Tonight is a good night to celebrate. Ending 2008, what I would call one of the most disappointing years in gaming that I can remember.
It started right off in January. Two of my favorite franchises, Burnout and Devil May Cry, were getting the next-gen treatemnt with Burnout Paradise and Devil May Cry 4. They both garnered a good amount of hype and were looking to start 2008 on the right foot. Burnout Paradise turned out to be a bit too experimental (though I applaud them for trying something new) with the open world concept. Forcing you to rely on your microscopic mini-map and arrow indicators during a high-octane race was a horrible idea; the game used to just be about blazing down a linear path and trashing all that's in your way. In Paradise I was too focused on optimizing my route to the goal to think about actually enjoying the game. Add in annoyances like a lack of a "restart race" button and the lack of the much-loved Crash mode, as well as same-screen multiplayer, and the result was a package that was original and pretty, but just not that great.
Devil May Cry 4 was also a terrible letdown. Coming off from the stellar 3rd installment that got me into the series, DMC4 had definitely had some expectations to fill. What came out was a lackluster and uninspired entry to the series. Simplified mechanics trashed the complex and customizable weapon swapping and combat style systems for a simple grabbing mechanic, where you can grapple enemies from afar and slice them up. The combos in general felt less technical and more button mashing. The simplified controles and downgraded difficulty leads to what I would call "casual-i-fying" the series.
My hope was renewed in the prospect of the extremely hyped Smash Brothers Brawl. Daily updates on its website was a great hype device, but began to slowly make clear a sad truth - there really isn't much new in Brawl. While Melee was a milestone upgrade from 64 (crisp graphics, a ton of new mechanics and moveset expansion, trophy collecting and a roster that over doubled in size), Brawl only offered a few upgrades, none of which were that interesting. The fleshed out adventure mode turned out to be nothing more than some shallow platforming stages and decent boss fights, along with nonsensical cinematics (YOU try crafting a story with 35 characters that can't speak a word, and keeping it somewhat sensical). The only game mechanic changes (other than more subtle ones like weaker gravity) is in the form of final smashes which were only handed out through an item. Instead of creating an overdrive bar that charges when the character hits / gets hit, they leave it to the random spawns / locations of items to determine when someone can get a game-breaking attack. They can be somewhat fun in casual matches but anyone decently competitive turns them off entirely. The only real upgrade was adding in some new characters, but their appeal wore off relatively quickly, even the surprise appearances from non-Nintendo Sonic and Snake. And don't get me started on the absolutely terrible online support.
The next victim was possibly the biggest letdown of 08 to me, which was GTA4. While it was certainly met with critical success, I just didn't see it personally. The graphics were amazing, the city felt alive, the story was well presented and the new aim / cover mechanics worked great most of the time. The problem was that none of those things are really what GTA is about. The reason I used to spend hours on end in the lands of Vice City and the other PS2 entries was the sheer amount of fun things there were to do. There were hospital and firefighting minigames with gameplay rewards if completed, properties I could buy with missions attached to them, jetpacking around, torching people with flamethrwers or beheading them with katanas, finding hidden packages that gave you awesome upgrades with every 10 collected, just to name a few. You can do none of that in GTA4. While they do still have vigilante missions and hidden packages (well, pigeons this time) they have no tangible reward other than some achievement points. The exciting minigames of GTA4 include activities like watching fake television, browsing their fake internet, and playing virtual pool or darts with one of your virtual friends. Sure, taking them out enough give you some perks, but the entire affair felt tedious and repetitive. The weapon selection was as bare bones as possible with nothing interesting or fun to use. The cars have a realistic feel to them which makes extreme maneuvering a much more difficult affair (and less fun) affair. Money was entirely useless past the first 5th of the game since you never lose your weapons (unless you're bad enough to actually get arrested), so there's no real risk in stocking up on expensive weapons anymore, as well as no property to buy. Pestering the cops isn't even that fun anymore; in past games you could play cat and mouse with them for a while before they really took you seriously, but in 4 by the time you're starting to really have fun you'll hit 6 stars and get trampled by army men soon after (don't expect tanks though, since they removed those too). It just felt like GTA plus realism, minus the soul of the franchise. It felt empty, cold, and uninteresting outside of the main plot.
The next big release was Rock Band 2 in the fall. Now here's a hard thing to screw up; the game got rave reviews last year and pretty much perfected plastic band gameplay already. Instead of keeping to that and upgrading some aspects, they managed to change nearly nothing and actually remove some aspects of the original. Namely I speak of the game keeping track of your star ratings in individual songs; the fact that it no longer does was a glaring and absurd oversight in my eyes. As I just said nothing was really added to the game (other than songs, obviously). The world tour mode was the same as last year's mode, with a few gimmicks like managers you can hire and some more clothes for your virtual rock star. The solo tours were completely removed. There's still no way to do band vs band online play, just 1 vs 1. The battle of the bands mode past the first couple of weeks is just a glorified ad to buy more songs so you can play their setlist challenges that you upload to leaderboards that are forgotten about a week later. Promised modes like jukebox mode and a special mode for a person playing vocals and an instrument simultanously never made the cut. Songs with no vocals can't be played unless you exit the game, take out the vocals player, and go back in the game, just to play that song. The instruments were upgraded but most people didn't need more plastic guitars or drums in the first place. A lot of this is nitpicking but I expect a sequel to have something new or interesting. The only saving grace is being able to transfer 55 of the original game's songs into this one. But overall, collosal letdown on the whole.
Guitar Hero: World Tour had a chance to innovate on Rock Band's formula but fell flat on its head. Their take on the RB interface was a jumbled mess and key components like saving other players and unison bonuses were completely absent. Vocals were horribly done with a painfully strict pitch window and nonsensical combo system. The shared star power system is horribly done and leads to people hogging SP and making SP activations only last for a few seconds at a time. The solo / band tour modes are extremely drab and linear "play pre-done setlists to advance" experiences that were not compelling at all. Their biggest chance to step-up from Rock Band, the music creator, was a flop as well. It gives you no creative expression in making the actual chart (notes are pre-deterined based on the sounds used, and SP placement is 100% random), vocals arn't allowed at all, and the guitar / bass / drums are just terrible sounding midi samples. The only songs worth looking into are random mario / zelda / final fantasy songs redone and insane random solos designed for those crazy people that can 5 star Dragonforce songs. No matter what the song, the result was always a bit jarring for the ears.
A few other letdowns rounded out the year. Fable II, like its predecessor, was supremely overhyped by Peter Molyneux and underwhelmed, with game-breaking glitches to top off the mediocre experience. GTA 4's downloadable expansion got delayed until '09. The blockbuster hits for the Wii this holiday season composed of Animal Crossing, which may as well be a port of the DS version with some new furniture and a couple of gimmicks, Mario Kart Wii, which turned out to be nothing new other than the trick system, gimmicky controls and a gimped battle mode, and Wii Fit, which I just have no words for. Nintendo still doesn't care about finding any solution to its storage problem on the Wii. Playstation 3's Home was a floundering mess and, while still in beta, is already widely considered a failure. And Xbox 360's are still Red Ringing (though less so these days).
I mean, 2008 wasn't a complete failure. Brawl and Rock Band 2, while not really innovating much, remained fun as hell to play. The 360 got an interface overhaul that sent it from having the weakest OS this generation, to the best one. Games like LittleBigPlanet and indie gem Braid gave me faith that original titles can still fare well in the giant pool of sequels that we see these days. Perhaps I'm jaded because all the titles that really did well this year were in the genre I despise most - 1st / 3rd person shooters. Resistence 2, Gears 2, Fallout 3 (please don't try to tell me that this game is an RPG, if anything it's a shooter with some light RPG aspects and an overhyped targeting system), Left 4 Dead, and MGS4 just off the top of my head. I really get worried that in a few years I'll be able to just use the [shooter series' name] [number] format for every popular game released.
Here's hoping that 2009 will have a few less shooters, a few more risks, and some truly worthy AAA titles. To all those that read (and write for) TSG, Happy New Years!