtime strategy, Blizzard has cracked a problem that has plagued the RTS genre since its inception: making the characters who appear tiny on the battlefield feel like larger-than-life heroes, and bringing us in close to immerse us in the universe we usually only get to see from far above.
Finally, the spectacular multiplayer action is so exciting that it doesn't even need to be played to be enjoyed—StarCraft II has successfully introduced gamers to the idea that games can be enjoyable as a spectator sport. In just a few short months, the audience for commentated professional-level matches and tournaments has exploded from a small and dedicated niche to a thriving community of hundreds of thousands of viewers who regularly tune in to view games on YouTube, GOMtv.net or Major League Gaming, and follow their favorite players.
In those ways and more, StarCraft II is a monument to PC gaming. It's a game that can be enjoyed by everyone, from the newest and most inexperienced players to the gamer's equivalent of the world-class athlete—and even those who'd rather just sit back and watch.
Call Of Duty: Black Ops
The unrivaled control of our mice and keyboards demands high-skill, athletic multiplayer experiences. Some of the PC's finest multiplayer shooters (Tribes, Quake III, Team Fortress Classic) earned our respect by offering brutally uncompromising arenas that demand pixel-point accuracy and to-the-nanosecond finesse. Anything less is a waste of the agility and precision that we're able to manifest with these devices.
Despite being designed as a cross-platform game, Call of Duty: created the kind of hyper-competitive itch that our trigger fingers love to scratch better than any other shooter this year. Its breakneck-paced, kill-or-be-owned multiplayer modes have an arcade feel to them, but Treyarch's rejiggering of CoD's multiplayer formula hooks us right in the competitive center of our brains. Being a successful player means summoning every ounce of marksmanship skill and tactical battlefield awareness that you can muster while allowing physics and playful weapons, such as an RC car bomb or a crossbow with exploding bolts, balance that tension with entertaining doses of dumb luck.
Technologically, Black Ops' integrated video replay and sharing system sets a precedent in post-game enjoyment. Revisiting game-saving headshots or how-did-that-possibly-kill-him Tomahawk tosses in slow-mo with a free camera grant the same StarCraft II provides players to revisit, analyze and share your best moments. We don't forgive Black Ops' botched launch or brain-dead single-player campaign, but it celebrates a style of multiplayer that belongs on the PC--a speedy death-go-round we can't get enough of.
There's more than one way to tell an adventure story--we just didn't realize it until Agent Nelson Tethers showed up with Puzzle Agent. Telltale replaced the usual pixel-hunting, inventory management and object-combination puzzles found in adventure games (which can all too often rely more on guesswork as to which items can be worn as hats than puzzle-solving techniques) with real brain scratchers. Whether we were bouncing Nelson's snowmobile to safety, calculating the cargo capacity of swallows or solving word problems, Puzzle Agent's puzzles added great gameplay to Tethers' surprisingly edgy saga and elevated a young genre--the puzzle-adventure.
League of Legends
2010 saw games lining up around the block for the opportunity to entertain PC gamers for free, but none could match League of Legends' steady stream of high-quality updates. The content machine at Riot churns out new champions every two weeks, along with new maps, items and meta-game systems. This year's Season One update both opened up competitive play for top-tier players and strengthened the tutorial elements for newcomers. League of Legends continues to prove that a dedicated independent developer can make the free-to-play model shine.
Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas shows us how great things can be accomplished by standing on the shoulders of giants. It demonstrates that the defining characteristic of a great roleplaying game isn't flashy, state-of-the-art graphics; success as an immersive adventure depends much more on creating an irresistible, fantastical world, filling it with interesting characters— and then letting us mess with it.
Obsidian's writing sparkles with fascinating characters and quests that pay loving homage to the franchise's PC roots at every opportunity. Its main quest begins as a small-scale tale of personal revenge in the Mojave, but blossoms into an opportunity to decide the outcome of a wide-open conflict that will upset the balance of power of an entire region. Nothing empowers us as players more than seeing the effects of our choices play out, and Fallout: New Vegas' conflict can be resolved in so many ways that it gives us a feeling of freedom and control virtually unprecedented among modern games. Roleplaying games don't get a whole lot better than this.
And while it's a cross-platform game, Fallout: New Vegas reminds us why the PC is more often than not the best place to experience an openworld RPG like this one. It looks far better on the PC than any other platform, and mods step in afterward to unlock its full potential. Fallout: New Vegas is truly our adventure.
Sports games saw a resurgence on the PC this year, defying the perception that great sports games show up only on consoles. Leading the pack is NBA 2K11, a brilliant homage to basketball's greatest hero, Michael Jordan. Its sharp AI and crisp visuals are good enough to fool you—just for a moment—into thinking you're watching and somehow controlling a live game between the very best players in basketball history. NBA 2K11 proves the PC's strength as the most versatile of all gaming platforms—the perfect place to play any kind of game.
Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck's Revenge
A great joke never dies. LucasArts proved that again by bringing Guybrush's sophomore mix-up with LeChuck into the modern era gracefully with Monkey Island 2 Special Edition: LeChuck's Revenge. The artwork has been reinvigorated, new voiceovers give each character even more style, and the new interface is expertly tuned for adventuring. The most interesting new feature is the commentary by the original creators (Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman) who chat casually with each other as you play. It's the sort of fun behind-the-scenes look usually reserved for film, and it injects an already great game with plenty of fresh hilarity and insight.
Lord of the Rings Online
A lot of MMOs thrived this year, but their success was dampened by a lack of major updates or innovation. When it came to keeping us entertained all year long with small updates, plus throwing us the occasional party with huge loads of free content, LotRO treated its fans the best. Two new Epic Books' worth of quests alongside the franchise's memorable characters and two new regions were added; character creation and starter regions were completely revamped, in-game events were expanded and UI elements were improved—and then the game went free-to-play in September.
Turbine's signature hybrid free-to-play subscription model proved to be a great success, generously letting curious players browse Middle-earth and sample the content before deciding whether or not to open their wallets. It's quickly redefining the way a successful subscriptionless MMO is run.
The future's looking good for LotRO—even with this year's huge additions, it's wisely pacing itself to avoid burning through the books' story content too quickly. There's a long road ahead before we're knocking on Mordor's door with the One Ring, and that road is lined with good friends (LotRO's community is one of the most friendly and enthusiastic around), excellent gameplay and free updates, and at the rate Turbine is going, we'll be enjoying the journey for years to come.
It's no surprise that Civilization V wins this award—Civilization has been one of the PC's definitive names in turnbased strategy for almost two decades, thanks to the deep, addictive turn-based experience that you just can't get anywhere else.
With Civ V's reinvention in particular, Firaxis has demonstrated that the series—and the entire genre of turnbased strategy—is teeming with new ideas. Its revamped tactical combat addresses a long-standing weakness of the series and made the inevitable wars between nations more engaging; its colorful graphics and redesigned interface reach out to gamers intimidated by complexity, grab them by their eyeballs and, before they realize what's happened, pull them into all-night gaming sessions that don't end until one nation rules the world; and its in-game mod browser opens up the world of user-made content to gamers who would've otherwise never known where to look for it or how to install it.
Wherever the series goes next, we'll be able to look back at Civilization V and say that it took us somewhere new and enthralling.
Lock On: Flaming Cliffs 2
An expansion pack for a 2003 flight sim might not seem like a slam dunk for Simulation of the Year honors, but Eagle Dynamics' expertly crafted Lock On: Flaming Cliffs 2 is a truly exceptional revival of an existing favorite. By taking a strong but datedlooking sim and turbocharging it with a modern engine, an impressive international collection of warplanes, detailed cockpit renderings and freshly upgraded terrain graphics, FC2 delivers one of the best combat flight experiences that sim fans have seen in years.
A masterstroke of minimalism, The Ball was the best gaming vignette of the year. There's no dialog, sweeping cinematics or tacked-on multiplayer mode to burden The Ball—just a lightweight, focused, gameplay-driven short story. It benefited from this simplicity by giving us a campaign that felt paced and personal. As you kick the multiton marble around with your ancient Mexican gravity gun, it somehow makes the transition from object to character. You develop this subtle but strong relationship with the object—it doesn't change or communicate, but it takes on the feeling of a pet following you through lava-soaked corridors.
Nehrim: At Fate's Edge
It's a total conversion for a four-year-old game (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), but Nehrim is so impressive that it was a contender not just for best mod, but for best RPG. Nehrim is massive, witty, occasionally vicious, incredibly ambitious and tremendously successful at injecting new life into a game that many of us have already played so much that we could scarcely imagine seeing anything new come out of it. Its world is wonderfully resolved—settlements look sensibly planned, residents have purposeful vocations, forests are dense and geography looks natural.
The dedication shown by the modders who took Nehrim from concept to realization is astonishing. Only on the PC do gamers have such power to shape their experiences.
An unfinished, hyper-simple, low-fi independent game captured the imaginations of PC gamers more than anything else in 2010. But it isn't technical excellence that makes Minecraft the PC's brightest innovator (although there's plenty of that). Rather, it's the way that it reveres players' ideas. Minecraft doesn't provide any goal, story or explicit reward for digging in the earth. Instead, it allows players to cultivate their own experiences out of the simple tasks of digging and building, punctuated by a few monsters every now and then. Players approach the blank canvas in different ways: erecting world-spanning railroads or waterfall wonders; strip-mining the ground for rare ores; exploring dungeons; creating multiplayer metropolises or hidden fortresses; using in-game tools for bizarre science—making each player's experience necessarily unique.
Minecraft also demonstrates that word-of-mouth on the PC is still the surest route to indie success. Minecraft sold more than 700,000 copies in 2010 by way of players sharing their creations and discoveries on YouTube, Reddit.com and forums. This remarkable popularity is only possible on an open platform like the PC, where Minecraft creator “Notch” can deploy weekly updates to the game and collaborate directly with fans on content and bug fixes.
While we wouldn't expect Minecraft's financial success to become commonplace, it opens up a new business model for self-employed developers: selling before official release in order to finance development.