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Best of 2008 Awards: Best Shooting Game

Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards

Way the hell after 2008 is a thing of the past, it’s Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards.  I’m not pretending to make my awards comprehensive or unbiased or any of that other pretentious crap.  The fact that these awards reflect my own personal experiences, tastes, and dislikes is exactly the point.  I haven’t played every game that came out this year and I’m not going to consider a boatload of titles I never played.  But I did play a huge number of games this year, and these choices reflect my personal tastes and thoughts about the games I spent time with in 2008.

Best Shooter

  • Gears of War 2
  • Left 4 Dead

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Shooters are quite the competitive category these days. It is a genre I enjoy, but one in which it is easier than some of the other crowded categories for me to choose a favorite. This is because I tend to be rather selective with my shooters. It is a genre from which I accept no mediocrity. The primary reason for this is honestly that I get bored of any shooter that isn’t fantastic, so I don’t waste time or money on anything that’s not pretty much spectacular.

Thus, for me, a game like Call of Duty 4 was only a rental. I haven’t even bothered to play Resistance 2 yet. Call of Duty 5 and its WWII setting holds no appeal whatsoever. You see my point.

Two shooters in particular managed to sneak their way into my lineup last year. For me the choice was clear. Gears of War 2 was a brilliant dose of high-octane, testosterone packed, spectacular action fun. It was also immensely predictable, bogged down with poorly told story points, riddled with a few too many moments that were overly frustrating, and set damn near entirely in drab underground environments.

Left 4 Dead, on the other hand, is a game that is brilliantly simple. There’s no unnecessary story. Just four people, a few guns, and a whole hell of a lot of zombies. The environments themselves tell all the story you need to know (and do a great job of it). It is one of the best cooperative experiences I have ever played in a game. While there are perhaps fewer levels than I might like, you can go back to them countless times without getting bored thanks to the AI Director.

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This artificial puppeteer keeps things so consistently intense that you’ll never once be bored, changing things up every single run through a level just enough to keep you on your toes and avoid too much predictability, but at the same time rarely lets things feel frustrating or needlessly difficult (unless you happen to be playing on Expert of course, but the entire point of that difficulty level is to be stupidly hard, so I can’t really fault the game for delivering there).

I even enjoyed the online play and the versus mode, which are things I normally don’t even touch in shooters. Now that’s an impressive feat.

Left 4 Dead is one of the most intense and consistently fun games I have played in a long time. It nails the aesthetic, the difficulty, the co-op mechanics, the online play, the versus mode, and pretty much everything else (hell, even the achievements are pretty well done), making it clearly my favorite shooter of 2008.

Now come on, Valve, just give me a few more levels.

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Best of 2008 Awards: Best Racing Game

Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards

Way the hell after 2008 is a thing of the past, it’s Zestful Contemplation’s Best of 2008 Awards.  I’m not pretending to make my awards comprehensive or unbiased or any of that other pretentious crap.  The fact that these awards reflect my own personal experiences, tastes, and dislikes is exactly the point.  I haven’t played every game that came out this year and I’m not going to consider a boatload of titles I never played.  But I did play a huge number of games this year, and these choices reflect my personal tastes and thoughts about the games I spent time with in 2008.

Best Racing Game

  • Burnout Paradise
  • Mario Kart Wii

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As much as I love Mario Kart and as great as I thought last year’s particular rendition of the game was, let’s face it, it’s not really in the running here.  Mario Kart is fun but this iteration was probably even less innovative than the GameCube installment.  There’s nothing wrong with that mind you, and I had plenty of fun with it, but come on, it’s up against Burnout Paradise.

Mario Kart Wii’s biggest new feature was probably its motion controlled steering, which nobody who actually cared about winning every once in a while actually used.  On the other hand, Burnout Paradise took an already awesome racing series, took a rather spectacular leap into an open-world setting, and made it significantly more awesome in the process.  Seeing your Miis cheering from the sidelines of the race courses, while awesome and much-appreciated, just can’t compare.

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Rarely does an open world game truly feel like it needs to be open world to me.  Most of the time all it means it that you have to walk farther to get to where you need to go instead of being able to select it from a far more convenient menu.  Sure Burnout Paradise should have given up some of its realism for a restart option, but it used its open world setting to its fullest.  Just driving around randomly at top speed for no reason was immensely entertaining.  Every street had its own records to set.  Every stretch of road contained its own challenges.  Showtime mode is addictive in its simplicity and can be played at any time the player desires.  The game is filled to the brim with fun stuff to do and is one of the most refreshingly fun racing games to appear in quite some time.

On top of all that, the developers have produced what has to be one of the more impressive efforts of post-release support for a game seen outside of the Rock Band platform.  The sheer amount of cool free stuff they have released for the game combined with the paid content that is quickly forthcoming has kept this game relevant and continually fun and fresh for far longer than it would have otherwise.  The motorcycle content alone could have been its own $10 download and few probably would have complained.

Plus, we’re getting our restart option now too.  And for free.  It’s nice when a developer listens to its fans.

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Shiny New Xbox Pretentiousness

I’ll admit it.  I didn’t think that Microsoft was capable of creating a good user interface anymore.

Well, as long as we’re being honest, I’ve never really thought they were terrifically talented at making user experiences that lacked a certain degree of utter failure.
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When I first saw the “New Xbox Experience”, I thought it was the most unnecessary, ripped off, needlessly shiny Fisher Price toy that any console maker had come up with.  The overly pretentious moniker made me want to punch everyone who actually called it by that stupid name square in the nose.  I couldn’t wait for it to come out so I could bash Microsoft about their terrible user interface that they forced down my unwilling throat while stealing away my precious blades with a smug grin on their face.

You know, I guess that sometimes it’s good to be completely and utterly wrong.

The actual end product that I find myself using now is terrific.  Not only is it less cluttered, better organized, and more visually appealing (without being distractingly so), it also is worlds snappier than the sluggish blades it replaces.  As much as I like shiny things, and the NXE is definitely a wonderfully shiny thing, its luster is not my favorite feature.  The increased performance is my favorite part of the whole thing by a long shot.

I mean, seriously, I actually had fun playing with the menu when I got to download it a couple of days early due to my beta application a while ago.

I had fun.  With a menu.  Fun.  Menu.

Does not compute.

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I guess it’s not totally fair to say that I’ve never enjoyed toying with a menu experience before, because I certainly did just that when I was salivating over my beloved iMac (my first Apple computer) when it arrived almost a year ago.  But menus that are designed so well that they can foster such a positive response from users as to be sources of enjoyment in and of themselves are incredibly rare.

And as long as we’re discussing a connection with Apple….

Okay, sure, the NXE steals more than a few ideas from Apple, Sony, and Nintendo alike.  It’s not 100% original and innovative, it’s true.

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But seriously, what the hell is?  Just about every work of human creativity borrows something from another work of human creativity.  That’s the great thing about creative freedom: you get to take what you’ve absorbed from other places and put your own unique spin on it to make something truly yours.

It’s damn near impossible to make something totally original these days, and so while some of the general elements are certainly borrowed, since they allowed Microsoft to build an interface that ultimately tops any of the sources it borrowed from I think it’s hardly fair to hold it against them.

The bottom line is that the NXE is a truly pleasant user experience, and while it’s certainly not perfect (a clear indication that the marketing department has the rest of the team by the balls is when the starting channel is not the one that lets the user play games, but rather the channel that exists solely for the purpose of shoving ads down the user’s throat), it tops its predecessor in just about every way even when the old and busted blades weren’t terrible enough to make a redesign a necessity. Microsoft stepped up to the plate and fixed what many, including myself, didn’t realize was broken even though they didn’t need to.

Good on ‘em, I say.

But I still harbor malicious thoughts against those who actually call it the “New Xbox Experience”.

What a stupid name.

[Post-article note: After searching for images to accompany this article, I have come to the conclusion that there are exactly three images of NXE on the entire Internet and all of them are old.]

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