Critical depth

Videogames: 2007 in review
December 17, 2007 1:22:00 PM

PORTAL:Instantly classic

We may look back upon 2007 as the year games started to grow up. For many of the best releases, an “M” rating didn’t just denote blood and guts — it meant thought-provoking narratives, complex themes, and compelling relationships between virtual characters. In as good a year for console games as any in recent memory, one title dove deeper than the rest.

1. BioShock | 2K Games
BioShock (Xbox, PC) hit the sweet spot on every level. The team at 2K Boston rendered an unprecedented sub-aquatic setting called Rapture, a crumbling art-deco dystopia that was as imposing as it was stunning. Standard first-person shooting action was infused with just the right degree of role playing, ensuring almost infinite gameplay variety without sacrificing the adrenaline rush of real-time combat. But it was the story that made BioShock special — a dark, sorrowful meditation on the conflict between the choices we make and those that are made for us. In the now infamous plot twist, BioShock’s true genius became apparent. You thought you were playing the game? It turns out the game was playing you.

2.  Portal | Valve
Portal (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC) sneaks up on you like a lion in the tall grass. Included in The Orange Box alongside the high-profile sequels Half-Life 2 Episode Two and Team Fortress 2, it seemed destined to be relegated to a footnote, but a funny thing happened on the way to the dustbin of history: the gimmicky project begun by a group of college kids hoping to get noticed developed into a head-spinning puzzle game with razor-sharp writing and an instantly classic antagonist. GLaDOS, the rogue Artificial Intelligence who monitors your escape from a testing facility with increasing concern, was equal parts menace and hilarity. Her closing-credits rendition of the game’s themesong, “Still Alive,” belongs in a museum.

3.  Rock Band | MTV Games
After the massive success of the first two Guitar Hero games, there was only one logical next step — and it sure as hell wasn’t “boss battles” against the Devil. Guitar Hero III (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation) may have snapped a few strings, but Rock Band brought guitar gameplay into perfect harmony with its new features, singing and drumming. Developer Harmonix jettisoned the more cartoonish aspects of Guitar Hero (even star power is reincarnated as the more mundane “overdrive”) and put the focus where it should be: on the group of people playing the game. At least, as long as you can stop fighting over who gets to play the drums next.

4. The Darkness | 2K Games
The Darkness
(Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) defies any expectations you may have upon hearing its premise. A game about a demonically possessed Mafia hitman? Sounds like just another high-concept, low-execution shooter destined for the discount bin. Instead, it was a romantic tragedy cleverly couched inside a tale of gothic horror — and that description wouldn’t have played as well in the key demographics. The Darkness eschewed convention by offering a personal central conflict instead of a bombastic end-of-the-world scenario. Nuanced writing and skillful cutscenes gave depth and import to the actions of the protagonist, Jackie Estacado. And then there was the sinister presence of the Darkness itself, a guttural fiend who provided a blunt but effective metaphor for the rage in Jackie’s soul.

5. Crackdown | Microsoft Game Studios
The year saw an awful lot of weighty, important games that emphasized player choice and moral ambiguity. And then there was Crackdown (Xbox 360), a gleeful action game that took no prisoners. You played as a genetically enhanced cop fighting the good fight in a city where criminals rule the streets and due process is for wimps. Powering up your character to absurd levels was part of the enjoyment — by the end, you’re hurdling city blocks — and no other 3-D game has ever captured so accurately the spirit of classic sidescrolling run-and-gun games. Crackdown was jacked up and dumb, the moral and intellectual equivalent of pro wrestling, but it was also the most purely fun game of the year.

6.  God of War 2 | Sony Computer Entertainment
Has any video-game hero ever been quite as angry as Kratos, the Spartan lead of God of War? When the first game ended, he had slain Ares and assumed the god of war’s throne. But you know how some people are: no matter how much they have, they’re never happy. For Kratos, that meant another trek through Greek history, dispatching mythical figures like Icarus and Theseus with a fury that seemed to rend the earth itself. Games don’t often come as polished or as tightly constructed as God of War 2. It provided a fitting farewell for the PlayStation 2.

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