In video game parlance, 2008 has run out of lives.
But what a roller-coaster ride of a year it was! During the unforgettable last 12 months, video game publishers experienced record-breaking sales. But by year's end, the industry, once thought of as recession-proof, was forced to deal with the harsh realities of a global financial crisis.
When we look back at the top games of 2008, one stands alone. Whether you loved it or hated it, the April release of Grand Theft Auto IV was easily the biggest gaming event this year. As well-designed as GTA IV was, the game was more noteworthy for its cultural impact. Rockstar Games' latest GTA offering caught the attention of commentators as diverse as Glen Beck, Katie Couric and Conan O'Brien. Even Barack Obama paused long enough on the campaign trail to say a few words about GTA IV.
Speaking of the president-elect, the Obama campaign's decision to buy advertising in several popular games on Xbox Live drew the attention of gamers as well as mainstream-media types. It was the first time that a political campaign had tested the waters of video game advertising. How well did it work? That's hard to say, but since the Obama family is packing to move to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., it certainly didn't hurt. That's not to say that the president-elect is a video game fan. He told reporters that the last game he played was Pong, and, during the campaign his speeches often equated video games with academic underachievement.
Aside from Grand Theft Auto IV, 2008 offered plenty of must-have games. Fallout 3, the long-awaited revival of the mid-1990s role-playing adventure, wowed fans. In fact, it was a year for terrific sequels, as Fable II, Gears of War 2, and Metal Gear Solid 4 all numbered among the top releases.
Madden NFL may have worn its game face for the 20th-anniversary edition of the famed gridiron series, but the best sports title of the year was Sony's MLB 08: The Show, featuring the Phillies' Ryan Howard on the front of the box. With the Fightin's going all the way to the World Series championship this year, the timing of the slugger's cover appearance could not have been better.
Also gaining major attention among sports offerings this year was NBA Live 09. The game's pioneering Dynamic DNA feature provides daily updates of player performance and tendencies via the Internet. It has been reported that Dynamic DNA, which draws on real-life statistical data, is so accurate that some NBA execs use the video game to scout opposing talent.
Speaking of online connectivity, Microsoft's Xbox Live rolled out what it calls the New Xbox Experience in November. Among other features, this update offers a fun, new graphical interface as well as the option to stream NetFlix movies in HD. In December, Sony rolled out the beta version of its long-awaited PlayStation Home online interface. Gamers are still deciding on this one, but Home offers players a 3-D virtual world interface that is reminiscent of Second Life.
The year was not without its disappointments. Chief among them was the game industry's E3 expo in Los Angeles. For years, the show was a spectacle of entertainingly wretched excess. But in an apparent cost-cutting move, this year's edition was shockingly humble. One disappointed game company CEO compared it to a "pipefitter's convention in the basement." The game business has vowed to return the show to something approximating its former glory in 2009.
Also disappointing was the highly anticipated Wii Music from famed Japanese designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Legend of Zelda). Surprisingly, there wasn't much of a game experience, and the musical portion was unimpressive as well.
And while Will Wright's Spore was a best-seller, it goes down in my book as the biggest bust of 2008. A lot of users - me included - griped about the game's intrusive copy protection scheme. But beyond that, Spore's game play was a disappointment. The game was solid, but lacked the spark that made Wright's last franchise, the Sims, appealing to women as well as men. We waited three years for this?
So, it's game over for 2008, but 2009 is shaping up as an exciting and in some cases (cough, PlayStation 3, cough) make-or-break year. I'll have more about that in my next column.