PC Games Features
2006 in PC gaming: Where have all the rude boys gone?
By Babak Setayesh Dec 30, 2006, 10:31 GMT
It hasn\'t always been the best of times, but it hasn\'t always been the worst of times either. We take a look back at a year of ups and downs in the PC gaming world.
As I prepare to turn out the lights on yet another year of PC gaming, I am reminded of the many days lost to Civilization, the school-nights spent immersed in TIE Fighter, and the weeks sacrificed to the latest Space Quest. The gratification I got from playing and beating those games was unrivaled by anything my Nintendo or Sega Genesis could offer, and this experience is what I seek to recapture every time I pop in a new game. I am comforted by the thought that, for the most part, the games I want to play are still largely PC games. In a year dominated by high-profile next-gen console releases, one may feel that our beloved platform is being increasingly marginalized. However, despite all the hype surrounding the Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3, the PC is still holding strong.
The uniqueness and flexibility of the PC as a gaming platform has always been one of the driving forces for innovation in the gaming industry, but the high cost and complexity associated with it continues to drive users to consoles. The PC’s traditional advantages have been a strong multiplayer experience, a huge modding community, and a depth of gameplay that goes far beyond what is traditionally seen in the console world. Among other things, the PC has been responsible for the genesis of three important genres: first-person shooters, MMORPGs, and real-time strategy games. How those genres develop and mature is always an important barometer of the PC gaming scene. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at some of the important releases of the year.
Bang you’re dead!
Among the highlights in the FPS arena was the first of three planned Half-Life 2 “expansions” (really standalone games). Half-Life 2: Episode One finds itself on the top of a lot of best-of lists, and deservedly so. Valve’s robust Source engine has been improved upon and the continuation of the storyline proved popular with many HL2 fans. This game proved that top-notch visuals combined with an intriguing story at an inexpensive price point was a killer combination, and showed that a return to the episodic content of yesteryear (in vein of games like Wolfenstein and Blake Stone) was not a bad idea for the lagging PC game market.
Another interesting but somewhat overlooked title was Human Head Studios’ Prey, a mystical alien-invasion story/peyote trip with some inspired level design. The game features very detailed environments which often reverse and rotate. The twist here is a somewhat convoluted storyline that involves a spirit realm, a spirit guide, and Cherokee legends helping you at various points. As an aside, the story of the protracted development cycle of Prey is in some ways more interesting than the game itself.
Of course, one FPS title I can’t forget to mention is EA’s (DICE) Battlefield 2142. I really like this game for a number of reasons. First off, this is the type of game that, owing to its complexity, doesn’t appear on the consoles in an unmolested form, and it is the type of game that I think takes advantage of all of the PC’s capabilities as a platform. The game is the essence of what I think makes the PC great: free multiplayer capability right out of the box. This newest incarnation introduces some interesting twists on the Battlefield formula. Beyond the futuristic battlefields and equipment, the most obvious new wrinkle is the addition of “titan mode”, which involves teams of 24 players trying to destroy the other side’s titan (a giant movable aircraft). While initially cumbersome and slow, the titan mode has been refined through extensive patching and tweaking. This game is definitely worth checking out for even casual fans of the previous Battlefield games.
May all your fantasies come true (yes, that one too)
There has always been a distinct, pronounced difference between console RPGs and PC RPGs. PC RPGs are typically more expansive, non-linear, and statistics-laden than their console brethren, which are generally more linear, story-driven, and action-oriented. If you are a fan of these types of games, then this was your year. 2006 bought two excellent RPGs to the PC: Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is the latest in a series of games based on the Dungeons and Dragons RPG series (that is, the regular pen and paper variety). Those familiar with the D&D rules or even with the plethora of D&D-based computer games will feel comfortable with the basic gameplay. While I haven’t had time to do more than scratch the surface of this title, it seems to be just what the doctor ordered for those craving a rich, detailed hack-and-slash dungeon crawl. The game, like its predecessor, sports a multiplayer toolkit that allows you to customize and run your own adventures with others.
The other title that I thought really delivered was Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This game is a lot like its predecessor, 2002’s Morrowind - which is most certainly not a bad thing. Oblivion has everything we've come to expect from the Elder Scrolls saga: a huge world to explore, an open-ended storyline, and excellent graphics. Bethesda geared Oblivion a little more towards the casual gamer this time around, but all in all, the depth and fun factor are still there. This game, like Morrowind, provides the construction set software that makes creating your own game world more or less painless.
Overall, this was one of the more positive trends of the year, and it is good to see two excellent RPGs that showcase the PC’s capabilities and its capacity for independent content.
Plotting the advance...
2006 brought some other noteworthy additions to several long-running strategy series'. Age of Empires III burst onto the scene in the fall of 2005 and was well-received by fans of the series. The sequel to 2004's Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth was also decent, if a bit overexposed. Neither of these games was particularly revolutionary, however. That honor goes to Company of Heroes, a stunning World War II RTS game from Relic. From the incredible graphics to the impressive AI to the simple joy of stomping Nazis, everything about the game is perfect. This is definitely one title from 2006 that is not to be missed.
Things I would like to see more of...
Developers releasing the multiplayer components of their games for free
I’d like to applaud Monolith and Vivendi for releasing F.E.A.R.: Combat. For those that don’t know, it is the multiplayer portion of 2005’s horror shooter F.E.A.R., released as freeware. This should be happening more often, in my humble opinion.
Signs of life from the adventure game genre
Some of the first truly engrossing computer games were text-based adventures, and Sierra’s classic graphical games were some of the best games of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Since the late 90’s, however, adventure games have largely faded away. In light of this, three of the most pleasant surprises of the year came in the form of two new Sam & Max titles (a huge shout out to Telltale Games for this) and Funcom’s Dreamfall, the sequel to 1999’s The Longest Journey. Both of these revivals are very welcome and long overdue. Hopefully this resurgence continues and we get even more new adventure titles in 2007.
Things that bother me (and should bother you too)...
Shoddy console ports
It used to be that the only console ports we got were sports games and the odd RPG. This is changing, rapidly, and it doesn’t really do it for me. I have said enough.
This has always been a huge issue on the PC, but it has happened so much and so often recently that it has reached a sort of ridiculous level of annoyance. When it gets to the point that a game is delayed repeatedly, finally shipped, and then patched on day one in order to fix fundamental issues, it just irks me to the core. My message to publishers is to not rush developers to finish games for Christmas, where this type of thing tends to happens most often.
Not to pick on a single title, but my first two points are illustrated perfectly by Star Trek: Legacy, the new title from Mad Doc Software (of Empire Earth and Armada fame) that I was really excited to get my hands on, but ended up being a huge disappointment. Not only are the controls obviously geared towards the Xbox 360 version, but the game itself is nothing more than a straight port of that version. Also, the multiplayer - which could have otherwise salvaged the title - didn’t work out of the box. Worst of all, I found the single player element all too short and some of the missions were quite difficult and tedious, even with the voices of all five Star Trek captains.
Is the dwindling number of PC game publishers stifling innovation?
When EA can get away with releasing a slightly upgraded version of the same game year after year, why should they care if it is innovative... or even fun to play? We’ll just have to trust them, I guess. I don’t mean to pick on EA, but the advantages of a consolidated PC game industry are supposed to be reflected in bigger budgets and better quality. That is, until Christmas rolls around and everyone starts to get greedy. As it stands, the supposed benefits are not being realized and we are seeing less variety and more emphasis on putting out proven material instead of branching out into new franchises and areas. I hate to say it, but the large publishers are starting to act like Hollywood studios, with a focus on the bottom line and return on investment over creating a quality product. Hopefully independent game developers can pick up some of the slack and get the big boys to start paying more attention on new concepts and ideas.
While 2006 wasn’t exactly a banner year for PC games in the way that it was for console games - with a noticeable dearth of “revolutionary” titles - it wasn’t a bad year for people who like more of the same. Throughout the year PC gamers were inundated with the latest sequels, expansions, and franchise titles. While most of these were welcomed and enjoyed, I’m always up for something truly new and exciting, something that shakes things up a bit. Something spicy, which makes 2006 pretty bland. Fare thee well, then, 2006, for it is onwards and upwards for this tortured soul. Hope springs eternal in the PC gaming world, and you can check out our preview of the zesty games of 2007 for a healthy dose of optimism. Cheers everyone, and see you next year!