??'Mass Effect 3'

Mass Effect 3 has a lot to live up to. The concluding installment in Bioware's blockbuster science-fiction epic finishes a story that for many players began five years ago with the original game, and anticipation was high for a satisfying resolution that incorporated and responded to the many, many choices players have made along the way. The game mostly meets expectations, but in a few instances - especially the last act - it falters.

The Hollow Crown: "Crusader Kings II"

'Crusader Kings II'

Over the past 12 years, the Swedish company Paradox Interactive has developed a stable of grand-strategy games for the PC that simulate with often baffling complexity the political, economic, and military maneuverings of entire nations over the course of centuries. Paradox's titles, including 2004's Crusader Kings, are fascinating and fun if you can understand what's going on, but getting to that point is often a long process. Crusader Kings II - released in February - works hard and largely succeeds at being more accessible to novice players while retaining immense depth for those looking for it.

For many gamers, "downloadable content" (DLC) inspires, if not condemnation, at least suspicion. Many modern video games seem overloaded with attempts to make money off of players after the initial purchase. "Microtransactions" parcel out minor aesthetic options or mechanical bonuses in exchange for cash. At its worst, downloadable content means additional fees for core features, as in Assassin's Creed II and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which segments of the main narrative were omitted and sold as DLC. At its best, well, it's the DLC for Fallout: New Vegas.

New Vegas' DLC includes four major pieces, each a complete story the length and breadth of a smaller single-player game: Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road. There are also two smaller pieces, Courier's Stash and Gun Runners' Arsenal, that are of the more common, largely inconsequential variety. All are collected with the original game in the recently released Fallout: New Vegas Ultimate Edition.

Reviewing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the latest open-world role-playing game from Bethesda Game Studios, seems like a foolish project. It gives players the freedom to roam across almost 15 square miles of a densely populated fantasy world of elves, orcs, giants, and dragons. It allows players to create characters à la carte from a broad pool of abilities, rather than using restrictive "classes" like most role-playing games. And it offers six major narratives, each the equivalent of a smaller game. On the surface, Skyrim appears to be too vast for a short evaluation; but this is a lake a mile wide and a foot deep.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

In its first 24 hours of release, Modern Warfare 3 - the eighth Call of Duty-branded video game - sold $400 million worth of copies, the highest-grossing launch of an entertainment product ever. It is also the most vicious and morally ugly game I have ever played.

It is perhaps not a great fall from the militarism and glorification of war found in previous Call of Duty games to the revelry in violence of this installment, but it is a fall. The first Modern Warfare struggled to find heroics in a war largely devoid of them, but it tried. Modern Warfare 3 pays lip service to the grim realities of war but is finally just sadistic.

"Arkham City": Being Batman

'Batman: Arkham City'

Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum was a pleasant surprise when it was released in 2009: a video game that, in contrast to the lackluster history of superhero games, was actually good. Arkham Asylum wasn't unique - clearly drawing its combination of rooftop navigation, stealth, and combat from games such as Assassin's Creed - but it deftly applied that formula to the experience of being Batman and inhabiting his world of Gotham City. Batman: Arkham City expands and refines the first game, crafting a new experience that, while never particularly innovative, remains consistently entertaining and a person's best opportunity to feel like the Dark Knight.

Minecraft starts off, in the single-player mode, as a game about survival. Alone and empty-handed, stranded in a retro-cubist 3D landscape with a first-person perspective, you have to gather resources, make tools, and build a shelter before the safety of daylight passes into the danger of night, when monsters prowl. It's a tense and desperate experience, especially when you're new to the game and trying to figure out how it works as the sun sinks toward the horizon.

The tension arises purely out of the mechanics. There's no plot or pre-authored story, no voice over the radio telling you where to go, not even a map in the corner of the screen showing your location. Minecraft is a sandbox, a game of unexpected experiences emerging out of the actions of the player within some basic rules.

Once you grow accustomed to the rhythm of day and night and learn to deal with the monsters, the game becomes much more than sandbox survival. While still interspersed with moments of extreme tension, it becomes more of a quiet, contemplative, and occasionally awe-inspiring experience focused on exploration and creation. Despite its deliberately primitive graphics, Minecraft generates surprisingly beautiful vistas, and a surprising variety of terrain - from forests to swamps to deserts to tundra. Beneath the surface are labyrinthine cavern systems, filled with monsters and rare treasures such as diamonds and gold.

Rather than presenting you with a living world and asking you to empty it of life, as many video games do, Minecraft offers a canvas and the raw materials to constuct your own architectural fantasies: towering castles, vast underground complexes, dense networks of roads. Architecture, and the structuring of space, is the most visible and physical evidence of society; it is no coincidence that games about crafting a new order from an undeveloped world, such as SimCity and Civilization, center on architecture.

The Best Video Games of 2010

Because money doesn't grow on trees - and good games sure don't, either - I'm breaking down my top-five video games of 2010 based on the 35 new ones I played.

You'll notice that all of these games are sequels, and there's a reason for that: The originals were good, too.

But it's more than that. All these sequels feel and play superior to their predecessors, and that speaks volumes about the commitment of development teams. They not only provide us with entertainment for today, but give us hope that bigger and better things are coming in the future, and for that I thank them.

'Donkey Kong Country Returns'

Donkey Kong Country Returns

When I got Super Nintendo at the tender age of 11, I had to play Donkey Kong Country because it was the only game I had. It turned out to be a lot of fun, but so frustratingly hard that I grew to be a bit of a potty mouth. More than 14 years later, Donkey Kong Country Returns (released in November on Wii) brings back old memories of exciting platforming gameplay - and some stress-induced vulgarities.

'Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit'

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit

I'm not a fan of racing games, as they tend to be far too similar to each other. Only the Burnout series caught my attention, primally satisfying in its exhilarating action with a focus on wrecking other racers and events designed to cause as much destruction as possible. So when I saw that the developers of Burnout were making this year's Need for Speed title with a cops-versus-racers theme, I salivated like Pavlov's dog. While not as chaos-oriented as Burnout, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii) is still a wickedly fun experience.

Pages