Left 4 Dead | Valve Software
The optimal way to succeed in Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360, PC) is to find teammates you know and trust, so that you all look out for one another, sharing resources and covering your comrades' backs as you battle against thousands of ravenous zombies. But it's more interesting to hop into a game with three strangers and see how the group dynamic reveals itself. Some are leaders, some are followers; some are selfless and some are selfish. The reason each new playthrough feels fresh isn't the capriciousness of the AI Director — it's because, despite your best intentions, in Left 4 Dead you can't help being yourself.
Fallout 3 | Bethesda Softworks
Oh boy, did Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC) have problems. Buggy, bloated, and full of bizarre quirks, it also gave us one of the most compelling and fully realized game worlds ever built. It's simply impossible not to get sidetracked by the endless tempting locations you encounter along your path — some based on real-life landmarks, some part of Fallout lore. The moment you first emerge from Vault 101 and gaze upon the vast wasteland, which includes the burned-out husks of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the horizon, is unforgettable.
No More Heroes | Ubisoft
No More Heroes (Wii) was a punk manifesto in video-game form. It was created by the iconoclastic Suda 51 and his team at Grasshopper Manufacture, and its reckless appropriation of symbols and tropes from games of all genres showed no regard for manners or civility. Potty humor, over-the-top gore, and juvenile sexuality came together to create an irresistible one-of-a-kind. Like its hero, an ambitious hitman named Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes seemed to be in love with the very notion of its own existence.
Grand Theft Auto IV | Rockstar Games
When the hype died down, it was clear that Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) wasn't the Godfather of video games. Rather, it was an expertly conceived and executed open-world game whose lightly fictionalized version of New York City thrummed with life. Rockstar fixed many of the nagging gameplay problems from earlier GTAs, in the process creating some of the most engaging and exciting missions the series has had. There was a pretty good storyline in there too, as the immigrant Niko Bellic found his dream of a new beginning in America crushed under the heel of fate.
Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 | Activision
With games evolving ever more toward user-friendliness, and even hand holding, Geometry Wars 2 (Xbox Live Arcade) made a case for the high-score list. Only one person can hold the top spot, and second place is the first loser. By emphasizing your ranking in each of six game modes, both globally and among your friends, GW2 tapped into that primal spirit of competitiveness and one-upsmanship that has given humankind such glorious pastimes as sports, pranks, and, yes, video games.
Yakuza 2 | Sega
The folks at Sega had so little faith in the sales potential of Yakuza 2 (PlayStation 2), the year's most unfairly ignored game, that they didn't even bother to record an English-language dialogue track for its American release. Who could blame them? The original — itself the most overlooked title of 2006 — sank like a stone in the US market, and hardcore gamers aren't exactly clamoring for new software on a last-gen system. But you're missing out if you pass this one by. Yakuza 2 has an intricate storyline with a massive cast of characters, hours of missions and sidequests, and fight scenes so brutal, they'll make you wince. Maybe the upcoming third installment, on the PlayStation 3, will get this series the attention it deserves.