On the games front, I wouldn't say 2006 was quite
the year 2005
was - nor 2004
for that matter - but if nothing else, it'll certainly be remembered as the year of hardware. The 360 came of age. The DS Lite
single-handedly took over Japan. The Wii
was released. Even the PS3 saw long-awaited light of day for the Yanks and Japs. With so many super powers converging in a manner that comes around only once per life-time, it certainly made for an interesting time...albeit an expensive one. I'm glad fucking Vista was delayed to be honest.
Still, we're here to talk games, not hardware, so let's get to it. I played a ridiculously large amount of titles this past year actually - so much so that I pretty much forwent sleep. We had highs, we had lows, but looking back on it all from afar, 20 stood out above all else that I simply had to highlight. These are the ones that particularly revved my engine in 2006...
20. Syphon Filter - Dark Mirror (PSP)
|While they may point and mock, I for one still love you Mr PSP. Mainly thanks to this|
While the masses may bitch, moan or flat-out laugh at Sony's handheld, the PSP situation is far from as bad as some would have you believe. Between the two games on this list, other big crowd pleasers like the GTA series, not to mention a bunch of other additional beauties I just couldn't squeeze in due to lack of space (namely Daxter and Lumines II), the black beast of power had its fair share of accomplishments in 2006.
Syphon Filter sits happily within that line-up as a damn near perfect handheld take on a good old tactical third person shooter. The controls - often a source of immense frustration when it comes to such genres in PSP land - work brilliantly for once, making chisel-jawed Clancy cast-off Gabe Logan a joy to control, with guns, grenades and gadgets all a blast to wield.
|Gabe learnt from the best. Predator|
While graphics and sound also impress hugely, my love for this game goes far beyond all that though. Rather than simply settle for a reasonably decent third person shooter that actually works on the PSP for a change, Syphon throws in some fab additional ideas and innovations that actually racket it up into the realms of a damn solid game in its own right. The vision mode use stands out in particular, adding some truly inspired puzzles and brain-teasers to the mix that, to be honest, totally outshone Splinter Cell in many ways. One of my all-out highlights of the whole year in gaming-ville actually, was one truly brilliant set-piece in which Gabe takes on a flood of dudes - thermal visor in tow - by battling them through walls and ceilings. Cripes.
The less said about UMDs the better, and the PSP ain't matching up to the DS in terms of innovation (nor flat-out sales) right now...but in pure hours? I actually put in more time with Sony's handheld than the DS last year, in spite of how unfashionable that may be.
A major reason for that was this game. What a pleasant surprise it was
19. Call of Duty 3 (Xbox 360/PS3)
|Nope, still ain't sick of shooting Nazis. After this game, I am sick of hearing Poles speak inexplicable English to each other though|
My jaw dropped to scrote level when the latest Call of Duty was announced as a console exclusive last year, essentially leaving PC players (who pretty much made the series what it was) flailing around with nothing to play but WoW for yet another 12 months. If nothing else however, the die-hards can rest peacefully in the knowledge that this wasn't the mammoth CoD update they perhaps would have wanted anyway, and little more than an enhanced mission pack when all's said and done.
Yet while CoD3 wasn't the super spruced-up sequel some of us perhaps expected from next-gen hardware, it did throw some pleasing niceties into the mix to make its existence worthwhile. Graphically it's a step-up for one, finally busting out full on rag-doll physics at last, in an addition the series has needed for an age. The lighting's also improved dramatically, offering up truly stunning views that, at times, far surpass anything seen in its predecessor. The super smooth 60 frames per second also impresses, particularly in light of the sheer wealth of crazy chaos continually pumped out in every direction.
|Although not a Gears or a Motorstorm, CoD3 still looks the biz, while maintaining a liquid smooth 60 FPS on top|
Gameplay-wise, all starts out well too. The opening US fire-fight centred around a Normandy church proves just about one of the most spectacular set-pieces the series has seen, with insta-love assaulting your senses from the very first second you peek out over that stone wall into the depths of hell. This opener is Call of Duty at its very best in fact, with explosions galore, endless streams of friend and foe in every direction, and a deafening wall of noise symbolically thrusting itself through the hymen that is your ear drums with repeated vigour.
Each of the subsequent American missions continue such quality through and through, with your Tommy guns and M1s handling just as glorious as ever, but unfortunately the same can't be said of the Canadian, British and Polish scenarios that shortly follow. Their relative repetition, boredom and flat-out monotony isn't helped by comedy accents and the lamest, most tacked on of B-movie plotlines that really has no place in a series like this. That trademark CoD linearity, a plethora of bugs and a conspicuous lack of big arse Stalingrad-style famous battles that the series has become known for round off a general smattering of disappointment surrounding the single player game as a result. Thankfully though, multiplayer pretty much saves the day.
|Don't even think about nabbing this one for single player. As an online game though, CoD3's really rather swell|
With mammoth 24 player showdowns that are about as fun as any WWII shooter's been in recent years - running silky smooth and hella fun to boot - CoD3 shines online. A selection of ace classes, drivable vehicles and a generous plethora of game modes culminate in what can only be described as the bastard butt-sexed off-spring of BF2, Day of Defeat and the series' own United Offensive
. It's pretty much worth a purchase for alone.
This game is ultimately to CoD2 what United Offensive was to the original Call of Duty in that regard. A stand-alone expansion pack with some uneven single player content, but an incredible multiplayer component making it all worthwhile. It's why you ultimately see it on this here list as a result, and no doubt you'll see me caning this bad boy on Live in the coming post-Xmas months of slumpage.
18. Battlefield 2142 (PC)
|C'mon Pooky! Let's burn that mother fucker to the ground!|
PC gamers weren't entirely left out of all the fun on the online shooter side of things last year though, thanks in part to (yet another) instalment of the now long-running and critically acclaimed Battlefield series. True, 2142 is also far from the mind-blowing revamp that the Battlefield series...well, really didn't need, but it did provide a pleasing new sci-fi skin for those oh so popular BF2
shenanigans that still refuse to grow old.
The Titan Mode that Crieff gushed
over last month brings it all together of course, a fantastic new addition to the series that we can only hope hints towards the sort of epic, groundbreaking ideas Dice have in store for future games in this most successful of franchises. Great weapons, huge battlegrounds and some neat new twists with the unlocks all help round off yet another pleasing entry for the winning Battlefield formula.
It ain't my fave game in the series, that all said - an accolade which continues to fall back on the awe-inspiring Special Forces
from late last year - but for a demented, futuristic twist on that ever-enjoyable online action, this'll do more than nicely. Now I just need to find time to play it...
17. Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
Confession time, I'm not a big Final Fantasy guy. Overblown androgynous characters and turn-based sword fighting does fuck all for me. So it's with some surprise that FFXII totally sucked me in like no other this year. Offering more freedom, a better story and far superior combat to any of the games that preceded it....FF kinda went all KOTOR in 2006. Just the opening city alone where you spend a good chunk o' time comes across like some kinda boner bumping melding of Tatooine and Naboo.
|Combat's now ace. I just wish it didn't look like I was peeing blue on everyone|
Thanks to these various alterations to the franchise - or as I'd rather call 'em, "much needed updates" - XII tugged on my dick pretty damn hard from the offset. With the lack of random battles and turn-based bollocks slowing it all down, the all-out sense of fun was boosted significantly, and when matched with FF's gorgeous art design and positively bustling locales, it actually goes down as a bit of an all-time classic in my book. I never thought I'd say that
, believe me.
Then again, it's becoming harder and harder to enjoy new games on this most ancient of consoles these days. The PS2 had some amazing - not to mention exclusive - titles last year, but its now ludicrously dated specs grate even harder than in previous times when a PS3's now sitting right next to it. As far as Jap RPGs go though, I can safely say that this is my absolute favourite yet by a clear mile, and in some ways, FFXII is so damn beautiful and forged from such immense love that it sorta overcomes a lot of those PS2 limitations with little to no effort.
The racist clansman within me is also so damn glad to see Japanese gamers finally starting to evolve their tastes somewhat in terms of welcoming more contemporary gameplay mechanics into their most popular franchises too...as my god, it's about friggin' time.
16. Resistance - Fall of Man (PS3)
|As an early example of the PS3's immense power at work, Resistance rocks hard. When it stops trying to be Call of Duty|
Although perhaps not quite the all-out system selling mind-blower Sony would have wanted, Resistance turned out to be a damn solid, if not truly spectacular launch FPS with some ace multiplayer modes thrown in on top. It's more akin to a Perfect Dark Zero than a Gears of War in that respect, although I think we can safely say that it wees down upon the former from a good 10 stories high.
As a WW2 shooter cross-bred with Half-Life-style alien blasting, the idea's good, the weapons imaginative, and its mammoth online mode proves quite the achievement in the console space too. Resistance isn't really an immediate grabber though, due mostly to the slightly limp Call of Duty "inspired" levels featured in its first few hours.
As you explore more and more of the evil alien Chimeran architecture in its latter half though, the game instantly springs to life, showcasing stunningly dark and twisted sights that actually...pssst...better some of those seen in Half-Life 2
. But you didn't hear that from me.
|Resistance sheds the realism of so many recent shooters, handling more like a consolified Quake or Unreal in comparison|
If you can get to grips with the PS3's still not-quite-perfect control pad and make some proper progress in its on-the-whole rather riveting campaign then, there's some truly great stuff to be found in Resistance. The 2-player split screen mode adds some fab additional hilarity too, much in that same way Halo did in its prime. The wide-open, tactic-heavy battlefields, coupled with strong, yet rare multi-person vehicular segments all prove positively ripe for co-operative tomfoolery, and I just wish this mode was playable online if anything.
Although, hey, 40 player objective modes more than help make up for that.
Resistance ain't quite
the ?450 game all in all - that'll be Motorstorm which touches down around March's European launch - but it still provides more than enough fun and chaotic alien blasting action that early adopters can blaze through without feeling bad about their mammoth PS3 purchase. Expect a lot more on this game - and indeed the PS3 as a whole - later this week incidentally, as I've been playing the damn thing pretty much around the clock since Thursday.
I do it for you guys.
15. Hitman - Blood Money (PC/Xbox 360)
The Hitman series finally come of age. IO hinted at brilliance in their past games - while just as often fell flat on their faces - but in Blood Money
it all finally came together for Agent 47. It's a brilliantly realised, fully interactive murdering sim, that's intelligent, dark as hell, yet hilariously funny all at once. It's also the best sounding game of the year by far.
|The old "death by anal|
buggery". Gets 'em every
This is the game that finally does justice to that most fab of premises...playing a cold blooded killer for hire with zero moral baggage. Whether it be chucking dudes overboard a ferry when no one's looking, sniping motherfuckers from the top floor of an opera house, or just falling back on that good old piano wire garrotting from behind we all love so much, Blood Money puts the sheer fun back into killing people with no remorse. Because we don't do enough of that in video games do we?
There's so many memorable scenarios in Bloody Money, from the crotch woodening Mardi Gras street party, to that eerie as hell Eyes Wide Shut style masked ball, and probing each and every one in exciting new ways just to see what the hell happens proves immensely entertaining, with - needless to say - never a dull outcome.
On a personal level, I still prefer Sam Fisher's antics in the stealth genre, but for those who hate the tip-toeing and sticking to the shadows, Hitman provides a fab, alternate twist on such things, one where strategy, intellect and cunning prove your main strengths, not whether or not that guard up ahead just saw you from the corner of his eye. It's about as close as you'll probably get to the much anticipated Assassin's Creed for the next 10 months, and is defo worth a glance if you missed it in the first half of last year.
14. Dead Rising (Xbox 360)
|Jam's game of the year, right here|
Hardly the most accessible game on this list - as you may remember from our ensemble whining on the podcast
back in September - but on subsequent replays, I started to grow real fond of Dead Rising ya know. Break through that initial barrier of god-awful escort missions and its ludicrous mission structure, and sure enough, yet another Capcom classic doth appear. It may not quite provide Resi 4
calibre greatness, but there's certainly hints if you look hard enough.
Coming across like a crazy arse episode of 24 by way of Dawn of the Dead, it's certainly one of the most original games of the year, if nothing else. It really is its own beast and hard to truly describe with that in mind, with even its downloadable Live demo failing to really get across how it all works and just what the heck it's all about.
If like me you weren't a fan at first
, stick with Dead Rising regardless I'd say. There's an amazing idea buried deep down in there, and one that actually works pretty bloody well on occasion. What looks on the face of it to be a simple zombie massacre that you've seen a hundred times before, has way more depth, choice and demented shit to see than perhaps any other game here. Save one.
13. LocoRoco (PSP)
|I'll be honest. This ain't a real screenshot. I drew it in Microsoft Paint like two minutes ago|
The best handheld game of the year for me, hands down, LocoRoco gave the PSP charm and personality that was otherwise worryingly lacking. Rolling those multicoloured blobs of joy around their crazy rainbow-like universe though, while collecting shit and smacking the crap outta their evil blackface
enemies, provided just the kinda harmless, handheld fun missing up 'til that point. It also gave the DS a serious run for its money in the cutesy department too.
It didn't last as long as I had hoped, and truth be told, I haven't touched the sucker in months other than that Xmas freebie level on the PS3 Network, but I think Loco's greatest accomplishment was how it rejuvenated love for a system that was all but dried up at the time. Perhaps it's why the PSP ain't out for the count just yet.
You can catch that Loco versus Mario face-off I whacked up earlier in the year right here
if you missed it.
12. Burnout Revenge (Xbox 360)
|Man, wouldn't you kill to do that shit for real? Oh, me neither. I was just speaking in generalities|
The masses will tell you Test Drive was the driving game of 2006, but fuck that over-rated pap, it was the year of arcade racers for me. There's only one better example of that than good old Burnout...extreme racing at its most utterly insane.
Single player is really sorta pointless here, little more than a graphically spruced-up rendition of 2005's original Xbox version, but grab this one for the multiplayer alone. The rival feature, which continually tallies and keeps track of all your takedowns, crossed with the exceptional six player league system somewhat "borrowed" from Mario Kart, merge together to flavour your online games with oh so sweet persistence, so much so that nine months on it's still as fun and fresh as it was on release.
Not quite the true next-gen Burnout that the upcoming #5 will be, but still a spectacular racer in its own right, showcasing quite possibly the most stunning explosions and pile-ups ever to grace a video game.
11. LEGO Star Wars II (All Systems)
|Ya know what else grinds my gears? When you can't find the droids you're lookin' for|
Crieff may well castrate me for this one not making the top 10, but as much a blast
as LEGO Star Wars II was, I mark it down solely for not including online play. What could have been a monumental classic subsequently became one with zero longevity as a result, and I'd ask any mega-fan of this game to tell me if they'd honestly touched it once since completion.
Still, for those 8-odd hours it takes to finish, there's little as fun, nor as charming. Improving on the still splendid original
in pretty much every way, without truly innovating at the same time, LEGO Star Wars II provided a great new twist on the holy trilogy, breathing a little extra life into the series we've all seen way too many times to be healthy. Reliving them classic Star Wars moments takes on a whole new dimension when shiny yellow faces are re-enacting them though. Fun stuff.
Throw in tons of bonus levels and a great (albeit offline) co-op mode, and this defo goes down as the best "kids" game of the year. But who am I kidding, it's just as much for old saddoes like me as it is your niece or nephew.
10. Dead Or Alive 4 (Xbox 360)
|In spite of its overabundance of|
coose, DOA actually boasts alarmingly
Certainly the most under-rated game on this list for me, Dead Or Alive may have scored well with critics, but the gaming public speak of it like some kinda retarded, spasticated jiggle fighter. Sure, the DOA girls may be easy on the eyes (and really need to invest in some proper bras), but as a round-based fighter, it's way more serious and competitive than its shiny, titty covered exterior would have you believe. This sucker's brutal in fact, and quite possibly the hardest game I played
all year, with an end of game boss beatable only through extensive training, mastering and perfecting that a real fucking Ninja could hack.
I also think this is the most successful fighter yet at bringing to life the concept of high speed blocking and counterattacking in a video game, with battles between pros looking more like something out of a heavily choreographed kung-fu flick than a simple button-bashing video game.
The sucker's got considerable depth and longevity with that in mind, a trait further expanded upon by the all-too-fun online mode. It has its lag issues at times, sure, but at the end of the day, it works, and squaring off against dudes - particularly those ranked higher than you - and actually kicking their arse? Ultra satisfaction of the highest degree.
Don't let DOA's emphasis on flange lull you into a false sense of security then, it was by far the most harrowing and hardcore fighter of the year, and a great example of the 360's graphical power at work in a more Eastern manner for a change. As the game that's finally warmed me up to 3D fighters after oh so many years of truly despising the buggers, I command all to give it the time of day.
I put in so many frickin' hours with this game since last January, I just wonder now if the upcoming Virtua Fighter 5 can knock it off that perch.
9. Ridge Racer 6 (Xbox 360)
Jeez, was this really released in 2006? Technically yes, as although a launch game in the US, us Euros didn't see Namco's 360 arcade racer 'til once again, gone January. Thankfully this gives me another chance to flower it with love, as you might remember I wasn't a huge fan back around the game's release. I thought it was garbage to be honest.
|I'll chat more about Ridge Racer 7 soon, but to cut a long story short...don't expect a big leap over this one|
After subsequent replays and one hopeless addiction later though, RR6 became unquestionably my fave racer of the past couple of years. Forget PGR, fuck you Gran Turismo...I'm a Ridge Racer man. This son of a gun is pure video gaming masturbation.
Needless to say, it's all about them drifts. Hurtling your humungous beast of a car around a bend at 180mph - at a sheer right angle no less - proves enjoyable, exhilarating and oddly tactical when you get into it, giving Ridge immense depth and a strong emphasis on skill to match its out-right sense of fun. The single player World Xplorer's great too - ridiculously daunting in its length - yet endlessly rewarding due to a relentless stream of unlockables you can uncover, from new cars, to vehicle customisations...to even a Pacman-mobile.
The game's follow-up Ridge Racer 7 also touched down on PS3 this year, but as fine as that game is, I have to say that for me #6 is just the superior of the two. Improved visuals, the inclusion of voice chat and just a far greater sense of polish make it the highlight of the series for me thus far, and the Live integration - though a wee bit barebones - makes for longevity matched only by the Never Ending Story.
Ridge gets over-shadowed by a lot of the other more high-profile racers in console land, but ignore the lot if you must, this is the best of the bunch. Miss at your peril.
8. Splinter Cell - Double Agent (Tons of Bloody Systems)
|While not quite the emotional sucker-punch I was expecting, Double Agent's still all good|
Sam Fisher's next-gen, and slightly off-the-beaten-path adventure was met with tepid scepticism by some, yet sheer adulation by others. I put myself firmly in the latter camp though, as for me the PC and 360 take
on Double Agent was a fresh and invigorating re-imagining of the series that added some great new twists to the age old formula. The story may not have been the be-all, end-all plotline I somewhat hoped for, but gameplay-wise, this boasted more top quality Splinter Cell action, with the added bonus of brand new moves, killer new gadgets and - for a change - bright, sunny levels.
Even better was the revamped multiplayer mode, which made the already rather brilliant Spies Vs. Mercs game-type far more action-packed, entertaining and accessible...if not quite as intelligent as it once was. It truly plays differently to everything else out there in the online space right now though, hence I continue to whack it on regularly.
|As sweet as it looks here, the old Xbox rendition actually plays better. Back compat'll even clean up them jaggies|
While the PC/360 version seems to be a Marmite game as such though - love it or hate it to the max - I think the Xbox and Wii versions actually offer up the best rendition overall. Completely rebuilt from the ground up, this more traditional retelling
of that same basic story took Splinter Cell back to the good old days of night time sneaking, with admittedly little innovation or spruced up gameplay mechanics, but just a generally more solid feel. As a bonus, it came complete with that mind-blowing co-op campaign conspicuously missing from next-gen Splinter Cell.
Now that the Xbox rendition is fully backwards compatible mind you, 360 guys get to enjoy the best of both worlds, with the blessing of far superior graphics on top. Together they form a fab dollop of Splinter Cell action that covers the gamut of single player dark sneakiness, more original day time innovation, fab adversarial multiplayer, and a killer co-op mode to boot.
Expensive then, but worth it.
7. Wii Sports (Wii)
|Worth risking your ?2000 TV over|
The greatest party game ever made, Wii Sports is almost worth owning a Wii for alone. Which is convenient, as it's bundled in the box for free.
Thwacking golf balls off into the distance, bowling a perfect strike, or slugging a crazy hard bastard home run right outta the stadium. All actions we've done a million times before, but thanks to the Wii's awesome new sense of control, ones that feel about as fresh and fun as discovering your own dick for the first time. The Wii controller adds such an amazing and previously unseen physicality to gaming, one that if nothing else, will surely help you shed that big fucking beer belly of yours.
Played by yourself, Sports is fine, but it's with a room full of people that it truly springs to life. Diving and leaping around the room like a bunch of Mongos is the most deliriously fun thing ever, and really sorta makes you wish such functionality came as standard in all other games consoles. After my first week with the Wii...my PC, PS3 and 360 all felt kinda tepid, to be frank.
I just wish there was a little
more to this game, all being said, and that each of the sports had a little more on the lifespan tip. I doubt anyone'll be playing this game a couple months from now - hopefully there'll be more extensive and deeper Wii experiences out by that point after all - but at this moment in time? Wii Sports is pretty much the most innovative slab of gaming around. It's that simple.
6. Fight Night - Round 3 (Xbox 360)
In terms of sheer hours, Fight Night's sucked up more than pretty much any other here. As simple a concept as it is - punching and blocking and that's about it - it's an endlessly rewarding and hopelessly addictive title, not to mention the best sports game of the last couple years by a good long mile.
|EA went to worrying lengths|
to market their latest
Top marks go to EA for coming up with the most easy to use, yet skilfully satisfying control scheme ever seen in a fighter, one that really lets you get into the physical nature of curling a big right hook into an opponent's jaw, and in a way some simple button press could never vaguely match. It didn't hurt of course, that Fight Night was perhaps the first game out the door to truly do the 360's graphical horse power justice too, looking more like some kinda photorealistic television replay than real-time gameplay footage. I think it speaks volumes that almost a year on, few (if any) have matched up on the visual front.
In an odd way though, this game also had a more personal effect on me this past year. While creating a digital rendition of myself using Fight Night's awesomely slick face-morphing character creator started out as something oddly humorous and light-hearted, seeing beautifully sleek and muscle-bound digital Diggler smacking the shit outta the opposition over and over (while also yelling in comical agony as slow-mo punches belted him in the eye repeatedly), subconsciously forced me into the gym more and more over the proceeding 10 months. I ended up dropping almost two stone as a result, and have since bulked up into a Marcus Fenix look-alike wife beater. I blame this game.
You really owe it to yourself to play the sucker either way, it really is pretty much flawless
. Who would have expected that from boxing
5. The Legend of Zelda - Twilight Princess (Wii)
There was a point about half-way through Zelda where I foresaw it possibly going down as my fave title of the year. The game is so expertly paced that the opening half feels like one of the most impeccably created video gaming experiences ever. Following Link from harmless goat herder, to super bad arse action hero as the world around him darkens up and deforms before his very eyes, was an experience no movie, nor any other title on this page could ever hope to match.
|A wee bit long in the tooth - in more ways than one - Zelda's still a bit of a beaut|
It continues to heap endless new abilities, characters and locations upon the player from then on, forever drawing you in more and more, and it truly is a sight to see a game with so much god damn fucking content and meat on its bones in that regard.
The problem is, the game refuses to go out on a high though, and it's just all a little too
long for me. By about the 30th hour in - after slogging my way through six humungous dungeons, tons of scripted sequences, and a zillion cutesy cut-scenes - it'd almost outstayed its welcome in fact, and I was kinda ready to move on to the next game.
Sticking with it reaps some fabulous rewards mind you, in the form of a simply incredible final showdown and a great end of game montage that leaves you with a more than perfect after taste. Zelda's a fabulous game despite being a wee bit too long then, and is still by far the best the series has been in over a decade now.
I'll look forward to seeing what a genuine Wii Zelda game looks like next however - as opposed to what is essentially a spruced up Gamecube port here. Not only is such a game apparently almost finished if rumours are to be believed, but it's to be drastically different to this more "old skool" style too.
Perhaps that's a good thing then, as for all Zelda's beauty, brilliance, not to mention stupidly fun Wii controller craziness, this series really ain't changed since Ocarina. At all.
4. Rainbow Six - Vegas (PC/Xbox 360)
Vegas' recent release amidst such crowd-pleasing company as Zelda, the PS3 launch and the next game on this list has meant I barely had time to play it at all until this past week or two. I'm happy to say that in just that short spell of time it rapidly solidified itself one of my fave online games ever.
|Part FPS, part stealth, part third person tactical thang...Vegas is awesome because it lets you do crazy arse shit like this|
It becomes harder and harder to differentiate the various Tom Clancy franchises at this point, as they continually converge into one single counter-terrorism entity, and Vegas is a textbook example of that, regularly delving deep into both Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon territory depending on your gadget use and play style. For all its familiarity and "borrowing" though, it certainly hasn't hurt the R6 boys to steal from the best, as this particular instalment can pride itself on being the greatest its series has known.
You can nit-pick at the lack of checkpoints in the single player game - an unfortunate trait that can see you replaying the same showdowns up to 10 times in a row - but if nothing else, the sheer brutality of the thing reinforces the very fundamental gameplay principals that Rainbow's famous for; cover, tactics and strategy. Without 'em, you won't get anywhere at the end of the day, and thanks to (mostly...) rock solid AI on the part of your team-mates and enemies, the fire-fights play out just as tense and vicious as you could ever have hoped. Stick to cover, plan your attacks, play it smart...and sure enough you'll find an amazingly satisfying shooter in Vegas.
|I love this guy's accent.|
No, wait. The exact
opposite of that
More than anything though, I was surprised at the stunning atmosphere present in this game. Realistic, squad-based shooters have a tendency to fall into sterility, with little to no personality driving the experience forward, but this one really sucks you in. Yeah, the storyline is overblown pap that might as well not even be there - with quite possibly the worst ending ever seen in a game - but the city of Vegas itself proves the true star of the show, with those endless streams of colour illuminating the night time sky more like something outta Heat or the recent Miami Vice remake than a video game. This is backed up by a fab mixture of orchestral fanfares and dark electronic ditties that positively drench the sucker in vibe. Thrown in with some surprisingly gritty language and a single player campaign just perfect in length, Vegas proves fab solo material.
But of course, no one buys a Rainbow game for the single player do they? Nope, it's multiplayer that reigns supreme here, with Vegas offering up some of the down-right sweetest online action going. The ability to replay that solo campaign online with three buddies backing you up is worth the price alone - oh so tense stuff that springs to life beautifully on "Realistic" mode - but the versus scenarios also throw in a fab change of pace that's more than up to the task too. The underlying "levelling up" of a single online character not only unlocks an endless stream of Achievement points, but also oh so sweet gear like new armour and varied clothing, giving this sucker ludicrous amounts of customisation to match its humungous shelf-life.
When thrown in with the (albeit slightly buggy) face-scanning feature and insanely awesome "Terrorist Hunt" game-type, Vegas feels like a never ending Christmas present on the Live side of things, and one that could well dominate 360 owners lives in the upcoming year. Viva Las Vegas!
3. Gears of War (Xbox 360)
game of 2006 for many I'm sure, and what I feel we'll look back on as the genuine birth of Microsoft's now year old machine. Gears takes such a monumental leap
forward in terms of graphical showmanship, it renders pretty much everything else on this list - if not gaming as a whole - incredibly dated by comparison. It's a double-edged sword in a way, as after a single mere whiff of Gears, you instantly expect the same from everything else. All your other games feel so old and haggard sitting next to it.
|If Gears didn't force|
you to nab a 360
yet, I fear nothing will
Thankfully, gameplay-wise it manages to more than stack up to those insanely gorgeous graphics too, with a finely tuned and pleasingly integrated cover system that makes fire-fights tense, tactical...and oddly realistic for such a ridiculously futuristic shooter. I was particularly impressed with how much variety Epic squeezed out of the campaign more than anything though, with Gears providing far from the same shit over and over, thanks to interesting variation on the enemies, inventive use of shadow and light, humungous changes in location, and some stunningly epic and over-the-top boss fights. All this makes for an interesting and addictive journey that's so damn riveting that I'm already on my fourth play-through.
Gears is a very short game, but with zero padding whatsoever, it's positively ripe for these endless replays you see. Not only will you wanna blaze through it on Casual to get your early bearings, but the far more interesting Hard mode, the unlockable Insane mode, the ever so sweet co-op play, and the endless search for those oh-so-elusive dog tags result in one of the most re-playable titles seen in quite the while.
Of course, you also have that Versus mode too. Some of the flat-out coolest group fun this side of a Playboy Mansion orgy, its only fault is a slight lack of maps in my book...a problem already being alleviated by this week's upcoming freebie map pack.
I think it's safe to say that Gears is the game that defined 2006, and may well go on to define the 360 as a whole later in its life. Sony say the next-gen starts with them...but I think most would say it started right here.
2. Ghost Recon - Advanced Warfighter (PC/Xbox 360)
|An oh so rare game that meets the standards of its ever-fabled "target footage", single player GRAW's gorgeous|
While Gears is the graphical power-house though, and Rainbow the all-round better Clancy title, it's GRAW that's housed by far the greatest memories for me these past 12 months. As the first real next-gen shooter of the year, GRAW was one of those games that just hit at exactly
the right time
really. Four months on from the 360's birth
- as launch games grew old and the post-Christmas wasteland started to grate - boom, Ghost Recon came to our rescue like a beacon of heavenly light. I know I've talked about the bugger way too much around here already, but god damn it, I really can't help myself.
|On 360 it reigns, sure, but don't discount its PC cousin either. 'Tis good stuffs|
The single player still looks stunning to this day, showcasing some of the most flat-out amazing cityscapes ever seen in a game, mixed with hardcore street level combat to rival the very best. Once again though? It was the multiplayer that gave the game its immense legs. The versus modes were fine, I guess, but the real fun came from hitting those 16 player co-operative games with your buddies, where stray friendly 'nades casually took out half your team, and completing the level by yourself as 15 dead comrades watched from the side-lines made you feel like some sorta video gaming superhero.
On the downside, the scaled-down graphics engine used for multiplayer has aged almost embarrassingly bad at this point, and GRAW's cover system, control scheme and AI have all since been outmatched by the many listed above. As I look back on the year though, and all the best times I had with each of the new systems...GRAW stands head and shoulders above your Gears and your Rainbows and your Resistances. That sensation of raising a gun to your eye and firing off a shot into some distant terrorist silhouette who was just about to plug a hole in your buddy's head just ain't been beaten for me.
This is a series that continues to get better and better every year in my eyes, and even the slightly inferior PC
game - drastically different to its console cousin in every single way - proved oh so fun in its own right too. Pull a Splinter Cell and nab both renditions if you know what's good for you. And also grab that now half-price Chapter 2
map pack if you somewhat moronically ain't done so as well.
I salute you, Ghosts.
1. The Elder Scrolls IV - Oblivion (PC/Xbox 360)
|The second best thing one can do while mounting a horse, exploring Tamriel just never grows old|
Not exactly the surprise of the century, but in spite of all the ace titles mentioned above, Oblivion just steamrolled
over everything else in my life this year. As a ridiculously epic and involving single player RPG - one with unlimited choice and sheer sense of freedom - it's conclusive proof that cutting edge, truly genre defining new games can still pop up any day at a moment's notice. It's just a monumental achievement for role playing games...if not video gaming as a whole.
It's all about those moments. The ones that'll stick with me forever. Taking my horse out for a ride for the very first time. Wandering the fields on a beautiful summer's day. Slinking between the cold medieval streets at night. Breaking into some poor sap's house and nicking all his cash. Murdering my first mark as an assassin. Contracting vampirism. Winning the Arena. Saving the world. Christ, running through them sewers alone at the very beginning was enough to make me fall in love forever. Just writing about it here makes me wanna fire the sucker up again right now, and that's with 50+ hours under my belt already. In fact I think I will.
Okay I'm back.
|While more recent games have rendered Oblivion far from prettiest, it still boasts the nicest vistas to be found this side of a computer screen|
That's the beauty of Oblivion though; that even with so much god damn freakin' time on the clock, I'm just no where vaguely near finished with it yet. There's still so much to see and do, from the villager who just asked me to find her husband, to the inn keeper who's sick of that ghost haunting him every night. It truly is like a whole other virtual life in that regard, more single player MMO than simple RPG. I have my life on the outside world, where I work, sleep and drink beer...but then I have my life in Tamriel. Where I vanquish evil. Where I help the town's people. And where I steal from them once they go to bed. Oblivion has given me a full-blown split personality disorder.
For such a long, involving and almost exhausting game, it speaks volumes that in just a month or so after finishing the sucker, I had already started it up again with a brand new character. That's WoW-like addiction right there. In fact, I'm replaying it from scratch yet again on the 360 as we speak, with the aim of diving into all that wealth of downloadable content Bethesda have since released for next to nothing. Believe it or not, I hadn't touched any of it 'til now. There just wasn't any need to...the game was fucking breakin' at the seams already.
Oblivion had me intrigued from the very first screenshot so many moons ago, and years on I can thankfully say it more than lived up to its promise. It's everything that's great about interactive entertainment rolled into one, from exciting, action-packed combat, expert customisation and choice, detailed storylines and complex characters, to a mammoth sense of exploration that truly makes you feel like an ant. It's a rare game that honestly has it all, and that I subsequently find hard to fault...and one that actually makes me kinda sad. Such a beast just comes along so damn rarely these days. It's the first since Colossus
, if you ask me.
If you've yet to dive head first into the Elder Scrolls universe and spend at least two months - if not two years - exploring its endless sights and sounds to your heart's content...sort it the fuck out. You tool.
SWAT 4 - The Sketchkov Syndicate (PC):
|What the fuck is this|
game? 10 hours in, I still
SWAT's an unsung hero of the PC shooter genre, a series just different and original enough to set it apart from the rest of the FPS crowd. Not just realistic and tense like your Counter-Strikes
and your Battlefields, both SWAT - and its 2006 expansion
pack - prove particularly great due to the rules of engagement you have to abide by. More specifically, the subsequent dark humour they afford. Sounds strange? Sure is, but it works. Especially in multiplayer. It's of course co-opping over a LAN that sees true greatness prosper though, providing just about the best multiplayer PC fun around for those who have access to it. Great times contained within.
Viva Pi?ata (Xbox 360):
As a truly "out-there" twist on the god-game genre cross-bred with a garden simulator and a cartoon all in one, Viva Pi?ata was just about the most bat-shit insane game of 2006. Smacking animals to death, mating parents with their offspring, and posting terminally ill worms to your pals via the Xbox Live postal service headline the list of "fucked up shit you can do in no game but this". It's also barely a single stray pube worse off than the likes of Gears from a graphical stand-point too, looking essentially like a CGI cartoon come to life on a top quality HD set. Viva was a good, original and inventive twist on the god-game all in all - not to mention a pleasant surprise on top - but ultimately just proved one not really for me.
Company of Heroes (PC):
An RTS Dig actually enjoyed! Don't ask me why, I just found this one fun, simple, beautiful to look at and genuinely exciting to play...unlike pretty much all its strategic peers. A truly fantastic game on the whole, and one that almost makes up for Relic's god-awful 2006 blunder in console land that I'll go on to mention in just one second.
|A zany Japanese adventure that quite possibly one-ups Twilight Princess, Okami's positively lush|
One of the most flat-out stunning games of 2006, hands-down, that I just regrettably ain't had time to play much of at all with all the next-gen hoopla keeping me busy. The PS2's answer to Zelda essentially, with a gorgeous, hand-drawn visual style that feels penned by calligraphy artists. It is, believe it or not, just as pretty as Gears in many ways, and arguably more deserving of praise for being able to pull it off on that most ancient of systems too. Expect a full review if and when I can find 40 spare hours...but in the meantime I can already lay claim to this as an all-time classic.
Half-Life 2 - Episode 1 (PC):
More Gordon goodness is always fun, and Valve didn't disappoint for his first episodic adventure. Tossing crap around with the gravity gun, and head-shotting mofos with that most riotous of FPS weaponry was just as cool as ever, but the inclusion of Alyx for pretty much the entire game made it stand-out next to even Half-Life 2 itself. She brought a lot more heart and character to what has traditionally been quite the solitary experience - brain-dead Barney aside - with the game all the more better for it as a result (as demonstrated by our collective jerk-off session in podcast
land). Still conspicuously missing is its follow-up though. Hmm...
Metroid Prime - Hunters (DS):
DS game of 2006, bar none, I just wish I could have squeezed it into the above list at some point is all. I even kicked Crieff's arse at this one online, hence I just have
to continually bukake it with the utmost love and affection. A somewhat streamlined take on the "real" Prime games found in Gamecube country, I almost preferred the DS take due to the lack of added fat. It was still Metroid, and just as fun as ever, but due to more focused level design and a stronger emphasis on hardcore FPS showdowns, it felt slender, lean and straight to the point. And portable. What a game.
Rockstar's Table Tennis (Xbox 360):
As simple yet ballsy a release to be found last year, Table Tennis came smack bang outta leftfield and rocked my 360 hard
. It may not have had the longest life - and I'd be lying if I said I'd touched it in six months - but just on the quality of those first few weeks alone, this bad boy solidified itself as one of the year's greats. Going for pennies these days, it's still worth a ganders, and looks stunningly pretty to boot.
Sam & Max - Culture Shock (PC):
|Bully's an odd mixture of Fable and GTA, complete with that trademark Rockstar humour rounding it off nicely|
The point 'n' click adventure hath returneth! Sam & Max' long-awaited comeback
failed to disappoint the Dig, and the promise of more and more adventures with the early '90s golden boys just right around the corner has me hopeful that the genre as a whole may well see some sort of resurgence in 2007. Part two will be hitting any day now, don't be left out of all the fun.
Saint's Row (Xbox 360):
GTA-dethroned. At fucking last!
New Super Mario Brothers (DS):
Fucking dumb name aside, NSMB resulted in a fab return to 2D form for old Mazzer, while doubling up as a sorta "best of" at the same time by combining a ton of different traits from every single Mario title before it. Yet another reason to pick up a DS Lite if you still - somewhat maddeningly - haven't yet, it's the nootz.
Not the Columbine simulator many were expecting, but instead an amazing, funny and well produced title that much like Okami and Final Fantasy XII, proved that the PS2 still had the goods to stand up against the big boys when it came to sheer fun.
Hall of Shame
Dark Messiah - Might & Magic (PC):
|The weapons, visuals and premise? All spot on. Something's oddly missing though|
As a medieval FPS with a huge emphasis on physics and in-depth melee combat, many of us had high hopes for Dark Messiah. Sadly awful multiplayer mixed with mildly interesting, yet oddly flat single player action resulted in a title that just never lived up to its promise. Despite all our hopes and dreams that this was a rival to the throne, it doesn't deserve to be mentioned even in the same sentence as Obli...
Sin Episodes (PC):
It sure takes a certain pedigree or shitness to turn an FPS in the Source engine into something so bland, monotonous and frustrating as Sin Episodes did, but to their credit Ritual Entertainment apparently possess such skills. As an awful introduction to episodic content - that has somewhat thankfully been rejuvenated by Sam & Max - I doubt we'll be seeing a Sin Episodes part 2 any time soon.
Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC):
Okay, there's a nice
enough single player RPG hiding somewhere deep down beneath the bugs, awful front-end and cancerous performance - not to mention Neverwinter's ever reliable online multiplayer integration - but never the less, what the fuck happened here? Did no one play-test this alpha
before chucking it onto store shelves? Shame on you, Obsidian. Neverwinter deserved better.
Far Cry Instincts - Predator (Xbox 360):
|I'm grinding teeth just thinking about my first night trying to play this|
It saddens me to see the Far Cry series go from the golden franchise it once was on PC, to this
most cash-driven, un-playable wretched whore of a series we now see before us, and a large part (although not all) of that downfall is due to this specific title. Crappy controls and last-gen port-itis turn what could have been great, into something far more ugly and evil. Avoid that Wii game too if you know what's good for you.
Star Fox Command (DS):
A mega disappointment for Star Fox fans, here's another series continuing to plummet from the heights of all-time classic to minor embarrassment via each subsequent game. Command lost points in my eyes for losing all its personality, on-rails segments, and sheer sense of fun that the series made famous, then proving stupidly easy as well. If not just plain stupid. If the Wii Star Fox game - which you just know is in development somewhere - similarly flops, it may well be one fumble too many for old Fox McCloud and pals. Boo-urns.
What many hoped to be the most outrageous and over-the-top shooter of the year, was ultimately about as run-of-the-mil and bland
an FPS as you've ever had the misfortune of sleeping through. Invincible enemies and officially the
worst story and cut-scenes ever round-off the overall sense of dickitory enveloping this utter shaft of a game. Do better next time Criterion.
Red Steel (Wii):
|Red Steel's alright, I guess, but to quote Gob Bluth, "Come on!!"...Ubi can surely do better|
As a Wii launch game I guess it ain't as bad as some, I just think when we heard an FPS with sword fighting was coming to the Wii - courtesy of Ubisoft, no less - we all expected something far grander than this. The controls handle more like a light-gun game, the sword fighting is way too simplistic, and the cut-scenes/characters prove about as insignificant as Pauly Shore. Plus, dude, what's with the lack of blood? The game's Red
Steel, no? The initial novelty of shooting dudes with the Wii controller goes a long way, but one hopes the whole FPS-on-Wii thang gets revamped pronto, 'cos my god, serious effin' potential is currently going to waste you spastics.
Prey (PC/Xbox 360):
A game that wanted to be the new Doom, Quake or FEAR, but ultimately couldn't hold a single candle to any. Prey started off great, adding some nice new twists to the FPS formula by way of crazy new portals and barmy gravity puzzles, but just failed
to make good use of such additions and follow them through to anywhere vaguely interesting. A fab demo that everyone should download then, but most definitely one not to buy...by the end you'll literally be begging the thing to just fuckin' end.
24 - The Game (PS2):
Joining The Sopranos and what appears to be the upcoming Shield title as abortive video game remakes of Dig's fave TV shows, I stuck with the 24 game as long as I could due to its ace cut-scenes and superb story...but those weak sauce controls and truly awful shoot-outs ultimately resulted in a premature binning
way before the day was over. A shame too, 'cos I'd love to have seen how this long lost virtual season of 24 played out in the end, but unfortunately it says a lot about how god-damn bad the little ho-bag was when even a Jack Bauer mega-obsessive like me couldn't stomach more than just half its seven meagre hours. Sigh.
The Outfit (Xbox 360):
And last but most certainly not least. Relic's bastardised third person shooter mixed with RTS elements sounded really rather ace in the months leading up to its release, with epic battles and a strong emphasis on online play promised along with the most crazy sense of destruction and mayhem seen this side of Black (ahem). Sadly it too failed
to live up to pretty much all of the above without exception, and when mixed with the awful weapons and truly revolting vehicular handling, felt more like a mild raping than a video game. With a buddy, it's kinda fun for 10 minutes, but even that can't save this humungous disappointment of a title, that in spite of its crazy physics and mammoth explosions...is still about as fun as poking a dick in your eye.
And that's 2006.