Games are like buses. They really are. Although a couple that were due out this week have now run off the road in search of petrol (stand up R: Racing and Mafia Xbox), we do feel rather like plebs at a bus stop, overflowing with transport options after literally months camped in the shadow of Dawn of the Dead posters and old grannies chattering about the bingo. It's good to see all these buses, of course, but we do feel a bit like socking a few of the drivers in the gob. Where the hell were you when Looney Tunes: Back In Action was the highlight of our entire week? Eh?
After last week's battle of the PC first-person shooters, this week's second round ought to be a bit easier to call. In the tropical corner we have Far Cry, from German developer Crytek, which has been picking up mammoth review scores across the pond, where it seems to have struck a chord as the perfect desert island disc. Opposite, brooding after months and months in rehab, we have Valve/Turtle Rock/Gearbox/about 50 other developers' long overdue take on the Counter-Strike phenomenon, the much maligned Condition Zero. There's no contest according to the reviews, but given that CS is more popular than most TV shows in terms of sheer audience volume, the recognition factor could be crucial in this contest. We wouldn't rule out a decent chart showing for VU Games' CS: CZ next Tuesday, even if it is on the ropes critically.
Ubisoft won't be all that worried about VU Games eclipsing its efforts though, as one of them is almost guaranteed to sidle in ahead of the pack, and that's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Mostly designed by Ubi's talented Shanghai development studio, the game also includes a multiplayer mode from series creators Ubisoft Montreal, which ought to be a sufficiently tasty carrot for anybody wondering what separates this one from Sam Fisher's last frustrating but hugely satisfying adventure.
However Sam has some competition in the stealth action stakes this week courtesy of Konami's remake of Metal Gear Solid, the GameCube-exclusive The Twin Snakes. It's an odd day to launch it, really - Splinter Cell took advantage of a lot of the cleverest bits of the MGS games and expanded upon them in complex and ingenious ways, so quite why you'd pit the original MGS against the Splinter Cell sequel is anyone's guess. Twin Snakes throws in a few of MGS2's ideas like a first-person view, polishes the game up to a certain degree (perhaps too far on occasion judging by the odd dip in frame rate), and pads it out with loads more codec interchanges and a few revamped cut sequences and boss encounters. While aficionados will appreciate the reworked battle with Psycho Mantis and the added depth and colour in the plot, even they would have to admit it's little more than a polished port, and hardly worthy of the billing it's received since its announcement last year. "Hideo Kojima! Shigeru Miyamoto! Silicon Knights!" Yes, but what did they all do? Sit around eating Belgian chocolates and finding ways to incorporate Mario bogglehead jokes in hideously inappropriate scenarios? And how is it that they still haven't fixed some of the design issues that frustrated so many people in the first place?
For a less stealthy take on the old good-versus-deeply-conspiratorial-terrorist-evil thread, PS2 owners this week can also turn to Rainbow Six 3, although to be honest it's a bit of an insult to release it now, isn't it? The Xbox version came out last year, and today also marks the release of another key Tom Clancy-themed game that PS2 owners won't be getting their hands on for months. Rainbow Six 3 is undeniably good, of course - we're hardly trying to belittle all the things it does right - but is this really the way to treat what must be considered the core console audience in a market skewed so heavily in Sony's favour?
Maybe PS2 owners will vote with their wallets and pick up R-Type Final or .hack//INFECTION instead. Then again we doubt it. They should, though - the former is an excellent shoot-'em-up, and the latter is an ingenious idea - a game about people who live in a real world of sorts and also play an MMORPG with one another. There's also the option of This Is Football 2004, Sony London's PS2 Online enabled footy offering. You could argue that FIFA is probably about the same in terms of arcade footballing quality, but have you ever actually managed to play FIFA on PS2 Online? It seems to be incompatible with the Internet. Cuh, if only Konami would sort out PS2 Online options for Pro Evolution Soccer, then we could retire happily...
Speaking of online multiplayer, we'd be fools this week not to mention Steel Battalion - Line of Contact, which is a strictly online-only version of a game that requires a minimum £130 investment just to play. Capcom isn't so much carving a niche as threading an elephant through the eye of a needle. Then again, there are good things about this: the re-release of the original controller, for example, hopefully in quantities that will see it beyond the shady pages of eBay and into the arms of actual gamers; and the fact that it's arguably so hardcore at this point that you're almost destined to find exactly the right sort of people playing it on Xbox Live.
That's not all you can choose from this week either. Harvest Moon finally appears on Cube and GBA after a lengthy delay, and although some will find the early hours of repetitive crop-minding and cow-milking rather tedious, a bit of perseverance yields what is arguably one of the most enjoyable and open-ended "life simulations" since Animal Crossing. Which, of course, plenty of you have never played. Perhaps we'll let publisher Ubisoft off the Rainbow Six hook now. (And this really is going to be Ubi's week, isn't it?)
Finally, across the pond most of the highlights are the same as ours. Actually, "finally" is a good word to sum up the launch of the only other really interesting release in the States this week that we haven't been blessed with: Final Fantasy XI on PS2, which ships alongside the PS2 HDD (in fact, not alongside it, but inside it). Those of us playing the PC version might be a bit miffed at the sudden influx of young'uns, all spouting gobbledygook and laughing out loud at just about anything with more than two pixels to its name, but it's good to see it on the market at last. After all, surely we're next? We better be, or Square-Enix runs the risk of shipping Final Fantasy XII in Europe before they even get a chance to launch XI. We're not going to make the "cross borders" or "narrow window of opportunity" jokes about Square's tardy and technically incompetent PAL ports though, because we're too busy sobbing our little eyes out.
Sniff. Right. Chin up. Time to go and rescue Meryl. Ooh we're such a pack of hypocrites, aren't we?
- PAL Releases
- .hack//INFECTION (PS2)
- Bad Boys II (Cube)
- Battle Mages (PC)
- Cold War Conflicts (PC)
- Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (PC)
- Dragon Ball Z: Taiketsu (GBA)
- Dragon's Lair 3D: Special Edition (PS2, Cube)
- Drake of the 99 Dragons (PC, Xbox)
- Far Cry (PC)
- Glass Rose (PS2)
- Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (Cube)
- Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (GBA)
- Kya: Dark Lineage (PS2)
- Lords of the Realm III (PC)
- Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes (Cube)
- MTX: Mototrax (PS2, Xbox)
- MX Unleashed (PS2, Xbox)
- Pacific Theatre of Operations IV (PS2)
- Pro Rugby Manager 2004 (PC)
- R-Type Final (PS2)
- Risk: Global Domination (PS2)
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII (PS2)
- Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (PC, GBA)
- Shining Soul II (GBA)
- Spartan (PC)
- Steel Battalion - Line of Contact (Xbox)
- This Is Football 2004 (PS2)
- Thomas & Friends: Thomas Saves The Day (PC)
- Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3 (PS2)
- Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (Xbox, GBA)
- Victoria - Empire Under the Sun (PC)
- Yu-Gi-Oh! Power of Chaos Kaiba the Revenge (PC)
- Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championship Tournament 2004 (GBA)
- Key US Releases
- Final Fantasy XI (PS2)
- Onimusha: Blade Warriors (PS2)
- Pokémon Colosseum (Cube)
- Samurai Jack (PS2, Cube)