Here are my picks for the best games of the holiday season. There is a lot of violent fare here, but this is the first time that I’ve included an iPhone game on my favorites list.
1. Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Epic Games, Nov. 2008. Epic livened up the dark and gloomy world from the previous game with more vibrant colors, only to plunge much of the action deep underground. But the theme of destroyed beauty — both on the grand planetary scale and on the individual human level of the loss of a wife — runs through this game and really motivates you to strike back at the damned Locust mutants who come from underground. Flamethrowers, chain guns, and the the familiar chain saw bayonets keep this game as bloody as they come. It has a sick sense of humor, like when your squad has to chain saw its way through the bloody belly of a giant worm. This one is worth playing all the way through to the end of the single-player game and then going online with multiplayer play.
2. Resistance 2 (PS 3) Sony/Insomniac Games, Nov. 2008. This first-person shooter is a big improvement over the original 2006 game in almost every way. There is a constant pressure to move forward because your character, Nathan Hale, is infected with a virus and could succumb at any moment. This one-man crusader has to take down as many of the alien Chimera before collapsing. Big bosses, including a 300-foot tall Leviathan, can seem like insurmountable obstacles until you figure out the creature’s weak points. There are creative new weapons like the Splicer that shoots a circular disk that saws enemies in half. The game has beautiful graphics and a variety of enemies that are difficult to take down, even with a wide selection of choice weapons. But it ultimately falls short of the combat intensity of Gears of War 2.
3. Fallout 3 (PC, Xbox 360, PS 3) Bethesda Softworks, Oct. 2008. You can freeze time for as long as you need in this role-playing game. Much like last year’s Mass Effect, you can then choose the actions that your character will take to make it through a nearly impossible firefight. Then you unfreeze time and watch the action unfold. It thus becomes a thinking person’s game rather than a twitch shoot-em-up. The game is set against the backdrop of nuclear devastation. It has 1950s-style bomb-shelter commercials and cheerful music that are reminiscent of my favorite game from last year, BioShock. If you liked last year’s surprise from BioShock, this one from the makers of Oblivion will suit you just fine.
4. Call of Duty: World at War (PC, Xbox 360, PS 3, Wii) Activision/Treyarch, fall 2008. This uses the same graphics engine as last year’s Call of Duty 4. While it’s still eye-popping visually, it is a little too familiar to be considered innovative. But now the action is back in the familiar territory of World War II. It takes place in the Pacific theater and introduces all the elements of a fierce race war, jungle warfare with realistic foliage, and flamethrowers. The Japanese make fierce rivals, with everything from ambushes to suicide attacks.
5. Left 4 Dead (PC, Xbox 360) Electronic Arts/Valve, Nov. 2008. Zombies make for great enemies. Look at the popularity of the Resident Evil games and movies, as well as hits like Dead Rising. The world of Left 4 Dead is one where a pandemic turns everyone into a zombie. You are trapped in a city and you have to wade through the sea of zombies, dispatching them along the way with heavy caliber weapons. But the tough thing about this game — and the terrifying thing — is that the zombies are fast. You have to rely on your allies to watch your back and to cover you while you reload. Otherwise, you’re toast. This game is just plain wonderful shoot-em-up-until-you-run-out-of-bullets fun. Just hope the ammo lasts until you reach the next convenient safe room or ammo pile.
6. Dead Space (Xbox 360, PS 3) Electronic Arts, Oct. 2008. This is an original work from Electronic Arts that started out slow but has gotten great reviews. You’re investigating a mining accident that has unleashed a deadly fury on a mining colony and a giant mining space ship. It’s in a familiar genre originally pioneered by the film Alien and executed well in games by Doom 3. But it’s fun to pause the action and engage in “strategic dismemberment,” or shoot out the right organ or appendage in the monster that’s attacking you. The pace is slower than Doom 3, mainly so that the game can scare the wits out of you with the tension that results from wondering what’s just around the corner. You can assemble your mining tools into a variety of weapons.
7. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PS 3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS 2, PSP, DS), LucasArts, Sept. 2008. Star Wars junkies feared the worst after the end of the last trilogy. But they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the animated film Clone Wars and a new game have extended the life of the franchise to end all franchises. I like the moral dilemma that the main character faces. You start as an evil apprentice to Darth Vader at the beginning of the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire, after the end of the Episode III film. The game also uses two innovations that bring The Force to life like never before. Everything in the game’s setting has physical attributes, meaning you can use the objects in the environment in the game. Everything is destructible, from glass to giant beams. You can toss this stuff around at hapless enemies. And those enemies are smarter and embued with self-preservation. Use the Force to pick up a Stormtrooper and the poor guy will hang on to something for dear life.
8. Prince of Persia (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360) Ubisoft, Dec. 2008. The Prince of Persia series has always been good at magical combat. You can run across walls to avoid collapsing floors and jump high in the air to come down on top of your enemies. Add to that a cel-shaded animation style that bridges the world of 3-D and cartoons and you’ve got an immersive experience. This latest installment adds a companion in the lovely form of Elika, who helps with the critical jumping puzzles and combat duels. She’s a rare companion who isn’t truly annoying and is critical to completing tasks. Your job is to restore life to a dying world and defeat a series of bosses with your sword and magic. Along the way, you learn about Elika’s past, and that takes you to the story’s climax.
9. Legendary (Xbox 360, PC) Nov. 2008. Gamecock Media/Spark Unlimited. This game is one of those rare independent titles that makes me believe there is still room at the table for the little guys in console games. You start out as an art thief who inadvertantly sets chaos loose upon the world by opening Pandora’s Box, which has been shut in a museum. The ensuing scene of the destruction of a city is one of the most riveting you’ll see in games. The graphics aren’t perfect and the game leads you along a prescribed path, but it’s a thrill-ride. The first-person shooter lets you take on mythological creatures such as minotaurs, werewolves, griffons, firedrakes and others.
10. Rolando (iPhone) Ngmoco/Hand Circus, Dec. 2008. The iPhone isn’t the greatest gaming device, considering there are no buttons to mash. But its multi-touch screen and tilt sensing make for some unique game mechanics. Ngmoco has exploited those in Rolando, where you tilt the screen to make your little Rolando balls move where you want them to go. It’s a lot like Loco Roco, but the control schemes are different. You can select multiple Rolandos at once to get through a particular puzzle, or tap to use just one of them. You roll them one at a time or as bunch into different landscapes and solve the puzzles to keep them moving.
Please check out our link to VentureBeat’s inaugural game conference, GamesBeat 09, on March 24.
Also, see our top 20 game stories of 2008.