Stop sniggering at the back.
(Okay, this post was originally meant to go up on the 31st of December, 2011, but then I moved jobs, houses and countries and sort of forgot about it. So here it is. Rewind your mind a few months and stop grumbling quite so loudly.)

Sometimes, it's hard to swim against the current. Not quite as hard as swimming against currants, but still jolly tough. Today's current is brought to you by LIST-O-VISION, the latest in advanced bloggery that spews out immeasurably large quantities of similarly-themed posts that name a specific set of games tactfully positioned next to a numeral for maximum judgemental effect. It's quite likely that such posts will have repeated use of words such as "best," "greatest," or, in extreme cases, "most not-shit."

This post is cunningly disguised as one of them. BRING ON THE NUMBERS.

A long, long time ago, shoot ‘em ups ruled this land we call Gaming. Space Invaders came, saw and blew the tar out of a heap of aliens and built an entire industry on its shoulders. The eighties was all about the shooting of things, but by the mid-nineties the shooter seemed to have had its day. I blame the PlayStation and those la-de-da 3D graphics. However, stubborn bastards like me still like playing them, while simultaneously listening to Mötley Crüe and quoting Bill & Ted.

I was born in 1986, I have no excuse. CAVE, however, happily burst into being on said PlayStation and created DonPachi, which I had and which was awesome. DoDonPachi Resurrection is the latest in the series, and it finally made its way to Europe this year for the Xbox 360. It’s manic bullet hell at its best, stuffing enemies and laser fire on screen so tight that the framerate crawls. Cave consistently produce colourful, lively and thoroughly entertaining games, and DDPR carries that standard effortlessly. It’s also ridiculously customisable; for a game about blowing up stuff over the course of five stages, there’s a lot of variation. Bundled on disc is Version 1.5 with a few improvements and additions, and a few other modes geared towards score attack. Three individual ship types are available and two distinctive shot modes, both of which add to the game’s astonishing replayability.

It’s just great fun to play. There’s nothing I can really explain about how it works that people who’ve tried don’t know. A good shoot ‘em up taps into a part of me that finds incessant joy in the simplicity of the game play and mechanics and the challenge in mastering what’s on screen. That’s the definition of an arcade game, and though quick arcade thrills have been replicated quite a lot recently thanks to the rising indie scene, burgeoning smartphone gaming market and the stores on PSN and XBL, a venerable master like Cave still blows most of what I’ve played out of the water. DDPR is a superb title, well-deserving of a top ten finish.

Re-released this year, Space Channel 5: Part 2 saves the otherwise alternatively messy and horrible Dreamcast Collection. It’s worth the entrance fee, this game is golden. I never had a chance to play it a decade ago, the Dreamcast had died and I missed it on my PS2 when it was ported, so I’m very grateful to get the opportunity to try it now.

The game is no better or no worse than its predecessor, simply a continuation of the joyous hip-swinging, high-kicking musical sci-fi insanity that Space Channel 5 laid down. The interaction in SC5:P2 isn’t the most complicated, not even by music game standards, following the Simon Says routine that PaRappa the Rapper already successfully implemented. The reason that SC5:P2 is such a good game is that it makes you want to, well, act silly. Tap along to the beat, holler at the characters and just get into the swing of things.

I remember reading an interview with the game’s creator, who said that his motivation for making the game was to recreate the feeling of a musical in a video game. He succeeded, because SC5:P2 is a smash hit.

Our first two top ten entries were made by Japanese people. Not this game. This game was made by Americans. Go Americans! Those persistently plucky underdogs. In the time I followed it before its release (and, with its copyright problems believe me, I had plenty of time to follow it), it never quite looked like a Double Fine game to me. Maybe that was because it was a tower defence game, which, superficially, doesn’t seem to allow many opportunities to implement that excellent writing Double Fine is known for. Or maybe it was because the primary character is a multiple-ton giant mech that you strap artillery cannons to. Yeah, that could be it. Hard to see that Double Fine knack for great characterization in a stompy robot.

If that was all that Iron Brigade was, it probably wouldn’t be that great. I mean, it’s a good tower defence game, but there are a lot of good tower defence games being made right now, and IB doesn’t do much to rise above the pack. Fortunately, the Double Fine touch runs right through it, and that does make it stand out. It’s witty, and light-hearted, and often funny. I giggle at the gun descriptions, the animations of my soldier on the intermission battleship and the banter from your bed-ridden CO. It approaches its subject matter as more than mere fluff to pad out a game play experience, and as such helps improve it.

And, as I already pointed out, it is a good tower defence game. Not the best tower defence game, not even the best tower defence game I’ve played this year, but certainly the one which has made me happiest playing it, and that is worth an awful lot of brownie points.

There’s not a great deal of goodwill among gamers directed at Brink these days. In fact, it’s almost universally vilified. I know the reasons why, I understand them, I even agree with them, yet I still love Brink. Here’s why. It is the only mainstream multiplayer shooter where teamwork is necessary to play. That, for me, says depressing things about the genre, but it also says a lot about the good intentions that Brink holds. Most shooters will allow you and your comrades to prosper if you work together, even the mostly brainless slaughterhouse of the Call of Duty games. Battlefield? Sure, it gives you squads, and the ability to issue commands, but if you join a public server and form a random squad, how many people are going to work with you when you try to form some semblance of a cohesive unit? Brink doesn’t just provide you with the tools to enable teamwork, it builds its whole game around the premise. Attacking and defending, making progress or holding back an advance, all involve multiple classes working in harmony, deploying abilities and providing each other with buffs, coordinating a push or recovering from one. It’s impossible to go into a server, load up and charge off one your own with the intent to murder all that you come across. You’ll die, quickly, sink to the bottom of the leaderboard and probably drag your teammates down with you.

This approach also has positive incentives. Alongside the thrill of winning as a well-honed unit, Brink dishes out the points for being a good buddy, and doing the things that’ll further the objectives of your team. Kills? Worth a pittance. This attitude is one that the developers, Splash Damage, have maintained with all their games, and I hope they’re clever enough to realize the hate for their game is not due to its design but its functionality. It just doesn’t work so much of the time. This is not acceptable, even with all the good intentions in the world. It also doesn’t help that, in the run-up to the game’s release, a big marketing campaign tried to push the single player section of the game, which was not a wise idea, because the single player is, well, just multiplayer with bots.

Despite its brokenness, Brink still excites me greatly. Playing it (when everything is running smoothly) is a thrilling experience, replicating those fantastic moments of voice communication-enhanced team plays with extraordinary frequency, even on public servers. It’s one of the best multiplayer shooters around today. Just… fix it first next time, okay?

I can’t reel off a whole bunch of indie turn-based strategy games. I mean, if you just asked me to. Indie platformers, holy shit, you’re going to need a chair, buddy. If context is important, then imagine I’m a secret agent captured by evil villains who need the launch code to a nuclear missile, don’t know it, but think it’s a combination of indie turn-based strategy game names all strewn together. There’s a gun to my head. There’s no names inside my head. I’m screwed. Oh wait- FROZEN SYNAPSE. Is that it? Yep. I’m still screwed.

The reason for this is because small-scale turn-based strategy games seem to skimp on the whole user-friendly aspect of things. Knowing this to be the case, they cunningly make up for their shortfall with a whole bunch of extra numbers to pad that baby out. Now, I’m a statistical simpleton. When presented with such a game, I will react to it much in the same way a chimp may react to a model sailing ship. A really complicated one, with all the riggings and stuff. My eyes will slowly cross, I’d drool, I’d leap onto the table and I’d smash the hell out of the dangerously alien object in front of me, and then I’d wander off in search of food. When presented with Frozen Synapse, I got suckered. It’s so well-made, so beautifully designed, so damn easy to use that it was a long while before I realise the game had tricked me into playing something that involves dangerous levels of thinking to win. Smashing ensued. But my newly-rebuilt computer helped me realise that, when presented with such a lovely front-end, a TBS such as Frozen Synapse is a wonderful thing.

Complementing the relaxing blue-and-green-hued game play is the marvellous matchmaking system. It’s terrifying to play strategy games against strangers, shhh, I know, it’s okay. But FS is not terrifying, it’s exhilarating. The simplicity of the whole system, the chilled-out way in which it nudges you into making turns and then urges you to take a breather, grab a drink, maybe the other guy’ll have done something when you’re finished? all helps you overcome the initial fears of being unceremoniously trampled by faceless pros most other strategy games have trouble surmounting. FS is both simple and complicated, bite-size yet deep. Excellent.

I am so rubbish at fighting games. I adore them, but can’t for the life of me play them to any degree of proficiency. The problem with fighters is that they are so often content to be niche, to give no assistance to players and to hide the majority of the good stuff behind hours and hours of practice and grinding away at perfecting combos and strategies. For too many fighters these days I feel like I’m doing something too akin to work to really have fun, with no appreciable gains in the early stages to encourage me forwards.

This is the part where I should tell you King of Fighters XIII addresses this issue for new or less methodically minded players, but it doesn’t. It really doesn’t. I bought it, took it home and spent a whole evening failing the tutorial.

But I kept trying. This is important. You can’t button-bash in KoF XIII, but you can take it slow, choose a team of three fighters and play through the story a few times, trying to master some relatively easy moves. It’s made easier by the absolutely gorgeous art on display. This is one beautiful game to look at. It’s even better to play, because the mechanics are tight. It’s the epitome of the “easy to learn, hard to master” philosophy; I had little trouble memorising and executing a few effective moves for most fighters, and quickly saw myself victorious through the story on ‘normal’ difficulty. Taking the game up a few difficulty levels, and then taking it online, humbled me entirely. Even now, after all this damn time, pulling off a drive cancel spontaneously is still an occurrence so rare as to be endangered. But KoF XIII still keeps pulling me back; my thumbs may blister, my eyes bleed, my muscles atrophy, but I will triumph.

DICE’s great strength with the Battlefield series is not being content to let things lie. Each sequel sees the salaciously skilful Swedes carve a creative concept anew into their fans’ favourite franchise. Whether it works (Commander) or doesn’t (Titans) it can at least never be accused of being boring (Titans again). In that respect, Battlefield 3 could conceivably be called quite a tame release when stacked against its peers: it doesn’t have one massive, stand-out feature to scream from the rafters (or, more realistically, on the back of the box); what it does have is the finest multiplayer man-shoots available.

Its greatest strength in that arena is its customisability. Mods may be gone, but Battlefield 3 still allows players to scan from one end of the game’s server browser to the other and find an almost inconceivable amount of variety in its matches. Think of a Call of Duty match you played, then think of another. Maybe a different game mode, maybe with a different player count. They both still feel rather similar, don’t they?

Now think of a 16-player Rush game of Operation Métro. Exhilarating, uncompromising, brutal close-quarters combat full of sneaked headshots, knife kills and desperate scrambles away from furious grenades. Got that? Finish the round, quit the server and jump on Operation Firestorm, 64-player. There’s dogfights high in the air, gunships providing close-air support to the tank columns rumbling through the dust on the ground and transport helicopters weaving through the oil refinery’s struts to avoid the mobile-AA. This is just the vanilla experience of Battlefield 3, not even counting all the server mutations out there with their own quirky balances and rules to carve out niche experiences. This shooter is like nothing else on the market, and nothing else comes close, either.

I have nothing to say concerning Skyrim that hasn’t been articulated elsewhere previously; if you consider yourself a gamer then at the very least if you haven’t played this game you’ve heard enough about it to feel you know the score. Needless to say, it’s very good, the current pinnacle of the art of open-world game-making that Bethesda prides itself at. The province of Skyrim is bold, beautiful and harsh, full of life and wonder, fit inside a much-improved game engine and slotted alongside mechanics much-honed from Fallout 3 and Oblivion.

The type of game Bethesda makes is fertile ground for memorable experiences, both those inserted purposefully in the form of quests and characters and those generated on-the-fly due to unique player interactions with the world, and where Skyrim excels is with the frequency of those experiences it offers. There is no game to offer such a deep time-sink of its nature, hundreds of hours that - unlike most games that allow players to plough through so much free time in their grasp and offer nothing more than a grindy blur - holds numerous memorable moments to recount later.

This goes a long way towards explaining the self-perpetuating bubble of excitement and gossip that surrounded it for months after its release, and justifying it as worth the space on the internet’s consciousness it occupied and continues to do so.

I couldn’t care less about Rayman. Offbeat quirky French jumping whose polygons weren’t fit to hold Mario’s moustache comb for him while he went around rescuing princesses and saying “waa-hoo!” and stuff. Was I ignorant? Undoubtedly. Was I wrong? I’ll never go to the trouble of finding out. Is Rayman Origins the best platformer I’ve played in several years? Yes.

There’s something about its swagger. Origins throws colour and boisterous energy out of the TV with seeming effortlessness. Rayman, his friends and his enemies all move, look and sound like great fun. The game is heaving with content and replayability, encouraging you to bounce around its worlds and see the sights it has to offer. It’s also darn hard, which took me by surprise for a mainstream Ubisoft game painted in primary colours, but never wears out its welcome. If you find an area too hard, there’s always something else to go and try while you work up the appetite to take another poke.

What’s more, it’s bloody funny. I grinned at the opening cinematic, and I have rarely stopped doing so whenever I boot it up. I literally cannot think of a more perfect game. Oh, wait.

I’ve written up my thoughts concerning Saints Row: The Third at greater length in another post, but for the sake of being thorough here’s the abridged version:

It’s fun. It’s really fun. It spells out “fun” in five-hundred foot letters, hauls a ramp up one side of the word and drives over it on a motorbike while fireworks explode all around and it flips the bird to games making disapproving noises at the whole unnecessary display. Much joy.

Needless to say, if your favourite game you played last year is not here, it’s because I couldn’t think of a bad enough pun to match.

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