AJ’s Picks: The 12 Best Games of 2008 – A 12(+)Year Retrospective

As you might have noticed by now, I have kind of a thing for gaming retrospectives. I also love anything having to do with the number 12. For those reasons, I've decided to debut a new retrospective series where I take a look back at the best games from 12 years ago. In the case of this particular article, the year 2008. Now you may be thinking, "it's 2022, shouldn't this article be about 2009 or even 2010?" And the answer is, you got me. I meant to post this nearly a year ago. My bad. Maybe I'll do one for 2009 next month. Just go with it. 2008 was a special year for gaming that saw a number of truly exceptional titles grace the various consoles of the day. Please join me as I look back at what I feel pretty good about saying were 12 of the absolute best.

12 Persona 4

(Best PlayStation 2 Exclusive)

  • Developer: Atlus
  • Platform: PlayStation 2

Since it first debuted on the original PlayStation in 1996, Atlus' Persona series has become more critically acclaimed with every single new entry they've released. This was particularly true with their incredibly excellent 2008 PlayStation 2 entry, Persona 4. The title was such a massive hit that it has since been regarded by many as one of the last great titles to be released for the PlayStation 2, as well as one of the greatest RPGs to ever grace the console (and there were quite a few). Particular praise was given to the game's unique style as well as to the excellent and numerous voiceovers throughout. Developer Atlus was apparently so pleased by the game's success, they later went on to create an expanded remake, as well as multiple spinoffs (in entirely different genres, no less), including Persona 4: Arena, which is arguably one of the most outstanding fighting series ever made.

11 Fallout 3

  • Publisher: Bethesda
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Before Bethesda acquired it in 2004, the Fallout series was only known as an isometric 2D turn-based affair that almost exclusively appeared on PC. The games were well-received by critics but didn't exactly set the world on fire in terms of copies sold. When the franchise owner, Black Isle Studios was closed down, the rights were picked up by the Elder Scrolls developer, who set about making their own take on the Fallout universe. The result: Fallout 3, a AAA first-person action RPG designed for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, in addition to the PC.

Essentially, what Besthesda did, was to take their mega-hit 2006 game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and marry it to the Fallout universe. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this worked; and Fallout 3 was also a success. Such a success, in fact, that it managed to surpass the combined sales of all previous installments of the Fallout series in just it's first week on the market. While there may have been some who missed the style of the old Fallout games, it was hard to dispute that the changes made were a net positive. In any case, Bethesda decided to tap Obsidian Entertainment, a studio composed of key former member of Black Isle, to create Fallout New Vegas, the equally-outstanding 2010 follow-up to Fallout 3. So fans of the original developer did still technically get one last encore entry from them.

10 Valkyria Chronicles

  • Developer: SEGA
  • Platform: PlayStation 3

The next two titles on this list were not only two of the best PlayStation 3 releases to come out in 2008, but a pair of games that I felt were two of the best to ever grace that console. This following is what I had to say about both titles in my 12th anniversary PlayStation 3 Retrospective: "Valkyria Chronicles was something of a uniquely welcome surprise. A tactical RPG from the once legendary developer and publisher, Sega, the game is set in a fictional time and place that is strongly reminiscent of World War II Europe. It features interesting gameplay, a great story, a wonderful musical score, and a beautiful watercolor paint aesthetic. While the game did eventually make the jump to the PC and then other consoles, for many years you could only play it on PlayStation 3; and Sega's inspiring creation was truly one of the very best reasons to get one."

09 Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds

(Best PlayStation 3 Exclusive)

  • Developer: Clap Hanz
  • Platform: PlayStation 3

"The Hot Shots series first appeared on the PlayStation 1 back in the late '90s, presumably as Sony's answer to Nintendo's popular Mario Golf franchise. Since its debut, every single entry has consistently delivered a thoroughly enjoyable round of golf, every bit as good as Nintendo's offerings (if not better). This is especially true for the PlayStation 3 installment, Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds. Not only did it offer better graphics and gameplay than ever before, but in 2012, developer Clap Hanz even added in support for playing with the PlayStation Move, Sony's late-entry, camera-tracked motion controller (four years after the game was originally released). If there was one sports game to buy for the PlayStation 3, this was that game".

08 SoulCalibur IV

  • Publisher: Namco Bandai
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

From the moment it first debuted in the arcades (and then on the Sega Dreamcast, in the late '90s, SoulCalibur was one of the most popular and highly-acclaimed fighting series ever created. This remained unchanged up to, and including, its 4th installment on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2008. SoulCalibur IV retained the character creation mode and newly introduced fighters from SoulCalibur III and added online play. It also added a couple new characters to the mix, including playable "boss" character Algol, and the spear knight Hilde, who quickly became something of a fan favorite.

As a unique cross promotion for Star Wars: The Force Unleased (which came out a month and a half after), SoulCalibur IV also featured the protagonist of that game, Galen Marek/Starkiller, a.k.a. The Apprentice, as well as Darth Vader and Yoda, all as playable characters. While the 16th century setting of the SoulCalibur universe might not have been the most ideal fit for a bunch of futuristic, plasma sword-wielding space wizards, their presence in the game (along with their own fantastic stage) was a welcome addition, nevertheless. At the very least, it served to give fans the world over a taste of what a well-crafted Star Wars-themed arcade fighter could be. SoulCalbur IV was truly another high point for the incredibly popular fighting game franchise, and in retaining the features and gameplay that the series was already famous for while bringing such compelling new additions to the table, it's little wonder why.

07 Advance Wars: Days of Ruin

  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Platform: Nintendo DS

While Intelligent Systems' "Wars" franchise was first established in Japan back in 1988, the series didn't make it way west until 2001, arriving over here as "Advance Wars". The series was a big hit too, along with Fire Emblem, Intelligent Systems' other big strategy franchise that followed shortly after. For a while, both series saw multiple well-received titles released on Nintendo's 2 portables at the time, the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS. Sadly however, after 2008, Intelligent Systems ceased making Advance Wars games altogether, and from then on, only focused on Fire Emblem. That makes Advance Wars: Days of Ruin the last and most recent entry in the beloved series. Despite taking on a darker, more serious tone than the brighter, more cartoonish titles that came before it, Days of Ruin still boasted the same polished and addictive gameplay. It was also the first entry to feature online multiplayer. Though fans still hold out hope that the series will be resumed, especially now that a remake is officially on the horizon, they can at least take heart it went out on a high note.

06 Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

(Best Nintendo DS Exclusive)

  • Developer: Konami
  • Platform: Nintendo DS

Koji Igarashi is very important and well-known figure to fans of Konami's Castlevania franchise. That's because he either had a direct hand in, or helped out on some of the best and most popular entries in the long-running series. This began with 1997's legendary PlayStation classic, Symphony of the Night. It continued on from 2002 to 2008, when he served as producer (and oftentimes writer) for every Castlevania title that came out on Nintendo's portable consoles. From Harmony of Dissonance on the Game Boy Advance through Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, 5 fantastic games (and one system) later, on the Nintendo DS.

Though it may have been his last main-series title, it certainly wasn't his least. The game boasted some fresh new tweaks (and a slightly greater difficulty) to the usual style of gameplay, and it proved to be a hit with the critics. In addition, praise was also given to the game's thoughtful enemy design, stunning visuals, and excellent soundtrack. Many fans consider it to be one of Igarashi's best works and, as one of his last releases at Konami, represents a true swan song for both his time with the company and for the franchise he brought so much quality and acclaim to.

05 Rock Band 2

  • Developer: Harmonix
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2

In the fall of '07, Harmonix released Rock Band upon the gaming world and it was a revelation to the instrument peripheral music game genre. Allowing for up to 4 people to play together in a simulated band essentially transformed a simple 1 or 2-player affair into a veritable party, multiplying the fun exponentially. Unsurprisingly, Rock Band was both a giant hit, and one of the highest-rated games to come out that year. Due to its massive popularity, the developer probably could have gotten away with simply rounding up and pushing out a new collection of songs and calling it a sequel. But that's clearly not the Harmonix way.

Instead, they made several improvements to the formula for 2008's Rock Band 2. First and foremost, they released an improved drum kit featuring new ports that allowed for the addition of cymbals, for a more realistic drumming experience. They also included a special training mode specifically designed for drummers, and online modes for band battles and World Tour. Furthermore, and in an incredibly welcome move, all downloadable songs for the first game were made available for use with the sequel, in addition to the majority of songs from the first game, itself. All of these well thought out strategies to enhance an already phenomenal experience served to make Rock Band 2, not only one of the best games of 2008, but possibly one of the smartest, most rewarding sequels ever created (until Rock Band 3, anyway).

04 Pure

  • Developer: Black Rock
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

From 2002 to 2007, the racing division of Climax Studios had released 5 fantastic titles in their renowned MotoGP series. Far and away the best games before or since to ever feature the MotoGP discipline of racing (sadly, the Milestone-developed titles we've had to tolerate from 2008 on have never been able to come anywhere close). Following the last of these releases, the Climax Racing studio became Black Rock Studio, a new and ultimately ill-fated acquisition of the Walt Disney Company. They only produced 2 games before they were shuttered by their incredibly short-sighted and unappreciative new owners, neither of which being a MotoGP title, sadly. However, what they did create were 2 new racing titles that were very different, yet exceptional in their own right. One was 2010's epic "destruction" racing game, Split/Second, and the other was 2008's absolutely phenomenal ATV racer, Pure.

At first glance, you might think Pure was just another run-of-the-mill quad game. But dig a little deeper and you would quickly realize that Pure was actually something pretty special. The game offerred a multitude of thrilling locations featuring jaw-dropping vistas and insane verticality. It also boasted a great sense of speed, plenty of modes and tricks, and a plethora of available options with which to customize your own ride. Just as they had done with their MotoGP series for its style of racing, Climax/Black Rock managed to create the pinnacle of ATV racing perfection with Pure. A game that, quite similarly, has remained unrivaled since.

03 Grid

  • Developer: Codemasters
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam

2008 was a great year for racing titles. In addition to Black Rock's Pure, British developer Codemasters saw fit to bestow their very own special gift upon the speed junkies of the world. Following the 10 years and numerous entries in its popular TOCA racing game series, they opted to continue that tradition while at the same time, shifting gears slightly, with the new, simply-titled, Grid. With Grid, Codemasters raised the bar by including several different racing disciplines, including open wheel, GT, and drift, as well as a variety of unique courses, including famous real-world racetracks and city street circuits. It also offered an incredibly compelling career mode, and was one of the first racing titles to offer both a rewind feature and a detailed cockpit view. But perhaps the most unique and welcome addition was the ability to race at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, and with a plethora of different options to choose from in regards to vehicles (and classes), and race length. If you so chose, you could even race for 24 actual hours. But the real highlight of this track was that it featured a simulated 24-hour day/night (and day again) cycle, regardless of whether you chose to race for 24 hours or just 10 minutes.

With so much attention to detail, and so many different, unique, and interesting options on offer, Grid wasn't simply the best racing game of 2008, it was one of the greatest racing titles ever made. Grid was so good in fact that Sega, a company that was incredibly famous over the years for their own outstanding racing games, decided to strike a deal to publish an arcade version of it, themselves. The fact that Sega not only considered the console game to be arcade-worthy, but worthy of their branding in the arcade, is about the highest praise I can imagine.

02 Grand Theft Auto IV

(Best Multi-Platform Game)

  • Developer: Rockstar
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

For the 4th numeric entry in their controversial, yet wildly popular Grand Theft Auto franchise, Rockstar decided to focus a large amount of time and effort on the environmental level of detail. To this end, the development team captured tens of thousands of photographs, along with hours of video footage in and around the city of New York. They then used these visual aides as inspiration for creating the game's virtual doppelganger, Liberty City. Their efforts paid off, as Grand Theft Auto IV was specifically praised by critics for its incredibly realistic world and fantastic variety of locations offered throughout its urban setting. But that wasn't all. The significant improvements to the graphics and the combat system over previous entries were also met with enthusiastic approval. In fact, Grand Theft Auto IV was so well-received by critics, it is now regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time.

01 Gears of War 2

(Best Xbox 360 Exclusive, Game of the Year)

  • Developer: Epic Games
  • Platform: Xbox 360

In 2006, Epic Games set the world on fire with their monster new title/franchise, Gears of War. Within 2 weeks of release, it became the fastest-selling Xbox 360 game, as well as the most-played title on the Xbox Live service. The game was such a massive hit that a sequel almost immediately became a foregone conclusion. That sequel arrived in November of 2008, to even greater success, breaking a record for the number of Xbox Live users playing it. Gears 2 raised the stakes even higher with a bigger story, multiple gameplay refinements, and the all-new, incredibly popular wave-based Horde mode. The game also featured improved graphics and more memorable set pieces, including one in particular that felt not unlike being on a ride at a Disney theme park, albeit with a lot more testosterone and violence. With so much brought to the table, it's little wonder why Gears 2 was the very best title in an already standout year for gaming.

Well that does it for this retrospective. I hope you've enjoyed my brief look back on the best games that 2008 had to offer. As usual, please feel free to share some of your thoughts and favorites from that year in the comments below and have a happy new year!

(This is a repost of an article that originally appeared on 12/12 Games.)

[Images: Naughty Dog, Xbox, Nintendo, Codemasters, EA, Arc System Works, Insomniac, Supergiant Games, PlayStation Studios, Moon Studios, Sucker Punch]

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