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Friday, January 2, 2009

Player's Club: Top Ten Video Games of 2008, Part 2

Without further ado, here are my top five video games of the year. You can find numbers ten through six here.

5. Braid (Xbox Live Arcade)

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Braid, a puzzle-platformer built around a unique time-manipulation mechanic, would be one of the best games of the year even without its narrative ambitions.

There were no better straight-up puzzle games in 2008 than Braid, and nothing in gaming satisfied more than finally figuring out how to retrieve all of the game’s puzzle pieces. Add in Braid’s sophisticated story, a thought-provoking twist ending, and multiple allusions to Mario’s endless quest for a purloined princess (unfortunately still the template for most video game relationships), and we’re left with a strikingly singular and refined gaming experience. The only bum note in an otherwise elegant package is the unnecessarily florid and ponderous prose through which the story is related; the technique is clumsy and tedious, and the writing is high school poetry bad. Otherwise, Braid is an excellent game.

4. Fable II (Xbox 360)

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Morality, the power of choice, and social interaction have been popular concepts in games for a few years now, but 2008 saw a veritable deluge of games that let players decide exactly how much of an asshole they wanted to be. Fable II squarely targets all three, and even if the third is undermined by the general idiocy of the non-player characters, the game pretty much nails the other two. Few games focus on decision-making as fundamentally as Fable II, and none depict the consequences so clearly, in both the short and long range. The game-play is slightly underwhelming, with its repetitive and overly easy combat system, but between the moral intrigue and the excellent writing and voice-acting, Fable II is one of the most memorable games I’ve played in ages. I’m pretty sure it’ll be the first game on this list I play through for a second time.

3. Far Cry 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

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Far Cry 2 could be the surest proof that the video game review system is broken. FC2 isn’t just the best first-person shooter of 2008, or the best open-world sandbox; it’s also the most engrossing, the most exhausting, and the most thought-provoking game of the year. It’s impossible to fully appreciate in a weekend, but that’s probably all the time most reviewers had to devote to it. Sure, it makes a great first impression, but Far Cry 2 is a very slow-paced, open-ended game, and its greatness subtly creeps up on you. GTA IV reaped absurd amounts of praise for elements that Far Cry 2 does far better; the latter offers the player more freedom, a more startlingly realistic environment, personal relationships that bear genuine emotional weight, and a morally ambiguous story that make me feel actual guilt. The game’s “buddy” system got a lot of attention, and for good reason; although none of the buddy characters are as well-defined as anyone in Niko Belic’s sphere of influence, their shoot-out back-up and repeated rescues are surprisingly meaningful. When they die, they die for real, and the moment I had to mercy-kill my saving grace seriously messed me up for a few minutes. Games rarely provoke such strong emotional reactions. Overall though I was most impressed by how successfully Far Cry 2 fosters an atmosphere of complete hopelessness, including a strong sense of isolation and dread that’s only briefly punctuated by unpredictable firefights, and intensified by the cautious interactions with stone-faced mercenaries and warlords. And on top of all this, the game offers a robust on-line multiplayer mode, with a deep set of map-making tools. I’m now wondering why I didn’t make this number one.

2. Little Big Planet (PS3)

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Little Big Planet is an amazing game that quickly fell victim to its massive prerelease hype. A general sense of disappointment arose after various server issues hobbled the critical on-line component, and an overly vigilant moderation policy has inexplicably deleted many popular and worthwhile user-created levels. That sucks, for real, but it doesn’t lessen the game’s painful whimsy. Little Big Planet isn’t a game I can sit down and play for hours on end, like Fallout 3, but it is one I visit more often than any other. The physically unique old-school plat-forming is satisfying in its own right, but Little Big Planet excels in both its art and level art design, both of which are surprisingly beautiful and intricate. And then there are the level-creation tools, which lend the game almost endless potential. Little Big Planet is a refreshingly pure, but in its own way as open-ended as something like Far Cry 2.

1. Mirror's Edge (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

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It feels like my love for Mirror’s Edge has turned into something of a crusade, but that’s not what I intended. I remain surprised at how mixed the reception has been for something that provides almost everything I look for in a video game. Mirror’s Edge offers up viscerally thrilling action, pristine art direction, memorable and challenging levels, a well-intentioned story that isn’t intellectually insulting, and fine voice-acting. It’s also just the most fun I had playing a game in 2008, and if it were that simple, it’d still make this list. It’s earned the top spot by also daring to discourage violence in an entertainment medium that prioritizes it more than almost any other, while also proving a first-person perspective game doesn’t have to hinge upon shooting dudes in the face. I readily concur that Mirror’s Edge has some flaws, but the most infamous, the difficult and ineffective combat system, isn’t a flaw but an intentional design choice. Like I said, the game discourages violence, in part by making violence hard to perpetrate. That’s like complaining about not being able to pick up the ball in FIFA 09, or about Bionic Commando’s lack of a jump button. Others were disappointed by the relatively short single-player campaign or confined by some of the game’s interior levels, but the dozens of time trial levels offer up not just great replay value but also all the gymnastic gamboling through rooftop obstacle courses a body could need. Mirror’s Edge certainly isn’t perfect, but it is the most completely satisfying experience of the year, and thus my pick for the best of 2008.

And that's it. You can find more end-of-year business from this guy over at Hot Fighting History. Happy New Year's!

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