SLIDESHOW

The 15 Coolest Games of Fall 2008

You want the scoop on this autumn's best gaming experiences, and we have it. Check out PC World's list of 15 don't-miss games and the reasons why our experts picked them.

How Cool Are These Games . . . And Why?

Autumn is when game studios trot out their big-name stuff, and this time around we couldn't wait to discuss all the offerings. The list has something for everyone, from zombie scares and monsters that lurk on an abandoned spaceship to band-in-a-box karaoke and tongue-wagging rag dolls.

In the following pages, PC World's two gaming experts--Matt Peckham, writer of the popular Game On blog, and Darren Gladstone, PC World's Casual Friday columnist--dissect an assortment of hotly anticipated sequels, like Epic's tactical run-and-gunner Gears of War 2 and Bethesda's gleefully violent Fallout 3, as well as promising first-timers such as Media Molecule's ridiculously adorable LittleBigPlanet and EA DICE's gleamingly dystopian Mirror's Edge.

The slide show is arranged according to when each game is expected to go on sale. Let's get started.

Saints Row 2 (October 14)

The Scoop: Saints Row 2; Genre: action/adventure; By: Volition; From: THQ; For: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: The gang-banging protagonist of the original Saints Row wakes from a five-year coma and hits the streets to get his groove back and dispatch double-dealing rivals in developer Volition's go-anywhere, do-anything sequel to its 2006 chart topper.

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Matt: Four words: Grand Theft Auto IV. Saints Row 2 has to leapfrog Rockstar's sprawling city simulator while distinguishing itself as more than just another me-too experience. (No pressure.) Preliminary reports sound promising, especially the fact that Volition rebuilt things from the ground up. Is it better looking? Sure, but that you expect. What you might not be anticipating are all the new ways Saints Row 2 lets you pimp your ride. You can fiddle with the way you fight and hold a weapon, as well as how you walk and talk--not to mention what your gang pals look like and drive, plus where you live and what goes inside. From pool tables to pianos and from graffiti tags to gang signs, Saints Row 2 could turn out to be more than just another Rockstar knockoff.

Darren: I knew that this game would ooze class when the developers bestowed adult-film icon Tera Patrick with the title of "Special Producer." And yet, despite all its wannabe gangsta-ism--and blatant grand-theft gameplay--I still find myself appreciating what's going on here. This game's take on multiplayer is a lot more open than most: A buddy can jump in at any time and join you in your game world. You can go on specific missions while he rolls around town on his own crime spree. Compare that with the setup in GTA IV, which locks you into death matches and cooperative missions, or Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, which makes you stick close by your partner.

Dead Space (October 14)

The Scoop:Dead Space; Genre: survival horror; By: EA Redwood Shores; From: Electronic Arts; For: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: Stranded on a derelict mining ship swarming with "necromorphs" that look like the barf-bag aliens in John Carpenter's The Thing, players battle in zero-gravity conditions wielding bolt cutters, stasis fields, and primitive energy weapons.

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Matt: Paranoid-conspiracy plotter and sometime comics writer Warren Ellisrecently admitted that he had helped with Dead Space's plot, which should tantalize fans of Ellis's particular brand of weird. On the other hand, Ellis had nothing to do with the game play, which looks to mimic Resident Evil 4's with its third-person camera and monsters popping up like jack-in-the-boxes. The folks behind this title have a mixed track record (The Godfather, The Simpsons Game), so don't expect something amazing--you'll be that much happier if it is.

Darren: I'm going to be completely, 100 percent honest with you here. When I first heard of this game, I was less than impressed. It sounded like a Doom 3 knockoff, or worse. Even going into this year's E3, I wasn't expecting much. Then I saw Dead Space in action. Horror/action fans will like the otherworldly bloodletting, but I genuinely appreciate the approach. What I've seen firsthand reminds me of ubercreepy sci-fi flicks like Event Horizon and the first Alien. Yes, the makers are liberally lifting from games such as Resident Evil 4--but at least they're doing that in intelligent ways. You're never pulled out of the experience (not even when you're sorting through your inventory), and the cut scenes are a little more interactive. I've got my money on this title becoming a surprise hit.

Far Cry 2 (October 21)

The Scoop:Far Cry 2; Genre: first-person shooter; By: Ubisoft Montreal; From: Ubisoft; For: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: Deposited in a fictionalized slice of central Africa, players explore sprawling savannah and jungle zones any way they like, stalking an arms dealer dubbed "The Jackal" who has been selling weapons to rival factions battling over a diamond-plundered nation.

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Matt: Move over, Crysis. Far Cry 2 has all your visual sophistication (breakable vegetation, dynamic weather, destructible pretty much anything) and then some. The question is, will Far Cry 2 run on anything less than a supercomputer? And more important, can it slip free of the curse of open-ended "sandbox" games that slap handcuffs on players as the final act nears to force a predictable outcome? I'm all for "What happens if I do this?" game play--let's hope that Far Cry 2's endgame can capitalize on that freedom instead of flinching from it.

Darren: I have one thing to say to anyone who played the original Far Cry: rocket-launching gorillas. While that sounded all kinds of awesome, I found myself scratching my head so much that I kept getting killed. And no thanks to the original game's broken save-point system (developer-placed, invisible checkpoints that saved the game when you found them), I once had to redo an hour of progress after dying. Fun! What the heck does any of that have to do with the sequel? Nothing, I hope. A different development team is at the helm here, and an amazing amount of detail is going into the environment--as well as into how you can affect it. Go on, grab a flamethrower and burn down a virtual rain forest. Matt, you should be a little worried about your PC's beefiness. Far Cry 2 looks like the next big game to push graphical limits. Who knows--maybe this title will wind up in our WorldBench PC test suite someday.

Fable 2 (October 21)

The Scoop:Fable 2; Genre: action/role-playing; By: Lionhead; From: Microsoft; For: Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: Explore a colonial-era fantasy realm, having sex (safe or not), getting married, raising children, training pet dogs, battling eldritch creatures, following bread-crumb trails if you're ever lost, and (based on whether you're naughty or nice) developing "good" or "evil" physical features.

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Matt: Here we go again with promises of genre-bending game play and lofty claims like "the world changes based on your actions." The difference this time? Design guru (and OBE recipient) Peter Molyneux pulled his bullet points together out of the gate instead of six weeks prior to shipping. The scuttlebutt on this title is that Lionhead isn't hyping, and that Fable 2 actually delivers a dynamic world that you can radically alter over time. Apparently you can buy anything you set eyes on, and depending on what you do for (or to) others, you can revisit spots a dozen years later to find dilapidated hovels or bustling villages.

Darren: The original Fable was big on promises. While it was good, the designers seemed to cut corners at the end. Fortunately, this version looks closer to the virtual life I've always wanted to lead. I've already been playing at the virtual casinos of Xbox Live's Fable II Pub Games. At least in Fable's world, I can afford to buy a house (no word on Frodo Mac mortgage issues in fantasyland) and settle down with a digital damsel--who will nag me to death in-game. (Kidding, honey! Love you!)

LittleBigPlanet (October 21)

The Scoop:LittleBigPlanet; Genre: action/platformer; By: Media Molecule; From: Sony; For: PlayStation 3; Rating: Everyone

Info: Imagine a world strewn with bits of felt, wood, metal, and sponge, where all those materials interact realistically. Toss in cute little Sackboy and Sackgirl dolls running and catapulting around elaborate toylike worlds, and you have the general flavor of this breakout physics-driven puzzler.

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Matt: This one is almost too cute to fail, but a little tough to pin down. It sounds like a great idea and looks all cuddly in videos, but will it be fun to play? We'll see. The part I'm most looking forward to is editing any level or object and futzing with the tactile attributes of materials and devices--ranging from string and glue to winches and pistons--to fashion widgets that would make Rube Goldberg smile. Or how about using the PlayStation Eye camera to create your own put-'em-anywhere-you-like in-game stickers?

Darren: I can, and will, name-drop every Rube Goldberg-like game I've played over the years (*cough* The Incredible Machine *cough*), but I liken my time playing LittleBigPlanet to the first time I tried Mouse Trap as a kid. You go around, grasping the basic rules, and then, as all the pieces come together, you suddenly have a massive contraption that you've created. This PS3 game is a blast to play--and it's even better when you have a couple of buddies in tow for a multiplayer race through a level that you just cobbled together.

Guitar Hero World Tour (October 26)

The Scoop:Guitar Hero World Tour; Genre: music/rhythm; By: Neversoft (PS3, Xbox 360), Vicarious Visions (Wii), Budcat Creations (PS2); From: Activision; For: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii; Rating: Teen

Info: The Guitar Hero series finally catches up to Harmonix's Rock Band with its first band-in-a-box edition, one-upping the competition with the world's first wireless, velocity-sensitive, six-piece drum kit.

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Matt: Rock Band was probably the reason I started getting nightly requests to party at my house, but Guitar Hero III has it beat for solo shredding. Guitar Hero World Tour's mellower, crowd-friendly soundtrack (Sting? Fleetwood Mac? Paul McCartney & Wings?) has me on the fence. While the new touch-sensitive guitar controller and six-piece drum kit look tasty, the game is missing an equivalent to Rock Band 2's most important feature: the ability to import virtually all of the original game's songs. It's unfortunate that Guitar Hero World Tour has no such option.

Darren: Though I haven't had the time to sit in on a proper jam session yet, a couple things in World Tour look intriguing to a faux rocker like me. For starters, the gear is inching closer and closer to real. I mean, now we're getting deep drum kits, a guitar that attempts to feel more like the real thing, and a recording-studio mode that lets us remix and release tunes. That got my attention. On the other hand, Matt, you also hit on something that's really cheesing me off: The battle lines being drawn between Guitar Hero and Rock Band 2 are getting ree-dic-u-lous. I can have AC/DC only in one game, and I can find all of Metallica's tunes only in the other. At least there's some good news, with the Xbox 360 version's limited support for Rock Band 2 peripherals. For example, if you plug in the four-pad Rock Band drum kit, Guitar Hero: World Tour will compress its drum track from five to four buttons (Guitar Hero's drums have five pads).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (October 27)

The Scoop:Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3; Genre: real-time strategy; By: EA Los Angeles; From: Electronic Arts; For: Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Teen

Info: Deploy "Tesla boats" and "Cryocopters" and spiderlike anti-infantry "Sickles" around futuristic maps to defend resources and bolster elaborate bases in EA's return to the parallel universe where World War II never happened and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin rose to power in its place.

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Matt: Real-time strategy games come and go, but the original Red Alert (1996) launched a thousand rock-paper-scissors imitators (unit A trumps B, and B trumps C, but C trumps A, and so on). Red Alert 3 isn't trying to grow the game mechanics so much as deck them out in souped-up visuals while reviving the gloriously silly bygone days of real actors hamming it up in full-motion-video cut scenes.

Darren: If you've ever considered yourself a fan of real-time strategy games, this is a full-flavored revival of the classic Red Alert series. Not familiar with the series? Did you know that the original Red Alert is available as a free download? Ditto to what Matt says: This installment won't break much new ground, but it will pave over what has been done before and make things look prettier--like Command and Conquer 3. For those folks who miss the golden age of cheezoid full-motion-video acting between ordering waves of tanks to roll over enemy positions, we've got your game right here. And certainly all you RTS nostalgia hounds will have this to cling to until StarCraft II comes out. Eventually.

Fallout 3 (October 28)

The Scoop:Fallout 3; Genre: role-playing; By: Bethesda; From: Bethesda Softworks; For: PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: One of the most popular role-playing series ever gets a ten-years-overdue sequel from the folks responsible for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Track your missing father through the post-apocalyptic debris of Washington D.C., clashing with tech scavengers and genocidal elitists on the road to some 200 possible endings.

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Matt: This one has been steeped in controversy ever since a wildly vocal minority elected to brand it as "unfaithful" to the originals. Don't buy what they're selling. First, those originals got better press than they deserved because RPGs in the late 1990s were rarer than jackalopes. (Beware crabby fanboys swathed in blinkered nostalgia!) Second, Bethesda has already done a pretty bang-up job capturing the spirit of the originals in promotional clips, so this skeptic's cap is tipped, and his fingers are triple-crossed.

Darren: I've actually had the chance to play through about a half hour of the game, and what a huge mistake that was--I wanted more. Lots more! The thing that's most frightening about Bethesda: Those people make huge, massively single-player offline games that'll chew up well over 100 hours of your life. But you won't miss the lost time as you traipse around a nuke-blasted Washington, D.C. From what I've seen so far, the inky-black humor from the original games remains intact. One thing that the haters jump on is the notion that it isn't a turn-based strategy game. Wrong! Hold down a button in combat, and it stops the clock, allowing you to call your next targeted shot. If you want, you can play the whole game that way.

Tom Clancy's Endwar (November 4)

The Scoop:Tom Clancy's Endwar; Genre: real-time tactical; By: Ubisoft Shanghai; From: Ubisoft Shanghai; For: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, Xbox 360; Rating: Teen

Info: Throw down with Russians, Europeans, or Americans in this near-future simulation of battalion-scale tactical warfare during World War III that you can optionally control entirely with your voice.

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Matt: "Entirely with your voice?" Color me skeptical about the practicality of voice recognition in battles that'll hinge on split-second tactics (though Ubisoft has run a video of parrots issuing commands more or less successfully). On the other hand, the option to play in massive online battles and actually shift the front lines on a global map could herald the sort of tactical battle depth that generalist MMOs like World of Warcraft are missing.

Darren: The game seems impressive enough. I'm really looking forward to this action-tactical take on traditional real-time strategy. But like you, Matt, I'm a little skeptical of the whole voice-recognition thing. The parrots in the video are more eloquent than some people I know, but can I mumble something in my native Brooklynese and have this thing recognize what the heck I'm saying? What about when I'm sick and my voice is all over the place? What about a twangy Texan accent? Or Senior Associate Editor Danny Allen's Aussie accent? (I kid, I kid.)

Resistance 2 (November 4)

The Scoop:Resistance 2; Genre: first-person shooter; By: Insomniac; From: Sony; For: PlayStation 3; Rating: Mature

Info: Caught in the crosshairs of an extraterrestrial invasion led by mutant four-eyed humans, you plus dozens of stylish guns are up against a massive aerial assault on the United States flush with Godzilla-size opponents in this sequel to developer Insomniac'sResistance: Fall of Man.

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Matt: Take a guy who's resistant to a virus that's turning humans into snarling snake-headed Voldemort clones and make him a ticking time bomb who could succumb at any time, and this one gets my fingernail-chewing vote. If Insomniac can keep the levels generous and interesting, the visuals spectacularly Spielbergian, and the enemies like trundling skyscrapers, I'll be there with bells on.

Darren: I know you're getting all worked up over the single-player game, Matt, and I like where Insomniac Studios is taking this game. It's a mashup of Half-Life 2's sci-fi fare and the Call of Duty titles. But the big deal here has to be what's going into the multiplayer matches. I'm talking 30-on-30 battles where you pick a role and work with your squad to fulfill objectives. There's also talk of a separate cooperative campaign with your buddies.

Gears of War 2 (November 7)

The Scoop:Gears of War 2; Genre: tactical third-person shooter; By: Epic Games; From: Microsoft; For: Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the wreckage, out pops more of the original game's ostensibly routed alien Locust Horde, hell-bent on trashing the human race and stopping your well-armed posse from saving it.

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Matt: For all its hype, the original Gears of War was pretty paint-by-the-numbers, one long sprint between chunks of concrete and piles of slag, tripping invisible wires to make the bad guys go "boo!" Make no mistake: Gears of War 2 is probably this year's Halo 3. I just hope they've fixed the lousy enemy AI and tweaked the glitchy "take cover" mechanic that glued you to walls and made peeling off in a hurry difficult. One of the game's voice actors claims that the sequel's story will be "more emotionally affecting than Bioshock." That's grand and all, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Darren: To put the original Gears of War in more conventional terms, that game was like watching a 1980s Schwarzenegger movie while pounding a six-pack of Red Bull. I'm not saying it was a bad experience, but you kinda knew where the game was headed. Walk behind a turret, and--poof!--a wave of enemies would appear. As for the story...look, I don't care if the voice actors promise Academy Award-worthy performances coming out of the game. I will likely play Gears 2, no matter what. Sometimes you just need to blow something up, no questions asked. My only request is that the world have a little more color variety and a lot less brown.

Valkyria Chronicles (November 11)

The Scoop:Valkyria Chronicles; Genre: tactical role-playing; By: WOW Entertainment; From: Sega; For: PlayStation 3; Rating Pending

Info: Repel an imperial invasion by chaperoning a group of glamorously cel-shaded characters between tank and infantry dustups, in a turn-based combat engine that splits the battlefield into zoomed-out overhead mode and zoomed-in "action" mode.

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Matt: Despite the triumphs of games like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics, it's a crying shame how few tactical role-playing games come to market. Valkyria Chronicles aims to remedy that, wrapped in a look that resembles Pixar's work enhanced by a bucket of colored pencils. It sounds reasonably sophisticated, too. Plant snipers on rooftops, engineers to knock down walls, tanks to flank enemy positions, or assault infantry to slink up to the rear of a tank and trash its weak spot. Sign me up.

Darren: I've enjoyed every X-Com-like game that has come along, but turn-based strategy usually involves a couple of mad geniuses who chin-stroke for hours plotting every...single...move. The reason I've been championing Valkyria Chronicles is that it kicks the humdrum turn-based strategy of the past in the kiester. You have a limited amount of action points that dwindle as you run around the map. Since you can move only so far or pull off only so many moves in a single turn, you're suddenly forced to choose between diving for cover or going out in a blaze of glory.

Mirror's Edge (November 11)

The Scoop:Mirror's Edge; Genre: action/adventure; By: EA Digital Illusions CE; From: Electronic Arts; For: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; Rating: Teen

Info: You're an acrobatic dissident trapped in a sinister squeaky-clean dystopia, running messages between pockets of the resistance while attempting to free your sister from a surveillance-obssessed totalitarian regime.

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Matt: Nothing has been milked quite like the first-person shooter, so how about a shooter where you don't have to shoot anything? Sure, in Mirror's Edge you can pop a cap now and then, but the emphasis in this gymnastic gala is on movement, plain and simple. Slide under obstacles, tumble off building tops, dash along walls, and shimmy along ledges--the goal is to move as nimbly and gorgeously as possible instead of doing the same ol' shooting and scooting. To paraphrase senior producer Owen O'Brien, Mirror's Edge is about putting the "person" back in "first-person."

Darren: A HUGE problem for me with first-person shooters that try to have me hopping over gaps is that I'm a bit of an uncoordinated goon. I never get a sense of where my feet stand in the virtual world. That often spells untimely deaths, multiple reloads of saved games, and a couple broken mice. What's surprising about Mirror's Edge is that, from what little I've played, it actually works. Even I--the klutziest guy around--have no issues navigating the cityscape from a first-person perspective.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (November 13)

The Scoop:World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King; Genre: massively multiplayer online role-playing; By: Blizzard; From: Activision Blizzard; For: Mac OS X, Windows; Rating: Teen

Info: The second expansion to the most popular MMORPG in the multiverse raises the game's level cap to 80, adds a new playable class and profession, shoehorns in a fresh and snow-blanketed continent to explore, and gives you the option to battle the Lich King himself on his Frozen Throne.

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Matt: Compare World of Warcraft to a circle: One goes around and around forever, while the other is just a line on some paper. Correction--one is about to go beyond forever with the release of an expansion that will add a land mass roughly as big as the one Blizzard bundled with The Burning Crusade. The design team is adding scads of new content and putting some shine on the visuals, but not really pushing any boundaries.

Darren: I'm a little nervous about the newest World of Warcraft expansion, but for reasons other than what you'd expect. I had to go cold turkey. I had to quit playing WoW. Then Burning Crusade came out. And I was back. This time around, Wrath of the Lich King kicks off by opening up a new continent and providing a continuation of the story from Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. That means new lands to fight over (for the horde!), more high-level quests, and, of course, another class--The Death Knight. I think I might need to disconnect my Internet until the urge subsides again.

Left 4 Dead (November 17)

The Scoop:Left 4 Dead; Genre: survival horror; By: Certain Affinity; From: Valve; For: Windows, Xbox 360; Rating: Mature

Info: It's survivors versus infected in developer Certain Affinity's zombie brawler, as teams of up to four players leg it through hospitals, airports, and dreary rural landscapes, fending off hordes of slobbering humans infected with a mutant form of rabies.

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Matt: Imagine you and three pals with an armful of Ruger Mini-14s and Benelli M4 Super 90s crowd-surfing the snarling throngs of red-eyed creatures in Danny Boyle's horror film spree 28 Days Later, and you have the gist of Left 4 Dead. While the game sounds a little on the short side, with just four scenarios lasting "between 45 and 75 minutes" each, the highly touted zombie AI and emphasis on cooperative play make the "go back and try it a dozen different ways" factor the big lure here.

Darren: Even with the boatload of zombies in this game, I'd liken it to a Counter-Strike or a Team Fortress 2 (not coincidentally, both from Valve as well) more than a single-player shooter (though the partner AI can pick up the slack if you are going solo). Technically, CS and TF2 didn't ship with that many maps either; but many more are now available, either created by users or provided freely to the community. And let's not downplay the fact that while you can play as the survivors and fend off the running dead, being among the brain-hungry zombie horde (an option) is a little fun as well. I've seen and played this game at multiple events, and every time I'm done with my turn, I get back in line, anxious to play more.