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PC Games To Watch in 2005

Some of them you can play too! System requirements: Chocolate Boasters: XP Edition, 1x Tea SP2, Eyes, Brain (optional).

With the current crop of consoles reaching (or having reached?) their high water mark, the time is ripe for PC gaming to start dominating the agenda again. Post Half-Life 2 (and to a lesser extent Doom III), you'd imagine publishers would be queuing up to take advantage of all those system upgrades that simultaneously took place in the latter months of 2004. But it's not quite as simple or logical as that. Just like the PC itself, there is always a long list of quirks to endure and take into account before you can enjoy what may seem initially straightforward.

You'd think that a platform free of all those bothersome restrictions placed on publishers and developers by hardware manufacturers would be the place to be. Not to mention the vast royalties that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo suck out of every console game.

But the PC's long, glorious history has been beset with issues right from the start, not least the ongoing compatibility headaches, reliability problems, and a million and one niggling (and often unique) problems that generally send would-be passionate PC gamers running to the nearest console after a while. It takes a special kind of person to tolerate the foibles that go hand in hand with PC gaming, and sadly that's the kind of minority that a lot of publishers can't be bothered with.

Factor in rampant piracy brought on by the twin threat of misused BitTorrent technology and the proliferation of broadband, often allowing Joe Public to download games for free 10 days before release, and is it any wonder most publishers are thinking twice about sinking millions of dollars into fives years of PC development? Valve bravely tried to counter this with its Steam system, but it was a flawed experiment that caused enormous frustration to legions of genuine punters. The bottom line is that many gamers will once again feel like PC gaming is just too much hassle.

But is it? The truth is it's a far slicker experience than it ever used to be, and the payback is often massive if you're prepared to stick with it. Not only are you often way ahead of the technology curve with far superior visuals running at resolutions that even the next generation of consoles will struggle with, there are a roster of genres that consoles still can't cope with. There's virtually nothing the PC can't do, if you're prepared to set it up properly (big screen action with wireless controllers comes highly recommended in our lounge). The truth is - even after all these years - the PC still reigns supreme in a whole range of categories, including Real-Time Strategy, MMOs, First-Person Shooters, Role-Playing Games, Flight Simulators, Adventure games, and of course modifications, and very often provides the definitive versions of popular multiformat titles.

The PC evidently has a lot to offer, but lacks glamour. It's a home to genres that often require huge devotion and enormous friend-rejecting periods of time to really get the most of (unlike the largely pick up and play world of console gaming). It reeks of geek, and the huge ever-growing popularity of consoles serves to drown out the attention the PC might otherwise get. If anything's got an image problem it's the PC, and no amount of sexy neon-lit cases or scantily clad booth babes clutching keyboards to their oversized breasts are ever going to change this.

But sod all that. We're not here to boot the PC in its most sensitive port, we're here to point those that care in the direction of some very promising games indeed - and it's a year rich with promise...

The Exclusives

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks)
European release date: TBC - estimated Winter 2005

Says Ronan: The Elder Scrolls series has always been flawed on many levels, but you can't fault it for ambition. Like its predecessors, Oblivion will attempt to push the boundaries of CRPGs as we know them. Quite literally, in fact. As with Daggerfall and Arena before it (Morrowind was tiny), Oblivion will feature a huge, fully traversable world - this time brought to life with what looks to be a stunning new engine, capable of random generating highly detailed forests and landscapes. Filling these landscapes will be NPCs powered by the so-called 'Radiant AI' system. Essentially, Bethesda are claiming that characters will practically 'think' for themselves based on their stats: if one is hungry, it will find food by whatever (non-scripted) means are necessary. On top of that, Oblivion is giving Morrowind's much-maligned combat system a workover too, though the core dice-rolling system remains. If these goals are met, Elder Scrolls IV could be a landmark game.

Quake IV (Activision/Raven/id)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q4

Another IV enters the fray and in this case about bloody time too. Six long years will have elapsed since Quake III's arrival by the time the Nerve-coded next gen sequel arrives, and there's a fair chance it'll be an even longer wait given id's track record of holding things back until they're one hundred per cent satisfied with the results. On the plus side, previews have already been doing the rounds complete with screenshots that suggest the Doom III engine has been put to good use with an array of impossibly detailed characters suggesting that someone's been having some disturbing nightmares throughout a troubled life to come up with this cast list. As with Doom III, there's a bigger-than-usual focus on storyline (and shiny reflections) as the game picks up from where Quake II left off way back in '97. The Strogg are somewhat pissed at being largely wiped out by a single grunt and have regrouped under a new Makron leader determined to see off all that Earth has to offer. With the Stroggos planetary defenses still down, off you go again to see off the stragglers and engage the Cyborgs in what is likely to be a relentless assault. Apparently we can expect plenty of help from heavily armoured marines and some advanced squad dynamics, which should make the experience slightly more involving and interesting than usual. So, Call Of Duty in the Quake universe with Doom III engine tech? Works for us.

Half-Life 2 expansion (Vivendi-Universal/Valve)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q4

As sure as night follows day there will be an expansion pack for Valve's wondrous first-person shooter classic. Virtually zero information has been released about the add-on to date, other than it will tell the story of one of the other central characters surrounding the City 17 saga. Alyx has already been mentioned as one of the characters Valve will focus on, but there's a strong chance Barney will also get another outing, along with an Opposing Force-style perspective from the Combine Forces (Combine Harvest?). Who will get to go first out of the cast list no-one outside of Valve knows as yet, but you can bet the announcement will be timed with that somewhat large LA-based show in May for release in the lucrative last quarter of the year. Expect the usual formula to prevail: new weapons, unseen creatures, hugely memorable set-pieces and a little more content than your average add-on. Frankly we can't wait.

F.E.A.R. (Vivendi-Universal/Monolith, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated summer

You can generally rely on Monolith to come up with something a little different than the usual by-the-numbers FPS, and F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is shaping up nicely as one of the PC's first non-sequel must-haves of the year. It sees a classified, genetically enhanced Strike Team called F.E.A.R. sent into an aerospace compound to find out how and why an unidentified paramilitary force and the first Special Forces rescue team have been torn apart. Mysterious stuff. An "eerie" signal interrupts radio communication, a young girl in a blood red coat appears on security footage, electrical interference messes with your HUD, shadows creep past. Someone's evidently been watching too many horror films by the look of it, but that can only be a good thing given what we know about the game already. Described by Vivendi as "The Ring meets The Matrix" expect huge doses of horror, bullet time, crazy martial arts and presumably some decent tech to do it all justice. We literally can't wait. Give it to us. Now!

Doom III: Resurrection Of Evil (Activision/id/Nerve)
European release date: TBC - estimated March

It's the law that every big PC FPS has to have at least one expansion pack, and we can't say that we're exactly gutted that id has stuck to this long held tradition. Not everyone 'got' Doom III - of that we're reminded about on a daily basis. Many simply didn't enjoy it as much as they thought they would, with the game's initial survival-horror leanings upsetting (or boring) many of its audience long before the hectic journey into Hell and beyond. That aside, some were just fed up with the whole 'spawn enemies right behind you' game design and felt the need to explode in righteous indignation at id, as people always do no matter what. Each to their own. The pack-slash-sequel-whatever-you-want-to-think-of-it-as is built on the tenuous premise that a faint radio signal is detected from Site One on Mars, despite there apparently being no survivors from the Alpha Base incident, so - of course - an archeological team led by Dr Elizabeth McNeil goes to check it out. Cue zombies from hell. Featuring a couple of new weapons, namely the Plasma Levitator (wonder where they got that idea from?) and the welcome return of the old Doom II favourite the double-barreled shotgun. Probably a distinct case of more of the same, but isn't that the whole point of expansion packs?

Darwinia (Pinnacle Software/Introversion, screenshots)
European release date: TBC - estimated autumn

A bit of a curveball this, and most definitely one of those "it could only happen on the PC" kind of projects, but nevertheless very exciting. Sounding very much like the EG house, the game is set in some sort of virtual world within a network of ageing videogames consoles, which are under attack by a virus. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our lounge. Except, hang on, old games systems rarely suffered from viruses (not until the Amiga anyway). Anyway, this warped RTS almost defies description, which is probably a good thing - it basically involves repelling the invasion of said virus with either single or grouped units, but is delivered using an abstract graphical style that brings to mind Geoff Crammond's old surreal classic The Sentinel (C64, 1988). All rough hewn polygons and off the wall colour schemes. We're confused but intrigued. More on this when we know what the hell we're talking about.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow Of Chernobyl (THQ/GSC, preview)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q2 (pre-order from Simply Games)

One of the more promising FPSs we've seen in recent years, but also in danger of being a victim of its own ambition. Fashioned by FPS newbies GSC in the appropriate environs of Kiev (the closest big city to Chernobyl) the game is set in the 30 square kilometre exclusion zone of the fated nuclear reactor, and gives players one of the most threatening open-ended environments to negotiate in FPS history. With a backdrop of overgrown desolation players must survive the twin threat of hideously mutated creatures and other Stalkers attempting to pillage the decay for what they can get. With claims of huge advancements in AI and vast zones to explore we're hoping GSC can back up its promise and deliver something special. Certainly the game looks the part technically, but brief playtest sessions almost a year ago raised more questions than answers - and successive delays have added to the confusion as to whether Stalker can deliver. Hopefully we won't have long to find out, but it's heartening that THQ has elected to wait until the game is ready rather than rush it out half-baked to meet shareholder demands.

Football Manager 2006 (SEGA/Sports Interactive)
European release date: TBC - estimated mid-October

Not officially announced yet, of course, but as good as - given that Sports Interactive has freely admitted it will be producing annual updates of the series. Expect this one's arrival sometime in mid-October. The first FM sold way in excess of most people's expectations given the lack of brand awareness post ChampMan, so clearly SI got the message across about it being CM in all but name. Although it'll be months before the gang from Islington begin talking about the game, it will be based on a revision of the existing engine, which is to say it'll undoubtedly be the most stable, bug-free game the team has put to market since before CM4. New features always worm their way in, and our bet is that the manager mind games side of the game will be more fully realised, and the team will be aiming to flesh out some of the other new ideas implemented with varying degrees of success last time out. Expect all the usual insane attention to detail, more leagues, better online play and even more realism. One day we suspect real-life football managers will take this game up professionally, as it's probably more fun than being hounded by the media and somehow more glorious too.

Black And White 2 (Electronic Arts/Lionhead)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q4

Once upon a time the PC world was excited about Black And White. It reviewed well, sold bucketloads, and then the revisionists let out a gigantic collective 'oh'. Suffice to say the buzz around the sequel is a pin drop compared to the original - although to be fair it's a game we're unlikely to see much PR activity on for some time, given its projected winter release. And if there's one thing Peter Molyneux does better than just about anyone in this business, it's getting people excited about his games. The basic premise is once again a game about moral choices of good and evil, but the setting has moved onto more advanced times where massive armies give you the option to pillage the lands and be a ruthless dictator, or a noble leader building civilised cities and keeping everyone happy. Whatever you decide to do, your monkey/lion/cow creature creation will follow your lead throughout, changing its appearance to match. Let's hope Lionhead delivers on the potential with a set of more focussed and exciting set pieces this time around; there's certainly a great game in there somewhere.

Battlefield 2 (Electronic Arts/ Digital Illusions, screenshots)
European release date: TBC: Q2

Without doubt the most eagerly-awaited online FPS of the year (in the likely continued absence of TF2) and now dragged firmly into a modern warfare setting full of possibilities. Shown off to much applause at last year's EA showcase in California, expect a variety of modern warfare settings such as the US, Middle East and possible enemy-of-the-future China (EA's now setting the modern warfare agenda - run to the hills!). Expect vastly overhauled graphical prowess with a far greater level of detail and enhanced, destructible environments, from city streets to remote forests, the latest modern weaponry, 30-plus vehicles to get to grips with, and support for over 100 players across vast and varied maps.

BioShock (TBC/Irrational Games)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q4

Apparently a 'spiritual' successor to Origin's much-loved System Shock games, this somewhat unusual sounding first-person title has you re-engineering your own DNA for gawd's sake. Don't even ask us how. Set in an abandoned Nazi bunker that's been kitted out as a biological research lab (obviously), you get to fight a bunch of mutants into the bargain, although your own twisted DNA cunningly makes you resistant to fire. More on this as soon as we hear more, but anything related to System Shock has to be worth paying attention to, right?

World of Warcraft (Vivendi-Universal/Blizzard, interview)
European release date: 25th February (pre-order from Simply Games)

We've waxed lyrical about this on several occasions now so there's not much more we could say that we haven't said better elsewhere. Suffice to say it's a hugely impressive MMOPRG that places a greater emphasis than many on 'fun', delivering far more than a generic Warcraft-flavoured online experience, and has gone down a storm in the States already. European success is assured as Blizzard cements its already tremendous reputation for some of the best PC games in their respective fields.

City Of Heroes (NCsoft, US review)
European release date: 4th February (pre-order from Simply Games)

Another MMORPG game we've probably said too much about already, but Kieron thought it was the best game of 2004. Okay, it's 2005 now, but it hasn't officially had its boxed release over here yet so still qualifies, and in any case, the ongoing delay to its release means you get more content and less bugs to contend with, mmmkay?

TrackMania Sunrise (Digital Jesters/Nadeo, interview)
European release date: TBC - estimated March

One of Tom's favourite racing games of 2003 gets a sequel, which should hopefully lighten his rapidly blackening mood as he wrestles with another hard-to-format feature. Essentially a bit like Skalextric for the video gaming generation, you piece together a twisty-turny track creation of your choosing and race on it. It's easy to use, runs like the wind on modestly-specced PCs, and its new and improved sequel will be even faster, with better handling, improved air-control, new environments, two new solo modes (Platform and Crazy), as well as an integrated peer-to-peer network for exchanging player created tracks, and customisable car skins. A racing game for PC gamers to cherish, basically - and that's a rare beast these days.

The Matrix Online (Warners/SEGA/Monolith)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q2

A Matrix MMOPRG fills some of us at EG with terror, but after several years in development you'd expect it to be at least slightly good. Fortunately we don't have long to wait, so expect a full and frank report from Mr Gillen once he gets his grubby paws on it.

Honourable Mentions
As ever, you'll never be able to keep everyone happy with lists such as these, so here are a few more you should keep on your radar that we'll bring you more on nearer their release. Keep your collective eyes on the likes of Age Of Empires 3, Gothic 3, The Sims 2: University, Dungeon Siege 2, The Settlers: Heritage Of Kings, X2: The Return, Lego Star Wars, SWAT 4, Dragonshard, Act Of War: Direct Action, Silent Hunter 3, and Battle Of Britain.

The Fantasy List

What would a PC list be without a bunch of games that are either rooted in the imaginations of the developers or stuck in some sort of painfully elaborate development hell? Who knows, maybe these games genuinely are imaginary, designed to see how gullible the gaming press can really be. They're all laughing at us guys...

Unreal Engine 3 (Midway/Epic, interview part one and two)
European release date: TBC

Okay, this isn't strictly in the realms of fantasy, but it's in our wish list anyway. Epic's Tim Sweeney and Mark Rein spent much of last year touring the world with the latest incredible revision of the Unreal engine, and spoke openly about their next project being an entirely new brand, unrelated to the Unreal universe. Watch out for announcements in the build up to E3, with Midway no doubt keen to have a high profile game to show off from its new signings before the busy Christmas period. Possibly on next-gen consoles too?

Team Fortress 2 (Vivendi-Universal/Valve)
European release date: TBC - estimated 10th of Never

Firmly in the beyond-a-joke camp for its extensive delays, but encouraging news emerged from Valve's Gabe Newell last year about the fate of this project, and although the company is no doubt busy enough with Half-Life 2-related expansions to worry too much about kicking this out of the door this year, there's every chance a separate Valve team has been busy beavering away Counter-Strike: Source-style on the quiet. Then again, it may just be Gabe's little joke, to make sure PC gamers have something to look forward to. Assuming we do see something of this game, it wouldn't be unreasonable for E3 to be the venue for its unveiling. Frankly, if it's not there this year we should give up ever mentioning its existence ever again until it lands on our desk...

Duke Nukem Forever (Take-Two/3D Realms)
European release date: TBC - when it's done (arf!), estimated when I'm 64

Every three or so years 3D Realms delivers a progress report on the mockery of a sham of a mockery also know as the sequel to Duke Nukem 3D, Duke Nukem Forever. At E3 1998 it came up with an all action Quake II-based trailer. A couple of years later it switched publisher after Infogrames' Bruno Bonnell objected to the "scenes of butchery" and sold the rights onto Take-Two, and a year later another E3 trailer revealed a still-impressive redneck romp. Sadly, that's the last we saw of the infamous game, with 3D Realms' George Broussard memorably telling Take-Two to "STFU" after the publisher very publicly expressed its exasperation about the games continued non-appearance. With more engine changes than your average Formula One car, we're assuming, with typically foolish optimism, that 3DR can get its act together on this one before the tenth anniversary of Duke Nukem 3D. Assuming something does finally happen this year, we still doggedly believe this could be quite good, but the problem with such an interminable wait is that the fanbase has long since grown up, moved on and stopped caring. To give you an idea of how long DNF has been in development, DN3D was a DOS game for the love of God. Please 3D Realms. You don't owe us or your fans anything, but at the very least you owe it to yourselves - professionally - to end this debacle once and for all.

Fallout 3 (TBC/Bethesda)
European release date - TBC

What do we know about this one? Absolutely sod all, apart from the usual guesswork that it will take the whole post apocalyptic concept forward (which to us is infinitely preferable to the usual fantasy D&D stuff). Needless to say the previous two in the series were among the most highly regarded RPGs of modern times and after a concerted campaign for the release of another Fallout title Bethesda realised the brand was worth something and plucked it from the hands of Interplay. Hurrah. The last we heard pre-production had started, which will make a 2005 release somewhat unlikely, but the news that somethingis happening is good news on its own.

Halo 2 (Microsoft/Bungie, Xbox single-player review and multiplayer, naturally)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q3

Microsoft hasn't breathed a word on whether it will convert its beloved Halo 2 to the PC, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will - and sooner than you might imagine. Once sales have died down a PC release is the perfect tonic to make even more cash out of the brand, and to mop up those FPS fans unwilling to go down the joypad route. With online play built in already, it's unlikely that a PC version will have too much in the way of extras, but with rumours of extra downloadable content coming down the pipe for Xbox owners, a complete PC version would do very nice, thank you.

The Ports and Multiformat Titles

Console to PC ports are usually an embarrassment of bloated, inefficient programming that boggle the mind, and leave us pondering just how a developer can squeeze so much into a console game and then demand 400GB of PC disk space, a 10GHz Pentium 5 and more RAM than you'll find in the whole of Wales and Australia combined. Occasionally, though, the games are so good, or so well suited to the PC, that their quality transcends such issues.

Meanwhile, the phrase 'multiformat' isn't usually of much interest to the PC gamer either. A quick glance of the sales figures almost always confirms our suspicions: they're wasting their time. Most console games are console games for a very good reason, and although may look prettier on a PC, often all a PC version does is highlight its limitations. Like looking at an apparently gorgeous young lady close up and realising she's caked in foundation, under which lurk a dozen zits.

But as with the ports, PC versions of multiformat games can kick console versions so far into touch you wonder why people settle for less. From time to time. Here's a quick line-up of games that may well fit that bill...

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar/Rockstar North, PS2 review)
European release date: 10th June

There are few console ports worth paying too much attention to in general (from our experience, console games are best played on consoles, end of story), but if you're holding out for one great console game this year then look no further than Rockstar North's incredible opus. Spanning more than one hundred story missions across four huge environments and countless sub-missions, this is a game of breathtaking scale and ambition that deserves its place in any self-respecting gamer's collection. Doesn't always hit the mark with some bloody-minded missions and a disappointing over-reliance on linear progression at times, but when it hits its heights it does so with such style, humour and craft that you can forgive its occasional slip up. We're not expecting the PC version to deliver anything apart from the best visuals, but don't let that hold you back. It's arguably the ultimate console game and deserves its unprecedented success.

Dreamfall (Micro Applications/Funcom)
European release date: TBC - autumn

It's odd how the PC has been almost deserted as an adventure format despite having everything going for it, but Funcom still believes in the genre enough to release the long overdue sequel to The Longest Journey (regarded as one of the few standout adventures of recent years, if you missed it). Playable from the perspectives of three different characters (Zoe, April and Kian), expect slightly more concessions to action-based gaming before - but hopefully not too much. Meddling with a successful formula is the road to commercial indifference. Hello Broken Sword: The Sleeping Consumer.

Star Wars Knights Of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (LucasArts/Obsidian, screenshots)
European release date: 11th February (pre-order from Simply Games)

Released simultaneously alongside the Xbox version this time around, ensuring many gamers will opt for this technically superior edition. Has reviewed well overseas, but concerns abound about the similarity to the original.

Championship Manager 5 (Eidos/Beautiful Games Studios, interview)
European release date: 18th March (pre-order from Simply Games)

Eidos has much to prove with its first non-Sports Interactive ChampMan. It's still got the huge brand appeal, but the massive debut success of Football Manager suggests an educated audience knew exactly what was going on. Pulled back from its original late 2004 release date to make sure they got things right, nothing has been shown off since its first public unveiling and we await the results in the coming months.

Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Ubisoft/Ubisoft Montreal, screenshots)
European release date: 25th March (pre-order from Simply Games)

Looked sensationally gorgeous upon its E3 unveiling last summer, and although it's ostensibly a console game at heart, it's one of the few that seems an even richer experience on the PC with all the graphical grunt behind it. A true SC sequel after the stopgap Pandora Tomorrow, this is among the few multiformat games that PC owners will make a beeline for.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 4: Lockdown (Ubisoft/Red Storm, screenshots)
European release date: March

Almost certain to be the pick of the bunch for this counter terrorist title, but it'll be interesting to see how much the franchise's gradual transition to console will have affected the gameplay, which has always been somewhat deeper. Graphically it'll easily be the best, regardless.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2 (Ubisoft/Red Storm, Xbox review)
European release date: March

Another Tom Clancy title whose focus has gradually shifted to the more lucrative console market, but will undoubtedly still be highly regarded among the PC community nevertheless. Huge graphical advancements are promised this time around, but may look somewhat dated next to many of the cutting edge titles by comparison.

Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30 (Ubisoft/Gearbox, interview)
European release date: 25th February

You have to admire Ubisoft's consistent and unwavering support for the PC, and here's another title that might float a few people's boats. Hardly likely to win originality awards, but a sufficiently interesting take on World War II from a developer with a solid PC track record. Should easily be the best version around, and not just your average corridor based run-and-gun, encouragingly.

The Movies (Activision/Lionhead, preview)
European release date: TBC - estimated Q4

Another Molyneux-effort, but one that screams out "as big as The Sims" to all that have seen his wonderfully entertaining presentations. Recreate a porn Star Wars and post it online? Good wholesome family entertainment.

Star Wars: Republic Commando (screenshots)
European release date: 4th March (pre-order from Simply Games)

Imagine Star Wars doing Rainbow Six and you're somewhere near the concept for the latest in the never-ending line up of Star Wars games. Should be well worth checking out if you're into really hard shooters that kill you with a couple of shots. Which we are.

And with that, we're done for the PC. Stay tuned though, because we've still got the various handhelds to explore. Meaning: more later this week!

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Kristan Reed

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Kristan is a former editor of Eurogamer, dad, Stone Roses bore and Norwich City supporter who sometimes mutters optimistically about Team Silent getting back together.

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