Game of the Year

1st January 2009:

2009? Shouldn’t we have populated all of space by now and lead some mega-federation of planets against some intergalactic threat?

I’ve played some cracking games last year and thought it worth picking the best of the bunch while I nurse my hangover; but first, in no particular order, a quick run-down of the games that I have played:

Fable (Xbox): I want to buy Fable 2 because I really like the look of it, but I like to start at the beginning when a game is story driven so that I don’t miss any of it. Interestingly I have the USA version of Fable and it plays in my UK Xbox 360, but the graphics are very juddery, annoyingly so. So I play on an original Xbox, which also has a bit of a problem with juddery graphics but not as pronounced as on Xbox 360.

The stunning graphics are the first things that hit you about Fable; the Zelda-esque cartoon drawn story starts to weave its real-life time-sucking spell, but then the crappy juddery motion prevents it from taking hold for a few minutes. You get used to the judder after a while though and can then sit back, relax and allow the spell to whisk you off.


I like a good RPG and regularly play Guild Wars on PC. It’s a game that requires that you spend hours trying to get a plus 2 level-up on a particular weapon or play a sprawling multi-map quest in the hope of getting a miniature character. My experience of RPGs is one of detail and meticulous precision in levelling up your character. So it was a breath of fresh air when Fable led me gently into upgrading the character and then kept it simple by upgrading in good chunky steps; more like glorified God of War than a “PC” style RPG. 


While levelling up the character does not require you to perform the complex mathematics required by many other RPGs, the choices you make have a real effect on the efficacy of your character. It’s an effect you can actually see working, unlike other RPGs where the level up is much more gradual, and it’s very gratifying.


Customising your character is an integral part of the game and how your character looks will affect how people react. The choice of customisations is limited, but there is a big limit. Digging around, helping people out and killing various baddies will yield you more options to customise with. I’m sure that people who like to change their character will have much more fun with this element of the game than me because I just choose one uniform and stick to it.


I love the way the game reacts to what I do and I love the flexibility it gives me in doing what I want. Should I want to marry someone and then sacrifice them, I can get rewarded for that, but there again it’s fun just keeping married to one person. Fancy killing a few country bumpkins? This is the game for you. It’s no-where near as expansive as a PC RPG would be though, generally keeping to one main quest mission with a couple of side quests at a time (in Guild Wars for instance I have around 20 quests waiting to be done that I’ve accepted, and that’s after over 200 hours of play). I’ve completed Fable and it took me only 13 hours; that was with spending half of it dossing about looking at puddles of water or trying to convince in-game characters that I honestly didnt mean to stab that other in-game character through the heart as it lay almost dead on the floor and nick his money.


Take the evil death-bringer path and people will stop talking to you pretty quickly, be a bit of a nice chap and people will hail you in the street. But the effect of being good or evil isn’t just in character’s reactions, it’s in how the game plays out too and the quests you can accept change as you do. 


Overall, once you get over the crappy refresh rate, the spell keeps you absorbed not because it’s forcing you, but because you want to let it. A great one player RPG with the a level of depth I’d not expect from a console.


Soul Calibur 4 (PS3): I just haven’t had the time to put into this. I tried to think about why. First off the fighting is brilliant; good old Soul Calibur action with tons of characters and hundreds of moves. The detail in the fighters and the smoothness of the animation is fantastic. I really wanted to get into this, I really did. 

But to play a game like this you have to go through every fighter and learn every move, not just superficially but at the frame rate level so you can time counters and dodge unblockable moves. And that is where I think the game fails and why I haven’t had time; not because you have to do those things but because there’s nothing new, there’s nothing here to make me want to invest the hundreds of hours it will take to master it. And because of that other games win my time.


It’s too much like Soul Calibur, the first one… So I’m afraid, despite the brilliant technical presentation and flawless mechanics, I’ve resigned myself to the occasional, enjoyable, 30 minute punch up on the net where I lose 29 out of 30 rounds to some squeaky voiced 9 year old.


Left4Dead (PC): I read games magazines, forums and web sites and because of that most games are on my radar, most of the ones I have a modicum of interest in anyway.  Left4Dead is an exception. I’m sure I read a preview or two about it but it completely left my consciousness. Then, one day, a friend of mine bought a couple of copies. We set it up across his LAN and started a co-op campaign. Now bear in mind that we got COD WaW just a week or two before and were into that so we really had no idea of what to expect. 


To say, “stupendous, magnificent, brutal zombie-horror, intense shit-yourself-jump-through-the-roof-style,  nose-bleed inducing survival horror” would be an understatement.


This is the first survival horror game I’ve played, ever, that truly brings out the meaning of survival and does so in the funnest of ways. Wading through seemingly endless waves of rampaging zombies never loses its appeal in this game. The AI system generates “random” hordes of screaming badness but, cleverly, weaves in more than enough solitary ghouls to have you cacking yourself at every turn.


One minute you’re picking them off, nice and safe on a rooftop, massaging your head-shotting ego, the next second hundreds are on top if you, you’re on the floor unable to move being kicked to death with a hunter ripping your throat out, desperately looking to see if one of your friends can help, they do, you breathe a very deep breath. I mean really, you really breathe the breath… Then smile because you know it’s going to happen again in about 20 seconds… Possibly… Or maybe a minute… Or maybe a tank will come to kill you… And then you realise you have no bullets left…


I’ve never experienced blood scattered carnage like this. I didn’t expect to play anything that could rival Gears of War 2 when I wrote about it in my blog, I was wrong. Resident Evil 5 is going to have its work cut out.


Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360): I wrote about this in my last blog so I’ve copied the text here. I lent the game to my brother after completing it. I’m pining. I want to do it again on hardcore.


The more regular readers amongst you will know that I didn’t rate Gears of War (GOW) very much. It was a good game, but it didn’t float my boat all that much and I wasn’t expecting GOW 2 to provide anything more than mild boredom.


I put the game in my machine, but then I don’t know what happened. I kind of remember beautiful scenes stretching out into the distance. I remember noticing a little pool of shimmering water in-between the individually sculpted and waving trees as I rode on the mother of all tanks. There’s a distant memory of frightening creatures so realistic that I might have shat myself. I can muster up the odd recollection of massive underground caverns with light and mist and water drifting across my vision. I remember epic battles and big bosses that Bruce Lee himself would whimper at, I remember legging it away like crazy from the flame throwers.


And then I woke up and somehow a day had gone. I think I was abducted by aliens.


Halo 3 (Xbox 360): This didn’t really work for me, it’s not a bad game I suppose, but it just doesn’t have that particular something to keep me coming back to it. I found it pretty easy but couldn’t find the will to complete it on a harder setting. I don’t recall any particular boss battles or wonderful set scenes. I do remember running through the whole of the last level barely firing a shot. I enjoyed the 4 player co-op more than the normal game, but I can play loads of other, better, games online. So I’m afraid that Halo had 3 chances to impress me and failed. 


Okami (PS2): I started to get into this and then stopped for some reason, no doubt I’ll get back to it at some point. It was quite a suprise for me because I was expecting a kind of platform game, but really it’s more like a Zelda game. Oh now I remember, that’s why I stopped, because I didn’t have the time to play it. The graphics are quite astonishing and the story is…. unique. The control system to takes a bit of getting used to which, considering it’s the highlight of the game, was also surprising. I’ll report back a bit more on this when I’ve started to play it again.


Spore (PC): I think it’s safe to say that I was gagging to play this game. The prospect of developing a character from amoeba to space lord was like waiting to take a bite out of a well earned Jaffa Cake. But the reality didn’t match the promise. This is really three games in one and it does none of them particularly brilliantly. The sum total of developing your character is one of looks, there’s no impact on the later game from things you do in the earlier game, you just look similar. Where the game does excel is in designing your own stuff. Just about everything can be made to look just how you like it from individual houses to full planets. Unfortunately thoughthat just isn’t for me. As I said earlier, I pick one uniform and stick to it.


COD World at War (PC): This should have been brilliant but as soon as I heard it was Treyarch developing it I held my head in my hands. My worries were justified. What’s happened is they’ve taken the Infinity Ward engine for COD 4 and inserted WW2 graphics. Then they removed all the ace set pieces you got in COD 4. It really is a very lazy game; even the much touted “water” is barely used. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad game and the internet side of it is ok too (but not as good as COD 4). Even there though Treyarch have simply copied COD 4, even using the same achievements, but changed the graphics. It’s not bad but to be quite frank it’s the worst COD of the lot (I haven’t played 3 as it was console only and was supposed to be awful, Treyarch again).


Little Big Planet (PS3): I didn’t know what to expect with this when I played it at a friend’s house. What I wasn’t expecting was a platformer. Once you get past the great graphics it’s simply a platformer and not a very good one at that. Again the game excels at user customised and created content but I just have no interest in that whatsoever. When you’ve played the likes of Super Mario World this doesn’t cut the mustard. Again it’s not bad, just a bit ordinary.


Space Ace (PS3): Well you probably already know that this is still one of my all-time favourite games and I have the arcade machine, so I played this just for to see it on PS3 and have a quick go while it was on. To my surprise the HD really does make a big difference to the quality of the graphics and I have to say it was a bit of a shock going back to the laserdisc version that’s in the arcade game. I was almost tempted to sell my arcade machine and buy a big telly with the proceeds, just for Space Ace. This is the definitive version of Space Ace in my opinion, beating even the arcade version. There are a couple of incorrect moves though, which is annoying being as it’s been out 20 odd years! You would have thought they had every move perfect by now!


Dragon’s Lair (PS3): Same as Space Ace only I still prefer the arcade game, I think because it loses a bit of the joystick bashing enjoyment that the arcade gives you. Space Ace flows a lot better than Dragon’s Lair so you find yourself moving the joystick and that feels fine on a d-pad. Whereas with Dragon’s Lair, you kind of have to beat it into submission.

Super Stardust HD (PS3): I was surprised when I played this and it wasn’t a Geometry Wars clone. It has the same control mechanics but with some nifty features such as boost and a more complicated power up system. On the downside though it’s a lot easier so you have to play it a lot longer to beat your own scores which becomes a bit of a drag. If it took you an hour to get a score you know you have to play for an hour to beat it. The graphics are great and the controls are smooth and responsive. It’s a game you can put on, play for a bit, and then turn off but I doubt anyone will get properly addicted to it.


Lego Star Wars the Complete Saga (Xbox 360): I don’t undertand how this can be classed as a game because you don’t die. There is no penalty for getting things wrong, you just carry on. Really it’s just a collect ’em up. Somehow though it’s good fun. I think it’s the nostalgia of the films making you want to see the next scene. More of a reminisce than a game session.


Motorstorm Pacific Rift (PS3): I wasn’t impressed by this at all. Again it isn’t a bad game, but it’s just dull. OK it’s got fantastic graphics but it just doesn’t grab you. Pure (I only played the demo which is why it isn’t in the list) is a much better game technically and playing the demo is more fun than the Motorstorm PR game. No doubt it will be a mega-hit but Pure deserves it more.


God of War 2 (PS2): This was astounding. The graphics are incredible and the cinematic experience unparalelled on PS2. However I prefered the first game. This one felt a bit to, what’s the word… ripoffish. There were a couple of times I couldn’t progress because implementing the solution to the puzzle didn’t work. In one room you had to put something in a specific place, which I did more than once, but nothing happened, so I gave up on that solution. Only to find that it was the correct solution but the position had been a pixel or two out. This isn’t the type of game that demands pixel perfect timing. Despite that though it was one of the highlights of the year for me.



So, which is the best? Well I have to exclude Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace because they are the best games ever so it’s not fair to pick them. Of the rest it has to be GOW2 or Left4Dead but choosing between them is hard. Ultimately I think I’m going to go for the graphical tour-de-force that is Gears of War 2 because it has better environments (in terms of design as well as looks) and sucked you into the game. Left4Dead is extremely good fun, but not as deep as GOW2 by a long-shot. Online though there is only one daddy, and that is Left4Dead.





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