Here are my picks for the best games of the year. Each and every one of these games was so good that they could all easily be picks for game of the year. It’s a reminder that 2008 was one of the best years we’ve ever had in the video game business.
1. Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Epic Games, Nov. 2008. It’s probably no surprise that my favorite game of the holiday season is also my favorite game of the year. 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.
Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3) Take-Two Interactive/Rockstar Games. April, 2008. I almost picked this title as game of the year, but it didn’t hold my attention as long as the first two games. GTA IV took the gritty realism of street crime and a living world to a new level. It featured a storyline with the anti-hero Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant in Liberty City (which closely resembles New York). He is surrounded by cowardly thugs, drug addicts, and maniacal bosses. But he is only as good or as bad as you make him out to be. In a game where you can do anything violent, the lesson is that there are consequences to everything you do. You can find the limits of behavior. Kill a cop and you’ll probably find yourself in a high-speed chase that ends in a rain of lead. While there are many copycats for this genre, nobody beats Rockstar in creating interesting characters, realistic environments, and a world that includes both outstanding game play and a good story.
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. What I liked about this one is that even though it wasn’t made by star developer Infinity Ward, it still lives up to the franchise’s reputation and doesn’t feel like a follow-up product.
5. Wii Fit (Nintendo Wii) Nintendo. May, 2008. This game got gamers off their couches and running around in circles, jumping up and down, and trying to keep their balance. Talk about a great social achievement. I loved logging in and measuring just how lousy my posture was and how far short of my weight-loss goals I was. The game came with the Wii Balance Board, an ingenious device that was nothing more than a scale with a lot of springs under it. It could measure which way you leaned and thereby capture your movements in a way that no controller could. With this innovation, Nintendo redefined video games, pioneered a new category of fitness games, an area that was littered with boring titles. Nintendo made exercise fun by getting players to block soccer balls, walk a tightrope, and play with a Hula Hoop. It’s no wonder that Wii Fit is on its way toward selling 10 million copies.
6. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3) Konami, June 2008. This game took realistic 3-D animation to its greatest height in a video game. It was a signature game that helped justify the PlaySation 3’s high ticket price at a time when there weren’t many other titles that pushed the limit. While the storytelling is fairly convoluted, the game itself is a great blend of graphics, environment, cinematics and stealth game play. You play Old Snake, an aging super soldier in a world where private military companies have replaced governments as ruling entities. It is another game where sneaking around, rather than going in with guns blazing, pays off. It’s one of the few games that stands up to the description “movie-like.”
7. 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. The action isn’t nearly as crazed as BioShock, but it’s still fun to watch your plans unfold in a tight situation.
8. Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo Wii) Nintendo. April, 2008. There is not a lot of sophisticated chatter I can say about this Nintendo game with classic characters. It’s just a lot of fun to go racing round zany tracks, tossing banana peels or turtles for the other racers to trip over. In any given race, you can hear lots of cheering because there are so many little power boosts or tricks in the terrain that force frequent changes in the leader rankings. The tracks are where the game is creative. You can race in the sky, inside volcanoes, and underwater. The game makes use of the little plastic Wii Wheel peripheral which makes it easier to drive with the Wii controller. You can play up to 12 players and battle online using the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.
9. 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.
10. Fable 2 (Xbox 360) Microsoft/Lionhead Studios, Oct. 2008. I neglected to include this in my top 10 games of the holidays, but better late recognition than never. Peter Molyneux, the head of Lionhead, always gives eloquent demos when he shows off his titles. He creates a kind of reality distortion field, and sometimes there is a comedown when the games don’t come out as good as he says they will be. But Molyneux is going down the right track with the Fable series. He’s trying to make great works of art that provoke an emotional reaction. Fable 2 sets up moral dilemmas and dramas. You can solve them with violence or you can use your pet dog to get you out of them, but you’ll regret it if you let Rover die.
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.