Before we close the book on 2008, here's one more best-of, this one looking at the games that kept (and are still keeping) our eyes glued to the screen.
1. Left 4 Dead
Why go epic? Classics can also be writ small. Instead of expanding the field of play for this zombie outbreak, Valve went very small. Four humans, a sadistic "director" AI, unerringly designed zombies, and levels that feel open even as they herd players into a cattle chute: Together, they force important decisions. Save that dying friend, or preserve your own life? Patiently stalk a group of humans, or blow your guts all over an individual just for the hell of it? In the wake of this masterful flesh-feast, the measure of a multiplayer game may be judged by real-world fatigue felt after a match. Guiding one of four human survivors through Left 4 Dead's undead gauntlet requires not only teamwork, but exhaustive concentration. Yet the desperation of each explosive last stand is too engrossing to play just once a night.
2. Fallout 3
Some role-playing games, like Fable II, play out like a storybook; Fallout 3 is more like a junkyard. The storyline is the least interesting reason to explore the Capital Wasteland, where a new wreck, a new monster, or a new idea for rebuilding the American Dream lies around every corner. You can focus on the Cold War-era paranoia and Strangelove-esque irony if you want. Or you can just enjoy the humor of a game where the Declaration Of Independence is a quest item, and the radio plays hits from South Pacific. And while the game has a moral compass to judge your actions as good or evil, the most satisfying thing about your decisions is the knowledge that nobody can really judge how you behave, what you do, and how you choose to shape the world except you.
3. Grand Theft Auto IV
With every outing, Rockstar's open-world crime simulators have become more sprawling, scattershot, and daunting. Grand Theft Auto IV refocused the series, narrowing its scope to a single city. The game is a monument to Manhattan—a dirty ode to a city that that reflects the freedom, ugliness, and loneliness of American life. Granted, as Nico Bellic, we do experience this world as a violent, hypocritical jerk. The game never delivers a single wowing event, though the recreation of the subway chase sequence from The French Connection may be this year's best videogame action setpiece. Instead, GTA IV draws players in with a series of golden moments: the sunset over the Liberty City skyline, a phone call from a depressive mobster buddy, and countless jabs at the banality of consumer culture. Few games ever have this much to say. None express their points better.
Braid is an intensely satisfying game, but also a cerebral one. While the game is modeled on traditional 2D platformers, it has a wholly different pace. You're expected to take your time as you move from level to level and learn how each one works: In one world, you can rewind time and try again; in another, you only move through time when you take a step through space. Our interview with Jonathan Blow shed light on the science and writings that informed Braid, and from Italo Calvino to Daniel Dennett, it's a lot to chew on. But before you study it, you get to experience it, letting the game's mechanics show you how it feels to slow down time near an object of unfathomable gravity, or to move backward in time as easily as you move forward. You'll grasp these experiences by solving the puzzles that depend on them—an elegant and intensely satisfying way to teach you a new way to think about the world. And if it all sounds a little heavy, Braid is kind of hilarious, too. Just ask Soulja Boy:
5. World Of Goo
Even decades into the development of the medium, games struggle with core issues: What's the balance between innovation and fun, or between tech and personality? Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel answer those questions with the exceptional ease of creators who don't even know they're making magic. World Of Goo is uncommonly weird and impeccably crafted, a brilliant technical accomplishment imbued with real soul. In musical terms, if Braid is the indie voice of 2008, World Of Goo is punk rock: joyous but crass, affecting and complex. And as a big fat bonus, it appeared on the Wii, which seemed like a barren landscape for much of 2008.
6. PixelJunk Monsters
The premise: A dancing turtle must protect a tiny hut filled with defenseless creatures. Surreal, endearingly low-fi, and utterly devoid of exposition, PixelJunk Monsters, rather than the prettier but less-compelling PixelJunk Eden, manages to add up to far more than the sum of its humble parts.
The little game that couldn't. Couldn't save Sony. Couldn't sell PlayStation 3s. Couldn't even hit its release date, thanks to a Koran-inspired song lyric and an overcautious PR department. Set aside the outlandish hype-fueled expectations, though, and LittleBigPlanet remains a vibrant celebration of gamer creativity. The term "sandbox game" gets tossed around a lot, but LittleBigPlanet is fun like an actual sandbox—you play by making something. The developers executed their vision of a platformer playground with clarity and charm, so even after Sony bungled the online rollout (as Sony is wont to do), amateur level-creators were inspired enough to build and share little worlds like "Escape The Cave." If the community continues to flourish, one of the best games of 2008 will be an even better game in 2009.
8. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed
The greatest crappy game of 2008—it also appears on plenty of critics' worst-of lists—does a bang-up job of capturing the irreverent, guilty-pleasure quality that the recent prequels sorely lacked. Overlook the game's buggy code and your well-founded Star Wars bias, and give yourself over to the small part of your brain that always wanted Luke to accept one of Darth Vader's dark-side offers.
9. World Of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King
There's a reason World Of Warcraft has lured in so many PC gamers. Blizzard's persistent fantasy world is the most humane of all massively multiplayer experiences. The game caters to obsessives and weekend warriors alike. And this latest expansion gives both factions more to do, and wilder settings to do it in. The biggest crime is that few but the devoted will ever experience the heights that this startlingly polished online game has reached. From the first landfall on the frozen continent of Northrend to the final blood-drenched battle in the Death Knight quest line, World Of Warcraft: Wrath Of The Lich King never fails to give players tantalizing nibbles of the dangling carrot that keeps us playing.
10. Mega Man 9
Countless message-board threads have raged over the question: Was the NES era really so fantastic, or are legions of "classic gamers" just wallowing in nostalgia? With its dogmatic adherence to 8-bit aesthetics, the all-new Mega Man 9 proved that those late-'80s games are beloved for a reason. Varied level design and relentless difficulty, the Mega Man hallmarks, still make for an exciting, exasperating game, two decades after the series' heyday. About the only Mega Man fans disappointed by this triumphant revival were the ones who hoped that Dr. Wily had finally turned over a new leaf. Sorry—maybe in Mega Man 10.