10 City of Heroes/Villains
PC / NCsoft / Cryptic Studios
9/10 (Kieron), Game page
John: It's odd how CoH, and latterly CoV, have punctuated my year. I've never really been one to go back to games, but this, the first MMO not to cause me to repel in horror, appears to have me on a yo-yo string. Along with Kieron and Jim Rossignol, crime has been really rather fought this year (until eventually our allegiances switched for the simple offer of an add-on pack, and it was those fighting crime we fought). It offers no depth, no 'second life', and for that it is wonderful. It is an arcade game. And one where you can fly.
George: Initially a lot of fun, but after a while CoH simply became a grind to get more powers. With little to do other than fight, and few socializing opportunities, it got dull real quick for me. But what do I know? I play Star Wars Galaxies and enjoy it.
Jim: City of Villains was pretty much what City Of Heroes should have been in the first place. It's funny, smart, beautiful and remarkably compulsive. No other MMO (apart from maybe Planetside) gets the group-combat dynamic so right, or delivers it so spectacularly.
Mathew: City of Heroes in barbed wire rather than spandex, Villains takes the design of Heroes and creates a far more cohesive, immersive world, even if it is slightly less believable (not that a literal city of heroes with a rampaging crime epidemic was believable anyway). The hypnotic demand to gain more evil super powers makes this an unbelievable timesink and a true refinement of the Diablo genre.
Kieron: In an uncharacteristic fit of generosity, I'm not going to go on about how Walker's a terrible healer (though he is). You see, as much as my MMO circle wars over World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Eve and whatever else, we all love Cryptic's City games with a slightly scary passionate intensity. You start making a list of its positive qualities, and you end up with a list of where almost everyone else is going wrong with the MMO in 2005. No-one would want all MMOs to be like the City games, but we're as grateful as Metropolis is to that Kryptonian immigrant that one is. Or rather two. Oh, you know what we mean.
PS2, Xbox, PC / Atari / Quantic Dream
9/10 (Kristan), 8/10 (Tom), Game page
Kristan: Kudos to Atari for seeing the potential in what turned out to be one of the most memorable and enjoyable titles of the whole year, putting narrative firmly at the focus of a videogame for the first time in, oooh, years. David Cage's vision to make you both the murderer and the investigator was a masterstroke, tasking the player with solving the murder mystery from both sides.
Although the extent of its ambition couldn't quite deliver the degree of freedom and consequence that the first few chapters promised, there were more than enough hugely involving chapters that stand out as among the most fresh and entertaining gaming experiences of the entire year. We could have done without some of the 'Simon Says' and button bashing sections; sure it's flawed in places, but somehow I still enjoyed this more than almost any other game I've played all year and that has to count for something. On the whole this is a thinking man's game that every progressive gamer should go out and buy immediately. If you don't like the plot, bleh, you'll probably just hate videogames full stop.
Simon: 9th? 9th? Ooh, ooh it looks a bit like CSI - let's give it a freaking medal. No. There has never, ever been a film with a script as bad as Fahrenheit's. The controls are disastrous, the illusion of freedom of choice atom thin and, although the first scene is good, it descends so fast into sci-fi hokum drivel that the experience becomes a painful, excruciating non-joke which embarrasses the player at every turn with its incessant stupidity posing as intelligence. N-i-n-t-t-h?
Martin: It doesn't quite come off, unfortunately. It's a brave effort, but most of the segments feel underdeveloped, and eventually the great story can't quite cover up the fact that Fahrenheit is more a descendent of games like Dragon's Lair than real adventures. But thanks for trying.
John: It is a joy when a game as peculiar as Fahrenheit gains the recognition of a top 10 position. It will, naturally, vanish from people's minds in a year's time, remembered only as a piece of obscura by those who chronicle such things. Gaming requires lunatic innovators - people brave enough to reach out in the most ridiculous directions, on the off-chance that they grab hold of something vital. There are elements of Fahrenheit that should be implemented into every new adventure game, and there are ideas that should be immediately hidden behind the sofa and forgotten. Fahrenheit will be lost in time, but it will have made a difference.
Tom: Comparing the David Cage-fronted tutorial in Fahrenheit with the Wachowski-fronted end sequence in The Matrix: Path of Neo makes me cry. But the truly interesting comparison is between Fahrenheit's rooftop showdown and The Matrix (game and film)'s increasingly humdrum martial arts showpieces. Amazing that an adventure game turns out to have my favourite interactive fight sequences of the year.
I totally disagree with Kristan about Fahrenheit, incidentally. I thought most of the investigation bits were pointless, I thought the story went crackers towards the end, and I thought the action-adventure stuff was brilliant. But the reason I most adored Fahrenheit was Lucas. I haven't felt a greater involvement with a single character this year, and I doubt anyone will ever manage to make sex in a game quite as bleak as this again, let alone do it twice.
Oh, and he does human interaction in a way that I can't actually do.
Kieron: While in terms of its critical reception Boiling Point was the most controversial game of the year, in terms of debate among gamers, Fahrenheit (or "The Indigo Prophecy" for anyone in the colonies) took the crown. It's understandable - even among its devotees, there's a tendency to say "This is great, but..." That ellipsis is the funny one. I was chatting to someone who's never played the game, and who'd only been aware of people talking about it in serious tones about a reinvention of the adventure game and blah-de-blah. Except then his mate told him that in the end a MAIAN GOD fights THE INTERNET. Amazing!
I'd spent so long apologising for the end's ludicrousness, I've actually forgot the basic high-calibre insanity of it all. If only more games were as loveably apeshit.
Fahrenheit isn't perfect. But it's got nothing to apologise for.
8 Zoo Keeper
DS / Ignition Entertainment / Success
8/10 (Tom), Game page
Mathew: Ah, Zoo Keeper. The Flash game I almost failed my dissertation for, taking a break from each line of essay for another game 'just to clear my brain'. My brain, of course, became clogged with a zoo full of angry, blocky animals that I just had to make disappear. I've kicked the habit now. I'll play it again in a minute just to show you how over it I am.
John: If Zoo Keeper had a playing time counter, I'd be richly embarrassed. At one point (and by "one point" I mean "for about eight months"), it became a part of my daily life. Every night before bed, I'd have a few rounds of Time Attack. (Current high score: 4,652,920). As a puzzle game it's grotesquely flawed, making mistakes that should rightly be burned in public. And yet, despite this, it's still the game I've played more than any other, probably in my life. It is a dangerously cut opiate that I have drip-feeding into my arm.
George: My family loves this game. It's easy to see why. It's simple, addictive, and with the stylus any obstacle to enjoying the game disappears. So everyone and anyone can play it. Give someone a DS with this in it and they will get hooked. Digital zoo crack bestiality stuff. Love it.
Kristan: If this is any mark of quality, Zoo Keeper is my most-played unreviewed game of the year. Swapping animal heads over became an unending obsession that got me through countless boring tube delays for months, until I admitted that I simply wasn't good enough to unlock super hard. At least not until I go on another beach holiday.
Tom: I was good enough. And did I ever play it after that, too. Best high score game of the year by a mile, and the best justification for a stylus-based control system too. Also, John, I just checked and my top score's higher than that, so you might want to dig it out again.
7 Mario Kart DS
DS / Nintendo / Nintendo
9/10 (Tom), Game page
Mathew: It might not be the greatest Mario Kart available, with the odd dodgy track (I'm looking at you, N64 tracks) but with the best and most varied selection of characters and tracks, and the ultimate multiplayer in person or across Wi-Fi, this game keeps me entertained until my hands lock in agony. Either the fault of the DS ergonomics or my 'snaking' racing technique, I do not know.
Kristan: I know this is an all-time classic and all that, but I had way more fun playing Jak X [under-rated racing game of the year] than I did playing YET ANOTHER remake of this. Online and Wi-Fi play is top fun, obviously, but for me the single player's what I pay the money for, and if I'm honest it does little that Super Circuit didn't do...
Tom: Right, you're both wrong. The reasons are ninefold:
1) The new handling dynamic is the best yet. The in-out-blue-in-out-red boost works perfectly, and becomes the difference between success and mere victory. First things first, the boost start - the timing makes a difference to the kind of boost you get. I love that. On the track, you start off just sliding, which is cool, then you learn how to boost-slide, which is cooler, then you learn how to adjust your slide angle to the extent that you can basically zig-zag through impossibly tight turns (Delfino Square's right-angled walls, for example) without hitting any obstructions, then you start to experiment with snaking, then you beat my Mario Circuit 1 lap time and I kill you in your sleep so don't even think about it.
2) The touch-screen is really important. You use it to check on the legitimacy of question mark blocks at a distance, you use it to dodge green shells and work out the trajectories of incoming reds, you use it to ward off the bastards trying to slipstream you, you use it when you're in first place and you're being blue-shelled and you want to take as many of the bastards with you as possible.
3) The reward structure is fantastic. Completing all the Grand Prixs to gold standard isn't monumentally difficult, but as you get there you unlock more characters, more karts, and eventually - slight spoiler - the ability to use any character with any kart. The experimentation that ensues - particularly if you're into time trialling, as I am - will eat up entire days. Oh, and you did realise that going back and completing all the Grand Prixs to a certain time standard gets you the show-off three-stars-above-the-head-online thing. You diiiiiidn't? [No - you stole my copy of the game! - Ed]
4) Most of the new tracks are fantastic. Forget the old ones you don't like. Peach Gardens, Delfino Square, Wario Stadium, the pinball one, the new Mario Circuit, Airship Fortress and Bowser Castle, DK Pass - these are all brilliant, and those are just the ones I can immediately call to mind. The only disappointment in tracks is the slightly peculiar N64/SNES imbalance (why not just put the entire SNES game in there? Or did you? Do I need to play it more? What if I'm missing it?!), and the inclusion of stuff like Mario Circuit 1, Baby Park and Yoshi Circuit is inspired. Oh, and let's be honest, the new battle mode tracks are rubbish too - we need the SNES ones back please Nintendo. Sort that out.
5) Eight-player wireless LAN. Forget going online for now, playing this with your friends in the same room is ludicrously good. Yeah, it's more about power-ups than pure racing skill in this kind of scenario, and there ought to be more set-up options, but when you embrace that and stop getting upset because none of these arseholes understand it like you do, you'll realise it's one of the most brilliant wireless games yet. Now seems like a good time to point out that Rob is rubbish and I will always beat him forever.
6) Wi-Fi Connection. It has problems, of course, not the least of which is the simply dreadful manner in which people can drop out of games when they're losing without being penalised. The worst culprits are the ones who do it when it's four of you, and this ends up putting you in last position when you really don't deserve it to. And yes, it needs that PictoChat communication stuff from Touch Golf like topical comedians need to shut the hell up about Kate Moss and bird flu. But when you get the right crowd, usually your mates from MSN or IRC, it's brilliant. Now we can all stay up until 3am together.
7) Time trialling. The best one for it since the SNES. I've got entire mailing lists of people I duel with on this front now. And you can send and receive ghosts!
8) What the start screen does when you finish it.
9) The fact that there is NOTHING I would rather do RIGHT NOW than stop typing into this ridiculously large Word document and play the game instead.
Kristan: Give it back, cock!
6 Civilization 4
PC / Atari / Firaxis
9/10 (Kieron), Game page
Mathew: After sinking hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into Civilizations 1 and 2, Civilization was a disappointment that my heart just could not bear. It's surprising to think that the genius of Sid Meier could have such a false start, but now I'm glad he did - the refinement of what may be the greatest series of all time is now complete. Civilizations can rise and fall during the time I play this game. Literally.
Martin: It's Civ, only more so. Bang went several weeks of my life.
Kieron: And as the calendar clicks around, Civilization is revealed as - by far - the finest PC strategy game of the year. Hell, it's the finest strategy game full stop. While it's too grand a game to tar with a limiting word as "perfect", this implementation of the culture-building world-conquering game is as good as strategy gaming gets. The micro-management micro-managed and an array of intriguing aspects added to the model, and we result in something which feels as alive as. well, as a civilization. Basic functional elements, like (brilliant) multiplayer straight out of the box just make it even more adorable. If you were feeling particularly hyperbolic, you could find yourself saying that when Civilization 5 comes around, there should be an addition to the tech-tree past computers: Civilization 4. And it's Christmas, I'm full of hyperbolic cheer, so I shall.