Starting (briefly) off-topic, for the first time in literally years, I managed to go a whole month without using my overdraft (unlike last month, when I just dipped into it). I had a margin of nearly £50 to spare, and that was despite me spending £500 on a new TV and nearly £80 on a new battery for the car. So hurrah for that. It might be a little trickier next month, as I've got to get the car MOT'ed and I've got to pay my flat's maintenance charge (though I'm not sure why I bother with that - they never mow the lawn and the place is still under about three feet of rotting leaves). But anyway, something to celebrate, and now I can really start making headway on getting rid of the four-figure balance on my credit card. If all goes to plan, that should have disappeared by this time next year. That'll be a nice Christmas present to myself, certainly.
Well, now we're into December, I can finally think about Christmas as a topic. With all the big games (Crysis, UT3, Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime 3, Mass Effect, etc) having been released already, it seems that the traditional post-Christmas games release lull has actually come before Christmas this year, as there's absolutely, officially, sod all coming out worth buying between now and March.
So now would seem to be a good point to do a recap and go over what were my favourite games of the year, and let you know what I'll be playing to fill the gap between now and Spore (which will, I heartily predict, be the greatest thing in the history of civilisation). So these are my games of the year, in no particular order.
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - PC
It still amazes me that I'm in the minority on this one. That is, the minority of players who bought this game that actually completed it. According to Valve, only 44% of players have actually completed the game, which is kind of mind boggling when you consider how good the game is. Though even that paltry percentage appears to be an improvement over Episode 1. Anyway. This is my personal favourite FPS of the year, despite a rocky opening couple of hours, the rest is absolutely superb, with the final defensive battle around the silo being the stand out set piece of the year.
Puzzle Quest - DS
Or, as it might be called, Zeldakeeper. A manic cross between old school Zelda RPGs and Zookeeper, Puzzle Quest is apocalyptically addictive, and a great way to kill time while you're in the waiting room of a doctor's surgery.
Peggle - PC
This game, quite rightly, has generated a quite spectacular amount of hype and praise over the course of the year. I disagree with Yahtzee in that the game is definitely more about skill than luck, especially when you get to the more advanced challenges - you can't clear a whole level down to every last peg using only one ball by luck alone, believe me. A grasp of physics and a good sense of timing will get you much further than luck alone. Again, like Zeldakeeper, sorry... Puzzle Quest, it's spectacularly compulsive stuff, and is also as cheap as chips, if you buy it via Steam.
Metroid Prime Pinball - DS
No, really. This is quite easily one of my favourite games of the year. It's the rumble pack that really makes this game. Considering that the rumble pack is absolutely tiny, it really has quite a kick, and the way it's used with to give the kickers and other table features a tactile feel is absolutely brilliant. The DS itself is also perfectly suited to a pinball game (using the shoulder buttons as flippers and the touch screen to "nudge" the table), the Metroid window-dressing is just the icing on the cake. And what tasty icing it is as well. It's Parma Violet flavoured and wrapped around marzipan. Good enough to eat until you get sick.
Race Driver: Create & Race - DS
Yet another DS game. I haven't blogged about this one before, but I picked this up on the strength of Eurogamer's positive review, and it hasn't disappointed. Okay, so the AI isn't really up to much and the graphics aren't all that good, but the real fun from a game like this is being able to create your own tracks and then comprehensively thrash the AI around it. It's also another game that makes good use of the DS rumble pack. It's not really essential to the experience, but it does add an extra little layer to the game.
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade - PC
It's hard to think of another game I've spent more time with this year. That in itself is as big a compliment that I can pay a game. That said, after sinking well over three hundred hours into it this year, my sub is currently frozen, and I can't really see myself re-subbing until the next expansion comes out. At which point I will disappear back to Azeroth, and you'll probably never see me again...
Excite Truck - Wii
It's not big, it's not clever, but boy, it is FUN. It's games like this that were the reason why I bought a Wii in the first place. It's not about the graphics, it's not even about new styles of gameplay, it's about the way you interact with the game. Excite Truck is just so simple and so intuitive, it's hard not to get carried away. Other than Wii Sports, this is my most played Wii game by far.
The Witcher - PC
This was probably my most pleasant surprise of the year. One of the select few games that can be filed under "Games Iain has actually completed", and something's got to be pretty special to join that club, believe me. It took me seven years to get around to finishing Deus Ex, while I completed this in just a couple of weeks. The only game I finished quicker this year was Episode 2. I understand that CD Projekt have been a rather disappointed with the UK reviews of the game - though I have seen from my traffic stats that someone from their office in Warsaw has been reading what I've said about the game (presumably because I seem to be the only UK-based gaming journalist who liked it), so I'd like to reiterate at this point that The Witcher is my personal favourite RPG of the year. The combat's more interactive and interesting than the RPG standard "choose an attack, click and wait for them to thrash it out", the story starts quickly and really picks up the pace in the last couple of acts, characterisation is nice and strong and it's got a genuinely intriguing twist in the tail: I won't give out spoilers, but the closing cutscene really sets up an interesting premise for a sequel. A lot of people seem to have got hung up on the sex and the fact that the script was trimmed down during translation, but I didn't find that it came between me and my enjoyment of the game. There's a lot to be said for a fresh, original game setting, and technically, The Witcher makes Neverwinter Nights 2 (and its expansion pack) look like an ugly, buggy mess. Which it is. Let me put it this way: despite all giddy levels of character customisation and different class combinations you can knock out in NWN2, I'd rather replay The Witcher. 'Nuff said.
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption - Wii
Ah, Samus, how I love you so. Especially when I can see the reflections of your eyes when I switch to the scanning visor. The Metroid Prime series is one of the most aesthetically perfect franchises ever made, and with the razor-sharp control scheme on the Wii, this is just such a wondrous game to play.
Team Fortress 2 - PC
The only online shooter worth playing. Pixar meets The Dirty Dozen. Great styling, great balancing, and fun in spades. And rockets. And miniguns. And flamethrowers.
Games that should have been in the above list, but aren't (for various reasons):
BioShock - PC
This just failed to grab my attention. It does a lot of things really well, but the whole Vita Chamber mechanic (ironically) killed my enthusiasm for playing the game. It's telling that the recent patch allows you to turn them off, but this would simply make the game even more frustrating to play, thanks to the huge difficulty spikes that you get around Big Daddy encounters. It all smacks of trying to rebalance the game after the fact. This is one game where I really do agree with pretty much everything Yahtzee had to say...
Unreal Tournament 3 - PC
Sexy? Yes. Shiny? Yes. Awesome new vehicles? Yes. Nice new maps? Yes. As good as UT2004? Umm, no. There's just something missing. It's not quite as manically fast as it used to be and the emphasis on the graphics really hampers the game online, and that's where the game should be slick, smooth and brutal as hell. The rendering lag really kills the game, so if you don't have an absolute monster of a rig, you don't get the benefit of the glorious graphics. And what's the point of having a game that pretty if you have to dull down everything so that it's playable in the environment it's meant to be played in? I'm not a pro-gamer, but I do want to be able compete without completely sacrificing graphical fidelity and any sense of atmosphere. A bit of a disappointment, really.
Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer - PC
Obsidian are really doing their best to completely ruin the good reputation they carried over from their days as Black Isle. Even buggier than KotOR 2, and seriously flawed in many ways, not least in terms of the graphics engine and game interface. The characters are uninteresting and if you're going to use the Plane of Shadow, at least find some way of being able to render it without turning melee fights into a morass of completely inseparable 3D models that prevents you from selecting enemies and party members alike. Another game like this, and I won't be going near Obsidian again with a barge pole. At least, not with my own money.
Crysis - PC
I'm still bitter about this going missing in the post. Though at least today I was able to report that fact to Play, and they should be sending me another copy soon, which, hopefully, WILL ACTUALLY ARRIVE...
Mass Effect - Xbox 360
We wants it... my preciousssss. I really need to buy a 360...