20 - Sly 2: Band of Thieves (Sony/Sucker Punch, PS2)
Kristan: We should probably start a Fathers For Justice-style campaign against this excellent game's failure to sell; or at least do a march from Great Marlborough Street to Golden Square dressed as Sly, Bentley and Murray. We're not sure whether it's the ongoing petty warfare between SCEA and SCEE that's behind the decision to push the game out minus any PR or marketing at all, but we'd wish the bosses of the two competitive factions of Sony would have a fist fight, sort out their differences and start pushing this American-developed product as fiercely as the home-grown first party line-up. This vastly expanded sequel was a consistently excellent stealth-based take on platforming, which thanks to its genius control system takes a huge amount of the stress out of the normally thankless task of precision platforming and poxy camera angles. Almost pipped Ratchet & Clank 3 to the post as our favourite platformer, which is saying something.
Ronan: [Puts on best Bentley voice] Umm, Sly. By my calculations, not enough people bought this game. Its mixture of great characters and excellent level design (where almost every mission works toward an overall objective, such as finding a tux to get into a ballroom) makes it even better than the smile-inducing original. My favourite platformer of the year, but I haven't hit Ratchet 3 yet.
Tom: I played this long enough to trot out some of those "first impressions" we're so fond of around here, but never returned to it. Alas, I fear that I may never get the chance now, but given the quality of the first vastly underrated and undersold Sly Raccoon game, and the huge potential this was starting to show when I had to leave it to concentrate my attention on other areas of the pre-Christmas rush, it's definitely the first of the various platform games on my infamous pile of 'unfinisheds' that I'll look to when the time comes.
19 - Thief: Deadly Shadows (Eidos/Ion Storm Austin, PC/Xbox)
Kieron: Stand-out level "The Cradle" alone has more artistry, skill and wit than most games manage in their entirety. And if you complain about loot glint, you're mentally deficient. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
Kristan: Although I really enjoyed the likes of Pandora Tomorrow (and to a lesser extent Hitman Contracts), it was the atmosphere of Thief DS that really placed it above its peers. The visuals overstretched the now ageing Xbox somewhat, but the sluggish frame rate could not detract from the beautiful environments and the innumerable excellent set-pieces which went a long way to masking the somewhat limited guard AI. If you have the choice, go for the PC version and bask in the finest piece of stealth gaming of the year.
Ronan: It stole my heart. No, seriously. I want it back. Unlike the Xbox version of Deus Ex 2, this game was comfortable to control and the frame rate wasn't overly taxing on my poor, poor eyes. The atmosphere in Deadly Shadows is second to none... just try playing it in the dark with headphones on. It was probably a little easy for long-time fans of the series, but there's nothing else like it for Xbox owners. One of those games where a bit of imagination goes a long way too. You'd probably get it for a steal now as well. Oh, stop booing.
Tom: Unlike Splinter Cell, this is one stealth game that managed to consistently hold my attention. Presumably because not only is breaking and entering and stealing from right under the noses of noblemen that much more interesting than installing a bug in a phone somewhere in Krablakistan, but also because the manner in which you do things - like lock-picking - is scrupulously measured out to heighten tension, and the manner in which the game tells you things about where it's going - through eavesdropping, in particular - is fittingly devious.
18 - Transformers (Atari/Melbourne House, PS2)
Kristan: ROBOTS IN DISGUISE! Melbourne House's sleeper summer hit came out to little fanfare but deserved much bigger things, being without doubt my personal favourite game ever to feature robots. Given that I had absolutely no prior interest in Transformers makes the feat even greater, managing to instantly grab my attention with some of the best visuals the PS2 has pulled off to date, coupled with a fantastically satisfying shoot 'em up mechanic, a palpable need to explore and some of the most terrifyingly memorable boss encounters of all time. Pick it up in the sales for next to nowt and then spend hours wondering why this wasn't utterly massive.
Ronan: The only thing in disguise here is my disinterest (only barely disguised, mind you). I played this for a couple of nights and can see why Kristan liked it so much. The controls were really tight, the draw distance was amazing for the PS2 and the variety of gameplay styles actually worked well. Despite that, however, I still couldn't bring myself to finish it. Now that I think about it, though, I feel kinda compelled to try again. It's certainly got that 'addictive shooter' quality.
Tom: Watching Kristan play this when it first came out, I was awestruck by the visual approach, and yet despite getting hold of a copy at the time I've never been struck by the urge to put my own thumbs to stick and see how it feels. Perhaps because I overlooked some of the lesser parts, or perhaps because I'm just overwhelmed by games that do more to push my buttons that I haven't got time to play either. Whatever the reason ("excuse" is probably more accurate), I feel guilty about it, and fully intend to rectify the situation forthwith. If only because I think any game that lets you run around a level and then have the level kick you out, stand up and start trying to stamp on your face deserves my admiration.
17 - Project Zero 2: Crimson Butterfly (Ubisoft/Tecmo, PS2)
Kieron: Remember: Teenage girls are sinister.
Kristan: And photography kills ghosts. Fact. Tecmo has over recent years revitalised the increasingly moribund and predictable survival-horror genre by, shock, actually making the game scary. It was, by all accounts, another incredibly classy take on the genre, following the similarly ignored 2002 original. Both should be available for silly money now (because no-one bloody buys them, because Tecmo won't pay its European partners to do any marketing or PR on them), and it'd be nothing short of scandalous for fans of Silent Hill and Resident Evil (both the subject of less than brilliant follow-ups this year) to not rush out and pick up this as soon as possible.
Rob: Japanese teenage girls - just say no. Or rather, say yes, but only in the entirely legal context of buying this game, bringing it home and playing it in the dark with the sound up. Eurogamer is not responsible for trousers lost or soiled. (But if you do lose your trousers while playing this game, let us know, because that sounds like an interesting story.)
16 - Tales of Symphonia (Namco, Cube)
Kristan: I'm sure it's brilliant if you've kept up with these games over the years, but I fear them, like degenerative diseases, or 4-0 wallopings to local rivals on your home ground. Or maybe these games are just not meant for me on a fundamental cultural level. Either way there are two chances I'll play this game; slim and zero, and slim's just left town...
Ronan: ARRRGGHHHH! DOUBLE ARGGGHHHH! Usually, when I finish a game, I don't start thinking about the emotions I wasted on it. Especially RPGs, because I see them as a wonderful way to spend my time and I'm perfectly happy to whittle away my life playing them. But this game left a bitter taste. It has beautiful graphics, great voice acting and one of the best combat systems around. In every shape and form, it appears to be the traditional console RPG I so miss these days. But one thing ruins it all: a plot that puts the 'hack' in hackneyed. Truly vomit-inducing. In most cases, I might shrug that off, but Tales' characters are so well constructed (to a point) that when their arcs went absolutely nowhere new, I felt more cheated than I ever had with a game before. Like the perfect girl who takes you home, cooks you dinner, winks at you, and then says she's got a boyfriend. And he's your dad.
Rob: Ronan's obsession with incest is starting to worry me. He's also both mad and wrong. Tales of Symphonia is magnificent - a perfectly executed battle system which is the gaming equivalent of pulling out a machete in front of Star Ocean 3 and going "naaah, THAT'S a knife!", gorgeous character designs, great voice acting, loads of fun side-quests which are actually more interesting than Pokémon style object-collecting tedium, and a plot which starts out hackneyed and dull but actually travels to some pretty interesting places before long. Especially if your Imp of the Perverse forces you to try and hook Lloyd up with someone other than the saccharine sweet Colette. You don't want to know who I went for a date with in the snowy city, you really don't.
15 - Ratchet & Clank 3 (Sony/Insomniac Games, PS2)
Kristan: Easily the wittiest and most charming platform game of the year and one that cements Insomniac's place as the premier developer of this most overcooked of genres. The presence of multiplayer was hailed as this year's big new innovations, but it was the gloriously entertaining single-player that captivated me for 20 hours and reminded me why I continue to play these games after all this time. Technically brilliant (but why strip out prog scan, SCEE?), drum tight design and never a dull moment in a game that is the perfect marriage of ludicrous weapons and cunning level design. It's also funny, which as most people will realise is virtually unheard of in a world of po-faced videogames.
Ronan: Soon, my pretty. Soon.
14 - The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap (Nintendo/Capcom, GBA)
Kristan: Another game that screams "play me" but one that may have to wait for an extended holiday to see the light of day. You see, that's the beauty of handheld games - there's a much greater scope to dig them out at a later date when in sunnier climes, although, having said that, my girlfriend's currently beating me up for not reading enough books, so maybe not then.
Ronan: Was in the middle of starting this when Samus poked her pretty helmet-head in front of the SP's screen and lured me to the GameCube. Still, no game could have withstood the lure of Echoes, and Minish Cap was back disturbing my social life last week. Then, em, Mario poked his paper head in front of the SP's screen and Link was abandoned again. Really enjoyed what I played of Minish Cap so far, and will keep going back until it's finished. Unlike San Andreas, the line "I'll put a cap in yo' ass would be inappropriate here.
Rob: Ronan just stole my cunning "cap in yo' ass" joke, so I'm going to sulk and pout rather than making any sensible comments. I haven't played it anyway, to be honest. But I will. I promise.
Tom: It's not too bloody small! (Note to Kristan: if there's an "Ed" comment after that sentence when I check over this page next week, I'm uploading the bowling videos.) Let's be clear again: It's not too bloody small! It's just deceptive. Switching between big and small Link adds a whole new dimension to traditional Zelda puzzling, and the dungeon design and changes to the other elements of a regular top-down Zelda outing all come together magnificently to remind us that Capcom might have had a crap year judged on its self-published output, but it did happen to develop one of the most enjoyable handheld games I've ever played. Perhaps it's not as challenging as it could have been, but you just can't not enjoy this...
13 - Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (Nintendo/Intelligent Systems, Cube)
Kieron: I love videogame titles.
Kristan: I watched young Thomas play this and it looked a real joy with its retro styling and cute ditties. A shame for me personally that it was out during the maelstrom period when there were 30 other games to review at the time. Maybe I'll get around to playing it, but I've got an unplayed N64 copy of the 2000 original that I said the same thing about way back then. Sometimes having all the sweets to eat doesn't always mean you get time to eat all of the ones with peculiar wrappers. Sometimes they just slip down the back of the sofa and have a little party with the fluff, coins and pens.
Ronan: As of writing, the game I'm currently indulging in. To be honest, I'm surprised I managed to pull myself away to write this at all. I never played Paper Mario on the N64, but Thousand-Year Door adds an extra dimension (well, you know what I mean) to the warm, cuddly glow of the GBA's underrated Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. Aside from Tony Hawks, the only game with a knob in the title.
Rob: Lovely. Really really lovely stuff. It engaged in a ferocious battle to get Tales of Symphonia out of my Cube for a couple of weeks, but Symphonia won. I'm looking forward to getting really stuck into Paper Mario in early '05 though.
Tom: Does everything an RPG should do well (most notably the battles and the associated badge system), tinkers with generic convention (most memorably with the paper aeroplane puzzles and other "curses"), and boasts more humour and self-deprecation than the average Jack Dee set. And plays so many games with its "paper" premise that you'll probably feel the need to kidnap the next door neighbour just to have someone to grin knowingly at every five minutes or so. Paper Mario's deserved sequel is one of those games that demonstrates how good Nintendo has become at making games for people who already buy its platforms religiously, and even if your love of the Big N has waned recently, this will plant a smile firmly back on your face, and frankly the only people who won't enjoy this are the sort of curmudgeonly grumps who snort at the mention of Pixar films and murder kittens.
12 - Full Spectrum Warrior (THQ/Pandemic Studios, PC/Xbox)
Kieron: A pretty much unique example of how a realistic scenario based on realistic information can lead to a virtually abstract game. And mostly brilliant, if more than a little repetitive. Let's hope that it leads to more people thinking about alternate takes on Modern warfare to craft games around, rather than just powering up the Raven FPS-generation machine one more time.
Kristan: Having enjoyed, then tired of many of the squad combat games out there that continue to rehash old gameplay formulas, Pandemic's hugely original take on the formula made the game into something that resembled a puzzle more than another by-the-numbers shooter. It had some crazy limitations, though, like being based entirely on a flat plain with an unbreakable four man team. We can see huge potential here, and no doubt so can THQ, so expect sequels aplenty.
Rob: The swearing is pretty good. I liked that.
Ronan: I use this in place of sleeping tablets. Maybe it really is well-designed and satisfying, but the tutorial put me to snoozing before I could find out.
Tom: I'm about to complain at length about Doom III not grabbing me and my not persisting with it as a result, and how that is good cause to be cross with it. But I don't feel like a hypocrite for turning on Ronan now and berating him for giving up on FSW before it had a chance to shine because, in this case, we're dealing with a game that's doing new things. The tutorial didn't grab me either, friends, but I was compelled to continue out of curiosity and because I could see just how much potential it had. And I reaped the rewards. When I close my eyes and try to imagine a real-time Fire Emblem or Advance Wars, this is pretty much what I see. What's more, for all its US military background and smack-talking GIs, this is truly a gamer's game at heart - and in an artistic sense you could probably fashion an argument that in terms of creativity sparked by mankind's worst failings it's the modern equivalent of a war poem.
DOOM III (Activision/id Software, PC)
Kieron: What lovely lighting.
Kristan: Officially this year's most depressingly over-hyped and also most crushingly misunderstood game. A fairly boring, predictable first few hours have ensured that most of the people that have played this game (in the games press at least) quit without witnessing the heights that Doom III eventually reaches. Through Hell and beyond to the utter chaos that await, id eventually created an absolute colossus of a game that made us realise how terribly average the likes of Painkiller really are.
Tom: When I go to the library and look for a new book to read, I generally read the first page to see if it grabs me. If it doesn't, I put it back. I have probably missed out on tens or even hundreds of fabulous reads because of this. But you know what? It means that I've only read books that grabbed me right from the get-go, and held my attention. With so many thousands of books out there, what's the point forcing yourself to endure a bad opening for imagined greatness further down the road? What if it doesn't get better? You've just wasted time you could have spent catching up on any of the hundreds of books/CDs/games/films/TV shows stacked in the lounge and bedroom. Kristan's specific recommendation means I will eventually persevere and play Doom III further than I originally got, but with so many hundreds of other games out there, what's the point forcing myself to endure a bad opening for... You get the idea. There are lots of great FPS games out there; play one that grabs you right from the start.
Rob: I admit that I'm guilty of what Kristan accuses - I never got as far as Hell. Apparently it's lovely at this time of year. Unfortunately, the trip there is dull and repetitive, and the in-flight service from an endless procession of demons that spawn behind you when you pick up some ammo left a lot to be desired. I got bored and stopped. I suspect that everyone else did too. It is very pretty though, in exactly the sort of satanic crucified-corpse and blood dripping from inexplicable machinery sort of style that I'd been thinking of using for my front room.
We're almost there. Join us tomorrow for our top ten games of 2004...