It's that time of year again (i.e. the beginning of a new one) so in keeping with the tradition held by gamers all across the globe, GameCritics.com locked four of its staffers in a very small, uncomfortable room and forced them to come up with a list of 2008's top releases. Unlike years past, there was quite a diversity of high-quality software available with no one title that seemed to build up the kind of critical mass necessary to sweep the industry. Instead, there was a little bit of everything for everyone, and quite a lot of it was excellent. Not a bad situation, any way you slice it.
Without further ado (and while we continue to play catch-up with the games we still haven't gotten to yet) here are GameCritics.com's top titles of 2008.
Brad Gallaway, Senior Editor & Critic
Game of the Year: World of Goo (WiiWare, PC)
Although I readily admit that I hemmed and hawed at paying a little more than I had been accustomed to for a piece of downloaded software, after playing through this unassuming, odd little game from 2D Boy, I felt as though I should stuff an envelope full of cash and send the developers a little more. I don't believe there is such a thing as a perfect game, but if there was, World of Goo would likely be it. The basic premise of creating structures with sticky little balls only takes a minute to grasp, but mastering the physics and wrapping my head around the creative thinking needed to progress to Goo's conclusion was something else entirely. Not content with having a killer mechanic, every level (and I do mean every one) is supremely polished and placed precisely at its perfect place on the game's difficulty curve. The entire package is wrapped up in fantastic music and hyper-stylish visuals that take the player on a completely unexpected (and surprisingly effective) "suggested emotional journey". Without a doubt, this was the best thing I've played all year, and one of the finest pieces of game creation I've ever seen.
2. Fallout 3 (360, PS3, PC)
If it hadn't been for Goo, Fallout 3 would have been a shoo-in for my top spot. More than anything else, the thing that I admired about my trip into post-apocalyptic Washington DC was the incredible level of detail and sense of discovery that permeated every square inch of the entire experience. Not only was I free to explore a vast stretch of wasteland, there was usually something interesting, compelling, or deadly waiting for me around every corner, in any direction. Bethesda's virtual world was so rich, in fact, that my time with the game was the complete opposite of what I would normally expect; instead of spending most of my time focusing on the main quest, the vast majority of my hours in Fallout 3 were dedicated towards free-form exploration and the incredibly interesting and varied sidequests. The unscripted events and out-of-the-way locations that a player will come across by simply putting one foot in front of the other and turning over a few rocks were far more memorable than I ever would have guessed, and certainly far better than simply taking the game to its conclusion via the path of least resistance.
3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PS2)
Some may say that the age of the Japanese-style Role-Playing Game is over (and they may indeed be right) but when a title so impeccably designed and so superbly polished hits shelves, it's impossible not to drop everything and go along for the ride. Easily the best Shin Megami Tensei game created, Persona 4 makes it easier than ever to see why this long-running series has a legion of absolutely dedicated fans. Avoiding the standard sword and sorcery clichés, the game is set in the real world, in modern times. The combat and complex Arcana game mechanics are fantastic, but the real selling point here is going to school every day with the main character and meeting people who have hopes, dreams, and fears the way anyone else does. Building relationships with teammates and townsfolk over the course of a year is extremely compelling thanks to the flawless scripting, quality characterization, and pitch-perfect voice work—and the tangled murder-mystery storyline is guaranteed to hook even the most jaded Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) fan.
4. Art Style: Orbient (WiiWare)
More an electronic poem than a game, Orbient completely captivated me with the simplicity of its concept and elegance in implementation. Taking a small planetoid and maneuvering it around a series of magnetic fields in space doesn't seem like much at first glance, but that's part of its beauty. One of the most purely distilled play experiences I've had in a long time, this title went a long way towards convincing me that Nintendo's attempt at delivering new download content would actually bear worthwhile fruit. It's hard to capture in words, but there is no denying the artistry and sensibility that went into making Orbient, and my hat is off to it.
5. Soul Bubbles (DS)
Knowing nothing about this game besides the title and that it was a Toys "R" Us exclusive, I proceeded to be blown away only moments after turning the power on. Truly a stunning show of quality and inventiveness from new studio Mekensleep, Soul Bubbles' premise of guiding spirits to the afterworld is one of the finest, most legitimate and appropriate uses of the touchscreen and stylus that I've ever seen, and absolutely on par (and even better than) some Nintendo first-party efforts. The fact that a physics engine ( ! ) was implemented to give the eponymous bubbles life was impressive enough, but after seeing how this engine interacted in so many ways with the varying challenges in each world, there was no denying that Mekensleep is a studio to watch out for.
David Stone, Critic
Game of the Year: World of Goo (WiiWare, PC)
I never like being a "me too" guy—especially to BRAD—but this was the one game that had a certain sparkle to it, that was just so special that it has to be mentioned. There isn't anything about this game that you can't like: the meta-character of The Sign Painter, the luscious environments, the Elfman-esque soundtrack and, of course, the Goo that doesn't realize it's extremely delicious. While other games may be larger in scope, no other game says so much with so little.
2. Burnout Paradise (360, PS3, PC)
True story: I was at E3 2004, playing the demo for Burnout 3, and was gushing to Alex Ward, creative director of Criterion Games about how much I adored Burnout 2. This was before the world really knew about the Burnout series. Ward recorded me on his personal video camera for the developers with my comments, and then GAVE ME HIS CARD TO CONTACT HIM AFTER THE SHOW. Alex Rigopulos then tentatively offered me a job the next day, and I misplaced the card. Biggest. Regret. Ever.
Anyway, Burnout Paradise is everything that is right about downloadable content. It is extensive, exhaustive and, best of all, FREE. I have yet to play such a value-added game, and the main game is nothing to sneeze at either. Kudos for Criterion for being so consistent in development quality, and for remembering their fans to the nth degree.
3. LittleBigPlanet (PS3)
While slightly flawed and incomplete (controlling Sackboy is a mite bit floaty), LittleBigPlanet epitomizes the idea of Games 3.0, delivering some staggering creativity amongst the quickly-banned phalluses. Check out the truly interactive tic-tac-toe board (someone actually figured out all 250,000+ possible outcomes with player being 'X' and hard programmed them into the game!) or the back of the calculator level, and tell me gamers have no attention span or imagination. And Stephen Fry Rocks.
4. Gears of War 2 (360)
One word: Horde. This multiplayer addition has single-handedly made this the best co-op game on the 360 for me thus far. Erin and I have spent tons of hours going through the story mode, but Horde keeps us coming back for more. Incredible production values aren't hindered by the high-school play calibre storyline. This is one of those play-it-because-it's-awesome games, and don't mind the rest. Besides, this game was the only one that made me say "Holy shiznit" when the tunneling worm appeared.
5. Braid (XBLA, PC, Mac)
Another downloadable title? By a SINGLE PERSON? Braid changed my views on what a platformer could be by playing with my expectations about mechanics, storyline and puzzles. Couple this with a haunting soundtrack and watercolor levels, and you have a recipe for one of the best experiences of the year.
Tim Spaeth, Critic & Podcast Host
Game of the Year: Fallout 3 (360, PS3, PC)
To the slave traders of Paradise Falls, I was a hero. It turns out they were short on children, and I just happened to have a quest to a city filled with nothing but children. What an opportunity to increase my reputation even further! When I arrived, I was greeted by a little girl who resented being treated like a baby by the older kids. I used my speech skills to coerce her into leaving town, with the promise of showing her the adventure of a lifetime. I introduced the girl to my "friend from the big city," a slave trader, and they left arm-in-arm. As I watched them head off into the sunset, it occurred to me that these were the tactics of a child molester. I was disgusted with myself, horrified that even in the name of role-playing, I could commit such an act. Such is the power of Fallout 3, and it's packed with moments like this. It's perhaps the first game of its scope where consequences of your choices impact equally the character and the gamer. An absolute triumph.
2. World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (PC)
Blizzard's latest World of Warcraft expansion de-emphasizes the "massively multiplayer" aspect and for the first time tells one cohesive, epic story though its hundreds of hours of gameplay. The result is a perfectly viable single-player experience that rivals any release in 2008. Shorter dungeons and the homogenization of classes have the hardcore crying foul, but Wrath makes WoW more accessible than ever.
3. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (XBLA)
Was anything more addicting this year than the "Pacifism" game mode? I spent a week trying to unseat "Teh Fa" on my friends leaderboard. When I finally did it, I celebrated for all of ten seconds, when I saw the next name on the list was only 50,000 more points away. Having the friends list leaderboard on the game select screen is like having endless achievements. That, and the ability to start a new game within half a second of dying, should be mandatory features for any future arcade title.
4. Civilization Revolution (360, PS3, Wii, DS)
Harbingers of the death of PC gaming received some new ammunition this year. The console-ification of Civilization, one of the most complex PC games ever made, seemed like an impossible task. Yet somehow Sid Meier and Firaxis not only did it, but did it exceptionally. Despite the removal of hundreds of features, a three-hour game of CivRev feels just as satisfying as a 25-hour game of Civ IV. I was thrilled to see it sold well; a sequel with better AI would be welcome.
5. Grand Theft Auto IV (360, PS3, PC)
No console game this year took more of my time than Rockstar's magnum opus. It's an astounding technical achievement; Liberty City just plain feels like New York City, and I spent hours driving and flying around in awe of the recreation. Its story is far from Oscar-caliber writing; the early promise of Niko's tale of redemption soon devolves into a clichéd mobster story. Grand Theft Auto IV is, well, the GTA III of this console generation, laying a rock-solid foundation for stronger stories to come. Hopefully the upcoming downloadable content will make good on that promise.
Brandon Erickson, Critic
Game of the Year: Burnout Paradise (360, PS3, PC)
It's the game that keeps on giving. Not only did Criterion do an amazing job of crafting an open-world city packed with fun shortcuts, crazy jumps, and cool stunt opportunities, but they've also thrown in more free content than any other game I've played this year. I haven't been to Liberty City in a while, but I'll probably be taking trips to Paradise City for a long time to come.
2. Gears of War 2 (360)
All it needed to do was be at least as good as the original. Fortunately, it upped the ante in almost every way. The turret sections are a bit boring, but all in all, Gears of War 2 delivered the goods by taking all the things I loved about the first game (e.g., chainsawing enemies, curb stomping, blowing things up, and spraying buckets of blood everywhere) and expanding on them. This is Gears of War, only more so.
3. Boom Blox (Wii)
I would never have expected that a Stephen Spielberg-produced game that's essentially an expanded and mutated version of Jenga would turn out to be one of the best implementations yet of the Wii Remote, but there it is. Boom Blox is a surprisingly entertaining and addictive game to play either alone or with friends, and it really shows off the Wii's unique qualities in a way that doesn't feel forced or frivolous.
4. Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii)
Being an old-school Nintendo guy, I don't recognize a lot of Brawl's younger characters. But there's still enough awesomeness on display with old timers like Mario, Zelda, Samus, and Pit as well as non-Nintendo favorites like Sonic and Snake to make Brawl a winner. It's not just a nostalgia trip, however. The fighting is actually good. Add in the story mode and level-editor, and this is easily one the most jam-packed Wii games yet.
5. Dead Space (360, PS3, PC)
It may drag on for about twice as long as it should, but Dead Space still pushed a lot of the right buttons for me. The slickly-integrated HUD, the tense atmosphere, the creepy visuals and sound, and the nifty zero-gravity and zero-oxygen sections all combined to make this a stand out title for me. It may be Resident Evil 4 in space, but hey, I like Resident Evil 4 and I like space, so I'm not complaining.
Daniel Weissenberger, Critic
Game of the Year: Operation Darkness (360)
While it seems odd to name a game that received a 6/10 game of the year, Operation Darkness is just that special. In a year of sequels, reboots, and endless me-too titles (even my own year-end list is 80% sequels), games with the nerve and confidence to do something new and different were few and far between. Having the greatest premise in the history of videogames (British Werewolves vs. Nazi Vampires during WWII) would have earned it a place on this list—the fact that it offered completely solid SRPG gameplay is just icing on the cake.
2. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 (360)
Geometry Wars demonstrated that incredibly retro gameplay combined with modern technology could produce a fantastically addictive experience with a single drawback: It was far too long. Getting to the challenging part of the game takes ten minutes, any kind of record-breaking attempt can close in on an hour. The genius of Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 is that it's rare for a game to last more than five minutes. Long enough that players feel like they've had an intense, satisfying experience, but short enough that they'll immediately be willing to start it up again in an attempt to beat their previous performance. Simply put, it's the most addictive game I've ever encountered, and the first time I've ever cared about my position on a Leaderboard.
3. Far Cry 2 (360, PS3, PC)
Until Far Cry 2 came along, the open-world shooter was entirely the purview of the Personal Computer. Suddenly the experience of wandering across a huge expanse, approaching combat using a wide variety of tactics, and hopping in and out of vehicles was open to console gamers as well. The game isn't without its flaws, the foremost among them being the lack of a much-needed co-op mode, but the new gameplay possibilities it opened to
4. Alone in the Dark (360, PS3, Wii, PC)
With the failure of Shenmue to find an audience, Yu Suzuki's dream of melding cinematic storytelling and gameplay seemed to die out. Then along came Alone in the Dark to prove that, even if no one else cared, the French were keeping the dream alive. Its balanced mixture of carefully dangerous exploration and huge action setpieces is unlike anything else in videogames, and only a few control issues kept it from being my game of the year.
5. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2 (360, PS3, PC)
Rainbow Six Vegas perfected first person shooter design offering an ideal symbiosis of first-person immediacy and third-person strategy. The fact that it was released a few weeks after the massively over-hyped Gears of War kept it from being recognized as the masterpiece it was. Rainbow Six Vegas 2, although it didn't have the element of surprise that its immediate successor did, proved that the first game wasn't a fluke, and that perfection could be maintained and even improved upon, with its full-game co-op and vastly upgraded multiplayer options.
…And now that the straightforward picks are out of the way, here are a few more high- (and low-) lights to round out our send-off of 2008.
Biggest Elephant in the Room: Digital Rights Management (DRM)
David: Okay, enough is enough. Spore proved that most DRM is insulting to the end user, and useless anyway. Rather than being remembered as a creative, expansive work (it wasn't, by the way; after Sporepedia, there isn't a lot to do, and most of the depth Will Wright promised was never delivered), it will be remembered as the most pirated game of 2008. Nintendo and Sony are vying for number two in this category, between locking the Virtual Console/Wii Ware titles to your specific console (thank God Nintendo doesn't have a red ring on their machine) and Sony, in spite of actually having a user account, not permitting repeat downloads from their store, DRM is just not going away when it probably should.
I think it speaks more about humanity in general. Given the chance, most people wouldn't pay for anything if they could get away with it. The problem is piracy is an invisible crime nowadays. Back in the 80s, you had to rig up your dual cassette player, or get an image enhancer for your S-VHS recorder to copy something. Now, you click a couple of buttons and let an invisible stream of 0s and 1s come through the air, giving you a perfect rendition of whatever it is you're stealing. As a member of the creative community, I'm appalled when I read the reasons why people pirate. The bottom line is that pirates are cheap. And you're stealing. Period. There is no excuse that can defeat that.
Except Spore. That game deserved it.
Biggest Guy Who Has to STFU: Peter Molyneux.
David: Peter, Peter, Peter. Have you learned NOTHING from the past? Okay, Fable II is alright, but let's be honest. It's basically the original Fable with a nice coat of paint and a great companion dog. Notice it's not on any of our GOTY lists. Once again, Lionhead made a good/great but not wonderful game. We don't deny Molyneux's achievements (see: Populous, Theme: Park) and it's not that Fable is bad. It's just not the sh*t. Unless your game is unviewable in any way other than as the sh*t, just let the game speak for itself. Because, right now, I don't care about your "revolutionary" new product that you claim to be developing. I just don't believe you anymore.
A very close second: Denis Dyack. Only because you don't make bets with internet message boards about your game that's been in development for three console generations that your company's stock can't cash.
Best Trend in Development: Indie games via Download
David: They've been around for a while, but are really starting to pick up steam and quality. When two of my top five games of 2008 were made by three people total, you know there's a change coming to the System. Freed from publisher pressure, Braid and World of Goo proved that you don't need big budgets and 3D awesomeness to make the most compelling game experiences. And while I don't want to get in too deep on this one, these two games came closest to proving the Games Are Art argument universally. Now if only Ebert would put the feedbag of popcorn down long enough to see this, then we could finally put this to bed.
Brad: I can't say that I'm 100% at peace with the download concept since a primal part of me still craves a disc, or some sort of case to put up on my shelf, but I absolutely agree with David's comments. Now that there's a way to get smaller games in the hands of those who can appreciate them without following the "blockbuster or bust" route, it feels almost as though we've returned to the earlier days of gaming when diversity and creativity weren't reined in by focus groups and marketing budgets.
Bloodiest Game: Gears of War 2
Brandon: That's a close call between Gears of War 2 and Dead Space, but I think I'll have to give that one to Gears of War 2 because there's a part where the player is fully submerged in blood.
Dan: Dead Space—while the combat itself isn't as excessively bloody as Gears of War 2's, once I reached the game's final levels, and realized just how diligent the texture artists had been at coating every flat surface with text scrawled in human blood, I knew they deserved the title.
Tim: While I haven't played Gears 2 or Dead Space yet, I'd like to throw in a gory shout out to Fallout 3, perhaps the first game where shooting a man in the foot will cause his head to explode and send cranial matter flying in every direction. Bonus points for the cannibalism perk, which allows the player to pick up that cranial matter and eat it for nourishment. Charming! And bloody.
Brad: My vote is for Fallout 3 as well. Props must be given to a game when you can shoot the bloody skull out of someone's head, and watch the entire process happen in slow motion.
David: World of Goo. Wait, when they go "squish" do they "bleed?" Still, it's gotta be painful. I agree with everyone else about Gears 2 and Fallout 3. It kind of makes Sub-Zero's fatality in the original Mortal Kombat look like a bad PhotoPaint job.
Most Unfinished Game Despite Nine Years in Development: Too Human
Tim: Perhaps after nine years Silicon Knights just got tired of working on Too Human. More likely, Microsoft decided enough was enough and ordered them to release the damn thing already. Regardless, it could have used about six more months in the oven. The levels are all scaled too large, clearly designed for four player coop instead of the two player coop in the final product. Items carry completely useless stats designed for tanking and threat management—very useful in massively multiplayer games but serve no purpose in a two player game. An in-game store to download items from Xbox Live has been empty since launch day. Cutscenes start and end abruptly and don't mesh with the gameplay that came before. The core combat mechanic, the slide attack, has an incomplete animation. The list goes on. Too Human is far from an unmitigated disaster (there's fun to be had—really, there is!) but the lack of polish screams of a premature release, ironic given that Silicon Knights was working on it for over a quarter of my life.
David: And you don't cry "foul" when you decide that changing development engines multiple times mid-stream will help your cause. It's funny how the only company trying to sue Epic about Unreal 3 is SK. I think we may have gaming's Ishtar right here.
Most Interesting Gameplay Mechanic
Dan: This year was the year of the fire. For too long we've put up with flickering two-dimensional textures and flames that burned themselves out in the middle of a dry cornfield. Between Alone in the Dark's flammable world and Far Cry 2's raging brushfires, 2008 was the year that fire came of age as an actual gameplay mechanic as opposed to just a pretty visual effect.
Worst Design Choices in an Otherwise Fantastic Game
Brad: I was in love with PlayStation Network's PixelJunk Eden for the first few sessions, until I realized that the developers forced players to come back to each level multiple times whether they knew how to complete the level or not. For example, if a level needs five items found to be called "complete", the developers kick a player out after picking up the first one. Coming back, that first item must be collected again in addition to a second item, after which the player is again booted. Wash, rinse, repeat until reaching the requirement. It's madness, and made something incredibly interesting and engaging into a slog. Just as bad was the decision to randomly pick which player the camera would focus on when someone falls in a co-op match. Since scaling vast vertical heights is a large part of the game, if the player who didn't fall is still on screen, there's no problem. However, if the camera is focused on the player who took a tumble, all progress is lost. If not for these mistakes, PixelJunk Eden would have ranked much higher on our lists.
Most Disappointing Game
Brad: Although it did not live up to its promises, I counted myself as a fan of the first Fable. The second time around, not so much. Feeling like a series of gimmicks and isolated concepts smushed together inside a fantasy-adventure shell, I found it impossible to become immersed in a game where I convince someone to fall in love with me by flexing my arms a few times and passing gas loudly. The story segments failed to come together into anything resembling cohesion, and the combat/magic system felt simplified to the point of stupidity. It may not have promised as much as the first game, but I feel as though it was a bigger letdown.
Tim: Galaga Legions. Namco-Bandai created a modern classic with their XBLA re-imagining of Pac-Man: Championship Edition, but to update Galaga as a puzzle game—a puzzle game!—is a colossal misunderstanding of the original game's shoot ‘em up appeal. Moving from level to level requires a great deal of dying and repetition to learn the enemy patterns, and it's just not worth the 10-15 minutes it takes to get back to where you died (at which point you've forgotten the proper strategy anyway). The marketing for Galaga Legions had the audacity to call it "the one true sequel to Galaga"—which is a galaxy-sized to disservice to Galaga '89 and Galaga '90, two vastly superior games.
David: Castlevania Judgment. There, there, Castlevania III. It's okay. I know that you had incredible settings, soundtrack and gameplay in your time. If I close my eyes really hard, I can forget this tennis-elbow-inducing monstrosity. I can ignore how even 17 years ago, you looked and sounded prettier than this "it's not a fighting game" fighting game. And I can forget that Grant DaNasty was a bad-ass mutha who climbed walls as opposed to a closet case with a penchant for bandages. *sigh*
Best Downloadable Content (DLC)
Brad: Frequent visitors to the site will remember that I awarded BioWare's Mass Effect a perfect score, and although the add-on adventure Bring Down the Sky didn't quite satisfy my craving for more, I definitely feel as though it was on the right track. Too many developers are going the new costume/multiplayer map route when it comes to DLC, so I need to give praise to those who actually produce more substantial additions—especially those that have a significant effect on the singleplayer experience.
Dan: The free Elite Suit they offered in the first weeks of Dead Space's release—getting through the game's a lot easier with a huge storage area, even if the Xbox 360-inspired colour scheme was a little rough on the eyes
David: I think I'm the only one who played Burnout Paradise. Criterion has taught us how to really value-add to a game without resorting to cliché. Motorcycles, time cycles and the upcoming FLYING CARS help keep this one as fresh as the day the shrink wrap was popped. Like Brad (again!) this is more than just horse armor. These additions are serious, substantial changes to the game.
Most Surprising Game
Dan: Alone in the Dark—I'm not going to go into why again now, my ten-page defense of the game in the reviews archive speaks for itself.
Games We Finally Got Around To Playing This Year
Tim: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on XBLA. Everything I love about the GBA/DS Castlevania games minus everything I despise about them. No stylus nonsense, no character switching, no portrait jumping. I can see how this would have been mind-blowing back in 1997 (a year of my life in which I'd stopped playing games). And I finally have the context for the meme "What is a man? A miserable pile of secrets!"
Dan: The Japanese version the first NES Golgo 13 game. It's pretty much the same as the American release, other than that it was about Nazis.
Brad: Folklore on PS3 was a very pleasant surprise with its Pokemon-dark aesthetic and its unusual Faerie realm setting. Balancing that positive discovery was the PS3's Resistance: Fall of Man—it was far more tedious and tiresome than I would've ever expected from Insomniac, and I traded it in unfinished.
David: I've actually kept on top of the games I wanted to play this year, surprisingly enough. I almost missed the Fallout 3 boat but got there in time right before New Year's Eve. (I haven't seen enough of it to rank it properly, but so far it is as amazing as everyone else has said.) But, I wanted to take this opportunity to point out publicly that it was I who shamed Tim into playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Glad you're now on board with this one, Tim!
Best Death in a Game
Dan: Hitler in Operation Darkness. It's a game where you get to kill Hitler, which automatically wins the category.
Brad: It wasn't a scripted moment in Fallout 3, but I was low on supplies in the middle of the wasteland when I was surprised by some aggressive enemy creatures. I was bracing myself to bite the big one and reload my game when a giant mutant bear came to my rescue out of nowhere, savaging the opposition and saving my virtual life. It seems that one of Fallout's wandering NPCs had heard of my reputation for good deeds and dispatched his bloodthirsty pet to save my hide when he saw I was in trouble. Not only was this the best death in a game, it was one of the highest high points of gameplay all year.
And with that, we bring 2008 to a close… looking back, it was indeed a very good year. Here's to 2009 being even better.