By Ryan 42 Comments
2008 has been a great year for video games and blah blah blah. Look, you know as well as I do that there are more top-quality games to play than there are hours in the day. I've got a teetering shame-stack of unfinished games on my coffee table to prove it, and it's my job to play video games. Of all the stuff I did play, though, these were the 10 games that left the greatest impression.
#10. Bully: Scholarship Edition
Sure, it's a remake of a Grand Theft Auto knockoff that Rockstar released on the PlayStation 2 a good year-and-a-half earlier. It's also not always a technically terrific one, being initially plagued by issues with frame rate, draw distance, load times, and general stability, but none of that stopped me from relishing its playfully sardonic take on high-school life. Everyone hates high school (or, at least, they should) but Bully serves as the ultimate fantasy of being a rowdy outsider that the ladies love and the faculty hates, and who's less concerned with being popular than breaking down the school's vicious clique system. Grand Theft Auto IV went for an unflinching journey in the tragic heart of the criminal lifestyle, but Bully: Scholarship Edition is more concerned with rascally fun. Also, it features one of my favorite soundtracks in any video game ever.
#9. Saints Row 2
Volition's cartoonish open-world gangster fantasy sequel takes the obvious comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto series that the original was subjected to and gleefully hoses them down in liquid sewage. What it lacks in emotional nuance, it makes up for with a ridiculous kitchen-sink approach to open-world game design.
#8. Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One
In the highly contentious category of downloadable role-playing games based on popular video-game-themed web comics in 2008, Penny Arcade somehow comes out on top. Even weirder than its origins is the fact that, rather than try to translate the web comic verbatim, creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik create a highly referential steampunk reality that still manages to capture the humorously profane Penny Arcade feel. One of the funniest games of the year, and the combat is way more interesting and engaging than it ought be.
Don't let the arty pretense put you off, this is one of the most mechanically inventive and mentally challenging games of 2008. The simple 2D platformer appearance of Braid belies a battery of unique time-manipulation abilities that make this more of a puzzle game than a run-and-jump Mario clone. The seemingly unnecessary emotional (emphasis on the emo) undercurrents end up paying off some mind-blowing dividends in the game's last level, which features the best twist in a game since BioShock.
#6. Condemned 2: Bloodshot
Condemned: Criminal Origins laid the groundwork with some graphically brutal first-person melee combat, and Condemned 2 ups the ante with grimier environments, queasier executions, and more mental illness than that guy who gets into heated arguments with parking meters. Also, at one point, you fight an insane bear. How did everyone not love this game? Features the most emphatic cursing you'll hear in any game, ever.
#5. Left 4 Dead
The key factor that all zombie games have been missing up to this point has been the idea of a zombie team--that unlikely group of zombie-apocalypse survivors who have to rely on each other as much as they do themselves to try and make it out of this no-win situation. This is the core concept behind Left 4 Dead, making it a terrifyingly urgent cooperative experience that expertly conveys the dreadful hopelessness of the situation almost entirely through its disturbingly familiar setting. Getting to turn the tables and play as the marauding zombies is frightfully satisfying as well.
#4. Rock Band 2
Some might say that “it's just more Rock Band” as a pejorative, but considering that the original was one of the best rhythm games ever, as well as offering one of the most inclusive multiplayer experiences you could have, I have a hard time seeing why this is a bad thing. Harmonix streamlined the world tour mode, making for a better single-player experience, and introduced an online tour and online challenges, allowing you to play along with people from around the world. Add to these improvements the fact that you can import all of the songs from the first Rock Band, and the relentless stream of downloadable content that has been hitting week after week, and you've got a game that makes its superb predecessor all but obsolete.
#3. Burnout Paradise
Criterion made the jump to an open-world format with its crash-happy racing series with incredible aplomb, though the biggest surprise in Burnout Paradise for me was how engaging the multiplayer experience turned out. The crashes look incredible, the frame rate is rock-solid, and it's had the best post-release content support this side of Rock Band 2.
#2. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
I was blown away by Solid Snake's final mission, in large part because I've never been particularly fond of the Metal Gear Solid series, yet this persisted as one of my favorite game experiences of the year. Much of my distaste for previous entries came from a style of stealth action that MGS4 makes almost entirely optional. It's pretty good as a straight-up third-person shooter, but it's less the fundamental action and more the bombastic story line, vivid graphics, and fan-pleasing set pieces that make this such a memorable experience. It's fan-service that you don't have to actually be a fan to appreciate--though, it certainly doesn't hurt if you are.
#1. Grand Theft Auto IV
The GTA series has been getting more and more ridiculous over the years, but Grand Theft Auto IV does away with the impossible criminal empires and jet packs, and opts instead for a gritty realism and emotional resonance that are unprecedented in a video game. In the year of moral choices in video-games, none were as effective in making me seriously consider the impacts of those decisions as GTA IV. While it's an oddly moralistic game, there's never really a "right" choice, and it's the closest to a Rorshach test as a video game has ever come. There are open-world games where it's more fun to try and push up against the rules of the sandbox, but none present such well-realized characters or as nuanced a world. It speaks volumes about a game when hopping into a cab and just taking in the scenery can be satisfying in itself.