Games of the Year, and some whining

Hot on the heels of (and overlapping slightly with) my kids game gift guide, here’s my Games of the Year roundup (it reads slightly out of order on the Times Web site). And here are some follow-up thoughts:

Unlike last year, no game this year truly excited me. There was nothing as out-of-nowhere cool as Guitar Hero; no action games as polished as God of War and Resident Evil 4; no game with the voice, humor and originality of Psychonauts. I know it was a transition year because of the Wii and PS3’s late-year launches, but still.

Looking over my lists, I have caveats for almost every game. Gears of War is my game of the year because it’s the first to truly show some next-gen graphics, but it’s still basically the same as other shooting games. Guitar Hero II is still crazy fun, but the song list is disappointing (too much metal, not enough rawk anthems) and the guitar controller is still too cheaply made for the price. Elite Beat Agents could have been the most hilariously goofy game of the year, but instead it’s goofily annoying: it’s a music rhythm game, but the gameplay mechanic of keeping the beat isn’t polished. There are circles on the screen with concentric, bigger circles around them. As those outer circles get smaller, you have to tap the inner circle on the beat when the two circles overlap. But it’s hard to tell when the circles are overlapping, unlike in Guitar Hero and DDR where the “notes” or “beats” actually moves across the screen so you can tell when they get to the end.

Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is immersive and huge, but that wasn’t enough for me to stick with the game past the first 12 or so hours. Too many fantasy-movie ripoffs and too much horrible writing. We’re supposed to marvel at the depth of the backstory and history woven into the game, but that means reading excerpts like this: “The Khajiit began the fight in an unusual way by sending tree-cutting teams of Cathay-raht and the fearsome Senche-raht or ‘Battlecats’ into the outskirts of Valenwood’s forests.” Final Fantasy XII also offers a huge adventure (not quite as vast as Elder Scrolls, though), but why do the soldiers and leaders have British accents? Why do they have castles, swords and medieval armor if they also have ships and lasers straight out of Star Wars Episode 1? The game boasts a new “active battle” system, where the fights don’t pause for you to make decisions, but you still inexplicably have to wait after attacking (or using an item or magic) before attacking again. So in the middle of a battle you keep running around in circles waiting for the stupid attack meter to recharge.

I’ve written about my Okami issues (and praise) before; suffice to say it’s a great-looking game that otherwise is far from perfect. And the more I think about it, 15-minute confusingly expository introductions and unskippable dialogue are more than mere annoyances. Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis is a great ping-pong simulation, but for some reason they stuck in a kind of turbo/power bar that turns it into arcade madness and makes it impossible to beat the computer when it fills that power bar. I appreciate Bully for what it is, but the choppily paced gameplay isn’t my cup of tea.

(If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re right. I’m going to write a column soon about the importance of respecting gamers’ time. I keep being surprised to find myself liking first-person shooters more than I thought I did. I think that’s because those games are at least pure, constant action. No long exposition, no cut scenes or loading breaking up the game every 3 minutes.)

Super Mario DS was another big disappointment. It’s fun at first, but after the first couple of worlds it turns out to be more lazy knockoff than clever homage. The power-ups are terrible — turtle shell? come on — and there’s something wrong when the minigames are better than the actual game. I haven’t played Zelda for Wii yet, but I’m secretly wary of even that at this point.

What else. I didn’t put any sports games on the best-of lists other than Table Tennis. For one thing, I don’t really find sports games fun anymore (Wii Sports is a refreshing change of pace, though). For another, I’m on the record as officially protesting the full-price yearly-roster-update sports game. So while I think Winning Eleven 9 is still the best soccer and sports game out there, I can’t put it on the list in good conscience when it’s barely different from Winning Eleven 8. If you don’t mind sequels, Activision’s crop this year — Call of Duty 3, Tony Hawk’s Project 8, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance — is pretty good. And did anyone else notice that game industry giant EA seems to have gone on sabbatical this year? Other than churning out the latest Madden and other EA Sports games, Need for Speed, and a couple of Sims expansion packs, EA has been awfully quiet. Next year will see a couple new console franchises and (hopefully) Will Wright’s Spore, but this was definitely a quiet year.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, anyone want to knock this video game-depression out of me? What are your fave games of the year? What did I overlook? Am I being too gloomy and not appreciating the wealth of games this year?

— November 27, 2006

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