This has very much been a year of cities for me, so it’s fitting that my numerous explorations of urban streets were bookended by my visits to Liberty City and Paradise City. These two locations have seen enough carnage and destruction to fill a war, but they continue to stand, undisturbed, ready for more. As far as games go, I’ve had more fun in those places than any other virtual environment.
It is one of the emerging threads in videogames: “the city as character.” Cities, from Shadowrun‘s Seattle 2050 to Midgar to Yokosuka, have been settings for a long time, but new technology has allowed them to be fleshed out more than ever. These new cities don’t exist as backdrops with a few main roads and alleyways that you are tunneled through but, rather, as living, breathing places. There are landmarks and neighbourhoods, all are naturally connected to each other, and activity throughout.
Sure, these cities consist of mostly superficial facades and randomly generated cars and pedestrians, which aren’t often noticed when barreling past at a hundred miles per hour, but when each road is different and each view distinct it extends the life of a game. Unnecessary travel times are forgivable when every city block yields new sights and new things to do; and when every side-road contains surprises, exploration is rewarding rather than tedious.
The problem, of course, is that cities of this scope require a massive creative undertaking to realize. These resources are only within reach of a handful of well-off game developers which is why this year’s best game cities were within already established million-selling series: Grand Theft Auto and Burnout. But the future is promising. Advances in procedural generation might make full scale cities possible for even the smallest of developers.
This year is notable for the simple fact that I purchased more downloadable games than retail games. Whether it was on the XBox 360, Playstation 3, the PC, and even the Wii, there was wealth of quality releases throughout the year. With a day left in 2008, I might not even be done: sales on Good Old Games (Fallout 1+2 for $10) and Steam (I’ve already purchased four games this week) are tempting me. A few weeks ago, Impulse‘s sale netted me two new games. After having complained about the dearth of sales by online retailers, I am happily eating my words. I hope more of this continues into 2009.
Flashbang Studios’ Blurst website is the best thing to happen to free, in-browser games this year. Jetpack Brontosaurus and Minotaur China Shop are games worth paying for, offered free of charge. The amazing mix of good production, strong attention to detail, considered game design (especially in Minotaur China Shop,) and complete off-the-wall goofiness is unlike anything else produced this year. And it’s all free.
Now if only they could finish Blurst.
Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2
I got in on this about four months after the fact. By then, my friends’ leaderboards were well entrenched, with the usual suspects taking up the 1,2, and 3 spots. The weeks I spent chipping away at the scores was an ego-crazed adrenaline rush. Claiming number one on Deadline mode was a zen-like experience. I was one with the controller, merged with the pixels on the screen, reacting with a kind of precision I didn’t think possible when I first played this game. That one game was the most gratuitously intense three minutes of gaming this year.
There’s a strong push for more accessible and friendlier games, focusing on experience rather than challenge, and I’m all for that. But it’s not an either/or question. Being accessible does not necessarily mean that you can’t encourage that strong competitive urge. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2, with its tight integration of leaderboards, perfectly channeled that energy. There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition: I challenge anyone to beat my 20 million in deadline.
A few great sites have emerged to claim spots in my feed reader left open after some old standbys went stale (and/or intolerable): Offworld, Fidgit, the renewed Idle Thumbs, and Gamasutra‘s expanded network of weblogs. Future potential: 1UP’s retro gaming blog and Sore Thumbs.