Boy howdy have the past 12 months been an eventful time for gamers! With a spate of unbelievably good titles—and a fair number of lemons—we had one helluva time deciding which games to pick and which to pan. So let’s get on with the business of presenting this year’s honors! Or just go straight to the Game of the Year!
Special Achievement for Opening New Doors in Gameplay
Within four short hours of gameplay, Portal reminded us of a time when game developers could afford to take chances. By eschewing the run-’n’-gun mechanic that’s integral to first-person shooters and replacing it with a series of increasingly difficult physics-based puzzles, Valve created the first new game genre in years: the first-person puzzler. This new gameplay mechanic, combined with a subversive and irreverent sense of humor, not to mention the best baddie since Bowser, makes for an experience that appeals to newbs and hardcore gamers alike. And by selling Portal as an itsy-bitsy part of The Orange Box, Valve proved that taking a chance on something new doesn’t have to be risky.
http://orange.half-life2.com , ESRB: T
The Best of the Bargain Bin
The premise: brilliant. Mutants surround the nuked-out husk of the defunct Chernobyl power plant, where you must travel to do stuff that saves people, and… OK, we weren’t paying attention to the story, but we loved the setting. Unfortunately, no combination of quality settings could get this game to run at launch, especially if you were cursed with Vista. Luckily, six months later, the game has finally been patched to the point where it will run on most rigs, making it worthy of reconsideration.
www.stalker-game.com , ESRB: M
If Unreal Tournament 3’s gameplay feels strikingly similar to that of its previous iteration, it’s because UT3 is pretty much the same game wrapped in a fancy new graphics engine. Not that we’re complaining, since Epic arguably achieved deathmatch perfection with its 2004 classic. We’re more peeved that we waited so long for UT3, only to find several of our favorite multiplayer modes missing, including Assault and Onslaught.
www.unrealtournament3.com , ESRB: M
Like the famed Japanese soldier who did not surrender his post until 1974, Medal of Honor: Airborne desperately holds to the notion that gamers still want to play WWII-era shooters. Armed with a new parachuting gameplay mechanic and sheer force of will, MOH: Airborne defies its anachronistic shortcomings and delivers a fairly gripping shooter experience. We salute its zeal and conviction, even if less honorable gamers haven’t given it the recognition it deserves.
www.ea.com/moh/airborne/index.jsp , ESRB: T
In a year chock-full of great multiplayer experiences—Supreme Commander, Call of Duty 4, and World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade, to name a few—the Best Multiplayer Award was a contentious subject among the editors. After much debate (and some name calling), we eventually settled on Team Fortress 2. It not only captured more of our collective multiplayer time than any other game but also brought us night after night of pure joy. TF2 delivers in every way that’s important—allowing you to torch an entire scout rush with a pyro, build a turret that takes out the whole other team, or simply heal your pals so they can keep fighting. With nine very different classes, each with its own specialty and Achilles’ heel, there are literally thousands of strategies to master in the game’s six maps. And at no time did the limited selection of maps feel limited. Oh no. The game’s sublime balance and exquisite design would have made a single map sufficient—as long as it was 2fort.
http://orange.half-life2.com , ESRB: M
We have no problem paying monthly subscription fees for a good MMO. But Hellgate: London is neither good nor an MMO, based on the common definition of a “massively multiplayer online” game. Hellgate’s gaming experience is a bitter pill—and the voluntary $10-per-month subscription model is pure poison.
Pony up, and you’ll be treated to awesome features like “hardcore mode” and increased in-game storage space. Neat as it is to pay for a means to permanently die, we’d much prefer new weapons, classes, enemies, and achievement rewards and PvP—all more promises than reality at this point.
www.hellgatelondon.com , ESRB: M
We love console gaming, but it’s time to face facts: The gamepad simply can’t compete with a mouse and keyboard in first-person shooters. The gamepad can be precise or fast—but not both at the same time. Shadowrun’s fast-paced combat leaves us with a deep appreciation of the, umm, handicaps our console-bound brethren must endure. Sure, we were annoyed when we out-circle-strafed our enemy and they accused us of “hax,” but now we know what Fatal1ty feels like when he plays commoners. And believe us, it feels good.
www.shadowrun.com , ESRB: M
Chugging through Overlord brings back fond memories of one of the greatest minion-commanding, good-smiting games ever to come to a PC: Dungeon Keeper. While you control a complete—and completely menacing—being instead of just a disembodied hand, Overlord nevertheless reinvigorates the best elements of the classic DK series: wry, dark humor; silly, smelly monsters; and oodles of replayability.
It takes time—and a big ax—to control a good land afoul with armies of diversely powered imps. Once you’ve rebuilt your domain and found a mistress, you’ll be an evil fanboy for sure—just like all the Dungeon Keepers of yore.
www.codemasters.com/overlord , ESRB: T
Choice. As gamers, we’re frequently presented with choices, both good and bad. And generally, choice is a good thing for gamers. But some games eschew the whole choice thing, instead creating intensity the old-fashioned way, with scripted events. Call of Duty 4 represents the pinnacle of choiceless gameplay, building one experience upon the previous one until you reach a climax so unbelievable, you really have to play the game to appreciate it.
www.callofduty.com , ESRB: M
The concept is simple, really. Peggle is digital pachinko, with crazy powerups, a trippy cast of characters, and an unrelentingly cheerful theme that would be pure saccharine if it weren’t executed with such unrelenting earnestness. With hours played soaring into the thousands, we blame Peggle for more lost productivity at Maximum PC HQ than anything else this year.
www.popcap.com , ESRB: E
*The Top of the Mountain Award for Extreme Dewness is in no way affiliated with Mountain Dew or Spike TV.
We’ll admit that by the time Gears of War finally arrived on the PC, we’d already beaten it twice on Insane difficulty and unlocked most of the multiplayer achievements on the Xbox 360. And can you really blame us for caving? With so much hype surrounding the visceral shooter, we crossed the PC fanboy picket lines and drank the sweet console Kool-Aid. But more steadfast PC gamers needn’t fret—the PC version’s extended campaign and additional multiplayer maps are a worthy consolation for your admirable resolve.
http://gearsofwar.com/ , ESRB: M
We’ll say it: There’s nothing more fun than calling down airstrike after unholy airstrike while playing World in Conflict. Although “playing” is perhaps the wrong word to use. Fighting to retake the upper chunk of the United States is more a matter of “turtling” than anything else. And we can’t get enough of it.
Light artillery, heavy artillery, napalm, fuel air bombs, laser-guided missiles: This game drips chaos with its massive amounts of targetable air ordnance. You can’t help but smile the first time you toss a nuclear missile in a multiplayer match. We cackled with glee.
www.worldinconflict.com , ESRB: T
Long development times and delayed release dates are something gamers have grown accustomed to with many of today’s high-profile games. And most of the time, an extra six months or a year of waiting is a small price to pay to ensure that Triple-A titles are polished and tested for bugs. With Crysis, the problem isn’t that the game was released before it was ready—the conundrum is that Crytek released a game before our PCs were ready. Screenshots of Crysis running at max settings taunt us like a photo of Albert Pujols—both are emasculating reminders of our inadequacy. Sure, we could enjoy Crysis’s nerve-racking stealth gameplay without the next-gen graphics, but that’s a disservice akin to driving a Rolls-Royce without leather seats. We’d rather wait a year until our systems are worthy enough to play the game in all its glory. www.ea.com/crysis/ , ESRB: M
Take away all of the port problems in this game—crazy system requirements, unoriginal content, lack of crossover leaderboards between the PC and Xbox 360 versions—and what do you get? A game that’s just not fun.
In many ways, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is a drastic departure from the deathmatch origins of the classic id Software franchise. But even with its startling team- and objective-based design, we are comforted by the familiar earth tones that saturate almost all the game’s maps. The terra palette is deeper now for sure—bronze, sienna, and hazel now blanket the tawny battlefield—but when the dust settles, brown is brown. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
www.enemyterritory.com , ESRB: T
We’ve come to love the occasional port from the console world—after all, Gears of War turned out OK. But releasing Halo 2 for the PC almost three years after the Xbox version shipped is silly. It’s bad enough that after all that time the game was essentially the same as the original Xbox edition, but Bungie added insult to injury by tying this 3-year-old, last-gen console port to Vista. Instead of ratcheting up the Halo experience for an audience that may not have been previously exposed to it, and potentially selling some more consoles and copies of Halo 3, the publisher added a few achievements and required a wonky OS.
Oh, how we love Supreme Commander. Its lightning-fast pace and emphasis on balancing economy and massive unit production makes for an entirely new kind of strategy game. Where most RTSes have focused on smaller and smaller conflicts, Supreme Commander is strategy writ large. Instead of taking 10 units to battle, you command 1,000 minions on a map 10 times larger than those of any other RTS. Now that’s maximum!
www.supremecommander.com , ESRB: E10+
Forget the gorgeous graphics and repetitive combat for a moment and remember your first time. It’s just you and your machine gun, alone in the jungle. You tentatively lift your rifle, gently nestling its butt against your shoulder. Your finger caresses the trigger as you align the target in your sights and slowly… slowly… slowly pull the trigger. Bang. It’s over.
If you’re like us, we’re sure you’ll never forget your first time. Your first time shooting down a tree.
www.ea.com/crysis , ESRB: M
Capping off an absolutely magical game with this hilarious ditty (specially written for the game by Jonathan Coulton - look him up!) is the win. We’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves.
This was a triumph!
I’m making a note here:
It’s hard to overstate
We do what we must
because we can.
For the good of all of us.
Except the ones who are dead.
But there’s no sense crying
over every mistake.
You just keep on trying
till you run out of cake.
And the science gets done.
And you make a neat gun
for the people who are
I’m not even angry...
I’m being so sincere right now—
Even though you broke my heart,
and killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
As they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you!
Now, these points of data
make a beautiful line.
And we’re out of beta.
We’re releasing on time!
So I’m GLaD I got burned—
Think of all the things we
learned—for the people who are still alive.
Go ahead and leave me...
I think I’d prefer to stay inside...
Maybe you’ll find someone else to help you?
Maybe Black Mesa?
That was a joke! HA HA!! FAT CHANCE!!
Anyway this cake is great!
It’s so delicious and moist!
Look at me: Still talking
when there’s science to do!
When I look out there,
it makes me GLaD I’m not you.
I’ve experiments to run.
There is research to be done.
On the people who are still alive.
And believe me I am still alive.
I’m doing science and I’m still alive.
I feel fantastic and I’m still alive.
While you’re dying I’ll be still alive.
And when you’re dead I will be still alive.
http://orange.half-life2.com , ESRB: T
“A man chooses, a slave obeys.” With those six words, THQ Boston opened the door to a new era of gaming. Ken Levine’s team built a gorgeous undersea world, filled it with interesting and believable characters, invites you to kill said characters using a perfectly balanced combat system, and then uses the game to do more than simply tell a tale. Unlike every other game we’ve ever played, BioShock uses the medium’s interactivity to explore concepts in a way that is simply impossible in films and books.
While other designers would have taken the underwater wonderland that is Rapture and driven the player through increasingly difficult mazes, Levine uses the framework he built to explore objectivism and free will with the player as an active participant. By allowing the player to choose whether to save or harvest the Little Sisters, but not whether to kill Andrew Ryan at the game’s climactic moment, Levine forces players to make difficult ethical choices, while confronting them with the fallacy of free will in games.
Sadly, the final act of the game doesn’t match the brilliance of the first two parts, and the “big finish” is an offensively clichéd boss battle. Even with its flawed third act, BioShock represents everything that we want to celebrate with our Game of the Year Award. Bravo.
http://www.2kgames.com/bioshock/ , ESRB: M