Near the end of 2006 I was bitching that games were getting dull, repetitive, and far too obsessed with how best to graphically represent war, big guns, fast cars and loose women (preferably all at once). It was the very worst of Hollywood banality regurgitated - only the Wii seemed to be flying in the face of it, and even it failed to deliver a lasting riposte to the trend, suffering from the all-too-familiar condition of only Nintendo being able to make good games for their own console.
2007 has been a revelation for me. It’s begun to refuel my interest in games again, and I’d like to pick out a few gems that made the year a good one for me. It’s not a ‘Top 10’ or other such artificially ordered list like Eurogamer do (which is pseudo-statistical nonsense in my view, given how different game genres and different gamer preferences defy any kind of universal list making any sense at all), it’s a personal, totally unordered list of things that made it worth being a gamer again in 2007 for me.
Thank you Valve. You showed that you can make a non-violent game with a first person perspective that is challenging, entertaining, funny, even short, and still be totally and completely awesome. That it’s ok to go off in a different direction with a small budget and do something inventive, and produce something that is more memorable than any of the multi-million dollar Hollywood emulators so many people seem to think is the way gaming should be. Gentlemen, I salute you. Let’s explore what gaming is and could be with more bite-sized experiments like this in future - this is the kind of thing that should be on Live Arcade and similar, rather than so many remakes (Pac-Man CE excepted of course).
Guitar Hero 2 (PS2)
I don’t care that this was released in 2006 (on PS2, anyway), it’s a game of 2007 for me. Easily the best rhythm action game to date, and demonstrates how to nail a perfect combination of rock fantasy and rock-solid game design. Outshines the rough-edged, button-mashing, feels-too-much-like-a-game third installment on account of the co-op modes being more fun, and the note placement being far more intelligent and natural, such that it really does feel like you’re playing a guitar even when you’re obviously far from it. Harmonix proved that there’s more artistry to rhythm action than randomly slapping a shedload of notes on some hastily licensed music tracks, you actually have to make your audience feel it, and nobody does it better than they do. Roll on Rock Band.
Not without its faults, but nevertheless probably the most richly realised imaginary world to date, with an atmosphere so thick you can practically cut yourself a slice and tuck in. Far more than just nice graphics and flashy setpieces, Bioshock melds visual design, sound, and a evolving story of corruption, hubris and decay (with an appropriate political subtext) such that for a while, Rapture almost becomes a real place you visit. It may not quite keep up the illusion at all times, exposing a few shortcomings particularly in the last quarter, but such is the quality of vision and implementation on offer here that I can easily forgive it. Even with the flaws it’s a superb game.
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
I’ve already talked about this, but I’ll reinforce: it’s just the sweetest, most imaginitive, most satisfying gaming candy you’re likely to find this year. Looks great, plays even greater. You’ll want to hug it for being so good. Nuff said - if you don’t gorge yourself on this at some point you don’t deserve to be called a gamer.
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (PC)
It doesn’t have the freshness of Bioshock or Portal, given that we’ve experienced Gordon Freeman’s simultaneously blessed and cursed life first-hand before, but Episode 2 really ups the ante and pushes the series onwards in pleasing ways. It looks gorgeous, perhaps not as obviously stunning as Crysis but it recreates the flight through the wilds from City 17 brilliantly. It’s engaging, varied in terms of the environments, actually a bit longer than I expected, and never dull. Runs beautifully on a fairly modest spec PC too. HL2 is becoming a lot like a really good TV series - it might be getting a bit familiar now, but if you like the characters and the setting (and I do - give me a bit of sci-fi over yet another realistic war simulator any day), you really do want to see what might happen next. Episode 2 doesn’t disappoint, and given that you get it and Portal (and TF2) in one box you’d have to be totally off your conkers not to buy it.
Puzzle Quest (DS)
It’s a match-3 game for goodness sake, how on Earth did this make it into my list? On paper the idea sounds ludicrous - take Bejeweled (or Zoo Keeper if you like), and then slap a bunch of RPG elements into it, including experience, spells and equipment. It can’t work, right? Well, it somehow does, resulting in a game that’s dangerously addictive - the compulsive matching is still there, but now you have the strategic variations introduced by your character’s progression, different monster powers, and managing different colours of mana - suddenly it does matter which colours you match when, making it a much deeper game. It’s also ridiculously large, one that I’ve sunk hours and hours into without any confidence that I’m even half way through it. Easily my DS game of the year - yes, I liked it more than Zelda (Phantom Hourglass).
I’m reserving judgement on the other games I got for xmas until I’ve had more time with them, Mass Effect especially I’m really enjoying but unlike SMG you can’t really make an overall judgement on games like that until many, many hours of play in, because of the importance of the story. So maybe I’ll know how I feel about them by March 😉