Summary: Need last-minute ideas for a gift for a gamer? Jakub tosses up his favorite games of the year, including some he wishes he didn't lose the discs for! Then there's the small matter of his favorite piece of hardware so far this year. Check it out!
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
What kind of l33t hardware would this gamer want? Well, upon consideration, it was a surprise to me that the piece that impressed me most in the past year offered most of its benefits on the desktop. The 9700 Pro is revolutionary. The All-in-Wonder version is extremely tempting, but I suspect until Doom III comes out, I just won’t feel the need to upgrade. On the other hand, in recent months I’ve felt an acute irritation with desktop performance. Lo and behold, came the new King of the Hill, like a knight in shining armor to rescue me from my multi-tasking woes. If anybody is going to get me a piece of hardware for Christmas, that’s going to be it!
King of the Hill
For the past two years, Intel and AMD have been exchanging top spots quicker than a poker cheat changes cards. With only two exceptions, the lead has changed every month or so. Both involved what has now become a staple of the industry, the paper launch. The first occurred when Intel’s Pentium III line was running out of steam but the Pentium 4 wasn’t ready. Now, we see the opposite scenario, as AMD’s current Athlons are on their last legs while they await the launch of the 64.
With the mainstream adoption of the NT platform in the shape of Windows XP, simultaneous multiprocessing (SMP) on the mass market became feasible. AMD dabbled in it with some success using the Athlon MP, but the extra costs and complexities involved with a multi-chip solution have scared off many potential buyers. By including simultaneous multi-threading on the 3.06 and all future chips by default, Intel is removing all choice in the matter from the buyer’s hands. Since the average mainstream user is completely clueless about computer hardware and would be inclined to buy a 2.0GHz P4 over an Athlon XP 2400 because the ‘megahurts are higher’, we’re siding with Intel on the decision to cram it down their throats. It’s for the best, really.
This isn’t so much an honorable mention as a wistful sigh. Athlon MP 2400s were just announced. If they had a faster solution available, I’d be hard-pressed to put the Pentium 4 3.06GHz as my hardware gift of the year. The price of the P4 is ridiculous to the point that a real SMP solution is just as financially feasible. For sheer geek bragging value, it’s hard to beat a SMP setup, though mommy and daddy would probably feel more comfortable with a single-chip solution.
There are a few great indie games that come out of the blue every year. We made some effort in the past few months to cover some of them, to, sadly, disappointing results (‘this reporter, for one, puts the blame squarely on you, the reader!’ –my best impression of Kent Brockman). Still, two we reviewed recently both scored top marks and would serve as excellent gifts.
We’re going to war
Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin is quite possibly the most accurate tactical combat war sim ever. It is definitely the most impressive wargame we’ve had the opportunity to play with in years. CMBB covers the entire eastern front, from Finland to Romania, Berlin to Stalingrad. Every unit, no matter how obscure, somehow founds its way into the game. There are Hungarian assault guns and French-built Romanian tanks. The game even models the Brinell hardness numbers of armor on vehicles, as well as the general quality. Early-war Russian tanks had poor armor, as did late-war German ones. Everything from the mundane (like a shell’s trajectory) to the unexpected (artillery strike delays) finds a place in the game model. If you know a war buff and want to surprise them this year, this is the game to get.
Shattered Galaxy is one of the most underappreciated titles out there. Although it’s been on the market for over a year, people still resist giving it a chance. Speaking from experience, a big part of the reason is the unfamiliar concept. It took Rory, the reviewer who last covered it, over a week to convince me into trying it. SG sounded so weird, with only 6-12 units per player, and 15 players per side, that something spoke to me and said “nah, this has to suck, they can’t pull it off.” Boy, was I wrong. Some key parts of the game are just well, let’s not mince words - ghetto. The graphics and the missing sound effects are as disappointing as anything we’ve ever encountered. Yet within sixty seconds of stepping on the battlefield, they’re completely forgotten. Like Pontifex or Tetris, this is a game that doesn’t just rise above its technical shortcomings, it makes you forget them completely.
Is there such a Blizzard title that fails to sell gabillions of copies through pre-orders alone? Or one that doesn't bring the internet to its knees for the first week of its release, as battle.net gets flooded with a horde of new gamers?
Age of Mythology is Ensemble’s best game yet. Since it’s not as popular as WarCraft, you’re more likely to fill someone’s need by dropping this bundle of joy under the Christmas tree. Ensemble Studios addressed some major complaints with Age of Kings by releasing this, specifically adding more variety to the civilizations. The Norse are as distinct from the Egyptians as they are from the Greeks. With three major gods per civilization to fine-tune your experience, Age of Mythology offers perhaps the first balanced racial customization on the market. The new Ensemble Online matchmaking service is as easy to use as battle.net and offers more and more easily accessible statistics.
Neverwinter Nights is easily the most ambitious RPG ever. Though its singleplayer campaign disappointed, it was still a worthwhile experience. At the time the game was released, the best had not yet come. BioWare took a huge gamble by focusing their efforts on Neverwinter’s toolkit and community – and it paid off. There are more quality modules out there now than you can shake a stick at. Some, like The Witch’s Wake, are official BioWare releases. Yet the most famous are community-created mods like the odd Penultima or the fully-featured Elegia Eternum.
Get your motor runnin’
Grand. Theft. Auto. 3.
At last we shall reveal ourselves to the Jedi
Jedi Knight 2 was the ultimate singleplayer Star Wars experience. Despite all the trust that Raven Software had built up with me over the years, I feared they might not be able to pull off a Jedi Knight game. Whereas the first Jedi Knight suffered from a primitive graphics engine, there was no such knock on this Quake III-powered beauty.
The Fields of Mars
Battlefield 1942 had the staff at FiringSquad by the balls from the day the demo hit web servers. Using the game’s inherent strengths, a brilliant marketing campaign put it on front pages everywhere as QuakeCon attendees forgot about Quake when the multiplayer demo was released. Word-of-mouth and press coverage piqued everyone’s imagination.
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