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2007 Video Game Awards of No Particular Merit | by Mike
January 5, 2008 (8:39pm EST)
I'm not a professional gamer or even an amateur one, really. I'm not a game journalist or a regular journalist. I just have this blog and I like to play video games and uh, that's about all my qualifications. That all said, here are some games I enjoyed in the year 2007. It's mostly the good ones, because I didn't play too many bad ones, plus it's a 'best of' list. It's important to note that the 'best of' part is what makes me more specific than just a list of video games.

Also while I am on the subject, 2007 was easily the best year for video games since 1998. While 2007 was not necessarily as innovative as 1998 (which yielded stuff like Half-Life, Starcraft, Thief abd Fallout 2) the high quality was present and I doubt we'll receive a crop this bountiful in the period of a single year for a long time.

Also, since I am a mere mortal and certain games do not appeal to me, this list is obviously not exhaustive. I don't own a PS3 or PSP, and I don't play strategy games or RPGs. I also skipped over racing games and sports games (though my choices for those would be Trackmania United and the Bigs) and I missed some lauded games like Call of Duty 4, Crysis and skate and I still haven't played more than 30 minutes of Metroid Prime 3 (not because it's bad, just because). Since this is my stupid blog and I can say whatever I want I guess none of that really matters, but I just thought I'd point it out.

At any rate, in no particular order, here are my favorites for 2007. Enjoy!

Achievement in Jumping Puzzle Technology
Super Mario Galaxy

Galaxy is the kind of game you knew was going to be pretty cool when videos of it first surfaced at least year's E3. Nintendo, while they do a certain amount of whoring of Mario, generally maintains a certain level of quality when it comes to his mainline (platformer) games. That said, Mario Galaxy pretty much goes beyond everything you might have expected. The game take everything you think about platforming conventions and pretty much flips it on its head, often literally.

Everything about the game is pretty astounding. The music is wonderful, the levels are challenging but not frustrating (unless you try and swim a lot), and the worlds are not only beautiful but also creative and amazingly fun. There are some frustrating parts and a few weird flaws, but it's mostly forgivable and you have a bit of leeway if you don't want to collect all 120 stars since you only need 60 to complete the game. All this means that Mario Galaxy should be a staple in everyone's Wii library and a standard that other 3D platformers should look towards.

Achievement in Pretend Musical Talent
Rock Band

After Red Octane was bought by Activision, Harmonix and they parted ways. Activision now had the rights to the Guitar Hero franchise but Harmonix had, uh, the heart... or something lame. Either way Harmonix went on to create Rock Band which is way better than Guitar Hero 3 (unless you are one of those crazy people). Rock Band takes the same guitar and bass formula but also adds drums and often hilarious vocals. The drums are about as close as you can get to real drums (playing on expert is more or less the same as actually drumming) but even on lower difficulties present a fun challenge for a newcomer.

Rocking out by yourself is of course pretty entertaining (though the guitar parts are arguably all easier than those in Guitar Hero 2 since Rock Band is more focused on multiple players), but the game truly shines if you can find a few friends to play with. There's no exact way to describe the feeling that overcomes you when your fake plastic instrument video game band plays its first gig. Easily the best party game of the year.

Achievement in Being Way More Awesome Than I Could Have Hoped

When Orange Box was announced I really wanted to play Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 and the inclusion of Portal was just a bonus. As with most, I was expecting a fun little quick puzzle game where you get to play with portals and jump around and stuff. The final product is that, plus some more.

Thanks mainly in part to some subtle yet excellent writing, plus a tie to the Half-Life 2 universe, Portal ended up being an amazing surprise. It's the first game in a very long time (perhaps forever) that I played to completion in one sitting. I was compelled to finish it, even when it was 3am on a weekday.

Portal's genius is really twofold. First is the basic mechanics of the game itself. Fire one portal, fire another, leap into one and pop out the other, preserving your momentum and speed but your direction changed to whatever direction the portal is facing. In this way a variety of crafty puzzles can be created. For example putting a portal in a pit below you and another in a wall, followed by you jumping into the pit one will cause you to fly out of the wall portal at the same speed at which you were falling. There's an almost limitless amount of possibilities and combinations which the game itself only scratched the surface of.

And second you have the underlaying story. When it starts it appears you are being guided by a simple (but possibly malfunctioning) loudspeaker voice through some sort of obstacle course. However as time goes on the obstacles get more difficult and it becomes obvious that the voice guiding you may not have your best interests, or even you safety, in mind. Gradually you also begin to realize that something may be amiss with previous experiment participants and then the game shifts from the obstacle course to the behind the scenes real world. The transition is wonderful, as are GLaDOS's (the AI talking to you) interjections and quips.

And then of course it culminates with a final battle and what is no doubt one of the most famous songs to ever grace a video game. Indeed it ended up that Portal alone was worth the price of the Orange Box.

Achievement in Explosion Technology

Take a guy, stick him in an open city, and then give him ridiculous super-human abilities and you have Crackdown. It's a simple formula that works, and works well. When you start the game you are but a puny standard-sized super cop, able to scale most buildings and jump over some cars. However once you level your skills you will be some sort of cross between Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Punisher. You will be able to leap from building to building without effort. You will have an arsenal of rocket launchers, machine guns, rifles and grenades at your disposal. You will pick up cars and throw them into crowds of unsuspecting gang members and also innocent civilians.

Mind you, it's not without its share of flaws. The story is laughable and the ending is so horrible it may invoke a brain aneurysm. Most vehicles handle like a stack of bricks (the Agency vehicles being the obvious exception) and end up being totally useless later in the game since jumping is a lot more fun. Holy crap, though, none of that matters because it's retarded amounts of fun. If you have ever thought the GTA games would be fun if they didn't have any missions then Crackdown is the game you have been waiting for. Your only real mission is to overthrow gang bosses and your ultimate goal is to explode everyone with impunity. A lofty goal worthy of a super cop.

Achievement in Pocket-Based Gaming Technology
Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass

While many games on the Zelda franchise have been lauded for their innovation, many also do little to shake up the franchise. For every Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past there's a Majora's Mask and Minish Cap. Twilight Princess, while very solid, didn't necessarily add anything amazing to the series.

Phantom Hourglass changes that. The game uses the DS's features (stylus, tough screen and dual screens) beautifully while integrating an action/adventure game. The most interesting aspect is the game is entirely stylus controlled. To move Link around you simply tough the stylus to the screen and he will run in that direction (faster or slower based on the distance the stylus is from him). Likewise selecting items from your inventory and all that stuff you'd expect.

One place the stylus comes particularly in handy is on the dungeon/island maps. You can actually use it to jot down notes. For example if three levers need to be pulled in a certain order you can write down the ordering. More innovative stuff includes stuff like triangulating the location of a cave entrance based on connecting three points and where they intersect.

There are also a few more tricky puzzles that take advantage of the DS in sometimes odd ways. Many of these are slightly embarrassing if you happen to be playing in a public area, but I will leave the surprises for you to discover. As far as the actual game goes, it's certainly a Zelda game. Which is to say it's solid and fun and high quality but ultimately a Zelda game, so if you hated the others this one won't really captivate you. Still, it's easily the best DS game of the year and one developers should look to when trying to craft puzzles utilizing the DS's unique features.

Achievement in SO MUCH BLOOOOD
Team Fortress 2

Ten years in the making and TF2 is finally here. If you could go back in time a few years and show people what TF2 looks like they'd probably shit their pants or hit you or something. Thankfully Valve decided to ditch the squad-based war simulation with a focus on realism and switch to a wonderfully cell shaded and much more simplistic team-based multiplayer game with a focus on humor. The results are fantastic.

TF2 has easily the most distinct player classes of any game with such a feature. Valve's aim from the start was to make classes so distinct that you could recognize them from a simple silhouette. Most players can be instantly recognized within less than a second.

On top of that the balance of the game is quite a feat. Each class has strengths and weaknesses and can be used to deal with other classes. Pyros are great with spies, spies great with engineers and so on. The medic class is more or less unique to video games as it encourages players to be helpful. Snipers are regulated to sniping in the strictest sense of the word (and for this I am thankful).

There's actually quite a lot I can talk about. The art direction is amazing, the game's focus on humor and the characters actually having character is well done and even understated at times (I could listen to heavy-isms all day). All that and one of the most entertaining multiplayer experiences I've had in recent years makes TF2 pretty damned awesome.

Achievement in Beating the Shit Out of Everyone
God of War II

The original God of War knew what it was, which was part of what made it fun. It was a button mashing beat-em-up with a few minor platforming elements, but it mostly worried about being a button-masher, and at this it excelled. It was difficult, but not insanely so, and the story that went with it, while nothing amazing, kept you entertained.

God of War II is a case of more of the same, which in this case isn't a bad thing. Kratos returns, losing his god status in a record time reset (forced but necessary), and he's ready to beat up everyone he meets with unabashed brutality. Few games can really be described as 'brutal', and God of War II is one of them. Well, except for the always awesome button press mini games (that awesome was sarcastic in case that's not clear).

There's not much more I can say about the gameplay. If the first one didn't grab you, you'll hate this one as well. That said it's easily one of the best looking, if not the best looking, Playstation 2 games there is. If you enable widescreen and progressive scan you might even forget you're playing a PS2 game. You won't, however, forget you're playing a God of War game since your desire to throw you controller out the window is retained. You can't though, since PS2 controllers are wired, but when God of War 3 comes out on PS3 (I'm guessing) you can finally live out that fantasy.

Achievement in Point and Click Technology
Sam & Max Season One (and episode 201)

Hey, remember Sam & Max back from when LucasArts made some games not based on Star Wars? Well they came back last year and it was pretty damned cool. Telltale Games picked up the franchise license after LucasArts canned Freelance Police in 2004 and ran with it. The voice actors aren't the same and the edges can be a little rough at times but the games have a ton of heart and are a case study in watching a young game company grow and improve. If you compare the very first episode, Culture Shock, which was released a year ago, with the latest output, Ice Station Santa (the first episode of season two), you can see the leaps and bounds this series has made.

It's also worth noting that Telltale Games is the only company to pull off the whole 'episodic gaming' thing. Sam & Max episodes are released roughly once a month for a mere $9 each (or around $5 if you subscribe to the entire season) making them accessible to the average person (helped by the low system requirements) and more akin to a television series than a video game. All this packed with a very welcome return of some characters we never thought we'd see again.

Achievement in Being Awesome and Overlooked, Sort Of
Half-Life 2: Episode 2

Amazingly enough when the year started nobody had any idea Team Fortress 2 would actually be completed and Portal was yet a gleam in the eye of its creators. Episode 2, however, was on everyone's minds after the excellent Episode 1.

A lot of people shun Episode 2 for being more of the same, perhaps brought on by packaging it with Portal, which is pretty much like nothing seen before. However, if you go back and play Half-Life 2 (or to a lesser extent Episode 1) you can see the changes and refinement Valve has put into this new chapter. The episode itself is short, though longer than Episode 1, but packed with enough action that it could easily be extended to a complete game. It also has a variety of things never done in a Half-Life game before. For one it strays from linear corridors for the first time and into open world territory, though admittedly it's still fairly linear, there are still portions (such as the final battle) which add quite a lot to Half-Life's gameplay.

That all aside, the level of polish on the game is astounding. Thanks to community input from Half-Life 2 and Episode 1, Valve has taken everything wrong with those and fixed it, plus added some new things. Oh, and you get a bit more story in this one as well. Half-Life 2's story is of course revealed as subtly as possible throughout the series (a welcome change from the "WATCH THIS" cutscenes most games employ), but here we are presented with more background on the G-Man, connections to Black Mesa and we even see, perhaps, where Gordon is headed in Episode 3 (thanks in part to Portal revealing some more story).

All in all Episode 2 is quite excellent, and certainly excels at what it does. The third and most overlooked portion of the Orange Box; a Half-Life episode. Who would have thought?

Achievement in Being Smarter Than Me

It's not often you get to play a game where you are thrust into an underground city which is ruled by Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism. Expanding on that it's not often you get to play a game that's a critique of not only objectivism, but extremes and what they mean for humanity. On top of all that, Bioshock, on another (unmentioned but obvious) level ends up being a critique of video games in general, particularly the shooter genre.

If you have not played Bioshock you may want to skip this review, because the reasons the game is great require me to do a bit of spoilering. Ready? Okay, good.

Set in the 50's stylized utopia of Rapture, Bioshock puts you into the role of a place crash survivor. The brief opening cutscene details a plane crash followed by your escape from the murky but very much on fire waters of the ocean. Fortunetly and conveniently there is a lighthouse only a few yards from where you crashed. You swim over to it and, given no real choice, step into a bathysphere and descend to Rapture.

The game continues on like this, where you are given a set path in a seemingly open world. You are told what to do throughout the game, even when things don't seem to make sense. Why would I pick up this needle and jam it into my arm? Oh, well the guy in my ear said so.

All the while you are unraveling the plight of Rapture. What caused it to self destruct? Why is it failing? What happened here to cause this death and decay? In spite of the oft-used "hey a recorded message/journal/log" method of conveying information, I actually found the setting to be interesting enough that I wanted to find out what had transpired all those years ago.

I will say that the game's big reveal turned out to be my favorite moment. Granted there being a big reveal seemed a natural choice, and after said reveal the game seems to go on too long for the sake of being a longer game. The final missions are also somewhat cliched and uninspired, which may have been on purpose, but I'm not sure. However that said, when you go back and think about all the choices you were seemingly given but in reality never had a choice in, the game's actual agenda becomes clear. Bioshock is standing up and saying "hey, this is the same crap every other shooter does, look, you actually have no control over anything except for where to shoot!"

Weather or not you agree with that sentiment, or if you think it needs to be remedied is not Bioshock's concern. It doesn't offer a remedy or alternative, and in fact the very mechanics it criticizes are those which is employs throughout. Of course it does have its share of flaws; the enemy AI is fun to fight (mostly due to the multiple ways you can deal with them) but generally uninspired (except for Big Daddies), the story meanders towards the end and a large portion of the general game mechanics are borrowed (but often refined) from System Shock 2, its older cousin (this last point may not be considered a flaw, but it's worth mentioning).

However all that aside, Bioshock actually does end up being, at least to some extent, the "thinking man's game", contrived as though that may sound. Granted it doesn't necessarily end up being due to your choices in combat or how to modify yourself (although those do often require at least a little thought), but the underlaying and multi-layered message beneath it all. Bioshock is a game many will remember for years to come, and with good reason.