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2010 was a pretty good year for videogames. Across all platforms and genres, there were so many excellently crafted games released this year that it was about as easy to pick the best one as it is to choose the favorite family member or episode of Star Trek. Given the different tastes and backgrounds of everybody at the The Escapist, we had quite a lengthy discussion about what the best game of 2010 was. It started out even-handed and scholarly but tempers quickly got out of hand and someone threw a chair. We laughed, we cried, and no one batted an eye when a bottle of Patron was cracked open. I don’t know who brought the donkey into the room to prove a point but everyone agreed that it made perfect sense at the time.

In the end, we were able to narrow the field down to our 12 nominees for Game of the Year. We’d be happy with any one of these games being honored as our choice because they all bring something important to the ongoing development of game design while also delivering exactly what a game should: fun.

Here’s what we think about each of our 12 nominees and why they deserve to be Game of the Year. Be sure to check back next Friday to see what the winner will be from amongst the following games:

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Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Ubisoft
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Available from: Amazon

Imagine Grand Theft Auto set in 15th Century Rome. Now imagine that, instead of some low-life crook, you’re playing the son of a wealthy banker who’s friends with Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli. Now imagine that you’re also secretly an assassin who can climb walls like Spider-Man and gets paid to jump around the city stabbing everyone who gets in his way. Last of all, imagine that all of this takes place against a backdrop of science-fiction, art history, and politics. Put all of that together and you’ve got Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

The new game picks up where the last one left off and, though it takes a while to really get going, soon sets the player off on a fantastic journey through the Eternal City, skulking through the alleys and sewers and racing along the rooftops of the palaces. The city of Rome is the real star of the game, and it’s amazingly detailed at every level. Whether you’re chasing your assassination target through a crowded market, or just trying to figure out how to get on top of the Pantheon, there’s a lot to see and do here and it’s all spectacular. Even the sequences that take place in the future are compelling.

And you’re not just playing by yourself anymore. The Brotherhood of the title comes alive in two very different and engaging ways. First, you can recruit and train your own assassins now, sending them off on missions around Europe, or even calling them to help you out during missions in Rome. You’ll also be able to take your game online in one of the most inventive and tense multiplayer modes of the entire year. Players are dressed as typical NPCs and must wander the streets of Rome, hunting for other players to assassinate. Such innovative competitive multiplayer is easily one of the most fun we’ve had all year.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Civilization V

Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Firaxis
Platform: PC
Available from: Steam, Amazon

The biggest question going into playing Civilization V was: Is it Civ? All of the changes that had been announced (the hex-based map, city-states and units not being able to stack on top of each other in the same tile) were exciting, but felt like a departure from many of the hallmarks of the series. People who played the previous Civ games to death, including fan favorite Alpha Centauri, might think that lead designer Jon Shafer’s innovations strayed too far from the foundations laid by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds and Soren Johnson.

Such misgivings proved unfounded as many people fell into Civ V like it was a black hole made of strategy. All of the basic elements of Civilization were intact: the exploration and expansion of the opening, transitioning to conflict or diplomacy in the mid-game, and finally the race to whatever victory condition the player tried to accomplish. The new elements for this fifth iteration of the series felt like another layer on top of an already delicious cake. Because of the combat changes, waging war in Civ V let the player direct and position his troops more like a battlefield general and interactions with the smaller city-states made the player feel as if he was playing in a historical simulation more than any other Civ.

But perhaps the biggest reason that Civ V deserves to be Game of the Year is that it was harder to stop playing than any other game released in 2010. The player needs to manage so many threads and prioritize different goals that extricating yourself from the experience is hard to do without the sun reminding you that it’s morning. And that’s definitely Civ.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Fallout: New Vegas

Genre: RPG
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon (360), Amazon (PS3), Amazon (PC)

Bethesda’s first-person reboot of the classic PC game Fallout raised some eyebrows in 2008. Some in alarm, but most in surprise. Gamers expected many things from the developers of the much-loved Elder Scrolls fantasy games, but a pitch-perfect rejuvenation of one of gaming’s most memorable worlds was more than many could have hoped for. And yet, it was exactly what we got.

Expectations for the follow-up were therefore high and for good reason. Not only would New Vegas be a sequel to an award-winning and best-selling game, but it would mark the return of some of the developers who made the original Fallout so unique: Obsidian Entertainment, comprised of former members of Fallout developer Black Isle Studios.

We’re pleased to say those expectations were largely met. New Vegas is set in the Mojave Desert, taking the game world back to its dusty desert roots, but retains enough of Bethesda’s life-giving spark that even though it feels very much like the old Fallout, it still looks and plays like it’s new. Not a bad trick.

The game has been plagued with waves of bugs, making it a controversial nominee for our Game of the Year, but the level of overall development excellence and the sheer total amount of fun contained within New Vegas‘s tiny game box would make it a crime for the game to not be mentioned alongside our other nominees. At the end of the day, fun is fun, and New Vegas has plenty of that.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Halo: Reach

Genre: Shooter
Developer: Bungie
Platform: Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon.com

Halo: Reach is a gaming anomaly. The latest game in the Halo series, it is nevertheless set prior to the events of its predecessors. The events depicted in Reach‘s single player campaign set the stage for the events depicted in the first game’s story. Gameplay and technology-wise, Reach benefits from the decade of FPS evolution since the release of Combat Evolved. In both the single-player campaign and multiplayer matches, Reach‘s fluid visuals and mechanics reach the apex of shooter design, easily making it the best entry in the franchise, if not the best shooter released this year.

Story-wise, Reach delivers a knockout by bringing the Halo epic to a close while illuminating its beginnings. Players know what’s in store from the very opening scene and yet hope that somehow the ultimate fate of Reach‘s protagonist can be avoided. That the player ultimately can’t change history makes Reach one of the most poignant games of 2010 and charts new territory for typically bombastic, machismo shooters.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Heavy Rain

Genre: Adventure
Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform: PlayStation 3
Available from: Amazon

Heavy Rain could easily earn its spot as a Game of the Year nominee for being an important experiment in marrying storytelling with interactivity. Its unusual control scheme, which uses the controller’s thumbsticks and motion sensitivity to approximate real life movements, goes a long way towards tearing down the barrier between player and avatar. Whether or not history deems it a success, Heavy Rain‘s attempt to redefine the game experience will be discussed for years to come, but what makes it a nominee for Game of the Year is its ability to make us feel connected to its characters – at times painfully so.

The game begins with a tutorial so banal it’s almost a parody. As Ethan, you putter around your house, taking a shower and drinking some orange juice until your wife comes home and asks you to help her get the house ready for your son’s birthday party. You arrange a few place settings on the dining room table, then head out to the back yard to play with your kids. It’s the kind of achingly boring suburban activity that’s immediately recognizable and so ordinary that it feels horribly out of place in a videogame. And that’s before you head off to the mall to buy shoes.

But it’s at the mall, when your son wanders off and you begin to search frantically for him through the crowd that you begin to realize that your time with Heavy Rain will be different than with other games. That moment is not about finishing a level or completing a quest; you forget the game you’re meant to be playing, because all you can think about is finding your son before god-knows-what happens to him. After tragedy strikes, we feel the emptiness mirrored in Ethan’s dingy apartment. Heavy Rain‘s technical limitations prevent it from achieving everything it sets out to do, but its experience was unlike anything else we played this year.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Kirby’s Epic Yarn

Genre: Platformer
Developer: Hal Laboratory/Good-Feel
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Available from: Amazon

It’s easy to look at this game and think it looks a little too precious. Kirby’s Epic Yarn is actually the perfect level of precious, coming off as sweet, rather than saccharine. The central conceit – that we’re in Patch Land, where the world consists of yarn, fabric, and sewing notions – is stunningly realized in the game’s design.

The most important aspect of the premise is the brilliant way it enhances gameplay. Yarn is obviously the element that sees the most play, but the sewing notions and doo-dads are a fantastic integration. The game keeps you swinging from buttons, unzipping new worlds, and pulling drawstrings to create shortcuts. That’s not to say that the use of yarn isn’t sharp, because is it ever: The ability to unravel enemies with ease and transform into anything from a submarine to a fire truck makes every level an exciting new adventure. In terms of level design, the world is detailed down to the last stitch. Worlds with water are particularly well realized; watching the yarn water “flow” can be almost hypnotic.

Cooperative gameplay, in particular, cleverly serves the premise. As Kirby and Prince Fluff, players can ball each other up to toss at button-eyed enemies and fling each other to dizzying heights to reach new areas of play. The game is quite relaxing, even in its challenging bits. This is helped by the soothing soundtrack, which is appropriately peppy without being obtrusive.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn masterfully realizes a clever concept, and does so in a delightful and playable way. Kirby’s Epic Yarn has a place as one of our nominees for Game of the Year all stitched up.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Mass Effect 2

Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: BioWare
Platform: Xbox 360, PC
Available from: Amazon

The easiest thing in the world for a game developer to do is to repeat themselves. If a game was well received by audiences and critics alike, there’s little reason to mess with a successful formula, yet that’s exactly what BioWare did with Mass Effect 2. Its predecessor was a winner by just about any metric you’d care to use, but it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. BioWare read virtually every bit of feedback it could find, from formal reviews to forum posts, to figure out what needed tweaking. The result was a game that merged modern shooter gunplay with classic RPG elements to create a whole that was more than the sum of its parts.

From its dramatic opening – easily one of the best in recent memory – to its willingness to kill off major characters, Mass Effect 2 made it clear that it was not going to be an ordinary run through the galaxy. You might be the hero of this particular space romp, but by no means did that translate into a free pass to success. If you didn’t put in the work to upgrade your ship or get to know your crew, your chances of surviving the game’s final act were shockingly slim, no matter how talented your trigger finger or how savvy your stat allocation. Sporting no shortage of adrenaline-charged set pieces, Mass Effect 2 also showed it understood the importance of quiet and a sense of humor. Most important, Mass Effect 2 did what every middle chapter of a trilogy should: make us anxious to discover how the story ends.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Red Dead Redemption

Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Rockstar
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Available from: Amazon

After playing dozens of games set in the legendary Wild West, all ranging from bad to worse, the prospect of ever playing a Western one could call “good” seemed as empty as the gap between a prospector’s front teeth. That is, until we played Red Dead Redemption.

RDR came out of the gate this year as the best Western game ever made by focusing on the basics of the genre: character and setting, two of developer Rockstar’s core strengths and the two elements that will make or break any Western. RDR‘s hero, John Marston, is an archetypal Western anti-hero trying to clear his name and rejoin his family, supported by a cast of memorable characters you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll.

Unlike some story-strong games, however, RDR is actually fun to play, filled with guns, dynamite, trains, stagecoaches, horses, whores and saloons. What it does best is put you in the setting, give you setting-specific goals to achieve alongside setting-realistic characters who are well-acted and written well. Combined with engaging and deep gameplay and a breadth of missions taking John Marston from the American Southwest, to Mexico, to a cold, mountainous frontier, the story elements make for a Western experience that’s as good or better as those on film, and a worthy nominee for this year’s Game of the Year.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Rock Band 3

Genre: Music
Developer: Harmonix
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii
Available from: Amazon

The stars aligned for this third installment of Harmonix’s celebrated music game series. After years of quick cash-ins creating a thoroughly oversaturated market, Rock Band 3 takes a giant leap into the future of music games and sets an amazingly high bar for its competitors.

Even real musicians who usually scoff at these types of games found themselves captivated by the more realistic Pro Mode, which removes many of the abstractions and compromises required when treating a game controller like a real analog instrument. The new one-button-per-string-per-fret guitar controllers, keyboards and pro drums with cymbal packs, make it feel like you’re actually playing the real instruments instead of just tapping away on an oversized, oddly-shaped game controller.

On top of that, the new career mode opens up a wide range of progressive achievements and unlocks, with visual customization options that would shame most top-tier roleplaying games. Making your own band and then taking them from garage band to world stars is an epic story, with enough smaller rewards along the way to keep you motivated. Additionally, a training mode helps you learn parts and work towards mastery of each of the game’s featured instruments.

All of those features wouldn’t count for much if the music itself wasn’t great. Thankfully, Rock Band 3 has a strong, diverse track list. Sure, it’s not as big on “rock” as the title implies, but there’s something here for everyone.

This is, quite simply, the pinnacle of music games and it’ll be hard for Harmonix to top itself.

Click here to read our thoughts on Rock Band 3 as part of our music games roundup.

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StarCraft II

Genre: Real-time Strategy
Developer: Blizzard
Platform: PC, Mac
Available from: Amazon, Battle.net

You could come up with any number of reasons to make StarCraft II a nominee for Game of the Year. The single-player campaign was an enthralling romp through an enjoyably cheesy space opera storyline, with some of the most brilliant mission design seen in a strategy game to date. Gone are the days of simply wiping out the enemy’s base – with a mission in which lava rises up periodically to wipe out your units, or the Night of the Living Dead homage of zombies attacking at night, RTS developers have their work cut out for them trying to top SC2.

And yet, even the exquisitely-crafted campaign is a pale shadow of the game’s stellar multiplayer. Matches in StarCraft II are tense from the very first moment your workers begin harvesting resources to the very last enemy building going up in flames, and that tension never lets up. A match can be won in a tiny skirmish within the first five minutes, or it can be decided twenty minutes later in a huge clash of robots and ship fleets. It’s balanced, it’s superbly paced, and each of the races still feel distinct and unique. What’s more, Blizzard has created a game that matches the original’s popularity in competitive gaming – an achievement in itself. That isn’t even getting into what can be done with the map creator – how StarCraft fans can create their own minigames to share with the rest of the community.

If StarCraft II delivered in only one of these areas, it would have been a GotY contender – but it has the whole package. It’s possible that SC2 will have the most enduring legacy out of any other game released this year. Ten years from now, we’ll still be playing StarCraft II, and waiting for Blizzard to announce StarCraft III.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

Genre: Platforming
Developer: Nintendo
Platform: Wii
Available from: Amazon

Some might argue that Super Mario Galaxy 2 isn’t worthy of Game of the Year honors simply because it happens to be the follow-up to a superb platformer that was well-worthy of its own GotY honors back in 2007 – and to them, SMG2 is just more of the same.

To them, I say: No. Saying that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is “just more Super Mario Galaxy” is like saying that the Mona Lisa was “just another drawing by Da Vinci.” Everything that was introduced in the first Galaxy – the colorful, creative worlds; the mind-bending and gravity-warping level design – is honed to near perfection in Galaxy 2. The result is a splendid platformer that sends gaming’s most recognizable icon through one imaginative obstacle course after another in a joyful celebration of everything we love about videogames.

The levels are interesting and fantastic, and it’s hard to anticipate just what SMG2 will throw at you next. The boss battles are suitably challenging, the bombastic orchestral score is stirring, and a game on the Wii should not look this good. But there’s simply no topping the wonderful, ecstatic sense of imagination that permeates every corner of this game.

For many of us, Mario was the reason we first started to get into gaming. Games like Super Mario Galaxy 2 are the reason we’re still here.

Click here for our full written review and video supplement.

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World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Genre: RPG
Developer: Blizzard
Platform: PC
Available from: Amazon, Battle.net

At this point, Blizzard could just raise the level cap, slap in a few new dungeons and quests and continue printing money. But that’s not what they did with Cataclysm at all. The design team took a step back by modernizing the lands of Azeroth that players first leveled through all the way back in 2004. The team rewrote nearly every quest to mean something new in the world that was broken by the giant dragon Deathwing’s emergence.

Not only did the world of Azeroth get an overhaul to accommodate players’ expectations to be able to ride their precious flying mounts in any new content, but the designers also revamped the stats and talents to make decisions simpler and more transparent for experienced players. That doesn’t mean the content is cookie-cutter easy, as the difficulty of five-man dungeons has been retuned back to what it was in The Burning Crusade. Some may not like it, but success in what many forget is a multiplayer game actually means cooperating and communicating with other players again.

To further entice players, Blizzard added new races to the Horde and Alliance that continue the ongoing story of Azeroth. Choosing to create a goblin allows you to play a diminutive profit-minded explosion expert with a Brooklyn accent, while roleplaying a human cursed to become a worgen surely satisfies anybody with an erudite werewolf fantasy. After the staples of elf, dwarf and orc, it’s tough to create new fantasy races that don’t feel ridiculous, but Blizzard somehow pulled it off by crafting excellently scripted opening sequences that feel like natural progressions of the lore instead of something tacked on to appease the fanboys.

The MMO landscape was already dominated by World of Warcraft and Cataclysm proved that the designers are committed to improving both the game design and ongoing story of Azeroth. Beyond all that, it’s almost more fun to see all the new things in the world than it was to discover them when we first logged in 2004. Any game that can still provide that feeling of adventure and discovery in a 6 year old engine deserves to be Game of the Year.

Click here for the full written review and video supplement.

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