Monday, December 29, 2008

Goodbye, 2008. Thanks for the sequels.

Up here in the rarified air at Charge Shot!!!, we abstain from such crowd-pleasers as top ten lists and best-of awards. The rankings always seem a bit arbitrary, the decisions a bit too pat to be meaningful – I mean, each reader has already made up his or her mind, so what's the point? It's a shiny foil citation to slap on the game box in vain hope of moving a few hundred thousand more copies before the end of the fiscal year.

How would we know, anyway? We have jobs. Some of us even have lives. We have neither the time nor funds to play every game we'd like to. We could summarize other people's appraisals, but to hell with that. We have the freedom of being narrow-minded, loudmouthed and wrong.

(Well, wrong in an op-ed sense. We here at Charge Shot!!! hold ourselves to high journalistic standards, and carefully fact-check all conjectures against Wikipedia).

For Rob, half of 2008 was spent graduating from college, and most of the second half was spent in an existential torpor, shaking a fist at George Bush, Ben Bernanke, god, et al. In between, I managed to play some of the year's most remarkable games.

I treated myself to Iron Clad's Sins of a Solar Empire when I finished my thesis. I played Relic's Homeworld series, and while my hardware stumbled through the game at 20 frames per second, I was enraptured by the glory and glamor of hulking drednaughts slugging it out against a backdrop of nebulae. Rather than getting wrapped up in the flash of space combat, Sins rewards intelligent gameplay. Large star fleets take time and resources to amass, and because Sins is played out in merciless real time, you need to think several moves ahead, like chess.

Sloppy, hasty gameplay is punished with extinction. I initially played Sins like any other RTS, and was rightfully forced to watch my border colonies go dark, one by one, beneath barrages of nuclear warheads, my flimsy house of cards collapsing with barely a whisper because I overextended my reach, got greedy, and underestimated the game.

After Sins, I spent a summer doing extroverted, social things, like drinking gin and tonics and watching old episodes of House. I did manage to experience last year's World in Conflict, Massive Entertainment's gripping RTS. World in Conflict broke the August languor with a linear, unambiguous storyline, brimming with adrenaline but sufficiently shaded with emotion and depth. It's like this, but better.

Summer ended, mercifully. The days shortened, the air sharpened with the smell of burning leaves, and the AAA titles arrived in earnest. Yes, I bought Spore, and no, I don't want to talk about it. I had night terrors and unexplained, sociopathic aggression for the better part of a month, until my therapist recommended Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2.

Scorching my way across an unnamed African nation was, it turns out, the perfect remedy to my exacerbated buyer's guilt. As I've said before, I find Far Cry 2's triumph in its brevity. It is sleek and cunning, opting for silence instead of Halo-style pomp and melodrama. The game melts into the background, seldom intruding, letting the player experience the story as a series of naturally unfolding events. In its simplicity I sensed the craft and cunning of a good spy thriller, something in the vein of LeCarre. Sure, the between-mission treks could be tedious, but thanks to the Dunia engine, the deserts, rainforests and rivers never grew old.

On a hunch, I borrowed, not bought, Gears of War 2. I was right. The folks at Epic delivered more of the same, and while the "same" was arguably console-defining, I was unmoved by the sequel. The game was at its best when it depicted you as, ahem, a cog as a machine, part of a desperate, last ditch effort against the Locust horde. It was less successful when it stuck you in the guts of a giant worm, or made you march through the game's linear final levels, which looked stolen from The Lord of the Rings. And Dom's moment of crisis? Please. The commercials were more moving.

I'm 10 hours into Fallout 3. It is, in essence, Oblivion with guns. Since when was that a bad thing? Post-apocalyptic DC is devastating to anyone who's spent any time in the city. Yesterday, I emerged onto the rubble-strewn national mall and nearly fell over. It a moment akin to this – despite hours of decapitating super mutants and dismembering nomadic thugs, it was seeing the spectral shadow of the Capitol that drove home the apocalypse. That, and nuking a city.

2009 will present the industry with a moment of reckoning: they'll have to do more with much, much less. Perhaps we'll see more games like Portal or Braid – who knows? Until that dreary, hungover morning of January 1 2009, I look backwards with a glassy eyes, but a firm jaw.

But Spore? Spore can go to hell.