My God. Where did 2004 go exactly? Lost in a blur of Half-Life 2 shenanigans, Xbox 2 gossip and San Andreas rage it was a bit like John Lennon's infamous Lost Weekend, only less inebriated. 2005 will be sober, slower and once again full of false expectation punctuated by the odd complete surprise. But as much as we like surprises, it's a warm and fuzzy feeling knowing what's coming, and with the activation of our rusty early warning system we kick off today with a series of format-specific preview articles that will hopefully give you a few things to look forward to as the year gets underway.
First in line is the Xbox, a console that - frighteningly - already has over three years of history behind it and has finally shaken off most of its detractors by building up a decent portfolio of exclusives and generally being the format of choice when it comes to the multiformat stuff. For the sake of clarity, we've broken up the set of releases into the exclusives, the ports and the simultaneous multiformat releases. For guidance we've also listed the current estimated release dates, but don't blame us if they change, okay? You should know by now that game release dates are about as reliable as train timetables.
It's a bit of a weird time for the Xbox, with everyone fully expecting its successor to be announced shortly for a year-end release. The world and his wife has known full well for ages that all the big publishers and developers are busy making games for forthcoming formats, and in some cases have been shown off (often under the guise of being 'next generation' titles). This has meant that with all hands being firmly on the next-gen pump, the supply of exclusive titles for the Xbox has rapidly dried up, with many of the games listed below are merely those which have been held back to keep the supply going. In several cases they're already out Stateside, and were it not for the first-party titles coming through (also delayed) there would be hardly anything to talk about. What's listed isn't so much a list of the 'essential' titles, as such, but more of a run through what's actually out, and what mightbe good. It's better than you might imagine, but it's not quite top flight, put it that way...
Oddworld Stranger's Wrath (Electronic Arts/Oddworld Inhabitants, first impressions)
European release date: 4th March
After three years in the making, Oddworld's latest off-the-wall is a quirky beast of a shoot 'em up that doesn't like guns. Once again exclusive to the Xbox (the PS2 version canned relatively late in the day for basically not being good enough), this fluffy gremlin shooter doesn't play by the rules, grafting together combat-based platforming adventuring with a satisfying first-person mechanic that requires a lot more thought and strategy than your average run and fun. With EA's marketing grunt behind it, this one stands a much better chance of being a hit than Oddworld's misunderstood Xbox launch offering, and is one of the more refreshing titles to emerge blathering nonsense into the blinding desert sunshine.
Jade Empire (Microsoft/BioWare, preview)
European release date: TBC - estimated March
Another of Microsoft's big-bucks Xbox exclusives from RPG meisters Bioware... Except the princes of "methodical, pause-focused combat" seen in Baldur's Gate and KOTOR are delving into the choppy waters of real-time combat with a distinctly action-focused RPG. Controversial. Set in a beautiful Oriental fantasy world, it's got the potential to be one of the most ambitious Xbox games yet. Microsoft certainly hopes so.
Seen somewhat harshly as Microsoft's cynical attempt to recreate GT on the Xbox, recent playtests have revealed this four-year-in-the-making Xbox exclusive as having the potential to stand tall in the racing simulation genre. Unlike the interminably delayed and cut down GT4, Microsoft's flagship title for early '05 has a full online multiplayer out of the box, arguably better visuals and reportedly better physics (although has less cars, with only 200 of them). Whether Microsoft's bullish boasts stack up as more than marketing fluff remains to be seen, but as far as racing games go, this is definitely one we'd advise keeping an eye on.
Not a new game as such, being a Live-enabled two-disk compilation of the first two Dead Or Alive titles. Slightly confusingly, although Tecmo has brought DOA 2's visuals up to the delightful modern day standard that DOA 3 brought to the Xbox table (some three years ago now), DOA remains graphically unenhanced and thus of historical interest only. However, the addition of Live play for both is a major draw, and with a plethora of modes (including the eight-player winner (or loser, bizarrely) stays on Virtual Arcade) it's a must for DOA obsessives. Those expecting something new will presumably have to wait for the Xbox 2, with Microsoft no doubt keen to maintain the DOA exclusivity for another generation.
MechAssault 2: Lone Wolf (Microsoft/Day 1 Studios, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated February
The original was one of the many overlooked (yet excellent) Xbox exclusives, and the chances are (because we can see these things coming a mile off) this one will similarly slip through many gamer's nets. Following very much in the series tradition, meaning uber levels of big stompy robot destruction, chaotic battles across gloriously rendered terrain - online and off - in the year Gazillion.
Conker: Live and Reloaded (Microsoft/Rare, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated May
Shown off to much indifference back at E3 2003, Rare seems determined to take its sweet time on all of its Xbox projects. No doubt with much to prove after its high profile big money sale to Microsoft two and a half years ago, we're holding out for this one to actually turn out to be something special after all. With a furry rodent, foul language, big guns, gore and an enormous budget to spend there's at least a better than average chance that this is worthy of your attention. Or it could just be gigantic waste of everyone's time. Let's hope not eh?
Unreal Championship 2: The Liandri Conflict (Midway/Epic Games, first impressions)
European release date: TBC - estimated April
Held back from the post Halo 2-conflict-of-interest mushroom cloud, this slick console rethink of the popular franchise looks like it has benefited from not being rushed to market with an all new emphasis on hand to hand combat and - ulp - a cross-breeding with the Mortal Kombat franchise. It makes sense, but will it work? We won't have long to wait.
Otogi 2 (SEGA/From Software, screenshots)
European release date: February
SEGA has probably suffered more than just about any other Japanese publisher from backing the Xbox exclusively on countless classy titles (Panzer Dragoon Orta, GunValkyrie, House Of The Dead III, OutRun2 and the original Otogi to name a handful) yet being thoroughly spurned by the consumer. It's hard to see this one bucking this costly trend. Being another one of those "released months before the PAL version" cases, this has already picked up plenty of reviews Stateside, where scores have ranged between sevens right up to nines and plenty in between. It's unquestionably a beautiful looking game, but much of its appeal would seem to lie in how much you desire another third-person hackandslash title with destruction to the nth degree.
Xbox owners are long used to the release strategies of publishers keen to mop up maximum cash juices from lucrative exclusivity arrangements with Sony. You can't blame publishers like Rockstar for doing it - they obviously do well out of it when a title like GTA hits big. Everyone wants it, even when the port itself is virtually identical. Sometimes, though, it backfires dramatically as it arguably did for Ubisoft in Christmas 2003 when it elected to release Prince of Persia: The Sands Of Time and Beyond Good & Evil on the PS2 first, only to damage the sales potential of the ports when neither set the charts on fire six months later. Suffice to say it didn't pull the same trick last Christmas.
On the other hand, the Xbox's close architectural relationship to the PC has meant it has been the ideal platform for a host of PC to Xbox ports, and this year is no exception. But unlike lacklustre efforts of previous years, many teams have really maxed out what the Xbox can do, and some decent ports are expected this year.
To some, the best game ever made, to others a bloated epic that they'll never even scratch the surface of. Having completed all 103 story missions, it's certainly the biggest action game ever. Sometimes it also the best action game ever, but often shoots itself in the foot with a tendency to funnel players into linear blind alleys with some shockingly annoying missions. Fortunately, once you're over a few alarming spikes the game opens out into a masterpiece of scale and ambition, and its relatively swift transition to Xbox will be welcomed with open arms by those who refuse to join in the PS2 party. But for those of you hoping for improved visuals and load times, we'd ask you to take into account Rockstar's track record of porting its games almost identically from PS2 to Xbox. We're expecting the difference will be minimal here as well, but then given that the rest of the games industry tends to follow this principle, no one should be surprised. At least they’re not taking too long over this one though, eh?
Project Zero II: Crimson Butterfly (Microsoft/Tecmo, PS2 review)
European release date: February
Tecmo's chilling horror tale of two twin sisters was cruelly ignored by almost everyone upon its PS2 debut last year. Not because it wasn't any good, you understand, but more because the marketing powers that be spend practically nothing on building the brand in the way that has established the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises. With no clear publishing direction over here, we're fully expecting the Microsoft-distributed conversion to fare just as badly for the same reason. A lack of PR and marketing drive behind this has ensured its cult status among core gamers here, but anyone who has dabbled in the delights of zapping camera-shy ghosts will attest that it has just as much - if not more - potential mass appeal as the mechanically similar rivals that sell ten times as well.
Until we saw this running in some style at last year's E3 we had our doubts that the humble Xbox would be able to run a game that makes even the most steroid-laden PC rig wibble like a dumped girl. Although this Vicarious Visions-coded port has since been inexplicably delayed by the ever-protective id, we saw enough back in May to convince us that this is as good a PC to Xbox port as there has ever been, and includes all new co-op play into the bargain. Not everyone's idea of a compelling shooter, with a slow burn survival-horror-esque build up losing many players long before the explosive old school chaos of the climax, but for many it was one of the games of 2004.
Okay, we're going out on a limb by even talking about this, but let's assume this will come out before the end of the year shall we? Good. Arguments are still raging as to the merits of this celebrated GOTY sequel, but the chances of it faring well on the Xbox have been raised considerably since even people with low specced PCs managed to get the game running amazingly well. And with no need for Steam authentication people who buy this can, gasp, actually play it without the need for a technological cavity search beforehand. As for the game itself, apart from a few bloody-minded difficulty spikes that spoil the flow and some rather drawn out lonely outdoor forays, it had more highlights to reflect upon than any shooter released since... since... the original.
Most of the big gun publishers have long embraced multiformat publishing. Why release a game once when you can whack it out seven times like EA, THQ and Activision do? Mostly designed around the limitations of the PS2, many - if not most - multiformat releases don't really come anywhere near maxing out the power of the Xbox. This is obviously a source of huge frustration, but most Xbox multiformat titles end up being the best of the console bunch unless those responsible for the conversion have really screwed up. Usually blessed with sharper visuals, a better frame rate (in theory), better online play, sometimes even content download and little extras like surround sound, progressive scan support (if you have a chipped or US Xbox at least) and so on, the Xbox has become many console gamers' format of choice. In 2005 the choice of top-notch simultaneous multiformat releases is impressive, and in many cases far superior to the lure of those lurking in the exclusive list.
Super Monkey Ball Deluxe (SEGA/Amusement Vision, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated April (also available on PS2)
And here's a rare Cube to Xbox port. Up to now, only owners of Nintendo machines have been granted the privilege of playing the stupendous Monkey Ball titles, despite persistent rumours of PS2 ports, but SEGA has finally done the decent thing and made the ball rolling franchise multiformat with this catch-up release that combines the first two titles into one irresistible package. If you like monkeys, and fancy the idea of rolling balls with trapped Simians inside them around a bunch of tricky environments picking up bananas, then this is a no brainer. Throw in all the multiplayer mini-games that made the first two games so utterly charming and it's arguably one of the must have games on Xbox already.
After the chart-topping success of Bioware's original it seemed odd to pass the sequel duties on to Obsidian, but judging by the almost uniformly positive Stateside review scores, it looks as if LucasArts picked another winner. But while most reviewers agreed that The Sith Lords is arguably the best RPG on the Xbox, others have noted that it's essentially much the same game; that's to say as brilliant as the original with a deep and involving story, but also burdened by an identical graphics engine and game mechanics, and hence blighted by some of the same technical bugbears; our old friends choppy framerate and load times. We await Kieron's review next week with interest...
DICE's hugely successful online multiplayer shooter series would have no doubt figured ages ago on Xbox, were it not for EA's decision to get on the Live gravy train two years late. With that whole frustrating episode taken care of, we expect the expansive multi-vehicle warfare to make a reasonably faithful transition to the console, albeit with more confined environments, a lower player count and, of course, all in a modern setting. How the newly implemented single player mode will work in practise remains to be seen, but expect further examination come E3.
Two of our favourite console FPSs ever emerged from the Free Radical stable (four if you include its N64 output), so it goes without saying that the third in the TimeSplitters series is likely to get a ticker tape parade when it finally appears across three formats later this spring. We're not expecting a huge deviation from the time travelling formula that made the previous two such fun, but what really does it for us are the hilarious challenge modes, which will no doubt be just as much fun as ever. With full online multiplayer now making it into the mix after the last-minute omission from the last version, this looks likely to be the ultimate TimeSplitters game. By extension the ultimate console FPS? We hope so, and we'd bank on the Xbox version being the one to go for if EA can sort out its Live implementation in time...
Destroy All Humans (THQ/Pandemic, preview)
European release date: TBC - estimated March (also available on PS2)
One of those madcap games that we'd thought belonged firmly to another era. Coded by the increasingly prolific Pandemic, and published by the increasingly chance-taking THQ (long may it continue, chaps), this feel-good action-adventure sees you control the alien for a change, taking control of endless redneck Americans, causing absolute chaos and generally giving the human race a dose of its own medicine. Was one of the stars of the show at last year's E3 with possibly the most memorable presentation of all, and deserves to be among this year's big breakthrough hits. Among our top picks for Xbox in 2005.
Rainbow Six 4: Lockdown (Ubisoft/Red Storm, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated March (also available on PC and PS2)
It's about time Red Storm really started pushing the power of the Xbox, and hopefully this release will see the wonderfully tense counter terrorism series begin to truly deliver on its enormous console potential in the technical stakes. With Live play being such a massive part of the third version's appeal, we're expecting Ubi to continue its impressive track record of late. Looks likely to firmly establish the series across an even wider audience this time around.
Leagues ahead of the enormously popular Need For Speed Underground series in just about every way imaginable, and looks set to address many of the frustrations inherent with the 2003's excellent but flawed sequel. Technically Rockstar San Diego's title has been given a massive overhaul, and with every customization option imaginable this looks certain to become another huge player in the booming street racing genre - and one actually worth recommending.
Although now firmly a multiformat title, the Xbox is still the spiritual home for Sam Fisher titles, not least because it always tends to showcase the incredible visuals to a level that the other consoles simply cannot manage. Coded by the team behind the original, this is technically the 'real' sequel and from what we've seen of it to date there's every reason to look forward to Chaos Theory. With superb attention to detail, an immense array of manoeuvres, some of the tensest set-pieces to grace a videogame and the promise of an even richer multiplayer experience this will go down on many Xbox owner's 'must-have' list this spring.
No-one's expecting the Xbox to be able to deliver the same levels of visual grandeur as the celebrated PC original, but we're looking forward to finding out how far Ubisoft can push the console in translating the free-roaming gameplay many found so intoxicating almost a year ago. If Ubi can do something about the rubbish voiceovers in the PC version we could be talking about one of the Xbox shooters of the year. We await in anticipation.
Gruesome, sick, depraved. And that's just the comic book. A game take takes finishing moves to the next level of gore in scenarios that will have the Daily Mail howling from the rooftops. But is it a great game or just another action-adventure with a gimmick? We're keen to find out.
Dreamfall (Micro Application/Funcom)
European release date: TBC - estimated autumn
The latest adventure from the folks behind The Longest Journey has had several critics salivating at the prospect of the definitive next gen adventure. As old hands in this field, we're desperate for someone to take this much overlooked genre forward so we'll keep tabs on this one, no question.
Project: Snowblind (Eidos/Crystal Dynamics, screenshots)
European release date: February 25th
One of the final projects to benefit from the design talents of Warren Spector before his recent departure from the Eidos/Ion Storm Austin fold, this spiritual extension of the Deus Ex series has had many who've witnessed this visually delicious sci-fi shooter in a lather. With the release just weeks away, expect to see plenty more on this game very soon.
Development has chopped and changed since we first saw this third-person action-adventure some two years ago, but what we saw was impressive enough for us to still care now. We're not sure what direction Blizzard's title has taken since then, but it's encouraging enough that it cares enough to hold it back until it's right. When was the last time they released a game that wasn't good?
Sonic Mega Collection Plus (SEGA/Sonic Team, screenshots)
European release date: 4th February
Another Cube to Xbox port, but that's somewhat irrelevant given the respective games' origins. Expect more Sonic games than you could possibly ever have time to play, which is to say that it's worth it for the nostalgia value alone. Though again, the package is minus, bafflingly, Sonic CD, which presumably SEGA is saving for some future Sonic compilation that will no doubt round up the Adventure series and all the GBA titles into the bargain...
Oh look, another Star Wars game. Aha, well spotted. You learn well young Jedi. Except, as you will have spotted, you're a Commando for the Republic (at some point between Episode One and Two), entering the dark side of the Star Wars 'universe' as the leader of a four-man elite spec ops unit among the CloneTroopers (sounding familiar yet?), infiltrating "deep" within eight "diverse" environments such as the Wookiee planet of Kashyyk, rescuing hostages, infiltrating in sneaky fashion retrieving data and performing hitman-style tasks. Sounds like someone at Lucas fancied a Rainbow Six-style Star Wars title; which is certainly a new twist on the whole thing...
Mercy! A LucasArts game outside of the Star Wars universe? Surely worth double points? This one has been causing minor ripples of excitement ever since it was first unveiled, and purports to be one of those "revolutionary" third-person combat games. Set in "near future" North Korea, it's 'freeform', it's 'massive' and allegedly open-ended. But is it any fun? Apparently so. Choose to be one of three mercenaries - a Yank ex-Solidier, a Brit secret agent (we've been expecting you), or a Swedish bounty hunter (hmm, not quite the same ring to it) - each with his own strengths and weaknesses. With over 30 weapons, the now-obligatory Havok physics and a developer currently churning out top-notch games to order, this is definitely one to watch out for next month. If only because we all like freeform games where you can blow up high-rise buildings with rocket launchers...
Join us again soon for more games to watch in 2005.