Well, at long last the Xbox 360 is out in America, and as a result the gaming world is going nuts about the so called "next gen". The machine itself won't hit European store shelves for another week, but providing I can get hold of the sucker on launch day, I promise to run through a few impressions for ya.
In the meantime though, I thought I'd take one final look back at the highlights of the past
gen before it's gone for good. Over the past four or five years, these are the games that stood out above the rest in my book, whether it be on the PC, PS2, Xbox or Gamecube. They aren't necessarily the "best" games from a critical or commercial standpoint, but simply those that personally hold special significance to me as a gamer.
So grab the flux capacitor and join me on this trip back to yester-year. While we're at it, pop by the boards and let me know...what are your
top picks of the generation?
The FPS: Half-Life 2
2004 - PC/2005 - Xbox
Many would say Half-Life 2 was not only the greatest game of the past five years, but that it also marked the point where games in general started to turn that corner into the next gen. Kinda perfect, that, considering the first Half-Life pretty much did the same thing back in 1998.
|Half-Life 2 cemented Valve's reputation as the premier FPS developer|
Just what is it that the Half-Life series does so well compared to the rest though? Everything, pretty much. What particularly stands out for me however, is the barmy yet undeniably brilliant concept of making every single second of each game fully interactive.
Going back to the first Half-Life, it was right there from the start. From the opening credits aboard a moving train, to the final deal with the devil, and every barmy in-game cut-scene in-between, you never for one moment took a step outside the shoes of Gordon Freedom. For all intents and purposes, you were him for 20 hours - no load screens, no CGI cinematics - and as a result it's still one of the most deeply engrossing games ever conceived.
That game was such a marvel in fact, that it's hardly surprising no one else could better it in six years other than Valve themselves. Half-Life 2 took all that worked so brilliantly from the first game, then went on to do so much more on top. The story was elevated hugely, made surprisingly complex for an all-out FPS. The level design was near faultless, with no tacked-on alien worlds and giant monster babies. And best of all, the technical side of the game was drastically brought up to speed, making it one of the prettiest yet seen.
Of course, one has to mention the physics too. They aren't just the tightest and sleekest around, but also prove startlingly useful in staging the finest combat and puzzles to be found in the genre. The end result? A true all-time classic
, and probably PC gaming's greatest achievement yet.
The RPG: Knights of the Old Republic
2003 - PC/Xbox
It's not only BioWare's best, but also one of the great RPGs of our time. Even without all the Star Wars decoration and flashy lightsabers, KOTOR would still shine like no other too, the pivotal difference that sets it apart from pretty much every other Star Wars game from camp Lucas.
|HK-47 was so popular, LucasArts are now whoring him out in the Trials of Obi-Wan|
The beauty - as with all the best RPGs - lies in the characters. KOTOR's are simply so well drawn, with cats like Bastila and HK-47 not only lingering long in the memory, but also able to sit comfortably within the Star Wars family alongside the greats like Vader and Solo.
Thanks to the expert conversation system, the mammoth skill customisation and the immense dark side/light side Force dynamic, KOTOR even lets you craft your own addition to that line-up. Will you be the classical hero that saves the galaxy, or a disturbed young sadist who makes The Emperor look like Dr Zoidberg? The foundations are laid, but the choices are ultimately up to you. This isn't marketing talk either, it really does alter the story, the characters and the ultimate outcome on a truly epic level.
The game shows what happens when true fans get hold of a franchise they love, but more importantly, it's BioWare's mark on the generation. Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire were fine specimens, but the former has aged badly and the latter lacks KOTOR's loveable personality. This game is about as perfect as they come in my book, and the sequel
pleasingly gave us even more of the same.
The Platformer: Ico
2001 - PS2
|Ico is one of the most beautiful games you'll ever play, in every sense of the word|
I've been gushing about Shadow of the Colossus loads lately, and I'll be posting more on that over the coming weeks, but as wonderful
as Colossus is - and trust me it really
fucking is - many of its greatest achievements were pulled off just as well by the same team a whopping great four years earlier in Ico. The absolutely stunning visuals, the gorgeous art direction and most of all, those heavy emotional undertones.
But for the benefit of those who ain't PS2 guys, just what the heck is
Ico? I guess in terms of raw gameplay, it's essentially the old classic Prince of Persia taken into 3D. Whereas in Prince, you entered one side of the screen and had to find a way across to the other amidst obstacles, gaping chasms and the occasional enemy, the very same can be said of Ico. The platforming though, isn't really what makes this game so special...it's Ico's heart that sets it apart from the rest.
I guess it's a love story in the most simplistic sense, but before you start calling me a gayer, hear me out.
|Ico himself, is a cursed young boy, with horns no less|
You play Ico, a young boy born with horns protruding from his head. At the start of the game you're being taken away as a prisoner, and are subsequently locked up in a remote castle. For what, or why, we're never really told, but before your captives bugger off home for tea, they tell you this is all "for the good of the village".
After your soon to follow-escape from a sarcophagus-sized cell, you come across another prisoner in the castle named Yorda, seemingly the only other person around. She's locked up high in a cage, doesn't speak your language, and emits an oddly ethereal glow like some sort of angel. After busting her free, you grab her by the hand - quite literally - and the two of you set off to escape together. While our two characters share no common tongue though, they do share a deepening bond from here on.
Terrifying shadow creatures haunt the castle however, and are always at the pairs' heels. As you navigate the maze-like structure of the castle, these dark stalkers are forever ripping Yorda from your clutches to take her off and do god knows what. Ico himself is all but a helpless little kid, no arse kicking uber warrior as we so often see in these games, hence you really have very little power in battling these beautifully realised monsters, other than to pick up the nearest stick and start waving it around blindly.
can't jump for shit
Yet it doesn't matter. Almost immediately you have this underlying urge to do everything in your meagre power to save her, and Ico is potent in that regard. Those who play video games to maim, kill and garrotte will immediately tire of the game's emphasis on hand-holding and keeping Yorda safe, but others - namely me - buy it unconditionally, thanks to an under-riding emotional connection rarely felt in a game.
Yeah, we've seen love stories done in games in the past, but usually it's played for humour (Monkey Island), or is just ridiculously over the top (Max Payne 2). Here it's quite different. Ico and Yorda barely speak the entire game, any affection is shown through their actions, not angst ridden dialogue, and bloody hell, it's all the more effective for it.
As a result, when Yorda makes an under powered leap over a gaping abyss only to be caught by your hand at the last minute, you find yourself clenching the controller that little bit tighter as to not let her drop to her death. When shadow beasts appear from the ground and start swallowing her up into whatever hell they spawned from, you'll rip the shit out of every last one of the scumbags, blunt stick be damned.
|Ico is an all too rare game that actually manages to make you care about mere pixels on a screen|
Never has a movie, let alone a game, pulled off emotional storytelling so minimally, yet so affecting. Ico is the only game that not only makes the dreaded "escort mission" bearable, but arguably wouldn't even exist without it. And how about that ending? I could ramble on about that
One of the all-time greats, this, but one that unfortunately never sold well back on release and was subsequently deleted. Thankfully you can expect a re-release here in February to coincide with its spiritual successor, Shadow of the Colossus, and anyone with one shred of a soul will not wanna miss out on this double-whammy pack of goodness.
While I'm at it, it's worth mentioning that 2003's Prince of Persia update known as "Sands of Time" is another platform classic that similarly captured my heart...just don't for one moment confuse it with the smeg-fest known as Warrior Within
Sands is a bit of an Ico rip-off itself, truth be told. The platform handling and female sidekick plot strands are pretty much gouged out of Ico and shoehorned straight in to the old Prince of Persia franchise - but bang me with a sword-mounted strap-on, it totally and utterly works. In fact, in the pivotal area of combat, I'd say it even one-ups Ico. Seeing as it came out on every single system - PC included - it's a damn fine alternative for those who don't dabble in consoles.
Still, Ico will always be the one for me, and it's arguably worth owning a PS2 for alone. It's the most touching, yet haunting game I've played in...well, forever, and just typing the above has made me wanna fire the sucker up and blaze through it all over again.
The MMORPG: Star Wars Galaxies
2003 - PC
World of Warcraft may be the far superior game, I don't think anyone would deny it, but it'll never hold a place in my heart quite as fondly as Star Wars Galaxies does. While WoW is prettier, more user friendly and more down right epic, the majority of my memories from that are tainted by arguments over loot, searching madly for instance groups, and a population inhabited by 12 year olds with apparent learning disabilities.
|It's all about the socialising, see?|
SWG is quite the opposite. For all it lacked in design and technical polish, man did it make up for in community. I made friends, created a village, ran a guild, turned it into a city, joined the army, wiped out Imperial bases, entered races, took to the skies and blew away space pirates
...all with the company of friends. No soloing. No whining. No fucking 12 year olds.
Well, not many.
The social elements of SWG are what kept it alive for me, further emphasised by the fact all this cyber-bonding took place in famous sights and sounds made timeless from my Star Wars-tinged youth. It's the one trait that shames pretty much every other MMO I've played, particularly in the more recent single-player focused offerings.
It's a bummer really that the game I knew as SWG is truly gone
now, replaced by this more streamlined, action packed beast we see before us. As a result, newcomers will never get to experience the same SWG I fell in love with many years ago. It's arguably a better game now, true, but...it ain't SWG.
The Flight Sim: IL-2 Sturmovik
2001 - PC
|IL2 is hardcore, possibly too much so, yet is still the best in its field|
As someone not hugely into simulations, trust me when I say my love for Sturmovik speaks volumes. It's overly realistic - bordering on ridiculous - and thus hideously complicated for someone like myself, but unlike so many of its peers, it's immensely fun at the same time.
This realism can thankfully be toned down and made much more newbie friendly by fiddling with the wealth of options too - a pleasing feature for 'tards like myself - but whatever way you play IL2, I doubt many would argue that it's the most captivating experience to be had up in the clouds.
I remember the first time I blew away a fellow dogfighter online - a German I'd been tailing for 20 minutes with little success - it was the most blissful feeling of satisfaction I'd felt in any game of my life.
I guess you could say it's the Operation Flashpoint of the air, one that straddles that same fine line between cutting edge video game and full-on military simulator. Similarly to Flashpoint, it was never gonna be for everyone - particularly some of modern gaming's more pampered cry babies - but for those willing to put into a game as much as they take out, IL-2 succeeds on a whole new level. The views are stunning, the planes handle amazingly and my god...the rat-a-tat-tat feel of them glorious old time machine guns is enough to make ya bust a freakin' nut all over the canopy.
The Space Sim: Freelancer
2003 - PC
Taking things even higher in the sky though, is this slightly under-rated beauty. It's Wing Commander, TIE Fighter and Elite all rolled into one, yet a game just as cool as each in its own right.
|Freelancer is the balls. That is, despite the fact Ian Ziering of Beverly Hills 90210 "fame" enjoys voice acting duties|
All that said, I've never gotten particularly far in Freelancer if I'm completely honest. It's one of those games I've had on the go for years, only ever playing on the sidelines, popping in and out of whenever blessed with a rainy day. It works brilliantly in that regard though.
Whether you prefer following the main story campaign, taking freelance missions, trading goods, or just casually blowing away random ships for kicks, Freelancer really does have that living, breathing open-ended universe thing going for it. It's also a true testament to the game's strengths that it's hogged space on my hard drive for so many years, while more recent blockbuster games and top quality porn happily get deleted on a daily basis.
At the same time it's beautifully simplistic, despite this emphasis on freeform gameplay. In fact, you don't even need a joystick thanks to its gloriously original mouse-centric control system, one that makes dogfights and epic battles feel as gloriously smooth as a paddling pool of KY Liquid Lubricant. It actually controls less like a traditional space sim, and more like some kinda crazy FPS with no ground.
There's also the awesome multiplayer mode that opens up the universe to tons more players, letting 'em group up or do their own thing in a bizarre MMO-light fashion. Jump to Lightspeed kinda plagiarised it in many ways, bringing many of Freelancer's best traits into a true MMO title, yet I wouldn't call it the superior game by any means.
With nowt else but the recent X3 competing in the single player department either, Freelancer still reigns king for me. One of these days I'll finish it.
The Beat 'em Up: Ninja Gaiden
2004 - Xbox
For me, beat 'em ups are a genre where character, plot and storyline take a very distant second place to what really matters; their pure, unadulterated feel
. A beat 'em ups gotta be solid. Tight. Hard. It needs that sense of weight, one that suitably conveys the glorious sensation of bones crunching and blood spraying. If it can nail this rock solid underlying feel to the combat, it's pretty much done 90% of the work, and in that regard Gaiden is already a true beast.
|Gorgeous, isn't she?|
But there's more to it than mindless button bashing, and that's what sets it apart from its peers. Gaiden's the toughest game I've played
pretty much my whole life you see, yet at the same time it's so skilfully tailored to reward those that put in the effort, making it one of the most satisfying games around, if also one of the most frustrating. As hard as it gets though, it's never unfair, regardless of the super-human reflexes it requires.
Beat 'em ups come and go. Devil May Cry tried so hard, and more recently God of War too, but the many months since each of their respective releases has exposed both games as flash in the pans with no real lasting appeal for me. Great games in their own right, but neither have quite gone the distance.
Gaiden is different. The endless stream of free add-ons and new difficulty levels released via Xbox Live have resulted in one beat 'em up set to withstand the test of time. It seems like just when you finally get better at the damn thing, it mutates into an even trickier bastard, one that the developers themselves are rumoured to have trouble completing at this point.
Its recent and wonderful "Black" compilation is testament to this amazing lifespan - a genuine must-purchase for anyone with Microsoft's black 'n' green microwave sitting underneath their TV - and I'm sure more in the series are currently in development on the new Xbox behind closed doors as we speak. All in all, Gaiden is a real man's game, and arguably the most stunning to look at on this whole page.
The Clan Game: Medal of Honor - Allied Assault
2002 - PC
|MOHAA rocked my multiplayer world, and has yet to be beaten as a clan game|
Although Wolfenstein was the first out the door, Allied Assault was really the game that kick started the World War II FPS revolution. It's also by far the best of the bunch, and needless to say, the highlight of the Medal of Honor series as a whole. Then again, that ain't saying much these days.
While Half-Life showed us what was capable of scripted events and fully interactive cut-scenes, Allied Assault took that idea one step further and practically set entire levels
around 'em. The Omaha mission in the single player game goes down as a true classic in that regard, one endlessly ripped-off sequence that's only just been topped this past month by Call of Duty 2, but it's the multiplayer side of the game that holds the most significance to me. MOHAA was the first clan game I ever played you see, and it took my enjoyment of not just this game, but online gaming in general to a whole new level I never even knew possible.
There's nothing quite like the thrill of a tense Medal of Honour clan match alongside nine of your buddies. Seeing your carefully crafted plans come together, cheering your mates on from the side lines, and taking down the entire enemy team with all but a few seconds left on the clock.
|Do multiplayer maps come any better than The Bridge? Not if you ask me, sonny|
MOHAA's under-rated level design and technical brilliance worked wonders in bringing that all to the surface too. It took Counter-Strike's emphasis on realism and round-based combat, but wrapped it up in the much more engrossing setting and technology of the second World War, bathed in that same war-ravaged atmosphere that wowed us all in Saving Private Ryan
Most importantly of all, it threw in a selection of maps far more epic and tactical in their design than those found in the average online shooter. MOHAA matches negated the usual run 'n' gun style as a result, with teams having to plan ahead, stick to cover, and ultimately work as a close-knit squad if they wanted to take the victory home. While small in number, the maps we got were all incredibly large in size, each with multiple paths and intersecting routes, making plans and tactics infinite in their possibilities.
Whether it be a close quarter hotel scrap on The Bridge, a mammoth sniper duel down the main road of The Hunt, or the sweaty arse crack-tinged tension of the V2 Rocket counting down, the game just clicked on pretty much every possible level for me. When it comes to competitive online gaming, not a single game since has managed to capture the same sense of excitement and comradery. Such good times. Such good memories.
The Co-Op Game: Halo
2001 - Xbox
At this stage, I've almost run out of things to say about frickin' Halo. Whereas I'd be bored to death of most games by now though - talked-up and overplayed as I am with this one - Halo still feels just as solid, just as slick and just as downright fun as it ever has. Forget your Quake's and your FEAR's, Halo is the ultimate sci-fi shooter - this gen or next.
|If you only ever checked out the PC version, then trust me, you haven't played Halo. It was, and always will be, a console game|
I've had a blast with Halo 2
over the past year, but it's the first in the series that I keep coming back to in the long-run. It's the amazing selection of guns, all boasting that big, chunky rock solid feel to die for. It's that film-quality orchestral score, just one note of which brings back a flood of memories from many of your greatest gaming moments ever. It's the massive levels, each and every one dripping with pure atmosphere and down-right beauty. It's the gorgeously sleek visuals. It's jumping into a Banshee for the first time. It's the killer bad guys. It's sticky grenades. But most of all, it's accidentally shooting a squad mate in the back and hearing him sprout off, "watch it ya bugger!" in a Neighbours-calibre Australian accent plucked straight from comedy heaven while you fall to the floor laughing your arse off. Good times.
More importantly than all that though, Halo is also the ultimate buddy game. Dragging your best mate over, grabbing a six pack, and losing yourself in Halo for the night is what console gaming is all about for me. Is there a better multiplayer title in that regard? Fuck, is there a better social experience, full stop?
Halo takes you on the futuristic rollercoaster adventure of a life time, from battling aliens on spaceships to racing across futuristic landscapes in the coolest of vehicles, but most importantly of all, it lets you bring a friend along for the ride, and for that reason alone, it's pretty much the most fun
I had in any game this generation. A true masterpiece.
The Stealth Game: Thief - Deadly Shadows
2004 - PC/Xbox
While the Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell trilogies may be the ones that get all the praise, as good as those games are, the lesser known classic Thief III ruled supreme for me. It just took me until now to realise it.
|While DX2 struggled with technical issues, Thief managed to utilise the same engine much more effectively, and in a much better game too|
Deadly Shadows injected a tremendous amount of fun back into the stealth experience, something often missing when forced into hidey holes and never ending shadows. Thankfully it also provided the much needed flashes of action and violence too, moments many a slow game so desperately yearn for to add variety. As a result the game avoids all of the boredom and helplessness that so often plagues the genre.
The gameplay mechanics are wondrous, with you constantly having to scale walls to avoid guards, alter your run speed on different surfaces, and most hilariously of all, even watch yourself around delicate furniture due to fear of knocking it on the floor (incredible physics + expensive china = guards chopping your willy off).
It's the look of the thing that impresses me most of all though. For such a dark game, it ain't half bathed in atmosphere, really nailing that old skool cobble stone medieval style better than perhaps any other game in recent memory. While it uses the somewhat puny DX2 engine at its core, the claustrophobic corridors and cramped interiors actually work in the game's favour this time around, piling on the tension and forever cutting off your escape route.
Thief is also perhaps the only stealth game in existence where the enemies are genuinely entertaining too. The various townsfolk who wonder the streets at perpetual night time are all ripe for a good pickpocketing, and the game makes stalking them from afar bloody fab fun. My favourites of the various NPCs are the hilarious Pagans though, with their bizarre Gollumy language that's equal parts funny and disturbing. The walking statues stand out too, colossal warriors made of stone that believe me, left many a shat stain in their time.
And I haven't even mentioned those puppets found in The Cradle.
It's a shame Thief requires the beefiest of systems to do it justice on the PC side, a trait which unfortunately might have resulted in many overlooking this masterpiece back on release. I know I myself was one such muppet, only discovering it properly in recent months thanks to a system upgrade. For the ridiculously cheap price it goes for these days though, it's kind of unmissable.
The Racing Game: SSX 3
2003 - PS2/Xbox/Gamecube
Hmm, an EA game? That doesn't sound like me. Worse than that, it's part of their "EA BIGGGGG!!!!" range. Extreme sports, in your face, super arse kickin' "bitchin'" titles for the jaded generation...all things I loathe from my head to my ding-a-ling. So why's it feature here? Quite simply, this is the single game EA knocked out over the past five years that could be considered borderline perfect
. The exception that proves the mediocre rule.
It's a snowboarding racer with little to no rules. You have a starting line and a finish line, but what happens in-between the two is completely up to you. Races subsequently become unholy white-knuckle thrill rides composed of each boarder hurtling themselves down sheer cliff faces at ridiculous speeds, obstacles be damned.
|Even though EA ain't my fave people in the world, I'll always have a minor crush on 'em for giving me this work of brilliance|
Don't sell this game short though, it's surprisingly deep at the same time. The courses are exceptionally well designed for one, each with a ton of different routes, including massive forests, underground caverns and sneaky secret passageways, yet pleasingly none are the "right" way. Everyone finds their own twisting, meandering path down the mountainside in SSX, that's what's so great about it. You may split off from your pursuers early on, only to pop back up again on the home straight when they think they're long since rid of you, before naturally snatching the win home at the last minute.
Conquering the slope feels like an adventure thanks to this staggering choice of routes, each time seeing what crazy, out-of-bound paths you can uncover on your way down. The luscious look makes it all the more enjoyable, with the game blazing along at 60 frames per second, yet remaining impeccably detailed and gorgeously rendered at the same time. For a setting that you'd expect to be primarily made up of white, it ain't half rainbow-like in its colour palette, with gorgeously over the top art design everywhere you look.
Perhaps more importantly though, there's an art involved to handling the board. As you tease and explore the pad, you find yourself jumping and spinning all over the place, pulling off gorgeous tricks and gravity-defying stunts, exposing the beauty of the control system in the process. And that's not even counting the hilarious, if downplayed beat 'em up aspect, smacking your competitors in the face as you whiz past 'em in all but a blur. Naturally this is all the more brilliant when played against a buddy.
It's rounded off by a stunning soundtrack that not only manages to get the blood rushing and draw you into the extreme sports atmos, but oddly remains beautifully chilled and a joy to surf to at the same time. Who would have thunk that possible of an EA game of all fucking things?
The more simplistic one-trick pony known as Burnout may be the more accessible game, but SSX is the more underappreciated yet just as equally stunning racing series that's oh so much prettier and waaaay more skilful. Competitive two player games are rarely matched in any other game this gen for me, and the third in the series was the best of the bunch by far.
The Car Game: Project Gotham Racing 2
2003 - Xbox
|Squint your eyes and Gotham|
often looks like a photo.
Pure and utter bliss...
While SSX is indeed the balls, when in the mood for a more old fashioned racing game in the "cars zooming around race tracks" sense, it's Gotham I reach for every time though. Controlling a super fast sexy beast of a machine in a near photorealistic environment has seldom been done better on any system.
PGR2 was also the game that really showed the world what the Xbox was capable of graphically. The courses were impeccably detailed, the cars simply gorgeous, and the real world locations stunningly accurate. This mixture of anal-retentive attention to detail married with joyful car handling has since defined the Gotham series, but once again, it's all about the multiplayer more than anything. Blazing around the streets of Barcelona in an online game is still a blast to this day.
Mind you, just seeing glimpses of the new epic online features they've added for PGR3 on the Xbox 360, it becomes obvious that the very best is still to come. It's no wonder Microsoft are pinning up Gotham 3 as a major launch title for the system, the series has built up a reputation that overtakes the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza as the definitive "serious" racer if you ask me, and I can't wait to get me mitts on that next-gen rendition come December 2nd.
The Adventure Game: Metroid Prime
2002 - Gamecube
|Samus' was gaining ground in her search for Santa Claus|
As far as adventure games go, the Metroid series practically defines the term. In its more modern "Prime" remix, the series made the jump to the first person, yet it never really felt like an FPS in the traditional sense. There's also a ton of jumping around and swinging going on too, but you couldn't really call it a platformer either. Metroid really plays by its own rules in that regard, worrying less about genre conventions and the familiarity of a label to be placed upon it, and instead concentrating more on just taking the player on a beautiful and captivating journey.
Prime is way more interactive than the average first person game too, ingeniously integrating the plot in a much more subtle and organic way than most. It expertly reveals little hints and scraps of info as you scan and explore your environment, exposing just enough of a storyline to keep you interested, without bogging the experience down with endless cut-scenes and dodgy voice acting. The epitome of the less-is-more mantra.
|The morphball segments are like Transformers meet Marble Madness|
I remember jumping
head first into this game back in January with nary a clue what it was all about, nor how it worked, yet looking back, it was the perfect way to experience this bad boy.
The pacing is just so perfectly set. It constantly introduces new gameplay elements and unlocks more areas to explore, every time keeping you interested that little bit longer. You never for one moment know where it'll head next.
On top of that, the graphics and particularly the sound marry old skool atmosphere with more cutting edge specs in a way only Nintendo games manage to pull off so incredibly well, and while the more recent Metroid Prime: Echoes may have slightly improved on this beautiful new formula, the first Prime is the one that sticks with you in the long-run. It still feels just as fresh and original as the day it came out.
And of course, that morphball is the coolest thing ever.
The Horror Game: Resident Evil 4
2005 - Gamecube/PS2
I just can't stop talking about it can I? Okay, Resi 4 is more third person shooter than all-out horror game, but what the hell...I'd be lying if I said it hadn't made me jump in my seat a couple dozen times never the less. Possessed zombie Spaniards gnawing on my neck while trying to chainsaw my head off just do that to me though, maybe I'm old fashioned.
|Resident Evil 4 is worth buying a Gamecube for. That rhymes, hence it's true|
It is indeed a shooter more than anything however, but one at the very top of its field. While most console shooters have that underlying taint of, "Hmmm, this would really be better with a mouse", Resi 4 throws that right out the window though. The game really does feel designed perfectly around the Gamecube controller through and through, something I must admit I never really appreciated until playing the slightly disappointing
PS2 port last month. As a result, gameplay is a joy, never a hassle, made all the more pleasing thanks to Resi's over the top violence and unflinching action.
It's old skool in its emphasis on balls to the wall fire-fights, yet at the same time there's something undeniably new and refreshing about it too. Perhaps it's the gorgeous art direction, belaying the sub-par specs of its system and looking every bit as good as anything the PC can pump out. Maybe it's the brand new, yet already iconic over-the-shoulder viewpoint, used in a way that makes every single set piece look like the most pitch-perfectly directed action scene ever. Or could it just be the pure unadulterated satisfaction of the game's supreme arsenal of awesome weaponry? Who knows.
Not I, but never the less there's magic in this game I tell
ya. Its fourth place in the Resident Evil series almost sells it short; a game this good deserves its whole own franchise.
The Sports Game: Top Spin
2003 - Xbox
Pro Evolution Soccer is probably the most critically acclaimed sports game out on any system right now, but as fab as that game is, Top Spin just hogged way more of my time over the years. It's not just the ultimate tennis game in my book, but my fave sports game yet by a mile.
|Playing Top Spin takes me all the way back to the good old days of Super Tennis on the SNES|
While it's beautifully sharp, the framerate is bliss and the sound rock solid, it's the control system that make it work so well. Top Spin is so god damn tight and responsive - echoing my earlier comments on Ninja Gaiden - making even the most mundane of baseline slogs a joy to fire off. There's depth too though, with the massive choice of shots on offer making rallies immensely deep and tactical at the same time.
On top of that, the pixel perfect timing involved in pulling off the true high powered beauties and ultra-sleek drop shots give it ample space for long-term practice and perfecting. It has surprising length and longevity to it with that in mind, something all too rare in the field of tennis games. Which ain't a shock really, considering most are spruced up ports of Pong.
I only ever experienced Top Spin on the Xbox, where I conquered the career mode and lost many an online match, but comparatively lacklustre scores on the PC and PS2 make me presume it's the superior version of the three anyway. I could never imagine playing a game like this with a keyboard and mouse, that's for sure.
Top Spin's a fun, yet incredibly skilful game, and one that finally betters Virtua Tennis as best on the block. Pleasingly we can also expect a Top Spin 2 out early next year.
The Kiddy Game: Beyond Good & Evil
2003 - PC/PS2/Xbox/Gamecube
|Rumours persist of a BG&E sequel in the works, but nothing's been announced|
as of yet
Playing Beyond Good & Evil is like remembering a magical, mesmerising dream long since forgotten. Just in terms of style alone, it takes me back to the days of Little Big Adventure, Day of the Tentacle and the many other classic adventure titles of my youth...timeless and original cartoons that showed us a different world than the usual blood 'n' guts-soaked FPS shite we now see so often.
Such imaginative titles just aren't made much these days unfortunately, a sad truth that makes Beyond Good & Evil shine like no other in comparison. Just like Ico, this one never sold well on release either, meaning most probably overlooked its wonderful beauty too.
Coming out in 2003, Beyond Good & Evil told the tale of Jade, a young female reporter living in the cartoony, futuristic water world of Hillys. Unfortunately Hillys is constantly under attack from the Domz - an evil and very green alien race - and the only thing standing in their way from total domination is the Alpha Section, Hillys' super bad arse military protectors. Jade however, senses something ain't quite right...the Alpha Section always seem to turn up just
at the right time whenever these invasions kick off. Eerie coincidence, or is something amiss? She grabs her camera and sets off to find out.
|BG&E defies genre labels with its forever altering gameplay mechanics. One minute it's a shoot 'em up, the next it's a stealth game|
That's the conspiracy-laden plot in a nut-sack, but it's the playability that shines more than anything. BG&E doesn't force itself into sticking to one genre you see, it mutates and reinvents itself constantly to keep up with the demands of the story. So at the start, it's a beat 'em up, as you fight off invading aliens with a club, but it soon turns into a driving game, as you roam the world and look for reporting jobs. More often than not though, it's a platformer, with you hopping around 3D worlds while snapping photos for cash and uncovering the sinister goings-on of the Domz invasion.
By the end you'll also experience an in-depth racing subplot, a mammoth shoot 'em up stage, and a whole lot more on top. Thankfully, every single one of these genres holds their own too.
While this all melds together wonderfully well, creating a rich and original gaming experience, it's perfected by the wonderful cast of characters who pop along for the ride. Jade herself is a bad ass - I definitely would - and she's joined by such crazy sidekicks as Pay'j the talking Pig and Secundo the gay hologram. It's barmy and ridiculous, yet it works. More importantly, it's great to see such original characters play against all the cookie cutter, muscle-laden space marines we're usually lumbered with in video games.
The closest title to BG&E in this day and age would probably be Zelda, but while the more recent Zelda games just make me feel ancient and out of touch, Beyond Good & Evil makes me feel like a kid again. Much like a good Pixar movie, this game proves that a great story with fabulous characters holds universal appeal - regardless of your age - making it truly unmissable, whatever system you own.
The Movie License: Lord of the Rings - Return of the King
2003 - PC/PS2/Xbox/Gamecube
Lord of the Rings has been a bit more conservative with its license than say, Star Wars or The Matrix, making sure each game holds some solid quality, value and respect for its property. Well, The Third Age
|ROTK's co-op mode is its greatest asset, but it's not very practical on a PC|
Return of the King is a good example of that, and I was actually taken back by just how darn well it was put together for a movie tie-in. The battles are meaty and satisfying, the level design wonderfully epic and visual, and each of the characters are nigh-on perfect recreations of their real-life counterparts, right down to full voice acting from the real deal.
Playing as Legolas is where it's at for me. Firing off multiple arrows at once then ripping into Orcs with those curvy Elven blades of sex is about as fun as it gets, with the experience further solidified when a mate backs you up as Gimli. It's like Streets of Rage dragged into the new millennium, while simultaneously being a bit of a god send for us fans of the flicks too.
I think Rockstar's The Warriors - another scrolling beat 'em up/movie license - is also a good 'un to check out for those not Rings-inclined, but for me King is king I'm afraid. Coming out at the height of Rings fever, I was captivated hugely by this game for months on end, nabbing every single unlockable buried deep within its moist loins. There's not many games in general I can say that about, let alone movie tie-ins.
Still, it never really worked on the PC as well as it did on the other systems, and for that reason alone, many who never experienced this sucker with a pad and a mate will be looking at me quite oddly right now.
The Weird Game: Katamari Damacy
2004 - PS2
I was never a big fan of overtly Japanese games until Katamari came along. Even the more mainstream Jap offerings like Final Fantasy - try as I might to get into them - just never excite me in the same way a good old western game does. Don't worry, I'm no clansman.
Katamari changed all that. It's the weirdest shit I've ever seen - or heard - and to this day I still couldn't begin to tell you what the plot's about, but my god is it a blast. For them poor souls yet to experience its greatness though, allow me to give you the low down. Or at least try.
|Katamari is a puzzle game. You have a set time-limit to roll a ball up to a specific sized diameter. It's better than it sounds|
Katamari is a bizarre collect-'em-up-cum-puzzle game. As a tiny alien, you roll a sticky ball around a house, one which glues to everything it touches, and well...that's it. For the first few levels, you start out small, rolling up paper clips, erasers, that sort of thing. Everything you roll into your ball is modelled with perfect physics though you see, hence the more you collect, the bigger it grows. This allows you to roll up much larger objects as you progress, like pot plants, household appliances...even pets.
But it doesn't stop there. After a while you'll make your way outside, rolling down the street. Here you'll start rolling up trees, cars and perhaps the odd human. Get big enough and you'll then progress to rolling up houses, schools, forests and whole families. By the end, you're rolling up entire cities, bridges...even the fucking clouds
Even though the underlying principal is simple, the sheer on-screen chaos is anything but. It's sex-quality fun, not to mention utterly hilarious, but perhaps something you have to see first hand to truly understand. It's amazing to see your ball - or "katamari" - progress from insignificantly small, right up to Godzilla size completely seamlessly in this fashion.
It's perhaps not the prettiest game in the traditional sense, sprouting oddly shaped weird Jap stylings from every pore - but the sheer scope of the thing is insane. The world is absolutely huge and the amount of characters and objects on screen often stunning, making it an amazing technical accomplishment for the long-in-the-tooth PS2.
Katamari really is a rarity in video gaming; something all-out original in every way possible. Minus the upcoming PSP version, there's really nothing else even vaguely like it on any system right now. Most of all though, it has the best god damn music you'll ever hear in a game.
The Epic Game: Planetside
2003 - PC
|Planetside wasn't the prettiest game ever, but it sure had it where it counted|
As wonderful as it is to see the world embracing Battlefield 2 in recent months, I doubt it would even exist without Planetside...the original precursor to large scale online warfare. Think BF2's 64-player maps were hardcore? You don't know the half of it.
Planetside did the impossible; it brought real-time combat to the MMO genre. First person combat too, the most competitive and cut-throat of the lot. Somehow, Sony pulled it off though.
They didn't stop there either. Tanks, ships, commanders, air drops, base capturing - this was truly epic stuff my friend, no backyard tussle. Reaching an enemy base and seeing literally 150 troops charge each other from either side of your screen amidst a hail of gun fire and explosions, is truly something everyone needs to see at least once before they die. The game really was as immense as it was, err, expensive every month.
|A dwindling player base and some dodgy decisions by SOE means Planetside is all but dead now|
I still remember the one single moment that specifically melted my heart though. It was the time my 50 man clan took off on its first guild night. I was one of the grunts piling into our multitude of drop-ships. Fighter pilots escorted us from all sides. Our tank convey followed below. Everywhere I looked, I saw more of our troops tagging along for the ride; in the air, on the ground, and sitting next to me. Jesus, it was like shipping out to Iraq.
A long trek to the objective and many soiled pants later, we reached our drop zone and my paratroop unit made that leap of faith out the door. We were like flies...mere insects flying through the air as the largest battle I'd ever seen waged on beneath us. I felt totally insignificant compared to the sheer scale of it all, and as I fell through the sky towards the base below, I just kinda sat there in a state of bliss, admiring the demonic firework display going off all around me.
Planetside had me from that moment on, and although the game soon lost me again due to lack of variety and an end-game, there's no doubt in my mind that the developers of Battlefield 2 must have experienced that same thrilling sensation right before they sat down in that boardroom and began crafting their next-gen baby.
The Forgotten Game: Team Fortress Classic
1999 - PC
Finally, I have to mention this lesser spoken-of beast. Many love Counter-Strike, but for me its older brother Team Fortress was just as good back in the day you see, if not better. More importantly, the community was also a heck of a lot cooler too.
|Forget how ugly it looks, this game is gold...gold I tell you|
It's still to be found and played on Steam to this day, hence I consider it just as much a part of the current gen as any other here, but then again many would never even know it existed given how much Counter-Strike has since taken over the world. In an alternate reality though, Team Fortress could easily be mentioned in the same breath as its little brother, if only Valve hadn't botched the release of its long-awaited sequel and essentially killed off the series (where the hell
is that thing?).
Counter-Strike's thing was always to bring a more visceral and realistic feeling to combat, but Fortress didn't care about that. It was cartoony and even a little ugly in comparison, however it set out to make the very best and most fun team game around, and it didn't fail in that regard. Every class worked brilliantly, the maps were perfectly designed and the variety of objectives made each game immensely different from the last. One minute you were capturing flags, the next you were gassing the enemy while they scrambled for haz-mat suits. Oh the fun.
While so many online games make you curse up a storm big enough to make your monitor blush, Team Fortress is the one that always made me crack a smile. What a nice little game...
I could go on forever though. There's been so many great games put out on these systems, there ain't enough years in your life, let alone hours in the day. For every game mentioned above, there's also a Max Payne, an Operation Flashpoint, a Chronicles of Riddick, a Grand Theft Auto, a Morrowind, a Paper Mario, a Rez, a Hidden & Dangerous, a Rogue Leader, an Eternal Darkness, a Mafia, a Fable, a Mario Sunshine, a Killer 7, a Far Cry, a Spider-Man 2, a No One Lives Forever and of course...a Grabbed By the Ghoulies.
Woops! There goes my street cred.
(Pictures courtesy of LucasArts
, Pacific Fighters
, EA Sports Big
and Beyond Good & Evil