Few things get our blood pumping quicker than blasting the brain pans of a few thousand zombies. But the ritualistic massacre of hordes of infected isn’t enough on its own to win our coveted Game of the Year award. Left 4 Dead pushes gaming forward with the one-two punch of visceral co-op gameplay empowered by the AI Director, which dynamically alters the action.
On the surface, popularizing and perfecting cooperative multiplayer might seem to be the biggest contribution to gaming in 2008. Valve made Left 4 Dead co-op both accessible, by building a matchmaking system that makes it easy to play with your pals, and fun, by designing a game that forces people to play together or face certain death.
The AI Director monitors your foursome’s health, ammo level, and forward progress and then uses that info to spawn baddies, bosses, weapons, ammo, and health to build an intense ebb and flow that’s different in every game and perfectly suited for the skill level of your team. Left 4 Dead is an achievement to be lauded.
www.l4d.com , ESRB: M
Who needs zombies? Or more accurately, who needs to round up three friends for some multiplayer zombie killing? Or friends at all? Or family? Or human contact of any sort. If you have given yourself over to Fallout 3, you know that every phone call, every knock on the door, every unexpected guest only takes away from what is the most immersive game world man has ever set foot in. Within Fallout 3’s postapocalyptic wasteland you’ll make decisions that will determine whether people—even whole civilizations—survive or perish. And while the story drew us in, the game’s combination of fast-twitch action and the more traditional RPG-style VATS targeting system kept us trekking through the seemingly borderless environment, taking on everything a nuke-ravaged Earth could throw at us.
fallout.bethsoft.com , ESRB: M
While Call of Duty faithfully re-created the gritty details of the battles brought to life in the epic Band of Brothers HBO miniseries (notably, the Brecourt Manor Assault and the Battle of Carentan), it is rival franchise Brothers in Arms that best captures the camaraderie and gut-wrenching emotion of Stephen Ambrose’s oral histories. Hell’s Highway’s moving story and script deftly intertwine action and drama to a point where we actually cared about the fates of the computer-controlled characters fighting beside us.
www.brothersinarmsgame.com , ESRB: M
PC gamers have long had to deal with publishers’ “launch now, fix later” mentality, but rarely is it taken to an extent that it was with The Witcher. Developer CD Projekt’s dark RPG was released in October 2007, burdened with bugs, shoddy dialogue, and glacial loading times. A year later, the Polish dev house released The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, which addressed nearly all of those problems, and offered it for free to owners of the original game. We don’t want to encourage companies to ship slapdash games, but we appreciate CD Projekt’s commitment to giving its customers what they paid for.
www.thewitcher.com , ESRB: M
While GTA IV’s debt to Scarface is easy to discern, the game owes even more to another ’80s-era morality tale. GTA IV is, in fact, a reimagining of the TV docudrama
, a psychosocial investigation into the familial bonds of two cousins who have to learn how to bridge the chasm that developed from being raised in different cultures. In both the game and the show, the cousins travel down a sometimes bumpy road as they learn to accept that while they may have different dreams, when times are tough, blood is, indeed, thicker than water. GTA IV’s moral qualms are of a more existentialist nature—should I let this man live or die?; Perfect Strangers’ less so—what should Balki do after he accidently sets up Lydia with a gigolo… Wait, maybe their ethical dilemmas aren’t so different. Well, of course not—don’t be ridiculous!
www.rockstargames.com/IV , ESRB: M
We loved Crysis for its nonlinear level design and unforgiving intelligent enemies, so it’s too bad these qualities weren’t passed down to its follow-up, Crysis: Warhead. Instead, this nonsequel was hampered by linear missions, dumbed-down AI resistance, and simplistic vehicle chases. Sure, the visual detail was notably improved—especially the explosions—but it also seemed as if the Koreans had crammed TNT into all the jeeps and doused each vehicle with several coats of kerosene since a few shots from an assault rifle would initiate a spectacular fireworks display. Even a pyromaniac would get bored with the overreliance on explosions, à la the new Bruckheimer-esque direction. We can finally stop asking ourselves, “Will it run Crysis?” because who even cares?
http://crysiswarhead.ea.com , ESRB: M
Admit it, you, too, were skeptical when Ubisoft announced it would develop Far Cry 2 in-house after Crytek left the franchise to work on Crysis. But all doubts were assuaged once we ventured through the final product, our brow sweating and sunburned from the African sun and our limbs charred from untamed wildfire. Far Cry 2 fulfilled the promise of nonlinear gameplay introduced in the original by giving us unprecedented freedom in a first-person shooter. Exploration was a necessary part of the experience and our efforts were rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the digital savanna and riveting firefights. And, yes, we could also play lumberjack and shoot down trees, although here, the trees actually eventually grew back. Now that’s what we call progress!
www.farcry2.com , ESRB: M
Sure, it’s a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) space-exploration RTS and plays a lot like a real-time version of the board game Risk, but it’s one of the most fun and engrossing multiplayer RTSes we’ve ever played. The real risk (in space) that developer Stardock Entertainment took was releasing its precious baby with absolutely no DRM. Did it get pirated? Sure. But it also sold more than 500,000 copies. Not shabby for a game with a budget of less than a million bucks.
www.sinsofasolarempire.com , ESRB: T
Although we favor games with a high weapon density, firing the same ARMs, MAC 10s, and combat shotguns we’ve seen in a dozen games before soon grows tiresome. Fallout 3 saves the day by letting you get in touch with your inner weapons designer and create homegrown killing devices. Everyday objects you’d pass up in other games—lunch boxes, soda bottles, crutches—become the components for surprisingly effective homebrew weapons. Once you’ve seen the devastating firepower a bottle-cap mine can dole out, you’ll never want to return to more conventional arms.
fallout.bethsoft.com , ESRB: M
What is it with adorable little simpletons and addictive puzzle games? Is it an appeal to nerds’ latent nurturing instinct or to our desire to play God over a mass of shivering, gooey critters? In either case, World of Goo is a refreshingly original game in another year dominated by sequels and spin-offs. With beautifully bright graphics and an underexplored gameplay mechanism, World of Goo proved that even a tiny team like two-man 2D Boy can create a fantastic game, and that “indie” doesn’t have to mean “unpolished.”
www.2dboy.com/games.php , ESRB: E
We’re not sure what this bevy of vaguely recognizable, undeniably attractive B-list babes has to do with the latest Red Alert game—part of the Command & Conquer real-time strategy series—but we know we’re fans. We think the Red Alert series can stand on its own without this type of puerile titillation… but we still appreciate the effort. And the eye candy. Even if we only recognize Jenny McCarthy.
www.commandandconquer.com , ESRB: T
For years, we heard about a game that would teach kids about science—things like environmental pressures, survival of the fittest, and evolution. That game was Will Wright’s Spore. Taking your fledgling species from a single-cell critter all the way to a galaxy-spanning empire has an undeniable appeal. However, in no way, shape, or form does this game educate about evolution. In fact, Spore is an intelligent design sim. Neither the environment nor your play sessions shape your creature’s development, no siree. Instead, the loving hand of the player/deity determines the course of each of the millions of creatures that populates the game’s nigh-infinite universe. Oops.
www.spore.com , ESRB: E
How do you keep 11.5 million players happy with a four-year-old game? Release your second expansion pack! With Lich King, Blizzard bumped the level cap from 70 (where it had remained since the launch of the first expansion, The Burning Crusade) to 80, opened up the frozen continent of Northrend, and introduced a new class, the Death Knight. In other words, it pumped the goose that lays golden eggs full of Lupron and Zoladex.
www.worldofwarcraft.com , ESRB: T
You and your best friend are almost to the safe room, each with a sliver of health remaining and a raging tank hot on your heels. You’re limping along, trying to protect each other from grasping infected fingers, when you have an epiphany. If you “accidentally” cripple your pal with a “stray bullet,” the tank will have to slow down long enough to finish him off. That should buy you just enough time to make a clean escape. And that, friends, is what Left 4 Dead is really all about.
www.l4d.com , ESRB: M
In this latest reboot (the third, by our count), the Prince of Persia finally strays from the ridiculous plot lines of The Sands of Time trilogy (i.e., The Dark Prince) and begins a new canon—one in which the protagonist isn’t even a true prince! But uncertainties in royal lineage aside, the scrappy hero here is equipped with all the amazing gravity-defying abilities that would be the envy of any parkour enthusiast. The cliff-hanging platforming puzzles and kinetically infused combat are augmented by the inclusion of the Elika NPC character, a welcome
innovation to this third-person action staple.
www.princeofpersiagame.com , ESRB: T
World War II games are so passé that even griping about them is getting old. The Call of Duty franchise rose to new heights with last year’s sensational Modern Warfare, but this year’s return to the familiar tune of Allies vs. Axis was a letdown—liberating virtual Europe has lost much of its luster. And not to be pessimistic doomsayers, but we’re beginning to think that the only way for game developers to stop making World War II shooters is if the world suffers through another global catastrophe. Fallout 3 has the right idea!
www.callofduty.com , ESRB: M
World of Warcraft is the ne plus ultra of MMOs, claiming an unprecedented 11.5 million players—more than the rest of the market combined. But every year, big-budget titles from major studios pop up, trying to wrest away its crown. For your edification: 2008’s three biggest WoW-killers that weren’t.
Richard Garriott’s sci-fi adventure was a welcome break from the swords-and-sorcery norm. But shooter-esque combat and an innovative cloning system couldn’t save the game from lower-than-expected subscription numbers—the game will close on February 28, 2009.
www.rgtr.com , ESRB: T
The first 20 levels of the much vaunted, massively budgeted title were magnificent, polished, and immersive. But bugs and sparse content after level 20 sent players fleeing back to WoW. The game has been steadily improving, but can it attract new players?
www.ageofconan.com , ESRB: M