5 God of War
PS2 / Sony / Sony Studios LA
9/10 (Kristan), Game page
Kristan: David Jaffe's hackandslash epic was a bolt from the blue from a team that had barely even hinted their talents in the past (Kinetica? A game that didn't even get a release in Europe). Effortlessly usurping brands with bigger reputations and greater expectations, its summer arrival delivered a technical tour-de-force that had even the staunchest Sony-phile stunned at how the Sony LA team had managed to squeeze such a beautiful looking game out of the humble PS2. Combining beautiful (and constantly varied) level design with some of the most spectacular boss sequences ever attempted, it was a game which dragged the player's sagging jaw all the way to the end.
But it went much further than mere eye candy, with a well-judged combat system which trod a fine line between mass-market acceptance and hardcore challenge. Unlike so many titles in this crowded genre, it pitched the challenge perfectly between the two, and succeeded in delivering a game which felt like it was designed to entertain, but still felt hard enough to be satisfying for those of us who've seen it all before.
Martin: In terms of perfection of balance between gameplay elements, God of War beats them all into an embarrassing pulp. I know the Ninja Gaiden fans get upset at the adulation this game receives, but Gaiden was too bloody hard for cack-handed me. God of War will even notice if you're unable to cope and make things easier for you. Life-saver.
It also had the best opening chapter ever. And one of the most developed gaming back-stories yet seen.
Tom: I'd rather play Ninja Gaiden, but at least everyone else now has something to beat the rest of the genre round the head with.
Kieron: I am man! Fear me! With a lead character who applies gore to his skin the same way Girls Aloud use fake tan, this is by far the most manly game this year. Hell - decade. High-octane machismo sufficient enough to power some manner of Testostrone-powered Rocketship to the moon. And when it gets there, it'll be populated with thousands of manner of Space Minotaur which the astronaut would then club to death with his all-powerful phallus of death. And then with the blood-smeared organ he'll toddle off and have undending intercourse with some hot venusian ladies. You know when people sneer at videogames being juvenile and puerile? God of War is what they're thinking about, and it's beautiful, tortured, epic violent perfection is the perfect counterargument against their tedious small-mindedness.
John: Kieron, could I have my copy back please? I'd like to play this at some point...
PC / Pinnacle / Introversion
9/10 (Kieron), Game page
Jim: Darwinia proves that the little guy can create something beautiful, even if no one is smart enough to actually buy it.
John: I get slightly embarrassed when trying to express my love for Darwinia. I either make gushing comments about spirituality, or want to cry. And that's why it's amazing. Introversion is the last of the bedroom blah blah blah. Who cares? They make incredibly good games, and that's what's interesting about them. We've learned to rescue sprites for decades, but it never really mattered when your Lemmings fell down a hole and drowned in the sea, or even when your Pikmin perished. But Darwinians... DAMN YOU, you'd better not hurt my Darwinians. Saving those little green dudes, despite being the most basic stickman possible, is a gut-driven need, a biological imperative. I love them all.
Kieron: Darwinia's been the cause celebre among the chattering classes for most of the year. In fact, it's reached the point of hype-overload, where the number of people who've pulled open their ribcage to display the "Darwinia" tattoo on their hearts are started to turn people off. But - y'know - screw people who respond to hype like that. It's an understandable human reaction to societal input, but it's a dumb-one based around root, groundless contrariness and the desire to kick against what they think they're meant to think. And in the case of Darwinia, particularly depressing - it's not a game that's had a runaway commercial success, and its developers are probably still sitting and sharing a Christmas Pot-Noodle as we write. Try the new Demo. Hell, if you've got HL2, boot up Steam and it's there.
It's a little different. You'll like a little different. Trust me.
3 Shadow of the Colossus
PS2 / Sony / Sony
10/10 (Kristan), Game page
Martin: I mean, FFS, Kristan gave it 10/10. He didn't even give God of War 10/10. Curiously, I think it has a greater share of problems than GoW, but I still loved this more. It's an incredible game for its atmosphere alone; but its gameplay is involving and deeply, it is stunningly beautiful, and it certainly gets extra points for innovation. Of course, nobody will play this either. (See Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time).
Tom: Got on my horse, rode out to the lake, swam for half a minute, climbed up a ramp, forgot how to grab hold of stuff when I jumped toward it, fell in the water. Swam for a whole minute, ran up the ramp, grabbed the ledge, forgot how the jumping backward onto the thing in the middle worked, fell in the water. Swam for another minute, ran up the ramp, grabbed the ledge, landed in the middle, fought the camera as much as the boss, won, saved. Hrm.
Got on my horse, rode out to the place with the four holes buried under mounds, woke up some sort of crazy plated monster out of Attack of the Clones, realised that you had to go underground to beat it, thought that was ingenious, killed it, saved. Happy.
Got on my horse, rode out to another big lake with a bird-like boss in it, did more swimming and camera-cursing than I can actually remember from the whole of Ico, and then the pay-off was the soaring bits, which were brilliant.
I dunno. I think this has more brilliant experiences in it, more identity and a more incredible sense of scale, more clinging on for dear life, more beauty and more courageous single-mindedness about it than anything else I've played this year, but there's a heck of a lot of stupid stuff going on. Somebody needs to explain that camera to me. Or the snake boss where the solution is to do the thing that actually makes you feel like you're breaking the game. Or all the bloody retracing steps. I wouldn't have given it 10. I would have told you all to go and play it, but I think sometimes you have to take a step back and ask yourself whether you're actually recommending something because it's genuinely excellent in itself or because you've played 50 other games this year and on balance of ideas alone this makes you want to ram it up all of their stupid faces. A great game, yes. Best of the year? Only in the sense that (whisper it) this was actually a pretty rubbish year in a lot of ways.
Kristan: Don't listen to misery guts, who makes it sound as joyless as possible while telling us that Mario Kart is the future of gaming! No, the camera's not perfect. Far from it. But it seemed to cause Tom a whole lot more problems than it ever did me. Anyway, after I've finished cuffing him round the ear for such insolence, I'll say that once a year you don't mind bandying the word 'classic' around - but even that much-abused superlative sounds almost apologetic when applied to Sony's spellbinding PS2-offering. While so much of the attention has been on the 360 and the PSP, the quiet arrival of this giant-killing adventure over in Japan and the US served as a timely reminder that the next generation war won’t be won with polygons, but with ideas. Ideas that challenge conventional game design, that take players on an unforgettable journey, and that stay with you long after you’ve put the joypad down. You feel more like you've been on a holiday to a fantasy land than merely played the latest game. It's special. That's why you shouldn't listen to people trying to niggle at minor technical flaws (and they will).
Shadow of the Colossus didn't succeed because of incredible technology, or by even doing things that haven't been seen in other games, but simply by marrying exceptional art talent to a cunning focus on the idea of the 'boss monster'. Most games use the boss as the climax, as a reward for progress. But SotC turns that idea on its head, encouraging awe-struck exploration and making the boss the puzzle, the level and the climax all in one. Doing something 16 times over that most games struggle to do imaginatively once gives you a clue to why everyone's so excited about this game, and the fact that PAL gamers have still got this to look forward is almost enviable in itself. As one of my friends put it, "I want to erase my memory of this game so I can play it from the start and experience those feelings all over again."
Simon: Essentially just 3D Punch Out. Sixteen boxers you must dodge and weave around to discover their Achilles' heel. But encased in this visual mythology, it¹s completely and utterly essential playing and shows how stale but solid gameplay can be fresher than the future if you nail the form and function.
John: John Walker, Voice of the Readers says: "How dare you! You people with your new-fangled fancy schmancy chipped PS2s, which is ILLEGAL by the way, playing your la-de-da import games. Some of us happen to love ICO like our own child, but can't play your so-called 'No. 3 game of the year.' How dare you? No respect, that's your problem. If I had a good mind I'd have a good mind to write to your parents."
Kieron: Actually, I'm okay with this one beating God of War.
2 Resident Evil 4
PS2, Cube / Capcom / Capcom
9/10 (Kristan), Game page
Tom: Resident Evil 2 is my favourite Resident Evil game of the lot. This is my second favourite.
Kristan: After years of sticking with the original 1992 Alone in the Dark-inspired template, Capcom finally cut the ageing series loose and delivered a masterpiece of survival horror that - for a while - made the GameCube's star shine brighter than ever.
Technically it was a delight, with wonderfully detailed environments, a brooding atmosphere of pure malice, realistic characters and some astounding boss moments, and the combat ante was upped with a far more user-friendly over-the-shoulder viewpoint that made the tense firefights more in-your-face than ever. This increasing combat focus came at a price, though, with less puzzle depth making it much more of an action game than any previous title in the series.
Surprisingly, even the belated release of the PS2 conversion turned out well, far exceeding expectations in technical terms and bolting on a ton of new content. Cube owners were a bit miffed, of course, but frankly, after a miserable few years of backing the wrong horses, Capcom deserved a big seller more than anyone else.
Mathew: For me, there can be absolutely no contest on this as game of the year. Doing little more than change the fixed camera to a third-person camera turned the traditionally clunky, frustrating series into a truly cinematic experience, in all the right ways. It made me fear people screaming in Spanish.
Simon: No one would have survived the horror of another Resident Evil game in the style of the first twenty. Just shows what Capcom can do when it rewrites a game three times and garnish with the GDP of a small African country.
Kieron: Pah. A poor man's Urban Dead.