Winner: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Nintendo | Wii
After a years-long wait and a groundswell of hype that few games could ever achieve, anything but a Game of the Year award for Twilight Princess could be viewed as a letdown. But there is no letdown. Princess delivers everything you'd want in not only a Zelda game, but in gameplay - period. Essentially, this game takes what many consider to be the best game ever, Ocarina of Time, improves on it in every way and then adds new elements that actually work. Changing into a wolf isn't just for show - it's a way to open up all-new possibilities for puzzles and dungeon design.
More importantly, however, Princess proved a great many things. It showed that it's possible to take a conventional game and have it control accurately and intuitively with the Wii remote. Princess also made good on Nintendo's mantra of "gameplay over graphics" by offering a polished, aesthetically jaw-dropping experience without the need for cutting-edge hardware. Princess didn't rewrite the book on action-adventure gaming, but it did close a chapter. Next time we expect revolutionary things out of Nintendo and Zelda; for now, this is as good an experience as you're going to find anywhere, on any console.
Honorable mention: Gears of War
Microsoft | Xbox 360
Gears of War is much more than a blood-soaked splatterfest. It's the embodiment ... finally... of everything we had hoped for in a new generation of gaming: jaw-numbing graphics, totally unique gameplay and addictive multiplayer that's both smart and social.