Gaming 2008: The PC

Beyond the music games, the iPhone becoming a mature gaming platform, or the bounty of multiplatform games, 2008 will be the year I’ve rediscovered the joy of PC gaming.

A quick eulogy: Mac gaming is dead. Really dead. The few companies that were left doing mostly Mac development have realized that all the money is on the iPhone, and they have a leg up on most other companies. Freeverse, Pangea, and Ambrosia are all flourishing on the iPhone. Those who want to play serious games on their Macs all have Boot Camp partitions.

I’ve been out of the industry for nearly five years now, but I feel sad that what used to be such a vibrant part of my life has disintegrated. Let us have a moment of silence.

Moving on.

To be forthright: this generation of consoles has left me a bit down in the dumps. Sony has some great ideas, but they keep fucking up the execution. Microsoft is more than willing to pay what it takes to be #1, but that doesn’t mean they’re paying for games I want to play. And Nintendo will continue making money no matter what they do, so they have no need to satisfy the “core gamer”.

And so I have drifted back towards the PC, where I’ve found sanctuary in a fantastic dichotomy.

On one side, you have Steam. Valve has done the one thing no other entertainment company has really understood to date – using DRM to *enhance* their customer’s purchases, not hamper them. All of my purchased games on Steam will follow me to any new computer I visit. I can redownload them as many times as I see fit. All the games automatically patch themselves to the newest version, saving me the need to hunt down updaters. Games that support Steam Cloud will save my settings up onto the server, making sure I never lose my save games again.

I wish we lived in a world where every download service was as well put together as Steam is.

On the other side of the PC gaming dichotomy, you have an uncontrollable mass of indie developers, who are putting together games just because they can. There have been some brilliant games that came out this year that were only released on forums. That sort of developer community is stifled by the constraints of an XBLA, a Wii Ware, or a PSN – but can thrive on a desktop platform. (Some games manage to straddle both sides of this world. Many of these are in the list below.)

With all this in mind, and since I didn’t really have any PC disappointments this year: here are the best PC games I played this year.
Audiosurf managed to turn every track in your music library into a Klax-like puzzle experience. Then it added leaderboards for every song. Holding the #1 record on your favorite songs is a huge headrush. Getting an email someone else just knocked you down the ladder is heartbreaking.

Trials 2 has its roots in games I’ve played in yesteryear, but this really nails the addictive factor in a physics based puzzle game. I haven’t touched it in a few months and I *still* have the engine sound stuck in my head from countless retries.

While I listed it in the Multiplatform section, my Fallout 3 purchase was for the Steam version. While it would no doubt run better on either of my consoles, knowing that I have access to the upcoming DLC, any community mods made with the G.E.C.K., all the same achievements as the 360 version, and a mouse/keyboard for controls makes it the proverbial “superior version”.

While it’s individual portions came out in 2006 and 2007, Company of Heroes Gold was a 2008 release, and an easy pickup during the Steam sale. It feels like the kind of RTS game I might actually stick with, since I’m less prone to a zerg rush.

World Of Goo has gotten acclaim across every platform it’s appeared on. It’s with good reason – it’s a great new puzzle game, with a great sense of character and goofy charm.

Same story with Aquaria, actually. Less goofy charm, though.
Flatout: Ultimate Carnage took a series I had a mild infatuation with and cranked it up. It runs like shit on my current machine, but even in low resolution it’s blisteringly awesome.

Spelunky! is another game that is making me make up new genres. Ready? It’s a *roguelike arcade game*. Made by Derek Yu (who also did Aquaria), it is the perfect illustration of what independent developers are capable of doing right now.

Chalk these up as “late to the party” games: Outrun Coast 2 Coast 2006 is maybe the best Sega racer I’ve had the pleasure to play. Sid Meier’s Pirates! was a game I had experienced on the PSP but now am absolutely in love with on a proper platform.

There is one more game to go – and it is a PC game – but it’s getting a separate post.


Gaming 2008: The iPhone

A year ago, if you had asked me what platform I was going to be doing most of my portable gaming on in 2008, I wouldn’t have said my iPhone.

But not only has the iPhone replaced my standalone iPod, it’s replaced my DS and my PSP on the train, late at night, and during life’s lulls. Sure, there’s a lot of junk on the store, but there’s also more than enough great games. Gamers who scoff at the iPhone should be weary that they may, in fact, be missing out on something.

I am constantly asked what apps people should buy for their new iPhone and/or iPod Touch. Through sale sniping, testing games other people have bought, and a lot of Coinstar redemption, I’ve tested a lot of games. But I try to avoid clutter on my phone, so I’m limiting myself to two pages of games at any given time. This is a list of what’s staying on my phone after six months of iPhone gaming.

**2 Across** – every phone needs a fantastic crosswords client, and this one has a polished UI and lots of puzzle sources.

**Doctor Awesome** – ngmoco’s first masterpiece. Qix with tilt controls, crossed with Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center, and your address book. No one should be without this game.

**Fieldrunners** – a great Tower Defense game, with intuitive controls and great polish. Very easy to pick up and put down.

**I Love Katamari** – I have ties to Namco’s mobile gaming division, and I remain a huge fan of Katamari Damashii. The recent patch fixed the performance issues you may have heard about.

**Marple** – I had played a different version of this called Einstein on my Mac a few years back, and the iPhone version is better. If you like logic puzzles, try this one.

**MazeFinger** – ngmoco’s free Flamin’ Finger play-a-like. Quick, maze-based fun.

**mondo solitaire** – Ambrosia’s solitaire title remains the most flexible one I’ve found, although I wish the performance was better.

**Pajatzo** – a hidden gem pointed out by the GAF iPhone Games thread, Pajatzo resembles one of those arcade machines where you use tokens to win other tokens. It’s a pretty fun way to burn a few minutes, and it keeps lots of statistics.

**Pass the Pigs** – it would seem like a digital version of Pass The Pigs loses something, but I disagree. Very odd graphical style, though.

**Pop** – the same game that’s on Wii Ware. I think it works better with you having to actually touch the bubbles than waggle at them. Pretty relaxing.

**Rolando** – ngmoco’s latest masterpiece. It looks like Loco Roco. It’s better than Loco Roco. Listen to the critics: this is the most fully-realized game for the iPhone right now.

**Samurai Puzzle Battle** – I grabbed this after hearing about how shoddy the Puzzle Quest port was. It’s complicated, but it’s a Match 3 puzzle crossed with Risk. If this doesn’t sell you, there’s a lite version available.

**Scrabble** – EA’s having a great year on the iPhone too. Their Scrabble port still sets a very high bar.

**Snail Mail** – a tilt-based racer with really smooth cel-shaded graphics and fun gameplay. I am horrible at it, but I can appreciate it’s genius.

**Space Deadbeef** – the best free game you can get for the iPhone. A twist on the shmup genre, it’s a fantastic little arcade experience. Give it a try, it’s free!

**Space Ninja** – a very recent release, but a brilliant bullet dodging game using tilt controls. Really well implmented – Touch Arcade has more gushing.

**Space Out** – I can only describe this as a mashup game. Space Invaders is crossed with Breakout for some kind of wonderful retro experience.

**Star Trigon** – another Namco title, this one a little known title from the Mr. Driller team. (I wasn’t even aware it existed until the iPhone version came out.) Really simple controls, really enjoyable play experience. Perfect for the phone.

**Strategery** – it’s Dice Wars. On your iPhone. RUN TO THE STORE QUICK.

**Texas HoldEm** – Apple’s Poker implementation is still the best.

**Trism** – best block-slidy color-matchy hair-pully game in town.

**Wordabble** – (still) my choice for best Boggle-style game, featuring a daily ranked game that everyone who owns the game can compete in.

**Yahtee Adventures** – while I was originally leaning towards Five Dice, EA’s licensed Yahtzee game has a lot of extra game modes and just generally feels like a fuller experience.


Gaming 2008: The Multiplatform Games

It was a good year for multiplatform games. Actually, let’s be honest – it was a good year for EA, among others. EA suddenly woke up and, for the most part, had a clue as to how to make accessible yet satisfying games.

Meanwhile, Activision – well, I didn’t buy any Activision titles this year. Insert joke about not exploiting my wallet.

## A Tangent About GTA

Here’s my biggest surprise of the year: In April, I finally welcomed Grand Theft Auto IV into my arms, and was met with what was essentially a series reboot. It makes sense, in a way. GTA3 was a new engine: revolutionary, but fairly light on the meat of the gameplay. The games that trailed after it on the same engine (Vice City and San Andreas) enhanced it, adding new functionality and depth. But now, GTA IV is a new engine, and so much of those enhancements had to be ditched. And so the game, while absolutely a GTA game, lacked the free-world fun of its immediate predecessors.

On Wednesday, I picked up Saints Row 2 on the slightly cheap. I’ve clocked maybe six hours on it as I write this, and in those six hours I’ve had far more fun than the probably 24 hours I clocked on GTA4. The experience is smoother, more polished, and just filled with little refinements that make me wonder why Rockstar didn’t think of them. (For those of you who haven’t played it, here’s one: both GTA and Saint’s Row feature car collection side quests. But Saint’s Row lets you put a picture of one on the screen, tells you in which part of town you’re most likely to find them, and *puts them on your minimap if they’re nearby*. The result is that I want to collect cars in SR2 but not in GTAIV.)

So here’s the surprise: GTA IV averaged a 98 on Metacritic. Saint’s Row 2, an 81. GTA IV is effectively the best reviewed game of the year, but I’m having far more fun with the “rip-off”.

If you like sandbox-y crime games, and you like fun, please go buy Saint’s Row 2. Call it my Underdog Of The Year. They deserve the sales.

For emphasis, Yahtzee:

## High Points & Surprises

The game I spent the most time with on any platform this year is, undoubtedly, Burnout Paradise. Criterion really nailed how to do an open-world car game, have supported it lovingly with content across this entire year, and provided some of the most chaotic, crazy online gaming. It’s getting a re-release in 2009, and it’s completely worth buying if you haven’t enjoyed it yet.

Rock Band 2 has replaced Beatmania IIDX as my primary music gaming fix. (This may not be a shock to some of my friends.) While there’s still more Harmonix can do with the engine, they’ve really nailed the ability to license great content, create fun charts, and really make a fun end-to-end experience.

The first time I heard of Fallout 3, I was frightened for dear life, like all great fanboys who know something they love might get ruined. But my fears were for nothing, and the game ended up great. Easily the best FPSRPG since my beloved Deus Ex.

Dead Space is the best example of EA waking up. It is tense, it has atmosphere, and it honestly did make me jump a few times. It was nearly my best survival horror experience of the year.
After a few false steps, Capcom cleaned up with downloadable titles this year. Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Bionic Commando: Rearmed set really high bars for how to remake games with love and attention. Age Of Booty was a great action board game.

I had missed it in 2007, but The Simpsons Game was much better than I expected. I’ve been waiting seemingly forever for a proper Simpsons title, and it finally happened in 2007. Shame on me for missing it.

## Low Points & Disappointments

Devil May Cry 4 did nothing for me. I need to stop buying this series because it keeps not hitting me in the right spot.

I was excited for Mirror’s Edge, but the final product left me wanting. EA can’t get them all right, I suppose.

## Curiosities

Every year I buy a handful of sports games – MLB: The Show, Madden, sometimes Winning Eleven – and every year I enjoy them for about two weeks. I wish sports games were cheaper, because they always end up being very disposable.

Why does Rock Revolution even exist? Not that I bought it, but nothing about this game ended up being a good idea. If nothing else, we can learn one thing: always have your press events staffed by people who can play games.