Best of 2006 #6: Dragon Quest VIII

Dragon Quest VIII

The next one may be coming to the DS, but Dragon Quest VIII certainly managed to do the PS2 proud. 2006 has been a good sendoff for Sony’s retiree with some of the most impressive games in the console’s history, and this is certainly up there.

Rather than reinventing the wheel as the Final Fantasy series is wont to do, DQVIII takes quite the opposite path. This is about as traditionalist as can be. The admittedly stunning graphics are essentially a flashy wrapper for gameplay that has been all but unchanged since the beginning. No ATB, minimal battle animations, random battles coming out of its arse, and a blank expression when quizzed about anything as elaborate as a job system.

The basics are as solid as can be after so much refinement, but it’s the setting and visuals that provide the biggest step forward. Let nobody tell you that cel-shading is dead, because this game is one of the best showpieces yet. The game takes place in a beautiful fantasy world painted mainly in primary colours, as far from the dystopian future/steampunk settings of many contemporaries as can be. It’s one of those games that can visually transcend the HD barrier that newer consoles are hastily building over the past.

Too bad that such a top game couldn’t forge a market outside Japan like the Final Fantasy series could. Maybe that’s what they’re hoping for with IX.

A Very Final Fantasy Christmas

I trust everyone else had an excellent Christmas.

Shockingly, I got several new games. What was surprising is that all of them, with the exception of the free copy of Uno (oddly captivating) that came with the Xbox Live Vision cam that I also got, were Final Fantasy games: Final Fantasy XII on the PS2, Final Fantasy III on DS, and Final Fantasy V Advance for GBA.

Final Fantasies

XII is an unusual one when coming from the fairly orthodox FFX. Final Fantasy XI has become the red-headed stepchild of the series and I bet whoever decided to make it a part of the normal chronology rather than a Crystal Chronicles style sidestory is living in a cardboard box somewhere now, but it’s definitely had an influence on this. In fact it is an MMORPG…just without the MO. It has an entirely different MO, in fact.

I’m shocked by how much of a departure from FFI-through-X this game is. Random battles are gone (hooray!), enemies can be seen on the map and avoided entirely like an MMORPG, and combat plays a lot like Knights of the Old Republic. And if the whole thing didn’t play enough like what is traditionally a PC genre, you can get your hands dirty with what is effectively a scripting language to control the rest of your team. It sounds weird, but that’s one system that I really like, and one that proves essential to real-time control in a game like this.

This is another one of those games that shows how much life the PS2 could have had in it. The opening town is vast, and your view isn’t constrained by prerendered backdrops and fixed cameras because the right stick lets you look anywhere. The FMV is often spectacular, voice acting is generally very strong (Migelo is a particular high point), and even the facial expressions in real-time cinematics are better than many prerendered scenes that I’ve experienced. I can’t wait to really crack on with it. Continue reading A Very Final Fantasy Christmas

Best of 2006 #7: Hitman Blood Money

Hitman: Blood Money

Perhaps one of my more controversial choices, this was the first Hitman game that I ever played at any length and turned into a surprising favourite. In fact, I think it’s the only game this year that I’ve been moved to play through more than once.

It’s not spectacular looking or anything like that (‘clean’ is really the only superlative that applies to the 360 version, impressive Mardi Gras level aside); it just ticks the boxes that made me enjoy the Splinter Cell games so much. As you’re funnelled along through the story, it gives just enough room for improvisation to make multiple playthroughs feel different. I’m replaying the second level in my head now, and I can think of at least three different ways to approach the first target alone, and the elusive Silent Assassin ranking provides an effective carrot to the same perfectionist in me that Sam Fisher kept tempting.

I’ve heard from fans of the series that Blood Money is one of the best, so I hope that Eidos and IO can give 47 a proper next-gen runout. I’d love to see what they can do with these inventive scenarios when they properly tap into that extra power.

(Merry Christmas)

Best of 2006 #8: Elite Beat Agents

Elite Beat Agents

The almighty Ouendan’s sequel/remake/bastardisation (take your pick) may not manage those heady heights, but it certainly deserves a place on here. What could easily have been a cynical rehash of a cult classic kept what made the original great and managed to forge a personality of its own.

I don’t like it as much as I did Ouendan, possibly because that game came out of nowhere without any expectations whatsoever, and to be fair I was probably predisposed to not liking this as much. Inis did a great job of keeping it faithful to the style of Ouendan but just having English text and Madonna and Avril Lavigne over impenetrable Japanese and bands you’ve never heard of takes something away from it. I maintain that all an English version needed was a menu translation, but that’s probably why they don’t let me make games for Nintendo.

Despite the shortcomings, EBA makes the list because it builds on an extremely solid base and still does a good job at something that – let’s be honest – was never going to please all of the fans who imported Ouendan. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun and well worth picking up, especially if the original was a bit too “out there” for you.

Best of 2006 #9: Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter

Ah, the token Tom Clancy appearance. You just can’t stop the guy.

Deserving credit both for turning me onto the Ghost Recon series (or sub-series?) and helping to end the terminal drought of software for the 360 earlier this year, it still stands out as one of the games that looks and plays like something really next-gen. Don’t agree? Just look at how dreadful the Xbox and PS2 versions turned out.

As well as looking stunning and delivering a believable near-future setting, GRAW also brought with it one of the better multiplayer suites of the year. As well as the basic deathmatches, this included the immensely satisfying co-op mode with support for up to 16 players: the mode singularly responsible for the odd number that is my gamerscore. Annoying, but still top fun.

Like Rainbow Six Vegas, GRAW did a superb job of making what had previously been somewhat esoteric games and making them accessible to us normal people. And once the campaign was out of the way it became one of the few games that could tempt us away from COD2 multiplayer. That takes some doing.

Best of 2006 #10: New Super Mario Bros.

New Super Mario Bros.

The debate over originality in games kind of becomes moot when we’re talking about a game like this, doesn’t it? It’s quite possibly one of the least innovative games of 2006…and that’s a good thing?

When it’s something as timeless as a 2D Mario game, yes. While this might have lacked the simple perfection of the NES games or the sense of wonder that came with turning on Super Mario World for the first time, it threw in a couple of new abilities to mix things up and then essentially let the gameplay do the talking. This is Mario; what does he have to prove?

The extra power of the DS was put to good use with assorted scaling tricks and almost subconscious use of the two screens (did you notice how subterranean sections are played out on the bottom screen?), and what it lacked in speed compared to its sprite-based progenitors it made up for in good clean fun and the novelty of a new 2D Mario. Did I mention it was one of those?