2005 is nearly over, and as such, it’s time for reflection. Even though “best of” lists are usually best done around February the following year or so (to catch up on all those late releases or other titles you’ve missed along the way), there is something about the finality of the end of the year that compels one to draw up such a list now. As such, I’ve made a list of the 10 games that I consider to be the “must-play” games of 2005. (I didn’t intentionally make it 10, it just came out that way). I also included 6 games at the end that are titles I expect might be worthy of making the list, but that I haven’t gotten to yet.
The Must-Play Games of 2005:
God of War (PS2) - God of War is fast, brutal, and incredibly fun to play. It’s fairly short, and one run-through is all you’ll ever need to play, but it sets the new high mark for pure action games.
Wipeout Pure (PSP) - This is the game that made me buy a PSP. Wipeout XL for the PlayStation was one of the most fantastic racing games ever, but the Wipeout games that followed it never lived up to that pedigree. For Pure, the game went right back to its XL roots, so much so that it was originally believed to be a remake of that game. Instead, it turned out to be an all-new game that takes the old Wipeout XL gameplay and gives it some oh-so-subtle tweaks and improvements.
Psychonauts (Xbox) - I’m sorry, Tim Schafer, for not believing. When I saw screenshots and read previews of Psychonauts, I didn’t think your quirky, humorous style from the old LucasArts point-and-click adventures would thrive in a 3D platformer. I was wrong. Very wrong. You took the 3D platformer genre (one of the more boring genres of 3D games, IMO) and made it an absolute joy to play.
Civilization IV (PC) - For many people, Civ4 isn’t just “strategy game of the year”, it’s “strategy game of every year until another Civ comes along”. And it’s really hard to argue against that. Not many video or PC games have a shelf life even half as long as a Civilization game. People will be playing this - online and off - very frequently until another Civ game gets released. And for the first time ever, I will be in that group.
Lumines (PSP) - It might not ultimately endure the way Tetris does, but Lumines is one of those few puzzle games that really captured the hearts of gamers. The mixing of music and a neat twist on the “falling blocks” gameplay mechanics made this game a hypnotizing joy. Though many peoples' addictions were ultimately short-lived, the game still must be played - and if you can keep yourself from overdoing it early and getting burned out on it, it makes a great game to pick up and play anytime.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (Xbox) - I like-a de Splinter Cell. Though the games are coming out with sports-like frequency, the tag-team developer approach gives each game longer than 1 year in development, and the quality has not fallen off yet. Chaos Theory is easily the best Splinter Cell game to date, despite the loss of Dennis Haysbert in the role of Lambert. The single-player campaign was the most flexible one yet, and the online play thrived with not only adversarial play, but a great new co-op mode with a whole co-op only campaign. Here’s hoping the 4th game (coming up soon) continues to raise the bar. Metal Gear Solid is being made irrelevant in the genre.
Indigo Prophecy (Xbox) - Named “Fahrenheit” in its original European market, the game’s name was changed to avoid any potential unwanted association or confusion with Fahrenheit 9/11 (ok then, so why not just call the game “Celsius”?). Indigo Prophecy is, or at least should be, a single-handed revival of the adventure genre. Gone is pointing and clicking, replaced instead with a control system much more this decade. The game strips the item-gathering, inventory-managing tedium out of the genre, and pairs it down to reasonably-logical puzzles and brief button-response action sequences, similar to Shenmue’s “Quick Timer Events”. Unfortunately for us US gamers, the nudity and sex scenes from the European game are stripped out. Never thought I’d be disappointed over such a thing, but that Detective Carla Valenti is one finely rendered set of polygons.
NHL 2K6 (Xbox) - In some ways, this game was a disappointment. The presentation was a big step down from last year, where they had the benefit of the ESPN license. Also, some silly bugs (like in the online lobbies) just annoy and give the game that “not quite a polished product” feeling, AGAIN. But once again, there is one place where 2K rules, and that is the action on the ice. While EA’s NHL game is just a terrible product in terms of actual gameplay, NHL2K6 is the best simulation of hockey in a video game yet. I would be happy with next year’s game if they did almost nothing to the on-ice product, and just spent the time getting the off-the-ice parts of the game up to snuff.
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved (Xbox 360) - Must-play games don’t have to come on little silver discs or cost $20-50. This one costs $5 and is a direct download over Xbox Live Marketplace, and it should be purchased for every Xbox 360. It’s a simple, hypnotic game that harkens back to the old ‘80s arcade experience - but the updated presentation makes all the difference.
SOCOM III: US Navy SEALs (PS2) - Boy, the PS2 hardware is getting looong in the tooth. But when it comes down to it, all the prettier military combat games don’t have the same brilliant level design or neat gameplay modes that SOCOM does. Why games like Ghost Recon haven’t ripped off the Breach game mode, I do not know. As it is, SOCOM still has the ugliest visuals but the best map design and game modes of any online military combat game. Respawn games like Battlefield and Ghost Recon certainly are attractive to the more casual shooter, but the tension of no-respawn gameplay like SOCOM is unmatched.
Honorary Mentions (or: Games That Might Make The List Later, Once I Play Them):
Guitar Hero (PS2) - I am very much looking forward to playing this game. I loved Harmonix’s earlier music-based games (Frequency and Amplitude), and this one looks to be even better.
Shadow of the Colossus (PS2) - It’s sitting in the living room in Logan’s PS2. After I finish the game I’m currently playing, I’m jumping right into this one. I adored Ico, and after watching Logan play this a bit, I know I will be all over this one.
Resident Evil 4 (GameCube) - I’ve only played the first few minutes of this. It’s on everyone’s best-of lists, and it looked neat given the small part that I played. The controls weren’t exactly intuitive, but I imagine they’ll be just fine once I start climbing the learning curve.
Condemned: Criminal Origins (Xbox 360) - Survival forensic horror? Something like that. Given what I’ve read about this game, I am looking very forward to playing it on my nice new 360.
Dragon Quest VIII (PS2) - I don’t play many Japanese RPGs anymore. They used to be my favorite type of game. Androgynous anime men with big swords seemed cool when I was 14. Unfortunately, Japanese RPGs largely seem stuck in that teenage mindset. That said, I will still be giving Dragon Quest VIII a shot. Please, don’t let the story be stupid.
Mario Kart DS (Nintendo DS) - I’ll be getting a DS soon, and this is one of the major reasons why. I bashed Nintendo for not bringing Mario Kart online on the GameCube. Now they do bring Mario Kart online, and it’s on a handheld. Well, it’s a start.