2004 in Review
And there endeth another year. And here cometh another yearly roundup. 2004 was a great year for gaming. There were some disappointments of course, such as the way licenses and gaming franchises dominated the sales charts again and how it seemed that more than ever original IP's are increasingly a thing of the past. However, it would be downright rude to not celebrate the many good things that 2004 bought us. Yes, sequels should be boring but when they are as good as the likes of Halo 2, Half Life 2 and Burnout 3 then you won't find too many folk complaining. This year also saw the handheld market take the spotlight in the most spectacular fashion. In one year we both saw the announcement and launch of two fantastic handhelds, albeit not on European shores. As if that wasn't enough, it wasn't just Sony and Nintendo battling away; a few other companies wanted a piece of the action too.
Yet despite all of this the real winner was the games themselves this year as gamers found themselves treated to some fantastic titles with a few companies making great strides to take console gaming further than it has ever gone before. So, without further ado, here are my personal gaming awards for 2004. It's worth noting, before you all shoot me down in flames in the comments section, that these offerings are purely my own. Don't get angry. If you don't agree with me, then feel free to politely let me know but please bare in mind that I am not you and therefore have slightly different tastes. If I was you things would get complicated; there would be two of us and all sorts of existential complications would undoubtedly arise. Celebrate our differences and, if there are any, also the views on which we agree.
Talk of the Year - Driv3r
Oh, controversy. How we love it so. There are no weapons of mass destruction? Lying swines! Michael Jackson knobs kids (allegedly)? Filthy beggar! Certain review scores were somewhat inflated in return for early and exclusive review code? Burn them all! Yes, it's the Driv3r fiasco. Lots of folk would like us to forget it but unfortunately for them the whole debacle is already part of gaming folklore forever.
Now, so far after the event, we can all see clearly that Driv3r was a huge disappointment. It also seems that Atari felt this way too. Knowing it was releasing what was fundamentally an unfinished and severely flawed game, we not only had review embargos slapped on websites but most magazines were refused receipt of review copies. Other than a couple of select Future Publishing magazines that is, who as it happened both heaped praise on the game and granted it 90% ratings. Now, in fairness there were a few websites that subsequently also rated the game highly but on the whole it was clear to see that the title was far from a classic. Of course, no actual evidence of bribes or payments ever emerged but there are few who believe nothing untoward occurred. Maybe one day we will know for sure but until then let's just savour the sweet aroma of the succulent juice of controversy.
Genre of the Year - First Person Shooters
Folk keep saying it's dead, but it just refuses to die. I've lost count of the articles I've read claming that the FPS is becoming a stagnant genre that people simply aren't interested any more. However, in a year that's seen so many big releases it's the FPS that has dominated the headlines. Whether it's Halo 2, Half Life 2, Doom 3, Far Cry, Killzone or Painkiller, shooting people in the face has never been as big business as it is at the moment. Top marks then to the FPS for proving that there's life in the genre yet.
M.I.A. of the Year - GT4 / Phantom
A Japanese-only release for Gran Turismo 4 on December 28th is a piss-poor showing from Polyphony Digital by anyone's standards. We've been waiting for it for so long now it's becoming silly. First it was last year. Then the mid year release was pushed back so a fully online release could hit shelves before Christmas. Then we're told that not only would it not be out in 2004 in anywhere other than Japan but that online had been scrapped completely, or at least possibly until a subsequent version of the game. Truly shocking. Such ineptitude could only be bettered by the comic genius's at Infinium who despite spending lots of money on its project and getting lots of big names on board have still not managed to get their online-only PC-come-games-machine "The Phantom" into the shops. It would be all the more funny if anyone actually cared but the cold truth is that I don't think anyone actually does.
Casualty of the Year - Indie Gaming Stores
Whether it's supermarkets selling new games for £29.99, online retailers dishing out games before release, Sony's PS2's getting stuck on the Suez Canal or Microsoft refusing to supply indies with Xbox's - lots of factors have conspired against the indie retailers in 2004. You can blame whomever you want, but the likelihood is that there are going to be far fewer options on the British high street for gamers in 2005. Indie's are good. Big corporations are bad. Support the real gamers!
Biggest Evil of the Year - Hype
Hype is an evil thing. Perfectly decent games like Fable and Killzone suffer because of it yet shitty games like Driv3r and Goldeneye profit from it despite being turd. Hype has always been here but in 2004 it seemed so much worse. Hype helps no-one other than the PR people and the damned. Do not partake in it.
Crime of the Year - Goldeneye: Rogue Agent
So, it's nothing to do with the first game. It's not made by the same people. It's called Goldeneye because the main character actually has a golden eye. And to round it off it's utter chuff too. Yet people still bought it. What sort of evil, wretched world is this?
And so onto the games themselves...
Import Game of the Year - Katamari Damashii (PS2)
I'll never forgive Nintendo for their protracted release of Animal Crossing in the UK but at least they eventually got round to it. Namco on the other hand still show no sign of granting the majestic Katamari Damashii the PAL release it so painfully deserves, though at least they have confirmed that the sequel will appear in Europe.
If you haven't yet done so then I urge you to check out the Ferrago review here. A mere paragraph is wholly unable to describe the brilliance of the game, so wonderful is it in its originality, charm and style. Never has there been a better reason to get into importing. In an age where originality is sparse and risks are rarely taken it's so gratifying to see a truly unique game released but for it also to be executed so divinely. You really should play it as soon as you possibly can.
This is a section in which I'm pleasingly spoilt for choice as 2004 saw an abundance of software appear that finally made Xbox Live an essential purchase for Xbox gamers. I concede though that there has been teething troubles. Though it was great to see EA finally bite the bullet and join the Xbox Live bandwagon, their insistence on using their own servers was a real kick in the teeth for those used to Microsoft's own infrastructure. No one would have minded if it worked but annoyingly the EA lobby system was as messy as it is unreliable. Fortunately Burnout 3 was absolutely amazing on Live once you actually got going. Races are fast, smooth, relatively lag free and technically wonderful.
Star Wars Battlefront was also a contender, though not for technical accomplishments. Being perhaps the worst offender for lag on the Xbox Live service wasn't the only problem; being capped at 20 fps online meant that even when you did get a solid connection the game never felt truly smooth. Where it did win however was in the superb use of the license. Battlefront felt like the Star Wars game you'd always wanted to play. It has action in the bucket load, vehicles you can pilot and is so authentically entrenched within Lucas's universe that anyone with even the most passing interest in Star Wars can easily become engrossed.
Despite being a huge let down in many ways, a note of gratitude should also go to Pro Evolution Soccer 4. Yes, it's a huge disappointment and there's no escaping the fact that it could have been a lot better but still, it's PES4 online! How cool is that? Finally I've been able to play mates that I've only discussed the game with before, I've beaten folk from all over the world (yes, okay, I admit that often they beat me too) and I've spent entire evenings utterly engrossed in it. It may be flawed, but it's oh so great.
Despite the competition though my nomination goes to Halo 2, without doubt the finest execution of Xbox Live technology yet seen. Yes, the single player is a little disappointing but then that's all the more reason to forget about it and concentrate on playing online. With so many game modes and so many weapon combinations Halo 2 is the kind of title that you can play endlessly and never really tire of. Whether it's an eight-man solo Slayer game, twelve-man King of the Hill encounter or tactical multi team capture the flag, everything Halo 2 has to offer online is finely tuned, incredibly fun and technically superlative. Chuck in some cool weapons, great maps and destructible vehicles and you have one absolutely terrific title.
Surprise of the Year - Flat Out (Xbox)
Hype is a nasty thing, so it makes it all the sweeter when a title appears from nowhere yet proves to be every bit as good, and often a lot better, than all the gumf you see advertised on the TV. Flat Out was one such title. Released with little fanfare and even less critical attention, Empire offered us a devilishly fun blend of Burnout 3 and Destruction Derby that amused many for weeks on end. Taken online it was even better and yet another reason to get on Live. When you see it in a bargain bucket in the coming weeks do yourself a favour and give this cracking title a go.
[Empire staff had to crowbar us off this at GSL - Ed]
In many ways the PS2 had a very quiet year in 2004. There was a distinct lack of killer exclusive titles and the Sony Online service continued to whimper against the might of Xbox Live. That said there were still plenty on decent titles on the system to keep owners happy.
Although by no means a classic, the vastly over-hyped Killzone finally made it's PS2 debut and despite never even threatening to be the Halo-beater that we had all been promised it still turned out to be a solid title and possibly the best FPS on the system. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas may be simply more of the same from Rockstar but there's a good reason why the series has sold so well up to now. GTA is unmatched in scale and whilst the execution can be found wanting at times the sheer scope of gaming on offer still remains staggering. Despite being unable to match Xbox Live, Burnout 3 was also a technical masterstroke that played just as well as its Xbox counterpart and showed that the PS2 still has some bite to back up its bark, despite its age.
For me though the best game on PS2 in 2004 was Konami's quite wonderful Gradius V. It is a shame that it's so painfully hard, despite what 2D shooter purists will tell you. It would have been better to offer a greater range of difficulty modes to suit all tastes, much like Irem did with R Type Final, yet despite it's brutal nature Gradius V still succeeded in being one of the best examples of the genre for a long time. Not only does it look divine but the gameplay is so finely tuned, the challenge so precisely balanced. Granted, it's not a game for everyone but for those of you with even the mildest retro leanings Gradius V is a must buy.
The Gamecube may continue to struggle in Europe but there have still been some excellent releases on the system this year. The Legend of Zelda Four Swords has been thrilling gamers overseas and will arrive in Europe this month. If you have three mates and four GBA's then Four Swords offers one of the most interesting multiplayer prospects yet seen on a console but even if you're on your own the game is extremely rewarding. Pikmin 2 is another fine offering from the big N, taking the formula laid down in the first and making it both more accessible and more involving than it was before. I also have to mention Animal Crossing as well. Despite the fact its been out since 1867 in the US, European gamers now at last are able to enjoy the finest game the system has to offer.
However, the most fun to be had on Gamecube this year came in the form of Donkey Konga. If you laughed at the bongos, feeling yourself to be far too hard to be seen with such a "childish" device, then more fool you. I cannot remember the last time I played a title so infectious. If you manage to put your gaming snobbery aside then sitting in front of the TV beating out rhythms to assorted cheesy tracks is a pleasure rarely bettered in gaming. Better still, you can get the woman playing it with you too! Or your mum, if you're that way inclined.
PC Game of the Year - Half-Life 2
Now, I know very little about PC gaming. Of that I make no secret. I've heard lots about Far Cry, Rome Total War and the like but there's only two PC games that I've really played in 2004. One was Doom 3 and that seemed enjoyable enough, despite not wishing to run acceptably on my PC. The other was Half-Life 2, which incidentally runs fine on the very same machine. Even with my somewhat standard setup you can instantly tell that Half-Life 2 is a quality piece of software. A finely tuned plot, some quite breathtaking level design and some sublime Orwellian styling mark Half-Life 2 as one of the finest games ever released. All this despite a ridiculous Steam problem that prevented many gamers playing it on the day of release. Boo!
The Xbox has had an amazing year. In the same twelve months as we've seen the PS2 stand still and the Gamecube struggle, the Xbox has gone from strength to strength and now offers a great range of exclusive titles and, of course, the all conquering Xbox Live service.
Burnout 3 has wowed gamers on Sony's machine as well but only when taken on Xbox Live is it able to reveal its full potential. Also released, at long last, was the intriguing Fable. I openly admit that the game could never have lived up to the quite obscene amount of hype that pre-empted it, but that should not detract from what it did achieve. Yes, the plot was uninspired and the missions rather basic but Fable is all about you, not the narrative. More specifically it's about what you want to make of yourself. The magic in Fable is not to be found by sprinting through the story mode; instead it's hidden in the side missions, tucked away neatly in the character development model, slid quietly underneath your own moral choices. Fable, much like Shenmue or Animal Crossing, is a title that rewards the player for the effort they put in. If you didn't like it, there's probably a good reason.
Nonetheless, by far the best title on Xbox this year came when Konami finally ported its quite magnificent Pro Evolution Soccer 4 to the machine. Not only did this finally give Xbox owners the chance to find out what real console football is about, but it also took PES online for the first time in its history. As if this isn't good enough, the Xbox version also improves upon its PS2 counterpart. Technically it's far smoother with no hint of the slowdown that so damaged the Sony machine. The hard drive also delivered the somewhat extensive PS2 loading times to the bin of gaming history. In fact, the position of the black and white buttons on the S Pad is about the only thing not going for it. The S Pad may be great, but you can't escape the fact that the Duelshock 2 is a far more suitable tool for the job.
However, my favourite Xbox game of the year was omitted from the last category since it's also my overall favourite game of 2004 and thusly deserving of this far greater honour. The Xbox has had such a strong year in fact that all of my contenders appeared on Microsoft's console. Halo 2 and Burnout 3 both took up more of my time than could ever be considered healthy. Add to that too the quite considerable impact of online PES to my life and all in all Bill Gates really has quite a lot to answer for. Were it not for the poor implementation of PES4 on Xbox Live then surely Konami would be walking away with the nod.
Alas though, it is not the case. As amazing as PES4 is online, the fact that it could have been so greatly improved paves the way for Sega to steal the crown. It may have been relatively ignored at retail, it may not have been as deep or multi-layered as some other titles on the market but for sheer playability and gaming purity there's no beating Outrun 2.
It has been described as a one trick pony and in many ways it is. But much like a gorgeous girlfriend that puts out every night, some tricks simply never tire. Outrun 2 may be little more than a long succession of corners but when cornering is as fun as this it's hard to get enough of it. Of course, it lacks the depth of Gran Turismo and the carnage of Burnout 3, but then that's not what it's about. Outrun 2 is about unadulterated gaming purity and pure arcade thrills. You can play it all night or you can play it for ten minutes - either way you'll love every second. Clever bonus challenges add extra spice to the simple racing formula and the bonus of online play rounds off what is already a fantastic title. It may not be as adventurous as some other games in 2004 but in my opinion it's not only the most finely executed but also the most fun. And that's what we want from games after all, right?
Hardware of the Year - PSP
The moment Sony announced that they were moving into the handheld market it suddenly became the battleground for the fiercest battle of 2004. Not only did Nintendo respond with the superb DS but other handhelds such as the Gizmondo and Zodiac also joined in the fun. It's hard to see either of the latter two machines lasting into next year but the battle between the DS and the PSP is sure to be explosive.
Now, I make no secret of the fact that I love Nintendo [Yes - Ed]. I do this mainly because there are many people that do make it a secret and I don't see the point in denying it. I'll also argue with anyone that dismisses the DS. I've been playing mine for weeks now and it's a truly wonderful machine. The touch screen alone is a marvellous innovation that genuinely opens up some new opportunities for developers. Add to that the in built microphone, extra cartridge slot for GBA games and very robust build and you have a machine truly for the new millennium.
In theory the PSP shouldn't be something that concerns me. Whilst playing near-PS2 quality titles on the move is mildly appealing I naturally felt that the DS and the innovations it offers presented a far more enticing prospect. In some ways I still think that. Or at least I'd like to. Only last week I got my hands on the PSP for the first time and I cannot deny that I was truly amazed. I'm a man - gadgets excite me. Over Christmas I got my hands on a mate's iPod for the first time and that's the sort of kit you want to take home with you and whisper sweet nothings to under the sheets, so sexy is its styling and minimalist design. The PSP however is something that you want to grab by the neck, drag out the back and make sweet sweet love to as soon as you possibly can. It's gorgeous. It's even more gorgeous when you boot it up. The screen is so large, the graphics so sophisticated, the menu so Sony. It's gadget pornography and because of that in many ways I feel I should shun it. But the truth is that when you pick up your DS after your first time with the PSP it's simply not as rewarding as it was before. One machine feels like the next generation of handheld machines, one does not. It's for that reason that I give this award, almost resentfully so, to Sony.
Astounding Achievements in 2004 - Xbox Live
As much as the PSP has wowed me and Outrun 2 consumed me, for me it would feel wrong to not give out this final gaming award. I've played some great games and tried some great new machines in 2004 but for me the thing I've enjoyed the most has been my discovery of Xbox Live.
Online gaming has been threatening to take off since the Dreamcast, but 2004 was the year when online console gaming finally delivered. With a smorgasbord of quality titles hitting the shelves in 2004, Xbox Live is currently the single most enticing reason to get an Xbox and get in front of your TV. Whether you're into racing, shooting, fighting, stealth or sports there's now several titles that really make the most of the service. On top of that it's easy to set up, relatively cheap and on the whole mostly trouble free. Of all the praise I've heaped on companies in this article, it's this accolade that I'd wish to emphasise the most. Well done Microsoft - you've done what even Sony could not.