Every year I realize I don’t really like writing lists or articles which end up sounding more like game reviews than critical analyses. So, to close out my list of 2008’s best games, I offer the best of the rest:
Sega’s Valkyria Chronicles uses its pseudo-World War II setting to the best of its abilities, presenting everything from the blitzkrieg of an “evil empire” to the concentration camps of a group of humans who are discriminated against for inciting a war thousands of years before the events of the game. The game attempts to encourage players to treat the units in the game as individuals each with their own positives and negatives and, as such, character development is handled through one of five character classes and upgrades to these classes affects every character of that class type. This behavior does diminish the goals of most strategy RPGs but, at the same time, the inventive combination of real-time character movement/action and turn-based unit management makes for a superb tactical experience.
Luminous Arc 2
Unlike Valkyria Chronicles which handles its strategy/RPG gameplay in a very new and innovative way for the genre, Luminous Arc 2 is an SRPG which makes no attempts to hide its Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre-inspired gameplay mechanics. Unlike the sea of other games inspired by this very specific type of character development, Luminous Arc 2 offers an incredibly well-balanced difficulty curve over the course of the game. And through the use of Luminous Arc 2’s “engagement” system, the game forces players to treat unnecessarily well-defined witches as a type of battlefield resource for the continued stat progression of the game’s protagonist. Gameplay aside, the game has one of the best scripts I have ever seen from a Japanese RPG.
Boom Blox is the kind of game everyone dreamed of when the Nintendo Wii remote was first announced. It’s Jenga, it’s throwing baseballs and bowling balls at complex structures to make them fall down, it’s a party game, and it’s a game where you toss heavy objects at a group of invading bear blox in order to safe a bunch of sheep blox. Yeah.
It’s a game where you race through tracks that are procedurally generated based on the music that you choose. So you race your music. You race your music.
It’s easy to be disgusted by a game like Ninja Gaiden 2. Team Ninja’s (now former) director, Tomonobu Itagaki, makes no pretense for a fair display of gender differences. The game makes no attempt to convey an intelligent and thought-provoking story through its occasional and concise cut scenes. And the game makes no attempt to further the integrity of video gaming as a medium. Within the first five minutes of the game a player is treated to pints of blood being splattered across the entirety of a given level and inhumanly large and buoyant breasts are barely stuffed behind a skimpy leather top attached to a CIA agent in an equally revealing miniskirt.
Unlike Grasshopper Manufacture’s No More Heroes, no aspect of Ninja Gaiden 2 is designed to subvert and exploit the expectations of the medium or the desires of young teenage males. Ninja Gaiden 2 is what it is and, really, not much more. It is, through and through, an action-focused video game.
And as an action game, Ninja Gaiden 2 is the absolute best in its class for one primary reason: the game places the entirety of Ryu Hayabusa’s behavior into the hands of the player. There are no quick-time events, there are no platforming segments where a player solely has to keep the joystick pressed forward to successfully progress, and at no point is there an AI-controlled ally character who exists to help the player along. The closest the game comes to taking away direct control from the player is when Ryu is “obliterating” an enemy foe who is in a state of near-death and operating in a kamikaze fighter. During these segments a five-to-ten second animation players where Ryu will absolutely decimate an enemy’s body, thus preventing this enemy from ever troubling the player again throughout a combat encounter. These segments, as automated as they are, serve as the only moments of respite in combat and, on harder difficulties, are used as a strategic period of invulnerability against, say, a group of enemies volleying rockets into the air through their rapid-fire launchers.
The endless combat encounters are the lifeblood of Ninja Gaiden 2 and are composed with a caliber of depth more like a fighting game than a third-person action romp — no surprise given Team Ninja’s work on the Dead or Alive games. Combat is fast and relentless, requiring a player to make snap decisions about whether to guard, counter, evade, attack, obliterate, switch weapons, use magic, or run away to a safer location (long-range rapid-fire rocket launching ninjas are frequent, especially on the hardest difficulty modes) in order to continue fighting. What’s more, there is a great deal of complexity attached to the functionality of every single one of the game’s nine melee weapons. As expected, each weapon has its own “move list” that is unlocked as a player’s upgrades a given weapon as he/she progresses through the game. What’s remarkable is how profoundly different combat becomes when switching from weapon to weapon. With the Dragon Blade (Ryu Hayabusa’s initial weapon, a single sword) combat is fast and frantic with a variety of employable strategies from short to long range to an entire arsenal of in-air maneuvers. A set of boots/claws will make combat even more fast-paced as a player is required to engage solely in close-range and execute combos quickly, evading, and then targeting another opponent. And so on.
It’s on the harder difficulties, the ones where a player is required to beat the game on the hardest-available difficulty before unlocking, that Ninja Gaiden 2 becomes an effort in tightly-controlled action. The button-mashing, lucky counters, and accidental evasions will no longer suffice on these unlocked difficulties. Nor, really, can a player simply choose his favorite weapon and eventually overcome all foes. On these difficulty levels, Ninja Gaiden 2 becomes the kind of success-through-repetition/mastery/memorization that Bizarre Creation’s The Club was attempting to achieve: a racing game-like dedication to figuring out enemy patterns and the kinds of actions which don’t work in certain enemy group configurations. And it’s Ninja Gaiden 2’s decision to make this type of gameplay strategy a requirement for the unlockable difficulty modes which allows it to work well.
Ninja Gaiden 2 wasn’t released to the same kind of critical fanfare that its predecessor was which strikes me as unfortunate. It doesn’t take any radical chances as a sequel but, rather, it simply fixes some of the game-ruining issues and adds in more of “what worked.” The level design is streamlined to both prevent confusion over how to progress and to limit the number of times a player is forced to backtrack and explore, both of which were ill-fitting aspects of the original game which ruined its pacing. Ninja Gaiden 2 also focuses far more on humanoid enemies and uses the “fiends” sparingly and befitting in-game situations.
Most of all, Ninja Gaiden 2 embraces its status as a video game, and a linear one at that. It eschews the common trends of the medium in a year where “games as art” is a popular topic and grit and seriousness are the preferred tone. Instead, Ninja Gaiden 2 goes the route of the lone ninja of gaming’s past killing thousands of other ninjas and mutants in the most absurd ways possible. And, sometimes, that’s all a great action-focused game needs to be.
But, seriously, stop with absurd breasts and the inane physics calculations being applied to them.
Shortly after I started my first game of Far Cry 2, I was treated to an on-rails taxi ride where my driver pointed out some of the unique sites of Africa. There are groups of civilians wandering in hope of escape from their country, varied wildlife, the spreading of a flash fire spreading from a patch of dry grass to a nearby tree, and more than a few angry-looking mercenaries. Functionally, this segment did nothing for me that Half-Life’s tram ride didn’t do back in 1998. Though, the tour did allow me time to take in the harrowing beauty intrinsic to Far Cry 2. The game’s microcosm of Africa is beautifully realized and serves the game as an entity unto itself; a living, breathing pseudo-ecosystem. More than that, Far Cry 2 provides the player with a robust toolset of destruction that makes each of the game’s bountiful combat encounters play out different every time.
When the segment ends, my character blacks out as a result of what I soon discover to be a latent case of malaria finally manifesting itself at the worst imaginable time. Upon waking, I see that I’m recumbent in a shanty hotel room and there is an unfamiliar figure standing at the foot of my bed, reading my confidential mission documents aloud. He quickly makes himself known as The Jackal, the infamous arms dealer that I have been sent to assassinate. This first scene represents the sole objective of Far Cry 2’s premise in its entirety: it introduces the player to The Jackal, gives some basic background on who he is, and what his relation to the player is. The scene ends when my character’s malaria flares up again and he blacks out.
Next time I wake up it’s to the sound of explosions and fire all around me as my hotel (and likely the rest of the village it’s in) is being ravaged from a battle outside. I grab a nearby pistol and then learn the basic game maneuvers as I crawl through debris and jump over broken walls until I eventually make it outside the village and, once again, black out.
Far Cry 2 actually begins after another hour or so of pedestrian tutorial quests. My primary enemy in the country knows who I am and that my only mission is to kill him, I’m stuck in the middle of a violent civil conflict between two warring factions (each of which are filled with higher-ups willing to do whatever it takes to beat the other), and the weapons I grabbed early on in the tutorial are jamming up in the middle of a battle. My pistol basically disintegrated at one point near the end of the tutorial segment. What’s worse is that my character is suffering the full extent of his malaria — short of death, I suppose — I get violent attacks that can only be held back by medicine given to me by members of an African Underground movement and I can only run about fifteen yards before I almost pass out.
It’s not uncommon for a game to start a player off in an altered state; a number of games have a player start off exceptionally strong and then strip away all of the upgrades after an introductory segment. Some games start a player off weak and the player will slowly become more and more powerful. Far Cry 2 starts a player off with weak weapons that are prone to rapid degradation and a deadly incurable illness. The only way to move forward is to work closely with one of the two factions who are at war with one another and tearing about the African culture and people in the process.
What I have going for me are my friends. I rescued a woman named Michelle, a fellow freelance killer, who was being held captive by a group of mercenaries in a slaughterhouse and since then she has become a sidekick who will intervene in the heat of battle. She introduced me to another mercenary when I went to meet up with her in a nearby bar. Together, these two people will end up forming their own unique narratives with and for the player. One of them will serve as a means of subverting a number of the missions given to the player by one of the two factions by offering optional “sub-quests” that will both hurt one of the factions while making the eventual completion of the base mission easier. The other buddy is a player’s parachute: when he/she is “rescue-ready” then he will come to the aid of a player who was killed in battle by offering a resuscitation and brief fire support. The game’s buddy system forms part of Far Cry 2’s story; the optional sub-quests flesh out the details between a given buddy and the player and form a narrative that is, in part, unique to a given player.
More importantly that the subversive sub-quests are the rescue buddies that will end up forming a sort of emergent narrative that will enhance a player’s view of a combat encounter — these are the stories that gamers will take away from Far Cry 2 and talk about with their friends. Stories about how their friend Michelle, Nasreen, Marty, Hakim, or some other character game in just when a player got an unexpected shotgun blast to the chest and died. And then that rescue buddy came in and brought the player out of his near-death state by coming to the scene with his AK-47 or Desert Eagle blazing and then dragging the player to safety and then announcing “Heal up and let’s go; there are about three guys left out there.”
Much like a Grand Theft Auto game, Far Cry 2 takes place in an open world while holding the player to a fairly strict progression system through the single-player campaign. The premise delivered through these narratives is best handled in somewhat linear manner, though, because these are the least interesting stories that are told within the game. Most of the missions (and all of the various side-quests) that a player can engage in are just an excuse to go to a specific location to battle a bunch of people.
Combat is where Far Cry 2 is at its very best. The game provides a toolkit of back-of-the-box seeming features that, surprisingly, actually add a lot to the way that a combat scenario plays out in-game. There’s the naturally-spreading fire, weapon degradation, partially destructible environments composed of materials with realistic properties, non-scripted artificial intelligence, day, night, and weather cycles, and countless other systems all working simultaneously. The material properties allow for players to employ somewhat realistic strategies mid-battle; if an enemy is standing behind a wooden fence, then a player can just shoot through it and, hopefully, kill the enemy. If a pair of guards are standing next to a series of ammo canisters the player can throw a Molotov cocktail at the area and the ammo containers will explode and violently shoot a huge number of ammo rounds in its vicinity (killing whoever is near it). And if another pair of enemies are standing right atop a large patch of dry gas? Use a flamethrower to ignite the whole area in flames and watch the fire spread to a nearby gas canister which sets off a chain reaction of explosions through a town. The number of crazy situations that I’ve had spring from these gameplay systems in my time with the game are just too limitless to recount here.
As I was playing through a series of missions one day, I noticed something strange about the enemies that I was fighting. At this point I was about sixty or seventy percent through the game and my character had built up a bit of a reputation for himself in the game world and I had invested money in a Stealth Suit that would give my character an increased ability to hide when crouched around grass. Since I took a liking to conducting all of my dealings in chaos at night, this mission was occurring at around 3-4:00am in the game world, so the sun had yet to rise. I was able to clear most of this enemy encampment stealthily thanks to the sound suppressor on my MP5 submachine gun and was in the process of hunting down two or three more targets. I had no idea where they were but I was able to hear a few distinct voices so I was just tracking the sound of the spoken dialogue. And then I stopped to listen to what the enemies were actually saying; instead of the usual taunts and proud machismo the enemies were now scared. These few remaining souls were aware who I was and that they had no chance to make it out of the situation alive and they just wanted to hide and be left alone. As it turns out, reputation is an actual value that has corresponding effects in the game world. As a player goes through missions and eliminates various faction members and higher-up faction figures his reputation will increase. As the reputation increases, the entities that inhabit the game world will start reacting differently to the player’s presence.
The most commonly-listed flaw with Far Cry 2 is the amount of time gamers have to spend traveling to-and-fro and how that travel is constantly interrupted by enemy checkpoints filled with guards that seem to respawn all-too-quickly (whenever a player leaves a “sector”). It’s a valid enough concern as vehicular travel (and vehicular combat, to a lesser extent) is such a prominent focus of the game. The enemies do, ultimately, respawn far too quickly but this fact made checkpoints something I wanted to avoid. And, as such, it opened up an aspect of the game that I would never have discovered otherwise: the joy of intelligent navigation. Far Cry 2 does not have an automatic route navigator; if a player wants to find his place in the game world then he will need to use his in-world GPS device combined with the in-world map. It’s a cumbersome endeavor but it functions as such for good reason: it’s not something that someone should be doing in the heat of combat.
Looking at the map and plotting out a trip was a sort of mini-game unto itself. It’s a process that should be done at the beginning of any mission and retained in the player’s mind for as long as possible. Whenever I was given a mission to complete I wanted to avoid as many checkpoints as possible, so as soon as my mission briefing was done I would find a vehicle and then get out my map and plot my best course. Often, a “best course” would involve a brief trip to a bus station, pick up a car near the bus station, and then drive to the objective on a main road for as long as possible and then take a detour through a rough forest or valley path to avoid checkpoints. Sometimes just avoiding land entirely would be a good idea as the waterways in Far Cry 2 function a lot like highways. This wasn’t even a process I was fond of early in the game but, really, playing Far Cry 2 is never about rushing into action and combat from the very beginning.
I’m not even touching on the game’s subtle user interface or its clever narrative techniques for this piece. Far Cry 2 is an enormous game that is so much more than any of its individual components or features. It’s an open-world first-person shooter that truly and successfully embodies the concept of emergent gameplay. The game’s vision of Africa is never a mere backdrop for tried-and-true gunplay, it’s an actual character in itself; the represented beauty and danger serve as gameplay mechanics for the player’s exploitation at any point in the game.
To date, Far Cry 2 is the finest example of what video games can be.
It’s been a superb year for gamers. There have been such a vast number quality major releases across any number of genres that the idea of a given gamer feeling “left out” is near unthinkable. The major, well-received releases can be categorized as a 4X RTS or simply a great 4X turn-based game. There are open-world shooters in Africa and two types of open-world games in the vein of Grand Theft Auto. Superb cooperative games involving things like zombies, chainsaw-mounted assault rifles, and a throwback to the days of Golden Axe. And then there are major sequels like Grand Theft Auto 4, Fallout 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4. Oh, yes.
The deluge of gaming was good to me this year as well as, for the first time in a few years, I was actually able to play every title that I had any desire to play across all non-Wii platforms (and even then, I’m currently borrowing one of those to play No More Heroes). Not since my 2005 games of the year have I felt well-informed enough to write about some of my top picks for a given year. Granted, I can’t objectively write about games like Galactic Civilizations: Twilight of the Arnor or Sins of a Solar Empire — both of which are games that I, as a gamer, hold in remarkably high esteem.
This year I’m doing something a little bit different. I’m not sure if I can really classify a deviation from a one-time top ten list as something “different” or not but I will continue to think my actions in this matter as such. It’s no radical change, but I’m just going to write up three-four articles on games I consider to be the best of 2008’s best with no regards to rank or categorization. At this point, I still have yet to figure out what I want to make two of the four games. They will be from the following list of games I’m in the process of choosing from. The following games are all superb and remain in my mind at this point in time as equally superb.
Articles on my favorite three games absent from this list are forthcoming.