First, there’s Blizzard. In the 90s, I thought this company had a studio high up in the Himalayas and only those who were brave and physically capable enough would be able to suckle on their teet of infinite knowledge and wisdom. Fast forward to 2008 and, like most companies who were in their prime in the 90s, Blizzard is growing more and more insane. You might know what I’m talking about. Blizzard thought it’d be a stroke of awesome genius to split up the StarCraft II campaign into three games.
That is dumb.
I can still remember the outrage from people in the forums, banging their heads on their keyboards, which resulted in coherent, structured criticism, attacking Blizzard’s confounding decision. Business-wise, this made sense; people are going to buy these games anyway, but I always thought they cared about their games being, you know, good. Now, it’s nowhere near release, but part of the fun was being able to play all three sides in one massive, expansive campaign. Characters would be carried over to different campaigns, plot points would be expanded, and motivations would be revealed. It was awesome. Fracturing the campaign like this will severely limit the stuff listed above. Granted, about 2 out of every 78 people will care about the single-player campaign, but this still strikes me at the core.
Diablo III looks pretty damn sweet, though. Hard to really mess up a game like that. I hope.
You’re going to have to bear with me at this point, because I’m not going in chronological order. At the tail end of the year, Bethesda unleashed its “sequel” to Fallout, Fallout “3”. Way before that, the RPG market received Mass Effect. I loved Mass Effect more than I should have – not for its role-playing, which wasn’t all that good, but for its combat. I enjoyed shooting it up more than I should have, and BioWare’s habit of making everything CRAZY EPIC AND BOMBASTIC did get my spine tingling in the endgame.
Then came another RPG. I loved The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. I’m only on Act III, but it’s provided me the most satisfying role-playing experience I’ve had since Mask of the Betrayer. Someday, we’ll get a review in for Obsidian’s jewel of a game. We’re not a site known for being prompt, anyway.
Okay, well, point is, Bethesda’s game didn’t really have a quality that truly stuck out to me. Mass Effect had combat, Witcher had a lot of cool things, like sexy sex cards with sex-related images on them, and Mask of the Betrayer had almost everything – but Fallout 3 didn’t have much of anything. The game’s sense of exploration was its best quality, until dungeons became meaningless after hitting the level cap. Combat was fun, until V.A.T.S. got more and more irritating. Dialogue was… never good. Quests varied from awesome to “Hey, go to [insert location] to get [insert object], and I will give you [insert forgettable reward].” Still, Bethesda made huge strides, like skill checks and some branched quests. I didn’t know Bethesda was capable of doing that kind of stuff. I didn’t even know that they knew that those things existed after all the bags of money they made from Oblivion fell on their heads. The Angelic Peacekeeper/Douchebag of the Wastes morality chart is still very much there, but obvious role-playing improvements gives Elder Scrolls V a lot of promise. I liked Fallout 3 until I hit the level cap, a little more than our Kyle Stegerwald, and I hope it’s a pre-cursor for greater things to come from Bethesda.
And that’s my role-playing section. Let’s talk about shooters. On the first-person front, I can list off three favorites. Left 4 Dead, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway and… erm… Mass Effect. Left 4 Dead is easily my favorite shooter of the year. You get Valve, zombies, and multi-player together, and the result is something awesome. Valve proved that the Source engine had legs, that they could make new franchises, and that they are still one of the best developers in existence today. Oh, and if you ever get the chance, Zombie Panic is a great Source mod. It’s a completely different and much more methodical experience compared to Left 4 Dead.
Gearbox’s latest shooter got lost in the holiday shuffle, barely selling 100,000 copies in its first few weeks of release. It’s a shame, because Hell’s Highway represents the most mature and thoughtful WWII video game narrative, ever. The gameplay did get simplified, but the story and characters the game introduced were so good and so gut-wrenching, that it’s hard to forget it all. Another notable was Dead Space, which I thought was remarkably average. It’s extremely repetitive, to the point that it makes Doom 3 blush.
Perhaps the biggest PC release this year was, however, Spore. Will Wright’s most-hyped game in the universe garnered tons of praise and an equal amount of burning hatred. I enjoyed my time with it, and the space phase was really addicting for a very long time. I like making gobs of money, even if it’s virtual. That said, there were obvious problems, but it was fun.
I don’t know if I’m running out of space or not, but two pages seems to be pushing it, so I’ll try to keep it short. There was a solid selection of adventure games this year, ranging from Dracula: Origin to the crazy-as-hell and crazy-hard Outcry. I’ve yet to finish the latter, but it’s been entertaining and mind-numbingly hard. A Vampyre Story finally came out not long ago, but the demo basically convinced me to not explore the rest of the game. The main character’s voice is so grating, so irritating that I will not be able to stand her in the retail product.
December didn’t have a lot, but it had my personal game of the year. I know this might be a little hard to swallow, but I’m talking about Prince of Persia. I didn’t expect to enjoy the game as I much as I am now. It’s a lovely product and the snappy, talk-back prince is a character archetype that I’ve always liked. Elika is easy on the eyes and the chemistry between the prince and her is positively bubbling. The streamlined controls felt way too simplified initially, but it’s not like platforming in the previous Ubisoft line of PoP games were complicated in the first place. I love this game.
Miscellaneous stuff: CD Projeckt’s GOG.com service is awesome. Buy cheap, good old games, like Fallout 1 & 2, with zero DRM and full XP/Vista compatibility. This is an excellent service, and I hope that Planescape: Torment arrives some day. Same goes for Grim Fandango. Same goes for System Shock 1 & 2. The site has tons of potential.
Terrible DRM solutions: EA has led a crusade of stupid security methods, which started with Mass Effect, and the controversy exploded with Spore. When the game with the most asinine DRM method is the most pirated game of the year (Spore), then it should be obvious to EA that something is clearly wrong with the security they toss onto their games. 2K Games realized this and totally removed activation limits this year on BioShock, while Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia has zero DRM. Hopefully, EA will get a clue.
2009 starts with Mirror’s Edge, and I hope EA doesn’t apply their DRM onto this intriguing platformer. Throughout the early year, we’ll see BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, which looks almost-interesting. I dig the cinematic coolness that was present in Mass Effect, and the combat does look good, but it’s all trapped within an awfully familiar setting. Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol is supposed to arrive early on in the new year and is a game I can’t wait for. Just the fact that Brian Mitsoda is the writer for that game means that Alpha Protocol has the potential for Bloodlines-quality writing. It makes me want to squeal. It also doesn’t hurt to see Chris Avellone directing the thing.
Like I said, 2008 was a pretty big year: big announcements, big games and big controversies. 2009 will hopefully deliver more of the same. A whole new year awaits us: a whole new year for that Duke Nukem Forever hype machine to build up!