With a short break from blogging due to work commitments, I finally return to continue my series of Games of the Year. Starting at Part 1 - 2006, followed by Part 2 - 2007. Next up on the list is 2008 where, for me at least, was a big year for gaming.
Keep in mind that these lists were decided in the actual year they describe, yet the comments I post below are from the present day, offering a reflection on the games that made an impact on me.
01. Burnout Paradise
02. Space Giraffe PC
03. Mirror's Edge
05. Condemned 2: Bloodshot
06. Dead Space
07. Call of Duty: World at War
08. Left 4 Dead
09. Fable 2
10. Geometry Wars 2
What can I say about this game that I haven't already said? Not only my number one game of 2008, but violently shuffling my top ten games of all time and thrusting itself into the top slot. It's no easy list to crack either, it makes full use of my long history of playing games.
But Burnout Paradise is just that good.
However, there's really no need to once again write up a diatribe of why I like this game so much. I'll just copy and paste what I wrote for Gamasutra's own Honorable Mentions for Games of the Decade:
"There are very few games that - while performing a task in the world or just exploring for kicks - I will stop and look about and wonder, how the hell does this exist? Games where the comparisons between previous entries in the genre and it are so far apart that I sit and wonder at what I am experiencing, and reflect on how far gaming has come in such a short time.
"Burnout Paradise is one such game. Whether it's speeding down a highway at what seems like light speed weaving in and out of traffic whilst AI cars smash, bounce and swarm like wasps, flipping high off a ledge and careering through a sign sending splinters and poles in all directions, or doing exactly the same thing down one of any number of other streets because, let's face it, Burnout Paradise isn't about a leisurely drive admiring the scenery. It's all about speed and the thousands of things it throws at you while your eyeballs redden and dry from a lack of blinking.
"But there are times when you can stop and ponder the big questions. Going online and teaming up with people all over the world to complete tasks is by comparison a very relaxed affair. Complete your task and go park up on a ledge under a tree and enjoy the show below as everyone else attempts to finish it as well. Watching such activities is almost like observing a ballet, the participants of metal and tires leaping over and through each other as music plays in the background.
"Burnout Paradise is the game that made me look at games in a different way. It may not have easily taken my vote for the best in the last 10 years, but it certainly wasn't a tough decision either. There simply wasn't any other game that gave me the sense of wonder and bewilderment similar to - before this last decade - the first time I played Test Drive II on the Commodore 64 and slowly began to realise that, wow, haven't we come a damn long way."
Space Giraffe PC
You can read what I think of Space Giraffe in Part 2 of this series, as this PC version is pretty much the same game but released more than a year later. There were a few changes though, as Minter had bowed to public pressure and made the whole thing a little easier to get into. The crazy visuals were subdued, and some of the effects were spruced up. There were even a few extra graphics on screen to help you work out what was going on and when.
However in my opinion it lessens the experience.
I only ever played this version once. I had already converted to linux as my PC operating system of choice and so going back to my old Windows install felt really uncomfortable. I did this time however just so I could play this game and see if my prediction was correct; that I could finish all 100 levels in one sitting, on one credit, the very first time I played it. I did of course, with the visuals toned down so much that it felt like easy mode from beginning to end. The new effects were nice, but the extra 'helpful' graphics were more a distraction than anything else as they were horribly artifacted and didn't fit properly on a beautiful swirling mass of colour.
I still recommend it if you have a Windows PC and a few dollars sitting in your virtual online wallet. A revolutionary game in my opinion and considering it does include the original balls to the wall transcendent game 'experience', you could do a hell of a lot worse.
The mention of this game's title brings back memories of online arguments, forum threads or podcasts, over dollar to game length ratios and what was good and bad. Personally, not many things make me angrier quicker than someone who disregards a game because he or she hears someone casually mention the game only lasts five hours. The reason being is that game length is entirely subjective and can be radically different from person to person. For instance, I've heard of people finishing Dragon Age: Origins in fifty hours. I'm currently at one hundred and sixty hours and I still haven't finished the damn thing. Then there's the example of the very game we are discussing here. Someone might finish Mirror's Edge in five hours, but before I put the controller to rest and cashed in my retirement fund, I had put in no less than one hundred and ten hours.
Does that seem odd you? If it does then you obviously never touched the very core of the game, the very content that had me transfixed until I'd perfectly executed every complex twist and flip manoeuvre and crossed the finish line with my reward of maximum stars. Because as good as the single player experience is, it absolutely pales in comparison with the speed runs and time trials that will push you to the very edge of what you thought your fingers could do on a control pad.
Let alone your sanity.
There are few games in existence that has as tight a control scheme, as brutal a time limit, as white knuckle an experience. I can certainly say that the only other masterpiece of time trial game design and control that I can point to would be the very first Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. As hard as you tried and as hard as you threw the controller across the room, the act of pulling off a pin point power slide hop and power slide combination around three consecutive corners can be extremely rewarding and can certainly be compared to a jump tuck wall run flip jump grab jump in Mirror's Edge. As frustrating as it can be to miss one single move in a long list of complex combinations of button presses, the feeling you get when you actually pull it off and cross the finish line is almost indescribable.
The beautiful abstract designs of the levels and over saturated blown out artistic styling just add to the experience, along with the calm almost ocean-like sound track of the music combine to make a wonderful world that is like no other.
I normally dislike puzzle games. I don't find a thrill in solving static brain teasers where one answer lies amongst a mass of questions. However Braid had an irresistible charm that I simply couldn't turn away from. I'm a complete sucker for beautiful artistic design and Braid has this in over supply. I'm also a sucker for a dream like story where more questions arise than answers. Once again, Braid delivers on that front and had me guessing the entire way through.
I didn't even mind the really difficult puzzles because I felt like I was constantly rewarded for trying. The reward being able to experience more of the world. It really is that adorable.
Once my adventure seemed like it was coming to an end, and still having no real idea of what was going on, the ending actually shocked me. I had never experienced something like that in a game before and - as is the popular cliche tag line these days - proceeded to blow my mind. I hadn't even sub consciously considered what had been revealed, and I absolutely loved it.
The ending is worth playing the game for even if you can't stand the exquisite detail of the art and atmosphere of the game proper.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot
I'm a big fan of Monolith, the developer of the Condemned and FEAR series. I personally believe they can do no wrong in the FPS horror genre. The first game in the Condemned series gave me many memorable moments, and the entire last two stages were some of the best I've seen in horror games period.
The level in the dark house for instance was so incredibly creepy. If you can imagine a pitch black old three level wooden house, creaking floorboards and all, and you tracking messages with your UV light that are scrawled all over the walls floor and ceiling in the dark, the light casting eerie purple shadows over everything, while you know someone is at any moment going to burst out from a corner and flail a pipe at your face. Or the act of turning off all the lights and standing silently in a cupboard while the silhouettes of men walk past the door as they look for you, and cracking them over the head as they eventually wander in and close enough to your melee range, all none the wiser. Or even heading down into the basement where strange lightning quick crawling demons would attack you in the dark scaring the absolute bejesus out of you. I completed my tasks down there and swore never to go into the basement again. I have honestly never been so terrified in a game before or since.
Unfortunately for Condemned 2, it didn't deliver as well as the first game in the terror and dread filled atmosphere department as the first. But it did improve on just about everything else. The combat was a lot better, the visuals were a lot better, the crime scene investigations a lot more involved and interesting. In fact, you could argue there was no involvement at all in the investigations in the first game - you just pulled out the tool they asked you to and waved it around a bit and it was solved. In Condemned 2 you had to actually work out what tool to use, how to apply it, where to apply it, and try and solve the mystery. The characters too, were much more compelling.
The story though was a little silly. If you had completed the first game and were slightly disappointed by the turn of events that unfolded, you could still reconcile that it could make sense. But in the second game they take that premise and ratchet it up far too high and it gets a bit fantastical, a bit too 'out there'.
I'll say the ending surprised me, but not in the way you would think. It surprised me that it happened. At one point I was playing the game and then the next, I was watching the end credits. I had no idea the story was coming to an end and I had no idea the guy I was duelling with was the antagonist. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, but I thought I was. Perhaps I just had far too many beers at that point. Both options are possible.
The sound effects are the first thing I think of when recalling this game. House shaking, window vibrating explosion sound effects that really did make me feel like a space ship had just crashed through my house and landed in front of my lounge room coffee table. I don't know how they achieved this, but no other game has managed to sound as good. When an explosion happened in the game I felt like it happened in front of me. It was incredible.
Another sound that seems as fresh as yesterday’s dinner in my mind was the boomerang-like saw blade weapon skimming, scraping and tearing through metal walls, floors and zombie alien flesh. It may not have been the most useful weapon to cut apart limb and torso - the hit detection was appalling - but it was so much fun regardless that you could almost excuse the issue.
Other than the sound there really wasn't anything that Dead Space did beyond what any other game had done before. What it did do however was take everything every other game had done and combine it into a package where all the best parts of those other games were the one experience. Where you might have had one game that did something cool yet other parts weren't so great, Dead Space was just great in all areas. It creates a weird status of having done everything right and yet none of it above and beyond, therefore leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction but not exhilaration.
Sometimes satisfaction is enough though.
Call of Duty: World at War
This was the first game I played with my brand new surround sound headphones. I loved how when a tank would shudder and squeak it's way past as I crouched in the grass, it sounded like the tracks were crushing my skull… In a good way.
I was late to the party with CoD 4: Modern Warfare. So I never got to include it in my previous Game of the Year lists before 2008. Initially hating the game, I grew to love it once I started playing it on veteran difficulty. For some reason the lower difficulty levels didn't work with me and the game felt very disjointed and just not enjoyable. Yet at the hardest difficulty it felt 'right' and so began a love affair with the game that lasted until I'd finally popped the last guy in the noggin and leapt out of the plane.
So I purchased CoD: WaW soon after it was released fully aware that it had been developed by 'the other' team. Pleasantly, I was surprised that it was an enjoyable experience and one which rivalled CoD 4 even if it wasn't as tight and exciting, nor the characters any where near as interesting. But a good game it was and I enjoyed the old school war themes.
With the whole uproar about games and violence these days - especially here in Australia where we are still fighting for an adult classification for games - it surprised me that this game shows real footage of people being burned alive. I don't understand how a game can be refused classification for animated violence against zombies or aliens, yet a game with actual footage of people being killed in the most gruesome of ways is ok. That disturbs me many, many times more than anything else.
Left 4 Dead
Speaking of animated violence against zombies, here's one game that features that in thousands of ways.
Yet another curious Australian classification issue where this first game is fine yet the second Left 4 Dead game is refused classification and we get disappearing zombie bodies, no blood spray, no limb removal (Dead Space anyone?), and the worst of all, no setting things alight. How do you know when you've got a Tank on fire? You don't.
Enough about the sequel though. Let's just leave that issue with these closing comments: The USA version is region free.
I have a love hate relationship with Left 4 Dead. I play with a group of my real life friends and we have put quite a number of hours into it. However I've found that some days I come away hating the game and others come away loving it. With the nature of the AI Director who's job it is to keep all encounters interesting and random, I think in many ways it can either ruin your experience or make it better and you never know which way that pendulum will swing. Kind of cool, yet kind of irritating. I often question why I play it when I never know if it's going to make me feel like I've wasted five hours of my life or if I've had a good time. I may as well gamble, or play WoW. Either situation provides little reward for time spent.
I keep going back though. So it can't be all bad…
A beautiful world of adventure, love, money laundering, property investing, monster slaying, difficult world changing decisions and gender reversal, all culminating in a bitter experience destroying bug that ruined the game for me.
That's how I'd sum up my time in Fable 2.
It wasn't the kind of bug that would usually ruin the experience either. It didn't crash the game. It didn't make it unplayable. It didn't wipe out my save. Instead, it was the kind of bug that just made everything awkward and ruined any character story progression I was making and therefore took all the fun out of it. I'd already finished the game, there was nothing else left to do other than the social interaction side of it all. But that was the part that broke and that was the part that I cared the most about. That's why it annoyed me more than any other type of bug it could have been.
So what was this bug? It all sounds kind of stupid when I try and explain it, but here goes: My wife became stuck in a wall.
A rather simple thing really, and in some ways that just makes it even more infuriating. Why can't they release some kind of patch that fixes 'people disappearing into walls forever'? Maybe it's my fault for caring too much about the characters and story, but isn't that what Peter Molyneux tried so hard to do? Tried to make you care about the emotional decisions and interactions? So why have so many people lost loved ones inside walls and why was there never a fix? It makes me feel like some social reject just complaining about it, but the fact is for whatever reason, I did care, I still care, and it still makes me angry.
So out of all the good things Fable 2 did, I always end up feeling incredibly bitter whenever I think about it.
Better luck next time Peter.
Geometry Wars 2
Retro styled games, and indeed retro games themselves (I still play 8-bit games), have always attracted my immediate attention. There's something about the pixels, something about the colour, something about the simplicity. When I play a current gen game that makes maximum use of the full colour range of 16.4 million, I don't necessarily stare in awe at their use. Yet in a retro game where the colour pallet is limited I can often be completely transfixed by the ways in which they are employed and the colours that are chosen. I'm not sure if it's because I've been permanently damaged by watching hour after hour of Commodore 64 loading screens which were more often than not nothing other than coloured bands scrolling for twenty or thirty minutes. But the fact remains the colours and sounds of these games has been a constant contributing factor to my gaming enjoyment.
Enter Geometry Wars 2, where the explosions of colour are perhaps some of the most impressive and coma inducing of them all. You could argue Space Giraffe could rise to the challenge here, but it doesn't look anywhere near as crisp and retro styled as Geometry Wars 2. Space Giraffe being the acid trip, Geometry Wars 2 the video game.
Improving on the first Geometry Wars in every way conceivable, not least of which are all the game modes on offer, Geometry Wars 2 is less a single game and more a package of many. You're really purchasing multiple games with this second outing, and a number of the game modes I enjoyed more than the main one. In fact you have to wonder if the main game is even the 'main game'. The developers seemed to have gone out of their way to try and stash it away amongst all the other modes and ensuring all take centre stage. A design ideal that I support fully.
Robotron 2084 may still be the best in the genre - you can't beat those sound effects - but Geometry Wars 2 is one game that gives all two stick shooters a run for their money and can certainly be compared amongst the most highly regarded. The game is utter genius.
And so that concludes Part 3 of my look back at my Games of the Year. In fact I may decide to conclude the series here also as - although I obviously have a list for 2009 - I may save it for next year when I can look back and comment with the advantage of hindsight. I think that has made these previous years lists quite interesting. In fact I'm pretty sure already that what I chose for Game of the Year 2009 would be readjusted if I had my time over again, as I'm still playing and still falling in love with a game that was relegated to much further down the list.
I think for my next post I'll move on to something else entirely.