2010 has been an amazing year for videogames. From indie hits to AAA blockbusters, there’s been a lot to love about this year. But there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a week, and so many weeks in a … well, you get the idea. As in every year, we found some games dominated our days and nights and still had us coming back for more. To celebrate those games, we’re offering up our Five Favorites of 2010. Be sure to check back over the coming week for our editor’s picks for the best in games, and also stay tuned for our Five Favorite Not Games.

Russ Pitts’ Five Favorites of 2010

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare
Greg Tito and I both love this game so much we decided to split covering it here along dead and undead lines. We flipped for it, and I got the zombie version. I think I won that toss.

Undead Nightmare is a massive, single-player DLC expansion pack for Red Dead Redemption. It’s designed to fall vaguely outside of the reality of the main story, but fits in well enough that it doesn’t feel like a total jerk off.

One fine day after reuniting with his family (sorry, spoiler) John Marston awakes to find the world in the grip of a zombie plague. The dead have risen to life, ghoulish creatures wander the earth in search of human flesh and anyone bitten by the undead becomes one of them. Your standard zombie fare.

Where Undead Nightmare differentiates itself from the recent horde of zombie-infused games is in its Old West setting and the unusual twists and turns required to maintain a “credible” zombie-based storyline and not tamper with the near-flawless Western feel of the game.

For the sake of ruining your experience with the game, I won’t go into too much detail regarding the whys or wherefores, but suffice to say, by limiting access to ammo and other consumables, requiring John Marston shoot every enemy in the head and adding challenges such as “find each of the four horses of the apocalypse,” Undead Nightmare revives the zombie genre in a uniquely fresh way and offers gamers a chance to spend ten or more extra hours in one of the best-conceived and executed open-world games ever made.

Fallout: New Vegas
Fallout: New Vegas is the worst game I’ve ever spent over 100 hours with. It is frustrating beyond belief and more than once has forced me to get up and turn it off. And yet, the next day I’m back, playing some more.

Initially released with a multitude of the worst kind of bugs – system locks, disappearing characters, lost save files, un-finishable missions, etc. – New Vegas nonetheless hits the perfect sweet spot with its Old Westernization of Bethesda’s reboot of the classic PC RPG, Fallout 3. As much love as I still have for Fallout 3 (350 hours and counting), something about the D.C. setting, or Bethesda’s heavy-handed re-telling never quite put me at ease in their version of the Fallout world. New Vegas brings the series back to its Western roots and, although still very much Bethesda’s baby, infuses the series with enough influences from the series’ original creators to bring it much more in line with expectations.

There are enough narrative twists and turns to make you feel as if this is a world where one man can actually make a difference, but the game seems to not mind if you don’t really care. The main story mission that sets you off to seek revenge against the man who shot you and left you for dead, slowly evolves into the typical ROG affair: it’s up to you to save the world (or not). At least this small part of it in what used to be Nevada, anyway.

In New Vegas, you can choose to side with one faction or another. Or another. Or go it on your own. Or ignore the main story and collect rare guns, make your own ammo, meet a large cast of party members and an even larger cast of secondary characters, and generally “wander the wastes,” just like in the good, old days.

It’s a shame, then, that the game is so painfully broken that you’ll frequently wonder why you bother. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, a major patch, said to fix a multitude of problems across all major platforms, will have been released. If this game had been released in anything approaching a perfect state, it’d be a shoe-in for GOTY. As it is … it’s not getting my vote.

Mafia II
The original Mafia was the kind of game one felt like one “discovered;” a not-really-mainstream title blending a variety of gameplay elements into a mishmash that, while frustrating at times, offered plenty of rewards for the discriminating gamer looking for a hint of gaming’s next big thing. It didn’t get a lot of press at the time, was dismissed by many critics as an overly-ambition Grand Theft Auto clone and by all rights should never have been optioned for a sequel.

And yet it was, and I, for one, could not be more grateful. Mafia, as immersive and rewarding as it may have been, was just unpolished enough to make you feel as if you had to work to love it. The layered, well-written and well-told story evolved at a pace that was then-unheard of in gaming, and the feeling of being in a real place at a real time in history was overwhelming.

Mafia II misses the mark somewhat in that it fails to significantly evolve the core gameplay of the original in spite of being released nearly a decade later. While it does feel more highly polished than the original, the lack of rough edges make the choices made by the game’s designers feel less risky and uninspired.

In spite of this, the game still manages to captivate through the sheer blunt force of its incredible immersiveness, first-rate story and excellent performances. 2K Czech have proved they know how to create a realistic period game that feels real enough to live in. The drivable vehicles, weapons, set pieces and overall ambiance mesh seamlessly into an appealing whole that’s inspiring enough to forgive its lapses.

Splinter Cell: Conviction
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell series of games largely established the stealth action genre all on its own, and have made major contributions to the revitalization of spy movies as well. So it would be fair to expect such an influential series to be making major waves with its latest videogame installment, Conviction, and it does not disappoint.

Conviction is a high water mark for the series, successfully blending a first-rate narrative with a return to the kinds of missions that made early entries great. Impositions placed on the character through narrative circumstance create a genuine tension as you play the game. Sure, it would be nice to have unlimited gadgets and explosives with which to solve your problems (who can’t relate?) but the joy is in the discovery of how, even with limited options, multiple solutions still exist. Part puzzler, part stealth, part shooter, Conviction is the kind of game that blends just enough of the rights parts of different genres to make the whole feel more than the sum of its parts.

It also doesn’t hurt that, through innovative use of texture and light, load screens and out-of-game mission briefings have been largely abolished in favor of delivering critical information directly to the player through the game. Critics and gamers alike largely overlooked these innovations, because they felt so “right” it was hard to recall they hadn’t been there all along.

Crackdown 2
Sometimes a game doesn’t have to be revolutionary or even evolutionary to be one of the best games of the year. Not for me anyway. Crackdown 2 is in that camp.

While Crackdown 2 offers only marginal improvements to the formula of the original game, the original game was so much damn fun that it really only needed marginal improvement. As a friend described it to me at the time, the premise of Crackdown is basically, Grand Theft Auto, except you’re Superman. It’s an open world, full of things to destroy, and your ability to destroy them is limited only by your imagination and the current state of your character advancement. It’s one of the very few games in which the fun is not overly inhibited at lower levels, but becomes even more fun the longer you play.

Crackdown 2 adds a beefier story to the mix, along with some extra firepower, a new enemy and a tweak to the original game’s faction system. You’re still in Pacific City, you still work for The Agency, you can still leap and you will still drive a supercar and be able to throw it at people. Basically, it’s the same game, but better. And just betterer enough to be more awe than “aw, man.”

Be sure to come back tomorrow to see more of our picks.

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