GWJ 2006 Retrospective
It's been quite a year for gamers, one that like most started out slow but ended with a bank account-draining deluge of holiday gaming goodness. If you're like the rest of us here at GWJ, you've spent the last few months alternating between long hours spent in the throes of gaming joy, and sad moments wistfully peering into the dark corners of your now-empty wallet.
Mercifully, 2006's offerings included worthy diversions across a wide variety of hardware persuasions, both next- and last-generation. We here at GWJ have waded through our own 2006 gaming experiences, picked out a few games that made lasting impressions, and then cobbled the results together here for your consideration. Read on, and shed a tear for those games that broke your heart, rejoice for those that didn't, or possibly even scrape together your last few pennies to buy something that you may have missed.
Stephen "Chiggie" Failey:
Ubisoft made sure that this year was a bad year to be in the terrorism business. Whether it was the beginning, middle, or end of 2006 they were releasing a game where destroying large cells of anarchists, revolutionaries, and soldiers of fortune was the main focus. For the armchair Jack Bauers out there, any and all of these games would be a decent addition to your library.
Ubisoft started in March with Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. As Captain Mitchell you are dropped knee-deep in a Mexican revolution and it is your job to save the President! Actually it's the Mexican President, but who's counting? You still have to be man enough to do it! After that other things happen that require your attention, but like a lot of these games if you just run at the dot on your HUD and kill everyone that stands in your way you'll do pretty well. While the campaign's shaky story may not be fantastic, it's the gameplay that keeps me coming back to G.R.A.W. For a game that uses every button on the controller I found it surprisingly approachable and intuitive. There is a slight difference in button layout and abilities between the single and multiplayer but both end up being extremely fun in their own right.
Coming in a little late for midyear, with an October release, was Splinter Cell: Double Agent. This was Sam Fisher's 4th big console adventure and it came off with mixed reviews, at least among the gaming community. As far as the more mainstream media goes I think this game's average score came in at just under 213%. The single player campaign was fun for some and frustrating for others, but mostly the same experience for the majority of gamers. The multiplayer, on the other hand, went more along the extremes of people hailing it as the second coming or lamenting its arrival as the death of one of the best multiplayer games in history. As for me, I played through the single player once and beyond a few forays into the decent multiplayer, I haven't revisited it. It was good for what it was but if you haven't played its prequel, Chaos Theory, I would pick that up instead. Love it or hate it you get to shoot terrorists, and that we can all be thankful for.
Finally, choppering in to save the day in November was Rainbow Six Vegas. In my opinion this was the best experience Ubisoft delivered this year. They brought back a proven first person shooter formula as its base and added the best cover system ever created in gaming along with some of the most fun multiplayer moments I've experienced with the next generation. That is, when it all works. Along with being maybe the most fun game I've played all year, this is one of the buggiest pieces of new software out on the market. Everything from enemies that spawn in the same room you're in, to models with disfiguring animation glitches, to only certain sound effects loading at the beginning of the level, the game just doesn't feel polished. It's a testament to this game's fun factor that I still play it night after night despite these glitches. Let me just make one suggestion to Ubisoft for 2007: If you need a little extra time to iron out and play test your final product, you just go ahead and take your time. For something like another Rainbow Six of this caliber, it would be worth the wait.
Shawn "Certis" Andrich:
Oblivion was one of the few games to drive me to distraction with waiting. After so many years as a gamer, you learn to ease back on the expectations and just take what comes with some level of decorum. Not so, in this case. I harassed Pete Hines mercilessly for an early review copy. I called EB every two hours. At my worst, I was sent out of my wife's office for pacing back and forth behind her, alternating between thoughts out loud on the best race for my first character and seeking carnal distractions to make the time go faster. Eventually I was told to go find carnal distractions with myself and pretend I was any race I wanted. She wasn't very supportive.
Even after 40 hours of playing, I was still smitten with the game. Maybe even more so as my fears about graphical performance and quest variety were put to rest. The Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood quests on their own were better than the main plot, offering some real moral challenges to just how far I was willing to go, even if it wasn't "for real." Mod hunting was a game unto itself. Digging through piles of nude patches to find different ways to improve and flesh out an already pleasantly plump game world added hours to my play time. I look back on Oblivion fondly and I can't wait for the next big content add-on. Rumors of a full expansion have been circulating!
One of the most overlooked shooters of the year has got to be Call of Juarez on the PC. Not since Outlaws has the old west been presented with such affection. Aside from some painfully realistic stealth missions (where sitting in a shadow ain't going to do you no good in the middle of the day) the game and story have a gritty presentation with excellent voice acting. Combat as the old six-shooting preacher, darkly reciting quotes from the bible and slowing down the action to quick draw and shoot five guys in a row were high points. Train robberies, vast landscapes to gallop through on your horse, and excellent combat mechanics made this one a winner for me. The multiplayer stinks, but the single player is at least 10 hours long, so it's worth a bargain purchase if nothing else.
Cory "Demiurge" Banks:
More than anything, this was the year of the Nintendo DS. Lots of great titles came out in 2006 for the quirky handheld, but the two most memorable games were Brain Age and New Super Mario Bros.
Brain Age isn't really a game, unless you get your rocks off by doing quick calculations and being insulted for how slow you are. Marketed to casual and non-gamers, Brain Age came out in April to inescapable mainstream buzz. A game that makes you smarter instead of rotting your mind seemed too good to be true, and as time has shown, it was. Most of us Uber-Gamers wrote the title off as a budgetware waste of time, or spent a day playing the excellent sudoku puzzles before moving on to the next shiny game-of-the-week.
But Brain Age represents an important step in the evolution of mainstream gaming, an answer to the Jack Thompsons of the world who are convinced that games hold no value to the development of society. Here's a game that promotes learning, aimed not only at schoolchildren, but business professionals, soccer moms, and anyone who's felt like they can't mentally keep up anymore. Was it fun? Maybe not, but later titles like Big Brain Academy and the Brain Wave series more than made up for that. The precedent Brain Age set is important if our medium is to continue to grow and flourish. And when I look back at 2006, nothing will stick with me more than being insulted by a Japanese doctor's floating polygonal head.
A few were disappointed with New Super Mario Bros., apparently because it wasn't Mario 64. Everyone else loved it, to the tune of almost 7 million copies sold by October. Mario brings out the gamer in everybody, and there aren't a lot of people I know who didn't pick up a DS Lite just for this title, including my dear mother. Old school side-scrolling rendered in gorgeous 3D made NSMB easily my favorite game of the year, so much so that it's the only game in recent memory that I not only finished, but finished 100% -- all Star Coins, all secrets, everything. I still find myself thinking about starting a new save. It's that good.
Adam "The Fly" LaMosca:
Viva PiÃ±ata certainly looks like a kids' game. Its appearance and tone is irrepressibly cheerful, it features an idyllic garden populated by cute piÃ±ata creatures, and it even has a loud, slapstick Saturday morning cartoon tie-in. Hence my surprise upon discovering that, even in the company of a veritable deluge of AAA fall titles for "maturer" audiences, I fell completely under its spell. At its core, Viva PiÃ±ata is a simple ecosystem simulation, where the goal is to attract, tame, and breed piÃ±atas by carefully managing garden conditions. There are almost uncalled-for levels of depth and variety to the process, though, plus a healthy dose of subtle, sly humor. And it's absolutely gorgeous, too, boasting a highly refined visual style and plenty of graphical eye-candy. Definitely the sleeper hit of the year.
The long-delayed Final Fantasy XII was another pleasant surprise. I've never been a fan of the Final Fantasy series, but I'm over 60 hours into this game and I really, really don't want it to end. The lavish production values, abundant content, character development, and engaging combat that the series' fans have always appreciated are all present and in fine form here. The random encounters and repetitive battle screens of iterations past have been kicked to the curb, though, which makes a huge difference in terms of immersion. The other factor that puts XII over the top is its stellar writing and voice acting. It's a real joy to see a JRPG (or any game, for that matter) take such a careful, mature, and emotionally understated approach to plot and dialogue. It's a fantastic game, and an amazing accomplishment on multiple levels.
The Legend of Zelda series is a genre unto itself, one that the now-defunct Clover Studios unapologetically mimicked with Okami. The end result is a game that blends platforming, combat, puzzle-solving, exploration, and storytelling into a near-perfect package that very almost outdoes its source of inspiration. Okami's glorious visual excesses, inspired by classical Asian calligraphy and artwork, made it a worthy poster child for the "games as art" argument. Its unique gameplay mechanics, including one that allowed the player to interact with the world by painting on the screen with a virtual "celestial brush," made it compelling and engaging.
Allen "Pyroman[FO]" Cook:
Civilization IV completely blew away my expectations about turn-based strategy games. Out of the byzantine realm of hex-based gaming and stat tables came a game that had a great interface, wonderful graphics, and above all it was fun. I installed it and simply jumped right in. The Civilization-ness of it was still intact at it's core but the new features were such welcome additions that I simply couldn't put it down. And from my friends I talked to about it, they couldn't either. For the first time in years I had a turn-based strategy game sucking my life away, and I hadn't realized until that point how much I missed the feeling. The expansion Civilization IV: Warlords, once it was released, threatened to devour my free time much like the original did until I simply had to just put down the disk. The advertising campaign for "Civaholics" was funny at first. For me it eventually stopped being so comical.
Dead Rising was a game that dared to be bad. The story was cliché, the characters were all stereotypical, and the gameplay had very little depth. Yet it was one of the greatest games I played all year. It is a really great B-game, which considering the B-movie source material seems like an intentional homage. A free-roaming mall where you can pick up anything to kill zombies with? Psychotic clowns with chainsaws? Killer cultists? The game had all kinds of fun things to do, but the primary ingredient was always fun. Anything you could do in this game was fun, and it never stopped being fun all the way to the end. Dead Rising did the one thing all other games need to do: it made me want to play and keep playing.
Sam and Max's episodic adventures are significant to me for three reasons. One, it's one of the first games that claims episodic content that actually lived up to the name. There are two episodes so far, and a new one is supposed to be released each month. Further, it's a game that actually makes sense in episodic chunks: there's a clear story arc with closure at the end. It's very analogous to episodes of a television show. With that, the story was really hilarious, Sam and Max still haven't lost their sense of humor after all these years. The second reason I consider Sam and Max a significant game this year is that it's the first adventure game I've played in a long time that I actually enjoyed. You'll hear a lot of adventure gamers saying things like "It was really easy, but I still had fun" or "The puzzles are simple, but the story is great." The fact is, if the puzzles were much more difficult I'd have stopped playing. I'm not a genius at navigating the cloud of developer logic that surrounds adventure game puzzles. I like to play the way I think the game world works, and with Sam and Max I never felt as if I was fighting the developer to solve the puzzle. Finally, I can't wait to get more episodes of Sam and Max, which is something I can truly say is a rarity among games, that they leave you wanting more.
Julian "rabbit" Murdoch:
I had the pleasure of being keelhauled by my compatriots for daring to call Gears of War a perfect game, a comment made in the heat of consumptive lust. While not, perhaps, perfect (and what game ever could be) it remains an incredible demonstration of just how damn good a game can be. It's visually compelling; this is what brought me to the game in the first place. I was so excited by the run up to Gears that I bought an Xbox 360 solely to play the game. While the single player campaign is trite, poorly acted and thin, it is nevertheless a good romp and excellent training for multiplayer. And the multiplayer gameplay is just great. More than any shooter I can remember, there's a deep feeling of presence while playing -- that you are actually there, that you are interacting with a real world, and that your presence actually matters to the outcome of the game, no matter how badly you play. While we're all clamoring for more variety, I'm hard pressed to come up with a better designed set of levels in a tactical shooter -- Dust from Counter-Strike comes close, but with nothing near the creativity. It's the single best game of the year.
On the flip side of Gears, there's very little unique about Tony Hawk Project 8. It's familiar Tony. There are a few twists to make it more interesting -- especially the "nail a trick" system that lets you enact slow-motion foot-goodness on your hardwood plank -- but really, it's the same shtick. But it's tuned. Whereas most game franchises simply get prettier with time, [i]THP8]/i] takes a significant leap forward in making the skating feel more real, while keeping the fun of the series intact. If you don't like the series, you won't like this. Most fans of the series either love the old-school level-and-goal version best implemented in Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, or they love the first career-based version, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4. Project 8 brings them together, and is better than either.
Defcon is emblematic of what a small-game can be. It's very simple on the surface. Its premise (stealing the game from WarGames) is entertaining in its own right, and the execution is beautiful. The visual style and soundtrack are entirely unique -- as unique as Okami was in the console world. But perhaps most important, it's just different. There's really no other game like it. At some level its a real time strategy game, but it's also a game about you, the gamer. Even in a raucous teamspeak session, it's still disturbing. I didn't play it as much as I thought I would, not because it's not a great game with a lot of strategic depth (it is), but because of how it made me feel.
The Ship was another small game, also released on Steam. It shares with Defcon the positives of being truly unique and visually interesting. Its premise as a slow-twitch first person stalker is one that I think has merit, and I do feel that I got my money's worth. It deserves an honorable mention if nothing else. Ultimately, it failed to deliver on its promise for really sad reasons -- bugs that actually hindered gameplay, a certain sameness of experience, a repetitive soundtrack, and a general sense of emptiness in the world presented. But it was fun while it lasted, and an important milestone for the small-game movement.
Guitar Hero II is a game that is surprisingly both better and not quite as good as the original. The folks over at Harmonix did an outstanding job of listening to the hojillions of Guitar Hero fans by implementing excellent ideas such as expanded co-op and multiplayer options, improved hammer-ons and pull-offs and adding the much loved practice mode. Unfortunately they didn't do quite as solid a job in listening to fans about what songs they actually wanted to play, leaving the game with far better mechanics if a less inspired play list. A friend of mine explained it best when he said, "they made the first one with a song list designed as if they might never get to make a game like this again." Still, one of the best gaming experiences over the past year has been getting some fretburn in with extended fully-rocked evenings of Guitar Hero 2 multiplayer, and nothing in all of video gaming quite matches the satisfied feeling of nailing a difficult riff. Rock!
Rise of Legends was a game that I anticipated for more than a year, and one that I very much enjoyed for the two weeks that I actually played it, but it simply lacked the most important element that elevates a good game to a great game -- longevity. Crafted by Big Huge Games, and built off the outstanding Rise of Nations mechanics, with updated visuals and streamlined technology trees, this should have been a slam dunk. It was, instead, a solid but ultimately forgettable game. Hampered by problems in multiplayer matchmaking through the Gamespy interface, the game simply failed to generate a long-term audience and will remain more a footnote than a chapter in the developing franchise.
Half-Life 2 Episode 1 is a game based around the theoretical concept of episodic content. HL2Ep1, an acronym only barely shorter than the full name, is episodic more like a film franchise, and less like a television show, which means higher production values with much longer waits between content. I will say this about the game, however: I was one of the people who experienced regular and consistent full-system lockups every half-hour or so thanks to the Source Engine, which I assume hates me with the fury of a burning galactic core, yet I played the episode to completion and plan to pick up Episode 2. It must have been good for me to put up with that!