The gaming industry enjoyed one of its best years ever in 2004. Every platform featured a great number of memorable, high-quality games. With 2005 upon us, however, we at GameSpot look to the near future with anticipation while wondering if and how the industry might trump the smashing success of last year. Though the release slate may lack some of the sizzling franchises that were refreshed just months ago, it's quite clear that there's no lack of promising or exciting games on the horizon. It's perhaps a more encouraging sign that many of the games we're looking forward to are original properties and are not new iterations of existing series.
Each of the editors in this feature has picked two upcoming games that he or she is anxious to play. While you might still be catching your breath from 2004 or working on playing through a large backlog of games, take some time with us to explore what's in store for gaming in this feature: GameSpot's Most Anticipated Games: 2005.
Destroy All Humans!
One of my favorite aspects of gaming, or really even entertainment in general, is the medium's ability to give me a chance to view things from an alternate perspective. Whether it's an opportunity to experience a life of crime or live the life of a plucky robot, there's always a new perspective to be found. However, there's one that has eluded me up to this point...and that's the perspective of a marginally homicidal alien invader who's hell-bent on humanity's destruction. Well, the good news is that a game that offers just this point of view comes out in April. I'll soon have to wait no longer thanks to THQ and Pandemic's action adventure game Destroy All Humans!
Seriously, how great a concept is this? You're one of the last of a race of aliens that has survived solely through cloning. Since too much cloning can muck up the gene pool, especially with regard to your character Crypto 137 (who's the 137th clone in his gene line), you're off on a mission to Earth to extract fresh DNA from the human race, which just happens to descend from your own race. To do so, you'll be sneaking around the planet using mental powers to both mess with and enslave the population, and then you'll inevitably just blow the hell out of everything with your array of extraterrestrial weaponry and your big honking flying saucer. If this doesn't sound like the makings of a bizarre and hysterical action game, I don't know what does.
What gets me most about this game, though, is its sense of style. Pandemic is really going for that retro sci-fi feel, but with a kind of self-aware ironic appeal, much like Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!...only better. From Crypto 137's mildly monstrous, bigheaded look to the goofy-looking flying saucer you'll find yourself flying around in, it's obvious that Pandemic has some affection for the 1950s-era cheeseball sci-fi genre. The fact that Pandemic actually went out and licensed a bunch of music from famed film composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote scores for everything from Citizen Kane to Psycho to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and then had the songs remixed by LA DJ Jason Bentley, gives the whole game even more of a quirky feel. Sounds rad to me.
So, yeah, The Punisher movie sucked. We all know this. So why should anyone give a toss about the game? Well, for one, it has nothing to do with the movie, save for film lead Thomas Jane providing the voice for The Punisher. This game seems to be primarily modeled after the Marvel comic book Punisher, complete with a totally over-the-top sense of violence and several of Frank Castle's most deadly archenemies. In fact, this might just about be the most crazily violent game I've seen in a long time. This is the kind of game that will give senators heart attacks.
So what makes The Punisher so crazy? It's not immediately apparent what makes the game so violent from the first time you play it. At first, it seems like you're just running around shooting bad guys, while occasionally shanking them. Then, all of a sudden, you're not just shanking them, you're actually shoving knives through their skulls. Ouch! Then you realize you can use bad guys as human shields. Way cool. Then you'll start interrogating guys for information. But then, this wouldn't be The Punisher if you were just asking people nicely to tell you what's going on. Nah, you'll have to press the butt of your gun against a guy's forehead or start throttling him violently to get something from him. And in some cases, you can even use environments for specialized interrogations, which leads to such wonderful things as dangling a guy off the roof of a five-story building, shoving a guy closer and closer to the death end of a wood chipper, and even holding a bad guy's head just above a pool of deadly flesh-eating piranhas. And, of course, once you're done with an enemy, you can either just let him go or you can send him to a gruesome doom. We think the choice here is obvious.
OK. So by now you get the point. This game is overflowing with crazy ultraviolence, and it's is all the more entertaining for it. With that said, there are parts that seem a little too Max Payne-esque for their own good. Admittedly, I've only played this game in short spurts, so for all I know, it could turn out to be a one-trick pony. But, hey, what I've seen has offered more than enough to pique my interest, so I'm greatly looking forward to seeing how it turns out in the end.
Judging from the incredible year we just had, you might think that 2004 was pretty much it for the game industry in terms of exciting and promising games...especially since so many of them turned out well. But while you and I work on the happy task of fighting through the backlog of all those great games from last year, we've also got plenty of great games on the horizon. I'm going to cite two games I'm especially looking forward to, but there will be plenty of other great games in addition to these.
The first game I'm really looking forward to playing is Battlefield 2, by the team of DICE Sweden and EA Games. You might think that it's a bit strange to look forward to the next Battlefield game, because the teams have already put together two previous games in the series with a lot of the same qualities, like fast-paced arcade-style shooting on foot and armed vehicles that travel by land, sea, and air and allow for multiple passengers (and plenty of great team-based battles). This is even more particularly strange since I've already played the game (or an early version of it, anyway). But now that I've seen what the game has to offer, I, like the rest of you Battlefield fans, want more.
Fortunately, Battlefield 2 looks positioned to give just that. The game will have, among other things, lots of new squad control options, including a "commander" view, which is not unlike some of the options featured in Novalogic's Joint Operations. If you're serious enough about your Battlefield to be able to participate in an organized online clan in your spare time, which there's never enough of (don't games like these always seem to make that painfully obvious?), you can create organized squads where leaders can give move orders, and teammates can view one another from various distances. These squad controls are clearly intended for serious players and can be safely ignored by casual players. But the higher-level stuff, especially the commander option of calling in strategic strikes, seems like it may at least make online games a little less chaotic. And it may even encourage players in pickup games to try to act as a team. Naw.
Aside from the fact that the team focus is actually going to help me get ranked for being a good medic and a good engineer (rather than only letting me earn points for kills and captures), Battlefield 2 just seems like it will be a lot more dynamic and fast-paced. Case in point: Compared to the clunky panzers of the original Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 2's fast-moving M1A1 Abrams tank, which has heavy forward-armor plating and whose forward cannon packs a wallop, moves like greased lightning. From my short time with the game, the generally faster vehicles and on-foot sprinting seems like they could really help quicken the pace of the average match (which, in the previous games, would still require you to either sit and wait for a vehicle respawn or would require you to slowly hoof it to the next control point, several clicks away, at least every so often). A Battlefield game where I can spend even less time walking around and even more time mixing it up in a tank (and hopefully not getting caught in artillery and air strikes)? I'm on board for that.
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
The other game I've picked for my list is Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. It was disappointing to find out the game wasn't going to make it out in 2004 after all, but it still looks incredible. It was easily the most impressive-looking game at E3 2004 (where I first saw the game), and it continues to look fantastic. It also apparently promises to finally go beyond being just a stealth game, where your choices are limited to "Don't get caught." and "Lose." Yes, you still play as NSA agent Sam Fisher, and, yes, he's still one of the most skilled sneaks around.
But in Chaos Theory, Fisher looks like he can actually make "adjustments" whenever a situation goes wrong. In the previous Splinter Cell games, your primary means of dealing with enemies was to creep up behind them or simply avoid them for fear of triggering an alarm. It doesn't look like you can openly fight your way through an entire mission, but in Chaos Theory, Fisher will be packing heat in the form of an honest-to-goodness submachine gun, along with other things like grenades and handguns, which will let him go at it in an honest-to-goodness firefight...at least in a pinch. And Mr. Fisher will also be bringing his trusty stabbin' knife, along with several new and innovative ways to neutralize hostile elements with his bare hands. If all goes right, he won't be the helpless weakling that stealth-based games often make you feel like you're when trying to sneak past a bunch of dumb guards as quietly as possible.
That's to say nothing of the other great details we've seen of the game, like how Fisher can also use his knife to quietly slice open curtains or sheaves of insulation to clear his view without making much noise. Fisher can now also breach doors with explosives, stunning any enemies foolish enough to be standing too close. In some cases, he can rip right through thin walls and strangle any enemy unfortunate enough to be on the other side. And in what may become a tradition for the Splinter Cell series, Ubisoft Montreal is following up the highly innovative spy-versus-mercenary multiplayer of Pandora Tomorrow with an even more intriguing cooperative multiplayer mode that will take real advantage of online voice chat to let players accomplish tricky tasks, like giving each other boosts to get over ledges or to more easily negotiate guarded walls. Chaos Theory looks really, really impressive, so you can see why I'm looking forward to playing both this and Battlefield 2 later this year.
Bioware's Jade Empire has some high expectations to meet. Bioware has long been known and revered for its work on PC role-playing games set in the Forgotten Realms continuum. A year and six months ago, the Canadian development house released the first Knights of the Old Republic title, finally making the console audience privy to its brilliance. The game also happened to feature the best Star Wars story told, through any medium, in decades.
Jade Empire is the first game developed in-house by Bioware since KOTOR and is therefore a kind of spiritual successor. While not set in the Star Wars universe, Jade Empire's world of martial arts and sorcery seems at least as intriguing. While KOTOR was accessible and fun for just about anybody, it was especially enjoyable if you were a fan of the source material. The same looks to be true for Jade Empire, which draws its influences from martial arts movies and arcane Chinese literature.
Jade Empire will reprise KOTOR's system for managing moral alignment, as well as the countless hours of spoken dialogue containing alignment-determining dialogue options. If you're like me, having a hand in the fate of a game's characters multiplies your connection with them.
What excites me even more than the new high-fantasy setting is Bioware's choice to make gameplay more reflex-driven this time around. Hmm... Fighting game-like combat within the context of an RPG set in the East... Sounds suspiciously like Shenmue! Many remember Shenmue and its sequel as conceptually interesting exercises in tedium. And they're pretty much on target. Those games made a big impression on me, though, and these similarities only fill me with hope. Bioware has proven itself to be as capable as Sega-AM2 when it comes to delivering quality product.
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Chaos Theory
I'm just going to throw this out there: Gameloft is the most consistently brilliant mobile developer in business today. While its games are invariably well-adjusted for the handheld, Gameloft typically seeks to approximate the console gaming experience as closely as possible. Its association with parent company Ubisoft therefore benefits the company greatly, allowing it access to valuable licenses. Gameloft has put the Tom Clancy name to especially good use by releasing games for the mobile and N-Gage platforms. The company's upcoming Splinter Cell Chaos Theory for the N-Gage is poised for simultaneous release with the eponymous console title.
Unlike the last N-Gage Splinter Cell, Chaos Theory will be rendered in full 3D, which should be considered a prerequisite for true stealth action. You can therefore expect San Fisher's movements to more closely match those of his console counterpart this time around. A rotatable camera, nonlethal weaponry, and all of Fisher's visor options will make their ways in to the game. You'll even be able to employ your optic cable under doors to see inside rooms while remaining unseen yourself. All this action is shown through visuals of a quality previously unseen on the N-Gage. Lighting is obviously of particular importance to Mr. Sam Fisher, and it's good to see that Gameloft has crafted an engine capable of stylishly enshrouding him in chiaroscuro.
With Pandora Tomorrow on the Xbox, multiplayer support became an important component of the Splinter Cell series. Chaos Theory is likely to follow suit, and the N-Gage version of the game won't be left behind. Multiplayer was already working admirably in the alpha build we played, successfully linking up players via Bluetooth. Your partner's movements will be shown alongside your own via a split-screen. Incredibly, this has been accomplished with little sign of slowdown or lag.
Suffice it to say, N-Gage owners will be in for a treat come March. Furthermore, unless Chaos Theory is announced for other mobile platforms (which is likely), the N-Gage version will be the only way to enjoy Sam Fisher's latest romp while on the go.
Dragon Warrior VIII
It's been a while since SquareSoft and Enix combined their powers to become a massive role-playing game-producing juggernaut. However, somewhere deep inside my mind, I still haven't fully come to grips with the union. When my import copy of Dragon Quest VIII arrived and it had the word Square in the bottom right corner, a tiny piece of my sanity broke. Both of my most anticipated games this year are RPGs, and both of them come courtesy of Square Enix. It's as if the merged development houses have produced a dire vortex from which I cannot escape. But with Kingdom Hearts II and Dragon Warrior VIII coming down the pipeline, I really don't care. These games give me my fix, so if they're going to come from one giant source instead of two, so be it. So long as the cool console RPGs keep coming.
The original Dragon Warrior for the NES was one of the very first console role-playing games I ever played, and while the series doesn't have Final Fantasy's level of name recognition over here, it remains one of my favorites. Dragon Warrior VIII, in particular, looks as though it could deliver the kind of experience that, much like the release of Final Fantasy VII, would serve to indoctrinate a new legion of Dragon Warrior fans to the cause. Gone are the simple sprites and the somewhat primitive look that characterized the series up to even its seventh installment. Dragon Warrior VIII just looks wonderful, from its rich worlds and personable towns, all the way down to the character models that give manga artist Akira Toriyama's designs new life. I love the game's look, and I appreciate some of the changes that were made to streamline the old interface a bit. I also love the mix of old-school enemies (slimes still reign supreme), classic design aspects (like holding a torch when going into a dungeon), and well-loved tunes that merge with modern-day graphics and a cohesive world that I just can't wait to get lost in. My import version only serves to tide me over a little bit until the game's North American release; then I can enjoy the game in English and find out what the heck is up with that little goblin Trode and the horse that pulls his wagon. (He sure does love that horse.)
Kingdom Hearts II
Kingdom Hearts II had me hooked from the moment I finished the first game and saw the additional movie ending, with its darkly robed figures and abundant mystery. I was one of those people who got thoroughly charmed by the original game and its odd mix of Square characters and Disney worlds and heroes. I can't wait to see what adventures are in store for the sequel. Matters are only helped by the fact that Final Fantasy X's Auron is one of the Final Fantasy characters to make an appearance in Kingdom Hearts II. That guy totally rules. While the first Kingdom Hearts had its issues, there are some good indications that Square Enix is working to fix some of the problems, mainly by improving the camera and tightening up the combat some. The whole concept of merging Sora with one of your party members to gain special abilities sounds like a cool way to augment battles as well. Plus, there's no sign of that stupid gummi ship so far, and that can only be considered a positive.
Tetsuya Nomura, director of Kingdom Hearts II, has promised that some "surprising" character choices will appear during the course of the game. That's good news for me, because one of the things I enjoyed most about the original game was its many cameos and how they worked within the context of that very unique world. One is tempted to wonder whether Square Enix will reach a bit further back in the Final Fantasy continuum for fresh faces (Ceres? Terra? A certain "spoony bard," perhaps?). One is also tempted to wonder how the Disney universe of properties will be represented in the game. Certain areas seem to be making a comeback, but it looks like we'll get some nice new ones, like Hades' underworld from Hercules. I've only gotten a short glimpse at an early version of the Japanese game in motion, but hearing the strains of Hikaru Utada's "Simple and Clean" theme, as well as seeing the original trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, was enough to get me all twitchy about this game. There's something about the Kingdom Hearts universe that insidiously sucks me in, and while there's a new Final Fantasy game also on the horizon this year to get excited about, I can't help but look forward to Kingdom Hearts II. At the very least, it has Auron in it. Come on, people. Auron.
GameSpot debuted the original trailer for Monolith's modern horror shooter this past summer. When I saw the movie for the first time, it took my breath away. While Monolith typically uses the latest build of its Lithtech engine for its own games, the company's chosen to build a brand-new engine for F.E.A.R. The result is an amazing piece of technology. The environments in the game appear to be extremely destructible, and the trailer depicts a crack team of commandos that's emptying its automatic weapons inside an office building. The resulting mayhem includes a lot of broken glass, bits of concrete and dry wall, wood splinters, paper, and other debris flying about with cinematic flair. Some Max Payne-esque slow-motion effects contribute to the overall look of the game, which also hearkens back to the action films of John Woo and the Wachowski brothers. A good assortment of machine guns, rocket launchers, and railguns means there will be plenty of shooting going on.
Technology and nifty guns by themselves, of course, don't make a game. Thankfully, F.E.A.R. doesn't look like it has the makings of a one-trick pony. Details on the storyline remain sketchy, but based on what we've gathered from both the early trailers and our recent play session, the game places you on a hotshot special forces unit that finds itself facing other automatic weapon-wielding baddies, as well as a mysterious, ghostly little girl that delights in using some type of special power to kill in excruciatingly gory ways. So who are the enemy soldiers? Why is it that you're able to slow down time? And who's the ghostly girl that's killing all the soldiers indiscriminately? Whose side is she on? It seems as though the lengthy trailers we now have on the game have merely created more questions than they've answered, but figuring everything out is likely going to be one hell of an exciting ride.
With F.E.A.R., I'm expecting a lot of memorable, scripted sequences, in addition to a good mix of chills and good old-fashioned action. The game's due out in June, so while the year may have just started, the summer can't come soon enough.
We got our first look at Dragon Age at last year's E3, and there hasn't been much flow of information since. Regardless, my interest in the game was pretty much piqued as soon as I heard the words "new RPG from Bioware." And it hasn't waned since. Bioware is a company that arguably saved the PC role-playing-game genre with Baldur's Gate in 1998, and since then it's done nothing but crank out ultrahigh-quality RPGs, like Baldur's Gate II, Neverwinter Nights, and the original Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In fact, I've wasted an embarrassing amount of time with all these games, even going so far as to lock myself in my room for days at a time to explore every nook and cranny, as well as explore every side quest available.
Dragon Age is exciting primarily because it's the first time that a Bioware RPG will be operating without the constraints of an existing license. The content and mythos in the game sound like standard fantasy fare, but given the level of detail that Bioware games are known for (and the amount of creativity they've exhibited even within the restrictions of their past works), I have extremely high hopes for Dragon Age.
The game will operate on a brand-new 3D engine, which promises to combine the aesthetics of the KOTOR point of view with the tactical and strategic feel of the Baldur's Gate games, once you enter into combat. What isn't changing is the perfectly balanced, pseudo-real-time feel of the past Bioware games, which allowed you to speed through easy fights while still leaving the opportunity to pause a game in midstream to issue tactical commands in more-difficult battles. Bioware's also promising full speech in the game, so those who may have tried KOTOR first but were unable to get used to the slightly less-impressive production values in Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate should be appeased.
Information remains sparse, and there's not even a release date attached to the game, but whenever Dragon Age comes out, I'll be ready and eager to play it. From what little we know so far, it sounds like a no-compromises RPG that has blockbuster potential.
The Legend of Zelda
Confession time: I'm glad the new Zelda isn't cel-shaded. The Wind Waker was an incredible game that completely succeeded at what it attempted to do. There's a reason we awarded it Game of the Year in 2003, after all. It came closer to a living, breathing animated film than any other game I've ever seen. Same great Zelda formula and one-of-a-kind visuals... It's not that I didn't appreciate The Wind Waker's fanciful reimagining of the Zelda universe; I just like the Nintendo 64 Zeldas even more. The Ocarina of Time remains one of my all-time favorite games, even six years after its release, and that's saying something. To think that Nintendo is now going to revisit the same style with its next Zelda. Well, the thrill is palpable.
The world that Nintendo created in The Ocarina of Time represented a new direction for the series. The previous games, namely A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening, were pretty kid-oriented and demonstrated a cartoonlike art style and childish protagonist. Ocarina gave Zelda an edge, though, by presenting a grown-up Link and a dystopian Hyrule in which the citizenry was again deeply in peril. And for once, Hyrule actually looked like it. The darker tone and unique visual flair of Ocarina, as well as Majora's Mask after it, felt like the proper, natural evolution of the Zelda series. So The Wind Waker's change of direction, while impressive in its own right, was jarring to a lot of fans.
Nintendo managed to bring the classic Zelda gameplay into the third dimension on the Nintendo 64 capably and effectively, and that basic model looks to be intact in the new game for the GameCube. Interestingly, it looks like equestrian combat will be a big part of the new game, which I think will be a welcome addition. The designers have toyed around with the horse as a gameplay mechanic for a while, but they've never really developed the mechanic fully. The outdoor and dungeon scenes Nintendo has shown off look strikingly like Ocarina, but with better graphics, which is exactly what I've always wanted.
Some would claim that the new, harder-edged Zelda is a sign of Nintendo paying fan service to its diehard supporters in a time of flagging sales. I say: Who cares? This looks like one of 2005's most impressive games. Thank you, Nintendo.
I love System Shock 2 to an unhealthy degree. Whenever conversation around the office somehow includes that game, I leap out of my chair and join in with uncanny vigor. I say with the greatest sadness that even if you're an avid gamer...even if you've found your way to this very page...there's a good chance you haven't played System Shock 2. It combined a staggering number of well-honed game elements with an incredible, original story and some of the best production values (outside of the graphics, which are pretty dated) I've seen to this day. With three basic character classes and plenty of room to customize from there, Shock 2 was almost infinitely replayable. It let you interact with the derelict ships you were stranded on in a huge number of ways, from hacking computer terminals to using mind powers to create new paths. The aural backdrop was the creepiest thing I've ever heard in a game, and I say that without hyperbole thanks to the incomparable audio director Eric Brosius. I could go on and on, so let's just say it's one of my favorite games ever.
Electronic Arts owns the System Shock license, so the juggernaut may never again do it justice, I'd imagine. However, Irrational is working on what might as well be a sequel with its new project BioShock. Hell, they even put "Shock" in the title. What more do you want? BioShock's pedigree is certainly impressive, because the Irrational crew comprises many of the developers of System Shock 2. After reading about the game, it becomes immediately clear that it's going to be the same style of game as System Shock 2, with the same great mechanics but an interesting new flavor. Irrational has proven it's got the chops to design an amazing game from a mechanical standpoint, but with a new and unproven universe to work in, will the experience stack up? The storyline and atmosphere of the last System Shock were just as essential to the game's overall makeup as the open-ended gameplay, so BioShock will need one engrossing storyline and an immersive, terrifying sense of atmosphere to measure up. With Shock 2 scribe Ken Levine at the helm and Unreal technology under the hood, I don't think that will be a problem.
Technically, this feature is about games we're looking forward to playing in 2005. But in the likely event that BioShock doesn't make it out this year, I'm looking forward to looking forward to it for as long as Irrational needs to finish it.
Just like everyone else, I've had a couple of weeks to deal with the bad news regarding the next football title from the folks at Sega/Take-Two/Visual Concepts. I know that for the next five years, at least, EA's Madden series will be the only NFL game in town, and I've even been able to make peace with the idea. After all, the Madden series (if it continues to be known by that name in future iterations) has always been more hit than miss. Despite having exclusive rights to the NFL license for the next half decade, the Madden game surely won't be the only football title released this year. While details on the next pigskin release from the folks at ESPN are nonexistent, I'm extremely curious to see what they come up with.
The way I see it, they've got a few avenues of opportunity for the follow-up to ESPN NFL 2K5. Option one would be to revive an already existing football license, such as the Canadian Football League or the old World League. Option two would be to take the competition directly to EA by reviving the Sega NCAA football franchise. In my opinion, there can't be enough college football, so I would perhaps welcome this most of all. The potential downside? EA scoops up an exclusive NCAA license and punks the folks at Take-Two once again.
Which leads us to option three: a complete revamp of Sega's football franchise from the ground up. New teams and new players (all fictional, of course) would be presented alongside all the things we've come to enjoy from the 2K series of sports games, like slick presentation, gorgeous graphics, and excellent gameplay. This title could benefit from not being bound to the NFL's ever-vigilant eye as well, in terms of gameplay restrictions. Neck-snapping hits and horrific injuries that make you squeal in disgust? Sure! End zone celebrations where Sharpie markers and cell phones are encouraged? Why not?
Finally, now that Take-Two won't be paying those exorbitant licensing fees to the NFL, it can afford to upgrade the D-list celebrities that appeared in last year's game. Sayonara, Steve-O and Carmen Electra! Hello, Andy Dick and Nicole Richie!
Besides the minimum amount of exposure required by my job, I've tried to avoid much contact with any information regarding Forza Motorsport simply because I can't wait to get my hands on the game. Among all the different flavors of sports games, racing games are my favorite, particularly those with a bent toward realism. While another delay for the game, developed in-house by Microsoft and exclusively made for the Xbox, is bad news, my self-imposed distance from the game lets me wait an extra couple of months without yanking out too many tufts of hair in frustration.
Here's what I know so far: The game will have five main modes: arcade, career, multiplayer, free run, and time trials. Through these modes you'll be racing cars from more than 50 manufacturers on 60 tracks from all over the world. This information alone is enough to get my attention, but it doesn't stop there. Car upgrades and tweaks, a staple of console driving simulation titles, get a new twist in Forza, because you'll have nearly as many options for adjusting the outward appearance of your car as you will for making changes under the hood. Body kits, rims, spoilers, side skirts, fender flares, hood scoops, and the obligatory decals and paint jobs are all adjustable, so you can give your car the exact look you desire.
Then there's the "Drivatar," the clever name for the driver artificial intelligence in the game. The way it's been pitched, the Drivatar system will let you "teach" the AI exactly how it should attack a course. Of course, your opponents on the track will have access to this same system, which will hopefully mean for a steady challenge in single-player races, even as your skills improve. If you tire of racing soulless computer drivers, however, you can take advantage of the game's built-in Xbox Live support, which, considering the game's a Microsoft-developed product, should be extensive.
Christmas may be behind me, but I've got visions of ride height adjustments and fuel mixtures dancing through my head. Will Forza turn out to be the Gran Turismo killer that gearheads have been whispering about for years? We'll find out when the game hits stores in April. I, for one, can't wait.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
After I dumped something like a hundred hours into The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and realized there was still a ton more for me to do in the game, I suddenly felt sorry for the game's developers. On the one hand, they'd created an incredibly big and engrossing role-playing game, while on the other hand, they'd have a hell of a time trying to top that effort.
And yet, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is indeed on its way, and hopefully it'll hit before too long (though, needless to say, the good people at Bethesda should take all the time they need to do this one right). One look at the screenshots for the game and the scope and ambition behind the project become apparent. And that scope and ambition are tremendous. We're talking an absolutely huge, open-ended world to explore, but one that's incredibly rich with detail around every corner, and one in which there's an entire population of lifelike characters to interact with in any way you wish. The Elder Scrolls series has always been this sort of fantasy-themed sandbox, and when you get swept up in it all, it can be really amazing.
Looking back on our coverage of Morrowind, it amazes me that the first preview we posted, which was years before the game finally came out, was actually very accurate. Many games that spend years in the making end up being quite different from what was originally intended, but with Morrowind, it's clear the developers stayed very true to the original vision behind the game.
As a result, I must admit I have high hopes for Oblivion, even though I try to retain a healthy skepticism about all upcoming games, no matter how highly anticipated they may be and no matter how good their predecessors were. With Oblivion, I expect the developers at Bethesda will produce an even better game than Morrowind, and that's really why I'm so excited about it; because, as much as I loved Morrowind, there were certain things about it that I thought could have been noticeably better and therefore would have made the game even greater. So I'm hopeful that Oblivion will fulfill this potential, and I'm excited to see how it all pans out...especially since there was a real dry spell for computer role-playing games this past year.
Wanda and the Colossus
All it took was one screenshot and the name "Wanda and the Colossus" to get me very, very interested in this game. The fact that it's being developed by the makers of the artful cult classic ICO is important to me too.
Frankly, ICO is a game I've spent much more time thinking about than actually playing, and I eventually realized that this is a testament to that game's high quality. ICO is an unusual but undeniably inspired game, so the fact that the team behind it still has the creative license to do its thing and can execute on the surreal, original concepts it comes up with is nothing if not a good sign for the gaming industry.
But whatever. The point is, Wanda and the Colossus looks like it could be a really neat game. In it, you'll play as a young horse rider in a world filled with huge, dangerous stone automatons...and you'll have to fight them for the sake of your deceased love. How does a boy fight a hundred-foot-tall stone giant? Why, he climbs it and starts pounding it. Talk about spunk.
Meanwhile, these huge colossuses...colossi? Whatever. Anyway, the colossi are gonna start trying to smack you down like a bug. It's like some sort of a reverse King Kong or souped-up David and Goliath where you're this tiny little character somehow trying to stop these huge, seemingly unstoppable foes.
Considering how well ICO achieved a huge, breathtaking sense of scale, I just can't wait to see this game in action. I'm sure it'll do a great job of making you feel like this little, insignificant pest...who's capable of bringing down even the biggest opponent.
I have a lot of respect for ICO, even though the game didn't appeal to me sentimentally in the same way it apparently affected some other players. So I like the idea that with this next game, the developers are lending their artistic inspiration to what sounds like a more action-oriented experience. The gameplay seems totally original, and the visual style is unique. The game's also apparently been in the works ever since ICO came out, so it's had plenty of time in the oven already.
ICO is a critics' darling that apparently sold pretty poorly, so Wanda and the Colossus seems like a game that many more people could get behind. To me, it seems to have all the makings of being one of the year's biggest sleepers.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Yes, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is another World War II shooter, but don't hold that against it. It's a disservice to think of Brothers in Arms as a Call of Duty wannabe, because it isn't your regular twitch-based action game. What developer Gearbox wants to do with Brothers in Arms is take the concept of Full Spectrum Warrior (however, you can actually shoot a rifle) and mate it with historical realism of the highest order. The result is a tactical shooter that combines real-world infantry tactics with artificial intelligence that acts and behaves as a real human being would.
In Brothers in Arms, you'll follow the real-life exploits of an actual paratroop platoon during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The amount of historical research that went into the game is staggering. Gearbox staffers scoured the national archives for maps and aerial photos of Normandy, and then they took several trips to France to see the terrain firsthand. The places you'll encounter in the game are exactly as they looked in 1944 (I've seen the photos to prove it), and the battles that you'll wage are all taken from historical record. How these battles unfold, though, is up to you as you play a squad leader directing your men on the fly. In between issuing fire and movement orders to your troops, you'll have to take up your own weapon to engage the enemy. The overall experience is nothing less than harrowing, riveting, and exciting. Brothers in Arms is the kind of game that will require you to use your brain to analyze the battlefield while hot virtual lead flies above your head.
Of course, it helps that the game looks amazing. Gearbox built its own graphics engine for Brothers in Arms, and both the PC and Xbox versions are simply beautiful to behold. The sound effects and voice acting are also top-notch (the cast includes numerous actors from Band of Brothers, though the paratroop unit in the game isn't the same one featured in the famed HBO miniseries). Everything about Brothers in Arms screams that it's an impressive labor of love. More importantly, Brothers in Arms represents where the genre should be headed. Heavily scripted first-person shooters have hit a wall in terms of creativity, but by opening up the battlefield and letting tactics and AI rule, developers can create games that challenge gamers' minds as well as their reflexes.
Nexus: The Jupiter Incident
Nexus: The Jupiter Incident is the kind of game that's rarely made anymore, and that's a real shame. If you're a veteran gamer (basically, anyone approaching or over 30), you'll know that PC gaming was once dominated by space games like Wing Commander and TIE Fighter. However, the emergence of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games doomed the genre. That's why Nexus evokes such anticipation for me. Here's a jaw-dropping space combat game that isn't a glorified twitch-action game or a simplified RTS. It represents old-school tactical space combat (the kind that most of us only have fond memories of) but with ultramodern graphics.
In Nexus, you'll get caught up in an interstellar war between various species, Earth's in danger, blah, blah, blah. Yes, the plot is fairly par for the sci-fi course, but what makes Nexus so special is its gameplay. You'll be given tactical command over vessels that range from nimble frigates to heavier battleships, as well as squadrons of fighters. You can jump from vessel to vessel while giving orders, such as to hammer on an enemy vessel's shield or to disable a certain component on another ship. The action then comes to life thanks to the gorgeous graphics engine. Nexus is a game that really lives up to the term "cinematic." The visuals are the stuff of a sci-fi fan's dreams, and you'll sit enraptured as you see capital ships and fighters trade fire in the depths of space. This is an engine so good it's screaming for someone to license it for, say, a Star Trek or Star Wars game.
Between missions, you'll have the opportunity to refit each vessel with different weapons and components, such as better maneuvering thrusters, more-powerful engines, and stronger shields. Meanwhile, your main character and your crews will gain experience over time. Furthermore, you'll even be able to choose which of three fields you want your character to specialize in. With its blisteringly cool visuals and promising gameplay, Nexus is a modern-day vision of what used to be.
Advance Wars DS
During my recent Christmas vacation back to the UK, I found myself, for the first time in years, without access to a game console or a PC. Much of my time was spent with friends and relatives, of course, but practically every waking moment I spent in my own company was spent playing Advance Wars 2 on my trusty Game Boy Advance SP. The first Advance Wars, released in 2001, was the first GBA game I ever made a point of playing when I was sat at home and could just as easily have played on my consoles. Advance Wars 2, which I've still not beaten, also gets played at home occasionally, but more than that, it's one of the major reasons why I so look forward to traveling long distances on trains, planes, and suchlike. I continue to make slow progress through the game's campaign, I enjoy skirmishes on maps that I've purchased, and I've even been known to spend hours designing my own battlefields.
In all honesty, I really don't know that much about Advance Wars DS just yet, and I'm not sure that anybody outside of Nintendo does either. I know that I want it, though, and I know that it's almost certainly the game that will convince me to go out and buy a Nintendo DS when the game ships toward the end of this year. Unlike many of the DS games that I've played to date, Advance Wars DS actually looks like it'll use the system's dual-screen configuration to good effect. Controlling ground troops on the bottom screen and air units on the top one will change the game quite dramatically, I imagine, and it makes a lot more sense to me than having one of the screens devoted to an interactive steering wheel or a pointless map. I'll tell you right now that I also plan to put the game's wireless multiplayer support to good use, even if it means purchasing two DS handhelds and two copies of the game to take with me everywhere I go. I've been impressed by the artificial intelligence of the enemies in both of the previous Advance Wars games, but there's really no substitute for a human opponent...or three of them.
Oddworld Stranger's Wrath
I love Oddworld. There, I said it. I wrote a complete solution to Abe's Oddysee for a UK-based tips magazine back in 1997; I played through Abe's Exoddus on my own time the following year; and somewhere along the line, I grew to love the world created by Oddworld Inhabitants in a way that, I guess, is comparable to how a lot of people feel about the Star Wars universe created by George Lucas. I have an Oddworld mug, a number of Oddworld T-shirts, and I've just recently purchased a limited edition book (number 777 of 1000) full of Oddworld art from Australia. Yes, my name's Justin Calvert, and I'm an Abe-aholic.
Why do I love Oddworld? I guess the fact that I've enjoyed all three of Oddworld Inhabitants' previous games is a major factor, but it's really much more than that. It's the bizarre-looking characters that I find myself empathizing with far more than those in most games. It's the way the games make me think about real-world issues without even realizing that I'm doing so. Most of all, though, it's the fact that Oddworld games have always clearly been created by people who are passionate about what they do, which is why I feel confident that Oddworld Stranger's Wrath will be worth the wait when it arrives later this month.
One of my other great loves, as far as games and movies are concerned, is the Wild West (specifically the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone). Now, I could be wrong, given that I've not actually played the game during its development (something that I'm very pleased about, incidentally, since I plan to enjoy the game on my own time), but based on what coverage of the game I've allowed myself to read (I'm terrified of spoilers), it seems the game's central character has more than a little in common with the excellent "The Man With No Name" character played by Clint Eastwood in so many of the aforementioned Western movies. So unless I'm very much mistaken, one of my all-time favorite movie genres has just been given the Oddworld treatment, and even World of Warcraft is going to have a tough time competing with that.
Donkey Kong Jungle Beat
Despite a modest lineup of heavy hitters, there's some strong content to look forward to for Nintendo's underappreciated system. One of the Cube's sleepers in 2005 will likely be Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, the inventive platformer that makes downright amazing use of the DK bongo controller, which really stands out among your collection of game peripherals. The game was released late last year in Japan and served as a powerful reminder of the magic that Nintendo's development team can make.
DK Jungle Beat's premise is as old-school as it gets: You'll guide everyone's favorite tie-wearing ape on a challenging 2D-esque journey from left to right and up and down while facing off against bosses at predetermined locations. Pretty basic, eh? But how you do it is pretty brilliant. The DK Bongo controller will let you move DK by bopping on the left or right bongo, and you can make him jump by hitting both bongos at the same time. Clapping, which is picked up by the controller's built-in microphone, causes the nimble primate to clap. This lets him interact with his surroundings in various ways. These simple mechanics, which eventually take on a much more rhythm-oriented hue as you progress through the game's fruit-themed levels, are easy to pick up, thus ensuring DK Jungle Beat is a game anyone can play after five minutes. However, the game's rhythm-based flavor requires some effort to master. As for the boss fights, you'd be hard-pressed to find battles that are more fun on any console as you take on assorted apes in one-on-one fighting matches or in clashes with massive egg-carrying birds.
Before you think the game is too old-school, though, you should know that DK Jungle Beat balances its simple mechanics and 2D-style gameplay with gorgeous visuals that reflect the game's standing as a third-generation title in the GameCube software library. The unique art style unfolds in sweet touches of visual flair that include such niceties as intricately detailed fur and feathers on various animals' bodies. The environments, while basically 2D in nature, are given rich depth thanks to the 3D elements in them that all bring DK's crazy world to life.
There may not be as big a lineup for the GameCube in 2005 as there was last year, but DK Jungle Beat should prove that it's the quality, not the quantity, that will do Cube owners right.
God of War
One of the coolest things about the latter years of a system is seeing developers show off their hard-earned skills for it. As the PlayStation 2 enters what will be its fifth year in the US (yep, it's been five years this October), the final waves of games to hit the platform will be mighty showcases for the hard lessons learned as developers cut their teeth on Sony's powerful system. One of the best examples of this is God of War, Sony's upcoming third-person action title developed at its Santa Monica Studio under the watchful but twisted eye of David Jaffe, of Twisted Metal fame.
The dark game mixes third-person action elements with a stylized take on Greek mythology that looks to be one heck of a combination. You'll play as a Spartan warrior named Kratos who sets out to kill Ares, the god of war. Given that the task of killing a god isn't something you do every day, Kratos has some preparation to do before confronting Ares, which is what the game is all about. Your task is to collect Pandora's Box, which is housed in an "MC Escher possessed by Satan"-designed, booby-trapped tower full of fatal puzzles and vicious enemies. As if that wasn't enough of a hook, the game is essentially a flashback of the last three weeks of Kratos' life. It seems as though something went horribly wrong on Kratos' quest, because he commits suicide when you see him at the start of the game. What happened and how such an amazing warrior could choose to punch his own ticket is just one of the mysteries you'll unravel as you go through the game's surprisingly rich story.
As interesting as God of War's story is, though, the game's real charm lies in its varied gameplay, which mixes action, puzzle, and action role-playing-game elements into a cohesive package that looks great. Kratos is an "ancient" ass-kicker of epic proportions thanks to an arsenal of moves that is both deadly and cool. Best of all, your move set will grow as you go through the game and earn experience, allowing you to buff up your titan as your opposition gets more menacing. You'll duke it out with a "greatest hits" sampling of Greek mythology's most popular monsters, such as gorgons, cyclopes, and sea serpents, to name but a few. In keeping with today's modern sensibilities, Kratos will be a thinking man's hero who will also have to overcome challenges that require the use of his brain, as opposed to just brute force.
The whole package is tied up nicely with a gorgeous graphics engine that pushes the PlayStation 2 to new heights. The game will include high-polygon models, massive environments, and tight gameplay. So what's not to look forward to?
As I've written time and time again, I love me some Wipeout XL. My affection for Psygnosis' seminal futuristic racer for the PlayStation encompasses virtually every aspect of the game's execution. I came for responsive controls and an incredible sense of speed, and I stayed for the gorgeously stylized look and the pulse-pounding electronic soundtrack.
If you missed Wipeout the first time around, let me explain something here. This is a game that was actually cool, which was virtually unheard of at the time, and was an extremely important issue for the 17-year-old version of me that was playing Wipeout XL. It had cultural relevance, a theme that we've seen becoming more and more prominent as gaming continues to mature. With a future-euro look conceived by The Designers Republic and an Astralwerks soundtrack, Wipeout XL was hipper and more relevant than anything on the radio or MTV.
Sony is reviving a lot of its dormant franchises since the original PlayStation era, and Wipeout Pure is the most exciting of the bunch for me, personally. I'd like to acknowledge now that nostalgia can be extremely potent--narcotic, even--and that my fondness for Wipeout XL accounts for a large share of my excitement about Wipeout Pure. However, from what I've seen and heard so far, I'm confident that Wipeout Pure will appeal to more than just 25-year-old game writers who ache for their teen years.
Because, quite frankly, driving sleekly designed hovercrafts on fantastically futuristic racetracks at skin-rendingly high speeds, if executed correctly, is still just as totally rad as it was in 1996. Now, we don't officially know what team is building Wipeout Pure, but I'm willing to wager that its members were either architects on previous Wipeout games or they've played a grand amount of Wipeout themselves. Not only does it appear that they completely nail the Wipeout look and feel, which I'm sure is aided by the inclusion of remixed versions of classic Wipeout tracks, but also they push it into new territory with tracks that are even more abstract and techno-inspired. Check out our screenshots and video to see some Rez-inspired visuals and a healthy helping of soft-glow effects. Pure also promises to make use of some of the PSP's unique capabilities, too, by offering an eight-player Wi-Fi game as well as the spectral promise of downloadable content. Everything surrounding the US launch of the PSP is becoming more and more exciting, and we're seeing additional must-have software cropping up. However, this will be my reason for buying a PSP at launch.
Champions: Return to Arms
Prior to 2002, at gunpoint was the only way you'd find me playing a role-playing game. For someone who has gone in and out (and then back in) of the throes of World of Warcraft, such a stance seems somewhat indefensible. But, frankly, I didn't care for the predictability of the pageantry and melodrama of the Japanese console breed. I found PC RPGs extremely dense and dry, plus they carried the heavy taint of Dungeons and Dragons, which reminded me too much of grade-school pals I had to ditch once they started wearing cloaks in public and began to carry 20-siders in little black velvet pouches wherever they went. (Much love to Walter Guggemos, who I'm sure is living atop a snow-driven mountain sipping ambrosia from a crystal goblet at this very moment. Live the dream, Walt!) Basically, I thought I was too cool for RPGs.
Then, months after its release and at the constant goading of the game's reviewer, by some small miracle, I picked up a copy of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the PlayStation 2. And I was in love. I had actually gone to the game's unveiling the year before, and even then I was impressed by just how remarkable the graphics were. Its gorgeous textures, incredible lighting, and great reflective and water effects were probably some of the best to yet be seen on the PlayStation 2. Trust me when I say the screenshots don't do it justice, and even seeing the game in action isn't nearly as satisfying as playing it. A prettier version of Diablo, though with less depth, is one way to describe it. There are also certainly parallels to Gauntlet, what with its high-fantasy setting and the volume of enemies the game throws at you. I just called it a blast and enjoyed every bugbear-killing, treasure-plundering moment of it.
The developer of Dark Alliance was this no-name upstart called Snowblind, a company that, a few years later, switched publishers and found itself making a similar hack-and-slash dungeon crawler. This game was set in the EverQuest universe, and it was called Champions of Norrath. Despite some pretty awesome showstopping bugs, Champions of Norrath elaborated on the Dark Alliance formula by providing a greater variety of character races and classes, randomizing dungeon designs, featuring a nice upgradable weapon and armor system, and offering online four-player co-op. Champions: Return to Arms is the upcoming sequel to Champions of Norrath, and despite the referential, cross-pollinated history of the game, you won't need to know Dungeons & Dragons, EverQuest, or what a natural 20 is to enjoy it. Other than the inclusion of two new playable races (Lizard-men and cat-men! Woo!), I frankly don't know a great deal about Return to Arms. But Snowblind is two for two as far as I'm concerned, so I look forward to another 20 hours of cutting down hordes of enemies and admiring that wicked new +2 Morningstar of Fiery Wrath.
In the year and change since I cast my hat into the mobile games journalism ring, I can count the number of times I've been out-of-the-ballpark impressed by an upcoming product (I mean, truly flabbergasted) on one hand. Sure, I work right next to editors who preview games like Resident Evil 4 and Lumines, which make most mobile games look like cave paintings in comparison. Sure, I understand that most gamers tend to react to mobile with a level of derisive contempt that's usually reserved for street-corner preachers and conspiracy theorists. And I also understand that this skepticism was double for the Nokia N-Gage through most of 2004, and rightfully so.
Still, there are those blessed moments when I see something amazing enough to renew my faith in the latent power of this industry. My first time playing One, which took place at a Nokia press event in September, qualifies as such a revelation. Here was a game that took all the difficulties and caveats I had wearily come to expect from the N-Gage and made them look like the problems of a bygone era, kind of like the polio virus or Stalinism.
Although it's been relentlessly billed as a 3D gaming device, the N-Gage has never produced any sort of true 3D offering that consistently runs over a mediocre 20 frames per second or so. Not only did the pre-alpha build of One easily tack on an additional 10fps to this mark, but also it did so in high style, with lighting effects, rotating cameras, accurate shadowing, and awesome, customizable character models. All this fighting game's action and techniques will be mo-capped from one of the world's greatest living martial artists. Plus, the fighting style in question is Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do, which is just about the nastiest martial art you'll find.
Extrapolating from what I saw in September, One is going to be every bit as fast and mean as the best console fighting games out there, and if you're an N-Gage owner, it's going to be on your cell phone. If Nokia and developer Digital Legends deliver on their promises, you'll be going mano a mano with fighters from all over the world by using N-Gage Arena to download opponents' profiles (a system that will work a lot like the VIP system in ESPN 2K5), which will simulate your rival's style and ability level. The online component doesn't stop there, though, because there are also going to be rankings from the city level all the way to the world level. There will also be game clans. Moreover, there will even be a latent Bluetooth challenge mode that will let you can walk around with your N-Gage to see who else thinks he or she is the rudest brawler around.
Thanks to some great releases toward the end of 2004, the N-Gage now has a few games that justify its existence. It's time to move on and start trashing the competition. I don't know what the landscape will look like around E3 time, which is when One will finally come out, but I think this game will impress a lot of people no matter what.
Duke Nukem 3D
Mobile is hot right now. Mobile is where the money is. Everyone wants in on mobile.
Mobile games are the future.
If you're as familiar with the industry as I am, you've been hearing these exact same lines for years. The first three appear to be true. The last one is categorically false, because mobile games, as presently constituted, are actually the past. The most popular games, by a wide margin, are simple pastimes like Tetris and Blackjack, or classic games like Pac-Man. That's just fine, and it's also understandable, because not many other types of games have been made to work well on cell phones. Making a game that involves a lot of fast-twitch action often constitutes an unacceptable business risk for many mobile publishers.
In 2005, things are going to be different. A lot different. That's because there are finally some cell phones coming to US shores that can play video games that you will recognize as such. One of the first will be Duke Nukem 3D, a very simple action game, to be sure, but one that every redblooded GameSpot reader will be more than happy to play.
Duke Nukem 3D isn't Half Life 2. It's a basic exercise in running, gunning, strafing, and keycard collecting. But I'd wager that when you whip out your LG VX7000 and start playing Nukem in front of your gamer friends, they'll clamor for a turn. This game runs at a stupendous speed, easily trumping the same game on the Tapwave Zodiac. It looks better, too, thanks to the great 3D character modeling. This is more than a strange little tech demo; it's a perfectly legitimate first-person shooter for your cellular telephone, and developer MachineWorks Northwest will expect you to treat it like one. You should be prepared to open your wallet to the tune of $10 for the privilege, and you should also get ready to enjoy the experience. Duke Nukem 3D is really fun.
I genuinely hope that Verizon Wireless will give this game the exposure it deserves when it comes out in March or April. I have my doubts, though, due to the company's past record of conservatism. Wherever Duke Nukem 3D ends up on the Get It Now decks, however, I suggest you try to find it. It may be the start of something beautiful.