Ladies and Gentlemen, 2008 is drawing to a close. Although the current financial atmosphere has made the past few months no easier on the game industry than any other business, it has been a rewarding and exciting year to be a gamer. The past twelve months have allowed what was once referred to as “next-gen” to undeniably make the transition to “current-gen.” The DS and PSP now exist in their third iterations. The big three consoles have really limbered up and have started to show us what they are capable of. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft’s boxes have all made big steps to establish their own identity in the ever-expanding market. Be it through the XB360’s attempts to use its lauded online services in conjunction with the “New X-Box Experience” to compete with the Wii as a master of social play, or the PS3’s streamlined efforts to build an integrated network of impressive entertainment technology, there can be little doubt that it has been an intriguing year for the educated, hardcore game enthusiast.
This progress toward solidifying the positions and identities of the current console generation has allowed for a lot of the flashy and exciting “NEW HARDWARE!” dust to settle, and given some of the big-budget, blockbuster titles with extended development cycles the opportunity to finally make their big appearance. The results of this have been an outstanding year for software. Almost too many amazing titles have made themselves known this year. Including industry staple EA, many companies took gambles and struck forth with several new IPs. Results and receptions varied widely, but there is little doubt that there was no shortage of interesting new games to play this year.
What follows is my Top 10 games of 2008. These decisions were largely made based on a delicate balance of innovation, character (of the game itself, not specific characters within the narrative), quality, and my own taste. Several personal favorites were left out in order to better represent titles that have had significant impact on the industry as a whole in these months past. I believe that each game mentioned here brings something special to the table, and embodies the very best of what this year had to offer. They are not ranked, as I believe it is generally silly to rank games of differing genres above one another. Please read, think about, and discuss. I would be very happy to talk about my choices with anyone interested. Without further ado . . .
Bionic Commando Rearmed
US Release Date: 08/13/08
Platform(s): PC, PS3 (PSN), XB360 (XBLA)
In 2008, downloadable titles truly came into their own right. WiiWare, the X-Box Live Arcade (XBLA), and Playstation Network (PSN) all hammered out a number of quality games, both exclusive and non, that proved how these $10-$15 little guys could be far more than time-wasting, score mongering distractions. I felt it necessary to include at least one downloadable game in this year’s list. It was a tossup between The Behemoth’s excellent beat em’ up Castle Crashers and Capcom’s HD remake of their NES classic Bionic Commando, cleverly titled Bionic Commando Rearmed (BCA).
I chose BCA in the end because it represents the pinnacle of what a downloadable title should be. The boys at GRIN worked their Swedish buns off to produce a title with unbelievable polish. What started as a pet project to drum up interest in their upcoming current-gen Bionic Commando remake (due out first quarter or ’09), took on a significant life of its own. There is no doubt in my mind that BCA could have survived equally well as a fully released title with an actual physical in-store presence.
Rearmed is a project of pure devotion that joyfully recreates every facet of the beloved NES classic, while adding several bells and whistles of its own. It manages to maintain all of the punishing difficulty of the original (a quirk often absent from modern titles), while creating an experience that is still fun and rewarding. A number or VR style training missions, and a fun multiplayer suite only add to the package. And what a beautiful package it is. Completely redone 2.5D high-def graphics, true ragdoll physics, and gorgeous art from Capcom’s friends at Udon all make BCA a feast for the eyes. Round this out with a fantastic soundtrack by composer Simon Viklund that admittedly takes inspiration from French House duo Justice, and we are presented with a game that is hard to equal in terms of presentation.
Perhaps the truest testament to the charm of BCA is my own appreciation of the game. I never played the original Bionic Commando on the NES; however, I am still thrilled with GRIN’s remake. BCA’s greatest strength is its ability to stand alone as an excellent title, without necessarily having to rely on its own nostalgia. There are few remake titles about which this can be said.
US Release Date: 10/13/08
Developer: Electronic Arts
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform(s): PC, PS3, XB360
As I had mentioned in my introduction to this article, EA was among several publishers who took courageous chances this year by launching a number of new intellectual properties. Dead Space (DS) is one such title.
Although the game is far from perfect, DS easily stands out as 2008’s finest entry into the survival horror genre. Players take on the role of technician Isaac, as he makes his way through the decrepit corridors of the massacre site that was once a great space ship, the Ishimura. The game employs a unique combat engine wherein the only way to survive the hordes of shambling uglies that pursue you (dubbed Necromorphs) is to use a number or tools originally designed for mining to sever the limbs of oncoming foes. The gore is disturbing at its worst, and absolutely giggle inducing at its very best. Horror fans will love the first time they have to stomp a tentacle ridden, bloodthirsty, baby Necromorph into a mash of parts. The title employs the over-the-shoulder third-person technique that was popularized in Resident Evil 4 to create moments of frenetic, claustrophobic, action.
Dead Space contains a number of light RPG elements that include upgradable weapons and armor, and a single persistent world, split up into areas, for players to explore throughout the 10-12 hour nightmare. This gives the game a unique feel that I have often described to others as the lovechild of Metroid and Resident Evil.
Visually, DS is a mouth-gaper. The initial scene where players are forced to crash land on the Ishimura is a clever combination of cinematic and interactive, and shows off the level of polish that players can expect the whole ride through. Eerie lighting and meticulous attention to detail assure that the environment in Dead Space accurately recreates the Event Horizon style vibe that the development team was going for. When this graphical prowess teams up with amazingly employed sound effects, and competent lighting, the environment of the infested space-hulk becomes as much a character and adversary as any real men and beasties encountered within its halls.
US Release Date: 10/28/08
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platform(s): PC, PS3, XB360
Keeping aside the worries of fans who derided the new shift to a first person viewpoint, there was little else on the gaming scene but near unanimous agreement that Fallout 3 would be every bit the tour de force that it turned out to be. Utilizing a upgraded version of the engine used in their massively successful masterpiece The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the fine people at Bethesda crafted a unbelievably detailed, living world in the Washingtion DC Capital Wasteland for players to attempt to survive in. It is as addictive to explore, as it is frightening and tragic to behold.
Players can expect the same free-world gameplay style that they have become accustomed to in Bethesda’s previous title, but with the unique twist of a smaller, more contained world with a heavier focus on story. Side quests a minimal in number but grand in scope. The emphasis in Fallout is more on completing multiple playthroughs with newly customized characters, then living a single hundred-hour life in one file. Between stats, perks, and items, there truly is no limit to the number of unique vault-dwellers that one can build.
The most notable mechanic in Fallout is the VATS system. Players use up stored AP to zoom the camera in on an enemy and select particular body parts to target with their firearms. The attack then plays out in glorious slow motion. Heads explode and limbs fly in all directions. The results are often instantly classic.
The developers clearly understood the charming tongue-in-cheek humor that is a tradition of the original Fallout titles. This is clear in every corner of 3 from the fully voice-acted dialogue (why is everyone so friggin’ rude in the post-nuclear future anyway?), to the copious amounts of gore.
Fallout 3 is not without its fair share of balancing issues and trademark glitches; however, these small problems can be easily overlooked when they lie beneath the shadow of such a huge, engrossing, and largely successful world. Any RPG fan who has had the patience to lose tens of hours in this spectacular tale of morality and survival will tell you that Fallout 3 is well worth the price of admission. The promise of full-mission downloadable content promises to keep fans waiting with bated breath well into 2009.
US Release Date: 02/26/08
With titles such as LocoRoco, The Last Guy, Echochrome, and Everyday Shooter available on the PSP and Plastation Network, Sony has made it clear that they do not have a problem taking a gamble on the artistically strange and wonderful. Patapon on the PSP is one such example of a collection of strange ideas, brought together in a collaboration of innovation, charm, and pure addiction.
Patapon presents itself in a manner that is so artistically simple, that it is practically revolutionary. The game is played completely in two dimensions, with all characters represented as primarily black silhouettes against the various backgrounds. The distinct look and smooth movements of each cleverly designed creature is reminiscent of traditional Asian shadow puppet theatre. Sometimes there is more expression in the single eye of these mono-color guys than can be found in the several-thousand-polygon faces a character in a game built on the Unreal Engine 3. It is a sight that really must be seen, and will probably not be matched again by anything aside from the already confirmed Patatpon 2.
The gameplay in this PSP treasure is a bizarre hybrid of rhythm gaming and that of a strategy RPG. Players take on the role, not of the tribal creatures on screen, but of an omnipotent god who bangs the drums of war to drive the little fellows into battle. Each button on the PSP’s face represents a different drum sound. When played in certain sequence, orders can be formed to send your force on all out attack, stay back and defend, march forward, and other such commands. The effectiveness of your decrees is measured by your ability to keep your button presses in time with the rhythm of your army’s march, which is shown to you through the subtle throbbing of the screens border. In playing Patapon, I found myself tapping my feet and almost having to recite “pon pon pata pon” along with my warriors in order to succeed. Execute enough simple commands, and your force will go into a fever mode, which allows you to do serious damage to foes. Achieving, and maintaining this is a real joy that I recommend any PSP owner experience immediately.
Beneath the rhythm driven combat sits a terribly addictive and surprisingly deep item collection and army customizing system. After a mission, players can return to base with armor and weapons dropped from enemies, or materials to craft new ones. Patapon can also be born with a number of functions such as archer or heavy warrior, or be bread with elemental resistances. Although certain stages sometimes require certain army configurations, the customization and collection elements make the player feel like the army truly is his own.
US Release Date: 11/04/08
Valkyria Chronicles (VC) is a strategy RPG from the same development team behind Sega’s steampunk pirate turn-based RPG Skies of Arcadia. VC takes the artistic production values that the beautifully realized world of Skies is known for to astounding new heights through the use of the “Canvas Engine.” This graphical style is an advanced take on traditional cel-shading for the high-def gaming generation. Valkyria literally looks like an interactive painting come to life. When the opening cinematic begins, and your tank and its crew is slowly rendered line-by-line, then filled in with vibrant color, only to spring to life and storm its way down a dirt road, you know you are in for a truly unique visual spectacle.
The fictional World-War II era setting of the game is portrayed in a manner that is full of life, and beyond memorable. The game’s story unfolds as chapters in a fictional book written about the war. Issues such as love, family, tradition, loss, racism, and the responsibility of government are all discussed. The surprisingly competent voice acting makes sure that the subject matter is portrayed in a mature fashion, and the tale of the moral choices and difficulties faced by freshly recruited citizen-soldiers is engaging and full of emotional impact.
VC’s fresh contributions to the strategy genre do not stop merely at its appearance. The gameplay mechanics found within are the right mix of new, with just a taste of the familiar. The game seems to have been built in direct response to a plethora of critics railing against the tired, disconnected traditions of methodical turn based Japanese strategy games. Instead of taking turns moving characters across a grid from a top-down or isometric perspective, would-be generals are shown a 2D map at the during each turn with icons representing positions of soldiers and vehicles. By spending an Action Point, players can select one of these icons and make a move. Once this is done, the camera swings down, and any movement is actually done in real time, in a fully 3D world from a third person perspective. All actions, from seeking cover, and climbing ladders, to healing teammates and dealing out return fire are all manually done under a hail of enemy fire. Although damage and health are delegated by statistics in the traditional RPG fashion, this new and more active approach to strategy gameplay makes the player feel much more involved, and creates the feeling that little is simply left to chance.
US Release Date: 10/27/08
Developer: Media Molecule
Sony’s LittleBigPlanet (LBP) was easily one of 2008’s most ambitious and anticipated titles. Few gamers, regardless of their stance on Sony’s console, are immune to the charms of the game’s mascot Sackboy, who has essentially become the spokesackperson for the PS3. Crystal clear graphics and high-def textures present the LBP’s adorable world in a remarkable way, and uncanny narration by British comedian Steven Fry makes learning the ins and outs of the game as much a blast as actually playing it.
Media Molecule’s blockbuster title is simultaneously the most simple and grand-in-scope concept in the history or gaming. At its heart, LBP is a simple 2.5D platformer with realistic physics that plays out on a 3-layered plane that players can transition between with the push of a button. The true meat of the game lies not in the levels that ship on the disc, but the full creative engine at the heart of the title. Every level and arcade style challenge that the people at Media Molecule have built was constructed using the same tools that players are given full access to.
By completing the pack-in levels, one unlocks hundreds of building materials, stickers, and trinkets that can be used to make entirely original levels. These new creations can then be seamlessly shared via the Playstation Network and played online with anyone, anywhere anytime.
It is important to point out that LBP does miss a number of small marks on the front of simple gameplay in its strides to perfect the big picture. The pressure sensitive jumping mechanic is utterly abysmal. It is confusing that such an unintuitive mechanic would be included in a title so heavily focused on ease of access for everyone. The automatic transition between the three planes is also buggy and can sometimes cause unwanted death through no fault of the player. Regardless, these problems should not be viewed as reasons to avoid Media Molecule's work altogether.
The richness of the LBP community is astounding already after a mere 3 months (including beta time) of existence. User-generated levels obviously vary in quality, but the sheer amount of creativity is mind blowing. Players have discovered ways to turn the game into a calculator, a game of tic-tac-toe, or a working music composer. The people at Media Molecule have already expressed the opinion that LBP is meant to be viewed more as its own platform than a simple game. With constantly added new content, and the already inherent infinite possibilities, I am not inclined to disagree.
Rock Band 2
US Release Date: 10/19/08
Publisher: MTV Games
Platform(s): PS3, XB360
Note: I am only considering the PS3 and/or XB360 version best of the year material. Since Rock Band 2’s presence on this list is based on several features that are not included in the Wii version, it would be inappropriate to include it.
I was originally hesitant to include Rock Band 2 (RB2) in this Best of 2008 list. Many argue that it has not changed enough from its fundamental formula to be considered a new game at all. I disagree with this statement entirely, and choose to list RB2 not only because it continues to dominate any and all social gatherings in my home in the manner that its predecessor did, but because the improvements made to it in this new incarnation have truly proven it king of the rhythm game genre.
The changes made to Harmonix’s 2008 entry are subtle but important. One of the fundamental new features is that more flexible character builder. In the original Rock Band, a character was made to play one instrument. The avatar that I created to look like myself was only capable of playing drums in the first game. If I wanted him to do otherwise, I had to rebuild and re-outfit him for each piece. RB2 allows for characters to play any instrument once created. It is a small but welcome change.
The trademark world tour mode was also expanded this time around to allow for single player and online play. One is no longer limited to absolutely having to have another person physically in the room to advance their band, and unlock trophies/achievements that are directly related to that mode.
In the same way that Sony’s LittleBigPlanet represents a living community, so to does Rock Band 2 provide for the seemingly infinite game. Harmonix’s support for the title is unparalleled. Five dollars grants the owner of the first Rock Band a download key that can import nearly all tracks into the new title. Combine that with the free download pack unleashed several weeks after the game’s launch and the weekly track releases, and you are left with well over five hundred available songs to play. New accessories such as officially licensed cymbals and a base guitar from manufacturer MadCatz also serve to keep the experience fresh. There can be little doubt that Rock Band 2 is currently the definitive choice for both the social player and the aficionado who is serious about both music and gaming.
US Release Date: 10/21/08
Developer: Lionhead Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
The experience that famed hype-machine Peter Molyneux promised the gaming world at large for release in 2004 finally came to fruition this year. Fable 2 represents all the strengths and charming British style of the original Fable, while simultaneously making up for many of the ways in which its four-year-old predecessor fell shamefully short. It appears that Molyneux was able to thoughtfully accept and consider criticism. The world of Fable 2 is large and expansive, and though linear, not restrictively so.
The character building system in Fable 2 is considerably accomplished. Good and evil attributes work together with an added corruption and purity mechanic that helps craft both the reputation and appearance of your avatar. The healthy eldritch glow and tight build of the vegetarian, do-gooder, wizard that I completed the game with was markedly different from the chubby, tattooed, meat gobbling, heavy weapons expert that a friend of mine eventually created. And he also got a very different reaction when making his way through town than I did.
Though I will not throw out any spoilers, the folks over at Lionhead did an excellent job of integrating tough moral decisions directly into the game’s story. There are moments in Fable 2 where you will have to choose, and the ramifications of that choice with affect both you and the world around you in profound ways. When one considers that the game opens up for continued exploration after the credits roll, these decisions are not to be made lightly, as their consequences will truly make an impact on the experience you have. A choice I made at the title’s end left me considerably heartbroken in a way that gets me very excited when attempting to explain its impact to players new to the game.
Fable 2 is not without considerable flaws. The combat is almost laughably easy. I did not die once in my entire playthrough. The emotional attachment to characters is also touch-and-go. As Molyneux promised, I grew to love the dog. Many reviewers felt otherwise. I guarantee that you will not care much about your wife or husband. Any amount of dancing and blown kisses can earn you another one built on the same model in close to no time should something unfortunate befall them. In the end, as with any open ended, choice driven game, Fable 2 largely becomes what you make of it. The extent to which you are able to become engrossed in the world that Lionhead has presented relies entirely on how receptive you are too it in the first place.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
US Release Date: 12/08/08
Developer: Atlus Co.
Publisher: Atlus Co.
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and its expanded iteration, FES, made an outstanding impact on the gaming scene in the past two years. Rabid fans anxiously anticipated the release of Persona 4 (P4), expecting more of the series’ signature addictive gameplay set in an eerily real modern world. This swansong game for the PS2 arrived this December with a number of improvements without shedding many of its forbearer’s good points. Its reception has been almost unanimously good.
For those unfamiliar, the Persona series traditionally combines combat that revolves around a Pokemon style monster collection mechanic with a system of social interaction. The main character is still in high-school, and it is the actions he takes and relationships he forms that help shape his personality, and thereby affect types of monsters he is most effective in using. The games are traditional dungeon crawling turn-based RPGs. But it is their unique setting, and challenging, tightly crafted gameplay that truly set them aside from the rest of the pack. Persona 4 is no different.
Fans of 3 will immediately notice the shift from the series’ traditional urban setting to one of rural Japan. The transition is jarring at first, but this new setting opens the P4 up to a whole new story that truly takes this new iteration light-years ahead of the last game. I found that I had a problem caring about the story in 3. The danger was real enough, but the characters did not seem significantly invested in the exploration of Tartarus. In P4, the thrilling murder-mystery that is central to the gameplay is a lot more captivating. Stakes are high, and so are emotions. If a character that you are meant to save in the story dies before you can do so, it is game over for you. It is a real bonus that both the story and the play mechanics are significantly engaging in 4, as opposed to just one or the other.
Additions to the gameplay mechanics in P4 are small, but infinitely helpful. Players can now elect to control all three members of their party directly, instead of relying on lackluster AI for the actions of everyone but the main character. The amount that this cuts down on frustration is astounding. Characters also no longer become fatigued during dungeon navigation. Your friends’ ability to fight onward is now solely based on their stats. Some have complained that this removes a degree of difficulty from the game; however, the added freedom to level up your characters if necessary develops a more relaxed and balanced feeling that I find entirely welcome.
No More Heroes
US Release Date: 01/22/08
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
No More Heroes (NMH) comes from the delightfully odd mind of game creator Goichi Suda (aka. Suda 51). Much like Suda’s other famous creation, Killer 7, the Wii title is a bit of a mess in the realm of pure gameplay. What NMH lacks in tight mechanics, visual polish, and variation of tasks, it makes up for by presenting us with a world dripping with unforgettable style and filled to the brim with smart social commentary for the clever player to discover. The result is a game far greater than the sum of its parts.
The latest title from the people at Grasshopper puts players in the role of Travis Touchdown. Travis is a poor, unmotivated otaku who suddenly finds himself in the dangerous and extremely competitive world of contract killers. He must now take out every assassin listed above him in the hitman hierarchy in order to become number one. Touchdown is stuck in a true fight-or-die situation, as those lower than him on the list will always seek his head, whether he battles to advance or not.
Gameplay in NMH works in two phases. The real treats of the game are the blood filled, action packed, fighting missions. Using a lightsaber style weapon in conjunction with a series of wrestling moves and satisfying combo-enders tied to motions on the Wii-remote, players must carve their way through each assassins lackeys, and finally face them in a one-on-one showdown. The hitmen run a wide gauntlet of wacky personalities ranging from old-school samurais to schoolgirls with daddy issues. The confrontations often possess unique mechanics relevant to the enemies theme, and are truly satisfying to complete.
In between bouts, however, players are forced to navigate a rather lifeless free-roaming city and perform various odd jobs in order to save up the requisite money to pay for entry into the next match, and afford necessary equipment upgrades. The jobs include things like coconut carrying, and lawn mowing. They are silly at best, but often tedious and clumsy.
Many complained about the dual nature of Suda’s game. But it is within this dichotomy that clever gamers have started to find the real appeal of NMH. Grasshopper’s title is a game about gaming. The way that Travis must perform thankless tasks to earn enough money to participate in that next action packed adventure is meant to be a mirror of the way gamers live their lives. Tedium packed days are rewarded with a peppering of satisfying, but too brief digital thrills.
In this way, No More Heroes uses questionable gameplay mechanics along with its narrative to communicate a unique and insightful message. It is a real pleasant change from the simple, mindless offerings that the Wii is often associated with, and truly is one of the finest titles of 2008.
(Here is a beautiful trophy. I engraved it myself. In my mind, one of these was presented to the directors of each of these stellar projects. They should all be so very proud)
The following is a list of titles that I absolutely adored in 2008. It pained me to leave several of these out of the actual Top 10 list, but I felt that they simply did not qualify for any number of reasons. They may not necessarily be ground breaking, or blockbuster stuff, but these are also quality titles, and it would be a good idea for any serious gamer to give these a try, if they have not already:
- Ninjatown (DS)
- Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard (DS)
- Chrono Trigger (DS)
- Final Fantasy IV (DS)
- Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)
- Gears of War 2 (XB360)
- R-Type Command (PSP)
- Ninja Gaiden 2 (XB360)
- Castle Crashers (XBLA)
- PixelJunk: Eden (PSN)