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Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 PC Games
Gamasutra's Best Of 2008: Top 5 PC Games Exclusive
December 16, 2008 | By Chris Remo

December 16, 2008 | By Chris Remo
More: Exclusive

[In a year which saw the PC become his main gaming device, Gamasutra's Chris Remo takes a look at 15 of 2008's notable PC releases.]

Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.

Previously, we tallied up 2008's top disappointments, downloadable titles, overlooked games, gameplay mechanics, indie games, and surprises.

Next, we'll cover this year's top five standalone (non-expansion) PC games and ten honorable mentions, highlighting fifteen standout titles from 2008, including both exclusive titles and multiplatform or ported releases. The games picked are the editor's choice, and are chosen from the titles released in North America during 2008's calendar year to date.

This was an encouraging year for gaming's longest-running platform. Despite quite a few online explosions surrounding piracy and digital rights management controversies, the PC continued picking up more multiplatform support from major publishers, and produced a number significant exclusives.

Perhaps most rewardingly for longtime PC gamers, 2008 spawned many games that seemed to build heavily on the PC's heritage of game design built around player freedom, as seen not only in exclusives like Crysis Warhead, Spore, and Sins of a Solar Empire but also multiplatform games like Far Cry 2 and Fallout 3.

And as GameStop and other specialty retailers progressively marginalize PC shelf space, the ongoing growth and substantially increasing relevance of digital distribution platforms like Steam and Impulse has been welcome.

Top 5 PC Games of 2008

5. Crysis Warhead (Crytek)

Sometimes derided as nothing more than tech demos, Crytek's Crysis games indeed demand capable rigs and generate some of the most impressive real-time rendering in the medium -- but they are much more than that simplistic characterization suggests. Few non-simulation shooters have been as uncompromising in their willingness to let the player explore the world at will and carve out a particular tactical approach (with one exception in Far Cry 2, below).

Even Crysis Warhead, which consciously takes a few steps back from last year's sometimes overwhelmingly wide-open Crysis, offers leagues more freedom than the rest of today's on-rails shooter experiences in the vein of the Half-Lifes and Call of Dutys (great games in their own right). What Warhead trims in terms of scale is balanced out by a greater attention to pacing and sensible gameplay variety, as well as level design that seems more tuned to the game's unique (and enjoyable) combat and suit mechanics.

Finally, the "tech demo" detractors do have the right idea in one respect: Crysis Warhead is gorgeous, declining to make a statement with nontraditional rendering techniques and instead allowing the composition of its sprawling natural vistas to speak for itself.

4. Sins of a Solar Empire (Ironclad Games)

One of the year's great success stories was this space strategy title from Vancouver-based Ironclad Games, which put the small developer on the map and scored another hit for its increasingly influential publisher Stardock. Ostensibly a member of the "4X" genre of domination-oriented titles, Sins of a Solar Empire, with its explicit focus on battles and its real-time nature, is more like an RTS with 4X scale.

A game of Sins methodically unfolds, blossoming into an epic galactic conflict where tiny fighters zip around huge capital ships, which sail between massive planets -- all of which is dwarfed by the size of the overall battlefield, which can be easily surveyed thanks to the smooth-zooming scroll wheel mechanism that is becoming increasingly popular among PC strategy games. That feature is as useful a staple of gameplay as it is a showcase for the game's attractive visuals, which smoothly transition from ant's-eye views of individual craft out to map-like surveys of the surroundings.

Paradoxically, despite the constantly frenetic nature of the game, in which there is always something that can demand your attention, it rarely feels unduly overwhelming, avoiding the overly micro-heavy pitfalls of many smaller RTS games.

On a final note: Sins of a Solar Empire also deserves some kind of award for one of the most clever and alluring titles in gaming.

3. Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft Montreal)

Few games of 2008 have been as polarizing on the online forums as Far Cry 2 -- it has been understandably criticized for a repetitive mission structure and sometimes aggravatingly frequently-respawning enemies. But it is also one of the most progressive shooters this year, and for those with whom it hit home, it has been a rare joy.

Ubisoft Montreal took an admirably systemic approach with Far Cry 2 in a genre increasingly defined by scripted experiences. It doesn't ease the player into a difficulty curve so much as it drops the player headfirst into a brutal warzone where scavenged weapons fall apart and everyone is hostile, save the arms dealers looking to make a buck. For those willing to invest themselves into such a world, Far Cry 2 -- with its fire propagation, its recurring malaria, its beautiful open landscapes, its subtly dynamic buddy and mission system, essentially its total dedication to its own rather unusual gameplay premise -- can be immensely rewarding in a much different way to a straight, linear shooter.

Memorable moments abound, both in the ways combat plays out, as well as in the interactions with the environment. There is enormous attention to detail in Far Cry 2's Africa, not so much in terms of discrete content as much as in the way its systems are modeled. Legitimate flaws and all, Far Cry 2 often feels ahead of its time.

2. Left 4 Dead (Valve/Valve South)

There may be no other game released this year that can promise as consistently a thrilling and hilarious multiplayer experience as this. Out of Valve's ongoing attempts to bridge the gap between its highly-tuned single-player titles and the necessarily chaotic nature of multiplayer gaming comes Left 4 Dead, whose AI director and tight four-player cooperative play create a team-based atmosphere that is both coherent and unpredictable, even upon multiple playthroughs of the same campaign.

Hitting the right notes between necessary player-to-player interaction and the independence demanded by a first-person shooter, Left 4 Dead is possibly the most accurate video game representation of the classic cinematic zombie invasion to date, even as its antagonists operate quite differently to their traditionally sluggish filmic counterparts. Much of this is due to the group dynamics that the game fosters, coaxing out emergent archetypes like "that idiot who accidentally makes a noise and alerts the entire horde" or "the sole survivor who somehow staves off wave after wave and makes it to the chopper."

On top of that, the seemingly endless supply of brief character quips continues Valve's recent trend of summoning up surprising depth to characters who exist outside of any substantial defined narrative.

1. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios)

Bethesda's Fallout 3 not only outshone the studio's previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in just about every way, it accomplished the impressive task of satisfying most non-extremist-level fans of Black Isle's venerable Fallout series. Creating a vast world that is a convincing representation of a dismal, post-nuclear wasteland while also being consistently compelling is no mean feat, but here it is.

The sheer amount of content in Fallout 3 is extremely impressive, considering what a consistent level of quality it maintains -- and how much of it a player is likely to completely miss, based on the choices made, the NPCs killed, the routes traveled, and any number of other variables. The main storyline pales in comparison to the larger breadth of experiences to be had throughout, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.

To sweeten the deal for PC gamers, Bethesda has also released the G.E.C.K., an end user editing tool that can author any type of single-player content featured in Fallout 3 -- which will surely extend the title's already-considerable shelf life.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

Civilization IV: Colonization (Firaxis Games): This standalone remake of the 1994 original takes Firaxis' ever-addictive strategic gameplay and focuses in a specific crucial moment in history.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (EA Los Angeles): This satisfying sequel adds an unexpected co-op component to otherwise old-school RTS design and gloriously cheesy FMV.

Dead Space (EA Redwood Shores): This vaguely System Shock 2-esque action game feels more at home on the consoles, but is a tight, engaging experience nonetheless.

Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North): Major technical problems at launch nearly kept this port off the list completely, but for those who get it working it's still one of the year's standout game experiences.

Hinterland (Tilted Mill): This clever, stripped-down mix of action RPG and basic town-building wears its indie production values on its sleeve (sometimes to its detriment), but it drains the hours away very enjoyably.

King's Bounty: The Legend (Katauri Interactive): It was overlooked (decades-old IP didn't help) and undeniably old-school, but that's never been a big problem for tactical RPGs, and this is a good one.

Mass Effect (BioWare/Demiurge Studios): Demiurge Studios took its time to get BioWare's sci-fi RPG onto the PC, but the effort shows with significantly improved interface and more.

Penumbra: Black Plague (Frictional Games): The second entry in the sort-of-episodic series, Black Plague continues to subvert both the adventure and survival horror genres with its fresh approach.

Spore (Maxis): Though it wasn't all it could have been as a game, with extreme inconsistency in its various stages, those interested in game design owe it to themselves to give this absurdly ambitious effort a playthrough.

World of Goo (2D Boy): Brilliantly simple physics-driven gameplay is complemented by endearing, low-key production values -- and it was made by two guys!

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra close to the holidays.]

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Seth Burnette
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Great summation, Chris. The funny thing is that I have been enjoying two of those games on 360 rather than the PC; Fallout 3 and Far Cry 2. My favorite of the two by far has been Fallout 3 but I have given Far Cry 2 a chance (thanks in part to your constant praise of it in blogs and podcasts) and I feel that I have been rewarded for it.

Also, World of Goo is a great pick for those of us looking to get our current-gen Pontifex on.

Haig James Toutikian
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I agree definitely with this list, Fallout 3 has been a joy to play! Sins of a solar Empire came out almost at the beginning and made it in this list - hurrah for them!! :D

Im happy WoW isn't there either ;)

Tom Newman
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I'd like to give an honorable mention to the free to play mmo Requiem:Bloodymare released last February by Gravity. While not as refined as AoC or WAR, it does have great art direction (better than AoC), and uses the Havoc engine for some great physics effects. Also it is the only M-rated horror themed mmo, which makes all aspects of this title very unique when compared to the traditional fantasy/sci-fi worlds.

William Meehan
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I think the WoW expansion should at least be mentioned. There's a reason why they're still on top. Also, Blizzard has included several new and interesting features (such as phasing) that really ad to the user experience.

To a man (or woman), every person I've talked to who has played the expansion has said that it's an impressive amount of new content.

Russell Carroll
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4/5 are shooters, I liked the honorable mention list least there is some diversity :)

Bart Stewart
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Part of me wants to object that any game that was excluded for months from PC gamers should be excluded from this list. Is it helpful to reward a publisher with a "best of" award or honorable mention for a game on a particular platform if that platform wasn't considered worthy of support at the game's launch?

That's not to quibble with the quality of the games listed here. The choices all seem justifiable; the developers of these games deserve recognition. It's more a question of whether there should be some consequences for publishers who didn't value the PC platform enough to launch their game on it.

(I'm not stating this as a flat assertion; it's just something I'm thinking about.)

E Zachary Knight
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I agree. But I would go a step further and exclude any cross platform games.

Chris Remo
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It's a fair comment, and I wrestled quite a bit with that issue. As noted in the mention, GTA4 only just barely made it. Mass Effect, however, I had no qualms with, because the PC port was substantially better than the 360 game in my opinion.


I fully disagree. If games like Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, and Far Cry 2 were some of the best games I played on the PC this year (and they were), it would seem silly to exclude them. The goal was to call attention to good PC games, not to simply promote a purely PC-centric agenda, even if I do have a PC preference.

Jacek Wesolowski
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Personally, while I'm a PC gamer who's not even planning on buying a console (with the exception of NDS, perhaps), I don't believe in any hardware distinctions. This wasn't always so obvious, but currently the only significant difference between so-called "console games" and "PC games" is their target group. Even the interface isn't that much of an issue, technically, because there's no technical reason for a console not to support mouse and keyboard, or for PC not to support wiimote. Consoles have essentially become branded PCs with hardware DRM support.

There's a good reason for making a distinction between games for stationary computers and games for handhelds, because these two groups are used in different manners.

By the way, it's a disappointment to hear that the version of Mass Effect I played is actually an improvement. But maybe that's just me. Bioware style of writing isn't really my cup of tea.

Corwyn Kalenda
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@tom: I'd disagree with Requiem. true, it has very high production values for a free-to-play MMO, but that's really about it. The mature rating doesn't really hold much water by itself in my opinion, and honestly... it isn't a horror game. There's nothing substantially horror-genre about it. There's lots of blood, and some creepy monster designs. But it's still, gameplay-wise, not much more than a blood-soaked, kind of creepy skin over the standard MMO design. Very well-executed, but nothing truly stand-out beyond high quality for a F2P game.


I don't agree at all. I'd agree with excluding games that are just straight ports that don't do anything to conform to the PC platform, but cross-platform of any sort? No. For one thing, this seems to assume that any cross-platform development is console-to-PC, and thee are clearly titles that are entirely the other way around. Left 4 Dead being the notable one on this list. Tossing it out because it released on consoles would be like writing off Valve as uncommitted to the PC as a primary platform, and I think they clearly deserve more credit in the PC gaming sphere than that.

@list: Pretty good list, I think. I'd argue against Fallout 3, myself. It's not a BAD game, and I'm not a raving fallout fanatic, but I just could not get past feeling like it was essentially a(very good) Fallout modification for Oblivion rather than a sequel. I don't dislike the game by any stretch, but I'm not sure I like it as a 3. It's a little thing, but it'd keep it off the list for me.

Miles Aurbeck
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I am glad that World of Goo got an honorable mention. That game is fun and addicting!

Jonathan Pynn
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I own the two non shooters on the list. Both fallout and sins are pretty spectacular. how anyone can play fallout and not feel immersed in a post nuclear wasteland is beyond me. Sins in my opinion in special in it's AI, it punishes you for poor strategy without being unfair about it

Brian Pleshek
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i am really happy to see a successful "indie" making the top 5. I have followed Sins since it was announced because i am a member of Total Gaming Network(Stardock). I am about to purchase it as I have been away from PC games for awhile and look forward to seeing how it all works.

John Ingrams
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Wherever I see a website, however honorable like this one, describe Mass Effect as an RPG, I will call them total idiots! An RPG allows for multiple characters that are different, not just cosmetically, but via stats. Your character should be able to sneak. there should be multiple ways to deal with missions, and stats should include a lot more than what armor and weapons you have! At best, Mass Effect was an adventure game with a tactical third person shooter tagged on. It was NOT however, an RPG by any description of what an RPG should be! The Gold Box series, The Badlur's Gate series, the Ultima series the Elder Scrolls series and many many other games would roll over in their grave at Mass Effect being listed alongside them!