1. Grand Theft Auto IV
It’s ironic that GTA became a football in the debate over sex and violence in video games, because where it belongs is in the debate over whether video games count as art. No game developers are more radical and more passionate about the storytelling power of their medium than folks at Rockstar North, and GTA IV is the company’s most ambitious work ever. It’s the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European soldier-for-hire fighting his way up the organized crime ladder in an archly satirical version of New Yo— I mean, Liberty City. It’s a grade-A shoot-’em-up that doubles as an interactive novel and triples as a sly critique of American consumer culture.
Of all the game genres to make a comeback this year, who would’ve picked the side-scrolling platformer? At first blush Braid looks like a standard old-school Super Mario Bros.-style game. But there’s a twist: on top of standard game mechanics like running and jumping, Braid adds the ability to manipulate time: if you make a mistake you can wind back the clock and try again. It sounds simple, but as Portal proved last year, a simple mechanic in the hands of a brilliant developer can yield near-infinite entertainment.
The hero of LittleBigPlanet is a tiny person made out of some kind of coarse-textured fabric. His name is Sackboy. Like everything else in his world, he is a toy. He runs and jumps and slides through an endlessly inventive landscape made of cushions and weights and ramps and springs and glowing bubbles, all rendered with a gritty, high-res perfection which finally shows you why that PS3 you bought was so expensive. Nobody shoots at anybody. When you’re done with the levels the game comes with — and that takes a long time — you can build and download more. LittleBigPlanet is not an adrenaline game; it’s a restful, chill-out kind of experience. Let Sackboy do all the work. You have all the fun.
4. Rock Band 2
Hands down the best party game ever made, Rock Band 2 does what the first Rock Band did — simulate the experience of singing and playing drums, guitar or bass in an actual rock band — only better, faster, harder and with more songs to choose from. The key is Rock Band 2′s candy-colored interface, which is so clear and intuitive that it feels like there’s nothing standing between you and the music. Boot up, jack in, and rock out.
5. Gears of War 2
After all that time Marcus Fenix spent in Gears of War sawing Locusts in half the long way, you’d think he would have moved on to some less stressful activity like playing LittleBigPlanet. Actually not. Except for some new multiplayer modes, Gears of War 2 is remarkably similar to the first installment: lots of shooting and duck-and-covering and, yes, sawing, plus the usual hard-boiled gravelly-voiced dialogue. Not that this is in any way a problem. The main difference is that the backgrounds all this action happens in front of are now even more spectacular: ruined churches, soaring caverns, jagged mountains, airships made out of giant bugs. Sera never looked so good — maybe when Marcus is done killing Locusts he can finally retire there.
6. Dead Space
The hero of Dead Space obviously never saw Alien, or he’d know not to answer distress signals from remote mining spaceships. Turns out the ship has been taken over by an evil and really gross alien menace that turns human corpses into horrible deformed zombies. Your job is to figure out what happened and fix it and not die while doing so. Dead Space doesn’t break new ground, it’s just bloody, scary survival horror at its finest — cool weapons, amazing environments, fast action, fantastic zero-G combat, no letup, no mercy.
7. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
Evil Jedi walks into a room. Room is full of anonymous Stormtroopers, Jawas, rancors, etc. Does he (a) shock them to death with Force Lightning, (b) grab them with the Force and throw them against the walls and each other till they die, (c) kill them with a sweet light saber combo, (d) pull a passing TIE fighter out of the sky and smash it into them…I could go on. This game has flaws, but it’s so unbelievably satisfying to cut loose with the Force, Jedi honor be damned, that the flaws don’t really register. This is Star Wars without any Ewokkish sentimentality, and it’s the best thing to happen to the franchise in years.
8. Hunted Forever
The future is a terrible place, but at least it’s pretty stylin’ — it looks like an animated title sequence from a 1960s movie, all angular graphics and silhouettes and primary colors. You’re a tiny running man sprinting, jumping and sliding through a post-apocalyptic landscape, relentlessly pursued by an enormous hovering robot. This is a free Flash game, and it’s on this list both for its own merits and as a representative of all the beautiful, quirky Flash games that came out this year. Flash developers don’t have $20 million budgets on the line when they make a game, which means they can take risks and try anything.
Fun fact: back in the 1970s, before they founded Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak helped create the original game of Breakout for Atari. But Apple has never really shown much fight when it comes to the gaming market. Now it doesn’t have to. With the opening of the App Store and the release of development tools, third-party developers have converted the iPhone and the iPod Touch into handheld gaming devices that will soon be serious competition for the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PSP. The pick of the first litter is Fieldrunners, a fast and furious tower defense game that looks great on those super-bright, super-crisp screens and seamlessly integrates the famous touchscreen as a game controller.
Sims creator Will Wright spent seven years writing, researching and designing this evolutionary epic, which may well be the most ambitious game ever made. Spore follows the history of a single species, designed by you, from a cute little single cell up through sentience, civilization and finally space exploration. The innovation here doesn’t lie in the gameplay, which is merely entertaining, but in the sophistication of the animations that make your creation walk and move and dance, and in the game’s hubristic, near-infinite scope.