Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Year in Review: The Worst Games of 2007

All this week, we'll be recapping the year that was. Today: the worst games of the year.

Although it was an historically good year for games, 2007 had its share of stinkers. Bad games aren't always bad for the same reasons good games are good -- a game can be technically competent and still be philosophically or spiritually repulsive. In fact, nothing is more disappointing than when genuine talent goes toward creating something ugly.

That's the case with the two worst games I played this year: Def Jam Icon* and Manhunt 2. We don't like being condescended to, you and I, and yet when I played these games my overarching impression was that of a publisher saying, "You'll fall for anything, won't you?"

In the case of Def Jam Icon, EA took the opportunity to charge sixty bucks for a game that was nothing but advertisements. Ads for albums, ads for clothing, ads for the rappers themselves. I'm not naive -- I understand that making games is expensive, and I'm not opposed to a little product placement if it's integrated in a way that makes sense. But there was literally nothing else to Def Jam Icon. The gameplay felt like it was happening underwater, and the interactive environments were repetitive and uninteresting. This was the most cynical game I've ever played.

Manhunt 2 was nearly as bad in that respect. It tried to be outrageous and in-your-face for no reason other than, well, to be outrageous and in-your-face. Roger Ebert likes to say that a movie isn't about what it's about; it's about how it's about it. Violence and sexual content are only as tasteless or offensive as how they're employed. Most of the best games of the year were extremely violent, but none were as exploitative and hollow as Manhunt 2. There was no real reason to go for the most gruesome kills except to see if you could do it. Your character was largely the aggressor, and didn't act in self-defense. These are not attractive qualities in a game. It became clear late in the game that the makers intended to make some kind of comment on the nature of sanity, and in that respect, at least, they succeeded: while playing Manhunt 2, I definitely questioned my sanity.

The most boring game I played was Battlestations Midway, a turgid World War II sim that combined featureless real-time strategy with rudderless action gameplay. This game was so unremarkable in every way, I'm no longer convinced it even existed.

And then there are two games that, objectively, probably aren't that bad. Two games whose off-the-charts hype and legions of devoted online footsoldiers probably did more to put me off than did the actual gameplay. I speak, of course, of Halo 3 and Mass Effect. Halo 3 is certainly a high quality product by any objective measure. But when you consider the still-boring single-player campaign and obnoxious Xbox Live community, some of the shine comes off. Why is this the game that everybody agreed on? I don't get it. I can think of at least four other 360 shooters this year that were better.

As for Mass Effect, I believe we agreed never to speak of it again.

Tomorrow: Year-end superlatives.

*Postscript: In linking to my original Def Jam Icon post, I saw that I had written this in response to a comment: "Gamespot had all the same criticisms I did, and then gave it an 8.1. I'm not always convinced that review scores are busted in general, but that made me pause." In light of recent events, it seems I was too charitable.

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