A number of distinct trends emerged in gaming this year.
First, and almost too big to be noticed, is the rise of the smartphone and tablet as gaming platforms. To be sure, these devices favour different game genres: cheaper, quicker to pick up, easier to play on the go. But as the devices get larger and more sophisticated, the games are sure to do likewise.
Second, there's the move to open worlds in gaming. A large proportion of the top games this year have what were once considered unattainably vast open worlds: landscapes too big to take in all at once, and too big to travel across in less than 20 minutes.
Third, there's the very gradual maturing of game software. Many of my top picks this year are rated (T)een or (M)ature, and a few do actually tackle more-sophisticated themes. It's progress, but there's still a long way to go.
For example, we're still not seeing sex in games, not even an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love interest. It's all action, action, action. And yet, the problem of adult games is actually going to the Supreme Court in the U.S. Electronic games are the only entertainment medium still assumed to be primarily for kids, even though the bulk of the audience is now in its 20s and 30s.
And fourth, the rise of Valve's Steam as an online distribution service and central community for desktop gamers. After seven years of steady growth on Windows PCs, Steam now has over 30 million active accounts. That's up in the same leagues as global sales of systems like the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Steam has arrived as a major gaming platform.
Over 1,200 games are now available for purchase. In May, Steam launched on the Mac, and Valve-released Mac versions of some of its most popular games, including Half-Life 2 and Portal. A long list of other games has followed, from the strategy classic Civilization IV to the whimsical adventures of Sam & Max.
For users, Steam is a tiny, free download, and immediately justifies itself with social features such as friends lists and chat, or display of your stats for each game. The Steam Cloud puts game saves and settings online, making them available no matter where you play.
Valve has also been offering a steady stream of bargains, on both new and classic games. Many Steam games can be purchased once and played on either PC or Mac. Even boxed retail games (e.g. Civilization V) are increasingly including Steam in lieu of more obtrusive forms of copy protection.
There have been other attempts at this kind of service, but Valve is the one company that's made it work, mainly by showing unflagging respect for its users.
With that preamble, here are my top game picks for this year. These aren't necessarily the best-selling games of 2010, nor the most recognizable franchises. They're the games that, for me, advanced the artform the furthest, and offered the most amazing experiences. And probably deserved more attention than they got.
Just Cause 2, from Square Enix, is a ridiculously outside choice for game of the year, but it sucked me in like no other game in a decade or more. The gameplay mechanics are just about perfect: just enough shooting, just enough exploring. Using the grappling line to pull yourself through the air on a ram-air parachute is idiotically addictive.
But it's the sheer size and mind-bending detail of the world that keep me coming back. Not many games would have you sliding down an icy ski slope in one mission, parachuting onto an offshore oil rig in another, flying a tiny plane between buildings in still another. It's like a whole game library in one package.
Civilization V, from 2K Games, deserves notice as a worthy addition to one of the longest-running franchises in gaming. The original Civilization was published way back in 1991. Yet this new installment manages to keep all the original wonder alive, while adding state-of-the-art graphics and sound.
Civilization remains one of the most intelligent and engrossing game series ever devised. And Civilization V promises to cost me just as many lost nights' sleep as any of its predecessors.
Red Dead Redemption, from Rockstar, gets a vote if only because of the Wild West setting. It's been way too long since the last great western game (LucasArts' Outlaws, 1997). But here it is at last: the grit of desert sand and the stink of gunpowder, right in your living room.
Redemption marries state-of-the-art graphics (the horse animations are truly outstanding) with strong storytelling, and doesn't skimp on the gameplay. Assaulting a fort in company with a posse of real tough hombres is hard to beat.
Minecraft, from Mojang Specifications, is this year's runaway indie hit, hauling in a huge audience despite its lack of frills or marketing promotions. It's great to see that in the crowded world of big-budget games, a lone programmer with a good idea can still get noticed and become a thriving enterprise.
ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead is a standalone expansion of the game launched last year by Bohemia Interactive. By offering accuracy without compromise, ArmA lets players experience the reality of modern warfare, with all its tactical complexity, and its insane risks. It's a groundbreaking simulation that points the way for more conventional games to come.
Overall, it's been a great year for gaming, and there's great stuff to come early in 2011: Valve's Portal 2, Sony's Little Big Planet 2, and in the spring, Crytek's Crysis 2. I may even be halfway through Just Cause 2 by then.