Welcome to GameCritics.Com's Year in Review. Instead of the usual top ten lists and buyer's guides, we decided to take a deeper, more personal look at the events of the past year. Four of our critics weigh in with their thoughts, opinions and impressions of the dynamic race between reigning champ Sony, returning favorite Nintendo and wild card Microsoft. Players and professionals alike are gearing up for a level of competition not been seen before, and the industry is on fire. 2003 is already looking like a phenomenal year for gamers, but before we start focusing on what lies ahead, let's take a look at how we got here.
With two consoles launching in the fourth quarter of 2001 to compete with Sony's unstoppable juggernaut, the tension in the air was nearly palpable. Since no company has clearly dominated two consecutive hardware generations, the pressure was on to see whether Sony had the moxie to buck history. Despite pressure from both the Xbox and the GameCube, Sony did. But, it remains to be seen how long the PlayStation 2 will be able to fend off its technologically superior counterparts.
Sony: Still On Top, But for How Long?
Brad Gallaway: Coming into 2002, I was expecting a very solid year for the PS2 and that's pretty much what I got. There weren't many universally acclaimed titles released, but there were a large number of solid games offering substantial play value. In fact, there was a fairly constant stream of software to keep me busy, and that's very important to me. From where I'm standing, the market was Sony's to keep or lose, and they really didn't lose it-- although they also failed to cement their lead with must-have AAA titles. There were a few, but not as many as I would have guessed they'd roll out with the 'Cube and the Xbox eager for a piece of the action.
About the life left in the Emotion Engine, I do notice that fewer and fewer games in Sony's stable look graphically impressive compared to the competition, but I feel a big chunk of that is either not enough optimization or a lack of commitment to quality. I don't think the PS2's hardware will keep it out of the running for 2003, but the developers (and Sony's QA team) will really need to keep their ducks in a row to avoid letting their software be perceived as "low-end" in people's minds. Although, it might already be too late. If that's the case, they're going to have to put that much more effort into their PS2 exclusives to make sure they're real knockouts.
Mike Doolittle: Yeah, except for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, nothing really met that blend of critical acclaim and sales clout like they had last year with Gran Turismo 3, Metal Gear Solid 2, and of course Grand Theft Auto III. Definitely a weaker year for Sony. Their online initiative took off, but beside a tiny amount of buzz around SOCOM, it hasn't seemed to make much of an impact. Their online lineup is pretty weak. Perhaps developers would rather not foot the cost of servers on their own? But what amazes me about Sony is their continued uncontested dominance. There weren't many killer apps and their online plan hasn't exactly been well organized to say the least, yet they maintain an absolutely insurmountable lead. Chalk it up to a strong brand name and aggressive marketing. I think this will continue, but that Nintendo and Microsoft will begin to see stronger sales in time and close the gap somewhat.
I think there is plenty of life in the PS2's so-called 'Emotion Engine' for the vast majority of games, but I think the superior power of the GameCube and Xbox (especially the latter) will show through in time. For example, take the dynamic lighting effects used in Splinter Cell. That kind of graphical panache is clearly out of reach for the PS2, but it wasn't just a glitzy effect-it was integral to the gameplay. I also think that the Xbox hard drive will be a decisive advantage online. The PS2 hard drive hasn't been confirmed for release in the U.S., and even if it is, I doubt it would be adopted by a significant number of PS2 owners. For now, I think the PS2 is doing fine because neither Nintendo nor Microsoft has shown their hardware to be a major advantage, but I believe that is starting to change.
Gene Park: There's little doubt in all our minds that Sony is in no danger of becoming a shambles. The system that I played the most over the past year was the PS2, yet the games I enjoyed most weren't what Sony had in mind for me. None of these titles were big names or part of their online plan. Sony needs to pump out some software quick, and avoid looking like the inferior "old school" company. Already in my mind (and many others') the PS2 has the picked up stigma of being "the little Emotion Engine that could." For example, when the PS2 has a superior version of a multiplatform game like Need For Speed 2: Hot Pursuit, gasps are heard because the Xbox and the 'Cube have been outperformed.
Vice City was undoubtedly a big help in generating buzz when their online plan failed to do so, but because of the dial-up access PS2 remains the console for the Everyman. It has a huge installed base, a wonderful library of games from previous years (including ICO and Devil May Cry) and seems very secure due to strong support in the future. But, developers really need to get on the ball when it comes to eye-catching software using the PS2's muscle. Why is it that Metal Gear Solid 2 still looks better than 99 percent of the PS2 games out there? Because Hideo Kojima figured the system out. Nobody else seems to be as deft with the hardware.
Chi Kong Lui: Sony has proven that quantity over quality is the path to success and I see a repeat pattern happening. In the previous console generation, Nintendo 64 produced arguably the greatest masterpieces of its day (GoldenEye 007, Super Mario 64, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time), but the games were too few and far between. Sony appealed to a wider audience by simply having a massive and diverse library. I see the same thing happening with the PS2 and GameCube. Many magazines are proclaiming Metroid Prime the game of the year, and I'm sure the upcoming The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker will garner similar accolades. In the meantime, Sony continues to keep pushing tons and tons of sports games and anything else that more casual gamers might find attractive. The brand name and aggressive marketing got Sony to where it is, but Sony needs to keep gamers hooked to stay on top. So long as Madden and GTA games are continually produced for the system, this shouldn't be a problem. Xbox is the x-factor. Their direction in comparison to Nintendo's quality and Sony's quantity is unclear.
As for the technology, I'm not worried about the PS2. If it were only about the technology, the Xbox would be sitting at the top of the heap right now. Casual gamers and parents think beyond the technology. But I'm actually surprised at how well the PS2 has held up in comparison to the newest systems. The gap may widen in 2003, but I haven't caught wind of anything that can only be done on one system (with one or two unnoteworthy exceptions perhaps). The Emotion Chip should hold up.
And In Second Place...
Brad: Well, I really had my misgivings about the GameCube and the Xbox. I knew Nintendo would come up with some amazing games, but I didn't want to get my hopes up after being so disappointed with the N64's tiny library. As for Bill's machine, nothing I saw at launch was very exciting or original, so I waited a few months before getting one because the software just wasn't there (and still isn't, even now.)
Much as I expected, both consoles got off to a slow start, and neither really built up a good head of steam until about halfway through the year. That's when the GameCube suddenly came to life. It has too few games for it to be the choice of a one-console house, but it's got a very respectable stable of top-tier titles with discs like the amazing Metroid Prime and electronic crack like Animal Crossing. I'd also have to say that so far, the 'Cube has completely redeemed Nintendo's disappointing 64-bit performance. I'm excited to see what they've got in store. This little blue box is making big strides.
As for the Xbox, I have yet to be really impressed by anything they've offered. Out of the three consoles, it gets the least play and I own the smallest number of titles for it. During the months of November and December there were a couple of excellent titles released, but very few exclusive reasons to throw in with Microsoft. The stillbirth and slow rot of the 'Box needs to be stopped ASAP by some truly great games, but I don't see a whole lot on the horizon to get excited about. The voice chat feature on Xbox Live has a lot of potential and the console itself has more than enough horsepower, but without many good games to fuel it, the race is already over.
Mike: My feeling is that those who purchased an Xbox or a GameCube last year probably got exactly what they wanted. Nintendo has released some quirky stuff like Animal Crossing and Pikmin, and the franchise train is now running with Metroid Prime and Super Mario Sunshine. When I talk with GameCube owners, those kinds of games are exactly what they were excited about. But they're precisely the reason why I haven't been particularly interested in the GameCube. It had a disappointing start in my eyes, with little in the way of compelling, quality software. That's changed somewhat, but nothing I see from Nintendo has them breaking their old mold. By far, Nintendo's biggest success has been Metroid Prime, and hopefully it will be a kick for the console's sales. I have a feeling that many of the early adopters for the GameCube were hardcore Nintendo fans, and I'm not sure how far Nintendo will be able to expand beyond that base as long as their franchises remain their key selling point.
I think the Xbox has had a mostly good year, with a few disappointments thrown in. I certainly don't think the console has experienced a "still birth" or "slow rot." They stormed out of the gate with Halo, widely considered to be one of the best first-person shooters ever. It's always a plus to launch with such a strong game, and Halo is still one of the Xbox's most popular titles. Dead Or Alive 3 and Project Gotham Racing were also strong offerings that sold platinum, so things were definitely looking good for Microsoft. However, the year has seen a bit of a drought of great titles aside from Rallisport Challenge, and a few solid but undersold Sega releases. Were it not for the fact that Sony and Nintendo had the same problem, Microsoft could have been in real trouble. Dead To Rights was a bit of a dud, and Blinx didn't quite live up to expectations despite creative use of the hard drive. The worst offender was Kakuto Chojin, which was hyped since before the Xbox's release and basically turned out to be dull in every respect. Don't even get me started on Bruce Lee: Quest Of The Dragon. Then we had Fable delayed until who knows when, Brute Force (originally slated for last spring) delayed until April of next year, and Panzer Dragoon Orta pushed back to early next year as well. The Xbox's fall lineup ended up being a bit weaker than it could have been.
Nevertheless, the Xbox has really picked up recently. Xbox Live has taken off beyond most people's (even Microsoft's) expectations. Unreal Championship and Splinter Cell lived up to the hype, as did MechAssault. Microsoft has also had real strength in its multiplatform third-party games which tend to look and sound their best on the Xbox. That may not sound like a huge deal, but sometimes the difference in framerate or other technical areas can vastly improve a game experience.
Gene: Being a fairly new owner of an Xbox and Gamecube, I can safely say that now was the best time to hop on to the second place bandwagon, whichever it is. Microsoft definitely has more gimmicks. Xbox Live looks like a nice success with a tight lineup of games, including MechAssault and Unreal Championship. However, no other software has really blown my mind. The only game that really makes me glad I own an Xbox is Halo from 2001. Shenmue II also made me a happy camper, but it could've easily been released on any other system. Splinter Cell failed to deliver in my opinion, being way too restrictive for me to consider it a true next-generation game despite the graphics. The near future doesn't look too bright for the Xbox, with Panzer Dragoon Orta being the only AAA title coming up. But, my feeling is that it won't sell well by looking at Sega's track record with the system.
On the other hand, Nintendo really seems to be picking up steam. What happens after Zelda: Wind Waker hits is anyone's guess, but if that game makes waves Nintendo will have proven that its strengths lie in its software. And, with must-have titles like Animal Crossing and Metroid Prime, the 'Cube seems like the way to go for now. Even though "online" is the buzzword of the industry, it doesn't seem to have caught on like Sony and Microsoft hoped it would. The gaming world isn't aflame yet, and with Xbox Live being broadband only, it probably won't for a very long time. That makes Nintendo sitting pretty with a list of AAA first-party titles, but without third-party support, there's no way they can ever come close to touching Sony. Still, you can always depend on Nintendo for a good time, and after playing Metroid Prime, I know that for sure.
Chi: I really don't look at the current console war as a race. It's more like a marathon. Sony is too big, Nintendo is too business savvy and Microsoft has too much money. I don't see Sony giving up its dominance anytime soon, but I'm surprised that the GameCube and Xbox have both managed to distinguish themselves as alternative systems with multiplatform titles and a couple of unique exclusives. Will the trend of the GameCube and Xbox being more "hardcore" systems continue? Only future games produced on each system will make that determination.
I'm also shocked by Xbox Live's current success and I think it's a good thing, but online gaming is not something for the masses. As for Nintendo, they always claim to have a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Whether or not those tricks can entice a more mainstream audience remains to be seen, but the early success of Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire in Japan are huge positives for Nintendo.
Missed Hits and the "Hits" that Missed
Besides the news and headlines surrounding the consoles themselves, there were also several high-profile games that were drenched in media limelight. As is usually the case, some of these ended up being less than deserving of the attention. On the flip side, there were a number of substantial releases that received little to no acclaim, and found themselves on the fast track to obscurity. The Critics give us their thoughts on which games lived up to the hype, and which deserved more.
Brad: One of the biggest hyperbolic flops in 2002 was unquestionably State Of Emergency. After scoring huge unexpected success with Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar pulled a complete boner here. Not only did they overhype State Of Emergency beyond any realistic expectations, they tried to ride the wave of GTA III's popularity by confusing consumers into thinking the games were related. The biggest surprise was actually how utterly terrible the game was. Beside the large crowds onscreen, the game didn't have a thing going for it. I have a hard time believing that Rockstar didn't know the game was a dog, which makes the massive media push even more ridiculous. Talk about setting yourself up. Dishonorable mention goes to Kingdom Hearts for wasting a mind-boggling amount of potential on some unbelievably wretched game design.
As for sleeper hits, that's an easy one; Sony's vastly unappreciated The Mark Of Kri. While it may be a bit more linear than one would initially expect, the animation, art design and gameplay were all incredible. The visuals combine Conan, Samurai Jack and Disney with the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid and Final Fight. This one exceeded all expectations, but for some reason Sony left it completely out of their advertising spotlight. It ended up selling a dismal amount, and it's already rumored that the planned sequel has been killed. That's an incredible shame and a huge mistake on Sony's part, in my opinion. Special appreciation goes out to Lost Kingdoms on the GameCube for its fresh gameplay thanks to a unique combination of card-based collection and fast action.
Mike: Blinx: The TimeSweeper looked to be a platformer that would be a huge step for the genre, and in many ways it was. But it was also game with a fair share of problems, and in the end those problems prevented it from being the killer app it could have been. Besides Blinx, I frankly think Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was a slight disappointment. Last year, GTAIII crept quietly out of the gates under the shadow of Metal Gear Solid 2 and ended up being the must-have game of the year in many gamers' eyes. This year's Vice City hasn't remotely generated the kind of buzz in the gaming community that last year's edition did, though it certainly hasn't been panned, and even had presales in the millions. Super Mario Sunshine was a bit of a disappointment as well. It failed to generate strong sales for the GameCube and has had nowhere near the impact that Super Mario 64 did.
Like Brad, my pick for sleeper hit is similarly easy: Ubi Soft's Deathrow for the Xbox. I had a pretty tough time tracking down this game for purchase, and even now my local video store still doesn't rent it. It's an utterly violent but smartly crafted sports game with visceral thrills and a surprising amount of subtlety. An online mode would have really put it over the top as a must-have. I really don't understand why this game hasn't seen more hype. Perhaps Ubi Soft was just too busy worrying about Splinter Cell.
Gene: Like Mike mentioned, GTA: Vice City could not live up to the buzz generated after its predecessor because it was just an extension of the previous year's game. As the title of the Jane's Addiction album says-"Nothing's Shocking," but to say that the game wasn't a success would be wrong. It still generated record sales and garnered media attention. However, the most disappointing release this year was Squaresoft's Kingdom Hearts. The premise and screenshots had me drooling for a long time, yet the game turned out to be one of the more abysmal pieces of software I had to experience this year. The fact that these two games sold so well shows that sometimes, only premise and hype matter in this business.
The sleeper hit of the year for me was definitely Way Of The Samurai. The game blew my mind because it explored narrative possibilities in videogames. It was also a whole lot of fun, being a different kind of role-playing game, and not as slow, long, or tedious as the Shenmue series. The sword and moves collection added an element of customization that made me fall absolutely in love with the game. In Japan, the game was at the top of the charts for a while, but was practically ignored on the American market. Definitely the most underrated game of the year. One look at the reviews and one hour with this game will tell anybody that. Honorable mention goes to The Mark Of Kri, the best and most innovative character game in recent times.
Chi: My two biggest letdowns of the year were Dead To Rights from Namco and Morrowind from Bethesda. I personally hyped Dead To Rights for years upon previewing it at two consecutive Electronic Entertainment Expos (E3s), and I was astonished that developers couldn't produce one shred of decent content around a very capable game engine. Dead To Rights also illustrated the disparity of artistic quality between videogames and most other expressive mediums in terms of story and characters.
Morrowind was not as bad, but still a major letdown overall. For all its scope and epic qualities, I found the game lacking in a very basic area: connecting with gamers on an emotional level. None of the hundreds of characters in the game had any personality, and the sense of "do-anything-be-anybody" freedom ultimately boiled down to statistical number crunching and repetitive fetch or kill tasks.
I'm also in the same boat with Gene on Way Of The Samurai. This game was everything that Morrowind should have been. Granted the scope of the game was much smaller, but the sense of freedom was more genuine and the personalities shone much brighter than those in Morrowind. I probably spent more time playing Way Of The Samurai in 2002 than any other game, and it's easily one of the top picks on the year. I also found Hitman 2 to be wonderfully invigorating in the same way. The role-playing focus is limited to that of an assassin, but the game design is very creative in giving players multiple options and stylistic freedom in completing missions.
I would also like to give honorable mentions to Animal Crossing and Steel Battalion. It's unfortunate that Animal Crossing didn't become a pop-culture phenomenon along the lines of the Myst or The Sims. It's a unique game that has captured the hearts of anyone who's played it. It's rare to find a title that appeal equally to men and women. I also have to give Capcom credit for having the balls to release Steel Battalion stateside. With a high pricetag and geek subject matter (giant robots), the game is destined to be a niche title. But at the same time, no one can deny the magnificence of the monstrous controller that comes packed in and the sheer audacity of crafting such a bold game.
Predictions for 2003
To wrap things up this year, we'd like to end with some predictions. While nobody in the industry has a failsafe crystal ball, it's always fun to see if our instincts and fortune-telling skills can paint us a picture of what's to come. We may end up with egg on our faces twelve months from now, but if we're right then you heard it here first.
Brad: 2003 seems like a hard one to call due to a number of wild cards like online connectivity and the resurgence of multiplatform releases. But, I'm quite confident that Sony will remain the market leader in terms of sales numbers and breadth of software. Anyone buying a PS2 in 2003 can't go wrong. However, my gut tells me that this is the year that Nintendo makes its big comeback. I don't think they'll overtake the PlayStation 2, but they will definitely leap to the forefront of gamers' minds with some killer apps and undeniably appealing titles. The GameCube will handily sew up second place.
As for the Xbox, it's a brilliant move on Microsoft's part to acquire Rare, since they can deliver the level of games the 'Box is currently lacking. I also think that Xbox Live is a step in the right direction for Microsoft, but I see them remaining in last place. Restricting Live to broadband-only automatically cuts down the number of possible subscribers. Also, a strange malaise hovers over many of the titles available. I can't put my finger on it, but there's just something about the Xbox library that feels..."off." They have too many games that fall into the "serious, grim and gritty" category, I think.
I'd also like to predict that 2003 will be the PS2's last strong year, and that 2004 will see a major shift in power unless Sony can put the wheels of PS3 into motion, whether by advertising or something more concrete.
Mike D.: I think we can probably all agree that Sony will retain their lead in the market. People just seem to like buying PS2s. But I think that Nintendo and Microsoft will begin to close the gap. As they gain mindshare, Sony needs to cement their own dominance with a few surprise killer apps. I'm skeptical that will happen.
Nintendo is the most uncertain. They have no trouble appealing to their fanbase, but when their premier mascot fails to generate strong sales for the console I have to wonder whether they can continue to serve a dedicated but ultimately limited number of supporters. And while fans are quick to point out creative titles in the vein of Pikmin and Animal Crossing, these aren't the kinds of titles that can carry a console. Nintendo needs Metroid Prime to continue its success to the point that it moves a good number of consoles. Zelda: The Wind Waker needs to be a sales success. Beyond that, what does Nintendo have? More Resident Evil games? The question isn't whether Nintendo can make quality games. The question is whether those games will be enough in light of a lack of software variety, a non-existent online initiative and aging demographics. Nintendo cannot afford another N64. If they can't expand beyond their key franchises, the GameCube is destined to be a footnote.
The Xbox is shaping up for a strong first half with Panzer Dragoon Orta and Brute Force. There are some question marks later in the year, like Tao Feng: Fist Of The Lotus, and XIII. Also Fable and B.C. from Peter Molyneux. I think there's little doubt that Halo 2 will be a huge make-or-break game for the Xbox next fall. Plenty of PC ports are going to be there as well, from Raven Shield to the almighty DOOM III. Personally, I want to see more games like Splinter Cell and Blinx that take advantage of the Xbox hardware.
I was completely stunned by the strong sales of Xbox Live, so it'll be interesting to see if it can continue to make waves. Microsoft is smartly playing it pretty low-key, trying to let the community build itself up rather than bombard popular media with ads, tie-ins, and other promos. I don't think it will continue at its current sell rate, but I think it will indeed be a worthwhile incentive for prospective Xbox owners. The Xbox has good mindshare and, potential delays not withstanding, will probably have a much better second year.
Gene: It looks like 2003 will be when the gaming industry shows the world it means business… in a business sense. With mergers like Square and Enix, Microsoft buying out Rare, Nintendo hogging the Resident Evil series and rumors of Nintendo buying Capcom and Sega, one can't help to think that this has become a ruthless industry more concerned with the dollar than anything else. While things probably aren't nearly as bad as it seems, business moves will definitely shake up the industry, growing bigger than anyone had ever imagined.
Sony seems to be the weakest in the prospective software department. At least immediately, only Devil May Cry 2 and Final Fantasy XI come to mind. Microsoft doesn't have anything for a bit, but the double-whammy monstrosity that is Halo 2 and Doom III will surely make anybody tremble in their boots, especially in anticipation. And, Nintendo seems to have a real winner with Zelda: Wind Waker. When it comes to software, you can't go wrong with Nintendo. And with the Nintendo steadily getting big multiplatform hits like Timesplitters 2, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 and 007: Nightfire, getting that platinum Gamecube suddenly seems like a great idea. It also helps that Metroid Prime is already hailed as one of the greatest games of all time.
Things don't look good for small developers though. With the business becoming increasingly competitive at a merciless rate, the little ones might get lost at sea. Look at what happened to SNK. Bam! Entertainment (Way Of The Samurai's publishers) are already citing financial troubles. With no Mark Of Kri sequel in the horizon, and the ICO sequel barely making it to the developing floor, I don't know how long it will be before all we have are games that are conceptually lacking. There seems to be little room in the market for pioneering gameplay, like Animal Crossing or Shenmue II, and lots of room for buggy rehashes like Vice City.
Chi: I don't have much to add about the console wars that hasn't already been mentioned, and I'm not sure how online gaming with affect the bigger picture. But I do have two other things I'd like to mention. First, don't underestimate the Game Boy Advance. The portable market is still going strong and the GBA is selling like hotcakes. Related to that, I would have thought the Pokémon franchise was on its last legs but its resurgence in Japan proved me wrong. Those annoying little cash cows are still thriving. The portable market has shown that it doesn't really need any killer apps to keep selling.
Secondly, expect to see fewer big budget titles from all publishers. The Final Fantasy movie disaster showed that even the most loved and well-respected development houses (like Squaresoft) could do wrong. Nobody's impervious to mistakes and criticism. I expect more companies to follow the path of Nintendo in conservatively creating games within a low-cost six-month cycle. That may mean less "Gone with the Wind" story epics and more concept-based innovation-driven titles.