Goodness gracious, the irony. Here's me, attempting to introduce a feature about games that are too long for their own good, forced to grapple with the fact that introductory paragraphs are often pointless extrapolations on a self-explanatory headline. Do yourself a favour - print this out and cut the top bit off. Do it for the dignity of writing.
All lopped and chopped? Excellent. Now I can write what I like, secure against reprisal. I could tell you about that time I found a Smartie up my nose as a child, for instance, or what I think of Matt's face, gloomily poised over a mug of cooling tea. Ha ha ha! Or I could shut the hell up, get off my self-reflexive podium and get on with - OK, I will. Enough flim-flammery. The buck stops here. The feature begins... there. Watch out for spoilers.
1. Final Fantasy XIII
Show us a role-playing game that's devoid of filler, and we'll die fulfilled (and thinner) men, but Final Fantasy XIII takes the Michael most. Plot considerations aside, you could snip off its first third and lose very, very little save some fancy-dan crystalline sets and a lot of waffle about filial obligations. It's a fun game if you've got the patience, but a deeply self-indulgent one. Hours are lost waltzing you down fetchingly decorated, identikit corridors, lingering to show Lightning clobber Snow in a cutscene, or spoon-feeding you aspects of the Active Time Battle system you could digest quite easily in five minutes.
Irrational's aquamarine shooter has one of the finest, most twisted endings ever, an ending that doesn't merely startle but derails. For hours, you've been jogging down leaky corridors under the foolish apprehension that you're master of your own destiny, that you're head-hunting the megalomaniac Andrew Ryan for the sake of democracy, mom and apple pie. Then you actually meet Ryan, and he informs you that you're a vat-grown drone hard-wired to unthinkingly obey any order prefaced by the phrase "would you kindly". A wind-up toy with delusions of grandeur. Then, to demonstrate his greater freedom of action, he asks you kindly to kill him.
And while you're reeling from that, the game taps you on the shoulder, spins you round and hits you with the revelation that this corresponds exactly to the plight of every first-person shooter protagonist ever. Linear games reduce the player to the level of an on-rails gun, leaping through hoops and firing when they're told to. It's not just an ending for Bioshock - it's an ending for a certain way of thinking about games. There's just one problem: Irrational refuses to accept its own findings. It makes one of mainstream gaming's few genuine intellectual breakthroughs, and then it... carries on.
For another couple of hours, in fact. While competent enough, Bioshock's "climatic" brawl with an Adam-flooded uber-Fontaine is a cataclysmic step back, a capitulation to precisely that design logic Ryan's sacrifice exposes. Without it, Bioshock would have been one of the most powerful arguments for player choice you'll find. With it, Bioshock is simply a brilliant shooter with an artful script.
3. Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 is a lot tighter and sparser than its Babylon 5 meets Eastenders presentation would have you believe. Surplus role-playing subsystems are gone; the Citadel hub has been boiled down to a single albeit complex Ward; and vehicular exploration has been tided under the carpet. That it manages to do all this without diminishing the experience noticeably is a triumph. But it does settle for meaningless padding at times.