Now that everyone’s presumably done with E3 — all that’s left is to watch how deep a hole Microsoft digs themselves — let’s get back to a far more important topic: games we can actually play right now. I’m not surprised that publishers try to drive the conversation to upcoming games. That’s their job. But I am surprised at how well it works. Why are so many of you peering so intently through carefully jiggered binoculars handed to you by various marketing departments? Had enough yet? Are you ready to come back to the amazing stuff already at your fingertips?
Because here are ten games you should still be playing
10) Midnight Club Los Angeles
There are lots of great driving games, including a handful of really good open-world driving games. But none is as good as Rockstar’s masterpiece when it comes to dropping you into a city full of traffic, races, collectible cars, and the visual spectacle that Rockstar can’t resist. It has a unique driving model, a crazily generous suite of multiplayer options (minus any online community), and a literally infinite number of challenges and activities. This is to caRPGs what Skyrim is to RPGs. If you haven’t played it for a hundred hours, you haven’t seen what it has to offer. Get back to it. And don’t forget the excellent South Central DLC. I’d link to my original review, but you probably don’t want to get your feet dirty with the remnants of Crispy Gamer.
9) Just Cause 2
In the category of open-world games that keep on giving, I was tempted to highlight Red Dead Redemption, which has a hearty multiplayer alternate world and some superlative post-release re-engineering with the Undead Nightmares add-on. But in terms of sheer glee, awesome tech, sparkling gorgeous artwork, insane variety, and God-help-me-but-I-can’t-stop-playing traversal, Just Cause 2 is an inexhaustible well of unparalleled awesome. Even the storyline is worth seeing through to the absurdly delightful end. Plus two words: Bolo Santosi.
8) Kirby: Canvas Curse
There is no Nintendo DS game that uses the touchscreen as well as Kirby: Canvas Curse, a fine fine platformer with an array of beautiful artwork, unique gameplay, and a uterus for a main character. Why Nintendo continues to make games about those dopey plumbers and that stupid monkey is a mystery to me. Besides, god help any list like this that doesn’t have a Kirby game on it, because Kirby will eff you the eff up.
(Image by Piranha2021)
Welcome to the intersection of snow, gravity, and leaderboards. With last year’s SSX — technically, this is just the latest iteration in a long-running franchise — Electronic Arts tapped into social networking, ingame economies, level design, and the maddening calculus of risk/reward stuntwork. Go ahead and plug away at a friend’s high score by trying to land one more trick on that crazy jump. Or maybe don’t try the trick this time and see if you can get to the bottom faster. Wait, should you be unlocking more stuff instead? Whatever specific activity you’re doing in this winter wonderland, you’re always always always moving forward. That’s the secret of SSX.
The re-worked re-release, built from the Unreal engine, is pretty good and it’s got co-op support. But it’s missing too many of the original game’s levels, and that’s a crime against Painkiller. Besides, the original Painkiller holds up just fine. It looks great and runs as smooth as a Quake, no matter how many creepy robed druids are chucking axes at you or zombie sailors are vomiting rum on you or Damien kids from an orphanage are clutching at you. This venerable shooter is so future-proof that it’s got a progression system complete with achievements, collectibles, and an ingame economy for unlocking power-ups. And it’s still got the best final level of all time. That’s right: of all time. Future creators of final levels take note. You have already been beat.
5) Imperialism II
As long as we’re talking the language of all time, let’s consider the best turn-based strategy game of all time. Despite some serious contenders for the throne, Imperialism II still wears that crown for me. Something as infinite and polished as Civilization IV is all good and well, but you’ve played Civilization and all its iterations a thousand times. Part of the beauty of Imperialism II is that it’s a game design entirely lacking any of the usual tropes. Everything it does is in the service of creating a unique game about the 18th and 19th century: the thrill of exploration and exploitation in the New World, the pettiness and power and focused industrial prowess of the Old World, the march of progress, the miracles of technology, and, good god, that bad-ass artillery when nations collapse into a twilight of the gods World War! If only it wasn’t so hard to find. Oh, wait!
4) Armageddon Empires
As is the case with Imperialism II, personality goes a long way in a good turn-based strategy game. After all, you’re not playing for the graphics, are you? Or are you one of those people content to scrape treasure off the walls of those canned Heroes of Might & Magic dungeons? For everyone else, there’s the dull brown of this post-apocalyptic wasteland, fought over by the most asymmetrical factions this side of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri. Cryptic Comet’s combination of Gamma World, Mad Max, H.P. Lovecraft, and collectible card games might be low-tech and inexpensive, but it’s got all the game design smarts of a AAA strategy title. Check out this after-action report from our forum. If that doesn’t make you want to play, you’re in the wrong hobby.
3) Kane & Lynch 2
Plenty of shooters have great graphics: shiny, new, spectacular, busy, state-of-the-art. None have graphics with Kane & Lynch 2’s brave aesthetic commitment to ugliness. The protagonists are old and out of shape, each a washed up sidekick who never found his main character. The graphics and camerawork evoke crappy YouTube videos. The story is grim and hopeless and at times downright gross. Even the gunplay is sloppy. But these are all carefully calculated choices by Io Entertainment, whose only ray of light is the tinny sound of j-pop playing over a car radio before the game actually starts.
2) Rock Band 3
Me and some friends dragged out the plastic instruments last weekend. It had been a long time. I had sort of mentally consigned Rock Band to the “remember when” category with arcade machines, table-top RPGs, and fanny packs. My mistake. There’s no experience quite like interactively listening to some of your favorite songs, especially when you’re doing it with some of your favorite friends. Music collections never die; they just finally get that one great Don McClean song. So go ahead and blow the dust off your guitar or even your drum set. You won’t regret it.
Inspired by something someone smart said — I don’t remember who — I resolved to read Candide once a year. That was probably ten years ago. It didn’t really take. It lasted about a year. Maybe you have to be French. I’ve decided to revise my resolution and instead revisit Sacrifice once a year. So far, I’ve been able to sustain that for about 13 years, reminding myself annually that some videogame genius is timeless. The campaign and especially the graphics more than hold up, and if you can press a friend into service on a LAN, you’re in for an unrivaled treat.
Okay, now your turn to thumb your nose at E3 announcements. What’s something at least two years old worth talking about instead of the hype for the latest new and yet-to-be released games? Post your pick for the best solution to an E3 hangover in the comments section below.