The Best of the Best
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3)
Big surprise, I know. Uncharted 2 will inevitably rack up countless Game of the Year honors and will be forever remembered as a crowning jewel in the PlayStation 3's game library... but it will deserve every glowing remark, every spot of praise. While I was similarly fond of the first Uncharted game, Uncharted 2 expands upon the successes of its forebear with even more stunning graphics, breathtaking set pieces, and some of the best voice acting and writing in the business. Game Design Advance's Charles Pratt recently wrote that he feels too many bloggers are eschewing discussion of game's form to highlight its fiction, and while I find the claim debatable, if any game makes a case for continuing the "fiction" conversation, it's Uncharted 2.
It's not that the story of Uncharted 2 could not be emulated in another medium; nor am I equating Uncharted 2 to mere "interactive cinema." Uncharted 2 lovingly displays its gaming and cinematic influences—from FPS gunfights to Indiana Jones-style temples—in one narrative mesh that is as much a product of its sharp gameplay as it is tight direction and pacing. All I know is that the entire game—its mechanics, its technical feats, and its story—have captured the imagination of bloggers, developers, and the industry at large. But it's the fiction part that gets the most attention, and deservedly so. Uncharted 2 is not just a technological labor of love... it's a technological marvel whose narrative and sense of mythos lets you fall in love with it. Its story and world are the carrot dangling in front of our heads, drawing us in. Surely, Naughty Dog is just as proud to be labeled master storytellers as they are master game designers. Uncharted 2 is proof that they are both.
The Best of the Rest (or the Rest of the Best)
Dead Space: Extraction (Nintendo Wii)
While one's attraction to a game like Dead Space: Extraction will largely depend on one's affinity for rail shooters, it is hard to ignore the game's overall level of polish (unusual for the genre). For one, the game's graphics are quite stunning for a Wii title and approach the level of detail found in the original Dead Space. Sound is haunting and atmospheric, with voice acting coming across as appropriately intense rather than jarring or cheesy. Controls are extremely dynamic given the genre; I enjoyed the ability to switch to a secondary fire by tilting the Wii-mote. Co-op, too, is highly enjoyable and not at all an afterthought: My favorite sections were those in which one player must fight off endless hordes of monsters while the other fixes a panel or opens a door. For fans of the first Dead Space game, Extraction takes on a whole new life... starting precisely in the place where the first game ends and forming a sort of narrative book-ends. In a genre full of sloppily assembled arcade ports, Dead Space: Extraction is the rare light gun shooter that takes itself completely seriously, filled to the brim with tightly executed narrative sequences and engaging set pieces. Of course, like other rail shooters, Extraction is a bit on the short side... but it's a trip worth taking multiple times.
Flower (PlayStation 3)
Flower may be a controversial choice for a list like this, but I have a funny feeling it will make its way on to many a GOTY list. It's not quite a game, and what's there isn't particularly complex. All I know is that Flower is a singularly enjoyable, serene, and moving experience... an ecologically-tinted masterpiece amidst a sea of cold and pessimistic software. It's also inexpensive, makes good use of the SixAxis control scheme, and is quite pretty to boot. There really isn't a sour note about it... nor any excuse for a PS3 owner to miss out.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)
One would think that a return to top-down perspective would mark a regression for the Grand Theft Auto series, but on the contrary: Chinatown Wars is perhaps the strongest entry yet in one of gaming's most accomplished franchises. Gone are the usual cheeky voice acting and 3D exploration, but in their place are a slew of enjoyable mini-games, stunning mission variety, and precise controls. Even better is the long-awaited (and arguably long-needed) option to restart a mission directly from its originating point. And the trademark compelling/offbeat storyline? Still present, and as culturally pertinent as ever. After the disappointment of the "Stories" titles on PSP, Chinatown Wars shows that this sort of gameplay can be done right on a portable system.
inFamous (PlayStation 3)
While I was pleasantly surprised by this summer's Prototype, I was absolutely enraptured by inFamous' strongly designed open world and involving comic book-style storyline. Yes, the game has faults, as astutely pointed out by Brad Gallaway. Yet for all these faults (namely repetition, a flaw of most open world titles not developed by Bethesda), I found inFamous to be enthralling: the sense of freedom from climbing massive structures, the high felt from smashing down on foes with a burst of raw power, the way the game's world feels alive and responsive to your moral standing. It's all very pre-programmed, pre-packaged stuff... but call me a sucker, I fell for it. Perhaps a little too much.
Shadow Complex (Xbox 360)
There was a great deal of debate this year over Shadow Complex's relationship to author Orson Scott Card, and, while educational, it sadly took away a bit of luster from one of the year's brightest accomplishments. Shadow Complex is not only a magnificent example of what a polished downloadable title can be, it's perhaps the most richly conceived take on the "Metroidvania" genre of action games released to date. Key to this claim are the game's sublimely designed levels, an intricate network of secrets that will have even the most jaded Symphony of Night or Super Metroid fan smiling.