ESCmag: ESCape from reality...

News Reviews Features Forums Staff Downloads
Buy at!

A Year-End Look at Gaming - 2004 and Beyond
Written by Andy Grieser
January 3, 2005

Latest Reviews
1. Space Rangers 2: Rise of the Dominators
2. Burnout Revenge
3. Darwinia
4. Fantastic Four
5. Destroy All Humans!

It's Jan. 1, 2005, and even if we celebrated without Dick Clark, I don't think that means the year is going to be in any way boring. There's an old curse, "May you live in interesting times." There's no question we do. Socially and politically, we live in times so interesting I expect they'll be remembered centuries from now.

That holds true for the gaming world. The past year saw some massive releases, games folks were drooling over for years. It also brought a few unexpected pleasures, and more than its share of game-industry controversy. With every passing day, what was once the domain of nerds like me who huddled in front of actual text in either green or amber (your choice of color was built into the monitor) has become an industry even surpassing Hollywood at times. Just look at Halo 2's $125 million release, numbers some big-name movie studios can only dream about. We live, people, in interesting times for gaming.

I asked my good friends and ESCmag comrades Toby Davis and Erich Becker to give me their informed thoughts on 2004 and 2005, and then threw in some inane comments of my own. Enjoy.

What is the best thing to happen in gaming in 2004?

HaloErich: Easily the best thing to happen this year has been the tremendous fall/winter release schedule for all consoles and the PC. After a real bland year in 2003, as far as big name franchises go, 2004 opened up and dropped new entries in the Burnout, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Metroid, Halo, Paper Mario, Pikmin, NFL2K, Half-Life, and Doom series not to mention sequels to Ratchet & Clank and Jak and the launch of the Nintendo DS. If anything, my wallet is screaming for mercy after all the money I've already spent this year, and I haven't even picked up half the games listed above. I really think 2004 was a banner year for gaming, perhaps one of the best years in our industry's history, and with games like Resident Evil 4 (GCN) and The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA) coming up in January, there's no time to catch your breath.

Andy: Graphics got good. Okay, not just good, but amazing. Remember when console games had the best graphics? Two shooters, Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, showed PCs can deliver lifelike environments with only slightly taxing system specs. It's a shame Doom 3 got lost in the dark, a strategy that still puzzles me. Id came up with this great new engine, complete with a spectacular lighting system, and then promptly forced players to see it one flashlight-beam at a time. I can only hope they decide to do a re-telling of Doom 2 and take on city environments with this engine.

That's what Valve did with Half-Life 2's Source engine, and there were times I stopped playing just to stare at water effects and other graphical eye candy. It was fantastic. My biggest regret is that there wasn't more time to wander around this amazing faux-Eastern European City 17, maybe filled with NPCs. I know that sort of thing really slows down your typical shooter gameplay, so maybe Valve will license the engine out for some really kick-ass city-based RPGs along the lines of the old Planescape: Torment.

Toby: Excellent implementation of technologies available to gaming, with gaming developers keeping pace with the light-speed pace of processing and video power in the PC world. Heck, I'm a techie - I architect solutions and program applications for a living, so of course this would catch my attention. Just view the difference between the Sims and its venerable successor, Sims 2.

What is the worst thing to happen in gaming in 2004?

Toby: My answer may not exactly qualify for the "worst" thing to happen, but actually an enhancement to a concern I've had for several years now: a slow loss in originality when it comes to storylines and background. This, of course, is an ironic statement given my answer to "Game of the Year." There are exceptions - but I still found myself ashamed to have disloyal thoughts of disappointment towards lighter storylines and shorter gameplays in sequels to my past favorites. I won't list them all here... but Deus Ex 2 and (again, ironically) Half-Life 2 are some examples.

Erich: It seems ironic that the best thing to happen this year may also be the cause of the worst. With so many quality, big-name games coming out in a three month span it is going to be impossible for some of them to achieve the commercial success they deserve. I'm hoping a trickle-down effect from legions of happy gamers opening up new games on Christmas morning, or walking into Best Buy with a roll of $20s will perk up sales for some of these games.

EA and NFLAlternatively, the worst thing to happen this year is, without a doubt, EA's exclusive agreement with the NFL, which guarantees them the NFL and NFLPA licenses for five years. As I've spouted off in my news posts and on message boards around the Web, this can only mean bad things for innovation, price control and gaming in general. If Microsoft ruling over the PC market has taught us anything, EA gobbling up developers and pulling the rug from beneath the competition is going to be bad for the industry. It's no secret that Take-Two/SEGA's ESPN NFL2K5 finally gave EA a run for its money, and the price point caused more than a few collective "gulps" at EA HQ. Yet the tactics employed by the publisher, by sawing off the legs of the competition to preserve sales and market share, are both devious and deceitful. It's a real shame that other publishers and developers making games now have to worry about EA swooping in and buying up properties like a twisted game of Monopoly rather than let the gamers decide which product is better.

Andy: I'm going to go out on a limb and say the scaling back of Fable. I don't mean to say Fable was a failure by any means; in the end, it became your typical console role-playing game. But remember that it was intended to be both a throwback to RPGs like Planescape (where you spent as much time exploring and running side quests as playing the main plot) and a dynamic world that changed around the players as well as non-player heroes. Imagine what sort of effect that would've had on the genre. We'd have seen some really spectacular advances as other titles vied to be the Fable-killer. Instead, for a variety of reasons these grand plans were scaled back to the point of disappearing – even the idea of your actions affecting the world became purely cosmetic, changing your character's appearance and some stock phrases thrown out by NPCs. Fable became just another RPG, not even as rich as Morrowind, and the promise of dynamic gameworlds on that scale has been pretty much forgotten.

What computer gaming issue from 2004 will need to be resolved in 2005?

EA GamesAndy: I think the revelation of overworked workers is a serious blow to the industry, even if it's been sort of downplayed so far. It's not just EA who does it, trust me, and I think we'll see exposes of some other companies in 2005. As almost everyone has mentioned, there's no clear fix. The big companies can afford to burn out their staff members and then grab more from, for example, the modding community. Unions are one fix, but long-term. They won't really help fix anything immediately.

Is the situation hopeless? Not at all. Attention is the first step, and this EA story has legs. It's already filtering into the mainstream media, and no big company wants that kind of attention. I think in 2005 we'll need to see one or two mid-sized to large publishers build reasonable worktime into their mission statements. You'll see some of the formerly burned-out talent (and folks on the edge) move over to those companies, and prove it doesn't take indentured-servant hours to get a game out the door on time. I do believe one or two of the so-called gaming gods (like Will Wright or Peter Molyneux) will have to step up and make very public statements condemning the practice, though.

Erich: I've spoken on the subject before, but I'd like to see publishers take more chances again with new, inventive games. Not since SEGA in the days of the Dreamcast has a publisher issued so many quirky yet stellar games in such a short amount of time. The Dreamcast wasn't overexposed with sequels and endless copycats. The games released were new (Resident Evil: CODE Veronica), picture-perfect arcade translations (Crazy Taxi) and innovative in many different ways (Jet Grind Radio, Seaman). While this issue may not be directly related to 2004 in general, I think this past winter has seen its fair share of sequels, and while most of those franchises begin a new two year cycle (or longer if appearing on next-gen consoles), I can only hope we see some new stuff in the coming 12 months.

What was the game of the year?

Erich: In my opinion the game of the year is a toss up between Burnout 3: Takedown and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I just can't pick one over the other because both are huge games with hundreds of objectives and hours of gameplay. These two games combined can account for nearly two-thirds of all the video game hours I've invested this year.

GTA San AndreasIf you are looking for a true arcade racing game where each successive race is just as fun as the first, a game that encourages you to live life on the edge of your seat, and a game that rewards you for "failing," Burnout 3 is the game for you.

Now if you are a fan of the highly touted, commercially successful Grand Theft Auto series who loved GTAIII and Vice City with all your heart and wanted to see Rockstar create, possibly, the largest, most immersive game of the year, then San Andreas is the right game for you. The GTA series has long been held in high esteem for its innovation, and San Andreas carries the torch and manages to top everyone's expectations. If anything, San Andreas was the only headlining game this year to live up to the hype generated by its legions of fans, and actually surpass it with flying colors. No long awaited FPS on any platform could do that.

Toby: Half-Life 2... though it barely made the top of my list this year. I usually immerse myself in a strong story and free-ranging exploration, even to the point of allowing a point of forgiveness for slightly outdated graphics. Deus Ex (the original) was a great example - not on the bleeding edge of 3D when it was released, but the story (and the length of gameplay) was enough to satisfy my gaming needs.

Half-Life 2Yet, while the storyline in HL2 did not quite make the impact that its predecessor did, the physics were something unseen in any FPS... or any other genre, for that matter. This was something I could not ignore. Using various "props" from the landscape to smack an opponent to the ground brought about an originality that separated this FPS from others when it came to your repertoire of available weapons. Finally, the facial expressions - for the first time, I found myself reading emotions from the characters interacting with my silent alter-ego traversing this realistic environment.

So in a way, HL2 had its own originality in actual gameplay versus others in any genre this year - and therefore deserves the top spot for 2004.

Andy: Can I nominate two? Of course I can. I am the Overlord of ESCmag, and as such my word is law. Kneel before me! But seriously, the prize gets split between City of Heroes and Half-Life 2. City of Heroes finally figured out how to bring in gamers who didn't want to devote hours and years to building their online personas. A huge segment of the market just wants to dive in and play for half an hour after work, not spend all their free time talking to guilds and such. City of Heroes delivered the goods for both audiences, which of course fits the superhero genre's mold (some people want to be solists like Batman, and others want to join a team like the X-Men). Other MMORPGs become a grind, but by distilling gameplay to the basics, City of Heroes always felt fresh and fun. I regret not having the time to keep up with it, because they've introduced some really neat new features recently.

Half-Life 2 gets a nod for providing great story-based gameplay without sacrificing action, meanwhile not insulting or recycling the first game. That's a tough load to carry, and Half-Life 2 does it. Plus, it looks great and plays great, and in the end left me looking forward to the next chapter in the story. Maybe with a certain Col. Shepard, the only character from the originals not to appear here?

What are you most looking forward to in 2005?

Toby: GTA San Andreas for PC. With all the complaints about graphic problems for the aging PS2, we now have a chance to see GTA:SA using the bleeding edge of processing and video power - plus the ability for us PC gamers to traverse about a pseudo-California region with such blissful freedom. If I can't have original storylines, then the next best thing is to drive about the San Andreas countryside to vent my frustrations upon rival gangs and pedestrians able to resurrect themselves on each load of the game.

E3Erich: I'm looking forward to getting some sleep before tackling another big release. First up will be Resident Evil 4 in January. I held out on getting a DS until the storm had passed so I fully intent to give Nintendo's impressive new handheld a try.

I'm most looking forward to developers and publishers learning from their mistakes for one and releasing games that have, at least, passed through some sort of quality testing. Just because a game costs $20 bucks doesn't mean you can ship cat feces in a box. Alien Hominid and NFL2K5 taught us that.

Easily though, E3 2005 is going to be the event I'm most looking forward to for two reasons, and two reasons only: 1) The new Legend of Zelda (GCN) and, 2) Revolution. I'm a die-hard fan of Nintendo and I am anxiously awaiting what they are cooking up for their next system. I think the lessons learned on the GameCube and the successful launch of the DS will show the company in which direction to take their new machine. As for Zelda, have you seen the movies and screenshots? Better start saving up that vacation time now.

Andy: Online purchase and delivery capability for games. Steam stumbled a bit at first but recovered, and I think you'll see online delivery alongside physical sales. The games on store shelves will never go away, especially for the console market, but Steam proved gamers can pre-order a large game and have it delivered (probably in chunks) to be playable by the release date. The system already makes for easy serving of patches and other upgrades.

Beyond 2005? I'm still holding out for a dynamic world not necessarily tied to a MMORPG.



  Copyright 1998-2004 ESC Magazine
See additional copyright information

news | reviews | features | forums | staff | downloads | contact us

Design and Systems Development by InfoReveal Corp