Game of the Year 2010

While there were certainly some stand-out RPGs taking up space in our living room and hard drives this year, we'd classify 2010 as something of a creative disappointment. Aside from Alpha Protocol and the burgeoning indie scene, almost every major role-playing game released last year was a direct sequel or a game based on an existing franchise. 2011 could turn out to be even worse in that regard, but given the cost of AAA development these days, I suppose it only makes sense. Still, that doesn't mean we don't occasionally yearn for the times when every year brought us a slew of unique experiences. ORIGIN Systems, we miss you.

But enough with the reminiscing! Herein you'll find the games that gobbled up our time and managed to prove themselves as the finest role-playing titles of 2010. Since there were so many excellent independent RPGs to consider again this year, we once again recruited Jay Barnson of Rampant Games to help dole out the awards:

Best Story/Writing

Best Story/Writing Winner
Alpha Protocol (Winner)

Obsidian's spy-themed RPG had a lot of things going against it from the outset, including a general lack of polish and a stealth and combat system that were fairly unsatisfying. Even the dossier and dialogue systems weren't for everyone, but system flaws couldn't take much away from the rich and colorful cast of the game. Uncovering details on characters and using your knowledge to maneuver your way into their favor or disfavor is a solid gameplay concept in and of itself, but it was made all the more rewarding when you realized just how interesting the characters were.

From the silent Sis to the stoic Marburg, from the insane Steven Heck to the awesome Konstantin Brayko, this title benefited considerably from having a small cast and focusing its storytelling around them. The main plot of the game reads like a dime spy novel, and that's how it's supposed to read. Not gritty or realistic, this was a spy-themed title throughout, and what it set out to do, it did well. Obsidian clearly did some extensive research on the game's various locations, and the assortment of little touches that they injected made the game world all the more richer.

Best Story/Writing Runner-upFallout: New Vegas (Runner-up)

In typical Fallout tradition, Fallout: New Vegas really doesn't have an urgent storyline, but instead one humming somewhere in the background. But who says you need to be story-driven to have good writing? Not us. While a little uneven at times, New Vegas shines at telling the little stories. It has a way of making the problems at even the most minor of location interesting, and in engaging you with the problems plaguing the factions that you encounter. After a decade of waiting, Fallout: New Vegas succeeds in fleshing out the Fallout setting the way we hoped it would.

Best Graphics

Best Graphics Winner
Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer (Winner)

Cataclysm might have stolen most of 2010's press, but if your only concern was jumping back into Azeroth, then you likely missed an entertaining and visually stunning adventure through Funcom's Rise of the Godslayer expansion pack. We always pegged a majority of Hyborian Adventures' zones as being dense and slightly claustrophobic, but Rise of the Godslayer brought us these sprawling vistas with a Far East-inspired look that fit into the game far better than we thought they would.

Populating the lands of Khitai is an assortment of wildlife, creatures, characters, and landmarks that were clearly based on a variety of Eastern cultures. Everything looks incredible and just feels right, from the Great Wall and mountains off in the distance to the smoldering ruins of a freshly raided village. As long as you have a rig that can handle it, Rise of the Godslayer is hands-down the greatest graphical treat that RPG enthusiasts were given in 2010 and easily makes Age of Conan one of the best-looking MMOs on the market.

Best Graphics Runner-upMass Effect 2 (Runner-up)

BioWare not only gave us a larger variety of alien settings to explore in their sequel, but they also managed to make them even more believable than what we saw the first time around. A ruined world, a derelict spacecraft, a prison ship, a jungle planet, a warzone. and some pretty damn nifty sci-fi art design, as well.

Beyond that, the sequel also manages to provide us with another cinematic experience. The cinematography doesn't quite reach a Hollywood-like or even Final Fantasy-like quality, but it's certainly better than what we saw in the first Mass Effect, which makes us very interested in seeing what BioWare is able to do with Mass Effect 3.

Best Sound/Music Winner
Mass Effect 2 (Winner)

Composed by Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, David Kates, and Jimmy Hinson, the Mass Effect 2 OST is a quintessential example of doing game soundtracks right. While it won't win awards for originality, the themes are memorable and - most importantly - are specifically tailored to the locations or characters they were written for, including specific combat themes.

In addition to being memorable, the different themes are rarely intrusive, outside of the combat tracks that are supposed to prepare you for what's to come. The themes work very well together for the various locations they are meant to present, and, in our opinion, that's really what game soundtracks are all about.

Best Sound/Music Runner-upFallout: New Vegas (Runner-up)

The Fallout: New Vegas soundtrack is partially scavenged from history, richly using tracks from the older Fallouts, and adding new songs from veteran Fallout soundtrack composer Inon Zur, who generally did a more subtle and thus better job here than on Fallout 3. It may seem odd to give an award for recycling a soundtrack, but we feel New Vegas made the right choice in doing so, as the tracks bring back pleasant memories while also fitting in well with the game's atmosphere. The PipBoy radio is also back, though it once again suffers a bit from simply not having enough tracks on it. GTA did the radio thing well by only playing it while you are in a car, and like the GTAs the PipBoy radio is best enjoyed in limited doses, turning it off regularly. But turning it off completely would be a shame, as the songs featured are once again a strong selection of golden oldies, including some with lyrics rewritten and sung by Obsidian's own crew.

Best Expansion/DLC

Best Expansion/DLC Winner
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (Winner)

When picking this award, we felt that it isn't a fair race for anything paired up against Blizzard's latest. With so much content and mostly positive game changers packed into one expansion, the nod has to go somewhat easily to World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

While Cataclysm falls somewhat short when strictly comparing new content with previous expansions, what it does is refine the entire experience by giving players a bit of everything: massive talent changes that slim-down customization but make it more accessible, itemization streamlining, new races (where are the new classes?), a new level cap, and some new areas - but even the sum of these would not equal its largest change. Cataclysm went ahead and re-designed the visuals of all base-game content and made them accessible to flying mounts. Yep, they finally gave players what they'd always wanted - free-flying around everywhere, for those that are high enough level, of course.

For the veteran WoW player who simply wants to "reroll" and start anew, innumerable changes are in store which makes the entire experience more replayable than it's been for quite awhile. We're still hoping for more content and a couple new classes when Blizzard gets around to releasing the fourth expansion pack, but until then Cataclysm will do just fine.

Best Expansion/DLC Runner-upDragon Age: Origins - Awakening (Runner-up)

BioWare put a lot of quality content into their Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening expansion pack - including a variety of new ways to develop characters, a smorgasbord of well-written and well-acted characters and dialogue, and a new 20-hour campaign to (possibly) finish off the story of the warden character from Origins - and that was enough to lift their effort over most of the other expansion pack / DLC contenders this year.

Had they only spent more time stamping out a few more bugs (like the annoying Silverite Mine bug), and made all of the changes backwards compatible with Origins to encourage further replayability, then Awakening just might have taken over the top spot.

Most Anticipated of 2011
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Assuming that most of the titles end up making it onto store shelves on or around their slated release date, 2011's lineup of role-playing games easily makes it one of the best years for RPG enthusiasts in recent history. We've just been treated to Drakensang: The River of Time and Two Worlds II here in the US, and they'll be proceeded by Dragon Age II, Dungeon Siege III, Torchlight II, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and... The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

Over the years, CD Projekt RED has proven to us that they are one of the most passionate game developers out there, and it's clear to use that they're putting far more blood, sweat, and tears into the sequel to our 2007 RPG of the Year than many other companies would be willing to. Rather than ushering out a quick sequel with a few more bells and whistles, they've built an entirely new engine, tripled the size of the game world, fine-tuned the quest system, and expanded the game's non-linearity, all while implementing more politically-charged factions and more hard-hitting choices (some of which carry over from your TW1 save game). Jam-packed or not, this is the year of The Witcher 2.

Independent RPG of the Year

Independent RPG of the Year Winner
Din's Curse (Winner)

In 2007, Soldak Entertainment released its first action RPG, with the generic-sounding title (Depths of Peril.) At first glance, it appeared to be little more than a poor-man's Diablo clone, but it layered so many gameplay innovations on top of its action-RPG foundation that many RPG veterans and newcomers alike felt overwhelmed by the combination of diplomacy, covenant-building, recruiting, and real-time evolving quests with competing NPCs demanded by the game. In late 2008, Soldak followed up Kivi's Underworld, an almost casual hack-and-slash adventure. While far more approachable and offering enjoyable new ideas for the genre, it failed to truly excite many critics.

This year's release, Din's Curse, was clearly an attempt to combine and accentuate the best features of both titles. It could perhaps be described as a (real-time roguelike with highly dynamic worlds,) but that fails to capture the real scope of the game, or the unique experience it offers players. Din's Curse treats the player to dungeons filled with warring factions of monsters. Villains emerge dynamically, rising through the ranks in power (effectively (leveling up)) and eventually waging war upon the civilization above. The constant evolution of events makes the dungeons themselves feel like living, breathing opponents that match the player's actions with their own progressive machinations. The pace can get frantic, as quests will rarely wait long for the player to resolve them, but will instead often grow to become more dangerous threats to both the player and the cities above.

Add to that a host of game modes, difficulty settings, numerous plot / event seeds, and many standard classes with the ability to mix & match skill trees for completely custom classes. The icing on the cake is multiplayer cooperative play. Din's Curse demonstrates that it possible for an ambitious indie title to go toe-to-toe against mainstream competition and not only hold its own, but come out ahead in many ways. It's a proud example of the potential of indie role-playing games, and a very worthy winner of our 2010 Independent RPG of the Year award.

Independent RPG of the Year Runner-upAvernum 6 (Runner-up)

2010 brought us a number of excellent indie titles, including Recettear, an innovative mix of a store simulation with an action JRPG, the second chapter of the Eschalon saga, and many others. But the runner-up for this year's indie RPG of the year is the culmination of the longest-lived indie RPG series of them all.

The Avernum series is known not only for its (old school) turn-based tactical combat, but also for well-written stories integrated into the gamplay. Released for the PC last March, Avernum 6 does not disappoint on either count. The mechanics have evolved incrementally over the series, to the point where Avernum 6 serves up almost anything a fan of old-school, turn-based RPGs could ask for. The world is enormous, the library of equipment and unique enemies impressive, and combat remains full of options and twists to keep battles from descending into formulaic hack-and-slash. Opening on the apocalyptic background of a failing human empire, the story and characterization in Avernum 6 is among the best you'll find in indie RPGs - or mainstream RPGs, for that matter.

Avernum 6 caps a series that in some ways began with the first Exile game over fifteen years ago. Designer and Spiderweb Software studio head Jeff Vogel is one of the most experienced RPG designers still in the business - indie or mainstream - and his skill shows in this final chapter. It is a fitting conclusion to an epic, successful series.

RPG Hybrid of the Year Winner
Mass Effect 2 (Winner)

Mass Effect was perhaps already more of a third-person shooter than it was an RPG, but Mass Effect 2 takes it a few steps further, shedding many remaining vestiges of role-playing games and essentially becoming a story-driven shooter with some RPG elements. As such, it's a solid candidate for our RPG hybrid category.

Where Mass Effect was occasionally awkward in pretending to be an RPG when it didn't want to be, its sequel benefits from dropping the pretense and focusing on what it wants to do. The story is nothing to write home about and that's the biggest knock on it, but as a shooter with RPG elements it is an enjoyable romp.

RPG Hybrid of the Year Runner-upDin's Curse (Runner-up)

While it may be overshadowed by larger-budget action RPGs, including 2009's Torchlight to which it is inescapably compared, indie RPG Din's Curse is nevertheless justified in standing tall amongst its better-known competition. Just as the player must do in its chaotic, deadly dungeons, Din's Curse picks its battles carefully. One of these chosen fights is a focus on replayability. While some repetitiveness is inevitable over time in a game with dynamic content, Din's Curse always seems to have something new in store, even after dozens of hours of play. Whether it's an unexplored branch of the games' 18 class specialty skill trees, the thrill of new and even unique treasures in a very deep list of item and enchantment combinations, or a surprise twist of events that makes a town's storyline memorable, players enjoy a steady stream of interesting new experiences.

But the aspect that truly makes Din's Curse stand out among its peers is its embrace of the '╦ťaction' side of the action-RPG subgenre. This is not limited to merely combat style; in Din's Curse, the clock is always ticking. Inaction will bring the town to its doom. The quests are not make-work activities but responses to events occurring and evolving in real-time. They compete for the player's attention, and it is rarely possible for all of them to be completed successfully - and consequences result. Prisoners will die, monstrous alliances will be formed against the town, defenses will not be erected in time, and sometimes towns will be lost to the forces of evil on the player's watch. It's a different kind of RPG, but an exciting change of pace for jaded gamers.

RPG of the Year

RPG of the Year Winner
Fallout: New Vegas (Winner)

Following the RPG Hybrid of the Year win by a shooter with RPG elements comes an RPG with shooter combat for our RPG of the Year. Ignoring its shooter combat for a moment, it is clear throughout this title that Obsidian was striving to bring back as much of Fallout's core PnP sensibilities as they reasonably could.

Some of these additions are rather tepid, such as the addition of a (hardcore mode) (a strong idea that fell short in execution), but the title goes well beyond that by offering a solid character system and presenting us with many opportunities to use various skills to resolve missions.

More than any Fallout before it, New Vegas is a faction-driven game, and it does this exceedingly well. While perhaps lacking in moral ambiguity, it does seek to avoid clearly offering right and wrong choices, and offers four major faction paths to make sure the player can find an option he is comfortable with. The factions, major or minor, are generally believable and well-written, and are at the core of what makes this game tick.

And we've said it before, and we'll say it again: Vault 11 is really awesome.

RPG of the Year Runner-upAvernum 6 (Runner-up)

It is not often an indie RPG comes up in our RPG of the Year category, as their being created by a small team with limited man-hours puts them at a relative disadvantage. Avernum 6 falls into this category, being another title in a long series from man-machine Spiderweb Software's Jeff Vogel, who produces these independent RPGs at a steady rate.

Because of these limitations, each one is fairly similar, and Avernum 6 is no exception. So why does it come up here? Spiderweb may have benefitted from a lack of traditional competition this year, but Avernum 6 still deserves to be put on a pedestal for what it represents: the culmination of everything that was good about the Avernum franchise. Avernum 6 does exceedingly well in expressing all Jeff Vogel has learned over the years, and is an excellent RPG, indie or not.