It's become a tradition here at The Escapist to do a "Five Favorites" roundup at the end of the year, where each of the staff members posts their own list of the five games they enjoyed the most over the past twelve months. It's a fun little tradition, but we realize that it can tend to get skewed towards games released in the last part of the year - not only is that the blockbuster season, but they're fresher in our minds.
Since summer is traditionally considered a low-key time in gaming with few major releases, we thought it'd be a good idea to use the downtime to give the first half of the year its due. Over the next week, The Escapist's editorial staff will be sharing three of their favorite games from the first six months of 2010 - along with one "extra" from whenever - that you might want to pick up during these summer doldrums. Are these what we think are the three best games of 2010 so far? Nope. Are they our three favorites, full stop? Nah. We just enjoyed them, and we think you might, too.
Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, PS3)
While I followed the development of this game a bit, I didn't anticipate how fun it would end up being. Riding around on my horse, shooting the fauna (and sometimes flora) of New Austin and killing random banditos is the most pleasurable open-world experience that I've had in a long while. As my boss Russ Pitts said, there's just so much to do that the story missions take a back seat to collecting plants, skinning animals and just plain staring in wonder at a beautifully rendered sunset. Add in the surprisingly fun gambling games like Liar's Dice and Poker and it's a wonder that I'm even at 51% complete. Red Dead is awesome, and it was totally worth the crunch time from Rockstar San Diego (just try not to wreck families next time, guys). This game is huge, and I haven't even delved into the multiplayer yet. Of course, I'm not sure if I want to open up that can of worms.
I may be late to the party, but I only picked up the science fiction strategy games Sins of a Solar Empire when its latest expansion pack Diplomacy was released in a triple pack this winter with the original game and the first Entrenchment expansion. With all of the extra content, the tech trees are extremely robust and planet-gobbling gameplay was a little intimidating at first. I lost my first few games, but that was mostly because of the pesky pirate mechanic (pirates will launch an attack every 15 minutes on the faction who doesn't pay them enough credits).
After I turned off the pirate raids, I was able to enjoy learning the game a hell of a lot more. Combat is fascinatingly tactical, with specific ships countering each other in a rock, paper scissors configuration. Capital ships, the big hulking battleships, are analogous to hero units in WC3 and much of my early strategy involved building up the infrastructure to support 5 or 6 of them. The 3 races available aren't terribly different from each other, and I haven't found the diplomacy option really that viable, but SOSE is an incredibly complex and engaging 4X strategy game. Buy it and lose a weekend to building one more ship, taking over one more asteroid, destroying one more rampaging alien horde.
You know those moments in fantasy films or movies set in the middle ages when two thundering vanguards clash together in a riot of horseflesh, steel and blood? That's what the combat in M&B: Warband is all about. You ride a horse and can swing your sword or axe or whatever weapon you choose in a visceral battle surrounded by your loyal men. When you get good at the mouse-based combat, which can be a bit tricky to master, it's actually possible to hold off a charge of 20-30 of the opposing enemy. You can really feel like the master at arms that you've always dreamed you can be.
But that's only half of M&B: Warband. The other half is an open-world simulation populated by 7 kingdoms, each with their own flavor. Towns and villages have goods with variable prices and a number of men to recruit into your band. The goal of the game may be to rule it all but there is more than a few chances for emergent gameplay. Want to be the charming rogue? You can woo a Lady right out from under your Lord's nose. Want to support the bastard's claim for the throne of the Nords? You can find him in a foreign court and pledge allegiance to him. Leveling up your hero and his companions, as well as the men in your band, can be accomplished through tracking down bandits, helping out in your liege's wars, or escorting trade caravans. Of course, you could also just be a merchant yourself and earn gold through manipulating the economy.
Playing M&B: Warband feels like nothing more to me than being a character in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. If that's anywhere near up your alley, then you'll love it.
Gimme: StarCraft (PC)
Like most strategy/Blizzard fans, I can't wait to play the single-player campaign in StarCraft II later this month. But, if you can't wait, why not pick up the first game and refresh your memory of the story leading up to the sequel? Or if you're like me, and you're ashamed to admit that you never actually played the first StarCraft, then you have no excuse to do so now.
I saw the StarCraft Battle Chest at Target this weekend for $20 and I grabbed it in anticipation, but you should learn from my mistake: Go to Battle.net and download a digital copy (inluding the Brood War) for only 15 bucks. I already put the twelve-year-old game on my netbook and have had tons of fun playing as Jim Raynor and the gang. The graphics are a bit laughable at first, but I was surprised at how quickly the strategy immerses you in what's happening on the screen. You forget about the graphics within minutes. So why not pick it up? It may be the best decision you'll ever make.
Come back tomorrow for Steve Butts' games of summer. See all of our summer gaming lists here.
Greg Tito was too busy being on vacation to write a byline.