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Crackdown (Realtime Worlds - Xbox 360)
Crackdown's major successes as a game come in the way that it blends elements together to make a fresh, compelling whole. Even its main failure -- narrative -- is a sort of success-in-disguise (all of the dialogue is 100% irrelevant to succesfully playing the game; the ending is so bad it's good.) But what's great about Crackdown is that it takes the dirty anarchy of Grand Theft Auto and injects it with (unintentional?) lightheartedness thanks to its super-powered characters.
It's an injection of vitality into a genre that otherwise consists of one 800 pound gorilla and a pile of also-rans in a dump bin at GameStop. Exploring Pacific City (and hunting for power-ups) is actually more engrossing than actually battling crime -- bolstered by the endless uniqueness of the environments and how your character's leveling up allows greater access to rooftop vistas.
The seamless co-op play, which allows you to team up, kill, or just ignore each other and chat while wreaking havoc across town from one another, adds another layer of fine-tuned, technically-complex pleasure. It's sandbox in the true sense, in that it allows and encourages you to find your own fun -- as the YouTube videos can attest.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo - DS)
While the so called "wink waker" cel-shaded look might have been more controversial than video game art should ever be, the expansive blue skies, green islands and paper doll characters were right at home on the DS, where the latest installment in the Zelda franchise is possibly the cleverest and most engaging use yet of the touch screen.
Delightfully playful and intuitive, Phantom Hourglass has the feel of a real adventure. Charting a course on the high seas, sketching your own maps or drawing your boomerang's path with the stylus is a brilliant new take on classic Zelda mechanics -- just like the boss fights, which feel positively cinematic as they span both screens.
4. Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV - Xbox 360, PS3, PS2)
Some have and will continue to find fault in Rock Band for being "just" Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone, or 'just' a follow-on to territory that Konami tread many years before, but Harmonix's achievements have always been less about innovating rhythm game techniques, but refining them.
Chained star-power note streaks, interface enhancements that both relocate its elements to more logical peripheral placement and redefine them more elegantly (an apparently new in-house standard it shares with its iPod sister, Phase), and note charts that capture the feeling of the music as much as timing are just part of what puts it ahead of the rest.
What very much separates it from the pack now is its performance presentation -- characters with genuine sex appeal that look and play like stars and smart camera work that make the game as much a joy to watch as to take part in -- and the human element that makes group play, when executed well, as much a thrill as an actual night on stage.
But, more than anything, Rock Band's greatest promise is its potential, as it works to position itself not just as a game, but as a new interactive format of music to join vinyl, CD and MP3, with hints of future simultaneous album releases and tools for aspiring garage bands to bring themselves into our living rooms.
The forthcoming Titan v. Titan battle between MTV's cross-media muscle and Activision's newly available Universal Music Group library via new partner Vivendi will be a thrill to watch in the years ahead.