The Best of 2008

BY The Editors  //  December 26, 2008

Our choices for 2008's finest games.

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xcellence carries appeal beyond one, to the many, and for all time. We seek to find it wherever we can. During the last twelve months, the staff and contributing writers of Game and Player played dozens of games, judging their merits according to demands of genre and the tasteful player. Today we hold up twenty-two games as having met the highest standards of artistry, creativity, sportsmanship, storytelling, and online interaction. Five of them are, we defend, the most exciting, compelling and enduring productions the industry could offer — the finest video games of 2008.


Best of Show: Prince of Persia


Greatest Innovation: Mirror's Edge


Most Sporting: NHL 09


Most Memorable Online: Left 4 Dead


Belle of the Ball: Prince of Persia


Strongest Story: Valkyria Chronicles


Seconds, Please: Wrath of the Lich King




Best of Show: Prince of Persia

(Ubisoft // Ubisoft Montreal) Prophets tell us: interactive entertainment is a modern novelty, founded on borrowed concepts and sustained by variations provocative enough for consumers who bore easily. When — not if — developers can't improvise quickly enough, gamers will realize that they have been playing the same cloying thing for years, and catastrophe shall visit the market.

According to that eschatology, Ubisoft's Prince of Persia should be an omen of end-times. The French publisher's Montreal studio introduces a prince who's absconded from the trilogy begun in 2003. Leaving behind intricate psychodrama and bare-knuckle action, Ubisoft has replaced its signature on the series with simpler platforming, boy-meets-girl duologue and swordplay no bloodier than a pavilion production of Shakespeare.

Does a developer regress when it doesn't invent anything? To believe that overlooks what underwrites lasting expression: craftsmanship. Comedy, tragedy, heroism and romance become conventions only when they're done badly. Ubisoft wedded fairy-tale beauty and innocence with gameplay that pleases more than it presses — none of which can be derived by formula or calculation. This is simply a game to be played and long remembered by everyone.

Why? Sometimes we understand the appeal of a thing, or not, and accept and treasure it, like Aesop or Arabian Nights or Jordan Mechner's genesis of the series nineteen years ago. If an unlikely one, Prince of Persia is a masterpiece. And it reminds us how video gaming's skeptics are wrong. Tradition, rather than newness, affirms Prince of Persia — and in order to be swept away by it, one must play it.


Honorable Mentions

Grand Theft Auto IV proved that when it comes to sandbox action games, Rockstar is still king. Whatever your feelings on the series' penchant for violence and moral depravity, it's hard not to appreciate this title's expansive cityscape. Now if only it allowed us to be one of the good guys — carjacking and drug running are starting to get a bit old. (Rockstar Games // Rockstar North)


New owners of the Fallout franchise, Bethesda Softworks released a sandbox RPG in the tradition of Morrowind and Oblivion — and faithfully accurate to the post-apocalyptic cult favorite. Fallout 3 brought Mad Max extras, jump blues and a peculiar hope to the world that may as well have already ended. The kids, they glow — and they're all right. (Bethesda Softworks // Bethesda Game Studios)


Epic Games got it right two years ago. The changes made to Gears of War 2, while certainly in the right direction, didn't really alter their existing formula. Gears of War was a phenomenal game and the same can be said this time around — it's just nothing we haven't already learned to appreciate already. (Microsoft Game Studios // Epic Games)


Nintendo's first foray into original downloadable content wasn't just good, it was one of the most addictive and captivating games of the year. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King is Square Enix at its most pure and its most memorable. This is a title which is easy for casual gamers to pick up and play, but whose underlying mechanics cry out for exploitation by power players. Strategy fans: eat your hearts out. (Nintendo // Square Enix)


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Greatest Innovation: Mirror's Edge

(Electronic Arts // EA DICE) Say what you will about its combat and path finding systems — Mirror's Edge is a breath of fresh air for the first person genre. While many developers have tried in recent years to create a truly next gen shooter, DICE succeeds by downplaying the importance of firearms and instead focusing their attention on environment and fluidity of movement. What we're left with is part puzzle game, part racer and all edge of your seat excitement. As revolutionary a game as Wolfenstein or Doom, this one's bound to stay with you for a while.


Honorable Mentions

Big things come from little ideas, and Dylan Fitterer's Audiosurf was no exception. Inviting players to use their own musical libraries as content — levels for a unique racing game — co-opts an enduring art form and guarantees limitless replay. (Valve Corporation // Dylan Fitterer)


Adventure values independence, and French developer Lexis Numerique challenged the genre by making trust and reliance central to mystery-thriller The Experiment. Players, as unseen assistants, guide an amnesiac scientist through a laboratory-turned-mausoleum using lights and security cameras. The main character isn't an avatar, nor are her experiences meant to be vicarious. A fascinating kind of interaction results, evidencing great potential offered along the new line Lexis Numerique has drawn between drama and gaming. (The Adventure Company // Lexis Numerique)


A success story for independent developers, Braid has become the highest-rated Xbox Live Arcade game of all time. With unique puzzles that engage parts of the brain we didn't think existed, and a styling that stems from the creativity of these puzzles, Braid is a title that is well worth the value of its arcade purchase. It should not be missed. (Microsoft Game Studios // Number None)


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Most Sporting: NHL 09

(EA Sports // EA Canada) Winner of seven sports video game of the year awards last year, the EA Sports could have rested on their success. Instead, they took everything a giant step forward in NHL 09. With an expansive career mode that sees your created player develop from a minor league chump to a major league star and a ground breaking online league that redefines cooperative sports play, it's hard to mount an argument against NHL 09 for this year's best sports title. This is a game that non-hockey fans should take notice of. It's an experience that stands out in the genre.


Honorable Mentions

While NHL 09 may have won Most Sporting, FIFA 09 should not be overlooked. Though the complexity of the controls may be frustrating at first, with practice comes the sheer joy of being to do exactly what you want on the field. This is by far the best soccer game available across any platform over the last decade. If you're even slightly curious about FIFA 09 give it a shot — you won't be disappointed. (EA Sports // EA Canada)


While Wipeout HD may technically fall into the arcade racing camp, it probably belongs alongside the likes of NASCAR and Formula 1 simulations. Its unforgiving controls and steep learning curve are bound to turn many folks off, but it stands as one of the most precise and cerebral racers on any platform. (SCEE // SCE Studio Liverpool)


Top Spin 3 is hard. Like, it's seriously hard. That being said, it's also the closest we've come to replicating the game of tennis on a console. Animations are crisp and gameplay is sharp. Providing you spend enough time in the Top Spin school, you'll have some fun with Top Spin 3. (2K Sports // PAM Development)


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Most Memorable Online: Left 4 Dead

(Valve Corporation // Turtle Rock Studios) Left 4 Dead may not be the prettiest shooter of the year, but its phenomenal online cooperative campaign made it one of the most memorable. You and up to three friends must escape the zombie hoard in one of four meticulously designed scenarios — cooperation is paramount if you want to survive to see the credits roll. Rounding out the package is a unique take on the versus multiplayer experience that highlights some of the zombies more interesting traits. Valve demonstrates once again that they know what makes shooter fans tick.


Honorable Mentions

As if casting Yoda and Darth Vader weren't enough, Namco fitted Soul Calibur IV with a character-creation system like the one introduced in Soul Calibur III. Countervailing a campaign mode that left most dissatisfied, Special VS treated players to cameos from He-Man, Thor, Spiderman, Link, Richard Simmons, Drew Carey, and dozens of other personalities that should — or better, should not be — in a fighting game. (Namco Bandai // Namco)


The additions made to Gears of War 2's online component, including bots and the ultimate Horde mode, were all great for revitalizing this popular shooter. Whether you're a fan of the original or a complete beginner, you shouldn't have any trouble appreciating what Epic Games has packaged online within Gears of War 2. (Microsoft Game Studios // Epic Games)


Does anyone actually play Metal Gear Solid 4 Online? They should, because its methodical pace and complex mechanics are a far cry from the fragfests which seem to dominate the console arena. It's a shame that a poorly designed online portal mars what would otherwise be one of the best online shooters around. (Konami // Kojima Productions)


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Belle of the Ball: Prince of Persia

(Ubisoft // Ubisoft Montreal) Like gesture drawings to artist's preparatory cartoons, video game concept art retains the impression and energy that in-game rendering mechanizes and often dissipates. Elika and the prince, lead characters in Ubisoft's Prince of Persia, carry élan vital from right off the illustration board. In a mix of local color and cel-shading techniques, outlined as if inked, the heroic pair ranges amaranthine lands rivaling the work of Michael Parkes, Newell Convers Wyeth and others. What has photorealism to compare to imagination?


Honorable Mentions

In terms of sheer power, there's no denying that Gears of War 2 is drop-dead gorgeous. Looking just as sharp as its predecessor, the level of visual polish applied to the character models and environments is mind blowing. Epic Games continues to push their games to the limits of the machines running them, and for that, we thank them. (Microsoft Game Studios // Epic Games)


Wipeout HD not only plays well, it looks incredible. With lush graphics that never drop below a blistering 60 frames per second, it's destined to be used as HDTV demo material for years to come. Sadly, you'll be too concerned with staying on the track to enjoy most of that beauty. (SCEE // SCE Studio Liverpool)


As arresting as any Miyazaki film, Valkyria Chronicles' graphics seem to be pulled straight from a Japanese watercolor. Muted pastels and reserved cell shading depict a different sort of World War Two-era Europe. For anyone who's been left wondering whatever happened to Sega: look no further. (Sega // Sega WOW)


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Strongest Story: Valkyria Chronicles

(Sega // Sega WOW) While Valkyria Chronicles' graphics are bound to garner the most attention by the gaming press, it's the game's story which deserves the highest praise. With cut scenes that play out like an animated serial, losing a beloved character during the course of a mission will be downright heartbreaking. Whether you're an anime fan or you simply love a good turn based strategy experience, this Sega masterpiece will grip you to the very end.


Honorable Mentions

Were there ever a time to doubt conventional wisdom, it would be some reviewers' denigration of The Experiment as "clichéd." Among super-soldiers fighting aliens? Intrigue, meticulously laid for sleuthing players to discover, put stories to faces extant only as data entries in a mainframe. Lexis Numerique weaves the lurid and sublime, leading players towards a plot twist that only the French can. (The Adventure Company // Lexis Numerique)


Be prepared to laugh and weep, inter alia, while playing Prince of Persia. Ubisoft Montreal's writers know humor, solidarity and irony — they know humanity and how to portray it in fiction. A voice-acting cast's knowing performances give life to a script both contemporary and timeless, culminating in a finale that should leave players talking for quite awhile. (Ubisoft // Ubisoft Montreal)


Electronic Arts doesn't agree that characters in survival-horror are best served as fodder to that terrible, scuttling whatever. Dead Space justified gory action with dynamic voice actors matched to a sharp script, drawing players closer and closer to the title's unsettling truths. (Electronic Arts // EA Redwood Shores)


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Seconds, Please: Wrath of the Lich King

(Activision Blizzard // Blizzard Entertainment) With a player base that's growing as you read this, Blizzard simply raised the bar again with its massively successful World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Within weeks its release it was named the fasting-selling PC exclusive ever, and for good reason. With visuals that show few signs of aging and numerous additions and improvements, Lich King is an expansion done right. With no signs of slowing down anytime soon, World of Warcraft should have no trouble holding over 10 million subscribers for a while to come.


Honorable Mentions

Just another map pack, right? Game and Player's editors recall one night of Halo 3 multiplayer, spent exclusively on the battlefields in the downloadable Legendary Map Pack. For a year, now, Bungie Studios' canonized FPS has impressed with its exquisite balance — but round after round of toy-chest delight, driving nearly every one of the game's vehicles on the map Avalanche, reminded us of just what we love about Halo. (Microsoft Game Studios // Bungie Studios)


Does any company love the games it designs as much as Stardock Corporation? Twilight of the Arnor, the second expansion to 4X encore Galactic Civilizations II, embellished gameplay that was rich to begin with. On the advice of customers' counsel — and regular, illustrated playthrough reports by the CEO himself — Stardock continues to tinker, intent on defending its game's standing at the top of turn-based strategy. (Stardock Corporation)


Rock Band 2 could have been a cheap rehashing of the previous year's release. Instead, the folks at Harmonix honed their music/rhythm franchise to a razor's edge. Everything about this multiplayer experience is phenomenal — from its expansive song library to its quality instruments and design, Rock Band has shown that it's the music game to beat for this hardware generation. (MTV Games // Harmonix)


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