Academic Year Roundup, part V: Games

Okay, so technically I didn’t make the deadline since classes have started since Tuesday. But it’s my blog so I’m allowed to miss deadlines.
This is the final post in this round-up series, and this time I’ll be listing my favorite (and least favorite) games of the year. All things considered, it’s been a very good year for games, especially if you also count the last months of 2007. There may not have been that many great games, but the few we got truly were exceptional. I’m actually convinced that the #1 game on my list will forever be known as a game that revolutionized PC gaming (or at least contributed to a revolution). Read on…

#1 Portal
Portal(Click the image on the right for a cute Portal wallpaper) Portal was originally supposed to be just one minor part of The Orange Box, a compilation by Valve containing Half Life Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. The big selling point was Episode 2, but surprisingly it was Portal that stole the limelight. And rightly so.
Portal is a deceptively simple first person puzzle platformer, but there’s layers of depth hidden below the surface. The gameplay concept, as you probably already know, is that you get a “portal gun” which can shoot portals at walls, floors or ceilings. You can then use one portal to transport yourself to the matching exit portal, allowing you to bypass obstacles and access unreachable areas. Portals also allow for neat physics tricks, since your speed when you enter the portal on one side is the speed you’ll be leaving it on the other. This means that you can for instance fall into a portal from a certain height and launch yourself across the room from the exit portal. And so on.
The gameplay aspect of Portal is perfectly executed, but that’s not what makes this game stand out. What makes the game exceptional is the storyline. The story starts off deceptively simple, in sterile test chambers where a disembodied voice tells you what you need to do to complete the experiment. (Best. Disembodied. Voice. Ever by the way.) But gradually, you realize something about these experiments isn’t quite right, and eventually you’ll be compelled to try and break out.
The amazing thing is that this story is told using only inanimate objects and said disembodies voice, yet Valve managed to elicit an emotional response that goes far beyond what most games manage to do. Who would have thought you could get attached to a simple metal cube?
The attachment to the “companion cube” is also an example of Portal delicious humor, which when coupled with the more dramatic aspects of the game leaves you all tingly with a sense of bittersweet melancholy when it’s all over. And it’s over pretty quickly. Six hours tops, if I recall correctly. But those were some of the most enjoyable hours in my entire gaming career.
I’m not sure if I can really proclaim Portal is the best game I ever played. Probably not, it’s too short and too simple, and it’d be hard to make me forget my nostalgic attachment to games like Riven or Little Big Adventure 2. However, Portal is without the shadow of a doubt the best game of the year.
I also believe that this minimalistic game design that favors originality over flashiness is the way of the future. Sure, there’ll still be plenty of people to buy the next rehash of Quake, Doom or Halo, but the success of Portal proves that gamers are ready for more than mindless shooters.
If you haven’t played Portal yet, shame on you. Its system requirements are pretty low and you can easily download it off Steam. Not so long ago it was available for the amazing price of 10$, but it seems that promotion’s over by now. Still, this game is very much worth the price. I personally would go for the full Orange Box, though, as the included Team Fortress 2 and Episode 2 are also awesome. Portal is also available as your regular tangible box if that’s your thing.

#2 Call of Duty 4
Call of Duty 4I don’t usually like these war games. All the old Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games pretty much bored me out of my skull. I didn’t even like Operation Flashpoint, despite the raving reviews. The only passable game set in WWII I ever played was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but even that one was quickly forgotten once I had played through it once. War games are not my thing.
Call of Duty 4 won me over, though. It’s still a war game (though it has Arabs instead of Germans), but this time they actually managed to write a story that leaves an impact on the player. In other war shooters the story’s pretty much limited to “you’re a soldier and you need to carry out this objective to help your country win the war”, as if they figured being in the war is enough of a story in and of itself so they didn’t bother to write anything more. There’s no real tension other than the obvious stress created by the bullets flying over your head. Call of Duty 4 has some brilliant dramatic moments, though. I won’t spoil things, but let’s just say there’s quite a few events in the single player campaign that make you go OHSHI-.
The single player portion of the game may be awesome, but it sadly isn’t very long. Luckily, Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer mode is absolutely brilliant too and will add many hours of enjoyment. Like in any multiplayer game, you’ll need to persevere for some time if you want to get good, but it’s definitely worth it. I think I even prefer CoD4’s multiplayer to Team Fortress 2…

#3 The Orange Box
I know this is cheating since Portal’s already on #1, but I thought Team Fortress 2 and Half Life Episode 2 deserved their own entry on this list. TF2 is an excellent multiplayer shooter. It’s fun, exciting, well balanced, allows for interesting tactics and is continually being improved. Episode 2 is more Half Life 2 goodness, with more of the same tightly controlled gameplay and storytelling. I think I like it even better than Episode 1, and that’s saying a lot since Ep1 made it to my top 3 list last year. The competition was tough this year, though, so even TF2 and Ep2 combined only get third place.

Honorable mentions:

  • Mass Effect was a pretty enjoyable sci-fi RPG by Bioware. It had some major flaws, though: it was very obviously made for consoles; the ethical choices that should have made this game more “human” were forced down your throat in a not so subtle manner; the combat system felt like an extremely dumbed-down version of an FPS; the stats/leveling system was pretty pointless and not at all satisfying; the different locations all looked and felt alike; the lesbian sex scene wasn’t nearly as hot as the media made it out to be. Other than that Mass Effect was pretty okay. Decent story, interesting characters, interesting world, but still far from the top three.
  • Devil May Cry 4 was surprisingly fun for a button-masher console port. It has kickass graphics and a decent storyline. And jiggly boobs. VERY jiggly boobs. Not in the top 3, but it was a fun game even though it had too much testosterone for its own good.

Disappointments of the year:

  • Crysis. I loved Far Cry with its clichéd B-movie story. I loved the openness of the jungle world, sneaking around the bushes sniping enemies from miles away. I loved how pretty the game looked, too. Needless to say I was impatient to get my hands on (a system that could run) Crysis.
    Sadly, the only thing Crysis kept from Far Cry was the graphics. Sure, things look nice (though things looked nice in Call of Duty 4, too, and that game played way more smoothly), and there’s still lots of jungle to hide in, but somehow the excitement you felt in Far Cry is gone in Crysis. It’s become just another FPS, more of a benchmark than a game. It’s not a bad game per se, but it’s certainly a big step down from Far Cry.
  • Multiwinia is the multiplayer version of Darwinia, which I though was a quirky and fun strategy game. I’ve only played a few online matches so far, but I can already tell you that most of the magic of the original has vanished, and what’s left is a pretty generic game you might enjoy for a few minutes on a slow day, but nothing more.

Most shamefully atrocious game of the year:

Predictions for the next year:

  • I’m currently playing The Witcher Enhanced Edition, an RPG by a Polish company, and so far I’m liking it a lot. I’m guessing it has a chance of being on my list next year. It also comes in a really cool package containing like 5 different discs and three booklets. Play sells it for 35€ which is a nice price considering. If you’re looking for a decent RPG, this one is definitely worth a shot. So far I like it better than NWN2 and expansion, which isn’t all that difficult, but still…
  • I’m hoping Fallout 3 will be good, but I’m no longer expecting a game that has the same depth and mood as the original two. I’ll just play this one as if it had nothing to do with the original Fallout and I’m pretty sure it’ll be enjoyable.
  • Will Far Cry 2 capture what Crysis didn’t? Maybe not, but it sure looks cool.
  • Left 4 Dead will be zombie madness
  • I’m still desperately hoping Heavy Rain won’t be a PS3 exclusive. I’m also hoping for news on Alan Wake. Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, Rage and Dead Space might also be interesting.

Oh. And FUCK SPORE. Seriously.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 at 17:13 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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