golden-joysticks.jpgThe title of Ultimate Game of The Year is a hotly contested one, bringing together games from across all formats it is seen as the definition of what you, the players of the games, think is the very best game to have been released in the last year.

Gears of War
gears_of_war_250_248370g.jpgEpics showcase of the new UnrealEngine III has gone down a storm on the Xbox, and is soon to be released on the PC with a campaign that is 20% longer. Whilst lacking in innovative gameplay and bearing the burden of a predictable storyline the visuals seem to have more than made up for that with all you gamers out there. Guns, explosions, aliens GoW has them all. Its rumoured that Epic’s disagreement with Microsoft about the distribution of downloadable content for GoW (Epic wanted to give it away, MS wanted to charge. MS won) has led to them dropping support for Games for Windows Live from the upcoming release of Unreal Tournament III, which will be the flagship release for this iteration of the UnrealEngine.
Epic have also hit trouble with the new engine, with licensees claiming that it was delivered to them incomplete and lacking in many of the features seen in GoW. Silicon Knights in particular have started legal action claiming that Epic deliberately supplied a substandard version of the engine so as to make their own titles, supposedly made with the fully working engine, looked better.

Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar
lordoftherings.jpgHere’s my opinion, take it or leave it; this game does nothing to deserve the title of Ultimate Game of The Year. No matter how many subscribers there are, or how faithfully it reproduces Tolkien’s mythical world of Middle Earth, it is still basically World of Warcraft with added hobbits. It is a shameless money making exercise, cashing in on the success of Peter Jackson’s films and the resurgence of interest in Tolkien’s work which accompanied them. There is nothing redeeming about this title at all in my opinion. Don’t vote for it, those of you who voted for it to get this far are sheep of the highest order (take it up with me in the comments, but keep it civil), following the fashions and disregarding anything like innovation and craft in the creation of a game. You should have just voted for the next entry on the shortlist, its basically the same game and at least the world its based in is original to those who made it. This game embodies everything that is wrong with today’s games industry. Right, rant over, next!

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
bloodelf_vs_draenai.jpgThis is the first full expansion to the current king of the MMO market. World of Warcraft has been responsible for the death of many an MMO since its release in November of 2004, and has just broken 9 million subscribers. Its popularity is unquestionable and its addictiveness has gained it the name ‘World of Warcrack’. This expansion features everything that we have come to expect as players of MMO titles, new areas to explore, new races, a new profession and a raised level cap (from 60 to 70). Expanding on an already huge game with this expansion, Blizzard have ensured the survival of WoW for at least another 3 years.
The release of The Burning Crusade has not been without its controversy however, Blizzard were forced to act when Horde players started complaining about Alliance players re-rolling their characters as the new Horde race, the Blood Elves, simply because they were pretty. The new Blood Elves then proceeded to strip themselves of their armour and dance on street corners, cluttering up Horde cities and causing no end of grief. To combat this Blizzard have introduced a kind of ‘sin bin’ system where offending players, nominated by other players, are sent to an area in the game where they are unable to do anything to develope their character or earn gold for 24 hours. All in all though The Burning Crusade has drawn even more players into the game and looks to consolidate WoW’s hold on the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide, unless something comes out which really upsets the applecart.

The Legend of Zelda: Twighlight Princess
legend-zelda-twilight-princess-1.jpgAn adventure in the best traditions of the Zelda games and the first big title released for Nintendo’s groundbreaking Wii console. Everything you’ve come to expect from a Zelda game is here, a huge playing area, lots of items to collect and a story worthy of the greek epics. I only have one gripe with the game and that is the fact that it feels like the graphics were held back by it being developed for the GameCube as well as the slightly beefier Wii. As with the rest of the Zelda game the story follows a hero as he tries to save his home from the predations of an evil beyond measure, he does this by completing a series of quests which serve to equip him for the final showdown. Along with Gears of War there really isn’t anything too mould breaking here, what there is seems to have been forced upon the game by the need to cater for the Wii’s distinctive control scheme.

God of War II
god-of-war-ii-20070330080254088.jpgHailed by many as the greatest action game ever on the PS2, God of War II sees the return of Kratos with all new moves and magic with which to smite his enemies. The original saw our hero set out on a quest to dethrone Ares, the eponymous god of war and the sequel sees Kratos enthroned and declaring war against all and sundry. While the object of the game is fairly simple, kill, maim and destroy, it does it with a certain panache. There’s nothing really new about the game, its a third person action adventure with added brutality, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in terms or presentation which is cinematic in scope and frankly gorgeous to look at. It has to be the best looking PS2 game ever made and embodies the pinnacle of what the ageing console is capable of graphically.

Final Fantasy XII
As with many of the other games in this year’s shortlist for Ultimate Game of The Year, the only innovation Final Fantasy XII brings to the series is the fact that the random encounters which plagued players in earlier editions have been done away with. Combat remains turn based and menu driven, and the premise is basically the same as all the others. You travel through the land (whichever one it is this time around) gathering a party and levelling up as the epic storyline is revealed. As a Final Fantasy game it excels, whether it has any appeal beyond those who are already fans of the series is debatable.

Resistance: Fall of Man
resistance-fall-man-4.jpgThe launch titles for the PS3 were considered by many to be a bit disappointing, merely providing pretty examples of already established genres and showing off the graphical prowess of the console. Resistance: Fall of Man does nothing to deny this, being a fairly generic alien shooting FPS game. it caused controversy earlier this year through its use of the interior of Manchester Cathedral as the backdrop for a brutal gunfight, the Church of England complained, Sony was unapologetic, and the cause of video game acceptance was put back a month or two. Its a theory of mine that the reason it took so long for people to react to the cathedrals inclusion in the game is because they had been putting off playing it in the hope that something a little more inspiring would be released.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories
gta-vice-city-stories.jpgIts Grand Theft Auto, but portable. The bestselling series debuted on the PSP with Liberty City Stories, and continued this year with Vice City Stories. VCS is set before the original Vice City, this is no mere port, and follows Lance Vance’s Brother Vic, who was thought to have been gunned down during the opening sequence of the PS2 title. Building on ideas introduced in Vice City and San Andreas, Vice City Stories introduces empire building, where the player takes over businesses from rival gangs and operates them to make money. All the GTA standards are there, side missions, mini-games, and of course the free roaming sandbox style world which the series pioneered. Again though, it has been done before, there is nothing truly ground breaking in Vice City Stories.

ps3motorstorm.jpgAnother PS3 launch title, MotorStorm is a fast paced driving game, once more designed to do nothing more or less than show off what the PS3 is capable of. Featuring a selection of vehicles and tracks, the game takes place during the annual MotorStorm Festival in Monument Valley which provides some impressive scenery as a backdrop for the races. One thing that does make the game stand out is the tactical element that the physics brings to the gameplay. Because the tracks are deformable in real time,ruts and depressions left by the larger vehicles can be placed so as to hamper the progress of smaller ones. This is a minor advance however, and only replaces the feature of power-ups and collectible weapons in other arcade driving games.

Guitar Hero II
guitar_hero_2_360-thumb.jpgYou wanna be a rock superstar? Yeah, me too. The original Guitar Hero brought that dream to the video game in 2005, and it sequel continues to allow people to live out those dreams. In my opinion this is what video games are about, letting people live out their fantasies and bringing their dreams to life. The premise is not a new one, Guitar Hero is basically a dancing game, pushing buttons in time to music, what makes it is the controller. Shaped like a miniature Gibson SG, it just wouldn’t be the same if you were simply bashing buttons on a standard PS2 or Xbox pad. Remember strumming along to your favourite rock hits on a tennis racket, or other similarly shaped non-musical object? The Guitar Hero controller hands you a tool which takes that youthful racket strumming to the next level. GHII, because of the success of the first game, has attracted more superstars into allowing their tracks to be used in the game, including hits from Motley Crue, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, The Allman Brothers Band, and Rage Against the Machine to name but a few. This game is a contender, it has entertainment coming out of its ears and allows us all to live the dream of rock stardom.

Wii Sports
wii_sports1.jpgWii Sports is fun, I’d just like to say that straight off, and it shows off the motion sensing capabilities of the Wii’s controller off very well but at its heart it is simply a collection of games designed to do just that. The five games; tennis, golf, baseball, bowling and golf, are simple and effective, providing half an hour’s entertainment when there’s nothing on the telly, They also do a good job of familiarising you with how to use the Wiimote effectively. Personally I found the boxing to be the most fun, though others I’ve spoken to have their own preferences. While not as feature rich as titles dedicated to a single sport, such as Tiger Woods ’07, the games in Wii Sports are entertaining as far as they go and the use of Miis (your own personalised avatars) give the games a cutesy and enderaing sharacter to them. As a demonstration of the innovation present in the hardware of the Wii, Wii Sports does its job admirably, its not really what I would call a full game though.

Guild Wars: Nightfall
gwnightfall04.jpgBuilding on the previous successes of Prophecies and Factions, Nightfall adds another continent to the world of Guild Wars. As with The Burning Crusade all the standard features of an MMO expansion are here, with 2 new classes, a ton of new abilities and a whole new campaign to play through, though as with Factions neither of the other Guild Wars games are required to play Nightfall. Other features added are the ability to add heroes to your party, these are a step up from the henchmen available in previous expansions in that you have greater control over their behaviour and can assign them equipment and skills. When it first came out Guild Wars broke the traditional MMORPG mould in that it didn’t charge a monthly subscription and still managed to bring you the benefits of playing an MMO such as regular updates ,the ability to play with people from all over the world, a clan system, and persistent characters. What makes the Guild Wars games great is the worlds built for you to play in, every aspect of the culture and politics has been worked out and gives a depth to the environment while retaining a degree of character freedom which few other MMO’s can match. I’m not sure if Nightfall should be a contender this time around, in terms of innovation it merely rides on the coat-tails of the free to play uniqueness of the first chapter, Prophecies. Its a good game but there’s nothing new enough in it to make it worthy of the Ultimate Game of the Year Title.

okami-001.jpgFew games these days make me sit up and go wow, age has made me cynical I suppose. If there is one game that has had this effect on me this year, Okami is that game. Visually stunning, presented as it is in a graphic style very reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e ink illustration, and beautifully animated, the game draws upon Japanese mythology to weave a compelling story of how the land was saved from darkness by the goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf. The gameplay successfully mixes elements from action, platform, and puzzle games, but what makes the game truly unique among its peers is the use of the Celestial Brush system. Using this system players can pause the game and draw things into or out of existence using the left analog stick on the PS2’s controller. A loop summons a strong wind, enemies can be dispatched by drawing a line through them, and gaps can be bridged by simply drawing one onto the screen. As art this game fulfils the requirement of being beautiful and clever, as a game it is engaging and fun to play, as a demonstration of a game being art it is unsurpassed. Okami goes to show that the most advanced graphics, AI, and other industry obsessions are not necessary to make a great artistic game.

Test Drive Unlimited
It used to be that Gran Turismo was undisputed king of the realistic driving game, then Project Gotham came along, now it has come to pass that an old hand has risen to capture the hearts and imaginations of today’s gamers. The Test Drive series of games began life in 1987 and spans 14 titles of varying quality and success. Test Drive Unlimited was released in 2006, and offers players the opportunity to drive over 125 licensed cars and motorcycles. Featuring a free-roaming sandbox style seen in other driving games such as Need For Speed: Underground and Midnight Club III: Dub Edition, the game allows players to drive both on and off road on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. the multiplayer element of the game (dubbed MOOR or Massively Open Online Racing) allows players to drive around on the island together and race against each other, challenge others to complete tasks, or complete challenges set by others. While not a great leap forward for the genre Test Drive deserves recognition for being one granddaddies of the gaming world, Gran Turismo and Project Gotham wouldn’t exist without it.

Company of Heroes
World War II real time strategy games are as common as WWII FPS titles, it is obviously an era of our history which provides plenty of material for developers to work with. Company of Heroes stands out as the best of the bunch. The art is accurate with WWII militaria from both sides faithfully reproduced and all the RTS standards are there, base building, capture points, and a variety of units fulfilling different battlefield roles. What makes it stand out as something new in the genre is the AI. When infantry comes under fire, it will take cover, unlike previous RTS titles in which your troops just sit there and take it till they’re all dead. In Company of Heroes you see and hear your men panic, the voice acting is superb. conveying the terror of being under fire from a tank with nothing but a rifle in your hands. What makes it all the more compelling and something which pays tribute to the bravery of those who were there for real is the fact that despite the fear, and seemingly hopeless situation, your men fight on. The clever use of unit caps and cover also adds to the atmosphere of having to achieve a difficult job with a limited number of troops. No more building an entire army of tanks and just rolling across the battlefield in a wave of destruction, tank have limited use and weaknesses that can be exploited, they’re also expensive. Company of Heroes teaches you that no soldier or other military asset is expendable in a way which no other RTS quite manages.

Some interesting titles in this years shortlist, some not so interesting. I case anyone is wondering I’d like Okami to get it but I don’t seriously think that the majority of people who vote will. If I was betting on the outcome (whcih I’m not) I’d put my money behind either The Burning Crusade or Guitar Hero II. Prove me wrong and vote for Okami, I dare you. 😛
Watch this space for more on the other categories.
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