Let’s get this out of the way up front. This year’s Gaming Awards won’t include any Duke Nukem Forever jokes. We’re not going to mock Jack Thompson, Hillary Clinton, or Joe Lieberman. Nor will we take any digs at our console-gaming, thumb-monkey counterparts. And we won’t even mention the debacle known as the PlayStation 3 launch.
This year we’re simply going to praise our favorite gaming moments from 2006. Last year was a banner year for PC gaming, chock-full o’ amazing experiences that you just couldn’t get on any other platform. And the PC proved to be the best platform for many multiplatform games—Oblivion, anyone? We also saw a couple of new trends really take root. The fi rst episodic games appeared, and we reveled in their too-short glory. We also saw the good and bad of microtransactions, with some publishers delivering hours of gameplay for a nominal price, while others gouged for tutorials and cheat codes.
In short, 2006 was like any other year. Some good stuff happened, along with some bad. But we played dozens of games and enjoyed a whole bunch of them. So without further ado, let’s roll out the metaphorical red carpet and begin the annual bestowing of props!
That’s right, rub your eyes. There’s no typo here. We spent more hours online in 2006 with Battlefield 2 than we did with any other multiplayer game, even though it was 2005’s war. EA’s release of two lean booster packs kept us hooked on the habit, taking the good fight from the Great Wall of China to the suburbs of Middle America. We were far from enthralled with its futuristic sequel’s obnoxious in-game ads and dearth of vehicles—real men fly jet fighters. Home’s where the heart is, and our hearts are still bleeding on the streets of Karkand, Mashtuur, and Sharqi.
www.battlefield2.ea.com, ESRB: T
In-game advertising is a necessary evil; whether you like it or not, it’s here to stay. The thing is, when done properly, you’ll barely even notice it. The ads in Ghost Recon are placed on large billboards that are high in the sky. Instead of drawing your attention away from the action, they add to the game’s sense of realism, giving you the feeling you are playing in the real world. Nokia, we noticed your ads, and we appreciate you not ruining our game.
www.ghostrecon.com, ESRB: T
Surprisingly, both the least- and most-offensive in-game ads we’ve seen this year were from the same publisher: Ubisoft. The ads in Rainbow 6: Vegas are both ubiquitous and intrusive. They stand out not just because of the cheesy copy but because their textures seem to be fuzzier and of a lower resolution than the surrounding walls. Nivea, Axe, and Comcast, your ads are lame and they annoy us. That is all.
www.rainbowsixgame.com, ESRB: M
This award could have also been titled Biggest System-Requirements Fibber, as FSX crawls at near-slide-show levels on machines vastly exceeding Microsoft’s guidelines. This might tick off many gamers, but honestly, it thrills the masochist in us. We just love it when a game comes out that punishes top-end PC hardware—it gives us a new performance benchmark with which to showcase the most cutting-edge gear. We’re sure this game won’t run at its maximum potential until the release of DX10, spawning a wave of upgrades across the country.
www.microsoft.com/games, ESRB: E
If you’re stuck in the boonies with limited or no access to the Internet, crying in your +7 Orcish Armor of Dread about not being able to join the MMO party, we have good news: Oblivion is the next best thing, if not THE best thing. This massive RPG has just about all the best MMO gaming elements—free-form gameplay, a huge world to explore, tons of side quests, rideable horses, houses and businesses you can own, scores of NPCs to interact with, and downloadable content—and none of the nasty side effects (glorified that rooms and annoying noobs talking about Hilary Duff while you’re trying to slay dragons).
www.elderscrolls.com, ESRB: M
The simultaneous release of Oblivion on the 360 and PC made the console fanboys proclaim victory in the ongoing console-vs.-PC debate. But they cried victory too soon! Oblivion served to illustrate the fact that the PC remains, without a doubt, the most powerful, flexible, and enjoyable gaming platform on the planet. Not only does Oblivion look better on the PC, but several free PC-only mods have fixed the game’s flaws—does anyone like the console-tastic interface? Not only that, but we enjoy being able to play without enduring 30-second load times every three minutes.
www.elderscrolls.com, ESRB: M
Forget space Camp. Not since the original Descent has our ability to stomach disorienting environmental twists and flips been put to such a test. The unique combination of gravity-shifting panels that turn rooms upside down and portals that create Escher-like spatial puzzles warrants not only special acclaim, but doses of Dramamine too. The best part about Prey is that its unconventional level design transfers to the multiplayer arena as well. We had great times fragging buddies while running upside down and dropping grenades... upward. Take that, gravity!
www.prey.com, ESRB: M
Our game time with Defcon would probably have been even more enjoyable if it weren’t part of our job. The gracefully designed strategic simulation of nuclear war is fun to play not only for its hidden complexity, but also because it’s the perfect office distraction. This is the kind of game that sparks budding workplace alliances and collusion against the bosses. In fact, the "office mode” of gameplay forces rounds to run in real time, lasting up to six hours. Those of you who can devote six hours of an eight-hour work day to nuking your communist coworkers are our nation’s true heroes.
www.everybody-dies.com, ESRB: NR
You’ve got to love an RTS that lets you slay 10,000 orcs in a little less than two hours (that’s roughly 84 orcs/minute) in skirmish mode, and that’s just one of the reasons we loved The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth II. This point-and-click fest beautifully captures the look, feel, scope, and mayhem of the epic battles in Jackson’s films and Tolkien’s books. This could be the best movie-licensed game yet, and proof positive that coughing up for a major license isn’t always a waste of time, money, DVDs, and hard drive space.
www.ea.com, ESRB: T
You guys love repeating the same tricky section of a game over and over just to defeat a challenging boss, right? Neither do we. Prey tries a new tactic to reduce the death penalty and make gameplay more fun. Instead of loading your last save every time you die, Prey has you play a brief minigame to restore your health and vital stats before the game reinstates your corporeal body right back where you died. Any time a dev adds fun where most games add heartbreak, we’ll salute them!
www.prey.com, ESRB: M
We were afraid that George Lucas had tainted the Episode 1 badge forever with The Phantom Menace. But Half-Life 2: Episode 1 not only proves that Episode 1s do not have to suck but also gives us hope that episodic gaming will provide us more frequent, if necessarily shorter, tastes of our favorite games. Going episodic will force developers to maintain quality throughout their games—after all, if Half-Life 2: Episode 2 sucks, no one will buy Episode 3.
www.half-life.com, ESRB: M
We love game devs who take the time and money to write and record dialogue for the underappreciated, hapless stooges who are the cannon fodder that make our games fun. It all started with No One Lives Forever, but this year, Hitman: Blood Money used stooge dialogue to inject needed comic relief in a brutally brilliant game. Creeping through missions, we heard everything from Mob bosses calling in hits to musings on the meaning of being a professional henchman.
www.hitman.com, ESRB: M
We’ve played tons of video games that promised to force us to make tough decisions, but most of them presented nothing more than straightforward choices between right and wrong. Double Agent thrusts multiple moral quandaries upon you—Jack Bauer-style—and forces you to discern different shades of gray. Should you kill an innocent man to save thousands of lives? Only you can decide.
www.splintercell.com, ESRB: M
Stroll into The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop on any given day and you’ll find Jeffrey Albertson laying down authoritative verdicts on pop-culture happenings. But even the Comic Book Guy would have to agree with us that Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is the holy grail of comicbook games. Not only can you control 20 of the greatest superheroes from the Marvel universe, but more than 100 familiar Marvel faces make cameos throughout the game. It’s another reason for geeks to stay indoors—sunlight is overrated anyway.
www.marvelultimatealliance.com, ESRB: T
The eponymous movie was an amazing spectacle of grandiose cinema, and its game counterpart performs admirably as a complement to the man vs.beast epic. Gameplay is split between playing as Jack Driscoll leading the daring film crew through Skull Island and Kong gracefully swinging through the jungle and besting ferocious dinosaurs. For those of you who enjoyed the movie (us included), King Kong clued us in to what was happening behind the silver-screen story, filling in some plot holes along the way. The brief adventure is capped off with an alternate ending to the movie, “revising” the Kong canon for fans who couldn’t stand to see the big guy die.
www.kingkonggame.com, ESRB: T
OK, we admit it: We thought the WWII gaming horse had been beaten well beyond bloody pulp and was now best reserved or glue production. Company of Heroes proved us wrong, dead wrong. Extremely clever “attack from anywhere” mission design (read: no choke points) and over-the-top sound and pyrotechnics had us zapping Nazis with unbridled joy all over again. Heck, Company of Heroes even had nongamer editors playing. We can’t wait for the add-ons.
www.companyofheroesgame.com, ESRB: M