In a perfect world, I'd be paid to play video games all day. But since that isn't how the world works, I instead play video games because I like to, and I occasionally write reviews about the games that I feel have the biggest impact on the industry. I've done that this holiday season, but there's always a ton of other games I play each year. Here's some quick thoughts about these other titles.
Note: Obviously, these are not full reviews as I haven't spent enough time with any of these games to render a review per-se. Instead, consider these quick opinions based on limited game play.
Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway
As long-time readers of this site know, I'm a huge fan of World War II-era games, and I count Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty: World at War among my favorite console titles of all time. So I looked forward to Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway with a curious mixture of anticipation and dread: Here was a new entry in a WWII series I had curiously never experienced before. Would it hold up against the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series with which I was so familiar? As it turns out, no, it would not: BIAHH is long on exposition but woefully short on action. And while I know that fans of the series will argue that that's the point, I'm just not interested. WWII generally, and the Market Garden phase of the war particularly, is a rich story-telling environment, but this one just didn't grab me. The game features a weak cover system that seems inspired by Gears of War, and is more focused on hiding and secrecy than action. Which would be fine if it were a good game. Which it's not.
Billed as "survival horror," Dead Space is really just DOOM 3 done right: That is, it's a slow-moving, sci-fi/horror shooter with a decent plot, good graphics, and easily learnable play mechanics. It is not, however, a standout in any way, and Dead Space gets quickly lost in the sea of generic shooters that have dogged the Xbox 360 since its inception. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad game at all. But it's also not a standout, and with games like Gears of War 2, Call of Duty: World at War, and Far Cry 2 to occupy my time, Dead Space just doesn't rate. If you're a fan of DOOM 3 (or the first few Alien movies, for that matter), Dead Space may be just your ticket. Otherwise, just understand that there are better alternatives.
Far Cry 2
If it weren't for the one-two blast of Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty: World at War this past holiday season, I probably would have given this game more time. As it is, it's number one on my to-do list for 2009. Its predecessor, Far Cry, was one of the great all-time PC shooters, and while the Xbox/Xbox 360 variants were lacking in serious ways, it looks like they did the console port right this time around. More to the point, Far Cry 2 has little to do with the first game, beyond expansive levels and gorgeous graphics. This time around, the action takes place in war-torn Africa, and there's no hint of the mutagens, feral powers, or other supposedly core concepts from previous titles. Instead, what we're treated to is a great plot, lush graphics, and great play mechanics. When I ever do finish up all the Expert Challenges in COD:WW, I will be all over this game.
Grand Theft Auto IV
I'm going to go against the conventional wisdom on this one and condemn Grand Theft Auto for being an absolutely horrible game that sacrifices what could have been a great open-ended play environment for pointlessly guttural language and activities. And I'm no prude: I think little of the exploding body parts in games like COD 5, but come on: GTA IV is all about shock value, and I have no idea what the point of that is at from a gaming perspective, sorry. I'm also tired of people defending its recreation of New York City as some form of accomplishment. Sorry, but fully immersive worlds have been done before, and with realism, and the pseudo-NYC of GTA IV, with its repetitive series of denizens (what are there, like 10 different people in the whole city?) just doesn't cut it for me. Look, I can I steal a car and wreck havoc! Woop-de-doo. If you want to see an example of a great game of this kind, check out the underappreciated Crackdown. It's ten times the game that GTAIV is. Or if virtual worlds are your thing, look to Oblivion or Fallout 3. GTA IV is a crock.
Left 4 Dead
This game is causing quite a stir and for good reason: Zombies are just good, old-fashioned fun. But what makes Left 4 Dead special is that this game doesn't just promote teamwork, it actually requires it: If you don't work in concert with your three teammates, you're not getting anywhere. The setup is simple: A group of four people stand, almost alone, against the zombie apocalypse. There's no rhyme or reason given for this thing, we're just expected to understand that a Romero-esque future has arrived. In fact, if the game has an issue, it's that it's TOO simple: Game play across the few single player levels is virtually identical, and when you move to online co-op play, it's just more of the same. If this game had shipped as part of last year's Orange Box, it would have contended with Portal for game of the year. As it is, Left 4 Dead is great, but its uni-dimensional.
STAR WARS Force Unleashed
As a STAR WARS geek, I wanted to love Force Unleashed, and what's not to love about a game in which you play a light saber wielding baddy who happens to be Darth Vader's apprentice? What's most amazing about this game is the plot: I don't want to give it away, but suffice to say that Force Unleashed has the makings of an incredible 7th STAR WARS live action film. So ... Is it a great game? Actually, no, it's not. In fact, it's pretty average. So unless you're a big STAR WARS guy like me, just give it a pass.
Unreal Tournament III
And speaking of games I fully expected to love, Unreal Tournament III is, perhaps, the biggest disappointment of 2008. That's because this game is a combination of two of the greatest franchises in video game shooter history: The PC-based Unreal Tournament series (which, along with Quake III Arena, are probably the best multiplayer shooters of all time) and, graphically, the Gears of War console games. Sure enough, UT3 picks up the frantic pace from the PC UT series, and it certainly picks up the graphical finesse of Gears as well. In fact, it's a lot like Gears at 100 miles per hour. Whether it's due to differences in the console controller scheme or what, I can't say, but UT3 just never rises to the excellence of either franchise. It's just like Force Unleashed, actually: Entirely adequate but nothing more.
As we head into 2009 and the fourth full year of the Xbox 360, I continue to reevaluate how I review and write about Microsoft's console, its games, and its other capabilities. Given the focus of this site, it makes sense for me to look at the Xbox 360 first and foremost as an entertainment device that extends Windows into the living room. That said, I'll continue to review those tier-1 game titles that I consider to have the most effect on the Xbox 360 ecosystem, and of course as a fan of shooters, I'll likely continue to focus on those types of games as well. If Microsoft can simply get over the reliability and noise issues that have plagued the Xbox 360 since its inception, the company will have an undeniably successful device on its hands. For now, of course, the Xbox 360 is deeply flawed, but like the iPhone, also understandably desirable. A big part of that attraction is the games, and many of the titles mentioned above help us to overlook the 360's flaws. Happy holidays.