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Dowd’s 2007 Game of the Year Award

Dowd’s 2007 Game of the Year Award – December 31, 2007 4:03 PM (edited 12/31/07 11:03 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
As promised, here are the results of my personal Game of the Year award. A reminder: this award is entirely based on my personal opinions and experiences, and is not meant to rate every game released this year in any objective way. Even aside from the games I haven’t played (Call of Duty 4, BioShock, Metroid Prime 3, and so on), I’m going strictly by my personal feelings anyway. I’ve ordered the games from “worst” to first (keeping in mind this is my top 4 for the year), behind spoiler tags for your reading pleasure.

Runner-Up #1
Runner-Up #1
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3)
Who says originality is important? Well, me, I guess, since I listed this game first. But whatever! Uncharted takes bits and pieces from many different sources and combines them all into some of the best-paced gameplay to hit any system this year. It’s too bad that it came out on the least popular next-gen system and didn’t even sell well by PS3 standards, because it’s a fantastic game. It’s nearly impossible hard to put down, which in my view is one of the highest compliments a game can get.

So why is Uncharted so good? It begins with the story. You’re this sort of Indiana Jones character with your grizzled old veteran partner on the hunt for the lost fortune of Sir Francis Drake. The game begins with you finding a vital clue, and follows your search to the location of El Dorado and onward to an island where the bulk of the exploration takes place. The game has twists and turns (and not always the ones you would expect), but for the most part the story progresses as it ought to, doling out new clues and information at regular intervals. Each stage has a clear goal, even if you’re not always sure why taking a jet ski is going to get you to your next destination.

Considering that most of the game takes place on a single jungle island, the game has a surprising amount of environmental variety. You spend a decent amount of time in the jungle, but jungles aren’t exactly filled with Gears of War-style cover points, which Uncharted’s combat relies heavily on. Instead, the game focuses on a variety of ruins that range from fancy churches to huge fortresses to buildings that look strangely like the White House. And ruins generally have a lot of debris, which means cover. In some ways, it’s like they took the gameplay of Gears and found an environment even more suited to it (although it’s not like Gears is exactly lacking in the ruins department).

Just when you get tired of combat, it’s time for some Tomb Raider-style environmental traversal puzzles. When those get boring, there might be a level where you’re firing a machine gun on the back of a jeep, or killing snipers with a grenade launcher while piloting a jet ski. And when that gets boring, new and unexpected foes and environments abound. Of course, there’s always more combat, too, with new guns…

The long and the short of it is, I played Uncharted non-stop with a huge smile plastered on my face. I’m a pretty jaded gamer, and that doesn’t happen a whole lot these days. Fun combat, fun puzzles, and characters I genuinely care about – what more could I ask for in a game? Maybe a release on a system people actually own. But hey, the sooner people realize games like Uncharted are out for it, the sooner the PS3 might actually catch on a bit.

Runner-Up #2
Runner-Up #2
Rock Band (Xbox 360)
I have never denied my complete and utter devotion to Harmonix as a developer. I loved Frequency, I loved Amplitude, I loved Guitar Hero, and I loved Karaoke Revolution. Hell, I even bought EyeToy AntiGrav, for crying out loud. But Rock Band really is the culmination of everything that’s come before. It takes the gameplay of GH and KR, perfects it, and tosses a few more tracks in, Frequency style. All they really needed to do was nail the drums (and they did), but the game is even better than that.

Rock Band is very much a peripheral game, and its peripherals are top-notch. Altering the familiar Guitar Hero guitar at all was risky (as evidenced by how many people, people who are wrong and stupid, claim to prefer the old guitars), but the Rock Band Stratocaster is totally awesome. Yes, the strum bar is no longer clicky, and you kind of need some compressed air on hand to clean it out a bit. I feel that’s more than outweighed by its improvements – it’s much nicer-feeling buttons and whammy bar, the solo frets, the general size and look of the guitar, the fact that you can reasonably play it lefty for once, and even the completely extraneous five-way sound switch. The drums aren’t exactly lacking either. Four pads appears to be enough (based on what I know about drums, which is nothing Smile), and the bass pedal, while not perfect, gets the job done. The mic isn’t too shabby either, but it’s a standard USB microphone – how can you mess that up?

Where Rock Band really shines, though, is in the interface decisions. Not only did they fix the problems I had with Guitar Hero’s UI (e.g., not being able to get more star power while using it), they made changes I never realized I wanted until I saw them (e.g., flat-looking notes). Going back to Guitar Hero’s busy interface, with it’s big bubbly notes and colorful track backgrounds, is difficult after getting used to the clean simplicity of Rock Band’s UI. Your combo and energy meters are right there below the note targets, so there’s no more glancing over or using your peripheral vision to see if you can use star power. The way the game denotes guitar solos is fun, and the bass’s “Bass Groove” (x5-x6 multipliers, complete with graphical effect) is another nice touch. Drum fills are not only cool, but no one’s had to ask me what they were supposed to do when they came up, another good design. I could go on all day just about the UI. Or I could gush about the graphics that, while pretty low-fidelity (they’re heavily filtered and run at a low frame rate), are totally awesome just because the animations get you into the game. When your self-made on-screen avatar is rocking the hell out, you want to too.

Instead, let’s talk about the song list. I’ll be honest, I don’t think Rock Band’s list blows away any of the Guitar Hero games or anything. It’s solid but not life-alteringly fantastic. But having four parts for each song helps a lot – I find you appreciate a song more when you’re familiar with the melody, the drums, and the lyrics. What it does very well is cover all the bases. There are songs on here for everyone, but they aren’t limited to obvious choices. I mean, Coheed and Cambria? And I have yet to meet someone who had heard of the best Guitar song in the game, Green Grass and High Tides. Plus, the DLC has been awesome, consistent (3 or more songs per week for over a month now), and cheaper than GH3 to boot. And apparently the best (i.e., full albums) is yet to come.

All this and I haven’t even mentioned World Tour mode. Yes, Rock Band costs as much as three games, but it plays like four. Just when you get bored (or tired) playing one instrument, there are two other ways to play, and the game never gets old with a group of friends. And it helps that the main competition (Guitar Hero III) has totally embraced the hardcore YouTube crowd and forgot to be fun while they were at it. Rock Band forever!

Runner-Up #3
Runner-Up #3
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
Oh no I didn’t! Super Mario Galaxy is a fantastic game, and its highs are definitely good enough to get it GOTY honors. The only reason it didn’t win is because it has more of something than any of its competitors: flaws. It’s also the only Japan-developed game on my list, and I feel that this is not only no coincidence, but is an interesting anecdote for the state of the industry. But this is a Game of the Year award, not an essay on the problems with eastern game development (maybe next week…)

So, where were we? Oh, right, Super Mario Galaxy. This game astounds you early, and just keeps throwing crazy and awesome new ideas at you throughout. That any game could have this many new concepts in it is mind-boggling. I claim to love short games (see also: my GOTY), but the truth is that I like games that don’t overstay their welcome. Mario Galaxy is the epitome of how this can be done in a game that actually takes a while to beat. There are single-stage mechanics in this game that could have been the premise for an entire 10-hour game in the hands of a lesser developer. Wario Ware is kind of a Nintendo breeding ground for UI concepts, and Mario Galaxy is the gameplay equivalent. I’d give some examples, but frankly the good ones are too hard to explain. For instance, “spotlight gravity.” Here’s an awesome concept (gravity is sideways inside moving spotlights) that is used for the first tiny section of the final stage. And that’s it! It’s crazy.

Mario Galaxy is also notable because it takes the multi-star stage concept from Mario 64 and Mario Sunshine and keeps the stars without ruining the pacing. You could feel obligated to get all six stars in a stage in Mario 64, and the stages often got boring. Mario Galaxy fixes this by only offering three stars when you first encounter a stage, adding the rest in as hidden stars or “comet” stars that trigger later in the game (when the stage will again seem fresh, especially since the comets put a new spin on them). The game also includes tiny single-star stages which can remain purely focused on one task. It is extremely unlikely that you will find yourself without any fun stages to play until well after you’ve defeated Bowser.

Perhaps Mario Galaxy’s single greatest strength is its play control. Mario playing perfectly is nothing new, but playing perfectly (or close to it) while running and jumping upside down? Hell, the fact that the game works at all is amazing. Even more amazing to me is that the game not only succeeds in avoiding dumb motion control pitfalls, it actually plays to the Wiimote’s strengths rather well. In particular, the use of the pointer to pick up star bits is not something I expected to work as well as it does. The bubble stage, where you use the pointer to point a “fan” and blow Mario (who’s in the center of the screen) around was also novel and cool, even if I’m terrible at it.

Unfortunately, the game is held back by a number of niggling concerns. I have absolutely no patience for being frustrated by video games, and Mario Galaxy can definitely be frustrating. The existence of lives is particularly annoying – when you’re dying repeatedly because of the obnoxious Spring Mario power up, the last thing you want to do is have to start the stage over and do those parts you hated getting through the first time again. Lives don’t add to the fun of the game, and neither do power ups that make the game harder to control. These sorts of annoying play mechanics have all but disappeared from western games, why does Japan insist on not following suit? The lack of decent camera control is also alarming, though the game camera is good enough that it rarely matters. Still, when the system’s flagship Mario Game is pleading for a second analog stick, it makes you wonder where Nintendo’s hardware design priorities were. (On a related note, shaking the controller to spin is fine and intuitive, but to throw things? Not so much. Maybe the Wiimote could have had three buttons, guys?) The game is also just generally hard, and the difficulty curve is not necessarily smooth. Most of the unlockable bonus stages, for instance, are just brutal, even the very first. Yes, you can beat the game without getting any particularly nasty stars, but the only way to know which ones to avoid is to repeatedly get killed on the hard stages. Not fun. At least, not for me – I don’t really play games for challenge – and this is my Game of the Year, dammit!

In the long run, though, it isn’t the minor flaws that kept Mario Galaxy away from the title. It’s the simple fact that, unlike the other three nominees, I felt the need to take breaks from Mario Galaxy. I didn’t stay up all night to beat it, nor did I spend every free moment playing it. Mario Galaxy is a game with very high highs, but they make the lows seem that much lower in comparison. But a flawed masterpiece is still a masterpiece.

And the winner is…
And the winner is…
***Game of the Year: Portal (The Orange Box/Xbox 360)***
Let me get the requisite jokes out of the way right now: this was a triumph. I’m making a note here, huge success! Ah, much better. By the way, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading this and go play Portal right now. I’ll wait, it’s not that long. Done? Good. So, back when I was in my initial post-Portal state of euphoria, I declared that it might just be Game of the Year. I almost gave it to Mario Galaxy anyway, as it seems like an intellectually better choice, but then I remembered just how amazing Portal is. Sorry Mario.

Why is Portal so damn great? Well, contrary to everyone’s expectations before the game actually came out, it’s not because of the mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, tossing portals around is awesome, flinging yourself with the power of gravity is awesome, and shooting portals at the floor as you go rushing at it is totally awesome. But what makes this game go from “excellent puzzle game” to “Game of the Year” is the writing, not the mechanics.

Take the automatic turrets as an example. If you’ve played Portal, I’m sure you agree that the turrets are awesome. Mechanically, though, they’re pretty standard: they see you and fire. It’s pretty interesting that you can drop things on them, or drop them on things, or pick them up and drop them off a cliff, but what’s awesome is what they say. Innocent and creepy, I’m never sure whether to laugh or cringe when I hear them. “I see you!” “There you are!” “I don’t hate you.” When have automated robotic gun turrets ever been interesting characters before?!

But the character that obviously takes the cake (no pun intended) is GLaDOS, the computer voice that leads you through the testing facility. She starts off pretty tame, with a little bit of a joke here and there, but steadily becomes crazier and funnier as time goes on. By the time you get to the companion cube test, you’re not sure whether it’s you or her that’s crazy (though it quickly becomes clear that it is indeed her). By the end of the game GLaDOS is absolutely hilarious (among other things), and her ending song is without a doubt one of the best game endings ever. Sadly that’s really all I can say because the latter half of the game (i.e., the final stage) is all spoiler territory, and I would never want to risk spoiling such a fantastic game for people.

Fortunately, I don’t doubt that when you do play it, you will be convinced that, even if Portal isn’t your GOTY, it’s worthy of consideration. The only real “flaw” the game has is that it’s super-short (approximately three hours), but that really just serves to concentrate the fun, and get rid of the crap. Plus, the game is $20 on Steam and comes with four other fantastic games for $60 on the 360, so you can’t really go wrong. But honestly, I would not regret spending $60 on just Portal for a moment. It’s just that good.

Re: Dowd’s 2007 Game of the Year Award – January 2, 2008 3:30 PM (edited 1/2/08 10:30 AM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
Good choices and for interesting reasons. I think I would have SMG as my GOTY, with runners up being Portal and Metroid Prime 3, and I would give an honorable mention to Zack & Wiki.

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I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo

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