Disclaimer: I haven’t played Uncharted 2 or Assassin’s Creed 2 yet, which is like putting out Best Picture nominations without having seen Saw XVII. Right. Forward.
Coming in at the buzzer:
Dragon Age: Origins
So here’s the thing about Dragon Age (I’ll leave off the subtitle). I really just chalked it up to “Another Bioware RPG” and all the baggage and RPG-trope bullshit that comes with it. Now, smash cut fifty hours of gameplay in the future to the third act. Suddenly, the depth of the characters starts to be realized. Suddenly, it seems I am making decisions that don’t shoehorn back to the predetermined story path.
Generally decision nodes in RPG stories do something like this:
And most of the time, in Dragon Age, this is still the case. But when you get to the third act, you get to a number of decision points (sorry for being vague, but it is deliberate to avoid spoiling for everyone) that do not merge and thus have differing overarching effects on the world to follow. The amount of cutscenes and additional dialogue Bioware had to create for these eventualities seems immense and it is likely why the bulk of this is concentrated at the end of the game.
I actually loaded earlier saves and played through these points to see how differently things could play out. It was quite surprising. I got to certain decision nodes where I sat for thirty seconds or so before making a decision, trying to figure out what the consequences would be. It wasn’t a clear dichotomy between being a Dudley Do-Right and a Snidley Whiplash magnified by the fact that the results would affect the remaining portions of the game.
So yes, at its heart, it is a kill-all-the-ugly-things RPG. Click. Click. Click. Use a spell. Drink a potion. So forth. And yes, they seem to crib heavily from earlier titles in the series (Aside: Is Shale not HK-47? While I appreciate a character with dry wit, it seems they are interchangeable. Replace squishing skulls with meatbags.) But, they did so in a world that while Tolkien-inspired, builds a lot of its depth separate from the normal tropes with characters who had some measure of complexity.
The characters in Dragon Age are more interesting than the characters in Avatar. I think that speaks well for our industry going forward.
Holy shit, I’m cheating. This is a card game, like printed on dead trees and stuff. But it is the most compelling card game I’ve picked up since I first picked up Magic: the Gathering in 1995/1996. Dominion hits all the right notes of MTG (creatively forming decks and combos, light probability theory, variety of play) with none of its lows (richest player wins, infinite combos, requirements to memorize vast numbers of cards and mechanics, netdecking).
In Dominion, the group randomly selects ten “kingdom” cards that serve as the universe of possible effects for that game. With 25 different kingdom cards in the base set plus many more in expansions, the permutations allow very few games to play out exactly alike. Players all start out with the exact same deck and use their turns to buy these kingdom cards to expand their deck’s buying power (or hamper their opponents). All in all, it is simple enough that non-gamers “get it” and get into it (and can win!), but complex enough that us nerds go to message boards with spreadsheets and discuss optimal strategies to no consensus.
It is simply put, a masterpiece of game design and people interested in game design would be remiss to not consider its implications simply because it is not in digital form.
Team Fortress 2
I’m just cheating all over the place, aren’t I? This game came out in 2007 and underwhelmed me. While I enjoyed its art style, it just never pulled me in. My ex-roommate convinced me when watching him play early this year that maybe there was something to it. I downloaded it from Steam for the PC (I originally had the Xbox 360 Orange Box version) for $20.
I joined at just the right time. Since then, there have been a number of free (FREE) updates that have significantly upgraded and changed the game’s mechanics. I could list them in detail but it would take far too long. For a game that already has a surprising level of tactical depth, it is quite impressive. There were numerous updates to classes and starting with the Scout update, each provided some new gameplay hook that the game was previously lacking. In the Scout Update, it was now possible to stun even invulnerable players. That little change altered gameplay dynamics significantly. The Spy/Sniper update changed the play dynamics of both classes significantly. There was a Halloween update that ran for only a week that included new achievements and new art. And now there is crafting? Good god. Add to this a handful of fantastic teaser pages and videos. Add TO THAT ridiculous limited time sales that knocked the price of the game down to $2.50.
How does Valve support this from a business perspective? Is it a loss leader? Do they still do volumes of TF2 sales that supports the ongoing development? I have no clue. But you can tell when a game is a labor of love, and TF2 certainly is. It came into its own in 2009 and that’s why it deserves continual recognition. It is an achievement in art, design, writing (for a game that doesn’t have cutscenes!), production and business.
I spent a lot of time this year playing iPhone and Facebook games. I could probably make a case for a number of them to be included. Certainly Lock n Roll at $3 or Canabalt also at $3 provided a great deal of interesting play for not much coin. It might been due to my employment situation or it may be a more widely indulged trend, but I shied away from expensive games this year. The ones I did buy didn’t really provide me that high multiple of value-for-money (Brutal Legend for one), but I suppose they weren’t trying to. The above three games cost me a grand total of $40. I got the Dragon Age from EA folks and I bummed the copy of Dominion. Did I just look at full-priced games as same-old because I couldn’t particularly afford them or was it just a particularly bland year?
2001 – Halo, Ico
2002 – Splinter Cell, Jet Set Radio Future
2003 – Disgaea, Beyond Good and Evil
2004 – Katamari Damacy, Burnout 3: Takedown
2005 – Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, Psychonauts, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Meteos
2006 – Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Dead Rising, Guitar Hero II
2007 – Portal, Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Passage, Bioshock
2008 – The World Ends With You, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Left 4 Dead, Chocolatier 2: Secret Ingredients