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Games of 2006

Last year, we have been mostly playing....

Looking back over the year passed was never going to be an easy task, nor can we guarantee a comprehensive assessment within the confines of one article, when faced with the hundreds if not thousands of titles released across the year just expired. So what are play.tm's dedicated team to do? Well, we've instead opted for a highly subjective 'staff picks'-style approach, delivering our writers' favourite game of the year, extracted under duress. The decisions made weren't easy, and some had to be forced from our team using veiled threats - this being the case, you may not agree with our 2006 picks, which at times reflect our own team's bizarre tastes. With this firmly placing our choices in context, then, on with our games of 2006, which start with....

Andrew Macarthy - We Love Katamari

So you're this little prince with a head shaped like an ibuprofen capsule, kay? And you push this gluey ball called a Katamari that everything sticks to. First you start rolling over small stuff like paper clips and spoons, but the more you run over the bigger and more powerful your ball gets. Soon you're picking up people and cars and houses and everything. Even giraffes. This is the easiest way to explain to gamers and non-gamers alike about how We Love Katamari, my game of 2006, works. Strangely enough, talking about We Love Katamari is also the simplest way of forcing people to nervously move to a safe distance from you, before hurriedly phoning for a psychotherapist on your behalf.

We Love Katamari is the sequel to the sleeper success of its predecessor, Katamari Damacy and, unlike so many sequels it manages to enhance the series in every way without, crucially, displacing its core mechanics or alienating its established audience by trying anything too clever. It's storyline for one, reflects the somewhat unexpected success of the original in a way that amuses and engages current fans whilst also educating and welcoming new players. In this sequel, additional game play modes include rolling the largest Katamari within a time limit, completing objectives by guiding different forms, (stuffing the face of a sumo wrestler, for example) as well as various time attack challenges. Pair all this with a set of instantly memorable J-pop/rock tracks pumping out in the background and what you have is one of the most original, addictive and enjoyable games, I reckon, ever released. With Me and My Katamari rumoured to be the third and last game in the series (and available for the PSP only), be sure to pick up this PS2 gem and very soon, I bet, you'll be loving Katamari too.

Paul Newcombe - Guitar Hero

Playing Guitar Hero for the first time during a period when I was feeling a tad jaded about games in general was something of a revelation, it was fun. Good old fashioned beaming smiles, uncontrollable joyful laughter, pure and simple FUN! With the ever increasing emphasis on games being more realistic, more violent, more mature etc., it becomes easy to forget that at the end of the day they should also be fun and nothing last year proved to be more that than the dream fulfilment offered by Guitar Hero.

Anyone who's ever stood in front of a mirror and strummed their air guitar along to a song will instinctively understand what makes this game so great, it offers the musically challenged amongst us the chance to get closer than we thought possible to finally being the rock gods we know in our souls we were meant to be. A finely balanced track listing that offers something for everyone makes it a fantastic party game as well as giving single players a beautifully structured learning curve. Perhaps the ultimate accolade is that, as with the best action games, getting into the ‘zone’ and feeling almost at one with the music causes the notes to flow through your fingers almost unprompted, it’s at that point that true gaming magic happens.

Stevie Smith - Guitar Hero

2006 spawned plenty of superb games of note across various formats and genres, all of which were suitably impressive in various technical disciplines, but there was only one clear winner in terms of gameplay, and that was Guitar Hero.

RedOctane’s award-winning musical masterpiece received its European release in April 2006 (following a late 2005 release in the US), and provided one of the most fundamentally engrossing and inspiring gameplay experiences to be had for many a year. For this reviewer at least, Guitar Hero’s head-slammingly simple mayhem helped rekindle a waning passion for videogames in general as bland series reincarnations and never-ending annual sequels threatened to quash any sense of subjective evolutionary satisfaction.

Gears of War may emerge as the strongest graphical entrant of 2006, while Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training may be deemed the most original, Okami heralded as the most beautiful, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion seen as the most epic, yet Guitar Hero was easily the most fun. Grasping that moulded Gisbon SG replica before the TV while strumming across its pseudo string bar and twisting fingers into maddeningly quick positions on the coloured fret buttons—all to a fantastic cover-version array of headlining rock tunes—was always effortlessly pleasing, always popular with friends, always provided a challenge, and always demanded return sessions. The recent Guitar Hero II was equally as entertaining, though it perhaps lacked the full-on mosh-pit impact of the original, which all-but wiped the floor with any other game of 2006 in offering an unsullied slice of gaming perfection.

Sam Gibson - Civilization IV: Warlords

2006 has been a fine year for gaming. We saw the launch of the last two of the next-gen triumvirate hit the shelves with all the assorted fanfare and controversy, two things I personally find integral to the gaming scene. Microsoft have also gone from strength to strength with their second offering and the two handheld platforms have both pushed gaming into new areas. The trusty PC has also seen the reinvigoration of both tired old genres and games long since thought consigned to the great bargain bin in the sky.

Unfortunately for this gamer almost all of this has passed me by as I spent 2006 pretty much as I spent 2005: with the mouse cord wrapped tightly around my upper arm and the sharp end of my keyboard buried deep in the last remaining vein, pumping dose after dose of World of Warcraft into my hopelessly addicted system. Blizzard’s wildly triumphant game had taken a grip of me like no game in many a year, but whereas the games of old were Sherbet Dips and Flying Saucers the nefarious WoW was pure scag.

However there was a shimmer of hope for me near the end of the year. I realised I could not go on in the fashion I had become so used to and the excitement I used to feel when logging in had turned into compulsion, something which I felt I had to do rather than something I necessarily wanted to do. However, it is with regret that I must admit that I did not manage to wean myself gradually away from WoW. For while I am still known to spike myself with its undeniable joys from time to time I instead found myself sitting up into the wee hours spaced out on gaming methadone, Civilization IV: Warlords.

My old favourite had returned yet again in the form of an expansion pack to my (non-WoW) GotY from 2005. This time round the combat had been beefed up to the point where my naturally pacifistic playstyle was finally replaced by one dripping in blood played along to a soundtrack of screaming and explosions. Firaxis managed to continue the momentum from their incredible re-working of Civilization by forming an expansion pack that opened the original out into new areas while providing enough new content to allow for new strategies to be played out with the same feelings of glee and anticipation I remember experiencing all those years ago, hunched over my Amiga 500 while curled up in bed, enduring another week off of school with an unfortunate case of ‘flu’.

While some of you may disagree that an expansion pack should be a viable candidate for Game of the Year I have two things to say. The first; have you seen what passes for sequels in some quarters these days? And secondly, thank Ragnoras it helped get me off the WoW.

Gary Flavell - Fight Night Round 3

My first inclination, as when thinking about my choice of games in any capacity, was to go for Pro Evolution Soccer 6. But as I have only played the 360 version in any real kind of depth – while it plays fantastically the game is essentially a half cut, half finished adaptation of the PS2 version – I couldn’t bring my self to front the Pro Evo bandwagon; as I have done for what seems like eons. I have instead jabbed in a similar direction: the sports sim. And, given my sickly fascination for pugilism; my, before playing this game, never-ending quest for online multiplayer fulfillment, and with it’s place firmly lodged as the first true next generation title: I can only dedicate the next paragraph or so to EA’s Fight Night Round 3.

I can’t imagine this being a massively popular choice, I’m certain that I’m Play.tm’s only supporter for its recognition however there is reason. Boxing, despite misleading first impressions, isn’t simply about hitting your opponent as hard as possible – it has cavernous depths and Fight Night Round 3 has embraced such depth. While it’s impossible to 100% truly capture the sport – given the infinite types of punches a real life boxer can throw – Round 3 instead perfects a fundamental representation of basic punches, ducking, weaving and blocking. When you combine all together, as you’re inevitably forced to do, you’re left with a superbly accurate simulation. And despite the superficial hip hop style presentation there is more depth in strategy than any beat-em-up I have seen before. In what other game can a single fight last three quarters of an hour? Equally what game can offer such diversity that fight can also last just a few seconds?

Beside the superb technical make up of Fight Night Round 3, the true beauty can be found online. The headset enables you to talk/scream at the other person you’re fighting in real-time. While this isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, the fact that so many dwellers from the US play the game makes it more entertaining. Look out for those from the West Coast, particularity California, those lot love to ‘trash talk’ as they call it. However the joy you feel as you land the knockout punch on their fighter and hear their once so confident, borderline arrogant, voice fade to a murmur and mumble obscenities, is something I have never found in any other game…ever.

So, a game that made me feel such euphoria can only be the right and honourable choice for my game of 2006. I actually can’t contain myself at the thought of Round 4.

Duncan Lawson - Company of Heroes

Considering how successful and critically acclaimed Company of Heroes was, it must be one of the least original games published by a major studio in recent years. It had a straight up and down WWII plot without twist or revelation, a control and resource system directly transposed from Dawn of War, and a comparatively limited unit selection. From such humble beginnings THQ and Relic forged a wonderful alchemy of balance, attention to detail, and flawless design so creating what is arguably the best RTS yet made. There is not one radical element to CoH - it simply delivers on what every other RTS has been either pretending or hoping to achieve since Command and Conquer made the scene. It is a testament to how saturated the market and jaded the gaming public has become when a game that simply lives up to its designers claims and concentrates solely on core gameplay elements is in itself radical. Peerless in both its single player campaigns and its online play, the only criticism that has yet been sensible levelled at Company of Heroes is that it's just too short.

Visceral, exciting, engaging, and a whole bunch of other hyperbole that can usually be found written in out-of-context quotes on the back of the box - but this time its all actually really really true- Company of Heroes demands your attention for Game of the Year.

Anna Patai - Lego Star Wars II

Cooperative multiplayer games are woefully rare, games with a light-hearted sense of humour even rarer. LEGO Star Wars II then has to be the game of the year for anyone who wants to go against industrial profiling and admit that he has friends, and some of them might even be girls. The controls rely on the four colourful buttons and the game is infinitely forgiving of mistakes, at the same time offering plenty of puzzles that require group discussion.

Why you buy it of course is the nostalgia factor of original LEGO bits with the added geeky goodness of Star Wars in-jokes. Seeing Yoda with a giant moustache or Darth Vader with a LEGO cup in his hand already makes it a worthwhile purchase, whilst the cut sequences are tiny spoof gems. This was all true of LEGO Star Wars I as well, the major improvement, obviously, is that this one is based on the superior original trilogy. Mutter mutter mutter.

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