[I started this entry about a year ago. It had the first four games on the list, and only the write-up for the first two. It’s interesting how my perspectives change over time.]
1) Far Cry 2
This is the first time that I’ve really gotten into an open world, sandbox game. It combines the sense of place and freedom of movement of a GTA with the freedom of gameplay of a Halo. It’s wonderful to a game so reward and encourage both careful planning and deft improvisation, and all in such a beautiful world. While the actual story falls flat, the often subtle storytelling through experience worked brilliantly. And, in spite of the achievement for it popping up, “Goodnight, Sweet Prince” was the most poignant, unexpected game experience I’ve had since Bioshock.
2) Mirror’s Edge
A flawed gem. I spent more time on the time trials than in the main game. The story was god-awful, the levels were often tedious and frustrating to go through, but when it worked…just, wow. The sensation of motion. Running and jumping – what the two buttons on the NES do all the way back in Super Mario – have never felt so real and immediate and substantial until now.
Actually, and this deserves a longer post, Mirror’s Edge and Far Cry 2 may well be the first (only?) two games I’ve ever played where I’ve actually felt like I’m inhabiting a first-person body. Just for that they deserve a ton of credit.
Thought-provoking and beautiful. We all sometimes need a little pretentiousness. The best detail about it is how thoroughly it explores each of the mechanics it introduces.
4) Sins of a Solar Empire
I’ve been watching a lot of Starcraft 2, recently. While it’s fun to watch, I’d hate to actually play it. It’s so fast-paced, and it seems designed specifically so that player-focus is a resource, and how much attention you are capable of giving and splitting to various tasks is a binding constraint. This leads to even a short game feeling absolutely exhausting.
Sins takes almost the exact opposite approach. Between the great AI, the elegant interface, and the relaxed game speed, it never feels like you’re being pulled in too many directions at once. Put simply, it feels like there’s always something going on, but not too much going on. It’s quite a feat to capture the complexity (and the addictive qualities) of Civilization in a real-time game, and yet not have it feel overwhelming.
5) Prince of Persia 2008
Another beautiful, elegant game. I’m playing Enslaved right now, which has similarly fool-proof platforming, and it makes me realize how hard it is to make traversal feel right. The combat still doesn’t work, but it’s abstractly interesting how the design of it parallels that of the platforming. What puts the game over the top and on to this list, though, is the credits, and post-credits sequence. Simple and tragic and lovely.
Dead Space had a great feel, and elegant interface. I can’t include in the main list since it creeped me out so much I quit after four or five chapters.
Gears of War 2‘s campaign was brilliantly paced. It explored its mechanics, and gradually escalated the action in a way not dissimilar to Braid. It especially shined in co-op. Shame that the multi-player never really clicked with me.