Every year we celebrate the New Year by picking out some of the top games we expect to be reviewing over the next twelve months. 2001 proved to be another mighty triumph for our predictive skills; out of our six picks from last year, two of them were disappointing (Black & White and Myst III), two of them weren't even released (Neverwinter Nights and Metal Gear Solid 2) and two of them were actually rather good (Gran Turismo 3 and Phantasy Star Online). So in the hopes of getting a better average this year, here are our picks for 2002.
PC - Neverwinter Nights
Proving that we just don't learn from our mistakes, Neverwinter Nights graces our list for the second year running. With any luck it will finally emerge from the frozen wastelands of Canada at some point this year, although the fact that developers Bioware are currently locked in a legal dispute with former publisher Interplay doesn't give us much cause for optimism, even if the Canucks are still insisting the game will be finished in the spring. Should it ever be released, Neverwinter Nights has the potential to revolutionise the role-playing genre. Straddling the divide between single player and massively multiplayer games by letting people act as the Dungeon Master - running their own servers, moderating battles and even designing their own settings and scenarios - it could offer a whole new experience for dice-throwing tree-huggers across the world. Add to this the ability to interlink servers using portals, allowing players to hop from one setting to another, and the possibilities are staggering. Of course, the one downside to Neverwinter Nights is that its success depends very much on the players. Although it has a strong single player mode, with a variety of "modules" to work your way through and the ability to download fresh user-made scenarios from the net, the focus is very much on the multiplayer side of the game. If your Dungeon Master is a spotty 14 year old geek from Backwater, Wisconsin, hosting the game on a 56k modem and creating big boring rectangular dungeons packed full of powerful monsters and magical items, your experience is likely to be somewhat disappointing. Given the sheer level of enthusiasm still surrounding the game after the many delays that have afflicted it though, we have our fingers crossed that Bioware and its fans may be able to create something truly unique.
PC - Outcast II : The Lost Paradise
Long time readers may remember that Outcast was actually the first game that we ever reviewed on EuroGamer, way back in September 1999. Stretching across no less than six pages (one of them filled with glorious voxellated screenshots), it came to the conclusion that this was "one of the best games I've played this year .. innovative, immersive and ambitious". So when Belgian developers Appeal revealed a few months ago that they were already hard at work on a sequel to the game, we were rather excited. When we saw the first screenshots, excitement turned to slavering devotion. Appeal have ditched the voxels of yore in favour of more traditional texture-mapped polygons, but the landscapes seen in these early screenshots show that the world of Adelpha has maintained its unique visual style, with curvaceous terrain, spike-like mountains, spectacular skies and lush vegetation. The result is some of the most impressive eye candy we've ever seen. We're also happy to report that the soundtrack for the sequel is once again being composed by Lennie Moore and performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, a combination which gave birth to one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time for the original Outcast. Gameplay-wise Outcast II will be slightly more action-oriented than the original, with stealth apparently also playing a more important part this time round. Whether this will come at the expense of the original's adventure aspects remains to be seen, but we can at least look forward to another strong storyline as Cutter Slade is called back to Adelpha to help the Talan fight off a new threat. Either way we should know more soon as Appeal are currently aiming for a Q4 2002 release, with both PC and PlayStation 2 versions already confirmed and an Xbox version likely to appear at some point as well.
PlayStation 2 - Metal Gear Solid 2
Second time lucky, maybe. Metal Gear Solid 2 was released in the US and Japan fairly recently, and has been receiving the sort of review scores that make you go weak at the knees. This writer has been playing an imported copy for a while now, and it's obvious that when this hits Europe - supposedly in February - it's going to cause another explosion in PlayStation 2 sales. It may only take about ten hours to complete, it may feature more in-game and computer-generated video sequences than most and, admittedly, it's the same old Metal Gear with some fancy graphics and new moves, but it forms a glorious cinematic whole which can be manipulated by your actions on-screen. Visually, Metal Gear Solid 2 is extremely realistic and demanding on the poor old PS2. The game kicks off on George Washington Bridge, with our returning hero Solid Snake walking along in the pouring rain with the blur of headlights surrounding him. As he reaches the middle of the bridge at full pace, the camera pulls back to reveal the boat passing beneath the bridge, and the rain pours even harder. The opening gameplay scene - after about fifteen minutes of CG and in-game cinematics - concerns Snake's incursion on the insides of the boat. Everything around Snake is animated, from the flapping tarpaulin holding items in place to the ground itself, which splishes and splashes and sploshes with the utmost realism every step he takes. From there the game goes in every direction you can imagine, except one, which you will simply never imagine. I implore you - be careful what you read if you want the experience of Metal Gear Solid 2 to be perfect for you - you will never find spoilers on EuroGamer, but with high profile news websites and magazines posting information willy nilly, you need to keep an eye out. As for the game itself, it's hard not to gush endlessly about the nuance and the twisting and turning; suffice it to say, it's going to make a big impact in the United Kingdom, and at least now we know for sure when precisely it's going to do it...
PlayStation 2 - Final Fantasy X
Another obvious prediction. Like Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy X is highly anticipated and extremely popular already in the US, with even the more highly-strung reviewers out there lumping praise onto it. It makes the same sort of impression that Final Fantasy VII made; Squaresoft's majestic, arrogant approach has led to sweeping changes throughout the game. Okay, so not everything that the Final Fantasy fan holds dear has changed, but a large number of things have been altered for the better. Take the visuals for example. We know what Square can do with CG, thanks to the underrated Final Fantasy movie "The Spirits Within", and FFX is a testament to their abilities. Although plenty of action is shot in-game, the CG segments are absolutely stunning. Within a few minutes of starting the game our hero's sterling Blitzball performance is interrupted by the maniacal Sin, come to wreak havoc and dismantle a technological utopia with his evil, and this sets the pace and tone for the rest of the game. Like Final Fantasy VII, it throws you in the deep-end and runs for cover. Apart from the CG graphics, Square have also decked the game out in real 3D, with every environment and battle location built out of polygons, giving the game a lot more shape than it had before. Speaking of battle - most battles (apart from a few random encounters) now take place on the same screen as the main adventuring side of the game. On a bridge at the start of the game for instance, our hero is rescued by the venerable Auron, whom he teams up with to fight the influx of demonic beasties. Once it's clear that our pair are for battle, the game switches quickly to the battle setup on the bridge, and you can start fighting. If you win you can just wander off afterward, without having to wait half a minute for the rest of the game to load again. The final big change though, and definitely the most obvious, is the voice-acting. Square have employed some reasonable Americans to play the parts of Auron and friends in FFX, and it actually sounds appropriate at times, even though it's only used for the central characters and a few of the more important dignitaries you end up visitng. Ultimately though, it's another bold move for Squaresoft, whose Final Fantasy X is an extremely welcome innovation within the series and the genre. The US version is sure to be one of the most popular imports for a while - the game came out on December 18th - but when it arrives here domestically, you will find it hard to believe that one small DVD can house quite so much fun…
GameCube - Rogue Leader
Some ideas are always bound to work. LucasArts have allowed players to take up the mantle of Luke Skywalker in a bid to destroy the Galactic Empire and from start to finish the game is made up of sections taken from the three original films and others scenes based on events seen during the trilogy. The very first task on Luke's agenda is to pick up his X-Wing and head into battle, because you join proceedings just as the Rebellion is about to make a move on the Death Star. After mopping up TIE Fighters for a few minutes and dealing with remote sentry towers, you get to fly the trench run and attempt to deposit a torpedo in an access tube. One of the things that defines Rogue Leader is its awesome visuals, and they really impress upon you just how close modern videogame consoles are to realizing proper, Hollywood-grade graphics throughout. The opening section is taken directly from the digitally remastered Star Wars film and remodelled in real-time 3D, with X-Wings, Y-Wings and so on moving into position ready to attack the Death Star. Over the intercom the various pilots sound off, with voice-acting talent from a number of nameless characters who do a surprisingly good job. Amongst their number is the original voice actor for Wedge, one of Luke's companions in the sky, but LucasArts have perhaps overplayed his significance (even including his name in the opening story reel). Nonetheless, it all adds to the glorious whole that is Rogue Leader. Any Star Wars fan will find it hard to resist the temptation Rogue Leader presents, and with the GameCube launching for £199 with Rogue Leader as an exclusive title, the chances are it will be one of the killer applications when the console arrives in Europe this year. We may feel like the third place nowadays - and rightly so when you consider that many of the games in this preview are already available in the USA and Japan - but one fancies that all this bad blood will quickly disappear once Nintendo of Europe bears fruit.
GameCube - Super Monkey Ball
It was a tough decision, choosing Super Monkey Ball as one of our picks for 2002, but when it comes down to it Sega's hilarious party game is as deserving of the publicity as anything else in the GameCube's esteemed catalogue. Although admittedly not a platform exclusive - the game is already planned for PlayStation 2 and perhaps Xbox - Super Monkey Ball is a tremendously underrated game. The single player game is all about balance and precision, with players manoeuvring a little monkey in a ball around various courses, trying not to fall off or get distracted by the way the screen tilts with the ball, but the meat of the game is in the multiplayer modes. Technically they aren't specifically multiplayer modes, instead described as 'party' and 'mini' games. The party games are Monkey Fight, Monkey Race and Monkey Target. Fight is about knocking your opponents off various platforms using power-ups supplied to assist you, while Monkey Race is fairly self-explanatory, again with power-ups and obstacles dotted around the racetracks. Monkey Target is a Pilotwings style parachuting game in which you roll your monkey down a steep slope before he goes flying off the curved end way into the air. With a press of your action button the monkey ball opens out like a pair of wings and you have to use a combination of speed, altitude and cunning to try and land on a set of targets in the middle of the sea. Manic. Not quite as impressive as the three mini games though. Monkey Billiards, Monkey Bowling and Monkey Golf are some of the most entertaining games seen on any platform. Billiards does exactly what it says on the tin, which may or may not appeal to you, but whichever way you look at it Monkey Bowling is absolutely stunning. By choosing position, power and curve you have to try and knock down ten pins at the other end of the alley without losing the monkey ball off the side. The skill and precision involved in a high-scoring game of Monkey Bowling can only reflect positively on the developer. Monkey Golf on the other hand takes a while to get going, but is ultimately a lot more rewarding and more difficult to master than the others, thanks to the wide variety of courses and the difficulty in getting speed and angles absolutely right without going out of bounds. Super Monkey Ball is a game about simple concepts with a lot of variables, and it's also one of the best original games to come out of Sega since Sonic The Hedgehog. Hopefully sales in Europe will be better than they have been elsewhere - they certainly deserve to be.
Xbox - Wreckless
I'll let you into a small secret - Halo is mostly pants and I can't understand all the fuss over it, and Project Gotham Racing is largely derived from Dreamcast favourite MSR, with a liberal sprinkling of Ridge Racer for good measure. Wreckless, on the other hand, is a far more entertaining and exciting game, and if we only had to pick one game this year for the Xbox, at the moment it would probably be this. Your hungover correspondent has to pick more than one though, but Wreckless remains a good place to start. Wreckless is one of the first Xbox exclusives to emerge from the Far East and is set in Hong Kong, with the local police at the end of their tether over the Japanese yakuza. It's up to you, tearing up the streets of Hong Kong in various cars (including one that clearly came from Back to the Future) to put a stop to the yakuza using whatever means you see fit. This could be anything from driving at full speed through a busy street café to crashing spectacularly into the side of a yakuza sedan to disable the driver. Rush hour traffic and pedestrians are irrelevant compared to the cause, and the game certainly has a Crazy Taxi-ish feel about it, not least because of the enormous amount of destructible scenery. Not to mention all the cars, buses, trams, trucks and other vehicles that you can topple over. There will be something like twenty missions in the full version of Wreckless and, as we said late last year when we first saw the game in action, if it can keep up the pace and level of action seen in the demo, there's no reason why it can't be one of the console's most cherished assets. Lord knows it needs something.
Xbox - Unreal Championship
Call it an unusual choice; call it what you like, Digital Extremes' Unreal Championship is a selective revamp of the original Unreal Tournament with tweaked gameplay mechanics to make it more console-friendly, a swanky interface and a whole lot of first person shooting. With the Xbox's complete lack of keyboard and mouse, DE have had to optimise the game Halo-style for the gamepad. According to those in the know the setup is very similar to Bungie's solution and is extremely simple to play with. The idea is that this is some sort of futuristic fighting game. You play any one of 28 different characters which vary in look, shape and ability. There will be advantages and disadvantages to each race and character, and your character's abilities will actually mature as you fight in more battles. I should say characters, since the game also included team-based combat sections. Digital Extremes is currently deciding how much you will be able to tweak, but we reckon it's a safe bet that typical stats like speed, strength and accuracy will be among them. The idea of customizing your own team and carrying them around on a memory card to beat up your friends is an old one, but it's nice to see a first person shooter taking a bit of initiative for a change. Even something as simple as levelling up characters RPG-style will make a huge difference. Many other changes have been made to the traditional Unreal Tournament formula as well. For starters you won't have any weapon pick-ups dotted around the level, just the weapons you have unlocked during the game. Domination has been tweaked to make things a little easier - Digital Extremes felt that having to find all the control points in the levels was quite annoying, because you can't generally defend stuff unless you know where it is (unless you're the United States government), so in Domination 2.0 there will only be two points per level, making their security a much simpler objective. New modes have been added to the game too, including Bombing Run, which is a sort of hot potato game where you have to pick up a bomb and carry it into the base of the other team to explode. Unreal Championship is due out whenever Microsoft get round to enabling that thar broadband access they have been mumbling about for the last year. That's assuming they do intend to enable it - they still haven't told us exactly how it's going to work…
GameBoy Advance - Advance Wars
It seems like we have been waiting for Advance Wars for months. The European release was inexplicably delayed by Nintendo following the tragic events of September 11th, despite the fact that the game was already available in the US. That said, we welcome whichever bright spark's idea it was to hold back arguably the best turn-based strategy game ever produced on a handheld. With absolutely no resemblance to any real war, place or time period, the game is an obvious and extremely dangerous piece of digital entertainment, and could incite riots and looting if ever released. Ahem. Advance Wars is a turn-based strategy game where you control the ranks of one small army of units on a sort of playing board. The board is decked out in tiny squares, some of which are occupied by units, and when it's your turn you select the unit you want to move, at which point the screen illuminates squares which your tank, infantry or what-have-you can reach, with obvious movement penalties for passing through objects like mountains and trees. The general objective is to defeat your opponent in the shortest space of time possible, capturing various cities, factories and fortifications as you go. You have a seductive young anime starlet to guide you through your training, and her gentle instruction is extremely easy to follow, making Advance Wars a particularly simple game to get into, in spite of its complexity. The graphics are fairly standard cartoon fare for the GBA, but Advance Wars is about battle and retaking what's rightfully yours (probably). Whatever the plot, it's still one of the most exciting handheld games we've come across. All that turn-based movement and fighting is surprisingly soothing and subtly addictive, making Advance Wars a contender for the most promising GameBoy Advance game of 2002, assuming Braben and co. don't fix up that handheld version of Elite in the meantime…
GameBoy Advance - Super Mario Advance 2
No GBA round-up would be complete without some sort of remake, and Nintendo happen to be getting in on the act with Super Mario Advance 2 - basically Super Mario World for the GBA. Normally we're fairly hostile to this sort of 16-bit conversion, but Super Mario World is a timeless classic. It was the first Super Nintendo adventure for the portly plumber, and from the opening levels to its sinister conclusion in the depths of Bowser's lair it's a stunning example of platform gaming at its most precise and elegant. New power-ups, enemies and friends await Mario on his journey and, although progress is pretty linear, there are some non-standard additions such as the block palaces, which open up new areas of the map once conquered. Originally we had hoped to see Super Mario Bros. 3 brought to the GBA, but Super Mario World is a well-chosen alternative. Built on a simple premise, the game rapidly swells and expands until you realise there are over 100 levels to complete, with plenty of secret diversions for those clever enough to find them. Some levels involve precise platform hopping, while others are puzzlers, and some are even pressure-pumping forced-scrollers. It's a very diverse and attractive game, and it's been around long enough for many of the current generation of gamers buying the GBA not to have played it. One thing that we do worry about though is how the haunted house and castle sections of the game will translate to the oft-criticized screen of the GBA. Those big ghosts aren't terribly illuminating and some levels in the original game were really quite dark. Hopefully this won't lead to a Castlevania-style state of affairs, where the game is simply too dark in places to play, but it will be something to watch out for. When all's said and done though, a couple of worries about the GBA's screen output are all that stand in the way of us pursuing this game the minute it arrives in this country. Expect to see it in the first few weeks of 2002 and expect to lose several hours of your life to completing it, and then several more to exploring every nook, cranny and secret. Super Mario Advance 2 is the sort of game that will force developers to choose meatier 16-bit games for their next remakes, and in light of second rate conversions like Pitfall it deserves praise for that alone.