BlueSmoke - Guide : Holiday Buyers Guide 2005

 Date  : Dec 15th, 2005
 Genre  : Various
 Developer   : Various
 Author  : Jin-Ning Tioh

Tis the season to be jolly once again, and wallets are emptied and boxes of joy brought home as gamers everywhere bust out the Type 7 Particle weapons, lightsabers, gatling guns and tights (yes, tights) for yet another great haul of games. This year though, we throw in a new category just to confuzzle you... expansion packs! Seriously though, if you stop to think about it, expansions can make the perfect holiday gifts - especially if you know someone who is already really into a particular game but hasn't gotten the expansion pack yet. Yes, while they are oftentimes horrendous and lack-luster attempts by publishers who love your green, the very best expansions broaden and improve upon the original game so much so that one would wonder how they could have done without it in the first place! Even better, for the more 'economically pragmatic' people out there, expansion packs usually cost less than a full-blown game would. Note that most expansions packs will require the original game to work however.

We hope that this guide will help you out with what we all know to be the true nightmare before Christmas - the last-minute shopping. So browse on!

 

In recent years, this has proved to be the single most popular genre out there. The simple reason is this - it appeals to just about every gamer out there. There isn't the careful planning and scheming of a strategy game, or the difficult puzzles of an adventure game. Nope. Action games in general are hardwired for maximum carnage and thrills - hence the reason these titles are the favorite piñatas for the media. Of course, stealth, squad-based gameplay and the occasional platformer help to mix things up. The following are guilty of wrecking havoc on busy work schedules.

 
Psychonauts
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action, Platformer
Developer  :  Double Fine Productions
Publisher  :  Majesco Entertainment

From the mind of Tim Schafer, the man responsible for some of LucasArts' most memorable adventure titles, including Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, comes one of the best platformers this year. It follows the adventures of a young boy named Razputin, who dreams of joining the ranks of America's elite psychic warriors, the Psychonauts. Thus, he runs away from his family to attend the Whispering Rocks Psychic Summer Camp, which just so happens to offer advanced psychic training in addition to their campfire sing-alongs. There, Raz discovers friendship, giant psychic fish, and a plot to take over the world. Utilizing his newly learned abilities, Raz must travel into the mindscapes of other people to uncover the plot and save the rest of his new friends. Of course, this brief synopsis doesn't really convey the attention Schafer and his team has lavished on their alternate reality. Psychonauts is a case study in exactly how important good dialogue and a solid storyline is to a game.

Standard platform elements abound in Psychonauts. There are enemies to shoot, jumping puzzles to solve, secrets to be discovered, and knick-knacks to collect. As you progress, you unlock more psychic powers to deal with new puzzles and situations. What makes it special though, is that each trip is a memorable and wildly different affair, as every mind that you enter is a reflection of the real person. From the organized, black-and-white cube landscape of Agent Sasha Nein to the game board world of Napolean's disturbed descendant, every level is a visual treat. One of my personal favorites had to be the twisted landscape of the paranoid milkman. Agents in black suits dotted the place, and occasionally cameras would pop out of bushes to snap pictures. This is just an example of how much attention has been paid to the environment for each level.

In Short : Slightly short, but boasts an excellent storyline, amazing visuals and solid gameplay. Definitely not a title to miss out on.

 
Grand Theft Auto : San Andreas
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action, Shooter
Developer  :  Rockstar North
Publisher

 : 

Rockstar Games

The latest iteration of the popular Grand Theft Auto series hits the PC in a big way. Taking place in the fictional California-like state of San Andreas during the early 90's, you play Carl "CJ" Johnson, who returns after spending five years on the east coast. Upon returning, it doesn't take long for crooked cops to pick him up, and before long he finds himself back in the thick of his gangbangin' days.

The basic formula of the series is still the same - players jack cars, take missions, mug and otherwise interact with people in a positively massive map, even more so than GTAIII and Vice City. Mountains, rivers, countryside and a mulitude of smaller towns seperate the three main cities in the game, each of which mirrors a real city. The first of these is Los Santos, your 'hood and a thinly veiled image of Los Angeles. Beyond that, San Fierro beckons with its own version of the Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, the Vegas-inspired city of Las Venturas boasts its own plethora of lights and sights, with casinos such as Caligula's Palace and the memorable (snicker) Pirates in Men's Pants. In addition, parodies to real-life franchises such as Cluckin' Bell are scattered throughout the game, and are bound to get at least a chuckle or two.

To keep things fresh, a mini-RPG system has been added this time round. Players can hit gyms, shooting ranges and driving schools or even just advance their skills over the course of regular gameplay. Eventually, bonuses such as being able to wield machine pistols akimbo and so on can be earned. Clothes shops, barbers and tattoo parlors also offer tons of ways to customize CJ's appearance, and might even help increase his sex appeal when romancing girlfriends in the hopes of getting invited in for "coffee".

As in Vice City, the production values for San Andreas are top-notch, and read off like the credits of a movie rather than a video game. Relatively unknown rapper Young Maylay does a great job as CJ, and stars such as Chris Penn and Samuel L. Jackson play crooked cops Tenpenny and Pulaski. The 8 different radio stations play an incredibly long list of songs from the early 90's by Boyz II Men, Snoop Dogg, Soundgarden and Ice Cube, just to name a few. If that doesn't do it for you, you're free to copy in your own MP3s and create a custom radio station, with commercials scattered in between just to add that extra touch of realism. Unfortunately, like both its predecessors, San Andreas suffers in the graphics department, and seems to lag behind the current crop of games by a generation or two. Still, it doesn't really detract from the fun.

In Short : Looks a little dated in the graphics department, but roaming about the streets of San Andreas is incredibly fun.

 
Prince of Persia : The Two Thrones
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Action, Platformer
Developer  :  Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher  :  Ubisoft

The conclusion in the Sands of Time trilogy, The Two Thrones sees the Prince returning to his home city of Babylon from the Island of Time, his new love Kaileena in tow. With his usual streak of bad luck though, the city is under vicious attack - courtesy of the vizier. And as always, things go horribly wrong, Kaileena is murdered, and the sands of time are unleashed upon Babylon. The Prince himself doesn't escape unscathed - his personality is split into two, and his arrogant, darker side takes form as the Dark Prince - a charred, glowing husk of the Prince. More than a simple story element, the Dark Prince wields an extendible sword called a daggertail, has different combos, and is brutally powerful in combat - sequences involving the Dark Prince often have you battling through hordes of sand creatures. And for good reason. The price paid for his overwhelming power is that he loses health over time, which he needs to replenish by drawing sand from fallen enemies.

As usual, the production values for The Two Thrones are top-notch. Throughout the game, the prince and the sneering, sarcastic dark prince, voiced by Yuri Lowenthal and Rick Miller respectively, struggle with each other in well-written internal dialogues. The return to Babylon also means a return to the beautiful Middle Eastern art and design from the first game, with players roaming the streets and rooftops of Babylon and even visiting the famous Hanging Gardens. Heavy use of light bloom creates the golden, dreamlike aura from the first game in every area.

In Short : Combine the superior puzzle-solving of Sands of Time with the improved combat system of The Warrior Within, along with the usual fantastic storyline and production values. 'Nuff said.

F.E.A.R.
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Action, Shooter
Developer  :  Monolith Productions
Publisher  :  Sierra Entertainment

From Monolith, the creators of the acclaimed Tron 2.0 and No One Lives Forever series, comes the seriously disturbing sci-fi horror shooter F.E.A.R. As the anonymous rookie point man of an elite military squad specializing in the paranormal, it's your job to track down Paxton Fettel, the subject of a classified research experiment by the Armacham Technology Corporation. Problem is, he has an entire army of cloned soldiers. And said experiment gives him the ability to control each and every one of them. So like any good research experiment gone bad, he goes AWOL in the most bloody fashion possible, with security cameras showing his clone army mowing down ATC security officers. Throughout the games' 11 intervals, you must find out why Fettel snapped, and why visions of both him and a small, strange girl who leaves behind bloody corpses keep appearing to you.

F.E.A.R. features some of the most intense firefights you'll find in a FPS. To begin with, each area usually has multiple routes, allowing players to flank enemies or get creative on how to take enemies out. Unfortunately, so will they. The AI found here are some of the most crafty opponents to be found in any shooter to date. They'll push over crates for cover, duck behind columns, run from grenades, lay down covering fire while their buddies flank you, and generally make life very miserable for you. Making things more intense is the fact that you can only carry up to three weapons. Will you go with the railgun-like Type 7 Particle Weapon? Or that totally sweet rocket launcher? It's not all bad though. Early on, it's revealed to you that the reason you were chosen as point man was because your reflexes were off the charts. This translates into being able to enter brief bursts of SlowMo - a Bullet Time like period where everyone around you is slowed to a crawl. Mastering it is practically necessary to survive some firefights, such as being ambushed right out of the lift.

Thanks to Monolith's new graphics engine, every firefight is a visual treat. With dynamic lighting effects, dark areas light up and sparks fly everywhere during combat. And just about everything in the environment is destructible - splinters fly in every direction as you fill a box with holes, dust clouds erupt as chunks of the wall are blown up - in all, it adds to the feel of a frantic, no holds barred firefight. Of course, this graphical splendor comes at the cost of a really powerful system.

Multiplayer is also a blast. Deathmatch is a frantic affair - since player speed changes depending on what weapon you're carrying, you'll oftentimes see players with their guns holstered and racing towards you for an instant melee kill by executing a flying jump kick. There's also Capture the Flag, which has a more deliberate pace to it, but is still loads of fun.

In Short : Superb storyline, brilliant firefights, really creepy atmosphere, fast-paced multiplayer. High-end system required. A definite must on any Christmas list.

 

Other Action Titles Worth Checking Out

Quake 4
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action, Shooter
Developer  :  Raven Software / id Software
Publisher  :  Activision

Earth is under siege by the Strogg, a barbaric alien race moving through the universe consuming, recycling and annihilating any civilization in their path. Following the success of a lone marine in defeating their leader, the Makron, in Quake II, a massive invasion force of Earth's finest warriors is sent to take the battle to the Strogg home planet. As Matthew Kane, an elite member of Rhino Squad, you must battle your way through the heart of the Strogg war machine with your squad, in hover tanks and mechanized walkers. Later, after your capture, turn the tide of the war as a marine-turned-Strogg with enhanced abilities and heightened reflexes.

Built on id Software's revolutionary Doom 3 engine, Quake 4 also features fast-paced multiplayer competition modeled after the speed, feel, and style of Quake III Arena.

Battlefield 2
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action, Shooter
Developer  :  Digital Illusions CE (DICE)
Publisher

 : 

Electronic Arts

The sequel to the award-winning online multiplayer Battlefield 1942 franchise, Battlefield 2 drops you into the middle of modern combat. As U.S., Chinese or Middle East Coalition troops, and armed with realistic armaments and vehicles such as Abrams tanks, F-15 Strike Eagles and Wasp Class assault carriers, players take part in massive battles of up to 64 players. Soldier classes range from Snipers to Anti-tank units. A new game engine offers improved visuals, physics and sound, while maps scale in size according to the number of players to provide an intense firefight every time. And with full in-game community support including buddy lists, stat tracking and even a ranking system ranging from Recruit all the way up to General, Battlefield 2 is a sure win.

Star Wars : Republic Commando
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Action, Shooter
Developer  :  LucasArts
Publisher  :  LucasArts

Star Wars Republic Commando is a squad-based first person shooter that lets you explore the elite world of the Star Wars military. Set during the Clone Wars, players take control as the leader of an elite three man squad of clone troopers. Your missions take you deep behind enemy lines, including missions such as hostage rescue, infiltration, sabotage and assault. Fight your way through battle droids and hostile aliens with more than a dozen weapons, including Trandoshan slaver shotguns, Geonosian elite beam weapons and the DC-17m repeating blaster rifle with sniper and anti-armor attachments. Your greatest strength however, lies in your squad. With its unique 'One Touch Squad Control' system, players can issue orders to their team with just a single button. Impressive graphics and generally good production values help bring the relatively dark world of a trooper to life.

 

Other Action Titles Worth Checking Out

Call of Duty 2
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action, Shooter
Developer  :  Infinity Ward
Publisher  :  Activision

In the sequel to the Game of the Year, Infinity Ward returns with more cinematic intensity and chaos than ever before, in some of World War II's most climatic battles. Join huge offensive pushes and actions, as part of the Russian, British or American forces for some of the most memorable scenes in a shooter this year - having bullets raining around you as you scale a sheer cliff at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, to tanks rolling over the trench you're taking cover in as a Russian soldier. Beautifully rendered snow, rain, fog and smoke, combined with dynamic lighting and shadows, help draw players into this war-torn era. In short, it nails down the formula, and it nails it well.

LEGO Star Wars : The Video Game
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Action
Developer  :  Traveller's Tales
Publisher

 : 

Giant Interactive Entertainment

Developed by renowned developers Traveller's Tales, LEGO Star Wars follows the events of all three prequel movies, from Episode I : The Phantom Menance to Episode III : Revenge of the Sith. With characters and places made out of building blocks. What might sound like a gross match-up however, translates into simple, clever gameplay, making hysterical use of its licenses... just imagine Darth Maul packed into an adorable plastic body with itty-bitty grabby hands. From Anakin Skywalker to General Grievous, each with their own special abilities, players control over 30 characters as they play out one of the most beloved sci-fi series in recent history.

Serious Sam II
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Action, Shooter
Developer  :  CroTeam
Publisher  :  2K Games

Sam is back! The light-hearted series made famous for its unrelenting horde of monsters and non-stop action is bigger, better looking, and comes with more crazies than before! The brand new graphics pumps up the visuals and physics by an incredible degree, and gameplay elements such as an assortment of vehicles, and some of the most ridiculous weapons ever seen in a shooter - including a kamikaze parrot - keeps things spiced up. From the jungles of M'Digbo to the Chinatown-like world of Chifang, each location boasts its own horde of hilarious enemies, from floating martial arts masters to the upgraded, yelling headless bombers. Err... sort of anyway. In other words, all the things you liked from the original title are back and more pretty.

 

Adventure games live up to their reputation once again as being the genre on life-support. Emphasizing exploration, puzzle solving and mental prowess rather than an itchy trigger finger, it seems a sad statement that gamers these days are abandoning the genre. Still, what the genre lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Among the releases this year is the final chapter of the renowned Myst series, as well as the tremendously innovative Indigo Prophecy.

 
Myst V : End of Ages
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Adventure
Developer  :  Cyan Worlds
Publisher  :  Ubisoft

More than ten years ago, the original Myst revolutionized the adventure genre with its elegant point and click interface, and its beautiful and detailed pre-rendered scenery, a series staple. Now the series draws to a close with Myst V : End of Ages, a title which stays faithful to its roots with its similarly elegant interface and a truly stunning world rendered in 3D.

Not expecting players to have played the previous four titles, Myst V does a fair job of summarizing the events of the previous games as the story progresses. Two characters you meet up early on are Esher, an enigmatic man with the habit of appearing out of thin air, and Yeesha, a tormented woman whose diaries are scattered throughout the game, and provide some clue about your current predicament. Rarely however, is there any frantic urgency - there are no monsters to battle, no danger threatening to impale you - only worlds to explore, and puzzles to be solved. As always, players explore the rich environments of Myst from a first-person perspective, progressing through four ages, or four different worlds. The goal is to find a special object in each age whose power can be only harnessed once all four have been found. In each age, you'll discover a mystical stone tablet known as a slate. Inscribing the proper symbols may summon the bahro - strange creatures that you catch a glimpse of early on - or even cause environmental effects such as a wind storm or rain to further advance puzzles in each age.

In the end, though it doesn't end on as spectacular a note as one might expect of a series finale, Myst V still represents an enjoyable time for anyone who loves puzzle solving.

In Short : A solid, enjoyable adventure title with an interesting storyline and challenging puzzles. A worthy ending to a landmark series.

 
Indigo Prophecy
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Adventure
Developer  :  Quantic Dream
Publisher

 : 

Atari

Meet Lucas Kane - the proverbial man on the street, with nothing special about him. But when he suddenly loses all control of his actions and finds himself murdering a complete stranger in the restroom of a diner, Kane has no idea what drove him to such an act. The only clue he has is the two snake-like symbols that he carved into his forearms before regaining control, but he has more immidiate problems. New York City police detectives, Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles are hot on his trail - he must cover his tracks and flee the diner. Players experience the story from the perspective of all three characters. Though the main plot points don't change, every action taken as one character affects the other - if Kane fails to cover his tracks completely, the police can use it to track him down easier. Of course, certain actions - such as attempting to run full tilt out of the diner still covered in blood and getting caught by a cop - means game over. The superbly written story weaves a tale of the occult, with suspense dodging your every step.

The production values of the games are mixed. On one hand, the graphics look somewhat dated, with some character models looking just plain ugly. The voice acting however, is top-notched. Combined with a good script, they really bring the characters to life. The decidedly moody soundtrack serves to draw you further into the story.

In Short : Dated graphics, fantastic storyline with multiple endings, superb voice-acting, moody soundtrack. Strongly recommended for any adventure lover's collection - or anyone who just plain enjoys a good story really.

Other Adventure Titles Worth Checking Out

Still Life
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Adventure
Developer  :  Microids
Publisher  :  The Adventure Company

Victoria McPherson is a brilliant young FBI agent who's investigating a serial murder case in Chicago. The body count is now at five and she has no real leads, nothing but a mountain of circumstantial evidence and a boss who's breathing down her neck.

In order to take a break from it all, she decides to visit her father in the suburbs. Their discussions involve family stories which include Victoria's grandfather, who used to be a private investigator. This leads Victoria to read one of her grandfather's old case files, a file which reveals an uncomfortably high number of similarities between a seventy-five year old case in Europe and the current string of killings in Chicago...

As two characters - Gustav (Gus) McPherson, and his granddaughter, Victoria McPherson, players must solve the mystery scenario set in modern Chicago and late 1920's Prague. 3D visuals and a unique dialog tree system keep you in the thick of the mystery.

The Moment of Silence
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Adventure
Developer  :  House of Tales
Publisher  :  The Adventure Company / Digital Jesters

Set in New York City in 2044, players step into the role of Peter Wright, an advertising executive currently heading up the Government's 'Freedom of Speech' campaign. When a heavily armed SWAT team storms his neighbor’s apartment, Peter must uncover the truth behind his mysterious disappearance as he becomes drawn into the deceptive worlds of corruption and power.

Mixing real-world locations with fictitious environments to create immersive and incredibly varied worlds, the Moment of Silence offers more than eight hours of professional voice talent for heart-pounding drama. Traditional adventure puzzles are fused with dialogue choices and moments of high drama, putting the game on par with some of cinema's greatest thrillers, where action sequences are integrated to create a constantly challenging adventure.

 

Though not as numerous as shooters, it's been another great year for the role-playing genre. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) continue to grow more and more popular, with the excellent stand-alone expansion to City of Heroes finally bringing their much needed archenemies into play at last. Of couse, those with a preference for single-player gameplay haven't been left out. The stellar hack-n-slash Fate came out of nowhere to build up a cult-like following, and the expanded version of Peter Molyneux's Fable was released. All in all, a good year.

 
Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  RPG
Developer  :  Irrational Games
Publisher  :  Vivendi Universal

The sequel to 2002's Freedom Force, Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich takes place in 1963, about a year after the events of the first game. The world is at peace, but yet again, nefarious villains are up to no good. Someone has altered the flow of time, allowing the Nazis to win World War II, forcing Freedom Force to travel back to 1942 to set things right. From there, the plot only gets crazier, as every imaginable comic book twist is thrown in for a great story. Our heroes must battle through a Cuban missile base, stage a rescue mission into the heart of a German secret bunker, and fight the forces of the Nazi war machine. While plenty of familiar faces return, new heroes arise to battle injustice, from the macabre Tombstone to the card-flinging Black Jack.

The production values found here are top-notch. Great voice-acting sport just the right amount of seriousness and silliness into the proceedings, creating a light-hearted adventure. Pseudo comic books adorn the loading screens, mirroring Freedom Force's current adventure. Combat is made more satisfying with a large purple WHUD! as enemies are knocked out by the forces of righteousness, or the FOOSH of a flame attack. In general, the presentation is similar to that of a comic book being played out in real-time.

In Short : A fantastic homage to the Silver Age comic books, and a stellar superhero RPG in its own right.

 
Fate
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  RPG
Developer  :  WildTangent
Publisher

 : 

N/A

From out of nowhere, comes the most addictive hack-n-slash fest since Diablo. An adventurer in the fabled forest town of Grove, meeting point between the Old Woods and the Dungeon Gate, you take randomly generated quests from the town folk before delving into the dungeon. From its town portals to the inventory management system, Fate distinctly reminds players of Diablo - yet it is not simply a clone. Several features are added in to keep things fresh. The first of these are pets. Beginning with either a dog or a cat, feeding your pet fish can transform it into the multitude of monsters you'll encounter depending on what type of fish you feed it. While the transformation lasts anywhere from two minutes to being sort of permanent, they can be the deciding factor in especially tough fights - and oh will there be plenty of those, courtesy of the random generator.

The character system also keeps things flexible. Rather than hammer your character into base classes such as warrior, wizard or assassin, players are free to allocate skill and stat points into any attribute they wish. This balances things out nicely, allowing players to wield any item as long as they have the stats to use it. The best melee weapons require incredibly high stats in strength, so a character pumping half his points into magic on the side would probably not be able to use it.

Dying also comes with a twist. Instead of the standard corpse run employed by Diablo II, players have three choices : Restore yourself to full health in the same dungeon level but at a significant hit to experience and fame; be teleported to a 'nearby' level for a fee in gold; or be transported three levels up but leave your gold behind. It certainly makes biting the bullet a lot more interesting. After defeating the final boss, heroes can even choose to retire their character, passing down a valued piece of equipment to your heir along with a fame boost if you wish to start over.

In the graphics and audio department, Fate certainly stands out. The 3D graphics are bright and colorful compared to most dungeon crawlers out there, with beautiful particle effects, especially for enchanted weapons. The music is perfect, though it might get somewhat old after 48 levels of dungeon crawling.

In Short : A solid dungeon-crawler in the vein of Diablo II, with better graphics, random levels, tons of monsters and rare equipment. Not for everyone, but definitely worth it if you enjoy a good hack-n-slash. Only 20 bucks!

Other Role-Playing Titles Worth Checking Out

Fable : The Lost Chapters
Platform  :  PC
Genre : RPG
Developer  :  Lionhead Studios
Publisher  :  Microsoft Game Studios

Based on the best selling award winning Xbox title Fable, "Fable: The Lost Chapters" is now fully optimized for the Windows platform complete with expanded content, greater customization, new quests and enhanced graphics. In this groundbreaking role-playing adventure game from Lionhead Studios, your every action determines your character's skills, appearance and morality. Your character's life story is created from childhood through to adulthood and on to old age. Grow from an inexperienced child into the most powerful being in the world, spoken of by all and immortalized in legend. As additional story and side quests await, choose the path of righteousness, or dedicate your life to evil, and see yourself transform into a reflection of your actions and decisions. Age leaves you wizened and battle leaves you scarred as you explore the world of Albion and the plethora of expanded and enhanced content.

With experience comes advancement and physical change, whether it be expanding muscles, a keen eye and nimble form, or the buzz of magical energies around your finger tips. As you develop your alter ego, the world reacts to you and your actions. People comment on your successes and failures, your appearance, and your behavior. "Fable: The Lost Chapters" offers Windows gamers even more character customization choices that will impact your appearance. The denizens of Albion's many opinions are expressed through applause, mockery, trepidation, panic, and even flirtation if they feel so inclined. Each person you aid, each flower you crush, each creature you slay, will change this world forever. In "Fable: The Lost Chapters", gamers decide: "Who will I be?"

Guild Wars
Platform  :  PC
Genre : MMORPG
Developer  :  ArenaNet
Publisher  :  NCsoft

How about this for a gift - a massively multiplayer game with no online fees. With a mission-based design that helps eliminate kill-stealing, camping and other common grievances, Guild Wars was intended from the ground up to encourage skill and group tactics rather than spending countless hours on a leveling treadmill. You don't have to spend hours running around the world to prepare for a quest, because Guild Wars allows you to instantly travel to the beginning of any quest that you've previously unlocked. You'll never spend days playing, only to discover that the choices you made early have left you with a permanently uncompetitive character. The unique skill system in Guild Wars encourages infinite experimentation but doesn't allow early choices to limit a character. With six professions - Warrior, Ranger, Monk, Elementalist, Mesmer and Necromancer - and more than 150 unique skills character, which can be combined for any number of effects, the possibilities are mind boggling.

In addition, you can create up to four heroes per unique Guild Wars account. New heroes can be deleted and created at any time, allowing you to create specialized characters or to have fun experimenting with profession combinations, skills, and attributes until you create the hero that suits you best.

If you like Player-versus-Player competition, Guild Wars was made for you. In addition to building up a character by undergoing missions and quests, you can choose to create a character specifically for head-to-head PvP competition or guild warfare. The game includes integrated support for guilds, with the ability to create unique guild emblems, to acquire guild halls, and to keep in touch through in-game guild messaging. Guilds can challenge other guilds to battle, compete for control of key parts of the world, and be ranked on a worldwide ladder.

City of Villains
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  MMORPG
Developer  :  Cryptic Studios
Publisher  :  NCsoft

Want to be the bad guy? Wear tights that only the supervillain gig can offer? You have the chance in Cryptic Studios' City of Villains, the standalone expansion to the comic book hero MMORPG, City of Heroes. With a staggering amount of new powers, abilities, and customization options, players can advance from being simple thugs to legendary archcriminals. Supergroups also now gain the ability to build and customize their very own fortresses, complete with diabolical traps and assorted weaponry. And the of course the highlight - being able to take on those pansy do-gooders in PvP combat!

 

Stressing planning and logical thinking, strategy games allow players to build massive armies and conquer the world - one title at a time. Whether you're playing out battles across human history in titles such as Civilization IV, or converting the heathens in god games such as Black & White 2, you know you're in for a lot of fun. And this year is rife with superb titles.

 
Black & White 2
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Strategy
Developer  :  Lionhead Studios
Publisher  :  Electronic Arts

When the acclaimed Black & White arrived in 2001, reactions from both the press and gamers were far from unanimous. Just as many gamers were put off by the bizarre combination of elements and strategy as those impressed by the distinctive theme and artificial intelligence. But without a doubt, it was one of the most intriguing titles of its time. Its sequel fixes many of the mistakes of the original game, retaining that magical spark that made the original what it was.

As before, you are newly fledged god, called down from above by one true prayer. With your divine help, you must aid the Greeks, whose civilization has been destroyed by the Aztecs by helping them rebuild their cities and defeat the Aztecs. How you choose to pursue this goal of course, is entirely up to you. Good gods can choose to build up cities so impressive that citizens from all over are flocking to your door. Evil gods, on the other hand, can build up an enormous army, capturing enemy cities and forcing them to convert instead. City building is definitely one of the highlights this time round - depending on your alignment, cities will grow into a beautiful, shining beacon of light or a dark, oppressive hell-hole with a cracked landscape. This is brought to life with an unbelievably beautiful graphic engine. Grass waves as your hand passes through, tiny flower beds adorn every corner of good cities, spikes jut out of the ground of evil cities. The entire world is a treat for the eyes. Also, your creature now proves more easy to manage as compared to the prequel. Sliders and thought bubbles help you control exactly how you want your creature to react, making it more than an overstuffed tamagochi. Unfortunately, it loses some of its charm and free will in the process - it simply doesn't seem like a living, breathing being anymore.

In Short : An improvement to the prequel in nearly every sense, but with less of its charm intact.

 
Civilization IV
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Strategy, Turn-Based
Developer  :  Firaxis Games
Publisher

 : 

2K Games

If you are a fan or have ever experienced the addictive Civilization series, you can probably just skip this and go pick up a copy right now. For the uninitiated, the basic premise is that you control a culture from its prehistoric beginnings, building cities and advancing your society, gradually learning new technologies till you replace your club and bows with tanks and nukes. You'll compete and clash with other cultures, engaging in warfare or trade - maybe both. You control everything - the economy, politics and even religion. It seems complicated, but in reality the streamlined interface makes managing your civilization a snap. And with every world map being randomly generated, no two games are the same. In a first for the series, everything is brought to life in stunning 3D, rather than the 45 degree view from previous games.

Probably the biggest addition to Civilization IV is the well executed multiplayer - no mean feat for a turn-based strategy game. Games can last a long time - anywhere from hours to days. What makes it work is that it's a rolling game. Players join and leave at will. A game between yourself and AI opponents can turn hectic when other players from the net take over and fill out the ranks. When they leave, they leave the position open, and anyone can come fill it up (assuming it isn't password protected). They can even be saved and picked up again later. Turns in each game happen simultaneously, with an option to turn on a timer to make sure no one holds up the game.

In Short : The most polished and addictive title in the series yet. Fun multiplayer. One more turn... just one more turn...

 
Age of Empires III
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Strategy, Real-Time
Developer  :  Ensemble Studios
Publisher  :  Microsoft Game Studios

The original Age of Empires brought solid gameplay with lifelike graphics to the table. Age of Empires III does no different, exchanging the swords and arrows for muskets and cannons. It doesn't redefine real-time strategy, but it certainly nails down the genre for a fun game. You're still scurrying to collect more resources and put more units on the field, but the presentation is fantastic. Boasting a list longer than your arm - including real-time shadows, high dynamic range lighting and bump-mapping - it pulls out all the stops in depicting the old west and the colonial era, burying players in eye candy. Real physics built into the game engine even causes wooden buildings to shake and splinter as cannonballs shatter into them. In addition, over the three acts of the single-player campaign, solid writing and voice acting help to bring the old west to life.

Still, AoE III does bring some new elements to the table. First, there's shipments. Shipments are stuff you request from your Home City by earning experience, which in turn can be gained from building stuff, killing stuff, or collecting resources. These range from economic resources to extra military units, giving you a leg up on the competition. It also gives players a reason to go all out to rack up those experience points. Then there are trade routes and Native American villages. Trading posts give you free experience and resources whenever trade carts pass by. Native American villages provide cheap military units and tech upgrades. In gameplay, this translates into players sending out skirmishes to contest for these points and take control of them. Finally, there is the Home City. Outside the real-time part of the game, the Home City represents the world power supporting your colonies. The more experience points you earn, the more the Home City prospers, in turn translating into more shipments for you.

In Short : Doesn't redefine the real-time genre, but nails it down for a solid and fun game. Most beautiful strategy game you're likely to see this year.

 

The games industry has always been notorious for its tendency to release expansion after expansion to fully broaden an existing title - case in point, the original Sims had around seven expansion packs! While some of these turn out to be horrendous and lack-luster attempts to capitalize on a product's popularity, there are those which expand the original game so much so that one would wonder how they could have done without it in the first place. These are some of the best expansion packs we found out there this year.

 
Warhammer 40,000 : Dawn of War - Winter Assault
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Strategy, Real-Time
Developer  :  Relic Entertainment
Publisher  :  THQ

The original Dawn of War did a fantastic job bringing Games Workshop's blood-soaked, fantasy influenced future to life. There were a few holes though - every race felt geared towards more aggressive tactics, the Orks felt underpowered, and the single-player campaign was lackluster. Winter Assault fixes these holes. A new race, the Imperial Guard, is introduced. With nearly every building capable of being garrisoned, and stationary guns, they bring along a more defensive style of play, which is sure to draw in at least some of the crowd.

New units help fill in the holes for the other races as well. Chaos Marines get the Khorne Berserker, putting some backbone into their melee, while Space Marines get the Chaplain, who helps buff up ranged units. And the Orks get the Mega-Armored Nobz, a potent melee unit which helps buff up their defense while the Eldar get the Fire Dragon, which unlike most Eldar units, can take a lot more of a beating.

For those who found the original Space Marine campaign lackluster, take heart. Winter Assault is divided into two campaigns - Order (Imperial Guard and Eldar) and Chaos (Chaos Marines and Orks). Though each side consists of only five missions, each one is huge. A neat trick is that in a single mission, players often need to switch between two races multiple times to complete it. For example, in an early mission, the Eldar must take out a series of generators before switching back to the Guard, who can now pass through a gate which was raised due to the generators the Eldar took out.

In Short : Brings a terrific single-player campaign and the Imperial Guard - a defensive race - to the table. New units fills in holes for the other races.

 
Rome : Total War - Barbarian Invasion
Platform  :  PC
Genre  :  Strategy, Real-Time
Developer  :  Creative Assembly
Publisher

 : 

SEGA

Two hundred years have passed since the events of Rome : Total War. The Western Roman Empire is at the brink of braking down, and men in furs with torches are rampaging across the map, which is basically the same one as in the original game, but includes more of Asia and the Middle East, and updated to reflect the current state of affairs. Also, new factions may occasionally arise due to events in-game - including a break-off faction from Rome.

Despite a hundred new units and new factions, the most interesting feature added by Barbarian Invasion is the ability for a whole faction to turn into a horde - a gigantic army of warriors and armed peasants with no cities. Factions such as the Huns start out this way. With this mass of warriors, players loot and pillage their way across the map. Eventually though, hordes must settle down with what they have gained due to attrition, at which point they play the same as any other faction.

In Short : Doesn't reinvent the game much, but brings new maps, new factions, new challenges and the ability to control hordes. A solid expansion.

 
The Sims 2 : University
Platform  :  PC
Genre : Simulation
Developer  :  Maxis
Publisher  :  Electronic Arts

College! Wild parties, insane workloads - it's all here, in the first major expansion to the popular people simulator, Sims 2. Tossing in over a hundred new items and adding significantly to the Sims 2 experience, University shoves in a whole new age between teenager and adult. Sims entering college turn into a 'Young Adult', and stay that way until they graduate. They can join any of the new college campus maps, claim a room in the dorms, join sororities or fraternities, go to classes, write their thesis, have a graduation party... the list goes on. Over the course of their studies, they'll even gain tons of skills and several bonuses, including extra 'want' slots - giving them a huge head start on their future careers. New game elements are also introduced, including 'Lifetime Wants', incredibly lofty goals which will keep that Sim in a permanent platinum mood if achieved. Another element, 'Influence', gained by achieving certain wants, allow Sims to order other Sims to do stuff for you. Forcing some random Freshman to clean the place up for you is fun...

In Short : Brings a whole new age to the table, Lifetime Wants, Influence, and generally adds a laundry list of stuff onto the original game in meaningful ways.



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