Greetings from Tijuana, Mexico, where the thing to do on a Saturday night is stay in your room writing entries in your blog! This is not a list in which I'm arguing that these are the very best games of the year. There were too many games I didn't get to play for me to make those kinds of arguments (I've barely scratched the surface in Fallout 3--PUN INTENDED!) and anyway I'm not interested in making them. This is a quick and dirty, off-the-top-of-my-head celebration of the games I personally enjoyed the most.
For me, the area where games saw the most dramatic advancement in 2008 was narrative. My two favorite games each, in their own way, set a new standard for the kinds of stories games can tell, and how those stories can be told, while also delivering outstanding gameplay.
My favorite game of the year is Grand Theft Auto IV. Games have faced me with choices before, but never have the choices been so difficult, troubling and impactful as they are in Rockstar's masterpiece. In its stylized, thrillingly alive depiction of contemporary New York City, complex protagonist Niko Bellic's journey is not just a shootout-filled crime epic, though it certainly is that. It's also a story about class, culture, loss, revenge, forgiveness, and that most elusive of all concepts: the American dream. I'm not saying this game is The Wire. I am saying it cuts deeper and truer than any other game into the America we live in now, and I was mesmerized from start to finish by nearly every aspect of the game, and how they all came together to create an experience that was as thought-provoking and emotionally affecting as it was viscerally thrilling.
In my number two spot is a game that tells an altogether different kind of story. While one could imagine the tale of GTA IV working as a novel or film--albeit without those difficult, all-important choices, the Metal Gear Solid games, and MGS4 in particular, are uniquely gamey in the tales they tell and the techniques they employ to tell them. MGS 4 is such a monumental success, such a powerhouse conclusion to this series that for me it redeems even the weakest moments of the previous MGS games. MGS 4 is somewhat accessible to even first-time players of the series, but it really shines as a tremendous piece of fan service for those who have been fascinated with every aspect of Solid Snake's long, labyrinthine odyssey. My favorite example of both the gamey storytelling and the deeply interwoven fan service are the X-button flashbacks that frequently pop up during the game's cutscenes. I was frequently surprised and even oddly moved by the connections that were woven throughout this game to past games in the series in the form of brief visual and aural flashbacks. It gave the storytelling a rather stream-of-consciousness feel, as if we were inside Snake's mind, remembering aspects of the past along with him as his journey draws toward what he knows, as his body starts to give out on him, are his final days. Of course, all of this virtuosic storytelling would be for naught if the gameplay wasn't any good, but it is absolutely excellent. Unforgettable setpieces abound, and the final brutal fistfight is a near-perfect sendoff of one of the greatest heroes and one of the greatest villains in video game history, that brilliantly evokes all of the games in this landmark series.
Of course, games are still, first and foremost, about the gameplay, and one of my favorite games of the year has no narrative at all to speak of, save what my imagination conjures up. Rock Band 2 is an endlessly exhilarating fantasy fulfillment machine. I understand that it's not a huge advancement over its predecessor, but the whole Rock Band experience was new to me the day I brought home my RB2 bundle. I've already spent many hours getting lost in the music while playing drums for The Intellivisions, and I hope to spend many more. The people behind this game really understand the culture of rock, and everything about it feels right, from the ambiance of the gigs to the iconic images on loading screens of your band, and your band's name on lunchboxes, bumper stickers and the like.
And then there's the chilling Dead Space, which builds on the framework of Resident Evil 4 by adding some uniquely sci-fi elements like vacuums and zero-g environments, and takes place on a ship so richly detailed and haunting, it feels like you've stepped into a really, really good Ridley Scott movie.
I also want to give special recognition to Fable II. It's a thoroughly enjoyable game whose storybook vibe is very charming, and whose various elements--questing, developing your character's combat and magic attributes, shaping your character's moral role in the world, and buying and selling property, come together to make for a surprisingly compelling, addictive experience. On a personal note, I also love the tacit implication in the game that gay people should be treated as equals in society and granted the same freedom to express their commitment to each other with a bond of marriage that straight people enjoy. Ah, what a ridiculous fantasy world Albion is.
My odd game out for the year is Little Big Planet, which I found absolutely enchanting in the days after its release and would not have hesitated to place on this list. Many user-created levels knocked my socks off with their beauty and inventiveness. Then things got unpleasant as many of the very best levels were nuked by Sony, in many cases for no clear reason. This left a pretty nasty taste in my mouth about the whole experience. I've heard that things have improved since then, but I haven't yet found the time to hop back into my pod and see what's new in the LBP.
I'm giving honorable mention to No More Heroes, Suda51's exhilaratingly original, audacious Wii action game. Fascinating characters, stylish lo-fi graphics, a dizzying story, excellent use of the Wii remote, and tons of fun, ludicrously bloody action. Brilliant.
And Gears of War 2 also deserves recognition. As dumb as Cliff Bleszinski's "Bigger, better and more bad-ass" phrase sounds, it's nonetheless accurate. Gears of War 2 improves upon its predecessor in just about every way, featuring action on a larger scale and a story that's nice and ignorable rather than one whose in-your-face stupidity actually hurts the experience of playing the game. Heck, there was even a cutscene in this game I found rather moving. With a slew of terrific cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes, Gears 2 is an outstanding package.
This was also an amazing year for downloadable games, both in terms of remakes of classics and original titles. My favorite update is Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix, which improves the visuals of the 14-year-old classic so that they look spectacular in high definition, and polishes up the gameplay, but also demonstrates just how well the fundamental game still holds up.
My favorite original downloadable game, and one of my favorite games of the year in any category, is Braid. It's a brilliant, beautiful puzzler that's not quite like anything I've played before. It's challenging but consistently, unfailingly logical, and each time I thought I might have to break down and look at a FAQ, I instead put the game aside for a day, and when I returned to it, looking at the situation with fresh eyes, the solution was immediately apparent. To bring us full circle, it's also one of the most challenging and rewarding narratives I've encountered in a game, dealing with regrets on both a personal and historic scale, with a jaw-dropping climax that gave me goosebumps and left me feeling utterly amazed.
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