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Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 Games In Review

2008 was a pretty decent year for games. We got to see EA try to become somewhat more creative, with titles like Mirror's Edge and even branch out genre-wise when it comes to games like Dead Space. Smaller indie shops got great breaks into the marketplace with the evolution of WiiWare, Xbox Arcade and PlayStation Network - offerings from the big three that at times rivaled anything the disc-based offerings had in store.

And yet, when it came to blockbusters - we had our fair share. For myself, it would be a decision in between Fallout 3 and GTA IV for best game of the year, but we'll get to that in a second.

I could nitpick on titles like Mirror's Edge, whose demo actually made me far less likely to purchase, or even lament Destroy All Humans: Big Willy on the Wii - which was an atrocious abortion of design ... but my biggest disappointment was really in what we didn't see this year. Let's take it from the big three point of view.

Not being a 360 owner, I can't properly critique Redmond here, but I still knock them off points for not offering 360 owners a proper hardware revision that I think they are severely owed. When you have entire articles about how to determine if the box your getting has the latest chipset, I think you have a problem. Microsoft certainly has the resources to fix this - but they've clearly gotten a taste of trying to be profitable for a change.

I did recently get to see the new dashboard and can't say I was terribly wowed. But software-wise, it is hard to complain too much, the 360 certainly has the library to show for its early start.

Sony promised that now they had the hardware nailed down - they would deliver on the software. The problem is they're still playing with their SKU lines, or at least were until recently, and they haven't entirely delivered on the software. The much ballyhoed Home finally had an open beta - and was greeted largely by a yawn. PSN offered more than a few winners, but Sony has a long way to go before hitting "Gaming 3.0".

In short: I love Little Big Planet as much as the next guy, but it is only a taste of "social gaming" that Sony made such a big deal out of while trying to upsell the console.

On an anecdotal level, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention I had to go to Sony for repairs twice, back to back, this year.

I intentionally mention the big N after Sony because while Sony had made big promises which haven't been coming true, Nintendo seems to almost be defiant in not capitalizing on their massive demographic. I had thought Super Smash Brothers was going to be a great moment for the company, but it turned out to feel mostly like fan service. There was no channel to easily download new user-created levels, creating new levels was hampered by Nintendo's love of "play some more, and we'll unlock some more" mechanic and matchmaking in general was pretty awkward.

I know plenty of people with Wiis and nearly all of them have WiFi. So where's my clubhouse?

And really, Nintendo, stop with the hardware. I've got wheels, nunchuks, now a Wii Fit and possibly a Wii Talk in my future. For 2009, focus on software.

For the most part, I'd say I wasn't expecting to love my PlayStation 3 quite as much as a I did. We use it all the time. I'm personally a big fan of Blu-Ray. By volume, we probably spend more time with downloaded material - but that's just because we get that while we wait for Netflix (or catching up on shows, etc). Blu-Ray is just a dead simple way to get an excellent viewing experience.

We download movies off and on from PSN as well, and I'm sincerely hoping Sony gets a deal with Netflix in the near future.

Honorable Mentions:

Pain (PSN): We freakin' love Pain, a PSN-only offering which lets you toss people into environments. It's cheap, fun to watch and great with a crowd.

Endless Ocean (Wii): OK, it's technically an older title and I grant it won't be for everyone. My dad played it like twenty hours straight, but Big Brother couldn't stand it for twenty minutes. If you can find it, rent it.

No More Heroes (Wii): Yeah, I hated the Bad Girl boss fight, but for the most was utterly roped into the quirky little brawler.

Phantom Hourglass (DS): Simply a properly executed Zelda title. Great mechanics, great fun.

Battlefield: Bad Company (PS3 / 360): Some of the most fun I've had with a shooter online, and by far the best online experience I've had on a console (with the possible exception of the early days of Phantasy Star Online).

Wish I had played:
Halo 3, Metal Gear Solid 4, any Gears of War, Mass Effect and Fable 2.

Runners Up:

Dead Space (PS3 / 360): It only barely gets in there, because of some naked mechanics and disappointing story elements. However, Dead Space had atmosphere, and for me plenty of character - and I really felt like the designers had done their homework.

Little Big Planet (PS3): This is a bit on the sly, because I only barely pulled back the cover on this title before my console went belly up. But even then, you can seee that LBP makes good on its promise and begins to show a framework for things to come.

Fallout 3 (PS3 / 360): This is so close, it feels bad calling it #2. Fallout 3 is two of my favorite things - a Bethesda RPG and Fallout - in one great package. Course it should be known - combine zombie like monsters, shotguns and a dog and nearly any title will go a long way to win my heart.

Game Of The Year
If I had to give anything the title, it would be GTA IV. It is the title that got me to finally get a PS3, even before I got an HDTV (not the order I would recommend, btw). Graphics, voice acting, music - all top notch. Plus, I think the game is undersold as simply a good crime story. Niko is one of my favorite characters of all time. For all the hooplah about driving drunk and stabbing hookers, GTA IV is just damn good design, and was a lot of fun to play even on standard definition.


sterno said...

I have to say I'm really disappointed with Sony's efforts. I mean, don't get me wrong, I think the PS3 is really a solid piece of hardware and I've enjoyed playing a lot of games on it. But the lagging popularity of the platform means that I get less exclusive titles. Granted, I'm not going to run out of games to play anytime soon, but it does make me question my original decision to an extent.

It seems that Sony's gamble was that they could make a high end system and that people would pick the superior product. Part of this gamble failed because the economy has been crappy. However, a bigger part of the problem is that they were out a year later than the 360. So what happened was that the 360's performance became the benchmark for cross-platform games. Sure, the PS3 has more horsepower, but unless you're developing exclusively for it, you can't really take advantage of it. So what we end up with are a handful of really pretty exclusives, and then a ton of cross-platform games that don't really make use of the system's power. Had the PS3 come out a year ahead of XBOX or even at the same time, then the price point would have been less of a negative and there would have been greater incentive to target games to the platform.

It seems, once again, that we have a technically superior product being damaged by an inferior business execution. Microsoft leveraged their solid development tools and a year lead time to great advantage. Sony, got too enamored with pushing the envelope for it's own sake, and ended up making a really nice game system that's just not all that popular.

What I'm curious to see is what happens with the next generation of consoles. I mean there's really not a lot of new features that need to come to consoles. It'd just be upping the performance a bit, and I feel like it would be only a marginal improvement anyhow. Add to that the fact that the global economy is having a major shit storm right now, and I'm guessing we don't see anything new anytime soon.

So my expectation is we'll see Microsoft and Sony try to do more with what they've got. Sony's home concept is illustrative of that, even if it seems pointless. However, having said that, Sony could do some interesting stuff with it. For example, what if you had Rock Band on PS3 with home support. That is, why couldn't you have people doing karaoke or holding concerts in home? That I can see having value. I hope that's their thinking because buying fake furniture for my fake apartment really doesn't enamor me when I've got a real apartment that needs real furniture :)

Josh said...

In some ways, Sony played up on Microsoft's gamble: which was next gen, high definition gaming. Except, they upped the stakes by likewise gambling on their own format to deliver the goods.

The Wii is kicking the crap out of both of them because they didn't play the same game, they went for easy profitability, low cost. The wiimote sold it for them, and the recession will likely keep them going. Both MS and Sony are behind the eightball of HD adopion, and Sony is doubly behind Blu-Ray adoption.

Even with Blu-Ray having "won", the question being posed to consumer on the format is still up in the air. Especially since most people don't want to spend the cash on an HDTV where 1080P really matters anyway.

To your point, Sony offers no silver bullet response. They don't say, "well yeah, but we have XYZ game exclusively". What they have exclusively runs from the entertaining (Uncharted), to interesting (Pain) to the completely useless (Home). Microsoft has better development deals and bonus items like Netflix to make up the difference.

Sony needs to have a wild card up its sleeve to pull out from third place, and that card isn't Blu-Ray or Home.

Josh said...

You know, I look at this off C|Net and think - it really comes down to price, price, price.

The PS3 is like a Mac. It's a good deal for the price point, but people aren't jumping to pay extra to get either a next gen TV or console.