A Year-End Look at Gaming - 2004 and Beyond
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Yet, 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?
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.
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.
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