With the year half-over and having brought more high-profile new games than the typical winter/spring months, it’s a good time to handicap the Game of the Year race. Here’s a list of the five titles I’ve enjoyed the most this year, along with a sixth that could move up based on software patches and online play. These are presented roughly in the order I have them slotted right now. Though anything could move up or down by year’s end, it’ll be tough to knock off my two favorite games of the half-year. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve got:
“BioShock 2” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $30 on PC) [review]: Plenty of gamers first visited the crumbling, underwater utopia of Rapture back in 2007, when “BioShock’s” unorthodox setting and mature script made it one of the best things going in gaming. By reusing Rapture, “BioShock 2” already starts out at a disadvantage. But it makes up for it by doing something I’ve never seen a video game do: It subtly shifts the focus of its story. At some point, astute players will realize that “BioShock 2” isn’t, in fact, about the playable character, Subject Delta. Delta plays Luke Skywalker to another character’s Darth Vader, and serves as a catalyst for her personal growth.
“Mass Effect 2” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360 or PC) [review]: When BioWare made “Mass Effect 2,” the fact that there would be a “Mass Effect 3” was a given, a somewhat unusual state of affairs in an industry that’s cautious at best in its support of sequels. The fact that “Mass Effect 2” feels a lot like a set-up for “Mass Effect 3” means it lacks some of the oomph of the first game. But the way “ME2” accesses your save file from the first game and incorporates previous decisions into its story is this year’s greatest technical achievement. When I reviewed the game back in February, I envisioned a future in which gamers played through the trilogy in weekslong marathons, exploring how different decisions shaped the overall narrative. We’ll get our chance next year, when “ME3” hits.
“Bayonetta” (rated M, $40 on Xbox 360 or PS3) [review]: I came into “Bayonetta” fully expecting to hate it for its gaudy visuals and leering close-ups of the main character’s butt. But a funny thing happened. Yeah, the game’s a little too voyeuristically pervy, but it celebrates both women and motherhood in way I didn’t expect. And it’s the smoothest, most fun-to-control, fast-paced action game I’ve played since “Ninja Gaiden” on the Xbox.
“Super Mario Galaxy 2” (rated E, $50 on Wii) [review]: This pitch-perfect Mario platform-jumping game might be the most fun a single player can have on the Wii, though I still maintain that if “Galaxy 2’s” level designers met up with some great writers we’d have a video gaming dream team on our hands.
“Alan Wake” (rated T, $60 on Xbox 360) [review]: Remedy’s “Twin Peaks”-inspired tale of a writer trapped in a rural Washington-state nightmare has its share of gameplay flaws. But it what it lacks in level design and controls it makes up for with a fantastic story, solid voice acting and a terrific atmosphere. This could shoot up on the list based on its downloadable add-ons, the first of which is due later this month and is free for anyone who bought the game new.
In the rear-view mirror, “ModNation Racers” (rated E, $60 on PS3, $30 on PlayStation Portable) [review]: The single-player experience in this PS3-exclusive kart-racing game left me a little cold. But the ability to create your own custom racers, karts and tracks and share them with people online stamped an expiration date on the “Mario Kart” series for any Wii owner with a PS3. “ModNation Racers” didn’t crack my Top 5, but I’m still racing the custom tracks. If any game on the outside of my Top 5 is primed to rise, it’s this one.
The games I missed: I’m just one guy with a busy schedule, so I can’t play everything noteworthy that comes out in a six-month period. That said, there are a few titles I’m looking forward to catching up with before a deluge of high-profile releases starts in mid-August. At the top of my to-do list are Western epic “Red Dead Redemption,” PSP instant classic “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” and Wii shoot-‘em-up “Sin & Punishment: Star Successor.” But I’m also hoping to play, if not finish, a handful of overlooked titles such as “Metro 2033,” a story-rich shooter set in the post-nuclear Moscow subway, and “3D Dot Game Heroes,” a tongue-in-cheek “Legend of Zelda” clone on the PS3, among others.
If I’ve left out your favorite game, feel free to sound off in the comments. I’ll try to give it a shot.