5. BioShock 2
Like many fans, we thought the original BioShock was a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that could not – and should not – be repeated. This sequel proved us wrong in so many different ways, however, that we still have trouble figuring out how the Ken Levine-less development team at 2K Marin managed to pull it off.
How do you improve on a mysterious protagonist whose very identity represented one of gaming's greatest twists? Cast the player as an iconic Big Daddy, searching for a hidden past that only the equally iconic Little Sisters can reveal to him. What's better than genetic weapons like hypnosis and telekinesis? A drill the size of a battering ram, for starters, but also the ability to upgrade or combine plasmids into new and more dangerous powers. Can Rapture continue to inspire fear? If the underwater city is made to feel more real and – with the addition of screeching, needle-armed Big Sisters – more dangerous, then yes. Oh yes.
None of these solutions are obvious, though, and all had the potential for franchise-killing disaster. The fact that BioShock 2 is such a worthy follow-up, then, is something of a minor miracle... or a major testament to the creators' care and devotion for a series we're now happy to see expand.
4. God of War III
When you see Kratos on the front of the box, you instantly know what to expect. A very angry man with very deadly weapons, ripping and tearing and screwing the entirety of ancient Greece – its mythological monsters, its arrogant gods, its beautiful women, its epic settings – into unbelievably bloody bits and pieces. God of War III was never expected to be anything but "more of the same."
It's the sheer scale and practiced perfection of the "more" that's truly surprising, then. The bosses aren't just bigger. Within minutes of starting the game, Kratos has become so dwarfed by the size of his first opponents that he's barely more than a shirtless pixel on the screen. The violence hasn't merely been increased. By the end of this stomach-churning gore fest, this will be one of the more pleasant things you've witnessed:
Yeah, the infamous sex minigames are especially scandalous the third time 'round, too. What makes God of War III such a clear choice for this best-of-the-year countdown, however, are not the gratuitous and visually obvious changes, but the subtler enhancements to gameplay. Like secondary weapons that are finally as cool as the chain-blades. Like puzzles that are both deviously clever and immediately intuitive. Like quick-time events that don't completely distract from the action, and that act more as rewards than as frustrating obstacles. If that last example isn't enough to justify God of War III's place on this list, we don't know what else would be.