2007 was, in this gamer’s mind, a year unparalleled for video games: Bioshock, Portal, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Super Mario Galaxy; just writing the names of these games sends a shiver down my spine. Now obviously saying that there is a greatest year for video games is a bit like saying there is one greatest videogame of all time: the criteria is inherently subjective. However, what is undeniable is that 2007 saw the release of a string of incredible games that continue to influence game design today, nine years later. It was a turning point, a moment at the bridge between two different eras of gaming that, as a result of the significant changes undergone in the industry, resulted in an incredible outburst of creativity.
2007 was an important year because it represented the end of one era of game design and the start of another. It had to be important. Two new consoles, the PlayStation 3 and Wii, were released the previous year and the Xbox 360 had still not proven its worth. Yet there was a sense that there was untapped potential within these new machines, power to produce experiences that hadn’t previously been seen. The future of gaming was concrete, in our hands, and we wanted to see what it looked and felt like. Every game had to live up to these expectations, these hopes. If there was going to be any year that defined the generation of consoles it was this one. The games did just that. Each console featured experiences that demonstrated their strengths and each new release seemingly made the claim: “This is the future you have to look forward to as a gamer. Isn’t it bright!”
The short list I stated at the beginning outlined a general idea of the quality of games but it hardly scratches the surface (even in this article I will not be able to cover all of the great games released this year). Some of the franchises that came to dominate the previous console cycle saw their inception at this time; massive hits like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty 4 turned into two of the most successful and recurring franchises in video game history. Initial installments in the Uncharted and Mass Effect series kickstarted two of the most revered franchises in gaming, and Portal and Bioshock redefined storytelling in video games.
2007 wasn’t all about the new however, some of the most important franchises from gaming’s past made the jump into the high definition era. Halo 3 served as a climactic and feature-rich end to one of the biggest trilogies of the decade. Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction brought Sony’s iconic mascot into the HD generation for what seems like the series’ final moment in the spotlight. Nintendo also brought two important mascots into the mix with the conclusion to the series’ redefining Metroid Prime trilogy, and the creation of one of the most creative and beautiful platformers in Super Mario Galaxy. Of course, let’s not forget the PlayStation 2’s superb swan song God of War II or other early year releases such as the esteemed expansions Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.
In such esteemed company it might be easy to forget the “sleepers” of the year, of which there were so many that I don’t have space to mention all of them. Harmonix released Rock Band, bringing the rhythm game phenomenon to its likely and awesome conclusion. Team Fortress 2, released alongside Portal in the Orange box, became one of the most enduring online multiplayer shooters. Half-Life 2: Episode 2, also part of the Orange Box, has been the last word in that revered series. (In fact, the success of the Orange Box as a whole put developer Valve in a spotlight that set up the staggering rise of their online games distribution service Steam. ) Oh, and there was also a game called The Witcher by little-known Polish developer CD Projekt Red. Let that last one sink in.
Paving the Way
When I think back to 2007 the adjective that best describes the year as a whole is “pioneering”. Many of the games released in this year have had impacts that are still being felt. These impacts can taken for granted like Assassin’s Creed allowing players to go anywhere they could see in the game world. They can also be obvious, like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare igniting the spark of the modern-day first person shooter.
What is easy to forget about these games is that many of their gameplay and story mechanics involved significant risks. None of them were a surefire hit, not even ones that, with hindsight, seemed poised to take over the industry. Even an established franchise like Call of Duty, the series with one of the highest numbered sequels in the year, took a leap of faith and changed its identity. It may not seem like it now, but at the time a shooter set against the backdrop of a modern day conflict was an uncertain prospect. Call of Duty 4 was the only one. Similarly, Assassin’s Creed was set in the completely fresh setting of the Third Crusade, with a control scheme that was unintuitive by standard conventions, and a twist that shook the players’ expectations. These games that today are criticized for playing it safe were once the most exciting and challenging examples of the medium.
Both Bioshock and Portal engaged in storytelling methods that allowed players to discover the intriguing and unsettling worlds they inhabited, a departure from linear, cutscene-driven stories. Mass Effect cemented the promise of meaningful choice in video games along with a massive science fiction universe. The multiplayer features of both Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, in their own ways, shaped how competitive multiplayer would be approached in the coming years. All these advancements in game design pushed our expectations of what was possible for a video game, shaping an understanding of the medium that is still present today.
Uncertainty and Experimentation
I stated previously that 2007 had to be important because it needed to define the future of games and inspire hope for it, yet there was a great amount of uncertainty about what that future would be. This can be seen in the staggering variety of excellent games. They are not all first person shooters, nor are they all open-world RPG’s. The best games of 2007 are puzzle games, role-playing games, open-world adventure games, rhythm games, and platformers. Platformers! A genre that is all but dead in the current industry witnessed several superb entries.
As a result of this uncertainty, everything was fair game. Any game could succeed because there was no formula for what the consumer wanted and annual releases were still a rare occurrence. There was an excitement for creativity that can be seen from large story concepts like Bioshock’s underwater city setting, to game features like Halo 3’s theater and forge mode, to little gameplay details like Mass Effect’s conversation wheel and choice-based storylines.
Arguments can be made about whether there are better collections of games released in a twelve month period, and it is true that some of this comes down to taste. If you didn’t like the games I discussed then it is very possible you won’t think very highly of this specific assortment. I do not think, however, that there is a more defining cross-section of quality, creative experiences to be found in any year of gaming. When considering the general trends of the game industry, the amount of acclaim so many games continue to receive, and the impact they continue to have, it is hard not to reflect nostalgically on 2007 and think, “Dang…that was one hell of a time to be a gamer.”