Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Best of 2008. Yes, seriously.

I often feel a teensy bit shamed that, having started this blog in 2009, I've never really covered 2008's exemplary crop of games. At the time, it was a common argument among the enthusiast press - whether or not 2008 was actually a better year for gaming than 2007. The fact that these arguments even occurred says a lot about 2008's quantity of quality.

2007 boasted God of War II, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Halo 3, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, BioShock (360), Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, The Witcher, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect. It was, clearly, an incredible year.

2008, however, has a special place in my heart. It was in late 2007 that, after spending several years systematically destroying my life (and selling off my previously impressive PS2 library in the process), I realized how special so many games were to me, and resolved to rebuild my collection. I'd played video games all my life, but it was the first time I began to self-identify as a gamer.

By the time I was a few months into 2008, I had my first PS3 - a sweet-as-candy 60G model and copies of Assassin's Creed and R&C: Tools of Destruction. My first year with the "next gen" was, I feel, an absolutely remarkable parade of special, beautiful, genre-defining experiences.

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The structure of this post will be rather different from my recent GotY offerings - I'm just going to list every awesome game of 2008, and tell you why it's awesome. I won't rank them, I won't give any a single Game of the Year title, and I won't go at them in any particular order.

Let's do it. First up - the last, wonderful gasp of the PlayStation 2.

A year earlier, Persona 3 showed me that - contrary to all previous evidence - I could not only enjoy a JRPG, but fall head-over-heels in love with it. Persona 4 is a remarkable "traditional" RPG. It has spectacular art direction, a soundtrack you'll actually listen to, a length that borders on ridiculous and air-tight, challenging turn-based combat.

Combine this with well-rounded characters, a standard-setting localization by Atlus and themes of such maturity they are rarely - if ever - found in gaming, and you have a modern classic that goes largely unappreciated by the gaming masses. Most impressive of all is that it essentially makes Persona 3 - which many still consider to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time - look like a practice run.

- review -

Speaking of last gasps, I still feel that Siren: Blood Curse is the last true survival horror game. Since Resident Evil 4, nearly all developers of horror games have tried to address a wider market by adding a great deal of action to the mix (Condemned, Dead Space, Dante's Inferno, Alan Wake). Blood Curse is a similarly plain attempt to court a specific market - in this case, the lucrative North American region that turned up its nose at the severely flawed original. This is approached by giving the game an American spin via western-born characters.

This tactic works perfectly. More than that, they've addressed all the (significant) flaws of the original and crafted a supremely intelligent, beautiful, affecting game with Blood Curse. I still feel it's flat-out brilliant to combine the tense atmosphere and sense of vulnerability of a survival horror title with stealth gameplay.

It's an incredibly smart, well-tuned experience - constantly playing with fear, constantly turning previous emotions on their head with clever plotting. It may be the last true survival horror game - more than living up to the standard set by Fatal Frame II and Silent Hill 2, it's easily the best on the current generation.

- review -

An open-world, first-person post-apocalyptic RPG, Fallout 3 had a boatload of hype and a lot of naysayers prior to its arrival. Many were displeased that the property was not being worked on by its original team, and suggested the new title would simply be Oblivion with guns, when they weren't complaining about it looking gray/brown.

Then it showed up, and - despite a few bugs - instantly became a Game of the Year contender. With its epic scope, fantastic atmosphere, excellent soundtrack, copious amounts of gore and a huge degree of character customization, Fallout 3 wasn't merely a re-skinned Oblivion but a special, grand game in its own right.

It would eventually be eclipsed by Fallout: New Vegas (made by Fallout's original studio), but there's no getting around it - if you fell in love with F3 you fell hard, and likely spent one or two hundred hours with the game.

Had I reviewed LittleBigPlanet in 2008, I likely would have told you it's a beautiful, interesting, full-of-potential LEGO set for Generation PlayStation, and that hours can simply disappear should you throw yourself into its level creation toolset. I would have also noted that it's a game that's much easier to appreciate than it is to enjoy, and I didn't much like the feel of the game's platforming.

Now, two and a half years on, I can tell you that folks who love LBP are still playing it every single day. A little village of LBP culture has sprung up around this game, with leaders and followers nipping at their heels. There are griefers and people who try to get by on sex appeal alone. There are folks who have mastered every minute detail of its mechanics, that they may impress the ladies and shame the noobs (see: my brother).

He still plays LBP almost every day - and will be more than happy to tell you all the ways LBP2 ruined the game, wasn't made with the community in mind and how most of the hardcore LBPers have gone back to the original. LittleBigPlanet may not be for me - but for those who were seduced by its plush charms it has certainly stood the test of time.

Like Mario, Metal Gear is a franchise I fell in love with on the Nintendo Entertainment System as a wee child. Unlike Mario, I still love Metal Gear, and as such I cannot suggest Guns of the Patriots is anything less than "an earth-shattering orgasm of fan-joy."

I do feel that its excellent production values and freakish degree of gameplay choice would make it an enjoyable diversion for folks who've never picked up a Metal Gear Solid title, but it's so hard to say with certainty. I am likely blinded by my affection for the franchise - and there are several games this year that I would defend more vehemently - but I can say, at the very least, that I enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4 more than any other game in 2008. Likely due to my long history with the series, it provided an insane amount of pleasure and ear-to-ear grins.

- review -

After its spectacular degree of hype, many gamers quickly became post-hip about Grand Theft Auto IV, but I still feel that it (even moreso than Assassin's Creed) was the first game to truly keep the promise of the current generation of consoles.

A sprawling metropolis. Procedural animation. Physics-based driving that became intensely satisfying, once mastered. Sky-high production values for an open-world game that only Red Dead Redemption has matched.

Many games are great, but few rank flat 10/10s on every single facet of their construction. Soundtrack? Incredible. Voice work? Remarkable. Graphics? Stunning. Gameplay? GTA IV was the first open-world game to actually get third-person shooting right.

A lot of folks will point out all the ways GTA IV is terrible, but to me that's like trying to tell someone Casablanca is a mediocre piece of American cinema. You're entitled to your opinion, you gamer hipsters - but you're wrong.

Mirror's Edge gained a huge following among folks who follow gaming media, thanks to its stunning, stark screenshots that were the antithesis of current-gen titles of its time : colorful. Bright white buildings, clear blue skies and punctuating pops of reds, oranges and greens.

Then we saw it in motion, and our collective jaws hit the floor. Mirror's Edge was both a thrilling affirmation of the possibilities of the current gen and a totally new concept for the ancient and largely samey platformer genre. A first-person platformer that actually works.

The idea alone still gives me goosebumps.

No game has yet challenged it for its crown, and EA keeps giving and tearing hope of its sequel away. There is, simply, nothing else like it - and like 2009's phenomenal Demon's Souls, it is one of the few games on the current gen that defines "hardcore."

Much love to Siren, but there's no denying horror has moved on - and its flag bearer is Dead Space. It's not peppered with as many moments of thrilling, ultra-smart inspiration, but it's always a thoughtfully constructed fear machine.

Perhaps its single most impressive facet is how stunningly well-realized the setting is. The gargantuan space frigate USG Ishimura is a wonderful environment - instantly recalling cinematic staples of science fiction horror, from Alien to Event Horizon to Cube, it's an intensely beautiful game.

Boasting excellent production values and graphics, capable voice work, well-tuned gameplay and frankly incredible sound design, Dead Space remains one of the single best games of the current gen - even if it has been overshadowed by its spectacular sequel.

Between MGS4, Resistance 2, LBP and Siren: Blood Curse, the PlayStation 3 had a great year in 2008 - but it was made much, much sweeter with the appearance of 2007 Game of the Year BioShock. Should this really be counted? No, not really - but given that this is a PS3-centric blog, I feel it's fair enough.

BioShock is exactly what they say it is: mind-blowing. Rapture remains the single most memorable and inspiring virtual world on the current gen. With its incredible setting, a story that's miles more intelligent than we're used to, remarkably deep gameplay and a fabulous soundtrack, BioShock remains one of the best games of all time.

I was so excited for BioShock in the summer of 2008, I went out and bought myself a copy of Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, because reviews of BioShock suggested a knowledge of the text would enhance one's experience. Prior to the game's launch, I read that gargantuan tome cover-to-cover without complaint.

I was that dedicated to experiencing BioShock to the fullest.

Then I played a demo for a little-known Japanese strategy RPG. I played this demo again and again and again. Like Persona 3 and 4, enjoying a JRPG was entirely freakish to me. In the end, I knew I couldn't afford to buy both games.

BioShock would wait until the spring. I bought Valkyria Chronicles. Later, I would buy it again - because you need two copies of a game, sometimes.

Discovering a Japanese-developed RPG that I can enjoy is like getting brained by a meteor at the precise moment I'm struck by lightning. It is, shall we say, unlikely.

I love Valkyria Chronicles. I love the satisfying gameplay, I love that every soldier in your squad has a personality (and personality conflicts). I thrill to the art direction - still unlike any other video game that attempts to riff on anime/manga style - and, as with Persona 4, was stunned by the maturity of the game's themes.

The game suffers here and there from disappointing anime tropes, but that doesn't stop it from claiming its place as one of the most unique RPGs of the generation. With a wonderful, gratifying strategic active battle system, a surprisingly human story and phenomenal style, Valkyria Chronicles is the single most unique RPG I've ever played.

This is usually where I encourage you to try the demo, but it's been pulled from the North American PSN. You can still check it out off the Japanese store, if you're so inclined.

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Also worth noting in 2008 were...
  • Prince of Persia
  • Devil May Cry 4
  • FarCry 2
  • Eternal Sonata
  • Silent Hill: Homecoming
...which are all pretty damn good games, but nowhere near as good as the above titles.

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