It's not every week that the cream of the games industry descends on London, but for one week of the year at the end of August, we get a chance to get our hands on the great, the good and the not-so-good of the games that'll be hitting shop shelves this Christmas and beyond.
ECTS, of course, has a bewildering array of its own show awards - but this year for the first time, Eurogamer and GamesIndustry.biz have decided to award our own picks of the show, including (unlike the ECTS Awards) games from events outside the main ECTS show floor, such as the PlayStation Experience.
As such, we're proud to present the first annual iteration of the Muffies - so named because we'll be sending out a big tray of delicious muffins (in a wide variety of scrumptious flavours) to all of the winners. Much nicer than an etched block of perspex, we're sure you'll agree - and far, far nicer with a cup of coffee. We'll try to get them to take pictures of the development teams munching on their muffins, too.
In case you're wondering, these awards were voted for and argued over by the Eurogamer and GamesIndustry.biz editorial teams, in a lengthy session on the last day of ECTS which resulted in surprisingly little actual physical violence. Every game at the show was eligible for the categories - with one major exception. We refuse to give a "Best Game" award to anything which was only visible in video form; instead, we've got a special category for "Best Video Presentation". Only games for which actual real-time code was available were eligible for our awards.
Without further ado, if sadly without the presence of a blustering starlet of some description to introduce the awards, on to the categories!
Best PC Game
Right now is a good time to be a PC gamer. There's a feeling in the air which says that the coming months are going to be a golden age for the big beige box, and London Games Week certainly reinforced that impression. Of course, there was Half-Life 2 on show, although we decided that wasn't up for consideration on the grounds of being a non-interactive presentation which was exactly the same as the one we saw at E3. Boo! Then there was the magnificent STALKER, which simply looks like the most graphically impressive game ever to grace any gaming platform; the real-time flythrough being shown off on the NVIDIA stand had our jaws on the floor as it swooped through the overgrown ruins of a country village, populated with mutated monsters and mean-looking soldiers. Not interactive, but real-time - so we considered it for an award, even if we still don't know how this gorgeous game will play.
Another game winning plenty of praise for looking gorgeous is Ubi Soft's Far Cry, a first person shooter set on a tropical island which features great looking foilage, massive environments and lots of real-world guns to make holes in people with. Definitely more of an arcade shooter than an ultra-realistic military sim, Far Cry is certainly one to watch for any PC game fan - although like many good-looking FPS titles, we suspect that it could live or die on the strength of its multiplayer capabilities, whatever they may turn out to be.
At a show dominated by FPS games, however, there was only one title which really stood out as a contender for the Best PC Game - and it's a strategy title. Vivendi showcased a playable build of Ground Control 2: Operation Exodus, and we're delighted to report that it's simply magnificent. The original game was very popular initially, but is sadly overlooked these days; we doubt that the second one will suffer this fate, however. Graphically it's another stunner, with the two levels on show being a busy and detailed ruined cityscape and a misty swamp full of enemy installations and very nice water effects; zooming right up to the action and watching individual shell cartridges being ejected from a troopers chaingun while his detailed face grimaces through a breather mask is a pretty impressive demonstration of the power of the game, which also introduces a diverse range of units and looks set to be a true strategy classic. Look forward to a full preview shortly!
- Winner: Ground Control 2
- Runner-Up: Far Cry
- Runner-Up: STALKER
Best PlayStation 2 Game
Arguably, without Sony there would be no ECTS this (or last) year, and so it's no surprise to find that the PS2 line up was huge, with very few absentees (take a bow, Rockstar). With this in mind, it was a tough task to decide on the three best titles among such a gigantic list (almost a hundred, would you believe?).
After much haggling, eye poking and, ultimately, rank pulling we decided to whittle down the ten most deserving candidates to this trio of delights. It breaks our hearts to not include the likes of SSX 3, Karaoke Revolution, GT4, Colin McRae Rally 04, Jak II, and - yes - even FIFA 2004, but this sequel obsessed line up is a mighty one by anyone's standards.
Once again, Namco's delightful Soul Calibur II won our hearts with its glorious refinement of the beat 'em up genre. Predictably the pods were mobbed throughout with fans itching to find out what all the fuss is about. Mercifully, with EA publishing the game on September 26th, you've not got long to wait.
If it had've been a little more polished, Ubi Soft's masterful action adventure Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time may well have won the top prize, but ultimately a combination of camera quirks and personal preference among the judges ensure that this heady combination of platform antics, spectacular swordplay and splendid visuals just missed out. Still, it's one of the games we're most looking forward to in the months ahead and highlights just how bad Angel Of Darkness really is.
Somewhat predictably, Konami's latest festival of football Pro Evolution Soccer 3 had us weak at the knees during the event, despite ostensibly being an anglicised version of Winning Eleven 7. Although this is techically cheating, when you consider how piss-takingly good WE7 is, you'll understand why we're happy to spread the love about the finest computer simulation of the beautiful game yet. Konami is promising a few PAL-specific tweaks to come (goodbye Loss Time) and we shouldn't have long to wait to report back on them all. But will we be able to tear ourselves off the PS2 to tell you?
- Winner: Pro Evolution Soccer 3
- Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time
- Runner-up: Soul Calibur II
Best GameCube Game
The GameCube may be having a torrid time this year with poor sell through and seemingly unending delays to key software titles, but anybody who spent time on their fenced off, rain-swept 40-tonne lorry would have come away happy. Unless they were forced to queue in the bit outside the hastily erected, plasma screen-preserving canopies waiting to join in the Mario Kart tournament. Of the games inside, the best third party title was definitely Namco’s Soul Calibur II, featuring sword, bomb and bow-wielding RPG exile Link as a secret character, and the pods were always amongst the busiest on the bus. Even non-beat ‘em up fans were swarming over the title at the show, raining hot metal down on one another before escaping into the cooling shower outside via the lorry’s slippery staircase. Not to recognise the game, which is to be published on September 26th in Europe by Nintendo, would be shocking.
Likewise, we couldn’t let you go away without commenting on Sega’s F-Zero GX, which was released in Japan and the US recently and will be released in Europe this October. With 30 racers on track and a stunning adaptation of the Super Monkey Ball technology developed by Amusement Vision, GX is a fast-paced, beautiful game, which steals the futuristic racing crown from the likes of Wipeout and Xtreme-G without flinching.
But as everyone expected, our game of the show is Nintendo’s Mario Kart: Double Dash, which although it probably wasn’t as finished as the publisher had claimed (given that we managed to crash the game) was a lot faster than the E3 version with some much needed new tracks – including an excellent dirt bike stadium effort featuring plenty of big jumps. Another aspect we were pleased to see was the battle mode, demonstrating the traditional three balloons option and another, bomb-based tug of war style mode, in which players have to attack each other with exclusively bomb-based pick-ups and get three frags (recorded as stars) to win, without losing stars by accidentally swallowing their own explosives. Take our word for it: it’s fun. And although the 3D battle mode tracks still have several vertical levels to take into account, the game is still fun and fresh to play. Granted, it’s not as pure as the Super Nintendo original, but it still contributes effectively to what is the best GameCube game at the show by a long shot.
- Winner: Mario Kart: Double Dash
- Runner-up: F-Zero GX
- Runner-up: Soul Calibur II
Best Xbox Game
Microsoft is planning to ship a gaggle of journalists, industry types and assorted liggers out to a beach in the south of France later this month in order to show off the latest Xbox software (an interesting chance to see if American consoles perform better than British tanks in sandy conditions), so ECTS was a bit bare when it came to goodies for the big black box. A shame, really - showings for the likes of Project Gotham Racing 2, Fable or Sudeki would have really drawn in the crowds, but it was not to be...
What we were left with, then, was a few lonely-looking Xbox games on third party stands - but thankfully the quality was in evidence even if the quantity wasn't. Electronic Arts showed off Namco's Soul Calibur II, looking downright gorgeous as ever - and even if Spawn simply isn't quite as cool as Link (sorry!), it's great to see another top-notch beat 'em up on the Xbox to stand next to Dead or Alive 3.
Next to that on the EA stand was Freedom Fighters, which is an entertaining third-person romp which combines plenty of mindless action with some vague efforts at stealth - it's hardly innovative, and the degree of Independence Day style flag-waving might be off-putting for some, but it's a lot of fun to play and there's a wide assortment of weapons and combat options to experiment with.
However, EA's efforts were outclassed by the French contingent - with Ubi Soft pulling the latest instalment of the Tom Clancy franchise out of the bag in the form of Rainbow Six 3, which PC gamers will already be familiar with but Xbox owners are only just beginning to salivate over. Far more than a simple "more of the same" update to the series, this is the ultimate in special ops combat games, and was by far the most exciting of the limited selection of Xbox games on show at ECTS.
- Winner: Rainbow Six 3
- Runner-Up: Soul Calibur 2
- Runner-Up: Freedom Fighters
Best Handheld Game
Every year, ECTS brings with it a new handheld platform to challenge the GBA. Last year we had the fascinating but ultimately doomed GP32 from Korean company GamePark; this year, Nokia has brought along the N-Gage for a visit. A tour of their stand revealed that Tony Hawk's Pro Skater is really quite a competent port, while Eidos' Pandemonium is actually a lot more fun than we remembered it being on the PlayStation. How does that work, eh? We were a bit less impressed with Super Monkey Ball and Sonic, however, both of which frankly worked better on the Game Boy Advance.
Speaking of Nintendo's dinky little platform, the company brought along quite a selection of games for our delectation - and sorry Nokia, but while true 3D on a handheld console is certainly quite a novelty, the N-Gage still has some ground to cover if it's to catch up with Nintendo in terms of quality. We immediately gravitated to Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising and it was not found lacking; admittedly it's very much a case of more of the same, but it certainly looks like it's going to have enough interesting new maps, units and CO powers to keep us occupied for many happy months. Our only concern is that the GBA SP may not be built to handle the cross-room flinging action which accompanied the last level of the first game...
However, although Advance Wars 2 is certainly a damn fine turn based strategy title, it only took a short stint on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to convince us that we'd found our handheld game of the show. Europe has never been graced with the presence of a Final Fantasy Tactics game before, so it's quite a novelty to see one at ECTS in the first place; but in actual play, the game is simply sublime. Fans of Advance Wars will take to the game like fish to freshly aerated water; fans of Final Fantasy will come for the gameplay and storyline, and stay for the superb combat system. The European launch of the title simply can't come soon enough.
- Winner: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)
- Runner-up: Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising (GBA)
- Runner-up: Tony Hawks Pro Skater (N-Gage)
Best Video Presentation
Coming along to a trade show with no playable code is a bit cheap if you ask us, but nonetheless there were some superb video trailers on show at ECTS this year. These weren't eligible for awards in other categories - after all, they might turn out to be absolute bollocks and have nothing to do with the game in question - but we decided to give them their own category instead. Aren't we nice?
One video we were all quite looking forward to was Atari's first look at Driver 3 -which sadly turned out to be a hugely disappointing and extremely short montage of what looked suspiciously like pre-rendered footage. Boo! Half-Life 2 also earns another raspberry on the grounds of being exactly the same footage we saw at E3, complete with exactly the same stupid queuing system to see it. Under orders from Valve, it seems Vivendi weren't allowed to show off the game on a nice big screen in a public place, away from the vile 24 seater sauna-esque screening room. Come on Valve - take a tip from Konami...
Our choice, then, came down to a battle between two Konami games; with the brand new Metal Gear Solid 3 trailer, complete with rousing musical score, shedloads of in-game footage and more jungle foilage than you can shake a very big stick with a snake on the end of it at, going head to head with the 2D animated and very very funny Boktai trailer for our affections. The Boktai trailer was certainly innovative, mixing in-game footage of the GBA title with 2D screens of stylised characters playing the game and explaining how it worked - complete with defeating the end boss by running outdoors and holding the GBA up to the sunlight. Cue dramatic music!
Although it's a bit of a shame that Konami chose to show their trailers on a large screen which was apparently made up of about 26 coloured bulbs (note to stand builders: those screens look okay in football stadiums, and utterly stupid in Earls Court), full marks go to the people who make their trailers. But there can only be one winner, and that winner is...
- Winner: Boktai
- Runner-Up: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Although ECTS itself wasn't exactly the biggest trade show in the world this year (in fact, although there were certainly more interesting companies in evidence, the show floor was much smaller than last year), attracting people's interest and drawing them in off their quest to reach the bar is no mean feat.
Our eye was first caught by the Konami stand, which aside from the horrible, horrible screen (see above) was a very nice piece of design - featuring plenty of places to sit down and play Pro Evolution Soccer 3 (quite a lure for several Eurogamer employees, the skiving devils), some nice pot plants, an odd little basin full of white stones, and best of all, a device for molesting oranges, and producing juice! Genius.
Venturing outside Earls Court brought us face to face with Nintendo's massive lorry - complete with a full-scale replica Mario Kart, er, kart, in which you could race head to head with other gamers at Mario Kart: Double Dash. Nice idea - but unfortunately not a very waterproof one, and the rain on the latter days of the show revealed the fatal flaw in Ninty's cunning plan.
Back indoors then, where we were quite impressed with NVIDIA's effort simply because it was spacious and featured loads of good games running on absolutely gorgeous TFT screens... But in fact, the best stand in the whole show belonged to Nokia, who promoted the N-Gage with flair, colour and a lot of noise. Plenty of N-Gage consoles were available for gamers to try out, Tony Hawks tournaments ran on a big screen with enthusiastic commentary, and the whole thing was open to the great unwashed - unlike the rather less useful publishers who decided to come to a trade show and then run a closed stand, the fools.
- Winner: Nokia
- Runner-up: Konami
- Runner-up: Nintendo
It's somewhat customary for games trade shows to feature some lovely ladies rather scantily clad. Yes, we know - they're a sign of a male-dominated, juvenile, excessively hormonal industry. But they're very pretty. So we decided to give some muffins to the nicest ones.
A rather innovative stab at equality was made by Capcom, who paraded a man (we assume!) in lycra around the show dressed as Megaman. Interesting approach, and we're assured that whoever was in the suit had a very nice bottom, but a bit of a nul point from most of this jury nonetheless.
Rather more traditional was the selection of black PVC-clad lovelies from budget label Play It, who strolled around the show to murmurs of appreciation and ponderings of discomfort from all present - and made more than one red-blooded male seriously consider the merits of budget PS2 software. They looked even better when draped over the bonnet of some form of very fast car on the Play It stand, too.
However, in the final analysis our decision can't solely be based on acres of cleavage wrapped up in sweaty plastic... And as such, our award for the finest females at the show must go to none other than the lovely ladies at Aardvark Swift, who aside from looking drop dead gorgeous were also chatty and pleasant, and provided us with several cups of jelly babies and other assorted sweets on Friday as our editorial team slaved away in the Eurogamer nerve centre at the show. Could there be a more conclusive clincher?!
- Winner: Aardvark Swift
- Runner-up: Play It
- Nice Try: Capcom
Trade shows are usually a great place for announcements and surprises. X02 gave us Rare, E3 gave us the PSP, and ECTS gave us... not a lot. In fact, there weren’t even the traditional platform holder press conferences – the closest thing we got was the announcement that EA will be developing games for the Nokia N-Gage, and EA develops games for everything, so that hardly knocked us off our feet. We left that to Nokia's ear-bashing MC. No - the biggest surprises came from elsewhere. One came courtesy of our stand neighbours on the Korean pavilion, who not only surprised us with genuinely useful free bags, but also had a two-player first-person Pong rip-off called Gravity Zero, which you play by waving your hands in front of a sensor. A bit like EyeToy, except in a hulking great arcade machine. We hope they bring it along next year, because it beats the living daylights out of half of the games on display...
Also somewhat surprising was Midway’s Freaky Flyers. You can understand our lack of enthusiasm for Midway games these days, given that the vast majority are both critical and commercial flops, and we're both critical and commercial, but Freaky Flyers is a genuinely entertaining aerial Mario Kart clone, a bit like Diddy Kong Pilot, with plenty of graphical detail, buckets of stereotypical humour and shortcuts aplenty. We were most surprised to be playing it more than half an hour after we picked up the pad, and still more surprised to find ourselves chuckling along with the cut sequences.
However we had our biggest surprise of the show on the first day. No, not when we breezed past security in the morning. Not when the sandwiches were vile. Not when the press suite was overrun with fifteen year-olds. But when, after a day of traipsing around playing games, we were escorted to the top of the building by Capcom and shown Bits Studios' Rogue Ops. "It's Metal Gear Solid and then some," we reported breathlessly to our friends when we returned. And it is. Wronged former housewife Nikki Connors is a ruthless assassin, but we don't really care about that - we're more interested in having her pickpocket and slit the throats of enemies for sport, before outwitting complicated guard routines and laser tripwires by cutting down hanging corpses with our silenced pistol. We had no idea it would be this good, but the moment we knew it had to be our Best Surprise was when we shot out a rope holding up a T-Rex skeleton and it chopped a guard in half. Rogue Ops was arguably the most exciting stealth-action title at ECTS 2003 - and that's surprising.
- Winner: Rogue Ops (Capcom)
- Runner-up: Freaky Flyers (Midway)
- Runner-up: Gravity Zero (Game Infinity stand)
Game Of Show
And now, ladies and gentlemen, it's time for us to unveil the winners of Eurogamer's very first 'Muffies'. It's a tough decision to make, and many a blow has been exchanged trying to establish the very best of a hit laden bunch. In the end it came down to who had the biggest fist and the biggest gob, and in gaming terms the loud mouthed Pro Evolution Soccer 3 had plenty to shout about this year, despite having to put up with FIFA 2004 mouthing obsenities from the stand opposite. Congratulations to the Konami team. A tray of delicious muffins are on their way to you!
- Winner: Pro Evolution Soccer 3 (Konami)
- Runner-up: Ground Control II (Vivendi Universal Games)
- Runner-up: Mario Kart: Double Dash (Nintendo)