I hate "best of the year" lists. I feel they're relatively pointless in the same way that award shows are, because it's so hard to actually compare games to each other for anyone who thinks critically about the games they play. This is why when someone gives one game a higher score than another, but they belong to two different genres, it doesn't mean one is better than the other.
I hope you knew that already. I hope.
Phil did his, though, and I have great respect for him, so I'll do one too. My friends do not drink alone!
Disclaimer: Like Phil, there were a lot of games I didn't play this year, including a good number of the AAA titles (Gears 2, etc.). I also do not own a PS3 yet, but I'm sure if I did, MGS4 and Valkyria Chronicles would be in the running for this. Just don't take their omissions as me saying they suck, or anything. I haven't played them.
5. Grand Theft Auto IV (X360, PS3, PC)
I bet you roll with your e-homies around the block doing drive-by forum trolls about how GTAIV was over-rated and should have been called "bowling with your obsessive cousin." I also bet you have bad taste in music and you love movies like Donnie Darko because that strangely hot, arty girl in your homeroom class has quotes from it all over her trapper keeper. Why are you wearing that stupid fanboy suit? Let me break something to you. Grand Theft Auto was headed nowhere after San Andreas. Where could they possibly go from there? You had a full county to explore complete with wilderness, airplanes, jetpacks, sex minigames and a fully customizable appearance. There was only one way to go, and that was to darker and more realistic places.
You can say what you want about being annoyed by the constant barrage of phone calls or the lack of airplanes, the fact is that GTAIV was the most focused, fun to play and complete entry in the series, period. It was the first game in the whole series (yes, the whole series) that actually played really well. The gunplay was refined, the movement given weight, the physics fluid and natural. Traversing Liberty City was made infinitely less tedious by waypoints. Taxi cabs made getting to destinations quick and painless. The insanely convincing atmosphere of this new Liberty City is well-documented, giving a sense of immersion to the game previously unheard of. This is what you kept imagining the first time you played GTAIII.
If nothing else, GTAIV stands as a sandbox in which to build the future of the series, much like GTAIII was for its pseudo-sequels. That's what it was conceived as, too -- a complete reworking of the basic formula of 3D Grand Theft Auto. It also stands as a prime example of the fact that no matter how good your game is, some prick on the internet will look at its title, skim message boards for its most obvious flaws, then regurgitate them all over the information highway with a heaping side of hyperbole and pretense.
4. Tales of Vesperia (X360)
It's amazing how far you can get making the same game over and over again. The Madden of JRPGs, Tales of * has been hovering mostly unchanged over the JRPG landscape since the early 90's. Why is it on this list, then? Because the game they keep making is so god damn fun.
Playing Tales of Vesperia reveals an aura of self-consciousness, like the developers knew almost every mechanic in the game was shoplifted directly from either past Tales games or past Final Fantasy games. At least, I hope they did, because this is shameless. The battle system of Tales of the Abyss (which had already cherry picked Star Ocean's three-dimensional range of movement) has been slapped together with Final Fantasy IX's ability system, Final Fantasy XII's hunts and a number of other familiar things.
What makes it stand out, though, is the fact that it does these things well. Finding a comfortable level of difficulty, the game's features never feel like chores, but you'll have some work cut out for you if you want to utilize them to their full potentials. It's that balance that makes the game so enjoyable to play; you'll never feel like you're not working toward something, whether it's learning an ability or farming items to synthesize a new weapon, there's always something to do, and none of it requires anything you wouldn't expect it to.
The graphics are downright impressive, representing the only visual package I can think of that truly looks like "interactive anime." Adding to that, a charming story rounds out the experience. While it's not anything terribly complex or deep, the characters are likable, the writing is solid and the voice acting doesn't induce vomiting. What more could you want from a JRPG?
3. Mega Man 9 (Wii, X360, PS3)
Old school and devilishly difficult, Mega Man 9 is the anti-2008. With its clever, innovative level design and infuriating-but-forgiving difficulty, it was likely the cause of several thousand broken controllers and/or televisions. It also marks the return of simplistic fun in gaming, with Mega Man's bag of tricks reduced to MM1-2 status -- no sliding or charging, just jump and shoot.
The amount of love and care IntiCreates put into this game is noteworthy on its own; it perfectly mimics the NES titles complete with screen flicker. The graphics are spot-on and vintage Mega Man, and the soundtrack is just plain incredible, ranking among the best in a series universally acclaimed for its music. It's a game you'll likely finish in a couple hours the first time through, but that's what it's supposed to be -- a short, sweet and genuinely gratifying game that will actually make you better at all video games (and maybe other things, too!). Except maybe turn-based games, I guess.
At $10, there's no reason not to get Mega Man 9 if you're a fan of action or platforming games of any kind. It's on any current-gen console you own. You don't even have to leave your couch. COP THAT SHIT.
2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (PS2)
When Persona 3 came out, I knew an hour into it that, above all else, this is what a JRPG was supposed to be. This is what everyone had tried to make them, but couldn't find the right subject matter, or the right setting. How about modern time? How about psychology, life, death, love, other people, the subconscious, and all the things people actually think about? It's right in front of our faces, but overthinking things tends to complicate all that. Trying to please people, trying to "make your masterpiece," or whatever -- why not just be honest? This is what Persona has always been, and it's exactly what Persona 4 is. It's, dare I say, art.
Taking a break from Persona 2 and 3's metropolitan settings, P4 takes you to the rural suburb of Inaba where a series of murders are taking place. The story unfolds in a structure very similar to P3's, and, in fact, the game plays a lot like an enhanced version of P3. The difference, and the thing that makes me love this game so much, is in the way it directly contrasts P3.
Persona 4, actually, feels like the other side of Persona 3's coin. P3's color scheme was dark, blues, blacks, and everything took place at night. The dark hour -- the "hidden" hour between midnight and 1 AM, turned people into coffins until it passed, and the dungeon was a massive tower which rose during the dark hour where your school once stood. Everything was very macabre, and the music reflected the nightlife of a city -- hip-hop, jazz, lounge music, electronica. The characters, aside from Junpei, even seemed to act older than they really were, bringing a more serious tone than you might expect to the game.
Persona 4, on the other side of the coin, is colored in bright yellows, oranges and reds. The dark hour is replaced by a world inside television sets which houses fragments of the subconscious of anyone who enters it, which represent the various dungeons. The dark tone is replaced by a more upbeat, playful atmosphere, and while the story is still fairly dark, the characters act much more like real teenagers, easing the tension of it. The music is now less jazz and hip-hop focused, and more grounded in pop and techno -- even the battle theme has a poppy chorus, complete with female vocals and chirping synth. It's like the "day" to P3's "night," in a sense; a duality. I love things like this, and like Phil, this game captivates me for this very reason.
I should make special mention of the soundtrack of the game, which, honestly, for me, is hit or miss. That doesn't mean I don't think it's extremely effective at what it does, though. I'm not a fan of the battle theme, but the overworld theme ("Your Affection" on the OST) is similarly poppy, and I find myself enjoying it. It's strange -- I may not "like" the music much a lot of the time, but it still manages to give me a sense that it just fits, and it's right.
Of course, it also plays extremely well, it's addictive and has a high-quality story. It's also genuinely funny (fuck yeah, drunk Teddie). It also has an even stronger social commentary to it, using TV as a metaphor for the increasingly isolated, superficial world we live in. This may be one of the very few good JRPGs this year, but like P3 before it, it's also one of the best in the last decade. I can see this becoming one of my all-time favorite games with time; P3 is already among them, and this is just that, but better.
Game of the Year - Fallout 3 (X360, PS3, PC)
I know, I totally thrashed this game by summing it up with a picture of a wrecked car. Only because of the bugs, though. When Fallout 3 isn't freezing for reasons beyond me, it's one of the best games I've ever played. If it's not the sheer hugeness of the Capital Wasteland, it's the satisfaction of beheading a Super Mutant from 20 yards with Lincoln's Repeater in glorious VATS slow motion. If it's not either of those, it's Three Dog on the radio talking about how much of a badass I am because of something I did yesterday, or dropping a live grenade in an unsuspecting sap's pocket after plundering all his caps.
Built on the same engine as Oblivion, it's easy to look at Fallout 3 and think "Oblivion with guns." Well, aside from VATS, that is, at the very core of it, what it is. However, VATS makes the combat really fun, which is quite a departure from Oblivion's terribly flaccid battle system. There's also something far more interesting about the Capital Wasteland than Oblivion's cut-and-paste fantasy world.
The quests of Fallout may seem small in number, but that's only because they're long, detailed and highly rewarding. It can take you up to three or more hours to finish certain quests, even if you know, more or less, where you're going. The main storyline will only take you around 15 or 20 hours to complete, but if you do all the sidequests, that quickly jumps to anywhere from 60 to 100+, depending on how thorough you are.
In standard Bethesda fashion, Fallout 3's world is not only massive, but also incredibly detailed and full of secrets and subtle touches. You can find bobbleheads, which raise your base stats as well as skills, hidden caches of weapons and ammo, alien crash sites, slaves with bombs around their necks begging for help, hidden areas that don't show up on your map, and a multitude of other things. You can get your own house (or apartment) depending on how you proceed through a certain quest which has your own personal butler robot. There's a million different things to find and obtain and see, and true to the Bethesda name, you always have choices -- a karma system is in place that causes people to react badly to you if you've led a particularly shady life in the Wasteland.
Fallout 3 lets you launch a small nuclear device into a crowded church during a wedding then eat the remains of the bride and groom (which will likely be in many pieces, scattered around the room, especially if you have the Bloody Mess perk). There's not many games that allow you to do what you can do in Fallout 3, and if there were (Postal?), I doubt any of them are as huge, immersive, or fun as Fallout 3 is. This is my game of the year.
Final Fantasy IV (DS)
A solid remake of a classic game, FFIVDS retains everything that made the original great and builds on it, while maintaining the difficulty of the hard type version. Great when you need some sword and sorcery on the go.
Star Ocean: First Departure (PSP)
Another remake of a classic RPG, this one never released outside of Japan. It has a few nagging issues, such as a few sadistic missables, but it's a very important game for anyone who enjoys action RPGs (Tales of Phantasia was Wolfenstein, Star Ocean is Doom). It also uses a stronger version of Star Ocean 2's game engine and battle system, which is never a bad thing -- it was the finest battle system on the original Playstation.
And with that, we say goodbye to 2008. It's been a good year for gaming, but not necessarily a good year for gaming relevant to my interests. That's okay, though. 2009 looks promising, with Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Dragon Quest IX and hopefully Final Fantasy XIII on the horizon. We'll see you next year. Or... well, shit. Later this year, now. Happy new year.
-Jibril | LJ