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FOR gamers 2006 was all about the introduction of Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii systems; there weren’t many great games released. This year, by contrast, has delivered one fabulous interactive entertainment experience after another. Even without Grand Theft Auto IV, which was delayed until next year, 2007 has witnessed the strongest lineup of new games since the fall of 2004, when Halo 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and World of Warcraft were introduced.
The multiplayer Lord of the Rings Online game.
Even with heavy hitters like Spore, G.T.A. IV and Super Smash Bros. on the horizon for 2008, it will be tough for next year to top the crop of 2007. Here are some of this year’s most important, intriguing and just plain amusing games and developments.
BEST NEWCOMER: BIOSHOCK It is rare for a new game to burst onto the market with little publicity and become an instant sensation. When that does happen, it is usually with a game with a unique play style, like Katamari Damacy in 2004 and the first Guitar Hero in 2005. Otherwise players and the press usually see the best games coming from far away.
Not with BioShock. Take-Two, its publisher, delivered a game in perhaps the most competitive genre of all, the first-person shooter, that was so intelligently designed that it immediately sailed into the ranks of the best shooters of all time. BioShock is propelled by its lush evocation of an undersea dystopia and a story line capped by a piquant twist at the end.
MOST DIFFICULT DELIVERY: THE NEW E3 The game business may be one of the few in which everyday consumers actually care about the industry’s trade shows. That is because the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo has long been a showcase for the best games coming each holiday season. This year the industry radically downsized the event, known as E3, moving it from the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center to a constellation of ritzy beach-side hotels. It was a great idea but a logistical nightmare because the demonstrations were spread out among at least a dozen hotels, bars, restaurants and even an airplane hangar. The solution for next year can be summed up in one word (or is that two?): Las Vegas.
BEST ADAPTATION OF AN ADORED INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: THE LORD OF THE RINGS ONLINE The dramatic and narrative butchery that could have ensued when Turbine set out to make a online role-playing game based on the “Lord of the Rings” books had Tolkien fans stockpiling torches. Not to worry. This game allows players to make their own stories in Middle-earth without trampling on the canonic tale of the One Ring.
BEST UNAMBITIOUS REPRESENTATIONS OF THE STATE OF THE ART: HALO 3 AND SUPER MARIO GALAXY Halo 3 is a polished gem of a science-fiction shooter. But that is all it is. It has suitably spruced-up graphics, and some of its new online features are welcome additions. But it is a refinement of the time-tested Halo formula rather than a daring attempt to provide a new sort of experience. That’s enough to generate hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is not enough to inspire.
Super Mario Galaxy presents similar questions. Galaxy is finely tuned and a worthy member of the Mario pantheon. Almost anyone can have fun playing it. But as with Halo, Galaxy is at some level mostly a reinvention of classic play modes. In Halo that means battling killer aliens. In Mario that means jumping and dodging and collecting stars to free the princess who, as she has been for more than 20 years, is locked away in a cartoon-style castle.
That’s fun as far as it goes. But now that the Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto has gotten the Wii incarnations of his Mario and Zelda series out of the way, perhaps he will turn to creating something genuinely new. (Wii Fit, the fitness system coming to North America next year, could just be it.)
BEST SINGLE-HANDED RESCUE OF A MAJOR GAME SYSTEM: RATCHET & CLANK: TOOLS OF DESTRUCTION Sad to say, many of this year’s big-budget, exclusive games for Sony’s PlayStation 3, including Heavenly Sword and Lair, were mediocre at best. The action-adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune seems strong, but the shining star for the PS3 this year was the new Ratchet & Clank, made by Insomniac Games. Analogies can be overworn, but playing Ratchet is actually like playing an animated film, and that’s a rare thing.
GAME OF THE YEAR: MASS EFFECT Story and characters aren’t everything, but these components of narrative have always been the weakest part of video games. For decades games have made up in frenetic action what they have lacked in dramatic depth. And that is a big reason why games have traditionally appealed most strongly to the demographic group that most enjoys frenetic action: young men. In its choice of milieu — science fiction — Mass Effect is not ambitious at all. But with its focus on character development, personal growth and moral tension, all fueled by a graphics system created to evoke emotional empathy, Mass Effect points the way forward. It may be a harbinger of a time when story and character are as important to video games as explosions.