2008: The Year That Was

I’ve been blogging in one form or another since March of 2001, and I think it’s fair to say without getting into too much detail that quite a lot has changed since then. But at least one thing has stayed the same: I love doing year-end wrap-ups.

I’ve been looking forward to writing this particular post since I left the GameSpot forums and started SFTC back in January; I got even more excited about it when I realized I could cover all the major platforms this summer. I’ve been rocking a goddamned EXCEL SPREADSHEET for this post for the last 3 weeks, people.

And of course, here I am, finally writing it, and I’m writing about how excited I am instead of getting on with it.

ENOUGH.

Here’s the raw data.

I played 73 games that were released this year. Of those 73:
I purchased 48 (13 of which are XBLA titles);
I traded in 9 of those titles towards other games; and
I rented 25 games.

Per platform:

360: 52 titles (including XBLA)
DS: 6
PS3: 5
PSP:5
Wii: 3
PC: 2

I “finished” 13 games. This is a tricky criteria, though, because the idea of “finishing” certain titles can be misleading. I finished the story in Grand Theft Auto 4, but I only completed 75% of the game; likewise, I beat Fable 2 but that game can be played forever. I beat one campaign in Left 4 Dead, but there are 3 others that I haven’t started. Should that count? In Civilization Revolution, I finished 3 different campaigns as 3 different races – and on both the 360 and the DS – but there’s a bunch of other races that I never played as, and even then, I only ever finished a campaign in one specific manner. Sports games are a different matter; I finished an entire PGA Season in Tiger Woods 09, and that took me a rather considerable amount of time, but I didn’t finish the Tiger Challenge. Anyway. The games I “finished” are:

  1. GTA4
  2. MGS4
  3. Prince of Persia
  4. Gears of War 2
  5. Fable 2
  6. Tomb Raider Underworld
  7. Professor Layton
  8. Braid
  9. Penny Arcade Adventures Vol. 1
  10. Lego Indiana Jones
  11. Lost Odyssey
  12. Bond 007: Quantum of Solace
  13. Tiger Woods 09

Likewise, I count 10 titles that I didn’t play long enough to really get a sense of at all; these were either rentals that I took a quick look at and then bounced back to Gamefly ASAP, hoping to free up my queue for releases that I was more excited about, or XBLAtitles that I knew I wanted but didn’t have time to dive into. They include:

  1. Banjo-Kazooie (xbla re-release)
  2. Battlefield: Bad Company
  3. Bionic Commando
  4. Chrono Trigger
  5. Midnight Club: LA
  6. Penny Arcade Adventures Vol. 2
  7. Resistance 2
  8. Star Ocean: First Departure
  9. The World Ends With You
  10. Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise

And now, on with the business.

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Best Action (Platformer): Little Big Planet (Prince of Persia, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider Underworld)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that the platforming genre is dead over the last few years. I feel like the platformer might be coming back, and people just don’t know it yet. Super Mario Galaxy might be what people have in mind when they think of what platforming means these days, but they’re discounting stuff like Assassins Creed, Prince of Persia, Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider Underworld which for all their 3D trappings are ultimately just as faithful to the tried and true conventions of the genre (go from point A to point B, collect stuff, engage in mindless combat). That said, Little Big Planet is on another level entirely. Leaving aside the part of the game where you create your own levels, the actual pre-packaged game that arrives on the disc is bursting with creativity and joy. And the best part is that your incentive for collecting random doodads is that the doodads end up being stuff you can use to build your own levels with. Maybe my biggest regret of 2008 is not spending enough quality time with this one; every time I play it I end up smiling.

Best Action (FPS/3PS): Metal Gear Solid 4 (Gears of War 2, Left 4 Dead, God of War: Chains of Olympus)

Nobody is more surprised than me to see this game win in this category. I fucking HATE Metal Gear Solid games, and some of the cutscenes in this game could qualify as the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. But here’s the thing; this game, when you were done listening to crazy people saying crazy things and actually playing it, was fucking badass. I think Snake’s OctoCamo suit might just be the coolest stealth gadget I’ve ever seen, and it couldn’t ever exist in something like Splinter Cell because it’s completely ridiculous.

Best Puzzle: Braid (Professor Layton, World of Goo, Peggle Nights, Poker Smash)

Believe it or not, this was one of the hardest categories for me to choose a winner. The one knock against Braid is its lack of replayability, but the first time through was a truly mesmerizing, jaw-dropping experience.

Best Horror: Dead Space (Silent Hill: Homecoming, Condemned 2)

I’m not really one for horror games, but I must give credit where credit is due: Dead Space is excellent. I’m reluctant to really call it a horror title – it’s startling and creepy, but it doesn’t really inspire feelings of dead – but that’s the genre in which it was marketed and I’m not going to argue with marketers. It features outstanding production values and rock-solid mechanics.

Best RPG: Fallout 3 (Fable 2, Penny Arcade Vol. 1, Sonic Chronicles)

I haven’t finished Fallout 3; I think I might be intimidated by it, actually. But what I’ve played of it – I’d say I’ve put in 8-12 hours – is staggering.

Best JRPG: Lost Odyssey (Crisis Core: FF7, Infinite Undiscovery)

It got tedious near the end, but let’s be honest – JRPGs are nothing if not tedious. You can’t play something for 70 hours and not suffer from fatigue. It’s a credit to what Lost Odyssey gets right, however, that it’s worth sticking with it for that long. Excellent design, interesting combat mechanics, and those stunning written cutscenes more than compensated for the grating music and cheesy script.

Best Family Game: Rock Band 2 (Boom Blox)

I don’t feel right making this my GOTY if only because I never played the first one and everything I’ve heard indicates that RB2 is basically just a better, more polished iteration of that. Still, I had 16 people in my apartment this past weekend and we played RB2 for about 6 hours, and it might have been the best party ever.

Best Sports: Tiger Woods 09 (MLB09, Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds)

Best Tiger game yet. I spent an absurd amount of time with this game over the summer.

Best Driving: Pure (Burnout Paradise, Mario Kart)

This game came out of nowhere, and I feel badly that I stalled out on it about halfway through. Excellent graphics and track design.

Best Graphics: Gears of War 2 (Metal Gear Solid 4, Pure, Little Big Planet, Fallout 3, Braid)

Every time I think I’m sick of the Unreal engine, Epic comes along and reminds everybody how awesome it is.

Best DS: Professor Layton (Sonic Chronicles, Civilization Revolution)

Remember when the DS was getting all these awesome, innovative games? Those days were great.

Best PSP: God of War: Chains of Olympus (Crisis Core: FF7)

Remember when the PSP looked like this awesome handheld system with crazy amounts of untapped potential and not at all like a waste of $150? That week was great.

Best XBLA: Braid (Geometry Wars 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Poker Smash, N+)

XBLA had absolutely fantastic year. I feel a little bad about not giving PSN titles and WiiWare titles their own winners, but there wasn’t a tremendous amount to get excited for on those titles, and I only had so much time, cash, and hard drive space.

Best 360-exclusive: Gears of War 2 (Fable 2, Lost Odyssey)

I might have played the most games on the 360 this year, but I’m a little surprised at how few of those games were 360-exclusive. (I’m not sure Left 4 Dead should count as a 360 exclusive, either, since a lot of people are enjoying it on the PC.)

Best PS3-exclusive: Metal Gear Solid 4 (Little Big Planet)

I use my PS3 primarily as a BluRay player, but it’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that I can do other, awesome things with it.

Best Wii-exclusive: Boom Blox (Mario Kart)

I think I’m giving the Wii until next summer to start releasing games for the serious gamer (or, at the very least, start teasing release dates). I can’t believe how quickly I soured on it; within 3 weeks of owning it I was already bored with it. Boom Blox was a lot of fun until my wife and I both started waking up the next morning with tired arms. I feel bad about not giving Okami more credit, but I only ever got around to spending but a few hours with it before getting distracted and moving on.

Best Multiplayer: Left 4 Dead (Rock Band 2, Boom Blox, Gears 2)

I’ve written a lot about L4D lately, and I’m reluctant to repeat myself.

Best Soundtrack/Voice Acting: Grand Theft Auto 4

You didn’t think I’d forgotten, did you? You didn’t think I was going to get through my entire awards without giving GTA4 something? I’m going to be honest here – I cheated and deliberately omitted GTA4 out of most of its applicable categories because otherwise this post would get awfully repetitive. These particular categories, however, had no clear runner-ups; GTA4 had the best soundtrack, the best voice acting, and the best dialog out of any game this year, and it wasn’t even close.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Grand Theft Auto 4

Top 10:

  1. GTA4
  2. Rock Band 2
  3. Fallout 3
  4. Left 4 Dead
  5. Braid
  6. Metal Gear Solid 4
  7. Professor Layton
  8. Little Big Planet
  9. Geometry Wars 2
  10. Civilization Revolution (360)

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Publisher of the Year: EA (which is astounding for me to admit)

Best New IP (maybe the hardest category to grade): Left 4 Dead
Nominees:

  • Dead Space
  • Little Big Planet
  • Professor Layton
  • Boom Blox
  • Left 4 Dead
  • Lost Odyssey
  • Too Human
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Pure
  • The World Ends With You (I know I didn’t play it very much, but too many people loved the shit out of this one)

Most Crack-Like: Civilization Revolution

Most Disappointing: Mercenaries 2

Worst Game Of The Year: MLB2K8

Most Disappointing Platform: PSP/Wii (tie)

Game Design Shortcut That Needs to Stop Being Used: QTE Events (which also is a redundant phrase)

Best Moment: Playing drums in Rock Band 2

Worst Moment: Messing up the progress in an Achievement hunt for Tiger 09

Best Game I Did Not Finish: God Of War: Chains of Olympus

Shortest Time Spent With A Game Because It Sucked: MLB2K8 (10 minutes)

Shortest Time Spent With A Game Not Because It Was Bad But Because I Did Not Care: Resistance 2 (10 minutes)

Maybe I’m Not Such A Whore After All (I Didn’t Buy This Game, Despite Being a Huge Fan of the License): Strong Bad games

Just Kidding, I Am Totally A Whore: Penny Arcade games

Most Time Spent With A Game: Grand Theft Auto 4 (36 days, according to 360voice.com)

Most Overlooked: Saints Row 2

Best Multiplayer Mode: Gears of War 2: Horde

Biggest Douchebag: Drebin (MGS4), Prince (PoP), the entire cast of Devil May Cry 4 (tie)

Biggest Game I Didn’t Play: Spore

Favorite Achievement: Wax Off – Geometry Wars 2

>The Big News

>The big news, as alluded to earlier, is that Shouts From The Couch will no longer be a solitary endeavor. I am very pleased to welcome the lovely and talented Gred to the SFTC empire, who will be popping in here every so often to wax philosophical about, well, whatever it is that strikes his fancy. I am told he will be making an introductory post tomorrow, so prepare yourselves accordingly.

>Prince of Persia sort-of review

>I can’t help it; I’m still giddy about crossing 40,000. Wouldn’t it be nice if the 360 gave your avatar a little balloon/confetti party every time you crossed a significant number?

For the record: I officially crossed 40,000 by getting the “Flawless Fretwork” Achievement in Rock Band 2. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I should also acknowledge that I was playing The Police’s “Roxanne”, which is not very hard at all on Expert. Indeed, I’d accidentally gotten 100% the previous day, but my guitar wasn’t signed in as JervoNYC (alas, it was the drums) and I spent the next 20 minutes playing Roxanne over and over and over again and always spazzing out at the very end.

Anyway. I’m here to talk about Prince of Persia, which I finished in about 10 hours, pretty much all in one sitting.

My initial impressions ended up being pretty much spot-on; the game is beautiful and the art direction is truly impressive, and there are some vistas that are truly jaw-dropping. And, also, the controls never felt quite as tight as I wanted them to feel; the Prince doesn’t immediately go into a full run, which messed up my timing a bit, and there are certain things in the game that never stopped being “new” – a perfect example being that when you jump to a surface below a ledge, you don’t have to press “A” to jump again because you automatically jump up to the ledge; if you hit A during the tiny window between animations, you will inevitably jump to your doom – er, get reset to the last checkpoint. It took me almost 3/4 of the game to stop doing this.

Much has been made of the fact that you can’t die in PoP; all this means is that if you miss a jump – and you will, and not always because it’s your fault – you are “rescued” by Princess Elika, and you’re taken back to the last place you were on solid ground. You’re still dying, it’s just that the game never stops moving forward. It’s actually a nice addition and it ensures that you always have a sense of momentum; it’s very hard to put down.

It is a shame, though, that much of your not-dying is because of issues with the controls, which is maybe my biggest problem with PoP, and is certainly the biggest issue with any game that requires precision. The thing that not-killed me the most in this game was whenever I’d jump to a pillar/column. Generally speaking, if you jump to a pillar, you’ll automatically swing around to the back so that you can keep moving in the same direction. Sometimes, though, you don’t want to move in the same direction, because (a) there are multiple paths to follow or (b) you want to move up instead of forward. In this case, you will swing your body around to the direction you want to face. The problem I had in these cases was that the animation for moving your body around takes a little bit of time and isn’t always responsive, and the camera would occaisonally move in the opposite direction. Which is to say – I’d jump to a column, turn left and jump, but the game would interpret that to mean I’d jump to a column, turn right and jump into the abyss.

Other times, there’s a jump you have to make that requires a double-jump. The game generally does a good job letting you know when these double-jumps are coming – the visual cue is that the screen starts turning black/white – but sometimes it doesn’t, or the window you get is half as long as it normally is, and that just kinda sucks.

The first game in the last-gen series was almost perfect, and the thing that held it back was its combat, which just sucked. The 2nd game was apparently designed to maximize the shitty combat, and the 3rd game kinda refined it a bit but it was still shitty. The combat in this new iteration is generally much better, because you only fight one enemy at a time, and you don’t fight very often. That said, it’s not without some significant annoyances; you fight each of the 4 bosses multiple times, and with each successive encounter the fighting is broken up with QTE events, which break up the flow and, incredibly, do no actual harm. All that happens if you pass a QTE event is that you go back into combat. Furthermore, near the end of the game, each fight is basically 80% QTE, so your actual window to deal damage becomes progressively narrower until it’s a wonder you’re doing any damage at all. Even worse is that should you fail a QTE and the princess rescues you, the boss gets healed as well, and this never stopped being annoying.

I should probably back up a bit here and talk about the main point of my initial impression, which was that this new Prince was a bit of a douchebag. Ubisoft has had a real bitch of a time trying to find the right tone with the PoP series, which is odd because they totally got it right in Sands of Time. The 2nd game was all goth and naked chicks and being super intense and hardcore, as if that’s what market research said that the franchise really needed, and the 3rd game… you know, I don’t even really remember the 3rd game other than it was better than the 2nd one, which I stopped playing less than halfway through because I hated it so much.

Anyway. I think it’s fair to say that this year’s Prince never truly stops being a douchebag, although certainly there are moments near the end of the game where he lets up just a bit. The game’s story is somewhat generic but interesting; there’s a few twists but you can see them coming, and here I think there was a pleasant and unintended consequence as a result. (I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, but you may want to skip to the next paragraph just in case.) The Prince, in this game, is a bit thick; he spends an inordinate amount of time talking about chicks and gold and tomb raiding, and when he’s asked about himself he keeps things relatively vague, and while I suppose the game designers thought that would keep him mysterious, it really just makes him appear dense and stupid. I am neither dense nor stupid, however, and as I said above I saw where the story was going long before the Prince did. But what made this interesting is that this lent the rest of the game this accidental air of tragic inevitability that I’m not sure it would have had if the Prince knew what I knew. Two of the biggest themes in the PoP series have been the notion of fate and the illusion of time, both of which also come into play in this game, and I must say I was actually somewhat moved by the game’s ending, partially because the Prince stops being such a douchebag, but also because by the time he figured out what I already knew, he did something that I did not expect. The game is set up for at least one sequel (surprise!) but the ending is still very satisfying, and that’s not something one sees very often.

(Spoilers over).

The short version is that the game has a decent story but a terrible script. I don’t want my Prince to be all “cool” and modern and talking about girls and shit; there’s absolutely no sense of time or place in this game, which I suppose would be more frustrating if the game lived or died by its story, which it does not. In any event, the Prince should not sound like he’s on a TV show.

I think this review (or whatever this is) comes off as maybe a bit negative, which maybe isn’t fair. Or accurate. I really was having fun for a significant portion of my time with it, and that’s ultimately the most important thing. But it will not be in my Top 10 of 2008, and I think that’s why I guess I’m a little disappointed with it.

Big announcement to come later today, possibly right after I finish posting this. It deserves its own post.