Loonies. All of them. And look at how many! We know it's not easy - working out when to release games to achieve maximum awareness and make the most of their sales potential - but you have to question the sanity of some of the people working in the industry today who have released games - no matter the quality - in direct competition with a product so completely and utterly unstoppable as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Perhaps the worst thing though is releasing games that aren't just propping up the shelves, and still expecting the consumer to dance to their tune - and on the same platform too! Our harshest words here must surely be reserved for the employees of Sony's European division, who, having released the original with zero build-up and virtually no public awareness and shrugged their shoulders at its failure to sell (even going so far as to sully its memory by insisting "it's a kids game"), have decided in their infinite wisdom to launch the second Sly Raccoon on this of all Fridays.
Sly 2: Band of Thieves is a wonderful game. It deserves recognition both critically and commercially. But thanks to one of the most flummoxing scheduling decisions in recent memory, it is now destined to languish in a position ill fitting its charm and panache. Sony: we may well have spent the night dancing around like lunatics at your six-million-consoles-sold party in Shepherd's Bush, but, given that this is how you handle one of your most artful charges, frankly we're left wondering how the hell you managed to shift half a dozen. Harsh? Yes. But in the face of this outrage somebody deserves a slap round the chops with a wet Racoon.
Sony, however, is far from alone in its bizarre decision to tackle this Friday's shoppers. Titles like Dancing Stage Fusion (PS2, PSX), Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (Xbox), Street Fighter Anniversary Collection (Xbox) and Total Club Manager 2005 (PS2, Xbox) have all been warmly received in various quarters, and are all destined to suffer at least to some degree thanks to their publishers' willingness to put them up against Rockstar's monstrous soon-to-be-number-one.
Frankly, we're tempted to dance to the tune and just pretend they're just not there. What else can they expect from us? Fortunately for you, mind, we couldn't possibly get away with that. But before we get on with the games you might, possibly, maybe, perhaps consider spending a reserve £20-40 on this weekend, we might as well get the obvious one out of the way. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A page full of words almost seems flimsy in the face of such excessive... excess.
It is going to sell ridiculous quantities. Everybody knows this. Even people who don't know about games know this. And we'd be flattering ourselves if we thought we could sway your purchasing decision one way or the other. You're either going to buy it (which is most of you), or you're not - and if you're not, it's quite probable that we stand even less chance persuading you to change your minds. If only because so much has been said about it in such glowing tones that it's difficult not to have latched onto something you find alluring enough to justify the purchase, and if you haven't then you're unlikely to find anything to topple your resolve.
It is enormous. That much is true. To complete all its story missions alone will take you twice, thrice, or even more exotic multiplications of the amount of time it would take you to finish an "average" standout single-player game. But to take in everything else it has to offer - the jumps, the gang warfare, the valet missions, the pimping, the driveby co-op, the trucking, the stadium races, the property acquisition, the dating, or any of the other myriad, frankly countless distractions that the game plays host to - will take longer than the statistics suggest a completely average PlayStation 2 owner will spend in front of his or her console in an entire year.
We'll save the most significant arguments for our review, naturally, but we can, having spent a good long week in front of it, at the very least confirm that it is worthy of your money. It is good. Whether or not the vast, seemingly limitless praise it seems to have earned in its early write-ups is justified, however, is something we'd dare to debate.
In this columnist's booze-dulled mind, there are several things that rail strongly against the suggestion that this is the series' peak, or that it is worthy of the label "the best PlayStation 2 game ever made". There is a large chunk of the game that is uncharacteristically linear, under-populated, even barren compared to previous efforts, and to say the game is without fault is to blind yourself to things like the oft-tortured frame rate, the still-flawed targeting mechanics, the awkward camera, the sometimes-sloppy pacing, and what ultimately amounts to less fun per square mile than either of the previous current-gen Grand Theft Auto games.
On the other hand it most definitely is a phenomenal achievement on a great number of levels - technically, artistically, in terms of variety and star attraction, and simply in terms of the sheer amount of resources that must have gone into it (we genuinely toast the efforts of whoever managed to hold this one together in the producer role because, whoever you are, you're quite probably underpaid).
But is it as good as perhaps the hype promised? Maybe not. Does it feel like the vastness of the developer's vision has diluted the sense of always having something fun to do within a couple of blocks? Maybe so. Does it manage to satisfy the ACME-ten-ton-weight of expectation that Rockstar has managed to saddle it with? For some yes, but for others, maybe not. We're not completely sold. Or, to be more specific, we're not sold to the same degrees as we'd have hoped, or to the extent that some of our contemporaries evidently are. It is a wonderful game in so very many ways, and the percentage of you that will buy it and enjoy it at some point this year is so large that statistically we could probably call it 100 per cent. But it does not deliver every clever thing it does in a manner befitting them, nor does it deliver all of the things we loved about the originals in proportions befitting a project of this magnitude, and it is flawed in a number of ways that could and should have been avoided. And that more than anything may very well rob it of the top marks you are perhaps expecting us to hand it today.
And yet we wouldn't argue against your going and buying it. It's still brilliant. Still worthy. But given the quantity of acclaim it's totted up in such a short space of time, we feel compelled to try and drag it into perspective a little and temper that manic over-enthusiasm. Buy it. Because it's great. Just don't expect it to complete you. And do join us in whingeing about the delay in releasing the PC version and the total lack of communication about the seemingly requisite Xbox port. Exclusivity pay-offs be damned; we should have the choice. Now.
Then again there are other choices. Midway Arcade Treasures 2 (PS2, Xbox) is a vacuum-packed dose of nostalgia destined to tickle the joystick-shaped claws of many ageing gamers out there. Gametrak: Dark Wind (PS2) is a peculiar beat-'em-up with a novel control method that has been earning itself respectable write-ups. NBA Live 2005 (PS2, Xbox, Cube) is an EA basketball game, which almost by default means it's going to be seriously tempting for fans of the sport. And then there are little things like Under the Skin (PS2), a peculiar Capcom game that screams "cult" and "rental" at us like an over-animated Japanese cartoon character.
And there's Powerdrome (PS2, Xbox). In fact, that may already be out, but even if it is it's clearly worth a second mention for bringing up "The Neurological Assessment Of The Preterm And Full-Term Newborn Infant" when we searched for it on Play.com. There is, in other words, a decent amount of choice. And yet there is none. We may have attacked it here to the degree that our word count's in tatters, but given the choice - and given this writer's impending weeklong holiday - there is only one game out this weekend that demands your attention.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - it's an explosion of four-letter words and forthright gaming addiction and every bit worth the £40 that Rockstar is almost ripping itself off to sell it for. It's not point-one away from perfection, but it is pointless to argue that it's not a brilliant game. Stay tuned to hear everything we have to say about it. It could be a long haul...
- PAL Releases
- Dancing Stage Fusion (PS2, PSX)
- Ford Racing 3 (PS2, Xbox, PC)
- Gametrak: Dark Wind (PS2)
- Grand Theft Auto (GBA)
- Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)
- Hamtaro: Rainbow Rescue (GBA)
- Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders (Xbox)
- LEGO Knights Kingdom (GBA)
- Martin Mystere (PC)
- Medieval Lords (PC)
- Midway Arcade Treasures 2 (PS2, Xbox)
- Mortyr II (PC)
- NBA Live 2005 (PS2, Xbox, Cube)
- Operation Air Assault (PS2)
- Powerdrome (PS2, Xbox)
- Premier Manager 2004-2005 (PS2, PC, GBA)
- Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2)
- Street Fighter Anniversary Collection (Xbox)
- Tony Hawk's Underground 2 (PC, GBA)
- Total Club Manager 2005 (PS2, Xbox)
- Under the Skin (PS2)
- Key US Releases
- Ace Combat 5: Unsung War (PS2)
- Dead or Alive Ultimate (Xbox)
- The Bard's Tale (PS2, Xbox)