2001 has been a great year for PS2 owners, and it has seen the introduction of Nintendo's spectacular GameBoy Advance platform. Although Dreamcast manufacturer Sega tailed off production in March, the platform has also seen several important and extremely impressive products in the intervening period. Far from gaming's dead duck, the Dreamcast is still a big success, and this year's wooden spoon has to go to the PC. Although a large number of PC games materialized during 2001, very few truly stood out, and some of the most anticipated fell short of expectation. As is traditional though, each platform gets its moment, so without further ado, we take a look at some of the best games of the year 2001…
PC - Operation Flashpoint
One of the year's finest action games, Operation Flashpoint took the tactical combat genre into the great outdoors and then threw in a wide selection of vehicles to rampage around the countryside in, ranging from tanks and APCs to trucks and jeeps. The handful of helicopters and aircraft didn't work particularly well, but everything else in the game was honed to near perfection. Set at the tail-end of the Cold War in 1985, Flashpoint offered a "what if" scenario in which rogue Russian generals unhappy with Perestroika sparked a battle with American forces on a small chain of islands. Over the course of the extensive single player campaign you got to ambush Soviet armoured columns, spearhead tank assaults, parachute into enemy territory and carry out patrols through wooded valleys full of Russian infantry. With limited saves, realistic damage and a variety of lethal weaponry it was a nerve-wrecking experience, as demonstrated by our rather over-excited review. "At the end of one particularly tricky covert operation far behind enemy lines, running low on ammunition and having used my sole save game some half hour earlier, my heart was beating so hard I thought it was going to jump out through my rib cage and run off down the road screaming when I nearly ran into a Soviet patrol just two hundred meters from my extraction point. This game is not for those of a nervous disposition..."
PC - Startopia
Mucky Foot's tongue-in-cheek space station management sim Startopia was one of the year's big underachievers. While other PC titles sold hundreds of thousands of copies on the back of undeserved pre-release hype (hello Peter), the hugely entertaining Startopia dangled from the bottom end of the charts for a few weeks and then vanished without a trace. It just goes to show, there ain't no justice. Although it was released in 2001, featured a doughnut shaped space station and sported a cracking intro sequence featuring an apeman examining a mysterious black monolith, Startopia was a far cry from Arthur C Clarke's sci-fi classic. "Imagine if the Death Star had been privatised, or if the jokers behind the Millenium Dome were let loose on Babylon 5. Add a cast of bizarre aliens, from your standard grey Reticulan to giant four-armed purple hippies and swimsuit-wearing sirens. Throw in a healthy dose of humour inspired by the late great Douglas Adams, and garnish with pop culture references to the likes of Star Wars and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Simmer gently for three years, et voila - Startopia!" The result was arguably the funniest game of the year, from the cattle mutilating aliens inhabiting your station to the bizarre illnesses that afflicted them, with all kinds of lovely little touches from the cute rodents that start breeding when your rubbish bins overflow to the blue screens of death on the terminals in your research laboratories. Underneath the humour it was also an involving strategy game though, allowing you to build dozens of different types of room to attract aliens to your station, including cocktail bars, motels, "love nests" (wahey!) and posh restaurants. Or you could just monkey around landscaping your biodeck to grow suspicious looking alien plants. If you didn't buy this the first time round, you owe it to yourself to grab a copy out of the bargain bins next time you're out shopping.
PlayStation 2 - Grand Theft Auto III
And now the most predictable award of the year. Grand Theft Auto III is the greatest videogame ever produced [steady on - Ed]. It's an adult toybox of crime and debauchery; the ultimate release from real life. Receiving an entirely justified 10/10, Grand Theft Auto III was described as "a ludicrous, sprawling epic of a game and one of the most complete experiences .. ever encountered." "So you're a Mafioso super villain thanks to your reliability (and respectability - don't mess with Luigi's girls, for instance) and you get a lot of jobs. But you don't have to take them. If you don't fancy working you can just go for a drive, splatter some pedestrians, buy some guns and kill some cops. GTA3 wins the fight over the Daily Mirror crowd by giving you the choice. I was fascinated when my little brother came over to visit this weekend, because he just sat there driving peacefully around town in a taxi doing nothing in particular." Banned in Australia for its depiction of hookers and vicious slaughter, Grand Theft Auto III is also one of the most controversial games of recent years. It shifts PlayStation 2s though, as well it should. If you own Sony's much maligned black shoebox, you owe it to yourself to seek out and play GTA3. Apart from the drive-by shootings, Crazy Taxi mini-games, flamethrowers, hookers, street races, bank robberies, high-speed police, FBI and Army chases, carjackings, fast cars, trucks, Italian and Japanese Mafias, Love Media, talk radio and Gone in 60 Seconds crew down at the docks, it's a damn fine urban crime simulator.
PlayStation 2 - Devil May Cry
When vetting employees, it's company policy to quiz candidates on the Devil May Cry end sequence, just to make sure they are the real McCoy. Shinji Mikami's magnum opus proved once and for all that Capcom could produce games that weren't Resident Evil, or derived from Resident Evil. EuroGamer Editor-in-Chief John Bye let DMC off for not being the deepest of games, "revolving as it does around slaughtering demons and finding the appropriate key-substitute to open the next door, but it's certainly one of the most stylish and downright entertaining I've played in recent months. It also has plenty of replay value, because although I finished all twenty five missions in around six hours, each time you complete the game you will unlock new modes with more powerful and more numerous monsters, and additional special powers for both Dante and his enemies. In fact, if anything the game was even more fun the second time through than it was the first." A majestic action game, Devil May Cry concerns the exploits of a psychotic half-demon called Dante, who must divert the devil prince Mundus from his nefarious scheme to invade the land of the living. He does this by negotiating twenty-five missions chock full of carnage, using swords and guns, and clocking up points for his stylish slaying. From the Seventh Layer of Hell to your living room, Devil May Cry is Capcom's greatest achievement to date on the PlayStation 2 - and arguably overall.
GameBoy Advance - Mario Kart Super Circuit
When the GameBoy Advance launched earlier this year, it set new sales records and even outperformed the PlayStation 2 on a sale for sale basis. Although plenty of impressive games found their way onto the platform in the early days though, few of them could hope to compete with Nintendo's September release of Mario Kart Super Circuit, with the reviewer - yours truly - genuinely preferring Mario to Konami's Krazy Racers. Mario Kart Super Circuit was a startlingly unoriginal game, but the attraction of a portable Mario Kart fused with one of the most delightful reward structures seen in any videogame this year won the game superstardom. "This conversion of a five year old game is the best driving game on the GameBoy Advance to date, and I would take it over a lot of its big brother's competitors on the PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast too. It has everything a single player, or indeed a foursome of like-minded console gamers, could ever dream of, and all with the added benefit of extensive replayability. With Super Mario Advance 2 still a way off, Mario Kart Super Circuit is the killer app for GameBoy Advance as of now. Buy it." Mario Kart Super Circuit is the best GameBoy Advance game there is, even three months later, and demonstrated to sceptics of the platform that the GBA really could outperform the old 16-bit platforms. In terms of sales, even the upper echelons of the console industry had a tough time competing.
GameBoy Color - The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages / Seasons
When we first heard that Nintendo planned to release not one, but two new Zelda games on the GameBoy Color simultaneously, we were taken aback, and at the same time overjoyed. With the arrival of Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons it became clear that Nintendo had pulled off an amazing coup, drawing no doubt on its experience with the Pokemon franchise. Scoring one of this year's most deserved 10/10 scores, the Oracles were described by this writer as "entertainment unmatched by any other portable title, ten-year-old Russian puzzle games be damned." "Both of the new Zelda games are utterly engaging. There are no better games on the GameBoy Color or GameBoy Advance yet and, as I've said, in my opinion both games are indispensable. It took me nearly a month to play both of them to death, and I get paid to play them throughout the day. I'd estimate well over 24 hours of full-on action per game and plenty more if you go back to check out the bits you missed. Hey, Gaming 24:7. That'd make a good slogan!" It certainly gave GameBoy Color owners something to think about. Although the hand-held continued to sell surprisingly well after the release of its big brother the GameBoy Advance, it seemed unlikely that Nintendo would produce new games in any of its major franchises for the system. Congratulations to Nintendo for maintaining an important platform (and no doubt winning back the confidence of its GBC faithful), and doubly so for producing two of the most inspiring RPGs on any system to date. Eschewing the notion that Zelda is a kiddy RPG, a lot of the gameplay hinged on deductive and cryptic password-oriented puzzles that kept us coming back for more. Will next year bring the release of Zelda Advance?
Dreamcast - Grandia II
Right at the beginning of 2001 Grandia II was released for the Dreamcast. In the closing moments of 2001, it fights off stiff competition from the likes of Shenmue 2 to clinch its place amongst our favourite games of the year. Featuring lush graphics, some decent dialogue and new challenges on each replay, it was a decent role-playing in the making when we started with it, certainly. However, a bland and occasionally lifeless storyline made the game increasingly hard to praise. Concluding our review, I wrote: "At the moment, Grandia II is the best RPG available on the Dreamcast in Europe, and we strongly recommend you play it. Yet for all its strengths, we can't shake the conviction that the fact that every quality lies behind a twisted, yet predictable storyline will make the game inaccessible to most RPG-heads." Although I stand by those convictions, I have to admit that I was fairly harsh on Game Arts' premier Dreamcast release. The game is a lot more lively than many of its rivals in the role-playing genre and doesn't bog you down quite as much with supposedly 'random' battles. Having recently replayed the game, I'm amazed that it still has the ability to surprise me. With this in mind, the game is a startling achievement - a game that is simply fun to play, even when you know what's going to happen. The best RPG of the year? Not really, but one of them.
Dreamcast - Skies of Arcadia
Grandia II was one of 2001's earliest Dreamcast releases, but Skies of Arcadia hit our review pages within the first ten days of the year, even though the game wasn't eventually released in Europe until February. Our review praised features like side quests and downloadable extras, and described the game as a "triumph for Sega". Staff writer Ben Carter felt the game had promise early on. "Skies of Arcadia is set in a somewhat unique, Laputa-inspired world in which there is no "solid ground", only islands (some larger than others) which float in the endless sky. This world is, unusually, orbited by no less than five (arguably six) moons, each of which takes the place of an element in the world of Arcadia, conferring certain powers. Two of the three central characters are air pirates or, more specifically, "Blue Rogues" - the flying equivalent of Robin Hood. These two, Vyse and Aika, are thrown into a struggle to locate five crystals that control giant war machines that could destroy the world by the arrival of the third - Fina, a mysterious girl on a mission to prevent the coming destruction." By the end of the review, he was having to nit-pick to hit his word limit. His conclusion was that companies like SquareSoft still do have serious competition in the console RPG department. Skies won points for originality, longevity and entertainment, and is arguably the best Dreamcast release of the entire year. The late inclusion of Shenmue 2 in the running did little to shake our convictions.