20 Brothers In Arms: Earned in Blood
PS2, Xbox, PC / Ubisoft / Gearbox
8/10 (Oliver), Game page
Jim: Brothers In Arms has ruined all World War II games for me because now I'm going to expect them to all be clever and tactical AND beautiful at the same time. Rubbish.
Kristan: Just as I'd renounced the industry's ongoing obsession with World War II (see World War Too Much), Gearbox went and pulled BiA out of its expansive 'hat' and completely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the genre. Having just played the equally brilliant Full Spectrum Warrior, it was easy to see where the inspiration came from - a game which finally understood that war is a team effort. Although you're still in charge of one man in a squad of soldiers, it's a game where you'll get nowhere if you don't seek the help of your squad mates.
Essentially it's all about finding good cover, suppressing fire and outflanking your enemy - something that makes the game feel distinctly slower and more strategic than its fast-moving run and gun rivals. Obviously, this doesn't mean it's to everyone's taste, but what it does do is deliver a distinctly different first-person shooting experience that's no less compelling or cinematic.
Kieron: A retread of the original, only elevated by the co-operative play. But that's all the elevation it needs, and this mix of high-hearted bravery and low-level tactics proved even more compulsive with a friend along for a mission.
19 Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
PS2, Xbox, Cube, PC / Ubisoft / Ubisoft Montreal
8/10 (Kristan), Game page
Kristan: After the drastic change of tone and direction of Warrior Within we feared there was no going back for Ubisoft's most celebrated series.
But just one year on Ubi compromised to the extent that both sets of fans were more than happy with the results. Actually returning to the softer look and feel of the brilliant Sands of Time was a start, as was dropping the vile gothic rock soundtrack. The option to stealthily kill your opponents without engaging in endless brawls also meant platform-puzzling fans could get on with enjoying what the game does best, among some of the most deliciously devious environments ever created.
It wasn't all good news, though. The lack of abilities for the first third means the game takes a while to get going, and even when it does, some ill-considered difficulty spikes send the red mist descending. Combat-wise, it's unquestionably an improvement on the first, but still ends up being one of those games where you'll settle on a small amount of effective moves rather than learn the whole button-mashing array. Perhaps the most surprising disappointment is the extent to which time has caught up with the game's engine. Two years ago it blew our socks off - but now, it’s merely 'pretty good'. Time for a next-gen refresh?
Martin: Ok, so it wasn't unerringly brilliant. But I love third-person action adventures, I loved Sand of Time so very, very much [didn't we all? - Ed]. And this much-needed return to form brought the Prince magic back and put an enormous smile of my face. Provides a fitting ending to the best platforming trilogy ever.
John: Ploppy-poo-plops to the first third of this game. It's horrible. Fiddly, boring and agonisingly repetitive. And then for no understandable reason it suddenly gets better and achieves playable ok-ness. And then the final third (but for the most appalling boss sequence of ALL TIME) is great. Which makes Ubisoft's design decisions baffling, and PoP:TT very hard to celebrate, even though there's some excellent game buried in there.
Tom: This is on my list to play over Christmas, but... Light and dark Princes? Are you flocking shipping me?
Kieron: I was in two minds about this. Ah-ha-ha. I'll stop.
18 Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
DS / Capcom / Capcom
8/10 (John), Game page
John: I imagine this is the only comment under this game. That's mostly because I’ve still not given Tom his copy back. But then Tom's still got my Under The Knife, so who cares? While Mario & Luigi is a far better game, Phoenix Wright was the one I played while walking down the hill to the Chinese. So funny, so ludicrous, and so brilliantly mad, it managed to reinvent the entire legal system until it wouldn't look out of place in a Pokemon cartoon, while still having an emotional maturity. It is prime obscura, joyful lunacy, and really rather clever.
Tom: Give it back! Cock!
Mathew: Capcom actually translated it. A frankly obscure courtroom comedy series that used a heavy amount of complex legal Japanese turned into what should be a smash hit courtroom comedy game that anyone can pick up and play. I haven't laughed this hard at a game since Grim Fandango - it's good to have laughter back.
Kristan: Right, that's it, I'm buying it.
Er, actually, no objection at all, but someone has to make the obvious joke.
PC / Vivendi / Monolith
9/10 (Tom), Game page
Jim: Incredible slow-mo combat, but I wouldn't have placed FEAR this high in the list of the year's games.
Tom: In my house, pretty much the only single-player first-person shooter of any worth since Half-Life 2. It arrived to find me thoroughly bored of the same old FPS combat, so you can imagine how well it went down with me at the time. A game that's actually about the bits between the set-pieces! Brilliant! The story and horror stuff turned out to be a bit of a foil for the general brilliance of the actual shooting - I haven't enjoyed diving back into the same scenarios just for the hell of it as much since the days when Max Payne was still novel.
Also, one of my favourite end sequences of the year.
Kristan: Another mysterious realisation: I've played literally every FPS of any note this year except this one - the only one that anyone's actually excited about. It's waiting for me to play over Xmas, though, so I can find out if it's really as exciting as Tom reckons it is. The opening two levels I've played seem pretty nifty.
Kieron: In terms of the single-player FPS, we're again in the hangover after the party. The year or two after the appearance of the First Half-life was particularly downbeat, as all the games that appeared were started before anyone had a chance to play Half-life and so appeared a little bit mentally deficient compared with Valve's first Masterpiece. While Valve's second rewrote less rules than the first, it's still pushed the genre form in subtle ways that no-one else has even remotely matched up to. F.E.A.R. - with its brutality, occasional atmospheric flashes and agreeably visceral slow-motion - was probably the best of the bunch. However, that best really isn't good enough. Fingers cross the genre's throbbing headache will have evaporated come the end of next year.
16 Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan
DS / Nintendo / iNiS
Not reviewed, Game page
Tom: My favourite thing about Ouendan is that whenever I show it to somebody, they buy it, and then show it to their friends, and they buy it. And then we play together and despite the fact that I've had it the longest, I'm still not the best at it.
Rhythm-response is quite often belittled, in my experience, but I think this is the best example of why it shouldn't be: a universally appealing J-pop soundtrack, expertly judged difficulty levels and a design that works in such a way that you feel like it's a genuinely different game when you go back to play it on the harder ones. It certainly demands a certain amount of persistence, but once you start "getting" a particular level, it's almost as though you're conducting it, scribbling absurd little patterns in the air and soaring with every vocal. Best-of-type since Amplitude, for me. Let's hope the rumours of a European version are true. And in the meantime, let's all import it anyway, yes?
Kristan: Oi, cock, show it to me!
Kieron: In my head, this sounds a little like "Have a BAN-ann-aa!".