Considering that I still have Christmas thank-you notes to send out, I'd say there's still time to wrap up business from 2005. So, off the top of my head--

-My Favorite Games of 2005-

One of the first to come to mind is The Warriors. I think there's some personal history involved with this one. One of the first games that I was completely in love with was Double Dragon for the arcade and NES. It was a really raw experience (for my 6-year-old self,) what with unapologetically knee-smashing a bunch of jean vest-wearing dudes in the face and throwing them into industrial equipment, tossing knives at a guy (or kicking those knives out of the air with your incredible martial arts skills) and generally just stomping ass in a gritty, no-ruffles setting. I got much the same thrill out of River City Ransom for the NES, then Crime Fighters and Final Fight and the rest of its ilk
. Something about the games reached out to me with their dangerous back-alley appeal. They were edgy. I think that somehow they managed to be my punk rock. I even used to wear one black batting glove with the fingers cut off to play Double Dragon in the arcade at the mall (hardcore!!)

Long, rambling leadup finally meets its end. The Warriors hearkens back to those glory days, reviving a genre that's as dead as Adventures today. It even amps the beat-em-up edginess factor to degrees I wouldn't have been able to handle when I was a kid--drugs, swearing, rampant vandalism and looting, and of course not shortage of blood. It takes its source material and fleshes it out, but also wears away the oddly innocent tone of the original film. The film focused on one crazy night where the Warriors had to keep it together just to survive-- there was no acknowledgment of the daily workings of gang life. The game has more time to wander through old Coney, and focuses on that seedier, dirtier aspect of gang life. The player steals from shops, cars, and passersby, snorts methamphetamines, and straight-up murders dudes. Any naivete leftover from The Warriors film is ground completely out of the game, which isn't necessarily positive or negative, but definitely a notable difference in tone from the source material.

What I love is how Rockstar approaches making a game. They've used modified versions of the same engine for all their games since GTA3, which I think works wonderfully for the scope of projects they choose. Each game builds off of the last, so their entire series of games is part of an iterative process. The Warriors picks up the fighting from Grand Theft Auto but expands and polishes it to an incredible degree. The fighting mechanics aren't overly complex, but neither do they ever get boring. There are a number of different possible vanilla attack combos, plus layers of power moves, reverse holds, tag-team attacks, throws, context-sensitive environment-enabled attacks, thrown and swung weapons, jump attacks, dives, and so forth. The stealth mechanics from Manhunt and GTA: San Andreas make an appearance, but thankfully aren't mandatory in practice (in other words, well-integrated stealth mechanics in an action game, no joke.) The workout routines from San Andreas also pop up. Playing through the game, you can count the various aspects plucked from Rockstar's prior titles and repurposed here, which all work to the game's advantage.

All in all, the level design in The Warriors is probably my favorite aspect of the game. The general philosophy here was to give the player a linear series of discrete levels, each of which wis an objective-oriented nonlinear space for the player to explore and complete.The plot of the game was linear, and each level would always have the same ending, but the levels themselves were pleasing freeform without losing their focus. Often the goals would involve meeting a quota of damage done, property stolen, enemies defeated, or simply to escape the area alive, at which point the player is simply dropped into the playspace, left to decipher the layout and make connections himself, then go about completing the objectives as he sees fit. In my case, this led to some focused emergent gameplay that was so much more satisfying than a would have been possible with a completely linear level structure. Here's my example:

The level is a trainyard. I'm charged with spraypainting "THE WARRIORS" murals on a number of cars. As I explore the trainyard, both a rival gang and police are patrolling the grounds. I've put up a couple of burners when I come across the next spot I want to hit, but wouldn't you know it, a group of rival gang thugs are hanging out right where I want to be. Not long ago I had passed a cop patrol in an alley, so I picked my battle right then and there: I provoked the enemy gang into chasing me, then led them straight back to the cops. During the ensuing brawl I crept away and put up my burner undisturbed.

After finishing the piece it was time to exit the level. The gangs and cops were all riled up and out for my ass, so I got on top of a line of train cars and started booking it towards the exit point. In a dead sprint, the camera was tight over my shoulder, focused straight ahead. Suddenly, as I pass the roof of a warehouse, a cop jumps the gap and lands directly in my path not five feet ahead. I'm holding a glass bottle in my hand and, not breaking stride, jam on the square button and smash the bottle against the cop's head, sending him tumbling off the car as I leap to the next train and continue bolting towards safety. It must have been unscripted, an event that emerged from the combination of the level layout, the enemies present, their aggression levels and pathfinding routines. It all came together to make a moment that really stuck with me, largely because I know it didn't happen for everyone. Structured-emergent level design. I'm into it.

I guess I've said enough about The Warriors to fill a whole Top 10 list, so I'll just mention a couple other titles that snagged me during 2K5:
God of War, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, F.E.A.R., Psychonauts, Battlefield 2, Shadow of the Colossus, Killer7. I wish I could think of more, but titles are starting to run together from 2003 to 2004 to 2005. I'll tell you what, though: I'm definitely looking forward to what's coming in 2006. Metal Gear Solid 4, Bad Day LA, Spore if it hits this year, Condemned and Call of Cthulu on the PC, and who knows what else... There's always so much ground to cover. I hope I'll have time for it all.

Media update for Mapes' Bunker next time.

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