Happy new year to everyone.
Before I do anything else I must congratulate Good friend and compadre Jon Dobbin - Jondre has just become a Daddy! He's got a great story to start the new year with - and baby Emily and Momma Kate are doing fine. I'll leave it for him to tell, if he updates anytime soon.
Meanwhile - with the start of 2007, it's time for me to look back on the best of 2006 - as i did last year - with a look at what i considered the finest moments in gaming, movies, and music throughout the year. And i have to say - i've been doing this sort of thing for a few years, and this year was by far the hardest, as I really consider 2006 a banner year for films, music, and games.
Same rules apply as last year - i may be crazy, but you really don't need to remind me - friendly comments are always welcome.
Lets get the show on the road.
Best of 2006 - THE GAMES
Valkyrie Profile 2 is actually a prequel to a seldom heard of, but absolutely fantastic PSOne RPG released in 1999. The game puts the player into the shoes of Silmeria, a renegade Valkyrie exiled from Valhalla, desperately trying to stop a mortal king from discovering an ancient power he could use to wage war on the gods. Along teh way you pick up several party members in the forms of Einharijar, dead souls which the Valkyrie can harvest from ancient relics found in dungeouns. The combat system is one of the deepest i've ever encountered, the game itself is immense in size, the character designs are beautiful, and the entire game is a technical marvel on the ps2, with some amazing graphics and effects.
Lenneth is a direct port of the original PSOne RPG, Valkyrie Profile, released to little fanfare and less supply in 1999. If anything, the original game, one of the very best RPG's available for Sony's grandaddy console, actually benefits from the smaller display. The hand-drawn 2d sprites look sharper, and the animation is stellar. In the game you play Lenneth, a Valkyrie in service to lord Odin. Your quest involves scouring the mortal realm of Midgard for souls on the brink of death, and guiding said souls to Valhalla to do battle at Ragnarok. Where the game really excels is in how it tells the stories behind the individuals you encounter. At once touching, heartbreaking, or downright tragic. The combat that does occur is a fast paced, turn-based affair that is quite addictive. The game does impose something of a time limit, which increases the urgency of your quest, and different endings allow for a few re-plays. The soundtrack is also quite awesome. A classic JRPG that shines on Sony's handheld system.
Metal Gear as we've come to know and love, in portable form! Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops picks up a few yeasr after MGS3: Snake Eater ends, and provides a very similar gameplay experience. The aspects of MGS that fans have come to love are all pretty much intact, the deep storyline, engaging stealth-based gameplay, and solid production values. Throw in a robust multiplayer mode, and the ability to recruit followers off of the battlefield, and you get a remarkable piece of portable software - a must have for MGS fans who happen to own a PSP.
Pretty much since day 1, The Call of Duty series' claim to fame has been replicating the sheer insanty of war. No game in the series has done it better than Call of Duty 3. Technology wise, the game is a step or two beyond last years entry in the series, with some amazingly beautiful graphics that scream "next-gen" to the player. Treyarch, the guys behind the excellent "Big Red One" entry in the series, take the development duties this time around, adding their flair for narrative to the chaotic combat. You get to know these characters a little more than you would in a typical WWII Shooter. You get some new experiences, playing as a Polish tanker, or Canadian infantry, and you also get a fully featured online mode complete with classes and an elaborate ranking system. While the Call of Duty games seldom attempt to re-invent the WWII shooter genre, they are consistantly the best entries in the crowded market, and Call of Duty 3 easily takes the crown for best entry in the franchise so far.
You take command of Cpt. Scott Mitchell and the Ghosts, an elite team of US Special Forces. The mission this time around is to thwart a military coup of Mexico by fighting through armed insurgeants in a deserted Mexico City. Ghost Recon: advanced Warfighter (or GRAW, as it is affectionately called) is a "next generation" shooter from the ground up. It features inherent game design choices that elevate it above and beyond anything you've played on a PS2 or Xbox, add in drop-dead gorgeous visuals, an amazing multiplayer mode that feels like a stand alone game in itself, and incredibly tight polish and controls, and you get the best tactical shooter ever concieved, and the first "must have" title released for Microsoft's then fledgling xbox360. Sure Rainbow Six: Vegas is pretty cool and all, but GRAW is where it's at.
The first one was awesome, the second is even better. The track selection is more varied, with some more endearing tunes, the gameplay has been tightened, made slightly more difficult, and the mutliplayer has been vastly improved - featuring the ability to play bass, rythm, and lead sections of songs independantly. I defy anyone to play Freebird and not have a big stupid grin on their face.
Long considered a dark horse in Microsoft's next-gen arsenal, Gears wasn't released, it was unleashed. Whatever doubts anyone may have had were certainly laid to rest when this puppy hit. This is the Halo of this generation, an incredibly well-designed and executed shooter that differs from anything else on the market. It's incredibly refreshing to play a third or first person shooter that actually has a learning curve, it proves that innovation within the crowded genre is far from dead. The fact that Gears looks better than ANYTHING else released this year on pc or console definitely helps it's case. The fact that it controls well, has an incredibly fun multi-player component, and an incredibly cool back story is just icing on the cake. It's intense, it's addictive, it's gory, it's fun as hell. Still not sold? It has a huge assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet.
Four years and change were spent on development of this one, and it shows. Nintendo's Zelda series has long been a hallmark of video gaming, and Twilight Princess is quite possibly the single best entry in the long running series to date. Graphically, it pushes the aging Gamecube for all that it's worth, and unlike other entries in the series, there's more going on here than just "save the princess". It's really the narrative of Twilight Princess that sets it apart. The excellent gameplay of past entries is present, and then some, and whether you go with the Cube or Wii version, you're getting one amazing gameplay experience.
This was one of the hardest decisions i've ever had to make. Oblivion is quite simply a classic experience. One of the best, most fully realized game worlds ever commited to console or computer. The freedom you're given from the word "Go!" is unmatched in any other game, and yet, the wizards at Bethesda also manage to cram in one incredible storyline, several side stories centered around the game's different factions, and top it all off with some jaw-dropping visuals and audio. This is quite simply one of the greatest games of the last decade. If I were to factor in the additional downloadable content, like the excellent "Knights of the Nine" package, we would probably be looking at the game of the year. But I had to judge it based on what shipped initially. Maybe next year for PS3.
Game of the Year
Subject of heated debate and outright rage amongst the Final Fantasy hardcore. FFXII was perhaps one of the most hotly debated games within many circles, until it's release. Square-Enix updated the gameplay, made changes from the ground up, creating a completely different animal from what people have come to expect. It was a huge gamble, but the game that emerged is one of the most original, engaging, and incredibly well executed pieces of software to come from a company long heralded for their quality. It is, in my book, the single best game, RPG or otherwise, to ever grace Sony's now venerable PS2. The game is a marvel of game design, a shining example of art design over shiny new technology (much like last year's Shadow of the Colossus), and a joy to play. Characters have long been a hallmark of the series, and Final Fantasy XII is one of the better entries here, with some amazing personalities, all wonderfully voice acted. The game's storyline is suitably epic, without the doomsday prophecy elements of past games in the series. It was a close race between this and Oblivion, but ultimately, based on the strengh of it's gameplay, and the amazing story it tells, Final Fantasy XII recieves the top honors.
Other amazing games that didn't quite make the list:
Rainbow Six: Vegas (xbox360)
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (PSP)
Driver: Paralell Lines (PS2, Xbox)
Tekken 5: Dark Ressurection (PSP)
Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3)
Tomb Raider: Legend (Xbox360, PS2, Xbox)
Hitman: Blood Money (Xbox360, Ps2, Xbox)
Ultimate Ghouls n Ghosts (PSP)
Street Fighter Alpha Anthology (PS2)
Dead Rising (xbox360)
Black (PS2, Xbox)
Splinter Cell: Double Agent (Xbox360)
Splinter Cell: Double Agent (Xbox, PS2) - not the same game as above.
Monster Hunter: Freedom (PSP)
New Super Mario Bros (DS)
Final Fantasy III (DS)
Up next: Music!