There were plenty of terrific games in 2008, and since I no longer get them for free, I was only able to sample a tiny sliver of them. Bah.
But first, some notes: I didn’t play that many shooters this year. For some inexplicable reason, I picked up “Quantum of Solace” (yikes), but never bothered with “Call of Duty: World at War.”
For the most part, I’ve stopped playing MMOs. “Age of Conan” was a dud for the month I bashed my way through it. I bought “Warhammer,” plus a three-month pass, but haven’t even opened the box (if anyone wants to buy it, let me know), and I totally skipped “Wrath of the Lich King.”
Finally, there were some other games that fell into the “close, but no cigar” category: Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution (360); Age of Booty (360); Tomb Raider: Underworld (PC); and Lego Indiana Jones (360)
So, without further ado:
10. Professor Layton and the Curious Village (DS)
I like adventure games and puzzle games, so this combination of the two is right up my alley. The story is twee, but the puzzles are an interesting mix of logic and math that don’t require a degree in adventure game logic.
9. World of Goo (PC, Wii)
The best indie games, at leas the budget-priced ones, take on interesting mechanic and polish the hell out of it. Were “World of Goo” a $50 game, it would be criticized for being overly simplistic. As a $15 game, it’s perfect. I already knew I’d enjoy the final game, having played “Tower of Goo” from its developer as an “Experimental Gameplay” prototype.
8. Boom Blox (Wii)
I’ve said this for years, but there’s a very simple rule about games: Breaking stuff is fun. “Boom Blox” is most enjoyable when played with someone else, and because its mechanics are so simple—throw stuff at blox, knock them over—it’s a terrific game for non-gamers or girls you manage to get to come to your apartment. You know, so you can break blox together. No, that’s not a euphemism.
7. Trials 2: Second Edition (PC)
Loved the free Flash version on Kongregate, loved the full version. This game is all about repetition in order to master a level, or a track in this case, which is something I normally avoid in a game. But it provides proof that I can deal with this kind of punishing design when I can immediately pick myself up after my horrible failure and try again. And again. And again.
6. MLB 2008 (PS3)
This is the 2008 version of, “I knew I ended up with a PS3 for some reason other than watching Blu-ray movies.” The first “MLB” game I played was 2006 for the PSP, and even that version was better than any other console title at the time. It’s best played as a baseball RPG, as you take your lowly minor leaguer to the pros. You can focus on the “big moments;” those games where you pinch hit or pitch the ninth. Or you can play entire seasons. Whatever you do, the on-field action is the best of any baseball game ever, though they’ve never really figured out how to let the player hit doubles with any regularity. Weird, that.
5. Braid (360)
Though it was overpraised largely because it hinted at being vaguely meaningful—the idea it was some giant artistic statement was due, in large part I suspect, to Jonathan Blow being a genuinely interesting guy in interviews, with a lot of great ideas that he put right into the game itself—it remains a very, very clever puzzle game. I loved the story, and particularly how it twisted itself around on the final level, but didn’t find it profound or amazing. However, like “World of Goo” and “Trials 2,” it showcases one simple mechanic that’s used brilliantly throughout.
4. Far Cry 2 (PC)
This is the game I wished “Crysis” had been last year, an open-ended shooter that rewards, or at least encourages, the player to try different things to progress past its obstacles. The narrative is daft, oratleasthteveryfasttalkingpeopleare, but it looks fantastic, runs fantastic, and delivers a lot of organic-feeling, non-linear gameplay. Yeah, it’s all faked, but when it’s faked this well, you have to give it some credit for trying.
3. King’s Bounty: The Legend (PC)
This game is gloriously retarded. I’ve done any number of nutty things in a game, but until playing this one I couldn’t say I’d married a zombie and gotten buffs thanks to my zombie children or fought a battle on (or possibly against) my belt. The original “King’s Bounty” was the predecessor to “Heroes of Might and Magic,” and this feels like that series’ cousin. Which is a good thing, because it’s a grand game of small tactical battles, over-the-top art direction, and a brilliantly simple interface.
2. Fallout 3 (PC)
Since I’ve completed the game twice, one as a goody-two-shoes and one as the ultimate evil (but who still couldn’t bring herself to blow up Megaton; wimp), I have a pretty good grasp on what makes it good or bad. Like “Oblivion,” the faults of “Fallout 3” stand out largely because it falls just short of total greatness. (Bethesda will have to be satisfied with the zillions of money they’ve made.) There are times when it’s clunky and arbitrary and game-y and poorly written, followed quickly by times when it’s creepy and bleak and funny and wonderful. But yeesh, when with Bethesda get modelers and environmental artists of the same skill level. People still look ghastly, while most of the environments look amazing. And the ending was dreadful. I had Fawkes with me in the final room; uh, why couldn’t he enter the code? The dude could survive the radiation.
1. Fable II (360)
There are a few things in a game, particularly an RPG, which I never get tired of: visibly affecting the world (something I wish you could do more of in “Fallout 3”), having people react to things I’ve done or am doing, and having some semblance of the passage of time. “Fable II” gives you all of these, in spades. It takes you away from the world, and depending on what you did previously, changes the world while you’re gone. People are happy when you run around laughing; they get a little weirded out when you strip naked and run through town using the “Vulgar Thrust” expression.
It’s also an easy game, the “LEGO Star Wars” of RPGs, a world without failure. Much like the original, I never died once while playing “Fable II.” Yet I never felt like I wanted more challenge, because there was so much to do. If I wasn’t doing quests, I was working, buying properties, wooing people, farting, sleeping with hookers, and doing all of those things I do oh-so-much in real life. Its moral system is more sophisticated than the blunt binary system in “Fallout 3,” or at least it fakes it better. (I’m less enamored of the “big choice” ending, which was delivered with all of the subtlety of a Bon Jovi power ballad. Instead of letting that choice play out with some actual action on the part of the player, it was literally a menu item: “Pick A, B, or C. Here’s your reward, and the downside. Har.” Fortunately, the rest of the game wasn’t that blunt.)
There’s so much fakery in “Fable II,” but it just doesn’t matter. Like its puppy dog companion, it just wants to be loved. It gives you love, and you give it right back. It leads you around by the nose, but you’re free to run off somewhere else; it won’t mind. It’ll knock you down during combat, but it won’t kill you. It’ll let you dust off your outfit and re-join the fight, no worse for wear. And it’s so damn charming, from the art direction to the music to the voice acting to the superb writing to the caricatures of all of the staff members during the closing credits. It’s a world worth spending days or weeks in.
Now, I’ll need to get back to my family. Those damn kids are always passive-aggressively suggesting I spend too much time away from home. (That would be family #1; family #2 seems fine. Yay for bigamy.)