Games of the Decade (part two)
Here is part two of our run-down covering the decade's most influential games, starting with...
Platform: Games for Windows
Release Date: October 2007
Proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that first-person shooters don't have to be run-and-gun exercises in mind-melting linearity, Valve's genius pocket-sized puzzler came from gaming's shadowy left field and, in one stroke, completely dismantled the dullard corridor-to-corridor mechanic (ab)used for so long by the largely unimaginative FPS genre.
Removing any sense of in-game threat where generic gun-toting bad guys are concerned, Portal instead tasked its player with battling against the environment and their grey matter in order to overcome tough but always fascinating physics-based challenges. This involved using the player's Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device (technically not even a weapon) to create and strategically place inter spatial 'portals' and use them to navigate the player and various mandatory items from entry to exit while steering clear of deadly traps.
Laced throughout by a dark sense of humour, provided by the soothing yet sadistic tones of monitoring A.I. construct GLaDOS, the player's all-too-brief journey through the enthrallingly creative Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center is one that should have inspired FPS makers to spin the category off in a whole new direction. Sadly, that hasn't yet happened... and run-and-gun sequel (Call of Duty) Modern Warfare 2 is the year's biggest selling game.
Still, Portal went on to spawn the Portal: Still Alive expansion on Xbox Live, left razor-tongued reviewer Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw unable to spew any acerbic criticism whatsoever, and even threw out its own line of fluffy Weighted Companion Cubes - so it's not all bad. Are we looking forward to Portal 2? Ya think.
Title: God of War
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: SCE Studios Santa Monica
Release Date: March 2005
Hack and slash gameplay has never really been 'The West's' thing. Sure, we all occasionally enjoy a bit of combo-specific action in the third person, but when it comes to creating the stuff... Well, we've largely left that to Japanese studios like Capcom, which has years of hacking and slashing experience thanks to renowned series such as Devil May Cry.
But that all changed in 2005 when a certain David Jaffe and Sony's Santa Monica studio looked to cause some much needed ripples in the increasingly stagnant 'Japaction' genre pool. And, not content with merely upsetting the water's surface by dipping a tentative toe, the team behind God of War clearly hurled themselves bodily into uncharted depths with a view to crafting a riptide of momentum sufficient to carry their game beyond all that had come before.
While that may be something of an overstatement, God of War duly arrived with more than enough combo-heavy clout to handle a toe-to-toe encounter with any established hack and slash heavyweight. Frenetically violent from the outset, the game's epic story of a betrayed mortal intent on wreaking revenge upon the Gods of Olympus was fuelled by eternally furious Spartan warrior Kratos, one of the decade's most unremittingly angry central protagonists.
Complemented by an intelligent and unobtrusive game camera, stunning set pieces, and an often-bewildering sense of scale, God of War's near riotous impact continues to resonate alongside the swelling ranks of its fan base. And, with God of War II (PS2) and God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP) both subsequently pushing the series even further up the quality ladder, it's no surprise that God of War III - even without the guiding hand of Jaffe - is one of 2010's most anticipated releases for the PlayStation 3.
The true testament to God of War's supreme quality likes in the recently released God of War Collection on PlayStation 3. Unchanged beyond sporting a fresh coat of 720p gameplay gloss, the original remains nothing short of exemplary on all counts and Kratos - Gods love him - is still unrivalled as the snarling epitome of the tragic videogame antihero.
Platform: PlayStation 2
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Team Ico
Release Date: September 2001
Renowned development studio Team Ico is currently the gaming industry's best representative when it comes to supporting the argument for why interactive videogames should also be viewed as art. And, with a software stable boasting the incredible Shadow of the Colossus and the upcoming The Last Guardian, it's the minimalist beauty of Ico that stakes a convincing claim against the idea that art should be a passive experience.
Essentially a simple 'boy meets girl' story, the eponymous Ico - a horned young boy outcast by his village - escapes from a sealed sacrificial sarcophagus to find himself alone in a mighty fortress. Exploring his surroundings, Ico stumbles across a young girl, Yorda, who's being held captive by her mother - an evil Queen intent on using Yorda's body to extend her own life. Despite an inability to understand Yorda's odd language, Ico takes her by the hand and begins a quest to lead her to safety against an army of eerie shadows intent on dragging her back to the Queen.
Devoid of aural performance beyond Ico's occasional exclamations and Yorda's seemingly unintelligible gibberish, Ico stuck a chord with gamers because of the inordinate simplicity of its heroic centre and its absolute unwillingness to create a safety net by holding the player's hand.
Indeed, by controlling Ico, the only handholding was down to the player, in the form of guiding fragile Yorda clear of pursuing shadows while exploring the inhospitable environment and solving its refreshingly difficult puzzles.
However, when viewed beyond the physical and emotional connection created by tasking Ico with being Yorda's faithful protector, it's often the game's design that is cited by those who stand firm behind the notion of 'games as art'.
Setting new aesthetic standards despite the PlayStation 2's limited processing power, Ico was one of the first games to utilise true cinematic scale and deliver breathtaking vistas to introduce new environments - an atmospheric technique widely used across today's industry.
The game also relied heavily on mood effects created by bloom lighting and a distinctly limited musical track that enabled in-game ambient sound to further enrich the sense of two characters lost and alone within a massive and forbidding castle.
Elegant storytelling wrapped within a stunning gameplay structure that never overtly pointed the way but instead subtly hid direction within individual environments, situations and puzzles, Ico may never be labelled as art, but it's cult status has certainly grown to see it become one of the most memorable videogaming experiences ever created.
Title: Super Mario Galaxy
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Release Date: November 2007
For all intents and purposes, Galaxy carried the same saccharin storyline as any other Mario game, it had the same 'collect the stars' gameplay, the same cutesy cartoon design, and the same predictable Bowser boss battles. Yet, despite Galaxy's obvious similarities to existing adventures starring the plump Italian plumber, Nintendo somehow managed to sidestep the 'just another Mario game' label and craft one of the most disarming platformers ever.
It did this by playing perfectly alongside the Wii's motion controllers and also by creating a vast selection of actual 'mini game worlds' in space that required the player to tackle platforms and puzzles while navigating Mario across all plains of movement. By offering up sublime gravity-based physics that complemented the still relatively unknown Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Nintendo completely redefined Mario's established three-dimensional playground.
Beyond the outpouring of critical acclaim that met Galaxy's arrival in November of 2007, Nintendo's fresh approach stands as a daring stroke of genius that remained true to the platformer foundations of Super Mario 64, but also fed off the Wii's instant cross-demographic appeal and opened Mario to a whole new audience.
Moreover, a multitude of awards (including notable nods from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and BAFTA) rightly acknowledged Galaxy's unbridled creativity and invention, while retail reaction was quick to mirror that acclaim and has so far led to global sales creeping towards 10 million copies.
From a personal point of view, this olde gamer (read: fan of side-scrolling platform action) staunchly resisted jumping aboard the 'Mario in 3D' bandwagon ahead of Galaxy. Yet, after revelling in the galactic adventure's grin-inducing action and endlessly charming physics puzzles, I'm now counting the days until Super Mario Galaxy 2. And I suspect I'm not the only convert staring longingly at the gaming calendar.
Title: Fallout 3
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Games for Windows
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks/Zenimax
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: October 2008
Having already wowed current generation console owners with the depth of adventure hiding within the lush surroundings of its impressive 2006 role-playing game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda Softworks thundered back to the forefront of gaming in the latter part of 2008 when it unleashed polar opposite Fallout 3 upon a largely unsuspecting world.
Granted, while we all knew that Fallout 3 was coming, advance gameplay footage and glimpses at the grey and grimy post-apocalyptic design left many oddly cold regarding the game's prospects. Thankfully, whispers surrounding Fallout 3's seemingly clunky pause and shoot V.A.T.S. targeting system were unwarranted, as were the apparent failings of a sprawling but barren game world.
By creating an exploration-rich landscape in and around Washington D.C., Bethesda balanced the game's relentless desolation with a plethora of concentrated NPC enclaves (both above and below ground) actively struggling to survive in often desperate conditions beyond the city's devastated urban sprawl. Conversely, the city itself served as a threatening focal point where grisly deaths often lay in wait around every unexplored corner thanks to an abundance of marauding mutants and other similarly nasty inhabitants.
However, the true draw of Fallout 3 - much like Oblivion before it - was to be found in the knee-weakening freedom it granted once the player was released into the world from their protective subterranean dwelling (in this case a survival Vault). That momentum was bolstered thanks to the compelling strength of its simple "I'm looking for my father" storyline, which eventually led towards a perilous conspiracy and culminated in a refreshingly downbeat ending - and a shed-load of DLC.
Although stained with the kind of shocking violence only a post-apocalyptic world could possibly inspire, Fallout 3 was so much more than just a damn fine action RPG. With a wide variety of core missions, a never-ending stream of believable and emotive NPC characters, a beautiful 1950's inspired visual and musical aesthetic, and an in-game atmosphere that effortlessly walked a tightrope between the promise of discovery and the threat of the unknown, Fallout 3 unequivocally set the standard for forthcoming RPG adventures. Perhaps it will never be bettered.