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And so, this seems like the perfect year for GameBanshee to start a regular â€œGame of the Yearâ€ feature. That title is a little deceptive, though, because weâ€™re not going to pick an all-encompassing winner but instead focus on the RPGs that stood out in the writing, setting, graphics, and sound departments, and then offer our picks for the top role-playing games in three separate categories. Anyway, letâ€™s get on with it.
Mass Effect (Winner)
While there were definitely some disappointing design choices that went into Mass Effect, we canâ€™t help but recognize just how good the gameâ€™s storyline is. The concept of a legion of intelligent machines continually purging the galaxy of all life might not sound particularly gripping, but thereâ€™s a lot more to the gameâ€™s storyline than one originally expects. To make the experience even more fulfilling, the story is conveyed through state-of-the-art cinematic-quality cutscenes, as well as one of the most extensive and informative codex systems weâ€™ve seen in a game to date.
As a whole, Mass Effectâ€™s storyline is easily the best sci-fi tale weaved in a video game since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. There are moments of sheer brilliance during the gameâ€™s main quest, and despite the fact that the game is only the first in a trilogy of sci-fi titles, the ending is surprisingly satisfying and sets the stage perfectly for a sequel.
NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer (Runner-up)
Obsidian Entertainment is always pretty good about incorporating a substantial story into their games, and Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is no exception. The expansion pack includes a story that has little to do with the usual RPG fare, opting instead for one that focuses on your character and how you can right old wrongs and cure yourself of a god-given curse. The story is helped along by five possible companions, all strongly written and acted. By implementing fewer companions, Obsidian was able to spend more time on each one, developing them enough so that youâ€™re more likely to care what happens to them. Plus, any game that writes a substantial amount of dialogue for a rainbow-colored spirit bear gets our vote.
BioShock is an easy winner in a year that had a very large selection of newborn franchises and expansive settings to work with. But where most other games show love and attention to detail in the crafting of a new world, BioShock has that and the added bonus of being one of the most attractive and unique settings weâ€™ve ever seen.
One could question if Ayn Randâ€™s notoriously bad writing is something youâ€™d really want to fit a setting on, but thereâ€™s no doubt that Objectivism â€“ the philosophy born in her book â€“ speaks to a lot of people. The pivotal questions BioShock asks, both in its plot and in its world, are questions dealing with freedom and humanity that a lot of people can relate to. And in a time when fantasy is still waving a supreme flag, while science fiction and even the expanding post-apocalyptic genre arenâ€™t bringing in too much originality, this dystopic retro-50s sci-fi city of Rapture brings us something that can justly and simply be called â€œsomething else.â€
Perhaps this is a part of BioShockâ€™s connection to Ayn Randâ€™s Atlas Shrugged. Just like Atlas Shrugged was a terribly written work that is saved in collective memory thanks to the powerful message of Objectivism, BioShock could be perceived as a mediocre shooter hybrid with only a few new ideas thatâ€™s saved by the powerful message represented in its setting.
Hellgate: London (Runner-up)
Hellgate: London nearly cinched our "Disappointment of the Year" award due to EA and Flagshipâ€™s â€œship first, patch laterâ€ stunt, but that doesnâ€™t mean it didnâ€™t have one of the most intriguing settings weâ€™ve seen in a long time. Set in a post-apocalyptic, demon-infested version of London, Hellgate introduces us to a futuristic version of the Knights Templar organization, a heavily modified London Underground, and a fusion of both modern weaponry and arcane magic.
Throughout the game, players are given a chance to see many of Londonâ€™s historic landmarks in the crumbled and dilapidated state one might expect given the circumstances. A sense of reality is often used as a way to tap into a personâ€™s emotions during films and games, but it is not always successful. Flagshipâ€™s attention to detail strengthens the setting in this aspect.
Put all of these elements together and you have one of the best settings ever to grace the action RPG genre - with even greater potential for depth if Flagship takes it in the right direction.
BioShock sometimes strikes us as a kind of confused horror game, leaning towards the easy manipulation of oneâ€™s nerves like weâ€™d expect from, say, Capcomâ€™s Resident Evil series. Nonetheless, BioShock floats on a balanced atmospheric soundtrack.
What pulls it up further in this category is the superb voiceover work in this game. Every voice that emanates from the gameâ€™s audio diaries is very convincing and supports the underwater cityâ€™s shattered architecture perfectly.
Mass Effect (Runner-up)
After collaborating with Jack Wall on Jade Empireâ€™s soundtrack, BioWare opted to bring him back on board for Mass Effect. It was a wise decision, as the music created by the veteran composer fits the gameâ€™s futuristic deep space setting very well.
Where the gameâ€™s audio really shines, though, is in the voiceovers. The actors that voice the gameâ€™s various races and squad members couldnâ€™t have better picked, as each one feels â€œspot onâ€ during the gameâ€™s up-close-and-personal dialogue. Our only real complaints about the sound are that the Geth sound nearly identical to KotORâ€™s Selkath race and that Kaidan Alenko is voiced by the same actor that did Carth Onasi (Raphael Sbarge) in both Knights of the Old Republic games. As most people picking up Mass Effect will no doubt have already played at least one KotOR game, it seems like an odd decision to have used the same actor for such a key companion.
Despite its many strengths, BioWare's sci-fi epic was the game that most disappointed us this year. After releasing an amazing game like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to virtually unanimous praise, you'd think the development team would have used a nearly identical formula while constructing Mass Effect. Instead, they took Mass Effect in the same direction that Bethesda took Oblivion after Morrowind's success - they developed it for the masses. The game's character development options have been drastically reduced from dozens of unique attributes, feats, skills, and force powers to a handful of talents and unoriginal biotic abilities. KotOR's hundreds of hand-crafted items with long, witty descriptions and various statistics and effects have been cast aside in favor of an uninspired equipment system with three numeric scores and a Roman numeral to define each item's power. On top of that, enemy strength and loot are scaled to the player's level Oblivion-style, the number of companions compared to all other BioWare RPGs has been reduced, inter-party dialogue is strictly limited to the ship, combat is real-time and only allows for limited strategic maneuvering while paused, and landing on uncharted planets is, well, not what it was cracked up to be.
As a result, Mass Effect is essentially an action title with subpar RPG elements, and for that it receives our "Disappointment of the Year" award. While the game is still certainly worth playing for its excellent audio, cinematic dialogue, and storyline, Mass Effect is arguably BioWare's most lackluster role-playing game to date.
Geneforge 4: Rebellion (Winner)
In a year when several promising newcomers are making noise on the indie market, it might be hard for our readers to forgive us for returning to that â€œboring old pickâ€ of Spiderweb Software. For the first time in recent history, Spiderwebâ€™s indie RPG throne looks threatened, but it wonâ€™t be 2007 that it's toppled. Regardless, you could say the veteran's product is not a popular favourite, even though it seemed like it would once again be the most likely - if not only - candidate earlier this year.
But despite the incessant and perhaps growing criticism of indie champion Jeff Vogel, Geneforge 4 is still the logical top pick. With few graphical or mechanical upgrades from the previous title, Geneforge 4 shines exactly where indie RPGs are supposed to shine - great storytelling, intricate branching plotlines, strong dialogue, and a deep setting.
While the old indie argument of â€œyou have to get past the graphics to enjoy itâ€ still applies, thereâ€™s a true gem to be found in Geneforge 4 â€“ the result of Jeff Vogelâ€™s experience as a crafter of worlds. Perhaps the independent RPG market is changing and maturing and this is the swan song of Vogelâ€™s generation of independent RPGs, but nevertheless the crown still belongs to him.
Eschalon: Book I (Runner-up)
It was with a heavy heart that we demoted Basilisk Gamesâ€™ Eschalon: Book I to the runner-up spot. Not only does the game show a lot of promise in setting, mechanics, and storytelling, but one could almost say that it sets the bar for the maturing independent market in terms of polish and production values.
And if we were ranking games by promise, Eschalon: Book I would have been a clear winner. But as it is, the world is not deep enough to match wits with Geneforge â€“ which features a more original and interesting setting â€“ and the gameâ€™s plot wasnâ€™t nearly involved enough to duke it out with what we saw in Spiderwebâ€™s title.
Titan Quest: Immortal Throne (Winner)
2007 was not a banner year for action role-playing games, with most of the entries falling solidly under the â€œbargain priceâ€ umbrella and only being mildly entertaining â€“ or worse. But Iron Lore Entertainment delivered the goods in their Titan Quest: Immortal Throne expansion pack, giving players more of everything they could want in an action role-playing game: impressive battles, lots of equipment and artifacts to collect, and plenty of new ways to develop a character. Better yet, they wrapped everything up in a well designed campaign that led players through the dark and foreboding Underworld and forced them to face off against the likes of Charon, Cerberus, and even Hades himself. While some may consider Titan Quest a Diablo clone, it doesnâ€™t change the fact that Iron Lore did such an amazing job with Immortal Throne that they elevated the genre and presented us with enough content to nab our â€œAction RPG of the Yearâ€ award.
What can be said of BioShock as the runner-up for our action RPG of the year award?
It might be somewhat of an odd pick because BioShock really doesnâ€™t bear any significant RPG elements and is probably closer to a straight first-person shooter than an action RPG. But letâ€™s be honest - since the inception of Diablo, the number of RPG elements being implemented in your typical action role-playing game hasnâ€™t been all that impressive. And when you consider BioShock, you have to recognize how strong it is in areas that are often key to great RPGs - branching story-telling, player choice and consequence, simplified yet meaningful character development, and strong visuals in a fantastical setting.
But when push comes to shove, BioShock is present here on the merit of being a standout game during a year when there just arenâ€™t that many strong contenders in the action RPG field. Itâ€™s not a game that you should approach expecting a deep RPG experience, but it does follow in System Shock 2â€™s footsteps to some degree and contains just enough role-playing elements to make it worth your time.
The Witcher (Winner)
Even though we had witnessed more than one demonstration of The Witcher before release, we really werenâ€™t prepared for just how good CD Projektâ€™s CRPG was going to be. Simply put, the game excels in virtually every area that a role-playing game should. In addition to featuring an excellent story in the believable world of Temeria, The Witcher offers tough player choices, a large number of meaningful NPCs, a well-constructed character development system, and a unique and interactive combat system. To sweeten the deal, the game was surprisingly stable and well localized when compared to the many other European titles weâ€™ve seen in recent years.
And so, despite the fact that it was the publisherâ€™s first attempt at game development and was built around BioWareâ€™s dated Aurora engine, The Witcher succeeded in surpassing our expectations and is an easy pick for our RPG of the Year.
NWN2: Mask of the Betrayer (Runner-up)
While the D&D 3.5 implementation was stellar in Neverwinter Nights 2, the more-or-less clichÃ© storyline and lack of hard-hitting player choices left much to be desired. Those faults canâ€™t be reiterated when speaking about the gameâ€™s expansion pack, however.
Mask of the Betrayer is set in Rashemen, a land of witches, berserkers, spirits, and great conflict located on FaerÃ»nâ€™s Unapproachable East subcontinent. At no time does the setting (or the storyline that goes with it) feel â€œstandardâ€, which is a welcome change to anyone whoâ€™s grown tired of typical fantasy environments. On top of that, the expansionâ€™s dialogue is nothing short of amazing and provides us with real consequential player choices throughout the game.
In our opinion, Mask of the Betrayer represents Obsidianâ€™s greatest achievement since forming their new studio. Had the expansion pack been a full-fledged 40+ hour game on its own, it would have stood a good chance of wrestling away the top spot from The Witcher.