While the rest of the world still has a few more days to slog through before it toasts the arrival of 2007, the gaming world's year has effectively been over for nearly three weeks now. All the major releases are nestled now, snug in their jewel cases, allowing gamers to experience this weird holiday letdown before, you know, actually experiencing the holidays themselves.
On the plus side, having plenty of down time makes it easy to look back over a year that wowed and whiffed with equal measure...
Yeah, I liked The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Gears of War as much as you and the clowns at Spike TV, obviously – and who the hell wouldn't? Both games, in very different ways, raised the bar for immersive gaming experiences. Dumping further accolades on them, however, is about as original as congratulating Sacha Baron Cohen and Stephen Colbert for being satirical geniuses. Thank you, Captain Obvious.
Instead, I'm giving the nod to Okami, a sleeper hit on the PS2 that got shoved in the corner while we all waited in line for our Wiis and PS3s. With an art style that looks like a Japanese painting sprung to life and a game mechanic that has you creating moons, wind gusts, and cherry bombs with sweeps of the analog stick, this game also wins the award for "Feature I most want to see copied in 2007." Nintendo, are you listening?
Imagine an episode of The Bachelor in which, instead of roses, you're handing out slabs of 10-day old dead fish. That's how I feel in contemplating the vast ranks of gaming dreck '06: So many options, so little mackerel. It's no fun piling on low-profile laughers like Ubersoldier, so I'm throwing a pair of shameless superhero movie tie-ins under the bus: Superman Returns (Xbox 360) and X3: The Official Game (Xbox, PS2). In a year in which Marvel: Ultimate Alliance reminded us again that superhero games really can be super, these games played like they were slapped together in three weeks by a group of marketing suits packing fun-kryptonite.
"Less is more" in next-gen games. EA debuted this charming little phenomenon way back with Madden '06 for the Xbox 360 – a game that looked fantastic, but somehow had significantly fewer features than its twenty-bucks cheaper Xbox cousin. Now, "looks great, less-filling" has a different, uglier aspect: Games that look next-gen but play like last-gen. (The PS3's Genji: Days of the Blade is the current poster child.) Some graphical and feature lag is to be expected as designers get up to speed on complicated new hardware – it's rare, after all, for a system's launch titles to be its most memorable – but when we're being asked to cough up $60 per title, 1080p-quality graphics alone isn't enough.
Politicians begin to see the light. After years of demonizing videogames without having ever picked up a freakin' controller, after years of attempting to fine and/or restrict the sale of M-rated games – and then getting their asses handed to them by sensible judges who correctly discern that these laws infringe on free speech – the last few weeks have seen a handful of high-profile politicians slowly (very slowly) beginning to shift their message from some variation on "videogames are killing our kids" to "Hey, parents, pay attention to the ratings on the games your kids are playing." Meanwhile, gamers, about five years too late, are organizing to defend their hobby.
Best Gaming News Nugget:
Two months after the fact, we learn why Detroit Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya was mysteriously MIA during the ALCS showdown with the Oakland A's: He shredded his forearm muscles while shredding licks in the PS2's Guitar Hero. Hopefully, his rewritten contract will allow him to play God of War.