We ate the turkey, stuffed the stockings, and rang in the new year by toasting plastic champagne glasses filled with… sparkling cider. Another year has come and gone.
GameCritics.com now takes a look back at the things we think best sum up 2005, and throw in a few predictions for 2006 and beyond. This list is by no means complete or comprehensive, but it does provide a good snapshot of what we were playing and talking about.
Without further ado, the critics sound off on…
Resident Evil 4
Andrew Fletcher: The overwhelming and virtually unchallenged praise heaped upon this game unsettles me a little. Not that it isn't both a brave renovation for the series and a supremely competent action title in its own right, but it just didn't shake the superlatives out of me as it seems to have done to everyone else. For me, the opening village portion of the game pretty much fulfilled all of its promise, leaving me suspicious that any adoration fostered for the long and wearying castle section is born of anything more than a distinctly unwearying love of heavy weaponry and exploding heads.
Brad Gallaway: I'll agree with Andrew in that the level of praise for Resident Evil 4 is a little unsettling in its universality, but this is one rare instance where I really do think that it's deserved and warranted. The game was just so stunning in the way it delivered constantly engaging action, and the developers really nailed just about every aspect of the experience tactilely. It's definitely not perfect—the castle was a little too long, the story was more goofy than it was serious, and a few other things could have used a bit of tweaking, but overall I'd be hard-pressed to find a game in 2005 that delivered more impact and excitement than this one. It may not completely satisfy the critic in me, but it's a perfect example of tight design satisfying the gamer.
Daniel Weissenberger: Up until the beginning of 2005, Resident Evil had been a successful, if slightly schizophrenic franchise. Drawing inspiration from a surprisingly wide variety of sources, Resident Evil games could never really decide if they supposed to be intense horror experiences or over-the-top hollywood action extravaganzas. Along with Resident Evil: Outbreak, Resident Evil 4 respresented the split of the franchise into two separate, distinct entities. Now players are able to get the specific Resident Evil experience they're looking for, whether it be screaming in terror while running from hordes of zombies, or standing your ground and blowing those selfsame zombie hordes to pieces. If it weren't for the lack of voice-support and the the virutal finger it gives to anyone without a Playstation Hard Drive, Outbreak would be every bit as good at what it does as Resident Evil 4 is.
Andrew: Quantic Dream seemed to misjudge its audience: boasting of non-linear gameplay where you “make the story progress depending on your decisions” to gamers for whom its mix of time-pressured, “Simon says…” action events, pointless interactions and ever so narrowly branching pathways will actually appear fundamentally limiting. This is not a game for rule-breakers, gaming exhibitionists or wannabe storytellers. There is also less maturity here than was hoped for, with a leaking-gas-tank of a narrative that embarrassingly overreaches itself and descends from promising premise into increasingly convoluted occult hokum, all to the rhythm of an erratic (mostly poor) script. But I still liked and admired Fahrenheit (to use the superior European Union title) for the most part, thanks to its understated variety, neat pacing, those amusingly contentious rapid-response action scenes and, above all, its satisfying and distinctly contemporary depiction of the everyday (and things so ostensibly mundane that other games daren't even go there.) Overall, a brave and absorbing validation that whilst we may not have all the right answers yet, asking the right questions is definitely worthwhile.
Brad: Ouch! Andrew, don't you think you're being a bit harsh? It's true that the game does make a number of odd turns and missteps, but I found myself mostly forgiving of them since it was clear that new ground was trying to be broken. From a technical perspective, I found myself admiring the approach the Quantic Dream team took. I think it was pretty clear to see that they were consciously testing boundaries, and even though I don't think everything they attempted was successful, I do think that this title will end up being noteworthy and influential a few years down the line. For anyone interested in the way games tell stories and what's possible in terms of interactive drama, this was required playing.
Dan: It took a full five years for someone to notice that Shenmue was a good enough game to be worth ripping off. Cutting out the exploration and fighting, Quantic Dream was left with exactly what Yu Suzuki had promised years earlier: an engine designed expressly for telling playable stories. Is it surprisingly linear? Sure. There were also problems with the QTEs—a system that had basically been perfected in Shenmue was suddenly so complicated that it sucked the fun out of what should have been fantastic action sequences. The game really did an exceptional job of seamlessly merging storytelling and gameplay to the point that players could really feel like they were playing a story. Now if someone would just use the engine to tell a good story, this genre could really catch on.
Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Original Game of the Movie
Andrew: Touch upon the game briefly and it seems a humiliatingly linear and shallow advertising campaign, but jump on for the whole ride and King Kong presents a convincing vision of what a game-of-the-film should be: a tightly controlled experience that genuinely delivers the cliched but elusive "rollercoaster ride" that Hollywood has been harping on about for years. Confidently cutting a swathe through messy videogame conventions like the HUD interface, difficulty spikes and fussy aiming, King Kong's ruthlessly populist remit fashioned a game casually impervious to many traditional criticisms. And Peter Jackson hand picking Michel Ancel for creative lead after having played Beyond Good & Evil is, regardless of its veracity, destined to go down in gaming lore as a signifier of both the medium's broadening creative cache and its hefty commercial clout.
Brad: The interesting part of King Kong for me was the new level of synergy and cooperation between Hollywood, video game development, and I suppose marketing as well. I don't think that the quality created in this triangle will be necessarily duplicated by everyone trying to cash in on a new feature film in the future, but it does definitely set a new standard and shows that not every tie-in has to be quickie garbage. I think it also goes to show that pretty much everyone interested in making entertainment money is sitting up and paying attention to video games, and seeing them as a serious and worthwhile venue for investment. It's a kind of validation, I think, though I wonder whether it will have a negative impact in terms of overcommercialization of development in the future.
Dan: In addition to being a wonderfully fluid gameplay experience and perhaps the best movie-to-game adaptation yet, King Kong is also the best argument for lowering video game prices. Playing through the game in a little less than twice the time it took to watch the film, I found myself wondering why it would cost me six times as much to buy the game as a ticket to the film, or three times as much as it will eventually cost for the DVD. King Kong proves nicely that a game doesn't have to offer fifteen hours of gameplay to be fantastic, but it also proves that seventy (canadian) dollars is just too much to pay for five.
Shadow of the Colossus
Brad: When games like Shadow of the Colossus come along, my faith in the industry is restored—at least for a little while. There are a lot of things wrong with it—it feels lopsided, the story only feels half-told, and it could use polish in a number of areas. Still, despite all the little jabs that can be taken at it, it proves that there are true artists working in the industry. I admire when someone or a group of someones struggle to bring vision to a console, and even if it doesn't win any awards or sell a million copies, it's a brave endeavor that serves to raise the standards for those who care. The amount of sincerity the game radiates alone is something rarely seen, so my hat is off to Fumio Ueda and company for taking a very bold step. I hope that the rumors of a reworked game or sequel on the PlayStation 3 prove to be true.
Dan: I'm not going to offer any more effusive praise here, as my second opinion got most of that out of my system—suffice to say that I don't share Brad's minor criticisms about the game. I think that chief among the game's many virtues is the fact that it can be used as an exceptional tool by anyone looking to explain just why games are every bit the pieces of art that films or books are. If we're all very lucky it will serve as a selling tool for developers looking to convince their corporate masters of what they can accomplish given a little time and artistic license. If nothing else, Colossus provides the most obvious example of why video games need a big, visible, legitimate in the public eye, industry organisation so that games like Colossus will be able stamp the equivalent of 'Oscar Winner' on their re-issued covers and hopefully garner some of the attention they deserve.
Andrew: Whilst I'm still wading through the chaos and crimson of this startling, ghostly, violent, funny, bizarre title, it is clear that Killer 7 would be half the game it is were it not for the elegant controls, hauntingly eclectic soundtrack and dreamlike visuals that enshrine its surprisingly tough core (in both thematic and gameplay terms). And although it successfully shuns pigeonholing for the most part, I can't help but see a thrillingly fresh adventure game here: simple input systems, puzzle-based progression and a strong emphasis on narrative experience, but punctuated by the kind of taut, kinetic action that the genre has never dabbled with and all cradled in that outrageous, hallucinatory artistic vision. But if assigning Killer 7 a genre is embarrassing for me, spare a thought for the poor critics wrestling with their beloved 'style over substance' cliché, desperate to wring some sense out of this feeble evaluative dichotomy in the face of a game that (like Rez, ICO and Wario Ware Inc. before it) practically obliterates its meaning.
Brad: I have mixed feelings about Killer 7. On the one hand, it's obvious that the team behind it were going balls-out in terms of artistic design and style. Anyone who sees the game tops and stares—there's just nothing else out there like it. On the other hand, I didn't understand where the developers were coming from in terms of gameplay. It made no sense to be on the cutting edge visually, and then base the title around stale, uninspired item-fetch puzzles and blowing away a million creepies. Ignoring the graphics, it felt like I was playing something on par with (or even a bit below) Resident Evil before its major renovation. My eyes were thrilled, my hands were bored. If nothing else, the game ends up being a fantastic conversation piece and is a great example of why even the highest artistic aspirations are doomed to fail if they come at the expense of solid, engaging gameplay.
Dan: Despite its prettiness and its madness and its narrative depth, Killer 7 had a fatal flaw. Finding weak points and shooting creepy monsters and stealing their blood to power up characters was fun and visually interesting for exactly two levels. Unfortunately, Killer 7 dragged on for another five. Fantastic character designs and the best narrative in the world aren't worth a damn if getting to see them is like pulling out toenails with pliers.
Nintendo DS vs PlayStation Portable
Brad: If someone would had told me a year ago that I would be a proud Nintendo DS owner, I probably would have rolled my eyes a little bit. If that same person a year ago had told me that my PlayStation Portable (PSP) would most often be found on the bookshelf in my office covered in dust, I probably would have laughed. But, here we are at beginning of 2006 and the difference between my expectation and the reality of the handheld wars couldn't be further apart. I'm completely shocked at the way the PSP's library failed to materialize, and I'm even more shocked that the suits at Sony don't seem to think it's a problem. I will admit that I never expected UMD sales of feature films to take off a way that they have, but even so, the seeming abandonment of the PSP as a games machine is a little disgusting. As for the DS, it quickly became clear that good games were being made for the machine even if they didn't all take full
advantage of the unique nature of the touchscreen and other techno goodies tucked into it. Any good gamer goes where the games are, and right now my DS library outnumbers my PSP titles by about two to one.
Andrew: As a gamer who's commodity fetishism is, I think, mercifully less intense than the norm ("Is that a widescreen in your pocket, or are you just …?"), I've taken a purely software-based view of these handhelds over the last year and frankly the indifference they've inspired borders on profound. As yet I've played no system-sellers, although my experience with the DS is admittedly limited and its increasingly varied library does seem to be maturing well. Incidentally, my company has just given every employee a PSP as a Christmas present, but outside of a vague duty-bound impulse I have to re-visit Liberty City, only the forbidden, Faustian wares of the emulating community really tweak my interest in that long shiny screen.
Dan: As a gamer who doesn't have much cause to commute, and therefore no need to buy a portable movie player, I couldn't find the slightest reason to bother purchasing a PSP. The PSP has offered nothing to the player who has never lamented their inability to bring their Playstation with them on the subway, while the DS has provided players with a number of great titles that couldn't be offered on any other platform, along with a slew of high-quality exclusive titles. So long as we're discussing game platforms and not 'multimedia devices', the PSP is losing the battle pretty clearly.
Context-sensitive Action Scenes
Brad: There were a number of games this year that incorporated context-sensitive action scenes (Indigo Prophecy, Resident Evil 4, God of War, etc.) and I have to say that I'm really a fan of this new trend in design. By realizing that certain things are just not possible, or at least not feasible through today's controllers, developers seem to have finally accepted the fact and are now starting to work around it. Best described as the love child between cutscenes and gameplay, context-sensitive action can provide thrilling and cinematic visuals that manage to keep the player connected with what's happening on screen. Some people may cry that this trend dumbs down the gameplay, but the exchange of less control for more intensity is worth it in certain circumstances, if you ask me. Would Leon Kennedy's knife fight with Krauser at the end of Resident Evil 4 have been able to be
implemented any other way given the state of today's technology? I look forward to more developers adopting this technique, and give props to both Dragon's Lair and Yu Suzuki for laying the groundwork.
Andrew: These really shouldn't work, should they? In theory they are the point at which the game becomes a mini-game and any semblance of consistent interaction or rule-based control is thrown out the window for a few frenzied seconds of do-it-or-die gameplay and joypad abuse. They carry the easily dropped balls of immersion and suspension of disbelief in their sweaty palms, and more often than not they jar with just about any game that values a fluid and fair playing experience. So why do I always kind of look forward to them?
Dan: When I first heard that Yu Suzuki was bringing back QTEs I was ecstatic. Video game interfaces are nowhere near good enough to provide players with the kind of control they'd need to engange in the most simply choreographed fight scene, so anything that allows me to feel like I'm taking part in something elaborate is a big step forward. Just imagine how much less tedious those Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes cutscenes could have been with the inlcusion of QTEs and a few failure animations. Besides all that, nothing makes the player pay more attention to a cut scene than the possibility that a missed button press will force them to watch said cut scene all over again. When the Pralien grabs that knife and whips it at Leon, the second those buttons flash onscreen he's throwing the knife at me—immersing me in the character's mind more than at any other point in the game.
The “HD Era”
Brad: The allure of game worlds that look more perfect than real life ever could is hard to ignore, or at least hard to not crane your neck around to take a sneak glimpse of, but is this really going to effect content? More palpable I think will be the impact on consumers, blinded with media science that tries to mathematically prove how disadvantaged you are to be persisting with that crappy old setup while the rest of the world gets the real experience. It's hot air, of course, but it's everywhere, and I'm sure we'll all end up 'evolving' sooner or later so it stops us feeling so damn uncomfortable.
Andrew: I agree. It seemed like every article I read and everywhere I looked, I couldn't escape “HD”. It's true that the technology does have its benefits, but I'm not convinced that it will provide anything significant, at least in the next year or two. I'm still finding games on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox that I think are stunning, so it's not like the guys in the design lab are really tapping into any innate need or desire to leave what I already have. More than anything, the HD battle cry reminds me of Sega screaming “Blast Processing” during the Genesis era… anyone into gaming at the time remembers it, but the fact is it really didn't mean a damn thing.
Dan: I've become bored with the graphics race. One of my first video game systems was a Atari 2600, and I've got fairly clear memories of playing Combat for entire afternoons, despite the fact that it invovled little more than squares driving around and shooting smaller squares at other squares. I look at games today, and we're farther than I ever imagined we'd be. As a result, there doesn't seem to be any real pressure to get to the next generation. Whenever I'm at Best Buy I stop to look at the widescreen HDTVs hooked up to 360s, and I can't say I find the difference all that compelling. In the olden times, when I looked down the sights of my KAR and shot a distant Nazi machine gunner in the head, he'd just fall over. Now that we're living in the HD age, as the Nazi falls back, I can clearly see his helmet flying off as he falls. Is that an improvement? Sure. Is it eight thousand dollars worth of improvement? Not so much. Does it change the way I experience the game? Not at all.
Nintendo Revolution Controller
Andrew: Proof, if it were needed, that Nintendo's business plan depends unequivocally upon their new machine co-existing alongside one of its bitterly duelling rivals. To that end, theirs is automatically the most interesting platform on the way simply because its software must be unique in order for it to succeed, whereas Sony and Microsoft will defend their most generic, lowest common denominator licences to the death. Encouragingly, that Revolution games will be unique seems, from the controller unveiling alone, pretty much a given.
Brad: Without a doubt, I think the Revolution controller was the most interesting piece of hardware I saw all year. I haven't been fortunate enough to have a hands-on with it yet, but the thing was simply stunning from appearances alone. I'm not convinced that the core piece shown (the part that looks like a remote control) will become the de facto controller for most of the games finding homes on the Revolution, but it's pretty clear that there are strong possibilities there. However, on the other hand, I see the Revolution in a similar light as the DS. Both are highly unusual pieces of hardware, but in the case of the DS, most of the games take little advantage of what's in there and stick pretty closely to traditional design. With the Revolution, I can't help but wonder if its games will follow suit, the sparse and minimalist approach of the controller sans add-ons serving a similar function to the way R.O.B. drew people into the NES—an eye-catching curiosity, but ultimately peripheral to the central function.
Dan: Rather than simply a gimmick to engage the curiosity or a peripheral that occasionally supports existing gameplay types, I fully expect the Revolution's controller to be an entirely superior way to control video games. Why do I expect this? Nintendo's track record. The control pad, shoulder buttons, analog sticks, every time Nintendo has changed the way we play games, it's been for the better, and everyone else has fallen in line. It seems like a pretty safe bet that they're going to do it again this time.
Xbox 360 Launch
Andrew: Attending a game developer's conference-cum-noisy 360 launch party, a few things became clear about the new console: 1. It has a beautifully designed and luxurious front-end where Microsoft's fiercely promoted and well-supported Xbox Live and Xbox Live Arcade will plant a Sony-shunning seed inside the minds of a generation. 2. It's decent selection of launch titles hint that the next few years will have more than their fair share of technically astonishing videogames, probably directly proportional to the number of small developers that will crumble under the strain of producing adequate competition. 3. None of the games were tempting enough to draw me away from the cheap bar and pick up a pad, let alone buy the console.
Brad: I guess the fact that I have yet to purchase a 360 speaks towards my attitude. I can understand Microsoft's urgency in trying to establish a foothold for the next generation, but the pragmatist in me still takes issue with their philosophies in general. I mean, the Xbox still has legs and they want me to upgrade already? As a critic, I know it's only a matter of time before I take the plunge and bring home the new box, but personally, I don't really see anything that seems interesting or exciting enough to drop $400. I'm also not too comfortable with the new $60 price-point of games. I completely understand that development costs will go up concurrently with the amount of content and detail that will (supposedly) be present in the next generation, but I hope that middleware and other technical shortcuts will help to keep costs down because the simple economics of earning $60 versus spending $60 means that as a consumer, people will most likely be buying fewer games. Fewer games bought leads into the cycle of blockbuster-game-only development, and this leads into fewer opportunities for small and original games to find a market. Hopefully, we will see some price-point and development alternatives before too long.
Dan: To borrow a popular phrase, during the entire hoopla surrounding the 360 launch I felt like I was taking crazy pills. The ads that feature no gameplay, the ridiculous push to preorder for March's shipment, and the endless stream of 'legitimate' news stories about how the 360 was the hot gift for your kids this Christmas. No one seemed to mention that out of eight launch titles three were about shooting people, two were fairly complex sports titles, and one was about beating hoboes to death with a variety of blunt instruments. Even if parents were able to buy the system for their children under 13, what would they play on it? The problem of the underwhelming launch lineup is nothing new, but the strange thing about the 360 launch, like the PSP before it, is that no one seems to mind that there aren't any system-selling games. The Xbox is being sold as a lifestyle item, as something to desired and acquired, not as a piece of equipment that performs a function. Perhaps it's an archaic attitude to take, but I don't think it's unreasonable to think that after dropping 400 dollars on a system there be something worth playing on it.
Predictions for 2006
Andrew: Personally I'm looking forward to the delayed EU releases of some of 2005's big names (Guitar Hero, Shadow of the Colossus, We *heart* Katamari) and hoping that the last of the current gen swansongs (Hitman: Blood Money, Tomb Raider: Legend, The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess) continue to push our aging consoles and set series benchmarks as satisfyingly as this year's notables have. I predict a good first year for Xbox 360, as developers unveil its muscle to an HD-aware public and Microsoft push to make its multimedia front-end as synonymous with gaming as Internet Explorer is with the World Wide Web. And with the market leaning ever-westwards, Sony's PS3 must hit the ground running if it wants to maintain the level of worldwide dominance it currently enjoys. That is, of course, if it hits the ground this year at all.
Brad: For my first prediction, I think that Sony will realize that the PSP should be doing more than functioning as a portable movie player—developers will start putting out more games that are original and designed for the PSP's hardware, although I also predict that the vast majority of the PSP titles will still be lame ports of PS2 games that have camera problems. I eventually see the PSP becoming the new home for interesting and original indie titles in search of a haven from the HD era—just not next year. Along the same lines, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we will see a new version of the PSP that has a second analog nub. I think enough games have come out that prove that two analogs are necessary given the fact that 3D development poses unique challenges that so far have been unaddressed on the handheld. Finally, I also predict that Sony will release a small UMD player that does not play games.
As for the PS3, I predict that the first wave of games will be impressive enough to kickstart its entry into the market and it will rapidly overtake the 360. I also predict a much stronger online presence for the PS3 as Sony execs figure out that Live wasn't a fluke. I predict the 360 will develop a solid base, but one that is very similar to what the current Xbox has. Through their core loyalists and focus groups, I predict the 360 library will be a mirror image of the Xbox library, only in HD. I also predict that the number of patches and fixes necessary for console games will skyrocket on the 360. I predict the Revolution will win much favor among critics and industry professionals, but will do nothing to make an impact on the consumer base as a whole while Nintendo continues to sock away cash with their business acumen. Last but not least, I predict that 2006 will be a year when many studios play it safe while they wait and see what happens with the console wars. There will be a few standout games, but on the whole it will be another year of sequels and familiar formulas, leading into a boom of creativity for 2007 because energetic developers just won't be able to keep it contained any longer.
Dan: 2006 is Nintendo's year. While Microsoft and Sony burn money with each console they sell and bus stop ad they buy, praying for the day when they finally drive the other one out of the console market so they can finally start charging a price that has something to do with a sane economic model. Meanwhile Nintendo will continue to turn the tidy profit they need to remain in the video game console business idefinately. Xbox Live will continue to expand its power and influence, while Sony struggles to play catch-up. Nintendo will burst onto the scene with an online matching service every bit as user-friendly and considerably more free than Microsoft's, drawing the attention of all online gamers not looking to play massively multiplayer online games on a console. Xbox Live Arcade will eventually bring small designers back to a major console rather than the PC, but their content, creative though it may be, will pale next to the Revolution's 20-year library of triple-A Nintendo titles, provided they're offered at reasonable prices.
Continuing to chase after the all-important 18-45 adult male with discretionary income market, Sony and Microsoft will find even more impressive ways of graphically depicting the wounds that shotgun pellets make when they tear into people's faces. Simultaneously the first generation of parents to have spent their entire lives around videogames will feel vaguely uncomfortable with their children playing with the system that lets them crush hobo skull while srangers from across the country scream profanity in their ears. Looking for child-friendly games they'll turn to the trusted video game name of their childhood and buy Revolutions en masse, ensuring that another generation of children associate the word Nintendo with happy childhood memories. As HD-preparedness and the quest for rounded edges drive development costs into one of the higher spheres, the less-graphically-impressive Revolution will focus on finding new and innovative ways to engage the player with the game, which is significantly less expensive than modelling the path of the sand that's kicked up by the hooves of a hudred horses as they gallop across the desert at 60 frames a second, carrying their riders on the way to… oh, I don't know, fight an Ogre or something. Finally, the new Mario game will be released along with the Revolution, and it will be stunning enough to remind everyone just why they've loved that little guy ever since he was 16 pixels big, and consequently question why there's nothing exclusive to 360 or PS3 worth getting that excited about. By the end of 2006 it will be clear that when superpowers clash, the only winner is Nintendo.
… And with that, GameCritics.com wishes all our readers a belated Happy New Year!