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The 2008 Sleepers

1 Jan 2009  by   Paul Younger
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No, this isn’t an award to honour Nintendo’s ‘core games’ development staff for their work ethic during the latter half of this year – it’s a journey into the videogames that surprised us in some way during 2008. Whether we’re talking about great games that seemingly came out of nowhere, excellence that was cruelly ignored, or releases that turned out nothing like we expected, this year threw up a stream of unpredictability. Here are some of our favourite shockers.

Braid (Xbox 360):

The game that sent more reviewers rushing for their thesauruses than any other in recent memory, all falling over themselves to dust off their long-dead GCSE English essay skills (I recommend using semicolons for extra marks), Braid swiftly established itself as a modern indie gaming classic. Whether the story really is a warning about obsessive love, an allegory of the Manhattan Project, or just simply pretentious waffle, Jonathan Blow’s Live Arcade project won players over with its charming blend of beautiful art styling, classical music and fiendishly brain teasing time puzzles. An original, stunning game.

Saints Row 2 (Xbox 360 / Playstation 3):

Grand Theft Auto IV launched to such an avalanche of gushing reviews and crazy sales figures that you would be forgiven for thinking it would bury any other free-roaming sandbox games that happened to feature sprawling cities, nicking cars and drive-bys. But while GTAIV positioned itself as being more serious and ‘important’ than the others in the series, Volition’s Saints Row 2 upped the fun factor. Mixing crude humour with customisation, comedy physics and seemingly endlessly inventive ways to spend time in the game world, SR2 overcame the technical deficiencies of its second-best game engine to become the darling of many a gamer with its brilliant online co-op mode. In the hands of the rigfunniest game ofluani onlgneeco- the year, and a surprisingly superb alternative to Rockstar’s opus.

Boom Blox (Nintendo Wii):

When we thought about what Steven Spielberg could bring to the videogames industry, we didn’t picture a cutesy puzzle game, but that’s what he came up with in conjunction with Electronic Arts. Even more surprisingly, Boom Blox was hands-down one of the best Wii games of the year, with arguably the most compelling use of the Wii Remote outside of Nintendo’s own output. With activities ranging from flinging baseballs to dismantle a level of blocks within a certain number of throws, to playing the videogaming equivalent of Giant Jenga, EA managed to deliver not only a compelling single player game for all ages, but a comprehensive multiplayer mode that proved itself to be perfect for parties. It may have bombed at retail, but this gem is well worth picking up.

Call of Duty: World At War (Xbox 360 / Playstation 3 / Nintendo Wii):

What’s this? One of the best selling games of the year… a sleeper? Yes indeed. We’ll be honest: we didn’t expect much from this one. Developer Treyarch has been seen as a poor man’s Infinity Ward ever since the buggy, rushed Call of Duty 3, but COD:WAW surprised us with its level of polish and excitement, and particularly its edgy feel. Pulling few punches in its depiction of the Far East and Russian conflicts in World War II, the intense single player campaign impressed, and the online co-op and multiplayer versus modes were equally well realised. Being ordered around by Kiefer Sutherland in full-on Jack Bauer mode was the icing on the cake. Vindication for Treyarch, victory for gamers.

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Korg DS-10 (Nintendo DS):

A full music synthesiser on the DS and a massive time-sink, this piece of DS software encourages more noodling than a Japanese restaurant. Create your own melodic masterpieces with the sequencer functionality, or simply fiddle with the stylus-controlled Kaoss pads to mix music on the fly. More of a tool than a game, Korg DS deserves far more fuss made of it than it has received so far. It may be limited compared to its far more expensive PC brethren, but as a portable music-maker, it is currently unmatched.

Wipeout HD (Playstation 3):

Seemingly perennially delayed, even reprogrammed due to failing a standard epilepsy trigger test, hushed Internet voices declared that Wipeout HD must be in serious trouble. But when the game finally emerged into the light, it quickly revealed itself to be a 1080p visual and aural masterpiece that was just as fresh and relevant as when the original Wipeout showed up in nightclubs back in 2005. Blindingly fast, silky smooth and as addictive as ever, the game is the arguable standout of PSN and, given the developer’s record with additional content for the franchise’s PSP incarnations, the current version is likely to only be the beginning of the story for its PS3 incarnation.

LostWinds (Nintendo Wii):

One for the ‘out of nowhere’ category, LostWinds was only even announced shortly before the launch of Nintendo’s Wii Ware, but quickly established itself as the standard-bearer for the fledgling service. Gestures using the Wii Remote control the wind itself around the game’s main character, affecting jumping, combat and the environment, and this conceit allows for innovative platform-puzzler gameplay that’s only possible on Nintendo’s platform. The beautiful graphics belie the technical deficiencies of the Wii compared to its console rivals, and this short but sweet gaming experience hopefully shows the sign of things to come on Wii Ware.

Dead Space (Xbox 360 / Playstation 3):

Electronic Arts’ welcome new focus on creating fresh IP to release alongside its slate of sequels resulted in the creation of this extremely atmospheric survival-horror-em-up. With a setting that borrowed liberally from the likes of Event Horizon and Aliens, Dead Space made the most of its claustrophobic environment by giving us arguably the best sound design in a videogame ever, incredible graphics and a fantastically immersive HUD. Labelled by many as being Resident Evil 4 in space, the ‘strategic dismemberment’ gory gameplay complemented the technical bells and whistles superbly, making Dead Space one of the slickest games of the year.

Pure (Xbox 360 / Playstation 3):

With the conspicuous (and disappointing) lack of EA’s SSX snowboarding franchise on the HD consoles, the risk-reward racing and tricks-based gameplay of Black Rock Studios’ Pure proved to be a muddy but compelling quad bike equivalent. Amazing levels of verticality in the track design led to moments of genuinely jaw-dropping graphics wizardry and, with its robust career mode and smooth online component, Pure is a franchise-in-waiting that’s just at the beginning of its potential success. One of the most outright fun games of 2008.

Art Style: Cubello (Nintendo Wii):

One day Nintendo will get Vernon Kaye and Leona Lewis to pretend to play its Wii Ware service during ad breaks on X Factor, and then more people will get to hear about games like this. Ostensibly a minimalist ‘match four’ puzzle game, Cubello is actually a work of fiendish genius, demanding a high level of ingenuity and patience. The aim is to ensure that you get rid of all the cubes on each rotating 3D level by matching groups of at least four of the same colour together – making those particular ones disappear – before your supply of shootable cubes runs out. A mixture of addictive strategy and accuracy, Cubello transcends its retro stylings and understated presence on the Wii Ware service to become possibly the best puzzle game of the year.

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