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.
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.
Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2
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!
William Meehan: "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 add to the user experience."
Bart Stewart: "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?"
Jonathan Pynn: "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 its AI, it punishes you for poor strategy without being unfair about it."