So here we are. Eurogamer's Top 10 Games of 2004. Our top ten favourite games, mind you. Not the definitive top ten games of the year. Anybody who whacks a list in front of you and tells you that's what you're reading is either mad or omnipotent. Still not sure what this list represents? Head back in time and examine the criteria for inclusion, and while you're at it you might like to check up on numbers 50 down to 11, all of which are preserved at the following URLs: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.
10 - SingStar (Sony/Studio London, PS2)
Kieron: RUN! JUST AS FAST AS YOU CAN! TO THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! TO THE MIDDLE OF MY FRUST! RATED! FEARS! AND I SWEAR! YOU'RE JUST LIKE A PILL! INSTEAD OF MAKING ME BETTER! YOU KEEP MAKING ME ILL! Brilliant.
Kristan: Either the worst game of the year or the best, depending on how you look at it. I'd just call it ritual humiliation to music, meaning the most fun you can have with microphones. The sights and sounds that have emerged as a result of this game will live with me forever, and that coming from someone who spent at least ten years vowing he'd never do Karaoke and now roars The Ace Of Spades for fun.
Ronan: I can hear people cough in the flat below me. I can hear people flatulate in the apartment above. I can hear the strange electrician guy bat his eyelids in the room next door. Get the picture? There are reasons I haven't been evicted yet and not playing Singstar is one of them. (And also... em... I can't sing.)
Tom: I'm not particularly extrovert, but when I play Singstar I just have to go for it. Partly buoyed by flatmates past and present's misguided (or perhaps conspiratorially malevolent) claims that I can sing (I really, really can't), and partly beaten on by the fact that I think playing Singstar in a group is one of the most social, bond-building experiences multiplayer gaming has to offer, regularly at 3am in the morning I vigorously believe in a thing called love at the sort of volume that makes you appreciate docile and accommodating neighbours more than anything else in the world. Even though it's let down by some technical failings the team didn't bother to fix for version two (Singstar Party, which notably doesn't feature in this top 50), and won't last you more than a couple of parties every six months or so, it's still an experience not to be missed.
Rob: I got my mate who's never sung a bar in his entire life, regardless of how drunk he was, to do the entirety of Suspicious Minds. This game is awesome. So is alcohol. Together, they are unstoppable.
9 - Burnout 3: Takedown (EA/Criterion, PS2/Xbox)
Kristan: In many ways this is the racing game of the year for everyone at EG, me included, and in others the most disappointing. Criterion nailed the concept so perfectly with Burnout 2 and all it really needed to do was add fully integrated online play, ratchet up the visual tricks and make the game longer and more challenging. The fact that it shoehorned in online play at the last minute meant that what we ended up with was a massive and fantastic single-player game marred by a horribly hobbled online component that bizarrely didn't integrate itself with the single-player and hid itself under layers of horrible lobbies and menus. Add to that a layer of hideously annoying EA US-centric presentation that turned the game into some kind of vile Jackass extreme sport. But we're not idiots. Turn off the DJ, delete the mind-bogglingly bad soundtrack (or at least the Lazy Generation title track... nhghghghhghgh) and try and take the rancid made up terminology with a pinch of salt and you've got something near to what we wanted; an amazing, frantic explosion of face melting crashes and full on pedal to the metal racing. It could have been a 10. It should have been a 10.
Ronan: There's no point elaborating any more on this. Best racing game I've ever played. Perhaps not my favourite - Micro Machines 2 gets that honour for some reason - but bloody close.
Tom: I haven't done any of the racing bits, and I might not ever bother. I'm sure they're very good, but I was in it for the Crash mode, and having delivered so much this time around I'm quite content just to play that. I have friends, who rip Crash mode to shreds and exact every last possible spark of entertainment from it, who tell me that it's not quite up to Burnout 2's in terms of challenge and overall longevity (even if it has more junctions this time), and I do myself miss the basic, no-frills Crash of number two, but frankly for most gamers there's going to be something here worth the asking price. Wanky presentation and the fubared online aspect notwithstanding, it's still absolutely brilliant.
Rob: Amazing, awesome, speed freak genius from the boys and girls at Criterion. Playing this on a projector screen with surround sound caused the first ever genuine "dive sideways off the sofa" moment in my household. Bone-crunching impacts didn't lose their ability to leave me cackling with joy even after weeks of play, and once the bloody awful soundtrack had been replaced with something a bit more appropriate (or completely inappropriate, whatever your tastes may run to), this was the high-octane gaming experience of the year. Flawed, yes - the soundtrack, the crap progression system and the botched Live implementation prevent it from being a 10 in my book - but still one of the best racing games ever.
8 - Halo 2 (Microsoft/Bungie, Xbox)
Kieron: This sits in my front room and I still can't find the will to play it. Or the time, really - but watching over a friend's shoulder as he played didn't lead to a single moment that demanded my immediate attention. It's been a busy Christmas, to say the least.
Kristan: Part of me wonders if we've put this in the top ten as a political decision to stop us burning in the flames of damnation. If we're talking single-player, then it's a jolly old 10/12 hours of "more of the same" with the most rubbish ending ever, and if we're talking Xbox Live then it's clearly the best thing online console gaming has to offer. It's a split-level argument really, and as someone who genuinely doesn't have much enthusiasm for deathmatch gaming on a console (or much skill for that matter), then all of the glory Halo 2 has to offer is somewhat lost on me. I can see why it's good and why people love it, but to be honest I'd rather play Rainbow Six 3 or PES on Xbox Live. I blame years of online FPSs on the PC, and for never really getting over the fact that a joypad is absolutely no substitute for a mouse and keyboard.
Ronan: Halo was a great single-player experience, with some brilliant system-link gameplay thrown into the mix. Halo 2 is an exceptional multiplayer game, but its single-player portion is average and only held together by a decent atmosphere. In my opinion, Bungie made a big mistake taking on the 'epic' slant with this. The first game was a private, almost magical experience between the Master Chief, the Halo ring and the player. Halo 2 loses that sense of wonder and the flaws are even more apparent as a result. Nonetheless, worthy of its place here for the multiplayer alone.
Rob: Like Kristan, I'm not sure why this is in the top ten. Unlike Kristan, I didn't compile this list, so I can't answer that question. For me, this was a fun sci-fi romp which was polished in some ways (great voice acting, superb level design) and bizarrely unfinished in others (hideous pop-up, falling through the map, and other such nonsense) - and which did, yes, have the worst ending to a videogame in a very long time. The multiplayer may lift this out of the doldrums, but like many others, I've been distinctly underwhelmed by console FPS games on Xbox Live. I've certainly had fun with four-player split screen, I guess. Still - after so many years of hype, a bit of a disappointment from Bungie, and its chips were thoroughly pissed upon by Half-Life 2 only weeks after it launched anyway.
7 - Rome: Total War (Activision/Creative Assembly, PC)
Kieron: People have been griping about some odd elements in the simulation for this post-release. These are the people who could have ultra-sex with a space goddess and then only find themselves able to talk about sleeping in the wet-patch.
Kristan: There are some games people you have to be qualified to talk about, and Rome isn't one of those for me. I loved every minute of the three hours I've played this, and one of those games I'd love to find 60 hours of spare time to play. Sadly the chances of ever finding that time rely on my girlfriend dumping me, my friends disowning me, my football team going out of business, all my favourite bands to spontaneously split up, and for my desire to watch TV to mysteriously dry up. Rome, I love you so much, but we're just in the wrong place to spend any quality time together. Maybe in the next life?
Ronan: [Looks at crappy laptop] ... *sighs*
6 - Pro Evolution Soccer 4 (Konami, PS2/Xbox/PC)
Kristan: It always annoys me that games like this are released every single year, as I feel no sense of anticipation at their arrival. And unless you play it to the levels that the real fans do, you can barely notice the sodding difference from one incarnation to the next, and as a result get really pissed off at the ticker tape parade that greets its arrival every 12 months. With that off my chest, I will acknowledge that it's a decent game, but one that is absolutely no fun to play against experienced opposition, and a bloody nightmare to score a goal in. One day I will sit down and properly learn how to play this over a long period of time, but until then I will be forever frustrated at the steep learning curve that awaits me.
Ronan: Am I... tired of Pro Evo? The idea seems too strange to comprehend, but PES4 is the first addition to the series that I haven't played incessantly. To a degree, Pro Evo had gone beyond gaming for me, turned into a kind of strange ritual, a soothing aspect of my life that was more about football than gaming. Yet this release hasn't gripped me in the same way as previous PES games have. Why? The through balls are unstoppable at times, the art of defending is a thing of the past (of course, it wasn't great in the first place) and the perfect balance of passing and movement found in Winning Eleven 7 International is gone. This is, I think, comes down to football philosophies: Konami have created a game that let's you play like Arsenal at their best, but to do that they've had to remove a certain amount of control from the player. It looks more like football than ever, but it doesn't feel like it. Still, I am purely in the realms of subjectivity here - it remains an outstanding game, worthy of a high placing.
Tom: While I agree with Ronan's concerns about through balls and defending, I'd simply say that you just can't be good at Pro Evolution Soccer - really good - unless you really know and understand the subtleties and tactics that drive success in real football. And the jubilation you feel when the ball hits the back of the net during a tight encounter is the same ecstatic impulse that surges through you when it happens in real life. Maybe not to the same degree, but once Konami gets its arse in gear and sorts out the disgraceful failings of the Xbox Live aspect, and real leagues, friends leagues, with real significance start to emerge, who's to say that feeling won't be amplified? It's a feeling that, sorry to say, I've never felt playing FIFA.
Oh and, while this may be slightly weaker than some of the Japanese editions, it's still the best football game I've ever played on a PAL format, and if you don't have a Japanese or a chipped PS2 then you don't have any better option at the moment, and won't do until next October. All of which surely justifies its selection for the first team?
5 - Metroid Prime: Echoes (Nintendo/Retro Studios, Cube)
Kristan: Nnnnnnnaaaaagh! Buy this game you... you... youuuuuuuu foooools! There is something actually quite wrong with a country that ignores a game as good as Echoes. In with a bullet at No.33 in the UK, and gone the next week never to be seen again. Bah. I was so depressed I took a week off and refused to review the game until my sulk had dissipated, taking two hours over each boss to savour each one like the finest mouthful of food you've ever tasted. In many ways I actually got more out of Echoes than even the great Half-Life 2, as it sated my thirst for a join-the-dots storyline (which HL2 left enigmatically wide open, much to some gamers' displeasure) and also tested my reserves of skill and patience further than any other game managed in 2004. Admittedly I did resort to using a guide occasionally, but that was more down to the exhaustion levels at the end of a year of reviewing over 100 games. Some games are designed to break you, and this is one of those, but my god is it satisfying once you've won. Genius design, wonderful atmosphere, stunning visuals, and a game that's stands alone as something genuinely unique. What more could you possibly wish for?
Ronan: I haven't played Half-Life 2. And you know what? After Metroid Prime: Echoes, I just don't care. My game of the year. I love it like a sister.
4 - Ninja Gaiden (Microsoft/Tecmo, Xbox)
Kieron: Still haven't played it, but was amused by all the screenshots of women covered in goo which proved that Bukkake Game Science progresses at an ever-increasing pace.
Kristan: Like the Gillen, I'm not bitter. Ahem, no, that's not right. Must be all the talk of Bukkake [isn't this a family website? -Ed] [since when? -Ed Ed]. I've not played it either (well, not for more than about five minutes), but although it looks like my kind of game (I've played the Onimusha trilogy, for my sins), with truly glorious benchmark visuals, and hack and slashing action to the nth degree I fear its difficulty level. I really don't have a huge tolerance for games that demand superhuman levels of skill unless I'm completely into the concept in the first place, and sadly I was never much of a Ninja fiend anyway. Maybe Tom and Rob have a better understanding of why it's that good. Lads?
Ronan: For some reason, I refer to this as Ninja-guy Den. Not many people in my life earn affectionate and inane nicknames, nevermind a game. But Ninja-guy Den did. I'm like Kristan, in that inordinately hard games turn me off sometimes, but not once did I get frustrated with Ryu Hayabusa's amazing dance of death through the Vigoor empire. Probably the most addictive and satisfying fighting engine I've ever experienced - more satisfying than Soul Calibur, Street Fighter II, Streets of Rage, Super Punchout, you name it. I played through again immediately after finishing it, just because I'd unlocked a lightsaber. That's not something I tend to do. Amazing.
Tom: I think I rated this one so highly because it was just impossible. And that's also why a number of people didn't rate it. What was impossible about it from their perspective, however, was actually making progress - and I can sympathise, as I certainly came unstuck plenty more often than I would have liked - but what was utterly impossible about it from my perspective was that I had about two days to review it, and despite being tortured by its unfairness more than any other game in living memory I still managed to finish it, and still managed to fall in love with it. That just is not possible. It shouldn't have happened. But when I realised why it had I was totally in awe of it, and marked it accordingly.
It was because, I think, a combination of factors weighed on me heavily. Firstly, Ninja Gaiden is the whoriest game in history. Ignore the characters. Rachel dripping in beastie-ooze is one of the least PC sights of the year, but that's not what I mean. It's the graphics whore factor that compels to begin with - you don't know too many moves, and it's pretty hard, but it's so beautifully done, animation is so detailed and fluid, and it's so ridiculously violent. It lays that down. It makes you feel like a fledgling ninja. Then it layers it up with increasingly complex moves that blend into one another as part of complex, but always controllable, combinations that are as visually arresting as they are satisfyingly deadly. Teaching yourself to be good at it is something you'll want and need to do because you want and need to see more of the increasingly impressive spectacles you just know the game has prepared for you, and being good at something this beautiful and balletic is compelling enough to have you persist despite the sometimes-absurd difficulty level. I think it's so good because it makes you feel like a ninja, graft and all, rather than just giving you extraordinary powers. I've controlled ninjas before, but I hadn't felt like a ninja until I finished Ninja Gaiden. And, though it's a little worrying to admit, the gratuitous violence is marshalled in the sort of way that's utterly empowering. Righteous even. To make you feel like a ninja is enough of a recommendation, but a righteous ninja?
Actually, can we move this up a mark? I prefer being a righteous ninja to a bitch-slapping pimp.
Rob: I'm a videogames wuss. There, I've admitted it. Much as I'd love to be able to clout my rather-too-skilled pal around at Guilty Gear XX, it's just too damn hard; and my Counter-Strike obsessed buddies left me behind at the point where mere guile was no longer enough to win, and actual skill became required. It's fair to say, then, that I approached Ninja Gaiden with a certain degree of trepidation. And then I approached it again, and again, and again, after the first boss handed my brutalised arse to me on a plate repeatedly. But somehow, the whole affair was compelling enough; the graphics beautiful enough, the combat satisfying enough, the whole ninja thing just god damned cool enough; that I kept hacking at it until I won. And then I did the same to the whole game, over the course of about two months, and drank in the perfectly balanced, hard as nails but yet immensely satisfying glory of Team Ninja's finest hour. Magnificent, even for wusses like me.
3 - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, PS2)
Kieron: When Rockstar get around to doing GTA: THE SMOKE based around Victorian carriages, we'll know the franchise has burnt out. For now, this is as populist and emergent as games get.
Kristan: The most amazing thing about this game is how many people have called me up to tell me how much they dislike this game. Either they're just burned out with the concept or just deranged, I don't know, but really, if you can't enjoy yourself playing a GTA game, then there's a very serious chance you need medical assistance. 91 missions of adrenaline across as much as 100 odd hours of gameplay might not equate to everyone's idea of fun, but among those missions are some true classics alongside some absolute dogs. I'm not blind to the game's ability to be a complete arse either, with one of the most bloody-minded save/load/mission retry systems ever conceived (alongside some truly rubbish missions), but the game's ability to reward persistence with a million incalculably cool things is the reason we keep coming back for more. It means different things to different people, but the one thing it does better than any other game is unite so many different gaming tastes, and for that major, almost impossible feat alone Rockstar deserves its success.
Ronan: Haven't bothered yet. I think what Kristan says applies to me. When you've got a lot of games to play, another GTA becomes one for a rainy day, or a rainy month more like. Having taken a four-hour gander at it, San Andreas is clearly spectacular though. I'm sure it deserves its place.
Tom: This doesn't do as much for me as either GTA III or Vice City did, but I still think it's worthy of a place in the top ten because it's just so continually enjoyable and there's just so much of it. It's not relentlessly entertaining - sometimes it gets too hard, sometimes it's too easy, sometimes it's too basic, sometimes you wonder whether anybody really cares about this group of wannabe crims anyway, and sometimes you feel like a long-haul truck driver cruising vast distances between the electronic equivalent of back alley blowjobs. But most of the time you're having fun, with lots of other sorts of fun available if you're not satisfied with the bit you're doing. And when "most of the time" is more time than you're likely to spend with 10 other reasonably well-received games in similar genres, surely Ł40 is a bargain?
Rob: I don't think I'm deranged, so I guess I'm just burned out with the concept. There were a whole lot of different games out there this Christmas which just appealed to me a hell of a lot more. Still, the four fifths of the population of the universe who bought it can't ALL be wrong, I guess.
2 - The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Vivendi/Starbreeze/Tigon, Xbox/PC)
Kristan: Every year brings us a clutch of titles that the public steadfastly refuses to buy despite obviously being better than virtually anything on the shelves, and Starbreeze's/Tigon's masterful blend of first-person shooting, adventure, Mech combat, stealth and first-person punch-ups was the one that arguably suffered more than any other. In short, the game crept up behind the tired old concept of a movie license, shot it in the face with its own gun, dragged its limp corpse into the darkness, hopped in a Mech suit and shot the Status Quo into bloodied mulch. But what did the public want instead? Oh yeah, GoldenEye. Don't even get me started.
Kieron: Ignites the not-so-subtle hope that one day someone may dare make a decent Oz game.
Ronan: Riddick likes the dark. That's cool. But if you're still in the dark about this game, that's not cool. Aside from the mech bit, which confused the hell out of me, this is a stupendous game. My friend wouldn't stop laughing as I 'ragdolled' a dead guard across a toilet floor with pistol fire. He's strange like that. It does illustrate a point though: aside from the brilliant mission structure and plot, Riddick's core engine is better than any other FPS on consoles, barring TimeSplitters 2. It feels right when you shoot someone [Google: ignore -Ed].
Tom: Riddick won us over not just because it does things well and differently, but because it never forces you to do the same thing longer than it's strictly entertaining. There are so many little standout moments that even three reviews (of the NTSC Xbox, PAL Xbox and eventual PC releases) haven't covered everything. It's not perfect, not by a long shot, but everyone can get on board with a prison-escape scenario, everyone can slide into the emotionally ambiguous role of Riddick without experiencing the self-loathing that often scuppers other character-driven adventures, and everything you do is glorious to look at, intuitive to control and logically structured. You don't doubt the world for a minute, and it soldiers towards an inevitable conclusion without that inevitability ever fuelling frown or frustration. There's one point about midway through that we found confusing, and one of the "boss" fights is disappointingly inane, but I'm struggling to think of any occasion where I felt like stopping altogether, even though you know exactly what the deal is by the time you've read the long-winded title on the box and - judging by the sales - foolishly returned it to the shelves and bought something else instead.
Rob: Everything about this game was better than everything about the movie it was ostensibly based on. That's worth a plaudit in itself; the fact that it also created a genuinely good hand-to-hand combat system within the confines of the first-person genre, looked better than any other console game this year, and offered a hugely entertaining and compelling FPS game that effortlessly wove in elements of stealth, adventure, beat 'em up and even mech combat made it into something really very special indeed.
1 - Half-Life 2 (Vivendi/Valve, PC)
Kieron: As clever, articulate and well made as a linear FPS has ever been. Still has the odd pacing problems of Half-life - that is, getting stuck in a puzzle breaks the illusion of the game completely - but when it's flying, there's not an action game in existence that can match it. Yet again, it's a case of how the story is told rather than what the story is. If there's been a moment of naturalistic story-telling as perfect Alyx's kiss of her father's cheek in 2004, I haven't seen it.
Also: Antlions are a my besterest friends in the WHOLE WORLD.
Kristan: Thank gawd we can stop talking about what Half Life 2 might be like and actually reflect that it was a 'bit good' after all. I gave it a ten, which is as rare as a quiet day in Central London, if only for the fact that even the bits that had me stuck had me furiously trying again, desperate to get to the next section and to see what else Valve had up its sleeve. After 24 hours of HL2 in the space of 36 hours, you could say I was a bit drained by the end of it, but it's was worth the extraordinary lengths. Now all we want is a few expansion packs and their work is done.
Ronan: [Looks at crappy laptop] *weeps* ... [Looks at Metroid Prime: Echoes] *giggles*
Tom: Reviewing games professionally means that we get to play more or less all of them, whereas the average person only gets to pick and choose. That's not a boast, even if it sounds like one - in fact, in some cases it's a double-edged sword. It means that while some people can enjoy a particular genre for a whole lifetime of gaming, we sometimes grow tired of it before we've even hit gaming puberty. The FPS genre is a perfect example. The fact that Half-Life 2 and Riddick are at the top of our list of 2004's games of the year is symbolic not only of the fact they're better than anything else in the genre at the moment, but that they managed to continually surprise and enthral us in new ways, and deserve recognition as far more than mere novelties. Throwing sinks around and using physics to solve puzzles may have been the hook that latched our tired fingers to the keyboard in Half-Life 2's case, but what kept them there was a consistent high quality in terms of storytelling, spectacular set-pieces and sense of involvement that few other games in the FPS genre have matched. Everything fits, everything's in its right place, and it goes the distance.
Rob: Normally, once the afterglow has passed - as you're sitting back smoking a metaphorical cigarette, so to speak - the flaws in a truly great game start to bubble to the surface of your mind. I'm now even more convinced of the magnificence of Half-Life 2, however, than I was when I awarded it 10/10 in a stream of barely comprehensible superlatives and ill-conceived crispy duck metaphors earlier this year. It's not flaws which have come to mind in the intervening weeks and months, but new accomplishments - perhaps too subtle to have drawn my attention on a first run through, but still a vital part of the incredible experience that Valve hath wrought. The understated, pitch-perfect storytelling, the ghostly atmosphere of a hopeless world and the most genuinely human characters yet seen in a videogame might not have been what grabbed my attention first - focused, as I was, on the gleeful task of battering foes into submission with toilet cisterns - but they're what makes this into unquestionably the game of the year.
Agree with our selections? Of course you don't. Nobody's ever going to be "right" about this sort of thing. Fortunately for you, you can have your own say as to what you most enjoyed playing this year when we open the polls in the new year for Eurogamer Readers' Top 50 Games of 2004. Look forward to that, and all the usual mix of reviews, previews, news and sarcastic comments, when we all go back to work for real on January 4th 2005. Oh, and be sure to have a Happy New Year. We will. Hic.