Best of 2005 #1: World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

Many of the players may have started with this in 2004 but it didn’t come out here until February and I didn’t get it until October, so it definitely qualifies for my 2005 list.

Anyway, my experience with MMORPGs and online RPGs in general was limited before this year, with only a fair amount of Phantasy Star Online and a dabble in the betas of City of Heroes and Guild Wars under my belt, but when I got this for my birthday it really showed me how great this genre is. Trust Blizzard to do it so right first time.

As I type this I’ve suspended my account so that I can enjoy my 360, but after two months I’m pushing 100 hours of play, a number that only a small handful of games come close to with me, and once I jump back in it will show no signs of abating as I get more drawn into the more interesting quests and plethora of group activities (I’ve barely dabbled in instances with groups of other players), money making schemes, and general community aspects that the higher levels bring. It really says something about the immensity of this game that despite all the time that I’ve poured into it, I’ve only really played one race out of six (all with different paths and quests) and have set foot in maybe ten of the game’s fifty-odd zones as quests and the urge to explore begin to expand my horizons.

On paper this, like most MMOs, looks fairly monotonous, but somehow the great community and personality that Blizzard have imbued their world with (it might look like generic fantasy in screenshots but believe me, it’s not) combine to make a game that’s maddeningly addictive but never less than a wonderful place to be. I dread to think what the expansion will do for me but in the meantime this is my game of the year. Easily.

Boku no Watashi no Katamari Damacy

I just picked up the import of the latest Katamari Damacy game, Boku no Watashi no Katamari Damacy (to be called Me and My Katamari for the US release) on the PSP. The game is basically the same as when I played it at the Tokyo Game Show but as I got one of the first batch I got it with a limited edition PSP case in the shape of the Prince’s head:

Boku no Watashi no Katamari Damacy

I doubt the US box art will be that cool either, considering the hack job they did with the We Love Katamari artwork.

The game itself is typical Katamari, this time with you having to create islands after the King wipes them out by accidentally causing a tsunami. It’s another excuse for another quirky little adventure as you roll balls of random objects, starting with coins and pins before moving up to skyscrapers and…uh…dinosaurs? Suffice it to say that it’s great fun.

The main hurdle for the PSP version is the controls, since the PS2 games used both analogue sticks to full effect. Here it uses the D-pad with the face buttons functioning as a second pad and the shoulder buttons used to aid turning. It’s not an ideal system but it’s definitely workable, even if my hands ached after a while. That could be down to the fact that they’ve become used to the Micro over the last few days, but we’ll see.

It should also be noted that although graphically it’s a faithful version of the PS2 games, the caveat is that it occasionally has framerate issues. Nothing that affects the game too much thankfully, but I saw it slow down on some complex levels and during some of the flashier effects.

A great little game then, and a possible collectible for the future since the cases only came with the first Japanese batch and are unlikely to turn up again anywhere else. Worth a look.

Best of 2005 #2: Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4

Speaking of sequels that don’t play it safe, here’s another one, although the Resident Evil name on the box obviously helps one to achieve financial success. Even so, the risk with making such big changes to such an established formula can’t be overestimated.

As revolutionary as Resident Evil was, the gameplay has dated fast in this world where action shooters and 3D environments rule. Some fundamental changes later – the new perspective, the death (again) of the trademark zombies, a whole new threat that isn’t Umbrella – and they have this, the latest RE game that makes a huge deviation from the established formula whilst still leaving some of the hallmarks that make this unmistakably Resident Evil and the best GameCube game in a long time.

The precision gunplay, creepy atmosphere (helped by some of the most impressive visuals of this generation), and excellent pacing make this an all-time classic and a clear choice for one of the best of the year. It was tough to relegate to second, believe me.

Best of 2005 #3: Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

In an industry built on sequels that play it safe it’s unusual to see a high profile game that is not only a sequel (sort of), but also an original idea of the type that hasn’t been attempted before. It takes one of the seamless worlds which are all the rage at the moment but sets it in a strange and isolated land, all based around the unique idea of taking the enemies, puzzles, and levels and making them one.

The colossi are the biggest (no pun intended) achievement that push the PS2 to its absolute limits, and beyond at certain points as any framerate whore will tell you. Despite technical problems they look stunning, often not actually bothered by your prescence until you start trying to murder them on your selfish quest to bring back your lost love. It really is hard to classify whether they’re simply enemies, puzzles, or whole levels – you have to kill them while they usually try to do the same to you, they’re you’re only real measure of how far through the game you are, and actually getting on top of them and doing the dirty work is rarely straightforward, requiring a cunning mind and a fair amount of platforming acumen.

Not only is Colossus a beautiful game graphically, it’s also absolutely enthralling, with the solitary atmosphere, soundtrack that ranges from haunting to rousing, and the process of figuring out how to bring down each monster combining to create something really great. It’s not very long, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Blu-Ray Region Coding

This is annoying…

The region codes for Blu-Ray have been announced (you can ignore the comment about PS3 games at the bottom because it’s not gonna happen) and Japan has been changed to a region 1 territory, the same as North America, as opposed to the region 2 that it was for DVD. That means for now the only imports that we’re going to be doing are from Africa, that great cinematic paradise.

While American anime fans are no doubt rejoicing, we’re probably going to be heading back to the dark days where piracy was the only way to get hold of all but the least obscure stuff. Here’s hoping that Blu-Ray region codes are as easy to bypass as DVD ones.

The Handheld King

I see a lot of people who have a problem with paying the price of a console game for a handheld game but I have no problem with that at all. Why? For some reason I find handheld games much easier to play for long periods of time.

I love a good adventure, but despite this I’ve never finished a traditional console RPG. I’d put Skies of Arcadia, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy IX in amongst my favourite games of all time, but I have saves for all of them abandoned around the 20-25 hour mark. On the other hand you can give me a GBA or DS RPG and I still might not finish it but I’ll almost certainly come close, usually stopping when I get stuck on a difficult final boss.

The only reason I can really think of is that, like when I preferred Animal Crossing on a handheld, I just don’t want to be tied to the television. When I get into a handheld game like I am now with FFIV and was recently with Fire Emblem I’ll be taking it literally everywhere and get a few minutes in wherever I can. For some people the quick fix games are what they want in a handheld game (not that I don’t love those too), but I love something on them that I can really get my teeth into.

This seems like a weird thing to be talking about but FFIV really got me thinking about it. While the ongoing success of the DS might be encouraging developers to focus on the quick fixes, but I hope they keep the long and engrossing adventures coming to portables.

How about FFVII on the PSP? Then I might actually finish it and use my PSP.