Company Of Heroes
Windows of opportunity open but briefly in Company Of Heroes, so when the moment comes, it takes a bad general to look the other way. But when a lone soldier, just a tiny mass of pixels, squirms amid his battalion’s scattered limbs in a distant corner of the map, that’s exactly what you’ll find yourself doing. Patrols get diverted, stockpiles plundered and frontlines left with just a skeleton crew.
From its lofty perch above an RTS battlefield, Relic gets to the heart of WWII, turning the genre’s plusses and minuses into salvation and sacrifice. If only the same could be said of countless firstperson shooters.
It’s impossible to imagine Advance Wars being improved. Every sequel since has simply tried adding to a formula that was already perfect.
New units, secondary battlefields, emo storylines, multitudes of maps, amphetamined-up CO Powers – nothing has improved on the clear-cut balances of units versus CO abilities that graced the first GBA version. Winning S ranks on every Battle Map stands as one of gaming’s great achievements – marshalling vast conflicts on land, sea and in the air, minimising casualties under strict time limits, is an abiding obsession.
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas
How many open worlds really live up to the name Not many, especially all those trapped in some Truman Show-esque bubble.
Ask why someone prefers San Andreas over Vice City and IV and they’ll say the same thing: just grab a bike, point it at the horizon, and after a half-hour’s ride you’ll find out. A titanic expression of freedom before next-gen reined it all back in, Rockstar’s ode to the ’90s reaches far beyond the bloodied turf and ghettos of a gangsta’s paradise. A flawed epic that’s arguably better because of it.
Mario Kart DS
You’d think it outdated. Every iteration of Mario Kart sticks rigidly to 17-year-old mechanics, imposing predetermined finishing positions with unabashed elastic-banding (and, in later games, unleashing the dreaded blue shell).
But as much as Mario Kart tries to regulate and even punish player skill, everyone keeps coming back to it. Experienced players can learn shortcuts and exploit its attempts to level the playing field, while casual ones can appreciate its assistance. The first to feature online and sporting a series-best course selection, the DS version still serves unsurpassed social and solo kart racing, all in a handy handheld format.
Medieval II: Total War
The Creative Assembly
For once, ‘total’ isn’t just hyperbole: these games are as complete a depiction of war as there has been in a videogame – a scale of detail that extends from the swish of individual pike-points to grand diplomacy.
The coming months will prove whether Empire can transcend it in the longer term, but right now the high water mark is Medieval II. Peerless in its depiction of minutiae, the game’s sweep of time fixes its thrilling strategic action in the context of crusades and papal politicking – but its historical inspiration never obscures its excellence as a game.
Final Fantasy XII
No game has ever begun quite like Final Fantasy XII, in which every member of the cast is massacred. That opening is indicative of the scale in which one of the series’ greatest adventures plays out.
An empire will fall, says the blurb, and for once it actually does. Other series firsts include realtime battles, the MMORPG-inspired gambit system to control your team, and decent voice acting, while a bounty-hunting subgame sprawls into one of the all-time best JRPG timesinks. A masterpiece.
Virtua Fighter 5
One of gaming’s great myths is that VF is inaccessible to all but the initiated. It takes care of frame-counting junkies, of course, but the core of AM2’s series is a beautiful balance of attack, block and counter-attack that anyone can enjoy.
Each new entry refines, making that solid animation even more seamless and introducing new characters that seem like they were always there.
And for those who think the series austere, you can dress yourself in a silly hat to make a beating all the more painful.
The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker
No one would pretend that The Wind Waker is a finished game. But other than its truncated ending, it’s as sharply designed as any in the Zelda series, and surely the most achingly charming.
The art style, so clean, charismatic and breezily fitting to the maritime setting, surely cannot age: the weighty swagger of a Moblin, Link’s eyes and curlicued clouds of smoke. Remember the anticipation of setting sail towards a newly sighted island
Hyrule’s high seas are always a pleasure to return to.
Grand Theft Auto Vice City
Forget its comparative credentials within the GTA canon: Vice City isn’t here because it introduced motorbikes, but for its distillation of a time.
The details – Blondie on the radio, tinted specs and shoulder-pads – just add texture to a super-concentrated synthesis of ’80s pop culture.
Palpably obsessed by film, but wickedly playful in its reference to it, Vice City is an acerbic parody of every Mafia movie ever made, evoking a world of wiseguys, crime, coke and corruption that is as equally repulsive as it is nostalgic.
Though technically surpassed, the seedy allure of its setting is yet unmatched.
Metal Gear Solid 3
If MGS2 was an exercise in confinement, MGS3 is one in expansion. The dense and low-tech Soviet jungle broadens Snake’s world, making what was right-angled organic, bringing what was distant into breathy proximity.
Each area is a bubble of tactical possibilities for both gung-ho action and furtive creeping, and behind every door lies some wry detail, with every interaction a knowing response.
Though hardly free of MGS flab and bluster, part three shines with the purest intent and most cunning imagination.