Best of 2008 #3: Metal Gear Solid 4

Metal Gear Solid 4

It’s hard to believe that after so much hype, so many trailers, so many years in development, Metal Gear Solid 4 actually came out last summer. It always seemed destined to be one of those epochal games, assuming it could live up to that astronomical hype, and it really did.

I had my doubts that it could come anywhere close to tying up all those loose ends that the last two games in particular had left, and while it had to utilise some insanely long cut-scenes to do it, I put it back on the shelf at the end more satisfied than I had any right to be after finishing a game with such a labyrinthine story. Some didn’t like playing a game that you could spend up to an hour not actually playing, but if you came away from the game with that as a complaint you apparently hadn’t played a Metal Gear game before.

That’s not to say that MGS4 was more of the same, because it deserves credit for being a game that wasn’t afraid to change what had always been a highly successful formula. While so many Japanese developers are struggling to make the jump to the current generation – can we stop calling it ‘next-gen’ yet? – Kojima and his team modernised what had been a bit of a dinosaur in terms of controls and movement in 3D space. Where MGS3 required three hands to perform some of the more complex techniques, this one actually felt like a proper, modern game, able to work just as well as an action game as it was the standard stealth fare.

I did have issues with it, the main one being that aside from the endgame, it peaked with the phenomenal first two acts, but overall the fact that this game even met my expectations was an achievement. That it exceeded them is testament to how big an achievement that was.

1UP No More

1UP Yours

It’s not unusual to see companies disappearing in this current financial climate and my thoughts are with anyone whose Christmas bonus included a P45, so it’s quite strange that the casualty that has disappointed me the most is actually one that may now be more financially secure. The 1UP Network will continue after its purchase from the ailing Ziff-Davis, but Hearst hasn’t bought its soul.

Cheesy as that may sound, the closure of EGM is the end of an era. While it may not resonate quite as much outside the US, I used to import it back in the day and would always look forward to the latest issue, late and with an inflated price – just like UK games at the time, then. I remember features like a guide to imports that became my bible in the late 90s, and EGM’s cover feature was the first thing I ever read about the original Xbox, which blew me away with its tales of custom soundtracks and built-in hard drives. I remember the short-format reviews, which I still infinitely prefer to some bloated four-pager from any of the big websites at the moment. It was unfailingly exciting to get the Christmas issues, which were a good centimetre thick.

Of course, it was equally mind-blowing just how many ads were in it relative to the content, but we mustn’t speak ill of the dead.

What I’ll miss more than anything, though, is the podcasts and video shows. 1UP Yours has been a permanent fixture on my iPod since the epic of E3 2006, seeing me through countless walks home from work, and The 1UP Show and Retronauts have been there for almost as long. Continue reading 1UP No More

Best of 2008 #4: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

For some reason the online forum hive mind has turned against GTA IV since not long after its release. It’s true that it’s smaller than San Andreas; that the missions generally follow an established formula; that Niko’s transformation from never wanting to kill again to… uh… killing again is about as convincing as Anakin Skywalker’s fall to the Dark Side; but I stand by every word of the praise that I heaped upon it back in the first few days of release.

It may be far from perfect, but the fact remains that I had more fun tearing around this next-gen Liberty City than I did almost any other game this year. It’s the first GTA that held my attention long enough to finish the main story – all 40 hours of it by the time the end credits rolled for me – and I had a great time almost the whole way through.

I’m obviously not expecting any revolutionary changes to the gameplay in the upcoming DLC, but there are kinks that can be worked on, such as the pressing need for mid-mission checkpoints to avoid those moments when failing a mission necessitates another drive all the way across town, and the personal relationships that could be cultivated in the game could get annoying after the first few hours, but it doesn’t change the fact that Liberty City was a joy to explore. It proved that GTA doesn’t need the increasingly outlandish missions and plot twists that typified San Andreas’s government conspiracies and cult compounds. It might have been funny, but was flying a VTOL jet over Area 51 69 really in keeping with the rest of the series?

So don’t listen to the haters: GTA IV is and always has been one of the best games of 2008. Time will prove me right on that one.

Best of 2008 #5: Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2

At the risk of making this entry sound negative, even if Gears 2 improved on the original in pretty much every way, I just didn’t like it as much. It looks staggering at times, the vehicle sections were actually far from being atrocious this time, and Horde mode is a work of genius. But the lull in the fourth act and a multiplayer mode that just didn’t do it for me after a year of Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3 means it doesn’t quite hit those heights.

Like I said, though, I didn’t dislike it at all. When it’s on song and you’re playing on the right difficulty the combat in this game is second to none, as visceral and thrilling to play as you could hope for. Enemies are just intelligent enough to keep you on your toes while still being possible to take down with some clever teamwork or led into a trap, and while some of them annoy on higher difficulties, there’s enough variety to them to bring distinct tactics into the mix.

I’m sure that in two years – or maybe early on in the next Xbox’s release cycle – I’ll be wanting another Gears game to sink my teeth into, but I can’t help but hope that Cliff Bleszinski and his team can find enough new content and extend the 360 hardware enough to make the inevitable sequel worthwhile. If not, let’s see what Epic can do with Microsoft’s money and a game where the height of the dialogue is, “They’re sinking cities with a giant worm!”

There I go, sounding all negative again, but constructive criticism is what will make the next one the revelation that the first game was rather than the impressive but safe sequel that this game turned out to be. Make sure to keep Horde mode next time, though. It’s awesome.

Best of 2008 #6: Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

Co-operative multiplayer has been an increasingly common feature in shooters, allowing teams of players to experience the main campaign or even whole new ones as a team and bringing in better moments of both teamwork and, more often than not, betrayal than any scripted NPC could possibly do.

Left 4 Dead is one of the few that makes this the whole point of the game, to the point that it’s barely worth playing if you’re a completely solo player. Assuming you have the requisite network connection, though, I can’t recommend it enough. As both a loving pastiche of zombie movie stereotypes, even down to the deliberately cheesy taglines of each ‘movie’, and a game that few can touch in terms of the threat level presented. You may always have your buddy for comfort, but hearing the wails of a nearby Witch never fails to frighten.

Yes, there’s not a lot of raw content here, as all of the campaigns can be burned through in under ten hours, but it’s as close as you’re ever going to get to that hyperbolic statement that it’s different every time actually being true. The mechanics of how you pass through the level’s challenges never change, but you genuinely won’t know what’s coming next thanks to the genuinely evil AI Director.

It’s happened to me where we’ve had a generally easy passage through the level, and we’re on the home straight. The location of our last stand is in sight, but then we hear the telltale sobs of a Witch and spot her, right in the middle of the only safe route through the oblivious zombies around us. We back up and prepare to sneak past one at a time, until we hear the roar of a Tank approaching us from behind. No healing items, limited weapons, and stuck between a big fucking rock and and a hard place with claws.

The game may hate me, but I can’t help but love it. That’s why this year’s biggest surprise hit comfortably makes the list.

Best of 2008 #7: LittleBigPlanet


While I may not have thought LittleBigPlanet to be the revolution that certain circles had been hyping it as, that’s not to say that it wasn’t a great game and a step towards popularising what still has the potential to almost be a genre in its own right.

I have to say that, at least back when I played it, creating my own levels and playing what was out there was the least appealing part. Unsurprisingly, most of the user-created levels were complete tosh, and when it took me a couple of hours to make what I thought was a fairly basic element to an even passable standard, I decided that a controller just isn’t the interface to use when getting creative.

I’ll go back at some point and see what people have made when given the time to work around the limitations of the tools, but I had a good enough time with the story levels to let this game into my top ten. Knowing that Media Molecule’s levels were created with the same pieces that anyone else can use, it bodes well for the future of LBP because I thought it was one of the best traditional platformers that I’ve played in ages.

Yes, the controls are floaty and can feel imprecise. But as a whole those levels were so creative and made such good use of what the game had going for it – namely a great physics engine and a wonderful handmade visual style – that it was impossible not to love them.