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Gamasutra's Best Of 2008

December 31, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 15 Next

Top 5 PC Games

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!

You said:

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."

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Sjors Jansen
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@Tom Newman: As far as I know Activision was founded because some developers specifically wanted more money and credit, not more creative freedom. Taking a glance at their list of published and developed games I'd rule out creative freedom as one of their high goals as well.

My sources are:

* once upon atari episode 2 (

* wikipedia (

* ign (

If you've got any evidence to back up their goal of creative freedom, please let me know cause I really want to believe that statement. As far as I'm concerned Activision is worse than what EA used to be and I really hope Blizzard's not already been affected (
friendly/ &&

If you can't then talking about this fictional past will only make the current situation look worse.

Here's to pitfall and desert strike...

Mike Ante
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In my opinion Metal Gear Solid 4 would have deserved to be in the Top 10 Games list. It's a masterpiece in every direction games can offer, from technological brilliance and artistic style to cinematic storytelling and delivering a powerful message. Just more than a big blockbuster like GTA4!

Tom Newman
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Not to get into an off-topic discussion, but I have to admit a personal bias. My first Activision game was Skiing on the 2600, and as a little kid I knew that Activision games were going to be fun. I won my 7th grade science fair using Activision's Game Maker for the Commedore64, and one of my most memorable gaming moments was beating the original Ghostbusters also for the C64. Jumping into the modern era, one of my favorite PC games of the 90's was Interstate76, and Activision has taken many chances on new titles that ended up being franchises, like the first Tony Hawk on PS1 - no one would have predicted that would turn into the cash-cow that it did. My opinion (and that's all it is) is based only on personal experience, not a wikipedia article.

Anthony Charles
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MGS4 is very appealing to the senses, but the story is maddeningly bad. i know any video game that makes an attempt at serious subject matter is automatically labelled as having "good story", but MGS 4 story is so mind numbingly skull thumpingly bad the game would have been better with 1/10 as much dialogue. Video games should be held to the same standard as other mediums and if this script was in a hollywood movie it would be the joke of the century. Its like the big taboo of video games to talk about the stupidity of mgs4's story.

the whole ending at the grave for about 4 hours of jumping from unrelated topic to unrelated topic in a meaningless and futile attempt to tie up a million loose ends. by the time the credits finally rolled i was bald from pulling my hair out.

one and two had very good stories, particularly two, but guns of the patriots had a story written by a 15 year old boy with ADHD.

Raphael van Lierop
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Regarding Bart Stewart's comment, quoted in the article above:

>>>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?"

Bart may not realize that there is a growing trend of releasing the PC SKU of games months after the console SKUs. This has nothing to do with disrespecting the PC as a platform. Rather, it has to do with combating piracy.

By releasing the PC SKU well after the console versions have had a chance to sell through their peak period (1-3 months post-launch), publishers avoid having pirated PC copies cannibalize sales of the console SKUs. Also, anyone who *really* wants to get their hands on a particular title might be willing to purchase the console version rather than wait a few months for the PC one.

It's not a perfect solution, but it makes a fair bit of sense. After all, nobody benefits from PC piracy except the pirates and those who steal games, and our livelihood by doing so.

Kevin OBrien
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I agree with the dismay at a lack of a solid critical vocabulary for game criticism, and on the need to move away from the product review model when discussing games and game design.

When we critically consider other forms of entertainment - for instance, literature, movies, and theater - we can focus on both the phenomenal experience of the thing, and on the formal quality of the thing being reviewed. It isn't a perfect approach, but it gets at the heart of the matter, which seems to be twofold: "is this thing well put together", and "will I be moved by this thing in some fashion?" It doesn't take a vast and complex understanding of the field to speak to those points, either - we all know that a review citing poor special effects and horribly mixed audio (arguably formal issues) suggests that even an exciting science fiction story (the experiential side of things) will come across poorly on film.

The interesting question, I think, is whether we should we approach games (be they electronic or otherwise) in the same way, and if so, whether the tools that we can borrow from other critics are sufficient?

Amir Sharar
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Just a clarification on the LBP delay Top 10 Contraversy: Muslims don't find it offensive to have Quran quotes in songs, it happens quite often in Muslim hymns.

What makes this a remarkable news item though, was that Sony reacted to a gamer's post on a forum, rather than a complaint by any organization. Muslim organizations didn't complain because it was in fact a hymn, but you saw a gamer stating his opinion, and Sony taking that as a representation of over 1.5 billion people. It seems from my limited research that Sony did little in making an effort to contact organizations like the Muslim Council of Britain...which would have saved them a lot of hassle in delaying the title, reprinting BluRay discs, and in affecting launch sales.

Fireblaze Blaze
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"alarming numbers in the audience still think it's fair to steal en masse." Thats is a false statement, steal is to take something from another person so that that person does not have it anymore, copying is another matter.

Am I to understand that Gamasutra thinks that make of Tris a tetris-like game for the IPhone is a thief? Cause he made an clone of Tetris?

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My list:


2Fallout 3

3Lost Odyssey

4Last Remnant

5Soul Calibur 4

6Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix

7Crisis Core

8Valkyrie Chronicles

9Resistance 2

10Farcry 2

Tony Coles
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I'm surprised that Saints Row 2 hasn't made it into any lists here. For my money, it offered one of the best player-considerate sandbox experiences yet seen. Superb levels of detail and real consideration for what the player will want to do and how they want to do it. Compared to GTA IV, it was a revelation, making Rockstar's folly seem aged and clunky in comparison.

Matt Myers
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My favorite this year would have to be Tales of Vesperia. It may have been business as usual for some folks, but it was my first Tales game and has the best combat system in a JRPG I've ever played. That plus the ~40 hour storyline with characters atypical to the usual JRPG fare makes it the most memorable game for me.

Also an indie game not mentioned anywhere here is Passage. It's a very simple 2d experience that only lasts five minutes. Nevertheless I found that it had a profoundly emotional effect on me and is certainly worth checking out at least once.

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I agree tales is pretty good, but I don't like that the battle system has characters that control themselves. I like to be in control of everything and while you can set the battle rules for them it turns out that it feels like you're barely playing the game and making the decisions. Compare this system to FFXII and I like how FFXII allows you to pause and issue moves for characters each turn so that at times I can let the gambits do the work for trash enemies, but on harder bosses I can micromanage a bit more. The only Tales game I ever played all the way through was Tales of symphonia for the gamecube and I played through it with all the characters dead except the main character because I didn't like the AI controlling my guys.

Chris Remo
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"Fireblaze Blaze,"

How about "obtain illegally" rather than "steal"? Does that work for you? Call it what you like if it makes you satisfied.

Bart Stewart
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Raphael, I appreciate the point you're making. I did/do understand that piracy of PC games is a potential reason for delaying the release of a multiplatform game for the PC SKU.

I'd just ask readers to consider a couple of points.

1. The PC is hardly the only platform on which piracy occurs -- Gamasutra itself recently published an article on the massive, almost casual piracy of games for handheld devices in Asia. Singling out the PC for a delayed release may not be justifiable on piracy grounds alone.

2. The question I raised -- regarding the decision to reward publishers (with a mention in a "best of platform" category) despite excluding the gamers who prefer that platform by not initially launching the game on that platform -- I think stands on its own regardless of the reason for not launching on a particular platform. As I said in my original comments, it's not something I'm losing sleep over, but I do wonder whether it's a good principle generally for anyone who publishes widely-read judgements on games. That said, Chris's response satisfied me that some thought went into the decision to do so, so I have no serious complaints. As I said then, I thought the games that made it to Gamasutra's "best PC games" list were generally excellent... once they came out for the PC. :)