Year in Review 2008: Q4

So we come to Braid. After playing the demo when it was released in August but putting off the full game, I was prompted to give it a go by 1Up FM:s excellent post-mortem interview with creator Jonathan Blow. Braid is a fairly short game, yet I was constantly amazed by how much variation and ingenuity has gone into it. Braid is the type of game that when you've completed it you want to share with everyone. This was the first game that I felt truelly frustrated that I couldn't share with my non-gaming wife and most of my friends who either don't play many games or none at all (and besides harldly any of them have a 360 anyway). The final level is very powerful and after Shadow of the Colossus I wasn't expecting to experience another game of this magnitude this year, but they have now both earned a place among my very favourites. Along with Half-Life 2, The Secret of Monkey Island 2, Advance Wars and Ico they are a rank above the norm in my book. On completing Braid I felt lost for words (I still find it difficult to put the experience into words), instead I chose to be a bit creative, judge for yourself if I succeeded.

After the short but sweet Braid (it took me about 12-hours which is still pretty lengthy for such a cheap downloadable game) I had some time to kill until the next big thing, so I finally booted up Mark of Kri on my PS2 which I picked up two years ago but hadn't gotten around to even trying. I quickly fell for this title and proceeded to play it through till the end. That's to the end not through the end, unfortunately. The game kept adding new mechanics and weapons like any great adventure game should, but it kept using the sneaking/stealthing as the primary hook through-out - that is until the last level when it was dropped completely and it all turned into a beat-em-up similar to God of War, but not quite as refined. This was a real shame as it just made the game frustrating and in the end I just gave up, seeing no reason to keep torturing myself just to see the final cut-scene. Over all though this was a great game that seems to have been well before it's time, no doubt inspiring games like Splinter Cell and God of War. At first I was sure that Kri was made by the same studio as GoW but on closer inspection it seems this is another California based SCEA studio, but I get the fealing that they either shared ideas or personnel, and maybe even some code because there are far too many similarities between the games.

Still waiting for the next wave of releases and having aquired a taste for stealth gameplay I decided to give Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory another go. I bought it cheep on Ebay several year ago but after a quick initial try put it aside as it seemed too complex and drab. Now it appeared that Mark of Kri had softened me up though, because this time I loved it and although I've only played the first three or four missions I'm already thinking about picking up the origial and the other two sequels at some point and am now more than ever looking forward to Conviction. When Fallout 3 arrived I was almost disappointed that I hadn't finished Chaos Theory and for a second I contemplated finishing it before starting Fallout 3, but only for a second...

So my most anticipated game of 2008 arrives, it's hard not to have too high expectations after looking forward to it so. Bethesda proved themselves to me with Oblivion and with 180 odd hours racked up in that game, it is no doubt my most played game during the 1½ years that I've had my 360. Not having played the previous games in the series I had no qualms about the change of developer or perspective, I just wanted the "Oblivion-with-guns" experience (a term that is used by both detractors and proponents alike and has different connotations depending on your preferences). Fallout 3 quite understandably became a mainstay for the rest of the year and I have now played around 100 hours of it. I like the fact that it does differ from Oblivion on several points, which become more and more apparent to me the more I play. That said I think I still prefer Oblivion over all. Oblivion was critiqued for being to open-ended and splintered, and with Fallout 3 Bethesda tries to avoid this by making the game more focused. While I can appreciate a greater emphasis on making the main story interesting and engaging, this results in the side-missions not being as varied or distinct as those in Oblivion, especially lacking is anything similar to the Guild quest-lines. I also much prefer the RPG mechanics of Oblivion where skill is dependant on how much you use a particular skill-set, in Fallout 3 you instead distribute skill points at will when leveling up. Still, I have put 100 hours into it and I'm not done yet, so that must still count as a good game in my book!

A couple of weeks into Fallout 3 Mirror's Edge arrives to mixed reviews. Personally I found this game refreshing and challenging and can't really understand most of the critique it's gotten. I won't go into too much detail here, as you can read my review and my rant for more details. Suffice to say that I believe no serious gamer should pass this one by and personally I was left longing for a sequel which can hardly be a bad thing.

One of the first thoughts that struck me and many others when the Wii-mote was introduced three years ago - after dreams of amazing FPS:es and Lightsaber games - was the potential for the classic adventure game genre to re-emerge. Lucas Arts and Sierra re-releasing their classics on Virtual Console or on (the then only hinted at) WiiWare along with several new games. Like the aforementioned concepts, this has yet to truly show it's potential. But at least now we have the first season of the new Sam & Max adventures which finally saw it's European release in December. Although this new Telltale take on Sam & Max is pretty rough (lots of bugs, lack-luster graphics, uneven difficulty and humour) it's definitely a title worth checking out and I've enjoyed what I've seen so far. Now if I could just get Max to be elected President...

While the US was graced with Rock Band last Christmas, us Euros didn't get the game until late summer, not only that but the game was initially only available either on it's own or as the complete band-package which was much more expensive (about twice the price of the US-release). I wasn't about to pay for that, especially with Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band 2 both having been announced and both featuring improved drum sets. No, instead - as a huge Aerosmith fan - I bough the Guitar Hero: Aerosmith edition (some impressions of which you can read here) along with the branded guitar as my first step from Guitar Hero on PS2 to Xbox 360, this purchase was soon followed by Rock Band without it's instruments. GH:Aerosmith exceeded my expectations but became quite difficult and when compared to Rock Band it became obvious which game was made by the more experienced developers. The note placements are much more well placed in Rock Band and although I finished GH:Aerosmith on both Medium and Hard difficulties Rock Band remained the more played game.

So why am I writing about these summer releases now? Partly because it ties into the next game, but also because these are typical main-stay games that remained relevant during the remainder of the year. As you may have guessed, the next step was to finally get the drums. After reading and hearing several reviews and opinions I decided to go with the new Guitar Hero World Tour drums. Because of the pricing model the most logical choice became getting the complete band-package which I had Santa provide for me. So now I have two guitars, the drum set and a microphone as well as GH World Tour to complement Rock Band. Not having tried the Rock Band 1 or 2 drum-sets I can't attest to if and how much quieter these drums are, but they still do make a fair amount of noise, and playing with the sound turned low will results in you hearing only the bonks of the plastic set over the sampled drums in the game. Still, playing the drums is fun if difficult and being relegated to Easy just means there so much more to master. With GHWT Neversoft has stepped it up and the notes are much more well placed than they where in GH 3 and GH Aerosmith and the song selection is better as well. So far the big drawback has been the lack of the ability to save failing band-members which makes it difficult to complete sets with newbies.

Last new game of the year was Dead Space which I've only played a few hours of so far. This game really surprised me. At first glance I wrote it off as a lackluster horror-game set in space. The later trailers and game-play footage did little to interest me either. However after the glowing previews and later reviews, along with testamonials by many respectable game journalist - my resistance was broken down. Still sceptical I purchased a copy and was surprised at how extremely polished and atmospheric the game is. A new IP from a new development studio (Readwood Shores) released by EA sure gets the spider-sense tingling. This time it was a false alarm it would seem. Now as I said I've only played bit but this looks to be an excellent game. I put it down in favour of finishing up Fallout 3 though, also I've heard many people say that the sound design is so excellent that it's a crime to play in anything less than 5.1 so I guess I should try and resolve that issue first if possible.

A couple of other games should probably be mentioned as well. Super Mario Galaxy kept popping up every now and again during the year. I'd play a couple of levels, but never got really committed to it. Maybe it's just too gamey for me... I think I crave more story with my games these days. Another one that was played a bit off and on was long-time favourite Oblivion, specifically the Shivering Isles expansion that I picked up this summer. I'd play a few hours, two or three days in a row but I may just have become a little burnt out on Oblivion at this point (after 180+ hours that might not be so surprising). Still I do want to go back and finish up the Fighters, Assassins and Mage guild quest lines as well as the Shivering Isles story and Knights of the Nine... with this much left to do, I start to wonder what I've been doing for all this time...

All in all 2008 was a superb year for gaming, an amazing amount of new IP, solid high-budget releases and many sequels that do their series proud. So 2009, think you can beat that?

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