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features /  game column
editor content by: editor
planetside
the year in gaming
Look back in languor.

There's no denying that 2004 has been a big year for games, with the release of some of the most eagerly awaited titles from some of the best known franchises. But does that mean it's also been a significant year? Does it feel like gaming has markedly progressed?

Personally, despite the hours (and hours) of fun I've had from games this year, I'm left with a sense that I've not really experienced anything especially new. Sure, the graphics of Half-Life 2 are impressive, and the Halo 2 AI is remarkable, but where is the innovation in the play dynamics?

The key disappointing factor about playing Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, say, is that it feels like a game that took a very new approach to the franchise, but two years ago. Similarly, Halo 2 is an excellent game, but the campaign doesn't really offer anything new beyond better (if unstable) textures. GTA: San Andreas is essentially the same but more so. And as for Doom 3, it looks great and is an example of games getting even more cinematic, but in terms of play it's the same old.

All the while, something as novel and acclaimed as Katamari Damacy fails to even get a PAL release. And as for my old favourite PlanetSide – a truly innovative game – it's been poorly patched this year, which effectively compromised much of what made it so special. What worries me is that PlanetSide, being ruined before it reached the audience it deserved, may put off other developers from being similarly forward-thinking, especially as not many have the resources of Sony Online Entertainment.

New thinking has been filtering into gaming, but it’s often haphazard or on the periphery of the culture. Fable does highlight one area that commercial games are increasingly creeping into – more complete worlds with more choice - but it failed to really get beyond quest-based storytelling. A problem with San Andreas too.

The GTA games have long pointed towards a type of freedom, a “sandbox” play dynamic where you're not explicitly channelled. It's ironic, then, that San Andreas is the most narrative-heavy so far. And whether something at the opposite end of the commercial spectrum, like Second Life – a kind of über-sim wherein there is no imposition of story – points to one potential future direction is moot.

Another factor, of course, is the hardware cycle. Innovation often accompanies new kit, so there's the reassurance that the upcoming next gen of handhelds (and subsequent consoles) will offer something new. Even though developers of the Tapwave Zodiac failed to capitalize on its touchscreen, it's assured that Nintendo and its third-party associates won't do the same with the new Nintendo DS.

Already, Wario Ware Touched!, Yoshi's Touch & Go, Mr Driller: Drill Spirits, Metroid Prime: Hunters, Pac Pix etc, are all offering some new means of play - even if it is the same old menagerie of characters. It seems there's only so much freshness we can be dealt in one go.


Daniel Etherington 17 December 04
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