As 2008 draws to a close, so does another year of gaming. So what was great and what wasn’t this year?
A lot of these are multiplatform releases, but I indicated which version I played in parenthesis.
1) Fallout 3 (PC version)
Die hards can nitpick all of what went wrong with this game…I can, too…and miss out on the long term benefits of it having resurrected the franchise in today’s cutthroat market. Fallout 3 is fun, delivering a unique experience to today’s players that may have never heard of the franchise, and has a few things that even a veteran scavenger like myself can appreciate. For someone that occasionally fires up Fallout 1, 2, and still has his original disk copies of Wasteland somewhere in this clutter, Fallout 3 manages to do more things right than wrong and that’s always a good thing. After all, it could have become like Microsoft’s Shadowrun.
2) Metal Gear Solid 4 – Guns of the Patriots (PS3)
Hideo Kojima’s magnum opus in closing the story of one of gaming’s most respected icons is the kind of title that can only come out after twenty years of incredible success. It’s a game that actually makes you feel proud to own a PS3 and as a Metal Gear fan, is filled with all of the answers to the questions that the series had started off with, confusing us with endless speculation and debate on what is really going on. After the weirdness of MGS2 and the redemption of MGS3, the twisted, unexpectedly fourth-wall breaking, PMC commentary of MGS4 has finally capped everything off without sending anyone to the psyche ward this time around. Rest easy, Snake. You’ve earned it.
3) Dead Space (360 version)
Dead Space was a huge surprise for me. I wasn’t immediately blown away by its initial announcement last year by yet another “survival horror” title or by the screenshots of the banded armor that the guy was wearing, until I actually sat down and started playing the thing. It comes off as a huge mashup of bits and pieces of games such as System Shock and Resident Evil while layering it with a little celluloid from Event Horizon and Aliens. The final result is a scary, action packed adventure in the bowels of space that bodes well as a new IP for EA. I couldn’t get into the RE5 demo as much as I loved RE4. Dead Space clearly improved on its approach to third person controls.
4) Tales of Vesperia (360)
The 360’s RPG offerings have been improved significantly this year with an incredible number of holiday releases focused on the console. Namco Bandai’s “Tales” series makes its debut on Microsoft’s box with a fantastic entry into the storied franchise with “Tales of Vesperia”, one of the best RPGs that newcomers and veterans both can have fun with. With a solid, if predictable, story, charming characters, and a host of upgrade options and skills that they can collect to create a party of infinite power, it’s also a JRPG that delivers an entertainingly fresh perspective on the traditional hero model with an older, more seasoned, protagonist than previously leading roles in the series had been. A brilliant entry into the series for fans, but the action formula is getting a bit long in the tooth.
5) Mirror’s Edge (360 version)
I’m putting it on this list despite its gameplay issues because when it works, it’s an incredibly unique experience to play through. It plays off as a first-person, free running simulation, with all of the slides, jumps, and clambering over obstacles that you should expect while being able to see your appendages instead of feeling like a floating camera. The setting is a bleached city with deceptively clean buildings and streets, a controlled world where information is monitored and the only people that are free are those that can leap from rooftop to rooftop on their own two feet. I can still pick up and use weapons in the game, but it’s a lot more rewarding in playing the role of a runner trying to stay a step ahead of the heat in using the environment against them.
6) Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)
This was an unexpected, but very much appreciated, surprise from Sega this holiday season. Valkyria Chronicles’ unique approach to its third person strategy coupled with a tear-jerking cast of memorable characters (including cameos from Skies of Arcadia) help embellish its storybook aesthetics in creating a stunning and unforgettable experience for PS3 owners. Unfortunately, as sales figures for it were disappointingly low…likely owing to its presence in the US as a new IP lost amidst the regular retail rush for FPSs, sports, and familiar names…its future as a possible franchise is in heavy doubt on this side of the ocean.
Unfortunately, the market demands those shooters, sports titles, and sequels to popular properties because those are what most of the purchasing public votes for with their dollars. Valkyria Chronicles is a stunning achievement from Sega, but you can’t convince a shooter fan or a sports nut that it’s what they should add to their weltanschauung if they only want more of the same.
Sega has announced the porting over of the DLC from Japan that introduces new campaigns and a different side to the story, so fans can continue to enjoy one of the best internally developed releases that Sega has had this year.
7) Grand Theft Auto IV (360 version)
As a major chapter showcasing Rockstar’s technical prowess in delivering a living, breathing cityscape for the next generation, it is a roller coaster ride from start to finish with all of the gunplay and open-world possibilities that the franchise has created a reputation for. I liked GTAIV’s action packed free roaming gameplay and its technical merits are a preview of what Rockstar has planned for the franchise going forward in much the same way that its PS2 offering had advanced it. What I didn’t like so much were the baby steps that it took to further distance itself from the somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach that its previous iterations were known for by moving ahead with a Sopranos-like adherence to its story and characters. Bowling, darts, and socialization were made key components to the design, overriding some of the more flamboyant elements such as property purchases, or neighborhood defense which made sense in terms of what the game wanted to be, but weren’t all that fun in practice. What’s the point of earning all that dough if there’s nothing to spend it on…unless you want to burn hundreds of thousands of dollars at pool and, uh, darts.
8 ) Gears of War 2 (360)
Comic book writer and author, Joshua Ortega, was brought onboard to help flesh out the characters and the plot, making it more noticeably focused this time around with less caveman talk and more dry commentary from Damon. The ferocious action and the twisting revelations unraveling in this third-person shooter along with Horde multiplayer make it a tremendously exciting trip on the 360. It can feel like it’s more of the same, but if you love Gears and can’t get enough of it, Cliff Blezinski and his crew at Epic ring up plenty of gory holiday treats with the sequel.
9) Resistance 2 (PS3)
Not to be outdone, PS3 fans have a lot to celebrate with the sequel to Insomniac’s Resistance. The theme this holiday season is war, and Resistance 2 drops you down into a gripping campaign and some of the most thrilling multiplayer that you might ever experience on Sony’s console. With co-op missions, rankings, in-game experience, and classes to choose from along with a healthy number of gameplay modes supporting up to 60 players, Resistance 2 is a remarkable achievement even with how buggy it can get. Too bad that the best parts of the story were turned into “collectables” instead of integrated into the ongoing campaign, or that much of the single player feels formulaic, but it manages to pull ahead of its shortcomings by providing plenty of eye candy and entertaining action that kept me plugging on until the bitter end.
10) Persona 4 (PS2)
The PS2 isn’t dead yet, but with Persona 4 ringing out the year on the console, it’s given a deservedly solid sendoff with one of the most compelling JRPGs to come out for it. Persona 3’s addicting blend of social sim and RPG makes another comeback with its sequel, set with different characters and in no way directly related to its predecessor making it a stand-alone story that newcomers and veterans can enjoy without having to worry about what happened before. If you haven’t played any of the Persona titles before, you’re in for a real treat.
Yakuza 2 (PS2)
I loved the first game and the second one delivers even more curb stomping, face punching, sign smashing action taking players deep into a fictionalized account of a former Yakuza strongman’s quest to find answers on the streets of Japan’s underworld. It’s another Sega production that dares to be different, with an all Japanese, subtitled voice track and its connection to the real-world with a setting ripped straight out of a Japanese atlas for Osaka. It’s a unique title that will also likely go unnoticed in the face of more popular offerings, but as a gem of a release with nothing else really like it, and if you feel the need to dance on the wild side as a legendary gangster, you might want to pick this up with all five fingers.