Thursday, January 18, 2007

Favorite Games of 2006: Consoles

About this game of the year thing.

I'm doing it a little differently this year, because I don't think anyone really plays everything to the level of depth necessary to objectively name a true game of the year. Particularly me, because I finish very few games. Usually, I consider that the responsibility of the game, but it still means there's so much that I don't see.

So this year, I'm going to list my favorite games--not necessarily the ones that would be considered "best", but the ones I enjoyed the most.

This is also a change driven by Company of Heroes. COH is a phenomenal RTS game. It's beautifully designed, it has some of the best, clearest tutorials I've ever seen, and it's fantastic looking as well.

And I don't want to play it.

I had it on my desk for six weeks before I installed it, I played several missions, and now I've stopped. Not because of the game--which is brilliant--but because of the subject matter. WWII is beyond exhaustion as subject matter for games, and as good as Company of Heroes is, I have zero interest.

Company of Heroes would belong in anyone's top five PC games of 2006--it might well be Game of the Year--but in my list of favorite games, it won't be there.

I'm also doing one other thing different this year: I'm not looking back at what I've written previously. If I can't remember the damn game without looking through the archives, then it can't have made that much of an impression.

Today I'll be writing about my favorite console games of 2006. Tomorrow, I'll cover PC games.

Favorite Console Games of 2006

Special Judges Award For a Handheld Game: MLB 06: The Show (PSP)

The PS2 version, for my money, wasn't nearly as good, but the PSP version of The Show was, hands down, the best baseball game I've ever played. Far better than High Heat (even the heavily modded versions), The Show was that rare sports game that had it all: game balance, excellent A.I., beautiful graphics, and absolutely outstanding presentation. It also had the most interesting career mode I've ever played in a mainstream sports game.

Anyone who works at EA making sports games should be required to sit down and play this game for at least twenty hours. Everyone at Visual Concepts should at well. This is how you design and develop a sports game.

Third Place: Wii Sports (Nintendo Wii)

As I wrote last week, Nintendo has realigned how we play with a console to be closer to what all of us consider play in general. It's a brilliant idea, and it's executed flawlessly in Wii Sports. Eli 5.5 and I have played it almost every day since the system launched, and it's still fun. More importantly, it's fun for everyone, including all those people who don't "understand" video games. Well, they understand this one.

There's no question in my mind that this is the most important game of the year. It's probably one of the most important games ever made.

Second Place: Dead Rising (Xbox 360)

You're a professional photographer, dropped off on the roof of a mall via helicopter to investigate--something.

"Something" turned out to be a massive outbreak of zombies, and Dead Rising turned out to be a remarkable game. From the very first moment, when you're onboard the helicopter, seeing chaos in the streets as you fly through the city, Dead Rising had an unerring sense of style.

And it had excellent design. Instead of just slaughtering zombies for experience points, you also took photographs of them. Photography advanced you through the early levels far faster than body count, and the added dimension gave the game much more depth than anyone expected.

You also had to rescue some of the human survivors who were trapped in the mall. Again, an unexpected dimension, and a welcome one. The rescues added more tension, because instead of just protecting yourself, you had to protect people who were disoriented and confused (and sometimes, annoying).

It was also funny. Dead Rising embraced B-movie cliches and reveled in their campiness. The gore was comical, the in-jokes were everywhere, and it was just fun to be in a mall, surrounded by thousands of zombies.

And surrounded you were. Thanks to a next-gen console, literally hundreds of zombies could be on-screen at the same time. It was awe-inspiring, and the mall was rendered in spectacular detail as well.

The only complaint anyone really had about this game was the save system. Ironically, the save system, in the end, made the game. When you died, you had the choice of retaining all the experience points you'd gained since the last save--and starting the game over--or losing those experience points and going back to your last save. Since you could only save in certain locations (bathrooms, or in the security office), this wasn't a trivial decision, and most people started the game several times--but each time, with all the experience they'd gained from their previous plays.

The reason the save system made the game was that it made people experiment. There were hundreds of interesting things to do in Dead Rising, and starting over gave you the chance to do more of them. The game was like an onion, and starting over several times let you peel away the layers. The save system sounded ridiculous, on the face of it, but in the end, it worked as well as everything else in the game, which was very well, indeed.

Dead Rising also had a story, and an interesting one. B-movie quality, to be sure, but that was the point, really: this was a B-movie, and you were getting to play it. There were multiple endings to this movie, though, and at least one of them, in particular, was absolutely epic--one of the finest endings I've ever seen in a game.

This is also one of those games that sticks in your memory. Months after playing, I can still immediately remember dozens of memorable moments. It's just a great, great game.

First Place: Guitar Hero II (PS2)

Last year, I wrote that the original Guitar Hero was "The Game of the Ever." That's still true with the sequel, and it's my favorite console game of the year.

The Guitar Hero series has done something to me that I didn't think was possible: it's made me (to borrow the term from Tycho) a completionist. I never play games that way--ever--but Guitar Hero makes me want to pass every song, on every level, then go back and play them again, just to get a better rating.

The song selection isn't as good as the original game, but the mechanics are far superior. Hammer-ons and pull-offs have more relaxed timing, which makes them far more useful, and more importantly, they are totally fun. It's also allowed the songs to become faster and more complex at the higher difficulty levels. And practice mode is a huge addition--it enables scrubs like me to actually have a chance on Expert level.

Most importantly, though, the feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction that I get from a Guitar Hero game is unparalleled. It's an amazing feeling, far beyond anything I'd normally associate with a game. I've said this before, but it's not a ten.

It's an eleven.

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