Fifty years from now, when we’re all playing videogames just by thinking fun thoughts and the global currency is Microsoft Spacebux, I’ll look back on 2008 as the year that I stopped caring about what the “best” games of the year were. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love a whole ton of them, though.
My problem with the discussion is this: if you want to talk about “the best games of 2008,” it’s usually about 10 to 15 games that everyone else has played and that basically everyone knew were going to be on “best of” lists before the year even began. That’s kind of boring, and it’s also probably wrong too. With a medium as subjective as games, in the end it has to be our experiences that determine what deserves our individual praise, not some false aura of importance that a game may or may not deserve.
So I’m not going to stick any disclaimer here that says this list isn’t made up of the best games of the year but rather “the games I enjoyed the most”, because, in my view, the games that I loved the most this year are, for me, the best games I’ve played this year too.
5. Saints Row 2 (Xbox 360, PS3) – Meet Pablo: a deadbeat dad with a sloppy comb over and five o’clock shadow. He wears a beater that wraps tight around his beer belly, dingy purple sweatpants and flip-flops with bright green soles. He’s also the leader of a gang, a prison escapee, and owns a garage full of the finest cars in all of Stillwater. He likes to take loudmouthed pedestrians to the top of buildings and chuck them off the rooftop as far as he can see. He has also flown a helicopter.
Pablo could’ve only happened in Saints Row 2. There weren’t any games this year that let me indulge my basest instincts as much as this game. What makes it great – beyond the absurdly extensive character creator and hugely varied gameplay – is its utter lack of pretension. In a year where a lot of games had lofty aims but in reality were fairly pedestrian, Saints Row 2 doesn’t pretend it has more than a simple aim: to let you be free to have as much stupid fun as you want.
4. Mirror’s Edge (Xbox 360, PS3) – This game has gotten a lot of flack, and I’m not going to disagree with the arguments that the combat is at times wonky and the level design sometimes obtuse, but none of that was enough to ever make me stop playing. Dice are absolute magicians in my mind and they earn a fat gold star simply for somehow making first-person platforming. If someone had told me first-person platforming would be enjoyable in 2001 when I was jumping on boxes in Half-Life, I would’ve slapped them in the face.
So I can let it slide that Dice messed up some of the big-picture stuff because Mirror’s Edge has something that’s very rare in games: the feeling of controlling a person and not an object. When that person is leaping off a skyscraper while being chased by a helicopter, it’s more than action-movie fun, it’s totally sublime.
3. Mount & Blade (PC) – I’m not geeky enough (yet) to throw my shame to the wind and go see real jousting at a Renaissance Faire, but playing Mount & Blade and its visceral horseback combat system is probably just as good if not better. There’s definitely a learning curve here. For a long time I was just circling around my targets, holding down Mouse 1 and praying for the best, but once I got the hang of riding my steed, adjusting for the speed of my weapon and judging the distance between me and my target, I was a death on a freaking stallion. Charging into battle, my troops behind me and my enemies ahead, I’d swoop down on fools and deliver deep slices of hot steel, sending bodies flying off their horses while I switched to my crossbow and nailed someone else in the head 40 feet away. I didn’t find more rewarding combat in any game this year.
2. Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) – I finished Gears of War 2 in roughly one sitting. I haven’t done that with a game all year, and I think that’s testament enough to how well-built a machine Epic designed with this game. A few annoying vehicle sequences aside, the campaign’s perfectly paced, the story is like a good blockbuster with a few surprisingly emotional moments (dud ending aside), and the action is always satisfying. There’s just something so meaty, so visceral in the way you slam into cover, pop out and let the bullets rip in Gears of War. It makes you want to pound your chest and slam down a Bud, like a real damn American. Like Saints Row 2, Gears of War 2 is totally shameless about what it is: a non-stop bloodbath fueled by adrenaline and balls.
1. Bangai-O Spirits (DS) – What I love about Bangai-O Spirits is that it is completely pure. There’s no storyline, no real game structure. Just a collection of minutes-to-seconds long levels to beat. You are a tiny mech that can fire gigantic, screen-filling missiles. You can use different missile types, a shield, a sword or a giant baseball bat. You enter a level and you die, but every time you come back and die again, the puzzle gets a little clearer, your thumbs get a little faster. And when you finally beat a stage, it’s that perfect moment of videogame epiphany when hand-eye coordination is harmonious with both sides of your brain.
In a banner year for action games, Bangai-O Spirits is the simplest (and in some ways most subversive) one. That’s what’s great about it. It revels in how much of a videogame it is. It’s not trying to win an Oscar or live up to a legacy or sell a system – it’s just pure, insane, endlessly addictive play. I love it for that.