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5 games that pleasantly surprised me in 2008

Video Games | Thursday, December 18th, 2008 | 8 years, 3 months ago

Age of Conan

I’m not much of an MMO guy. I’ve tried a few others this year with friends (City of Heroes, Tabula Rasa, Dungeon Runners) but quit them all before the first month was up. Grind grind grind. Well, AoC isn’t much different except for a few key things. First off, my wife likes it and was willing to keep playing even after I cancelled. I missed playing with her so I resubscribed. Also, this is one of few games where the M rating actually means Mature – the gritty writing justifying otherwse inane quests is quite deep and motivating, plus the 18+ barrier makes for a much more genteel user base. At 30 years old I was the second youngest member of my guild, after my wife.

It’s still got its problems and Funcom’s stock is tanking so I have low hopes for this game, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Most memorable moment

My guild made me feel welcome and grown up as we slayed fiendish heathens while chatting about work, cooking, children, and grandchildren.

Audiosurf

I’m calling this my game of the year. I bought it, sceptical, for $10, only because it came with the full Orange Box soundtrack in MP3 format. In the end the soundtrack underwhelmed me (Half Life 2’s soundtrack is outstanding in-game but sour out of context, but Portal’s ambient droning is very soothing) but Audiosurf shone like a diamond. This unconventional match-3 puzzler interprets your music collection as a series of racetracks, upon which you speed linearly while collecting glowing blocks, twisting and dipping to the minute changes in each song. This game is as close as I’ve seen to my computer dancing to my music, with me playing accompaniment with the rhythmic, staccato whooshes, like hi-hats, as I collect blocks in time with the beat. The game works exceptionally well with every genre of music I could throw at it.

I must have played this thing 150 hours. Whenever I buy a new album the first thing I do is surf it. I could never have fathomed $10 having so much value.

Most memorable moment

Narcissist that I am, I just can’t stop surfing my own music. I, plus a couple of other DJs, arranged some mixes especially for Audiosurf. I’ve also immensely enjoyed playing my old MOD music.

Also, buying this game for 3 friends. $10 is just the right price for me to spread the love around.

Bully

I stay in tune with PC games news in a big way, so I was practically agog when this game was announced on Steam with no advance fanfare. I’d previously bought Bully for PS2 but could only endure about 1/4 until the low fidelity of my TV took its toll on me. The game is a bit buggy, finicky, and crashy, but it gets the job done. The story amounts to little more than a smattering of urbanized Harry Potter mischief in random dialogue pairings – vignettes of teenage testosterone strewn like confetti – but they were well-written and acted. The level design was no less than what I’ve come to expect from Rockstar. The picture was sharp and the controls were tight, even for the minigames designed for dual analog. I’ll not repeat how awesome the soundtrack is. Good show overall, Rockstar.

I particularly enjoyed having my wife watch me play this game. No matter what she was up to she’d divert her attention whenever she noticed a cut scene beginning.

Most memorable moment

“Who’s the best? Me!! That’s right, ladies!”

Portal

This is a triumph. No, really. I was somewhat jazzed to try this game after watching the trailer a few months prior but I had no intention to even touch it until I’d played through Half Life 2: Episode Two at least once all the way through. Some technical issues dissuaded me from one-shotting Episode Two so I gave Portal a shot, and man did it put a smile on my face. This is the very definition of a polished game in terms of presentation, writing, pacing, control, and creativity. I loved every frustrating, disorienting, confusing minute of this game and I was heartbroken when it ended, but what a payoff! I’m not sure I can think of a game with a better ending. An auspicious first game of a budding design team which Valve had the good sense to hire.

My only problem with this game is the replay value – it’s like trying to act delighted after learning of your own surprise party. Most of the fan-created levels are substandard but Hen Mazolski’s Portal Flash Maps are truly every bit as professional, clever, and even more difficult than the originals – a MUST for any Portal fan.

Most memorable moment

The ending. I avoided all mention of this game and thankfully didn’t learn about the ending until seeing it first-hand.

The Sims 2

I think we’ve got all the expansions now, or perhaps we’re missing one. This culminates in a Pisa-reminiscent tower of boxes whenever I’m foolish enough to uninstall and, soon after, reinstall this game. I type perhaps 200 keystrokes worth of product keys while I install this behemoth. I think I did this 3 times this year. That’s how much I miss this game when I uninstall it. The laughs just keep me coming back for more and more. I’ve played it enough that I’ve stopped caring about my little denizens, freeing me to experiment with more antisocial and counterproductive endeavours during my virtual 9 lives. My little dudes have been unfaithful philanderers, grouchy bookworms, hostile troublemakers, shameless fatsos, sneaky adulterers, suicidal thrillseekers, corpulent gamers, heartless businessmen, and renowned grilled cheese consumers. When things get dull I just hit the fast forward button until it’s time for something fun to happen.

I’m pretty astounded by this game. I heartily anticipated the first Sims but was underwhelmed, but am finding new things to like about its sequel every single time I play. I have no problem putting it down for 3 months, only to pick it up later without having missed a beat. Dare I say, this game is actually worth the $300 or so we’ve spent on the whole kit and kaboodle.

Most memorable moment

“The realm of torment” – one of my wife’s university residences with an inexplicably high mortality rate that began to snowball as deceased students’ ghosts started scaring living residents to death.

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2 Comments

  1. The last death count on that university residence was 90+ ghosts….

    Comment by Bianca — December 18, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  2. It’s pretty incredible how many (admittedly idiotic) autonomous AI characters this old game can control onscreen at one time!

    Comment by brian — December 18, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

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