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2008 in Review Part 2

Many folks are saying that 2008 was a bad year for games. I think this is true in the sense that almost no Triple-A release lived up to their hype or potential. However, if you embrace a wide range of consoles and genres, there was a lot to love this year. Here are some of the more remarkable games from this year. Note that I don’t like them all, but each left a mark on my mind.

Burnout Paradise

Don’t let the hate fool you – Burnout Paradise is the future of “open world racers,” or whatever the hell you want to call them. One reason is that it plays like a spiritual successor to Midtown Madness, a game that existed before “open world” and GTA3 were in our vocabulary. Midtown was striking in that it made its city the spotlight of the game. The city streets were not ever walled off during races, and traffic didn’t vanish. The game also gave you a solid lineup of vehicles to play with from the start. Whether you wanted to enjoy races or free roaming, Midtown let you have fun.

Burnout Paradise has the same goal in mind. It rewards just about every type of play style you can think of. Free roaming is interesting by incorporating GTA style jumps and secrets, races are scaled to match the quality of your car, and the online component is a thing of beauty. While it would be nice to have more cars from the start, there aren’t many other ways in which Paradise tries to penalize you for deciding how to spend your time. This is what “open world” gaming should be about – give the player a sandbox with a lot of toys, and let them do what they want without making them feel like they’re breaking the rules. I can’t think of many other games that allow you to enter most any race on the map with the starting car, but I know I did exactly that for about five hours.

The only style of play that Paradise punishes is “Obsessive Compulsive.” Considering that a huge percentage of the “hardcore” gamer demographic fits this bill, it is not surprising to see that the game received so much flak. I don’t know how many times anyone has to repeat this, but progression in Burnout Paradise is marked by the number of races you have won, not by completing specific challenges. The only answer to failing a race is to find another close by, because restarting gives you no benefit.

The complaints about Burnout Paradise are signs that we as gamers simply aren’t used to games that deliver on what they promise (not to be confused with innovation). Most “open world” racing games are are half baked and exist because of the popularity of street racing. We’re used to night time roads and blocked off paths and constant useless car tuning. We are used to sandbox games in which playing with anything in the sandbox that is not the main story quickly grows tiresome. We are used to developers telling us how to have fun, and being showered with rewards for playing nice. Burnout Paradise is a successful attempt at exploiting the strengths of open world games, even if that means throwing away older conventions from the franchise and the genre as a whole. It is a shock to be sure, but one we all need to recover from.

Bangai-O Spirits

The follow up to a Dreamcast Classic, Bangai-O Spirits expands upon the original with an arsenal of new weapons and EX moves to choose from, and a level set that is both massive and varied. At times it can play like a classic shooter, a puzzle game, and even a simple 2d fighter. Then there is the level editor, which is not only deep, but allows you to easily share your creations over the internet by compressing levels into simple sound files. All of this in a game that clocks in at a smaller size than a low quality MP3.

If I had to explain why Treasure’s games are so loved, I would boil it down to three key factors. One is their ability to create simple, perfectly executed rules that provide great variety and endless replayability (for practical purposes at least). Second is their insistence that each game is based on a small set of these rules, making them easy to learn and tough to master. Third, their technical prowess allows them to push the limits of console hardware while still being incredibly efficient. In regards to Factors 1 and 3, Spirits is nothing less than pure distilled Treasure. Unfortunately, it trips up on Factor 2, a flaw which threatens to rip the experience apart.

Treasure was hell bent on stuffing as many “rules” as possible into the game in order to create their ultimate playground. Too bad it comes at the expense of everything else The tutorial teaches the controls, but very little about strategy and execution. There is no story, and thus no clear difficulty progression. To put it another way, it is a giant level dump. It feels akin to a downloading a homebrew modding tool with a couple of examples provided by the creator.

As I mentioned with Burnout, I don’t mind making my own fun. But in Burnout, I know the track, my car, and the rules of the road. In Spirits, I may load a level and find it to be one long, grueling firefight. I may load up another and find every enemy onscreen open fire at once. There is one stage where almost every weapon loadout will kill you, but one combination will clear the stage in under three seconds. The game is fun but you have to figure out where that fun is; simply surviving requires you to learn how to best take advantage of your weapons. To contrast, you don’t die in Ikaruga because you haven’t figured out the finer points to chaining. Bangai-O Spirits has a lot of love, but you are going to have to work for it. Quite frankly, I can’t say it is worth the longtime effort.

Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead is a response to one of modern gaming’s most obvious contradictions. Many of us demand co-op games over strict single player, and yet most co-op modes merely allow to people to run through the single player. The result is usually unsatisfying, but leave it to Valve to figure out the solution. If you want co-op to be special, create something in which the key to victory is complete cooperation from beginning to end. Left 4 Dead does this, and the result is a mini revolution for shooters.

Persona 4

I could say a lot about this game, and I haven’t even completed it yet. For now, I will state that in a game with such a heavy focus on providing a personal, social experience, just a few changes to style and setting can make a world of difference. P4 doesn’t play much differently from P3, but its smaller scope and emphasis on more realistic character depictions means you will likely enjoy both, but vastly prefer one. For now, I will say that the closer an issue or scenario is to one we see in real life, the higher our expectations become. P4 struggles to deal with a few weighty and topical issues which most games would never dream of approaching. While honorable, it may leave a bad taste in your mouth depending on your personal beliefs. For me, this might be the best RPG on the PS2.

Valkyria Chronicles

Who said Gears of War was a blight? Valykria takes a clear page from Gears with its real time charcter controls, which add levels of tension, immersion and strategy that the rest of the genre cannot match. Add in gorgeous visuals reminiscent of Classic Sega, and troops you can actually come to befriend, and you have an example of what Strategy RPGs have been aiming for all along. Now if only that difficulty curve didn’t spike so dramatically.

Quick Takes – Dragon Quest 4 (+), Rock Band 2 (-) , Rez HD (+), MGS4 (-), Patapon (+/-), Ninja Gaiden 2 (+).

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