Crispy Gamer

2008 Game of the Year, Day 1: The Year In...

Read Day 2 and Day 3 of our Game of the Year coverage.

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Contributors: William Abner, Mark Asher, Tom Chick, Russ Fischer, Harold Goldberg, Troy S. Goodfellow, Gus Mastrapa, Evan Narcisse, Steve Steinberg

It was the best of games, it was the worst of games. It was the year of shovelware, it was the year of awesomeware. It was the year that Nintendo told their incredibly loyal fanbase to "Sit on it, Potsy"; it was the year that Microsoft, and the Xbox 360, finally defeated the almighty Red Ring of Death.

Game of the Year, The Year In

This year was supposed to be the big, confetti-in-the-air coming-out party for the PlayStation 3, wasn't it? The year that it finally shook its albatross status and finally showed us what Blu-ray can really do? Instead, the PS3 ends the year with many of its most compelling games being downloadables (WipEout HD, PixelJunk Eden, etc.), and a big "KICK ME" sign pinned to its back.

It was, all told, a most curious year in gaming. Even the year's best games -- and CG will reveal its finalists for Game of the Year in Day Three of our coverage, so stay tuned -- polarized critics and consumers alike. Some loved and some loathed LittleBigPlanet. Some loved, some loathed Fallout 3. Some loved, some loathed Gears of War 2. Some loved, some loathed Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

Maybe it's a testament to the wider variety of games that crossed our desks this year. It did seem like the FedEx deluge arrived on an almost daily basis this year, making the task of separating the cream from the crap -- and trust us, there was plenty of crap -- more daunting than ever for critics and consumers.

Or maybe it's a testament to the overall higher quality of games this year. All told, it was a very good year to be a gamer, as more individual interests -- whether you're a casual gamer or GO HARD OR GO HOME NOOB!!!!! is your Xbox Live motto -- were catered to than ever before.

Over the course of the next three days, the Game Trust will take a look back at the highs and lows (and the very lows) of 2008. Today, we'll get started with our The Year In... coverage, with members of the Game Trust sounding off on all the genres, trends and hardware of 2008. Day Two will be a jaundiced look back at the past 12 months, as we hand out awards like the Why Don't You Two Just Kiss Already Award. (Hint: It involves two men and lots of, um, emergence holes.) And finally -- put your hands together now, people -- on Day Three, we'll hand out our official Game of the Year Award, not only telling you who won, but why they deserve to win.

Crispy's comprehensive Game of the Year coverage begins in three, two, one...

The Year in Consoles

The Year in PC

The Year in Handhelds

The Year in First-Person Action

The Year in Third-Person Action

The Year in Role-Playing

The Year in Strategy

The Year in Wargames

The Year in MMOs

The Year in Indies and Downloads

The Year in Sports

The Year in Fitness

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alt="Scott Jones"/>

The Year in Consoles
by Scott Jones


The console of choice around the CG offices this year? Easily the Xbox 360. The noisy, overheated box got a wallet-friendly price drop and finally seemed to leave behind the Curse of the Red Ring (which actually could be the name of a TNT Original Movie starring David Caruso). The robust year-end Xbox Live update, regardless of how you feel about the Big M.'s Mii rip-offs, was another punch in the mouth for Sony and the PlayStation 3. And with a library that manages to span Lips to Gears of War 2, plus an online service for which we don't mind paying $50 a year, the 360 -- and Xbox Live -- is the machine we can't live without.

Meanwhile, Sony rolled out their Trophy system, their long overdue, and disappointingly tepid answer to the 360's Achievement point dynamic. Front-end installs became ubiquitous this year on the PlayStation 3. (Why can't anyone figure out how to program this damn thing?) And Sony seems to be spending an awful lot of time, and money, creating Home. As we've said all along about the dull-looking application: "Home is where the fart is."

Game of the Year, The Year In
No More Heroes -- the best Wii game no one played.

As for the Wii, well, what's there to say, really? Dig out your copy of Super Mario Galaxy from '07, and you'll realize that Nintendo did absolutely nothing for you, you or you in 2008. Nothing. The only remotely interesting thing for the Wii was No More Heroes. And no one played it. Except for that one guy you know. And he didn't finish it.

One final note about consoles this year: I spent an inordinate amount of time this year downloading updates and troubleshooting. As consoles become increasingly sophisticated, so are the demands they place on their users, a trend that's a very, very long way from the old put-the-cartridge-in-the-slot days.


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alt="Troy S. Goodfellow"/>

The Year in PC
by Russ Fischer


Though 2008 saw strong parallel PC and console releases like Left 4 Dead, PC gaming belongs to World of Warcraft. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion sold 2.8 million copies in 24 hours. That's second place, behind GTA IV's 3.6 million mark, but an amazing figure for PC gaming.

But WoW's massive sales might have hurt other platforms. NCSoft struggled and announced that Tabula Rasa would shutter in February '09 after barely a year in the game. Warhammer Online, which started out strong in September, seemed weakened by players flocking back to WoW.

The ugliest side of PC gaming in '08 was highlighted by piracy. Illegal distribution pushed developer Crytek out of PC exclusivity in April. "I believe that?s the core problem of PC gaming, piracy," said Crytek president Cevat Yeril.

Game of the Year, The Year In
Measures taken by publishers to protect games like Spore from piracy triggered outcries from PC gamers in 2008.

Online game theft drove the high-profile use of SecuROM DRM tech, already unpopular when bundled with BioShock last year. The release of Spore -- at long, long last -- was marred by rabid rejection of SecuROM among the hardcore, and the copy protection system was among the many problems encountered by PC players eager to enjoy Grand Theft Auto IV. And while the incredible World of Goo was an overnight success, co-developer Ron Carmel announced that upwards of 80 percent of Goo installations were pirated.

Piracy will likely remain the most complex issue in PC gaming into next year. Carmel commented to Web site Rock, Paper, Shotgun that "?we?re not angry about piracy, we still think that DRM is a waste of time and money, we don?t think that we?re losing sales due to piracy, and we have no intention of trying to fight it."


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alt="Harold Goldberg"/>

The Year in Handhelds
by Harold Goldberg


A great year for the Nintendo DS and the Sony PlayStation Portable? Eh, not so much. Both systems are beginning to feel old, and even the new PSP models don't brighten the outlook all that much. That's because all we got was tweaks for the PSP, not innovation, and more dang colors for the Nintendo DS. But there were a few highlights, along with some seriously standout games.

On the DS, three games stood out. The World Ends With You took you into the world of Japanese teenage angst, added a dramatic mystery story and a new-fangled RPG where you got to buy CDs in a shop. Professor Layton and the Curious Village offered some compelling writing and various kinds of addictive logic puzzles. And hey, you got to chase a cat. Finally, Space Invaders Extreme, with its crazy levels and monstrously earworm-y music, proved you can teach an old game new tricks. Chrono Trigger, Robocalypse, Lock's Quest, Bangai-O Spirits and Civilization Revolution were some other must-haves.

Game of the Year, The Year In
There weren't a lot of games for the PSP in 2008, but Patapon gives us hope for good things to come.

Why weren't there more games for Sony's PSP? If it were a person, it would feel truly neglected. The best games? You got the very impressive God of War: Chains of Olympus. The platform puzzler wasn't that long game-wise, but it sure was cinematically excellent, a game you wanted to play on the big screen. WipeOut Pulse brought you old-school racing action, an addicting soundtrack and compelling online multiplayer. But it really was Patapon, the tribal rhythm-based strategy game that called you "The Almighty," that showed there still was hope for true creativity on the PSP. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Twisted Metal Head-On were the other standouts.

Next Spring, Nintendo introduces a new DS, this one with a camera and a slightly better screen. Hopefully, the camera will become part of the gaming experience, rather than just being, well, another camera. As for the PSP, Sony reports it hasn't abandoned the platform, but they need to prove it with more top games -- like LittleBigPlanet for the PSP -- and better connectivity to the PlayStation Store. There's always chatter about Microsoft or Sega coming out with a portable platform, but with the recession here, it may not be the right time to foist a new handheld upon the market. It is the right time for Sony and Nintendo to bring us mo' better games, however.


And Now for the Year in Genres...

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alt="Scott Jones"/>

The Year in First-Person Action
by Scott Jones



OK, clearly not every year is going to be a BioShock/Portal/Call of Duty 4 kind of year. Looking back, man, were we ever spoiled last year. After an unprecedented amount of innovation in 2007 -- go back and have a peek at BioShock, trust us, you've forgotten how good it is -- 2008 could only be a bit of a letdown.

The past 12 months certainly saw their fair share of tripe. Free Radical's crummy Haze, Treyarch's dull "Quantum of Solace" movie tie-in, and the Gamecock-published Legendary were all clunkers. Even Insomniac's overly ambitious Resistance 2 failed to live up to expectations. And yes, I know there are millions of Call of Duty fans out there, but honestly, does the world need a new CoD every year?

Game of the Year, The Year In
Mirror's Edge took the "S" out of FPS.

On the plus side we had Far Cry 2, which features a huge, open African veldt to explore and conquer. (If only we didn't have to take our goddamn malaria pills every 15 minutes.) Valve's Left 4 Dead is one of those games that doesn't knock you out with graphics or tech specs, but simply delivers rock-solid gameplay. (If only it had something more compelling to offer in the single-player department, and featured a few more "movies" to work through -- this could have been 2008's BioShock moment.) Mirror's Edge took things in a bold, new direction -- who knew that disarming someone could be more exciting than actually shooting them? And finally, while it's not technically an FPS, Fallout 3 is typically played from a first-person perspective, making the game's exquisite D.C. wasteland a total treat to experience.


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alt="Evan Narcisse"/>

The Year in Third-Person Action
by Evan Narcisse


Gaming's heroes tend to get a boost once they go to three dimensions. We form a different kind of connection from the third-person view, too, perhaps by virtue of being able to see the whole character and the world they operate in.

That said, expectations have become kind of standardized with regard to what third-person as a template should deliver: a single-player game set in a detailed, vast open world stuffed to the gills with lots of enemy and mission types. Gamers got tons of that this year, with a schedule that included Grand Theft Auto IV, new Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia games, along with lesser lights like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows and (shudder) Dark Sector.

Game of the Year, The Year In
Third-person action games like Prince of Persia just wanted your hand this year.

So, if third-person pretty much equals open-world (or semi-open) at this point, it's also something of a given that most third-person games are going to be single-player intensive, action-adventure experiences. In light of all the generalization, we still saw a few trends floating across the genre in 2008. Some titles leaned towards increased complexity, as in the intertwining of branching move sets and narrative paths generated by the morality choices players made in Web of Shadows. You also saw that in the smorgasbord of story, characters and decision points in GTA IV or Fable II. Too much was never enough, even it was repetitious.
In sharp contrast to that, the audio clues aiding exploration in Tomb Raider: Underworld and Elika's "perfect girlfriend" artificial intelligence saving the hero at every opportunity in Prince of Persia seemed to hint at a hand-holding mentality, geared at steering players to only one kind of predetermined experience.

Looking back, the year's biggest disappointments failed to strike a balance between too much conceptual ambition and just the right amount of polish. Too Human, Alone in the Dark and Metal Gear Solid 4 tried for epic scope, interesting gameplay ideas or high technological advances, but lacked other ingredients to bind those elements with fun execution. Games like Dead Space and No More Heroes found warm receptions because they used graphics or play innovations to establish a distinctly singular tonality. In 2008, seeing a fancy character model meant, if you were lucky, you'd also take in a uniquely textured world as well.


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alt="Russ Fischer"/>

The Year in Role-Playing
by Russ Fischer


We don't need no JRPG! 2008 was the year of the action RPG, with Fallout 3 and Fable II dueling for favor. Peter Molyneux made good on some of his promises to fix the original design document for Fable, and the resulting sequel had players hoarding gold, buying towns, and loving their dogs in all new ways. Not to be left out, Fallout 3 featured real estate and dogs (and Fawkes!) but delivered a much better way to blow stuff up.

Game of the Year, The Year In
Peter Molyneux made good on some of his promises in Fable II.

Without a big new showing from Square Enix (as The Last Remnant and Infinite Undiscovery were both middling ways to kill time) JRPG fans had to make do with the remade bridge between the Kingdom Hearts games, Namco's Tales of Vesperia and the rather good Disgaea 3 from Nippon Ichi.

In the meantime, deep in the background, Square Enix continues to work on the technically ambitious Final Fantasy XIII. The company shocked E3 by announcing the title for the Xbox 360, which would go into development after the Japanese PS3 release was finished. A playable demo is promised for the March 2009 Japanese release of Final Fantasy VII Advent Children Complete, virtually guaranteeing that said title will be wildly successful.


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alt="Tom Chick"/>

The Year in Strategy
by Tom Chick


2008 was a bittersweet year for strategy gaming. The closing of
Ensemble (don't miss Troy Goodfellow's href="/features/2008-12-16/age-of-ensemble-part-1-a-titan-passes.aspx">
eulogy) may very well mark the end of an era. From here on out,
are complex, sophisticated strategy games with AAA budgets going the
way of the dodo?

 Game of the Year: The Year In
Sins of a Solar Empire: epic and demanding, but with the sort of cutting-edge
graphics flash that once characterized the genre.

If so, there were a couple of swan songs this year. Firaxis'
Colonization was a radical reworking of Civilization IV as a nod to
the Microprose classic. It had the micromanagement, historical
flavor, and brutal difficulty that only a hardcore strategy gamer
could love. King's Bounty was a compromise between an open-world MMO
and the Heroes of Might & Magic series, split between a lush real-time
overworld and perfunctory turn-based battles on chessboards. It was
gorgeous, busy with detail, and at times obtuse. Finally, Sins of a Solar Empire was the kind of real-time strategy game you don't see
anymore: epic and demanding, but with the sort of cutting-edge
graphics flash that once characterized the genre.

But the year's most encouraging games broke out of the traditional
molds. There was no strategy game more epic and imaginative than the
fan-made Fall from Heaven mod for Civilization IV. Civilization Revolution was a shrewdly streamlined version of Sid Meier's classic series, and the exact opposite of what Firaxis accomplished with
Colonization. Tom Clancy's EndWar was a smart, subversive reform of real-time strategy gaming that deserves a wider audience than it will probably get. Defcon developer Introversion demonstrated once again that less
can be more with the haunting Multiwinia, a showcase for how action
and simplicity have a place in strategy gaming. And Spore is, well ? whatever you think of Spore, you can't deny that it's a new and different take on strategy gaming. Considering the millions of copies sold, it's safe to assume that this might be a first taste for future strategy gamers. From Spore to Civ IV to EndWar? Here's hoping.


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alt="Troy S. Goodfellow"/>

The Year in Wargames
by Troy S. Goodfellow


Once a dominant genre across PC gaming, wargames have been one of the first old-school genres to wholly embrace digital distribution, making things harder for marketers, but making it easier for gamers in this community to find an international collection of like-minded individuals. It is now almost exclusively a world of online shops and self-publishing developers.

Game of the Year, The Year In
While developers for wargames on the PC focused on improving presentation and visuals, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin on the DS brought wargame fundamentals to a wider audience.

A growing number of wargame designers are seeing the computer as more than a fancy calculator for tabletop games, and there's more emphasis on presentation and clear visuals, even if you sometimes need a big manual to figure everything out. World War II is still overwhelmingly the theme of choice, though HPS's Ancient Warfare games from Paul Bruffel and AgeOD's focus on pre-modern warfare stand out.


The year's highlights include Gary Grigsby's Civil War-themed War Between the States and AgeOD's Wars in America. The year ended with Norm Koger releasing Jutland, a naval wargame, and KE Studios' War Plan Pacific, a good light wargame that captures island hopping in WWII with only naval and air units.

Traditional hex-based wargaming is still alive. The very traditional HPS Studios continues to release three or four games a year and SSG's Kharkov: Disaster on the Donets is another excellent entry in their continuing series of WWII titles. Advance Wars: Days of Ruin showed off the power of Nintendo's DS to bring wargame fundamentals to a wider audience.

The diversity in wargaming points to a bright design future, but there is no doubt that the core audience is aging. As strategy and shooter games co-opt mechanics and themes, wargame designers and publishers have to work even harder to ensure that this diversity can draw in enough gamers to replace those old soldiers that fade away.


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alt="Mark Asher"/>

The Year in MMOs
by Mark Asher


MMOs showed me three things in 2008:


First, MMO players are more demanding than ever. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, had it been released a few years earlier, would have engendered a large subscriber base with more patient players. Players would have waited for missing features to be patched in rather than abandon Conanin droves in as they did. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, an excellent game, is undergoing a significant contraction in players after getting a fast 700,000 registered accounts. EA Mythic is encouraging server consolidation via free character transfers. MMO players will not stick around if they are unhappy.

Game of the Year, The Year In
From WoW to Conan to Warhammer Online (above), the market is still about fantasy MMOs and little else.

Second, the market is still about fantasy MMOs and little else. Yes, I know about EVE Online, but what else is there? Tabula Rasa is shutting down. City of Heroes never cracked 200,000 subscribers. Even a game like Star Wars Galaxies never matched the numbers that Conan and Warhammer put up. I am as tired of the fantasy theme as the rest of you -- until I sit down to play, that is, and then there's something about using my mace to splatter orc brains that feels so right. Maybe BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO or the GTA-ish All Points Bulletin from Realtime Worlds will break through. Until then I'm keeping my chainmail well oiled.

And third, the MMO market is growing, and World of Warcraft fuels that growth. The good news is that there are plenty of restless WoW players who can be lured to other games, but you'd better build a compelling game if you expect to keep them, and it's almost prohibitively expensive to compete with WoW. MMO developers can aim low and go for niche titles, or experiment with alternate revenue models, such as microtransactions in "free to play" games. The market keeps getting bigger, but also tougher.


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alt="Gus Mastrapa"/>

The Year in Indies and Downloads
by Gus Mastrapa


Here's how you know that indie games have arrived: It's getting hard to separate the indie aesthetic from the indie business model. Put Braid, PixelJunk Eden and Audiosurf side by side, and your average gamer might be hard pressed to tell you which were published and financed by big studios and which were coded on weekends by one guy with a day job. The same thing has already happened in other entertainment mediums, where huge corporations simulate the indie vibe by signing hip bands like Modest Mouse or calculating quirk (as in "Juno") for maximum box office profits. Is it bad news that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all offering us bite-sized games with offbeat sensibilities? No way. The gaming landscape was in desperate need of this seismic shake-up.

Game of the Year, The Year In
2008 was the year of small games, small teams and big ideas.

And there's still tons of unpredictable, home-grown action on the outskirts of the gaming industry. For every indie game hitting the PlayStation Network or WiiWare, there's a hundred Flash and other Web-based games cropping up. If 2008 was the year that the bargain-priced download came of age, watch for next year to be the moment when free-to-play Web gaming explodes. The best part about free games? Unburdened by money, creators are free to experiment. Three of this year's most interesting indies, ROM CHECK FAIL, You Have to Burn the Rope or I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies, would never have seen the light of day if tied to a business model.


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alt="William Abner"/>

The Year in Sports
by William Abner


Normally the terms "innovation" and "sports games" go together like oil and water. With yearly releases and faster deadlines, companies rarely have the time to consider bringing new and fresh ideas to the table. Sports gamers get more of the same -- year in and year out. That was partly true again in 2008 as games like Madden NFL 09, NCAA Football 09, NBA 2K9, and MLB 2K8 basically rolled out minimal changes to their designs. Even Sony's PS3 hit MLB 08: The Show, arguably the best sports game of the year, really didn't do a whole lot differently -- it was just a tweaked version of an already fantastic game.

Game of the Year, The Year In
Sports gamers got more of the same in 2008 -- with a few exceptions, like the addition of full online play in games like NHL 09.

There were some standouts, however. EA Sports' NBA Live 09, while not a brilliant game by any stretch, introduced its Dynamic DNA feature, which updates rosters and reams of player data on a daily basis and could be a standard for the genre in years to come. NHL 09 continued its hockey dominance by improving its already stellar gameplay and by adding full online play at every position. EA's FIFA Soccer 09 did the same, and it took that game to another level.

EA Sports also released by far the most unheralded game of the year: NFL Head Coach, a coaching simulator that allowed players to take the role of coach and GM of an NFL franchise. You can call plays, create plays, sign free agents, and delve ridiculously deep into the NFL Draft. If you consider yourself a hardcore NFL strategist and didn't play this magnificent game -- and based on the sales figures you didn't -- it's your loss.


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alt="steve Steinberg"/>

The Year in Fitness
by Steve Steinberg


Just a few years ago, if you had asked me which would happen first -- a trend towards games being developed with fitness in mind or a foreign reporter throwing his shoes at a U.S. president, I would have voted for the latter. Silly me. The world's worst would-be assassin was easily beat out by developers convinced that gamers would be willing to move more than just their thumbs.

Game of the Year, The Year In
Third-party developers are now treating the Wii Balance Board as just another controller option.

In 2008, no game did more to break down the divide between exercise and gaming than Nintendo's Wii Fit. The game wasn't perfect, but it did have its moments. I'll put the head-to-head yoga capabilities of the disk up against the multiplay in just about anything else when it comes to sheer gaming intensity. Where it really moved the needle in terms of how movement-based games will be played in the future, though, is with the Wii Balance Board, an amazing chunk of technology that third-party developers are now treating as just another controller option. And they're having great results with it. If you're looking for the only truly playable version of Ubisoft's Shaun White Snowboarding, for example, you'd better have a Wii and a balance board.

Publisher Ubisoft also came up big off the slopes. The company not only released My Weight Loss Coach, My Stop Smoking Coach and Quick Yoga Training for the DS, its Rayman Raving Rabbids TV Party offers another chance to use the Wii Balance Board to sweat and have fun at the same time.

And it looks like health-based gaming will get even deeper in 2009. Electronic Arts looks to jump into the fitness biz with its balance board-less EA Active -- a Wii game that will use a set of resistance bands to help users develop strength and lose weight. Now, all that's missing is a game developed around the "Wii Shoe" -- a wireless leather controller that will help foreign scribes work on their throwing accuracy.

Don't forget to check out Day 2 and Day 3 of our Game of the Year coverage.