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It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. We’ve spent a good deal of the last 12 months hunkered down at our PCs playing every game that’s come our way. The very best of them have pulled us into their imaginary, action-packed worlds and stolen hours of our valuable time—and we love ’em for it! Others, not so much. Here forth is our frank assessment of 2008’s most noteworthy games.
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 Perfect Strangers, 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