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Dowd's 2007 Game of the Year Contenders

Dowd's 2007 Game of the Year Contenders – December 24, 2007 5:21 AM (edited 12/24/07 12:21 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
With next Monday being the last day of the year, it seemed like a good time to write up a Game of the Year post. But what’s a good contest without a little suspense? Obviously I haven’t played every game this year, so my results aren’t exactly all-encompassing. There are plenty of GOTY candidates I either quickly gave up on (Metroid Prime 3, Bioshock) or didn’t play at all (Call of Duty 4). I arranged a list of potential winners, which basically includes any game I played through that was released between December 2006 and November 2007. The list ended up being longer than I’d have liked, so I had to narrow it down a bit.

Here’s what I decided to do. Taking only games on the list that I actually liked (which is basically all of them, since I tend to stop playing games I don’t like), I divided them into two categories: new games and ports. I will hand out my Port of the Year award later in this post. As for the rest, I decided to narrow it down to a reasonable four games. The rest will get honorable mention write-ups in this post, which will be followed by the four contenders. Next week I’ll announce my winner (and give the competition their due as well). So let’s get this party started!

Port of the Year
There were a number of good ports this year, new versions of older games that have been improved in some way. In most cases I had played the original before, so I could judge the game not only on its own merits but also by how much it added to its previous incarnation. There were four contenders in this category. I will start with the runners-up, and finish with the winner.

Runner-Up: Guitar Hero II (Xbox 360)
The 360 port of Guitar Hero II served more to bridge the next-gen gap to Guitar Hero III than to advance the series in any meaningful way. That’s not to say this port was without significant improvements, though. I was a huge fan of the new X-Plorer guitar controller, both because I like the design and because it just felt right. I still love the buttons, although the Guitar Hero III Les Paul really nailed the strum bar (and is wireless, unlike the X-Plorer). Upon its initial release, GH2 featured a half-dozen new songs, several of which were quite fun to play, including Dead!, Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo, and The Trooper. What really set this game apart in the long run, though, was the DLC. They started off releasing tracks from the original Guitar Hero, which I appreciated because the gameplay had been improved greatly (especially with respect to hammer-ons and pull-offs) in Guitar Hero II, but they stopped after only a few packs, apparently because of pricing complaints. They eventually started releasing original content, including a bunch of indie songs and three My Chemical Romance tracks. I played the hell out of this version of Guitar Hero II, much more than on the PS2, and I feel it was the definitive version of the game.

Runner-Up: Final Fantasy VI Advance (Gameboy Advance)
The last significant GBA game ever released, FF6A was a port of one of the best games in the series, which automatically meant it was awesome. But this was no half-assed port. FF6’s translation was generally good, but they redid it anyway, keeping the better lines from the original while clarifying plot holes and restoring things that were left out. Better yet, they completely retranslated the spells, abilities, and items, bringing them in line with the rest of the series. (Only FF7 remains with no version featuring the Fire/Fira/Firaga spell naming scheme, for instance.) They even fixed the blindness bug! Added to all that, there were four new espers, including Leviathan, a few new spells, and two bonus dungeons. The second of these was rather boring, since it was just a series of many battles with no breaks, but the true dungeon they added was epic. A three-party dungeon like Kefka’s tower, it introduced new normal enemies and super-powered versions of the eight dragons as bosses, culminating in a fight with the rumored “Kaiser Dragon” that was supposedly taken out of the original game. Each of the 14 characters got a piece of awesome gear, although many of these were superseded by existing items (especially the swords which couldn’t compare to the Lightbringer or Ultima Weapon). And like all of the GBA FF ports, it had an unlockable sound test. Sadly, the only flaw in the game was the drop in sound quality from the SNES (due to the GBA simply not having as good a sound chip). Nonetheless, this is a great game and a great port.

Runner-Up Gripshift (Playstation Network)
Unlike the rest of the games on this list, I never played the original Gripshift (on PSP). From what I understand, the additions are significant, and make this seem almost like a new game, or at least a definitive version (the just-released XBLA version notwithstanding). For the first half of the year, this was my go-to PS3 game, a downloadable game I downloaded the demo of out of boredom. The cross-genre gameplay, part racing and part puzzle game, hooked me immediately. A lot of people dislike this game because it’s a “terrible racer,” but they’re missing the point. In fact, the developers may have been missing the point when they added racing stages in it. The controls, or more accurately the physics, are extremely loose in this game. You can go very fast with tremendous acceleration, and the smallest of hills can send you flying. Braking, turning around, and accelerating in midair are not only possible, but important parts of gameplay. While the races tend to be annoying (it’s way too easy to turn just a bit wrong and go flying off the stage), most of the game consists of “challenge” stages. The basic goal is to follow the floating track to reach all the checkpoints, if there are any (and there often aren’t), then reach the finish line. That gets you some “credits” (the game score used to unlock new stages and features), but there are more to be found on each stage. There are stars scattered across the stage to collect, as well as a single hidden icon. Finishing the stage quickly also earns you credits. With 100 stages, you can be having your flying/racing/puzzle fun for hours. I love the game and still haven’t beaten it, but it never gets old. (Nor does it get too frustrating, since you can skip levels whenever you want.) It’s still among my favorite PS3 games – not bad for ten bucks.

***Port of the Year: Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions (PSP)***
All those games are great, but this port took a great game and added just enough to it to keep me happy. It’s actually not the best port on the list strictly in terms of added features, but it’s the best overall game. Final Fantasy Tactics needed a new translation, and badly, and War of the Lions delivers beautifully. They even replaced several cutscenes with FMV in the artistic style of the characters (missing noses and all), which was a really cool effect. The voice acting was pretty good, too. In terms of gameplay, they added two jobs, but while both are powerful they are really intended for people far more obsessed with leveling than I am. The retranslated ability names were almost as big a deal as the plot translation. When dragons are using “Ice Bracelet” on you for years, it’s nice to finally see “Ice Breath.” The game also added multiplayer, which I have yet to play with another human, both in versus and co-op mode. The co-op fights are pretty damn ridiculous, but that’s OK because at some point the game’s normal battles really aren’t. Winning these fights at truly insane levels will win you entirely unique new items. They also added two new characters, cameo appearances from FFXII (Balthier) and the upcoming FF Tactics A2 (Luso), who are both quite effective (as a super Mustadio with thief abilities and a copy of Ramza, respectively). My favorite change was expanding the roster by 8 slots, so now you can actually keep every unique character and still breed monsters. That alone probably kept me playing an extra dozen hours. This port took a great game and made it even better, to the point where I’ve put more time into my current save than I ever put into any non-MMO previously. I spent every free minute I had playing this game for a week after it came out, something I haven’t done in years. Hell, the “Port of the Year” category basically existed because FFT:WotL deserves recognition, but no one wants to see a ten-year old game win Game of the Year.

Game of the Year
And that brings us to the competition for (new) Game of the Year. This was an epic year for video games, one of the best I can remember, and as an owner of every console and portably system, I got to bask in every aspect of it. There are still contenders on my to-play list, even! But for now, I’ve narrowed it down from a field of ten to just four. Your six honorable mentions are as follows:

Crackdown (Xbox 360)
One game that was lost in the flood of amazing games at the end of the year was Crackdown, also known as The Game That Kept 360 Owners Occupied in the Spring. While its sales were no doubt pumped up by the included Halo 3 beta, make no mistake: Crackdown is awesome. The actual game goals are simply to track down and kill a series of gang bosses, but the real gameplay comes from climbing around the expansive city looking for agility orbs, and collecting achievements. Some awesome DLC expanded the game after its release, adding new weapons, vehicles, and features to really complete the gameplay. In most other years, Crackdown would be a solid contender for Game of the Year… but not in 2007.

Halo 3 (Xbox 360)
When a game that sold several million copies on day one isn’t on your Game of the Year nominee list, you know it was either overhyped, or it’s a really good year. In this case, both are true. I’m not a multiplayer kind of guy, but I thoroughly enjoyed Halo 3’s single player campaign. I barely put it down until I beat it, but then again, it was pretty short. Halo 3 continues in the same vein as its predecessors, perfecting the Halo gameplay while introducing a few new elements like equipment to keep things interesting. The vehicle sections in particular were awesome, from the various fights with scarabs to the final stage, an obvious reference to the final stage of the original Halo. I have yet to try the four-player co-op, but if it’s as fun as people tell me, I may regret making Halo 3 an honorable mention.

Heavenly Sword (Playstation 3)
Heavenly Sword is a mindless, fun, and very short game. It’s not the best game I’ve ever played, but it did single-handedly get me out of a gaming rut I had been stuck in for some time. A lot of developers seem to be learning that cutting the boring bits out of games keeps them more consistently fun, even if reviewers remain obsessed with longer gameplay length. Heavenly Sword didn’t really have too many low points, and stayed entertaining throughout. And it featured some good voice acting combined with the best facial animation I’ve ever seen in a game. Andy Serkis (Gollum) really made this game work as the main villain. I’m not sure I’d have cared nearly as much if not for him, honestly.

NHL 08 (Xbox 360)
Last year, EA finally got back on top of the NHL heap with the introduction of the skill stick. This year, they perfected it, and came up with one of the best hockey video games in a very long time, possibly since the golden times of the mid-90’s. This game is just pure fun, and manages to play more or less like real hockey. Sure, the stats are still totally out of whack, so sim fans won’t be all that happy, but this is a game where cycling the puck on a power play actually works, and for all the right reasons. It may be in danger of becoming like Madden, where non-hockey fans simply won’t “get” why you play it the way you do, but how many non-hockey fans buy NHL games anyway?

Pac-Man Championship Edition (Xbox Live Arcade)
One game that came completely out of left field this year was Pac-Man C.E. I am not a big fan of Pac-Man, but when half of the 1UP Network erupted over this game, I had to at least try the demo. Not long after, I was forking over $10. Sure, the game’s content is limited enough that it’s probably not worth 10 bucks, but not to the point where you’ll regret the purchase. Because this game is awesome. A true sequel to Pac-Man is a hard sell these days, but if you own a 360 you owe it to yourself to play the demo. With stages that change in real time as you collect dots, and a variety of gameplay elements, this game takes Pac-Man and brings it to another level. The time-based gameplay keeps things fast-paced and fun, and it never gets boring. If this game has a flaw, it’s that the achievements are too easy to collect, because once you have them all there’s not much more incentive to play unless you have friends competing with your high scores. It is, in short, 2007’s Geometry Wars.

Picross DS (Nintendo DS)
Another unexpected phenomenon, Picross DS was released at a $20 price point and thus was nothing more than an impulse buy. Popular in Japan for years, but never released here without some Nintendo branding, Picross is an awesome puzzle game with shades of Sudoku and crossword puzzles at its center. You are given a grid, and a series of numbers describing what’s drawn in each row and column of the grid, and must draw a hidden picture based on those clues. It’s a simple premise, but a very addictive game. Most of the time when I play portable games I feel like I’d be just as happy as if they were on consoles, but for a while I brought my DS everywhere just to get my Picross fix. It’s just that good.

The Nominees
There are your honorable mentions. So who does that leave to compete for the Game of the Year crown? Here are the nominees, in alphabetical order:
* Rock Band (Xbox 360)
* Portal (The Orange Box, Xbox 360)
* Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
* Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (Playstation 3)
Come back next week to find out who won, and let the flamewar begin!

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