Ferrago Best of 2003
So another year of gaming has passed us by. There have been some disappointing delays. I would have so dearly liked to get my hands on Half-Life 2 and also Capcom's ultra stylish Killer 7, but there have been plenty of other great releases in the meantime. Industry consolidation has seen the closure of a number of smaller developers both abroad and in the UK - Mucky Foot (Startopia), Lost Toys (Battle Engine Aquila), and Computer Artworks (The Thing) to name a few. The bigger players have not been resting on their laurels though and I've been impressed with the higher calibre that many tie-in products have shown, such as Return of the King and the imaginative update of Tron 2.0. Still, on with my choice, and the rest of the Ferrago team's picks of 2003...
Viewtiful Joe (GC)
For me personally it's been the way a couple of old genres have had new life breathed into them, namely with Ikaruga and Viewtiful Joe on the GameCube. Ikaruga is actually a few years old now. Originally released for the arcades it later got ported to the Dreamcast and then finally this year it made it to the GameCube. And then by some miracle it got released outside of Japan (cheers Infogrames!). You know a game is hardcore when you can actually buy an appreciation DVD that consists solely of people playing it. It is definitely one of the hardest games I've ever played, but the brilliant game play keeps me coming back for a quick blast here and there. I sincerely hope that next year someone will make a vertical shooter as good as this, but one that is more suited to us mere mortals.
My pick of the year though has to go to Viewtiful Joe from Capcom. This game has everything you could possibly want. A great tongue in cheek storyline delivers some truly memorable moments. The colourful visuals are matched with inventive enemies (tutu wearing robots anyone?) and some insane boss battles. The simple platform game mechanics have been revitalised thanks to the viewtiful FX element of the gameplay. Sure it's a little short and the infrequency of save points is a tad irritating. But dammit, Viewtiful Joe is an awesome game. And like 007, I can't wait for him to return in another adventure.
Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time (PS2)
In my mind I sit upon a flying cloud and before me are the games of 2003. As I skim above them held aloft by my magical Nimbus Cloud, the mire of bad sequels, horrid licenses and terrible cash-ins begin to make my head spin. But wait, a glint off in the distance clears my thoughts and the horrid games that tried so hard to crush my spirit are all but a distant memory. There it is! The diamond in the rough, the one game that I have craved all year. The game that made fighting through the filthy urchins all worthwhile...
Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time appeared from nowhere at this years E3 with some awesome videos and very little else to accompany it. Remaining true to its (very) old school roots it really blew me away not only in terms of graphical accomplishment but it had the gameplay to match. You can just feel the love that has been poured into the game by its creators. It is also nice to see that western developers can sock it to the Japanese in terms of slick game design. Shying away from the cutesy formula was also something that makes PoP stand out as it succeeds where other "grown up" platformers (Tomb Raider anybody? Didn't think so) fail. Sure Jak II has supposedly grown up and become darker, but it still features a somewhat grating talking rat on your shoulder for the entire game. Prince keeps it all very much down to earth and adheres to its old school roots.
There has been a lot of competition this year with the likes of the Legend of Zelda, Knights of the Old Republic to mention just two, but the fact that PoP: SoT came from nowhere is really something that made the title all the more interesting for me, and besides it didn't feature 90 hours of boring sailing which pushed Zelda off my top game of 2003 position. Look at that, I managed both a review and a Game of the Year nomination without once referring to that little guy who changed his name to a symbol. Success!
Command & Conquer Generals
2003 was a fairly robust year for PC games so making a single choice for my best game of the year is not an idle choice to make. So rather than try to pick finely between the merits of a group of games in an attempt to decide which game is the most well put together, innovative, pretty, challenging and other superlatives, I've decided to choose the one game which I've had the most fun playing.
This year's take on the series, C&C Generals and its expansion Zero Hour was the first time that the C&C world was taken into three dimensions. Set in a world topically closer to our own than in the past, C&C: Generals delivered an entertaining if somewhat shallow single player experience wrapped up in some of the funniest 3D bells and whistles at the time. Retaining the sly humour the series is famous for C&C Generals took the franchise forward into the new millennium while hanging on to the spirit of its forebears.
The C&C games have been about both the gigantic frontal assault utilising all the products your war machine and sneaky incursions behind robust base defences. Generals took these fights to new levels, with those dastardly GLA causing all sorts of headaches, the air power of the USA leading to raised fists and decimated structures and the Overlords of the Chinese encapsulating memories of the Mammoth Tank in an even more devastating tool. Oh, and the super-weapons were a great laugh; any game with nukes, especially ones as beautiful as these, gets my vote. While the single player campaigns in the C&C series have usually been fun it is in the multiplayer that the true raucous nature of the title's can be fully appreciated. The internet is all good and fine but the real fun is to be had in laying waste to good friends, to people you live with. Up until recently I was sharing a flat with three mates. Up in the large living room there were four computers networked up and each with a copy of Generals. It was easy to pick up while rewarding repetitive play with new secrets and tricks. All these elements, along with a chat system that brought much amusement as we tried to make a comprehensive list of naughty words that it wouldn't censor, kept me and my flatmates up until the wee hours.
Apart from myself none of them were RTS fans but quickly we would be down the pub discussing tactics, or dreaming at night of Jarman Smell and his sniper rifle. Generals swept up one game nut and three RTS virgins into its war machine. We downloaded nearly every map off of the internet, played with random sides, no super-weapons or pure GLA terrorist fests. We tried every permutation that was on offer and put more hours into the game than we did into sleeping, and still we came back for more. It was the best period of unemployment I've ever had. And it is because of the three to four months from the middle of summer where every day was a good day for a fight - sometimes a day would mean fighting upto half a dozen times - and my flatmates and I learned the true nature of LAN warfare that garners this game my award for best of 2003. Any game that can persuade four young men to leave the club early on a Saturday night to head home for a fix has to be something special. And C&C Generals is the only game I know of with that power from the last ten years.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PC)
Vice City was never going to be a bad game - I mean how could it. With the bedrock of free-reign gameplay goodness that was the previous incarnation GTA3, and Rockstar at the wheel, it was always going to be a corker. The now legendary level of style and sophistication in the voice acting, music and plot (hell, even the packaging, loading screens and TV adverts) combined near-perfectly with masterful tweaks to the engine. What other game has had its soundtrack released separately, in conjunction with the game release I ask?
Need I say more. I think not. The fanboys in the comments will agree, I'm sure. (I think Mr Cartwright should probably be penalised for unconstitutional use of fanboys in his plea - Ed).
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Grittier than John Thaw's hoarse raspings in The Sweeney, and infinitely more stylish, Max's second coming on the PC this year receives my pick because it effortlessly manages to achieve what other titles so crave, and what the games industry as a whole requires: mainstream appeal. Of course, you might say that the cinematic leanings of Max Payne 2 and the original ooze with film-inspire set-pieces, eye-poppingly dramatic camera angles, quick dialogue and even, gasp, a half-decent plot. But whilst all these expertly blended factors play their role in making Max my number one man, it is more simple qualities that also contribute to Max's appeal. The controls are well thought out and forgiving, their are very few bugs - the camera doesn't lodge itself in a wall, nor do characters fall through scenery. The music is engrossing - and overall this is a very slick game that won't pose too many problems even on comparatively old computer systems.
In short, Max Payne 2 is a class act - a game that manages to be worth far more than the sum of its parts, thanks to the fact that all its individual components are so expertly realised and never jar. Some have said it is a tad short, but I think that can be excused by the sheer cinematic intensity with which the game is packed - after all, would you rather have a two-hour masterpiece or a never-ending reality TV show? I rest my case, suffice to say that one day all games will be made like Max Payne 2, and I'll be a very happy man.
Star Wars Galaxies: An Empire Divided
Right, I'll admit it from the start, I am a Star Wars fan. Not a rabid fanboy by any means, but I have been known to pick up the odd Star Wars book or game and give it a go. I like the ideas behind it and the fairy tale aspect of the whole series; it offers an escape from my reality, into one that is far more thrilling, how often do you smuggle spice and escape the clutches of an imperialistic authority? (except Brad, I know he does it all the time). So, when I learned of SWG, I was obviously excited, the thought of living a life in the Star Wars universe really did get me going. Pistol shoot-outs against Imperial stockades and the chance to become a Jedi in a non-linear environment. Fantastic!
Around September of this year, I decided to take a trip to the good old US of A, whilst there I walked into a games shop and asked the guy which PC titles he recommended for me, considering I'm from the UK, 'Oh my God!', he screamed at me in near orgasm, 'You MUST try Star Wars Galaxies!'. Fearing he may get even more emotional if I didn't buy it, I did so, storing it in my suitcase, ready to be installed the second I got home.
After installing the game, what followed can only be described as perhaps the best gaming of my life, from that day in September until now, on December 24th 2003, Star Wars Galaxies has been played every single day for an hour or more. My life is in shambles, I'm not sure when I last ate or when indeed I last submitted anything to Luke... got a feeling it was in October.
This game will rule your life. People are spending $400 on eBay getting credits and holocrons for this damned game! I can't stop playing, I am simply addicted, you tell yourself you can stop any time you want, only to find yourself going back like some terrible electronic addict. I grind away, doing things that in theory are so boring a goldfish would give up, yet I love every second. What is wrong with me? I hear cries of people screaming 'It's awful! Full of Bugs! Like a Beta game!', in which case, why do you still play it? You are like me and thousands of others... you are an addict.
So, thanks SOE, you have created an online drug, wrapped around the Star Wars universe. I really should hate you for ruining the last few months of my life, but in reality, I love it. Damn you.