I was absolutely not surprised when Left 4 Dead released and it wound up being an absolute gorgeous marriage of technology and design.
For those that say games aren't art, I would gladly offer up Left 4 Dead to refute those claims, particularly if playing online with a group of friends. The claustrophobia of some of the levels, with their sparse lighting and narrow confines makes the sound of the shuffling undead and the dreaded super zombies that much more terrifying. The game provides emotional moments, both funny and terrifying, so if that doesn't qualify as art, then I don't know what does.
Which leads me to a little commentary: I've worked at three studios thus far. Two of them thought very highly of themselves, trying to make something greater than themselves. One succeeded on their first attempt, and has never been able to recapture their former glory. One has consistently put out product on time, under budget, creating one of the bigger sex symbols of the PS2/Xbox generation of games.
After admiring L4D, I now understand why both companies have never reached those heights again: neither of them had the strength of design (or testicular fortitude) to pick one or two really solid game concepts, polish them to a diamond sheen and base the entirety of the game around it. But take the concept of zombie horror movies as a central theme, and in terms of game design, build the entire game around required multiplayer support (both cooperative and adversarial) and a dynamically scaling AI that you have this game. No fancy physics mechanics. No flashy quick-press sequences (looking at you God Of War) . Combat is surprisingly simple, but incredibly addictive; nothing beats blasting brainless zombie hordes and dealing with crafty super zombies.
This has really been the year of creative games - and unfortunately, sales have just not been that strong (perhaps, due to the economy). Some excellent new IPs came out this year: Dead Space, GRID, Bloom Blox, Sins of a Solar Empire. And what I've noticed between the really good games (new IP or no) and the medicore games is that the medicore games either try to do too much (too many good ideas, not enough time to polish them all).
Hardcore players appreciate a polished experience and are willing to forgive depth if the game is fun. L4D is definitely NOT deep, but it is a lot of fun.
My GameUX Summit keynote: (Dis)Assembling Games
2 weeks ago