The End of a Decade

This year was a curious one, and I don’t mean to refer to the VG industry alone: 2009 was, after all, the first full year of The Slowdown for us three, and boy, it sure went past real fast. For various reasons, this year has also been a very trying one for each of us, yet we were still able to find the time and enthusiasm to write and post together. Taking up writing, I’m certain, has only worked to enhance our enthusiasm and interest in the medium. As if to commemorate the very end of the decade, though, my relatively recent motherboard had to be shipped over to Germany for replacement recently.

You’ve probably also noted how we’ve yet not engaged ourselves in the “best of” discourse, at all; we enjoy making lists just as much as the other guy, sure, but perhaps unsurprisingly also tend to get over-analytical and –intellectual with the concept.

Slowdown Boys

Therefore, as our final post of the year, the three of us have jotted down our personal lists of the decade. The simple rule was not to make it too difficult for ourselves. Therefore, I have sought to paint an impression of the zeitgeist, warts and all. Very subjective. Nabeel wanted to paint a portrait of himself as gamer, and Richard hoped to be accurate and inclusive. The games listed below have not been included based on their perceived merits or qualities; instead, we selected them with the aforementioned focuses in mind.

All three free-form lists after the jump. Here’s to a new gaming decade, everyone!

Martyn

Gordon CloseupFor me, Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes appear as a towering, majestic entity that (fore)shadowed much if not all of the narrative-based action gaming of the decade, also figuring as far more important a game for me than the first one was or ever will be.  The looming, perverse presence of Counter-Strike: Source, similarly, cannot be understated. The ever-improving Source engine – along with Steam and Steamworks, obviously – have given us a brilliant platform for modifications. Unreal Tournament 2004 played a similar, if smaller, role (with Air Buccaneers, Alien Swarm and Killing Floor to name a few examples).

Where S.T.A.L.K.E.R. left a Fallout-like (i.e. very permanent!) impression on me (as did BioShock, though to a lesser degree), Left 4 Dead brought us all together as friends in the zombiecalypse, and that’s as high a praise as one can give for a game. Our horrifying late-night “Survival” grindfests, no matter how barbaric, repetitive and artistically insignificant, were in many ways the defining events of the year and continuously succeeded in bringing out a persevering sense of purpose and camaraderie.

Cate Archer NOLF2Often curiously absent from these toplists is No One Lives Forever 2, which, together with the first part, is by far my favourite FPS series (…not made by Valve, anyway). I think I can speak for Richard in that we both hope Monolith would proceed with another creative 180. Another common absentee remains Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, cherished by some, disliked by many and altogether forgotten by most. For me, Troika’s swan song is the epitome of a multi-faceted, mature gaming experience that leaves a lasting intellectual mark on its players.

I also very much remain a fan of IO Interactive’s Hitman series, which always succeeds in taking me to places even despite their obvious, obvious flaws. Remedy’s narrative noir wonder Max Payne also warrants high praise from me, especially the sequel, The Fall of Max Payne, which I have replayed far more times than any other game of this decade, including three times in the row. And yes, I did come out of the experience relatively unscathed. The hype and youthful excitement leading up to the ultimate release of the first Max Payne, too, remains the most memorable out of all.

Blackwell Legacy WallpaperGrand Theft Auto IV and San Andreas, both wondrous escapists’ delights, offered me tremendous amounts of pleasant time away from reality – what more is there to say? Vice City may remain the creative highlight in the series, but the aforementioned gave me a longer stretch of unadulterated play. The very same could be said of Tabula Rasa and EVE Online, though I ultimately spent very little time in both.

In my primary area of interest, adventuring, the decade belongs wholly and only to the indie sector: Yahtzee’s Chzo Mythos (including Art of Theft, which kept me hooked for a good few weeks), Wadjet Eye’s Blackwell series, Herculean Effort’s Apprentice. Origamihero’s surprisingly adult, Beneath a Steel Sky -like Reactor09 and Harvester Games’ Downfall also remain some of the high points of the decade creatively. So many a good free adventure was released that I did not have nearly as much time to dedicate to Telltale Games, for instance, as I thought I would – very much a tell-tale sign of the make-up of the decade!

Nabeel

1998 was a pivotal year for me as a gamer, it marked the moment in my life when I switched from being a primarily console gamer to a PC gamer. I still kept aware of titles on all the platforms, but I no longer bought consoles and instead focused on upgrading my rig. So the decade that followed really was a period of discovery, of expanding my horizons and getting into genres I previously had no experience of at all. And I most certainly didn’t go about it in an orderly manner – I rarely play games as soon as they come out – as I’ll get to in more detail.

I may have boarded the PC gaming bandwagon in the year in which ground-breaking titles such as Half-Life debuted, but I was struggling with the latest releases on a machine that had no 3D accelerator. It was in 1999 that I purchased a Voodoo Banshee, and there my real foray into hardcore shooters began. Replaying old games with the improved hardware, like Half-Life and Quake II, I was also able to enjoy the eye candy of new releases like Unreal Tournament and Aliens vs. Predator.

System Shock 2It was Irrational Games’ sci-fi FPS-RPG hybrid System Shock 2 that was, I think, the game that prompted me to start exploring other genres. The game had a lot more significance than I was even aware of at the time; not knowing anything about its prequel or the influential developers behind it, I was simply drawn to the setting and premise. Upon release, however, I realised I was out of my depth. The wealth of options and choices stifled me, I hoarded items and skill points and was too terrified of using them lest I made the wrong decision. So Shock 2 had to be shelved for the time being.

The following year witnessed the introduction of another significant series, Ion Storm’s Deus Ex. Similarly genre-bending, it motivated me to give RPGs another shot – and being so much more forgiving and accessible than Shock 2, I was able to grok it and finally learn how to make decisions regarding character development and moral choices. So it was not until after I finished Deus Ex a few times that I had the guts to return to Shock 2 a couple of years later, and with my newly acquired gaming skills managed to defeat SHODAN. I eventually played the prequel and the spiritual successor, BioShock, but Shock 2 still remains my favourite in the series and perhaps my “game of the decade.” I return to it time and time again, be it with new functionality and sheen thanks to mods, or on a jaunt with friends in co-op multiplayer. Looking Glass’ legacy continued to inspire me in the latter games in the Thief series, Thief II: The Metal Age and Thief: Deadly Shadows.

Planescape: TormentTwo titles that best illustrate my constant meta-game of catch-up are Planescape: Torment and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. The former a ’99 release and the latter ’03, I only finished them for the first time this year. Sands of Time had me entranced by its charming tale deftly woven into the gameplay, and I was sorry not to have played it sooner. Torment celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month, and I felt it was a great time to finally finish it with the same perseverance I needed for Shock 2. It was another game I had gotten and attempted years ago, but couldn’t progress past a certain point, and so had to put on hold. And yet again it was a game that blew me away and became an instant favourite: the text-heavy content that explored themes greatly intriguing to me forced me to put up with the clunky Infinity Engine interface and mechanics. I was awed by the strange setting and became attached to the characters, and so it was hard to let go by the time the game reached its moving conclusion.

Batman: Arkham AsylumI guess I can’t go on without giving a mention to the incredible Half-Life 2, which I was very late to the party on due to not having the required hardware at the time of release. Despite experiencing it well after the hype, I recognised the feat of story-telling that it was. Max Payne was a confident homage to film noir, a genre to which many of my favourite movies belong. I am not a big strategy gamer by any means, but I loved Stardock’s Galactic Civilizations II and Sins of a Solar Empire for their slow, accommodating pace. Portal brings a smile to my face whenever I hear it mentioned, a true masterpiece of efficient narrative and design.

Mass Effect fulfilled the sci-fi film nerd in me, and I get chills hearing the main theme. The Slowdown crew had some good times together battling hordes in Left 4 Dead, and I look forward to more in the sequel – now with cricket bats and electric guitars [Ed. note: B-b-but what about the baseball bat?]. Batman: Arkham Asylum finally did justice to my favourite superhero, providing a detailed and delightfully well-realised world to explore.

It’s been an awesome, important decade for me. Here’s to the next.

Richard

Valve’s titles have been the decade-defining ones for me: Half-Life 2, together with its episodes, are hallmarks of design, functionality and immersion. The amount of time I have spent on Counter-Strike: Source and Left 4 Dead is not funny any more, with the aforementioned not even all that enjoyable; it’s the social interaction that makes these games worthwhile.

Tabula Rasa Final SaluteDeus Ex is one of the most immersive video game experiences for me to date. This might have something to do with my budding fetish with cyberpunk, a theme that we still see utilized in games far too seldom. Bioshock eased this yearning to an extent, but the diminished role of interacting and the transparent linearity of the game did not work as well for me. Anarchy Online managed to capture my interest for a while due to its positively different, cyberpunkish world. Tabula Rasa, too, broke the conventions that initially drove me away from AO; sadly this wasn’t for long until the premature closure of the game.

Out of all the Legend of Zelda games released this decade, Majora’s Mask stands out as my favourite: A bewildering world and a story with surprisingly dark undertones and unmatched time-based gameplay create a wonderful experience. Wind Waker, includes many of the above, with added audiovisual treats and a joyous, functional world. Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime are both games I have fond memories of, Fusion also being the first story-driven game in the Metroid series without compromising traditional exploration and with Prime perfecting the atmosphere and game mechanics. Truth to be told, Metroid Fusion is actually the game I’ve completed most often. Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga is another example of Nintendo’s fine offerings, deserving a special mention for it’s tongue-in-cheek humor and successful flow.

killer7IO Interactive’s Hitman series – especially the second game – and Remedy’s Max Payne both fill gaps of rarely explored subject matter and excel in storytelling. The serial killer theme is present in Grasshopper Manufacture’s killer7 too, a game that also defies definition in every single possible way. I’ve yet to come by a game as distinct both visually and aurally, not to mention less comprehensible.

Monolith’s offerings, particularly the No One Lives Forever series, have been a steady source of entertainment. Both F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins are great games in their own right, the latter getting a special mention for being the most demented game I’ve played this decade, but these are not comparable to their previous outings. The original Painkiller, too, holds a special place in my memories, being the epitome of fast action and clever design. The dream-like atmosphere and pacing are hard to come by.

Max Payne 1We shan’t forget the many modifications released for Valve’s Source and Goldsource engines; Afraid of Monsters: Director’s Cut and Paranoia are both wonderful examples of dedication with their carefully crafted atmosphere. The amount of cheap laughs we had with pre-commercial versions of Garry’s Mod is staggering, and Action Half-Life 2 has seen far more game time than it would logically deserve.

So far, there are apparent similarities with Martyn and Nabeel’s lists, but I’ve yet to add my guilty pleasures to the mix: You Are Empty is an example of a game that’s bad but still alluring. It’s evident that the developers were trying their best, but couldn’t quite pull everything off. What they did get right is the hopeless atmosphere and a definite sense of being alone. Gothic 3 was a surprisingly enjoyable experience despite all the bad press it received elsewhere. It managed to fill the sweet spot Oblivion never did for me; this was of course after all the community patches had been applied. In a way S.T.A.L.K.E.R. could be included in the same category, easing my adventurous needs. The sense of wonder while traveling the Zone, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s barren yet living world, remains special.

There’s not one single game that could better capture the feeling of breezing through a jungle for half an hour and then realizing you have to walk back after guerrillas fell a tree on your shining mobile. Boiling Point: Road to Hell defines broken, even more so than Gothic 3. Nevertheless, the entertainment value is there, together with a unique atmosphere.

Finally, here are some of the stories from our Featured category:

Thanks for reading, see you all next year!

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