10) The Club
As a commercially successful game, The Club was doomed. A shooter based on replaying the same levels to see if you can improve your score? But consider that it was from a developer known for the Project Gotham Batman-less racing games (a game based on driving the same route to see if you can improve your time?). And consider it's also the developer of the maddeningly addictive score-based compulsion of Geometry Wars (it's all in the multiplier, baby!). Now it clicks. And by "clicks", I mean it slides into place with the decisive ka-thunk of chambering a new shell in a shotgun. Bizarre Creations has taken what they know and managed to create something I haven't seen in a very long time: a shooter that's unlike any other shooter I've ever played.
9) Sacred 2
Probably the most perfect embodiment of the mindless joy of a good action RPG. It's all about the loot and the leveling. The wild battles along the way and the lovely graphics are fine, too. But it's all about the loot and the leveling. Mostly the leveling. 200 levels of leveling, every one of them a lovely dilemma for how to spend your skill points. Still, the loot is pretty nice. It wasn't a good year for action RPGs. Space Siege and Too Human, both showed up by the no-budget indie Depths of Peril? Then Sacred 2 came out and showed us how it's done.
Multiwinia is one of the year's most subversive real time strategy games (the more subversive one is later in the list). It's also the most visually stunning, but not for the reason that real time strategy games are usually visually stunning (see Red Alert 3 for the worst case example of that). As they did with Defcon, developer Introversion demonstrates game design at its most economical, with muscular gameplay, perfect pacing, and ice-cool haunting production design.
7) Midnight Club Los Angeles
It's not a good year for videogaming without an almost perfect racing game lighting up the room. Midnight Club Los Angeles is this year's belle of the ball, with its crowded and evocative Los Angeles-a-like serving as a shrewdly crafted rumpus room for the same great driving physics that graced Grand Theft Auto IV, this time with better AI in the other cars. No one does traffic like Rockstar, bless their city-building hearts. But this next-gen Midnight Club will really ruin other racing game for you once you see how well it plays by actually looking at the world instead of a minimap. Not since Forza's color-coded gravity indicator has a driving game so successfully put you in the driver's seat instead of behind a TV screen.
No game this year that had me grinning as consistently as I grin when playing Patapon. I love these little guys, and in return, they love me. They dance and sing for me. They talk to me. As I drum them their rhythm, which is really all the gameplay there is here, their little eyes roll around. They jump and sway. They charge forward. The colorful sky fills with their arrows. I feel terrible as they're stamped into the ground or stabbed by evil patapons. I consider which one gets which hat and which sword. I dole out horses carefully. Did I mention that I love these little guys? The simple fact about Patapon is that it makes me happy. Not since Katamari Damacy has a game been so purely and simply joyous.
Okay, I'm going to get wonky here. EndWar is not your normal real time strategy game, and not just because it finally cracks the code for how to play an RTS on a console system (The key? Voice commands!). EndWar is a gamble. In fact, I think it misreads the appeal of the genre. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if this turned out to be a commercial fiasco for Ubisoft. That's what you get when you cannily rework how real time strategy games play. EndWar is about moving pieces on a board and psyching out your opponent. It's about knowing when to push and when to give. It's about carefully upgrading your units over the course of a perhaps too dynamic campaign. This is one of the most subversive game designs of the year for how it takes the fussy action movie motif of a typical RTS and recasts it as an elegant European board game. If Reiner Knizia made RTSs, this is the one he'd make. See, I told you I was going to get wonky.
4) Fallout 3
I didn't do this intentionally, but once I'd arranged my list I realized that my top four games of 2008 are all powerfully imagined and skillfully created open worlds, with rock-solid infrastructures of good gameplay and an unwavering emphasis on freedom. Here are almost unprecedented juxtapositions of developer creativity and player freedom (Grand Theft Auto IV would have belonged among this rare company if Rockstar had either written a better story or designed a better game). Fallout 3 is the most contrived of the four, proceeding apace along the usual RPG trappings like dialogue trees, fussy interface muckery, and occasionally clunky world building. But it's an unforgettably bleak and epic experience, brave enough to be barren and gray, but crammed with stories, vignettes, characters, and sights. Oblivion with guns? Oblivion should be so lucky.
3) Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts
Forget Lego [Insert Popular License With Geek Appeal]. This is the best Lego game I've ever played. Never mind that it doesn't have the Lego license. That's Lego's loss. As I explore this colorful world built for exploring, gathering bits and parts along the way, Nuts & Bolts appeals to a unique compulsion that most games can't touch: the desire to engineer stuff. Not just make stuff. Lots of games are doing a great job letting me make stuff. The Boom Blox toy box, the map maker in Far Cry 2, and the video editor in the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV are all wonderfully accessible studios in which I can build something, consider it, and then ask myself, "Um, now what?" But the things I create in Nuts & Bolts, the cars and airplanes and submersible attack ships, have immediate gameplay value in this colorful world. These are the vehicles I use to tackle various challenges: go this fast, jump this high, carry this doo-dad there, run this course, and so on. And I'm even free to break many of these challenges by outbuilding them instead of outplaying them. That's freedom: the ability to foil the developers themselves.
2) Saints Row 2
This is the paragon of open-world city-havoc sandboxes. It's a pitch-perfect example of a game that accomplishes exactly what it intends to accomplish. It's crass and generous and spectacular, stuffed with stuff to do, usually involving the liberal application of chaos. Like the first Saints Row, it out-Grand Theft Autos the best of them: Mercenaries, The Godfather, Scarface, Bully, Grand Theft Auto itself, and even Crackdown. If there is a better realized vision of a city as a massive free-wheeling incendiary playground, I haven't seen it. And the fact that I can play almost every corner of Saints Row 2 cooperatively is almost obscene. Really, Volition? You're going to go that far above the competition? That's just showboating.
1) Far Cry 2
Of all the places I went this year without leaving my house, Far Cry 2's lush African countryside was my favorite, and not just because these are currently the best graphics I've ever seen. Here is a game that breathes without breathing down my neck. It's not afraid to let me roam without making the gameplay equivalent of idle chit-chat. It does a tremendous job of getting out of my way (in this respect, it is the anti-Fallout 3) and letting me just be here. If Terence Malick were to make a videogame, it would be Far Cry 2. And when things happen, they happen dramatically and dynamically. There's a glorious sense of spontaneity in the way the shooting erupts, unfolds, progresses. I almost never feel that these firefights were built by the developers. In fact, I almost never feel that about any of the moments in Far Cry 2. These moments are mine. Some games unfold. Others are revealed. Some are like thrill rides. Others are like playgrounds. But Far Cry 2 is a beautiful place where things simply happen.