Life imitates art, Hollywood imitates life, video games imitate Hollywood. That’s right, most of this list is made up of sequels. There’s no excuse for the dearth of original titles getting the limelight this year – except that original titles tend not to sell very well, so nobody publishes them or makes them. That’s okay, though, as there’s plenty of quality non-original IPs to go around.
You’ll also notice that almost every game on this list was delayed from 2007. Between Halo 3, Gears of War PC, Unreal Tournament 3, Mass Effect, Assasin’s Creed and a host of other extremely good titles erupting on the market last year, there wasn’t a lot of room for more competition. A lot of these games were delayed by marketing people, and that’s fine – but imagine if they weren’t? It’s looking more and more like 2008 is going to be a slow year, with Sony and Microsoft shooting their annual wad around last Thanksgiving. And they aren’t going to come out of their tryptophan nap until June.
You may also notice that there are ZERO TITLES FOR THE WII ON MY LIST, OMG WTF BRB FBI!? Well, there’s a reason for that. The Wii is the most successful console, but the games people are making for it this year… is, well, it’s kid stuff. They’re G rated films, the other platforms have hard R’s. They’re a dinner of popcorn and a fruit roll up, the other platforms are steak with potatoes and a lovely little side salad. There’s a lot of good coming out for the Wii, but only if you aren’t sick of your Wii. Me, I need a break and play big boy games every once in a while – you know, games that have well rounded stories and mature themes, in addition to being insanely fun, whereas the Wii is just insanely fun.
Anyway. On with the list.
10. Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)
I’ve written before about how this franchise was driven into the ground for its western audience by its creators’ desire to appeal to its eastern audience. It was a great stealth, action, conspiracy driven story that was literally gayed up, made more preachy, and eventually became a joke with its over the top characters and stories. And by "over the top," I mean they make the Roger Moore era Bond films look like historical documentaries. If the people behind XMC made a spy movie, it would come out like Metal Gear Solid 2.
With the addition of two western voices to the dominantly Japanese development team, there may still be a small shred of hope for Metal Gear Solid 4. There are only a few new elements being introduced to the franchise, such as an updated camera system and better gunplay, but those are really important devices to North American, European and Aussie gamers. This is also significant because the last three games in the series played almost exactly the same, with only a few balance tweaks made here and there. In many ways, this will be the first genuinely new Metal Gear Solid since 1998. The only way this game can be screwed up is in terms of its story and characters. Money says that will happen, but I’m thinking positive and giving MGS4 my ten spot.
9. Halo Wars (360)
There are two camps of people who don’t like Halo: People who feel that it is just an average game, and people who don’t like shooters. Well, some of the people in that second camp may finally nun up and join the Covenant with Halo Wars, an elaborate real time strategy game that takes players through some campaigns which were unseen, but vaguely referenced, in the original Halo trilogy.
Rather than every structure simply existing as they do in Command and Conquer and other RTS games, its the little things that will bring Halo Wars to life – such as the ability to zoom in and watch your marines go about their business and training while idle. The game features all of the strategy and elaborate resource management that Starcraft players yearn for, while delivering a highly detailed, yet easily accessible, command experience. Not your average heartless God game, Halo Wars will use the emotional weight involved in sacrificing and losing human lives to motivate players to think before they act, as canonically, humanity was all but annihilated by the end of the third Halo game, with only 100,000 humans left in the galaxy, out of about 30 billion.
As a side note, I have a friend who is really excited about this game. He owns a lot of HaloClix, including the two foot tall Scarab behemoth tank you see firing the giant green laser up there. He’s planning on recreating screen shots from Halo Wars using his miniatures, and starting campaigns off that way with his friends.
8. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (PC and 360)
I’ve kicked my MMO addiction. Six times now. Age of Conan is looking to become number seven. Boasting incredibly violent gameplay, Hyborian Adventures is looking to adhere canonically to Robert E. Howard’s vision of Conan’s world, not John Milius’. The game is set after most of Conan’s adventures, when he is reigning from his throne, and there is a lot of brutality going on in his kingdom. The player character’s first ten levels are played in a single player campaign wherein people can learn the ropes and feel like they’re developing an epic, heroic character.
AoC is a beautiful game, but the attention to graphical detail wasn’t paid so much to lush jungle environments or impressive ripple effects, but rather in realistic maiming and decapitating. Arcs of dark red blood spurt from headless necks, but glug out like a milk carton that had been turned upside down out of radial arteries that suddenly don’t have anything to flow into besides dirt. Sorcery is also available in addition to more traditional blades, and let’s just say that arrows stick into flesh very convincingly, and blunt weapons do what you’d expect them to do to someone’s temple.
7. Mercenaries 2 (360, PS3, possibly PC)
The original Mercenaries is a vastly under appreciated gem of the last generation of games. It was speculative fiction, wherein the Coalition invaded North Korea instead of Iraq. Starring Phil LaMarr (Marvin from Pulp Fiction), Jennifer Hale (a woman whose voice you’ve heard many times, most recently as the female PC in Mass Effect), and Peter Stormare (the guy from the Umpimp ze Auto commercials), Mercenaries was an insanely action packed, open world, third person shooter that allowed players to take the fight to the NorKs on the ground with an AK-47, from the countryside in a hijacked tank, from above in a rocket armed helicopter, or from way the hell far away, with a pair of binoculars and a favor owed to you from someone who can call down an air strike. It was an excellent experience, but a lot of people were turned off from it because of the grey, dreary landscape of the energyless dust bowl that is most of North Korea.
Pandemic has remedied this with Mercenaries 2.
The mercenaries from the first game are back, and they’ve smelled red gold in Venezuela. In addition to the massive bombing strikes that could level entire city blocks in the first game, the mercs have the Promethean gift on their side. A country of vast jungles infested with blood thirsty foreign guerillas with flame throwers and napalm bombs at their disposal?
Obviously, there was a lot of political fallout. In addition to being banned in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has accused the developers of being western propagandists, and threatened to take them to international court for attempting to spark a rebellion against him. He even got his supporters to petition Bono to stop this game from being made. Chavez has also cited this game’s existence as evidence of an impending U.S. led invasion of Venezuela. Environmental groups have also opposed the game’s existence, citing its encouragement to damage the environment as being a dangerous influence on duh chil’ren of ‘mericuh.
I might buy two copies.
6. Soul Calibur 4 (PS3, 360)
Soul Calibur has always been a solid fighting franchise, and the influx of reliable sequels every two years and the advancement of the game’s story in each addition have made it unique among other games of its nature. Taking place in the 18th century, Soul Calibur follows the stories of the world’s best weapon masters as they encounter each other, and duel to mortal peril amongst supernatural forces. Every melee weapon fighting style is represented, from Wolverine style handblades, to nunchuks, bo staffs, samurai swords, western rapiers and many other conventional pieces of weaponry. I’m especially looking forward to this installment because of the addition of a new weapon.
Lightsabers. That’s right, Yoda and Darth Vader will be available as unlockable characters in this installment. The rumor mill says that Yoda will be exclusive to the 360 release and Vader will be exclusive to the PS3 release on the game discs, but each character can also be unlocked through downloadable content on the Playstation network and X-Box Live, probably for a small fee. The rumor mill has also churned that these aren’t the only Star Wars characters that will be popping into Soul Calibur IV, with odds on Luke, young Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Maul, and the Emperor being announced as additions further down the line.
This isn’t the first time that the Soul Calibur series has crossed into another universe. Soul Calibur II included Link (from the Zelda games), Spawn (Yes, that Spawn) and Heihachi (from the Tekken series). A lot of people have been panning the decision to include these Jedi and Sith, but I think it’s going to be a lot fun to see Obi Wan Kenobi face off against a traditional samurai. Maybe getting chopped in half will teach him to stop spinning around so much.
5. Grand Theft Auto 4 (PS3 and 360)
A lot of people are totally sick of this franchise. GTA3 was a controversy magnet that let bad parents and juvenile idiots deflect criticism for their behavior. "How’s I supposed to raise my kid with all this Grand Theft Auto in the Nintendo and Beavis and Butthead on the MTV? Durrrr." What is worse about the franchise is that GTA3, and it’s expansion, Vice City, aren’t very good games and don’t stand up to the test of time, meaning they actually were popular because they were intentionally controversial. GTA: San Andreas, a semi sequel to GTA3, fixed a lot of things that were wrong with the gameplay, most notably it’s camera system and a deeper RPG system, but also embraced and even glorified many negative stereotypes about black culture. It was cartoonishly offensive.
GTA4 seems like it is going in a different direction, with the choice to play a noble street sweeper as well as a ruthless thug. It centers on the mythical Russian mafia in New York City in current day. Both having the story set in a real place and in a current year are departures for the series, which usually takes place in generic amalgams mimicking another city, in an equally generic time setting (mid 80s, early 90s, late 70s). There probably won’t be a departure with regards to the crime and violence that are essential staples of the franchise, but that’s not so bad – having a sprawling crime story worthy of Scorsese will be enough of a breath of fresh life for Grand Theft Auto 4.
4. Fable 2 (360)
Nothing on any platform comes at all close to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Nothing. Not Two Worlds, not the original Fable – nothing. Fable 2 is aiming to do what Fable couldn’t because of the original X-Box’s hardware restrictions. We’re essentially getting a finely polished remake of the first game, which will deliver on promises Peter Molyneux made about it – eight years ago. Luckily, just as Molyneux’s ego outweighed his ambitions back then, those ambitions are still really impressive. Expect a beautiful, deep game set in a fantasy Victorian era with plenty of sandbox gameplay, with relationships that will make you feel like the love of your life and your best friend are Sims.
3. Too Human (360)
Finally, an original IP is on the list! Or, you’d think so, but, sadly no. In many ways, Too Human is the least original IP on this list. Why? It isn’t a sequel to anything, it isn’t a spin off series, it isn’t a Star Wars knock off, so what’s so unoriginal about it?
Too Human is the classic Ragnarok story, adapted into a Sci-Fi setting.
The game focuses on Baldur, who is usually a briefly mentioned outsider in retellings of the story. This will supposedly give the narrative a unique spin, in addition to the cyberpunk elements. Baldur must defeat techno-giants by leveling up and upgrading his skills, and also replacing parts of his body with machine parts. Therein lies the theme of the game – how much of your body can you replace before you’re more machine than man? And how many mechanical advantages are you willing to shunt in preserving your humanity? The developers were previously responsible for Eternal Darkness, which was hands down the best survival horror game of the last generation. That didn’t catapult the company to success… because it came out exclusively for the freakin’ GameCube… But the good news is that there are some really innovative minds and writers working on this piece, and it will surely be art.
2. Tie – Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and Indiana Jones 2008.
I admit it, I changed this to a tie just so I could have Metal Gear Solid 4 in my top ten. But there actually is a lot of connection between these two games to justify the tie. Besides the obvious fact that these are both George Lucas properties, and are both being developed by LucasArts, Indy and the Vader’s apprentice share some exciting new tech that will probably become standard in future games. The Euphoria engine allows for intelligent skeletal models, meaning that you can make a stick figure using these AI protocols, script in appropriate behavior in simple if->then form, and let the models control themselves. This allows for more realistic "acting" on behalf of the model’s body movements. So, people will roll when they fall, or brace themselves, or lash out at anything to hang onto, etc. It’s really exciting stuff, and it’s going to look great. The other awesome new tech coming in both these games is Digital Molecular Matter, or DMM. This allows for incredibly realistic environments that will splinter, dent and react overall realistically to the stresses of combat and other physics based puzzles. Particle board will break like particle board, bamboo will stretch like bamboo, dirt will leave impressions like dirt, and steel will dent like steel. It’s going to look fantastic, and in games with amplified force powers, rocket launchers, ancient traps and other things that make us go "Woah!" in movie theaters, we’re really going to see what it can do.
1. Alan Wake
To the right of David Lynch and to the left of Stephen King, you’ll find Alan Wake. This game was described to me as an elaborate, interactive fever dream – the kind where you feel like you’re living your life, but everything is slightly off. Your wife is not your wife, the switch on the wall doesn’t turn on the lamp you think it will, and being alone is just a lot scarier. This is going to be this year’s definitive psychological horror tale, and that’s why it is my number one.
Its the story of a writer who, after being widowed, drives to a quiet mountain town to see if he can cure his insomnia. His grief and lack of sleep drive him insane, and things go downhill for him from there. As with Max Payne, Remedy’s previous bread winner franchise, there is a lot of word play and poetry. In Max Payne 2, there was a TV show playing in the ambient noise every once in a while which had a title character named "John Mirra," as in, "john mirror," as in the face you see in a bathroom mirror. Alan Wake, with his insomnia, is pretty obvious – "I am awake." The town he flees to is called "Bright Falls," as in, things are going to get a lot darker.
The icing on the cake? There’s a lot of speculation that the game stars Christian Bale. Hard not to see the resemblance.
So, there’s the list. I take no responsibility if one of these turns out to be total crap, a bunch of these games get delayed to 2009, or something gets canceled. Just remember, if you pre-order anything, you’re an idiot.