The almost pornographic level of destruction in Burnout Paradise is offset by there being no human drivers or consequences for such actions.
The last several years have been wonderful for gamers, setting a ridiculously high bar. Was last year up to the challenge? I initially jumped at the chance to rant and rave at the best and worst of electronic entertainment in 2008, but I'm far from an unbiased professional.
With that in mind I'll highlight the highs and lows of gaming last year, and hopefully provide guidance for any unspent holiday gift cards.
Nintendo started the year as a phenomenon, and finished in a clear lead, outselling rival Xbox 360, and scoring more than double the sales of Sony's Playstation 3, which was released the same week in 2006 as the Wii.
It would be a fair assessment to say Nintendo has ridden a wave of casual games to the point of abandoning their dedicated fan base. The first half of the year saw the release of its most anticipated titles, Super Smash Bros Brawl and Mario Kart Wii, sequels to historically fun games. But shortly thereafter, Nintendo packaged a bathroom scale with a game called Wii Fit for $90. This became 2008's biggest breakout hit, far outselling Grand Theft Auto IV and other traditional gamers' games. Like Wii Sports, Wii Fit asks you to make simple movements to play various minigames, but also tracks your weight while you do it.
I wish I could tell you what happened in the World Of Wii in the second half of the year, but the only major releases were Animal Crossing: City Folk, a virtually unchanged update of a game on DS and Gamecube in previous years, and Wii Music, a title designed for those who find the gameplay of Guitar Hero to be too much realism, and instead relies on gestures to mimic various musical instruments. When I was a kid, they called this "air guitar," though now they've also added air sousaphone and air glockenspiel.
Nintendo's supply issues for the Wii hardware seem to have mostly subsided, I was able to find units on the shelf in Toys R Us just two weeks before Christmas. On the other hand, Mario Kart Wii, the game I'd most heartily recommend, seems to have adopted the disappearing act, and stores are in low supply.
After the success of Halo 3 in 2007, Microsoft started 2008 on a very rocky basis as its Xbox Live Service experienced frequent outages. However it didn't take long for the service to bounce back and then help deliver some of the best games of the year.
Yes, this is the year I truly think digital delivery came into its own. Braid, Castle Crashers, and Geometry Wars2 headlined Xbox Live Arcade and offered some of the best new gameplay experiences available, and high definition remakes of games such as Bionic Commando and Street Fighter II made playing classics feel brand new.
Braid on its face seems like a simple Super Mario style side-scrolling action game, but your ability to roll back or speed up time made the simple timed jump mechanics one of the most complex and fun experiences in gaming. The glorious painted graphical style and atmospheric music make the $15 price tag seem unfairly inexpensive for its creators.
f course this is Xbox, and its power is not in the artsy or indie, but in testosterone and raw destruction. The biggest contenders for this prize are Burnout Paradise and Gears of War 2.
Burnout Paradise is an open world racing game, where you're dropped into a fictional city and can start a competition at any traffic light. Ramps and shortcuts litter the streets, inviting daring jumps and stunts, and you're rewarded new cars by running your opponents aggressively off the road. Tap the left and right bumper buttons simultaneously and your car will go into a controlled roll and a counter will keep a running tally of how much damage in dollars you can cause. One of my better runs racked up a 110-car pile-up, including 8 city buses, that totaled several million dollars in damage. The almost pornographic level of destruction is offset by there being no human drivers or consequences for such actions, making it like playing with Matchbox cars that explode.
Gears of War 2 continues the adventures of Delta Squad from the 2006 original. You'll traverse city streets, tunnels, and mountains fighting an invading alien menace with maximum machismo. The story is paper thin, but the gameplay is right there and accented with over the top voice acting and literally dozens of ways to take down and enemy, including a chainsaw mounted to the end of your rifle. Not for the faint, but what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in replay value.
2008 was a huge year for Sony, and its kind of a shame the PS3 is becoming synonymous with third place in the console wars. The release of the highly acclaimed exclusive games such as Metal Gear Solid 4, Little Big Planet, and Resistance 2 were backed up by versions of Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Rock Band 2.
I wish I could tell you all about these games, but Sony did not see fit to lower the price of the Playstation 3 even once last year, sticking to a $400 minimum price tag as they did in 2007. I'll make no mystery of the amount of money I'm willing to spend on games, but when you can buy an Xbox 360 and a Wii for barely more than what the PS3 costs, it's hard to think of the console having more value than either.
Even with cash in hand during day after Thanksgiving sales, I couldn't bring myself to buy the system, knowing I could get more for my dollar spending on games for the consoles I already own. I'm only harping on this point because in this time of economic uncertainty and pinching pennies, Sony's high price tag is ruining the 10-year dominance they had on the video game market. Hopefully in 2009 they'll come around to budget conscious gamers.
That said, Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Rock Band 2 are allavailable on Xbox 360 as well, and would be worth your dollar regardless or what console you play them with.
This was a remarkably light year for on-the-go games, in spite of Apple officially enter the fray by marketing the iPod Touch and iPhone as gaming devices.
PSP scored a modest hit with God Of War: Chains Of Olympus, though those who enjoyed the PS2 outings of Kratos might be disappointed this title lasts only a few hours. Similarly, the best Nintendo DS game to release in 2008 was Chrono Trigger, a modest update of a classic role playing game from the Super NES. Pet simulators and Cartoonnetworkdisneynickelodeon adaptations continue to flood the market.
The iPhone received some solid entries in its inaugural year, including I Love Katamari, a tilt-controlled sequel to the to the quirky PS2 game Katamari Damacy. Also worth mentioning is the free game Space Deadbeef, which is a space shooter with a truly bizarre name where you tap on enemy ships to lock on missles. The genuine winner, though, is surely Field Runners. Yes, it's virtually identical to Desktop Tower Defense, which is free to play on a computer. But $5 is a small price to pay for that addicting game, with multitouch gameplay that makes the most of an iPhone's capabilities. The only downside is average games run about an hour and marathon sessions will kill your battery.
I won't join those who claim PC gaming is dying, but will point out that aside from World of Warcraft, the top three games this year were Left 4 Dead, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect, all available on Xbox 360. While ambitious, Spore turned to be largely forgettable by the end of the year, after so much time was spent building it up as the next big thing. Will Wright created Sim City and The Sims, and yes he is a genius. But the game he released this year wore out its welcome after it devolved into monsters shaped like various sex organs flying around in a DeLorean. It now serves as a cautionary tale: give players freedom, but not too much freedom.
The year's biggest disappointment is unfortunately without question: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. One of the biggest projects ever taken on by a crack team at Lucasarts, and given the blessing by Star Wars creator George Lucas himself, we had good reason to have high expectations. The game does deliver on the Star Wars experience, with the same dramatic flair of the movies, and expert sound and voice acting to match the gorgeous scenery.
Where it falls apart is in the actual gameplay. The concept of Vader's secret apprentice is far more interesting that controlling him, where you mash buttons and feebly slice away at enemies that by rights should've been chopped in half with the light saber. It's actually not a terrible game; I just expected a lot more. It would've made a better movie than Attack Of the Clones, though.
As far as my personal favorites and recommendations, I'd have to take the pair of driving games: Mario Kart Wii and Burnout Paradise.
Mario Kart Wii offers a great online experience in which it's easy to find friends or anonymous challengers. The lack of voice chat is disappointing, but the game is amazingly fun without it, and it has the most tracks, racers, and cars of any Mario Kart game yet.
Burnout Paradise similarly expands on what made previous games in that series great, and adds a very robust online mode. Voice chat lets you taunt other racers and camera support lets you see their faces when you put them into a wall.
Best of all, both of these games offer regular updates online for free. Mario Kart gets a new special challenge every few weeks, and Burnout has added night driving and motorcycles so far, with more content on track for 2009. Getting more for you dollar is always a plus, but both of these go above and beyond to keep you playing long after most games hit the bargain bin.
Wisconsin games and developers
Madison gamers didn't have any new hardware launches to wait in the cold for this year, but there was still plenty to keep them busy.
As the first sign of spring, there was the Midwest Gaming Classic, which offered hundred of video games and pinball tables for free play, as well as a huge dealer room to fill out a home game collection. In April, WYOU invited players to live out the Rock Band experience on TV. Madison's own Joe Rheaume took his independent game Chronotron to the Penny Arcade Expo in August, and Green Bay Packer Brett Favre was honored with the cover to Madden NFL 2009, though it would be his last appearance in the green and gold jersey.
eanwhile, filmmaker and comedian Matt Sloan found himself as the go-to voice for Darth Vader in new games, thanks to the success of Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager, the hit online short video series created by him and Aaron Yonda that's shot at the Willy Street Co-op. He provided voice acting for the character in both Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Soul Calibur IV, credibly giving life to the booming voice made iconic by James Earl Jones.
Though they didn't release any games this year, Wisconsin software developers stayed busy. Human Head is working on a sequel to their 2006 Xbox 360 game Prey. Frozen Codebase continues work on its roller derby game, and also plan to release Zombie Wranglers on Xbox Live Arcade and Sandy Beach on Wii in 2009.
Raven Software, the largest and most accomplished developer in the area with titles like Jedi Knight and Marvel Ultimate Alliance to their credit, has three new titles in production starting with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which will be released around the same time as the movie of the same name. The studio also continued work on a total remake of the classic PC game Wolfenstein. Most noteworthy is Raven's return to original game design with Singularity, though it is relatively early in development and unlikely to be out in 2009.