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A look back at 2004 best PC titles

Each year I go through the daunting task of selecting titles to be featured as the year’s best. With 2004 being one of the most interesting years in gaming, the task of choosing this year’s selection was even more challenging. Although I didn’t have time to play every single game that came out this year, this week, I present to you my list of the top PC titles of 2004. Be sure to pick-up next week’s issue to see which games I choose as the best console titles of the year.

Best Sound (PC) – Doom 3 (id Software): Even without a traditional soundtrack, id Software’s Doom 3 managed to deliver a fair amount of scares thanks to some of the best gaming sound design in recent years. Ed Lima and Chris Vrenna pushed the scope of sound design to its limit with the use top-notch ambient noises that jump at you from all directions. The game’s 5.1 surround sound is one of the best coordinated surround-sound project in gaming.

Best Graphics (PC) – Half-Life 2 (Valve): Powered by Valve’s proprietary Source Engine, the graphics in Half-Life 2 are absolutely breathtaking. The picturesque sceneries coupled with the game’s top-notch animations make Half-Life 2 one of the best-looking PC titles of all time. The game has a cinematic feel that truly enhances your gaming experience. To top it all off, Valve managed to create some of the most lifelike facial animations ever seen on a computer screen.

Best Online Title (PC) – City of Heroes (NcSoft): The colourful City of Heroes (CoH) ended-up being every comic book fanatic’s dream come true. CoH’s deep character customization let gamers finally create the superhero they’ve always dreamed of becoming. The game’s graphics and visual style deliver a unique comic book feel that has yet to be matched. One of the greatest aspects of CoH is that it’s easy to get into compared to other online multiplayer role playing games. If you’re looking for an addicting online title that won’t end-up being an overwhelming experience, then City of Heroes is definitely the title to own.

Surprise Title 2004 (PC) – The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay Developer’s Cut (Starbreeze/Tigon): Like its Xbox counterpart, the PC version of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is a strong first-person shooter that literally took the industry by surprise. The game features a strong cast of voice actors that includes the likes of Vin Diesel, Xzibit and Cole Hauser. Even if you’ve played the Xbox version, the PC port is definitely worth revisiting thanks to higher resolution graphics and its innovative commentary mode, which is unlocked upon completion of the game. One of the most surprising aspects of Escape from Butcher Bay is that it doesn’t feel like a direct console port. A must have for first-person shooter enthusiasts.

PC Game of the Year (PC) – Half-Life 2 (Valve): With Half-Life 2, Valve developed quite possibly one of the best gaming sequels ever made (arguably the best first-person shooter of all time). The developer hit the perfect grand slam by delivering a game that incorporates well-scripted story sequences with excellent graphic and audio capabilities. Half-Life 2 has also proven itself as a strong multiplayer title with the inclusion of Counter-Strike: Source and Half-Life 2: Deathmatch. With the recent release of the game’s software development kit, a slew of home brew levels and modifications will surely start flooding the Internet shortly. Half-Life 2 is a strong physics-based first-person shooter that gamers will definitely be replaying for months, even after completing the single player campaign on a few occasions. Half-Life 2 is the definitive first-person shooter.

Andre Barriault lives in Dieppe and is the former co-editor at the gaming website www.XGR.com – Originally published in [here] magazine in Dec. 2004

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Tom Salta’s journey into the video game industry (Profile)

New York based producer, artist and composer Tom Salta is not only a rising star on the music scene, but he’s also making waves in the video game industry. Salta, who’s been involved in the music industry for 15 years, has had his work featured in several titles since crossing over into video games earlier this year. More recently, the composer had a chance to score the cinematic sequences in Electronic Arts’ “Need for Speed Underground 2”.

Salta’s journey into the video game scene is an interesting story in itself, and it all started after a few rounds of “Halo.”

“I had an epiphany of sorts about two years ago. One evening I was playing a game, and the thought occurred to me. I was like “wait, I love this stuff” and this would be perfect for me. The thought of marrying the two things I love to do the most into one art form was incredible,” he explained.

Salta added that he had always been a fan of video games and remembers coming home from the arcades at a young age and playing tunes from his favourite titles on the piano.

“I began to be inspired by the music I started hearing in recent years. Prior to that, video game music just didn’t quite capture my attention. It was nice and it was cool, but I never really felt compelled to compose it until recently. Video game music has taken such a huge leap recently,” revealed Salta.

To promote his music, Salta decided he needed a demo reel of sorts, and the answer to this manifested itself as his first solo album under the moniker “Atlas Plug.” His debut CD “2 Days Or Die” was made available as a way to capture the attention of the entertainment industry for licensing purposes.

“I was finding it very difficult getting into the gaming industry initially because although I had music credits I didn’t have a game credit to my name. So I decided to draw upon all the experience I have producing, writing, mixing etc. and come up with an album’s worth of music that would be perfect for licensing in games.”

After hooking-up with a publisher, hundreds of albums were sent out and things worked out as planned. One of the first companies interested was Microsoft, who at the time, was working on a sequel to the popular off-road racing title “Rallisport Challenge.” Three of Salta’s compositions from the Atlas Plug record were licensed for the game, with one of those tracks becoming the game’s theme song. After licensing a few more tracks for various titles, Salta finally scored his first big gig in the industry, writing music for the cinematic sequences in Need for Speed Underground 2.

“Working on the game was a great experience, definitely challenging at times. I was working with Charles Deenen, the Audio Director at EA in Canada, and he was a great collaborator, I really give him a lot of credit as he knew exactly what he wanted and made sure he got it.”

Afterwards, Salta scored the music to UbiSoft’s “Sprung” for Nintendo’s latest handheld, the DS. The composer added that the experience was very interesting, but found scoring for the DS to be limiting.

“The key word is limiting, and that’s just because of the audio hardware. I finished Need For Speed in 5.1 surround sound, and then I am dealing with a unit where the entire music and all of the samples that were used had to fit under 1MB,” he explained. “It’s a completely different way of creating music. It took me back to the early Nintendo days, but it was good, it was challenging and I like having set limitations that lets you focus more on the art rather than all the technical aspects of it.”

Salta added that he’d love to work on more handheld titles and that he enjoys the challenge.

The composer pointed out that his goal right now is to continue being involved in the gaming industry. Salta also noted that he’d like to start recording music for the next Atlas Plug record, but added that he’s currently wrapped-up in a few undisclosed video game projects.

“I still love writing, producing, and I also hope to get back to working with other artists or groups at a later time. But right now, I’m having too much fun doing game music, it’s just great.”

Visit www.atlasplug.com for more information on Tom Salta and his music.

Andre Barriault lives in Dieppe and is the former co-editor at the gaming website www.XGR.com – Originally published in [here] magazine in Dec. 2004

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Random Gaming News

World of Warcraft breaks sales record
Who said PC gaming was dead? Blizzard announced last week that their recently released “World of Warcraft” title for the PC sold over 240,000 copies in its first 24-hours, which resulted in the highest day-one total in PC game history. World of Warcraft is an online title that expands the Warcraft universe into the RPG genre.

Xbox 2 to be unveiled at CES 2005?
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is expected to publicly announce the successor to the Xbox during his keynote speech on Jan. 5 at next year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Since the unit is expected in the Fall of 2005, the CES announcement would make perfect sense. Sources have revealed that there’s already a working prototype ready for unveiling. Code-named Xeon, the next iteration of the Xbox will feature multi-processors designed by IBM and will use graphic rendering hardware based on ATI’s Radeon video cards.

Half-Life 2 gets more multiplayer action
Valve surprised us all last week by releasing the multiplayer “Half-Life 2: Deathmatch”. Since the release of “Half-Life 2” for the PC in mid-Nov., fans were asking for more multiplayer gameplay out of their favourite first person shooter. Valve responded with the free Steam-provided download. The new gameplay mode features two official maps; DM_overwatch and DM_lockdown. Fan-made maps have already started to appear on servers. Previously, the only multiplayer aspect for Half-Life 2 was “Counter-Strike: Source”, a source engine redesign of the popular online first-person shooter.

Online Nintendo DS titles on the way
Nintendo recently made it clear that they will be bringing their newly released Nintendo DS (NDS) handheld online shortly. It was revealed that the Japanese gaming giant is working with Square-Enix to develop an online system for the NDS. Square-Enix helped develop the Playstation 2 service PlayOnline with Sony. It’s still unknown when gamers will be able to bring their games online, but expect to get the official scoop in the New Year. Third party developers, such as Xlink, are currently working on their own software to bring the system into cyberspace.

Metal Gear Solid movie in the works?
Rumors are running rampant on the internet concerning a potential “Metal Gear Solid” motion picture. The rumors stem from Ain’t It Cool News where it’s stated that Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura would helm the project. The name Kitamura should be familiar to Metal Gear Solid fans as he was hand-picked by series creator Hideo Kojima to direct the cinematic sequences in “MGS: The Twin Snakes” for the Nintendo GameCube, which was released earlier this year.

American McGee to pen new Oz movie
In other video game/movie related news, famed game creator American McGee (Alice & Scrapland) has been commissioned to write the script for the film adaptation of his unreleased video game project “Oz”. The movie (and game) will be set before the events of the famous “Wizard of Oz” movie and book. The new series, which will be developed into a trilogy, will be produced and developed by Jerry Bruckheimer in collaboration with Disney. The new movies will have a dark vibe similar to last year’s Bruckheimer produced Pirates of the Caribbean.

Andre Barriault lives in Dieppe and is co-editor at the gaming website www.XGR.com – Originally published in [here] magazine Dec. 2004

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Half-Life 2, the definitive first-person shooter? (Half-Life 2 Review)

In 1998, Valve revolutionized the first-person shooter genre by releasing a game that combined strong cinematic elements with deep story-driven action sequences. “Half-Life” became an instant classic and gamers soon started asking for more. Six years later, after the release of a series of expansion packs and community-driven mods, Valve finally delivered the official sequel to their best-selling title.

Penned by renowned sci-fi writer Marc Laidlaw, “Half-Life 2” kicks off with lead character Gordon Freeman being awoken by the mysterious G-man who informs him that “the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world”, which quickly follows-up with Gordon being transported into a train on route to City 17. Upon arrival, Freeman is greeted with a video transmission by former Black Mesa (Half-Life 1 local) scientist Doctor Wallace Breen welcoming him to the city. But things aren’t as friendly as they seem as you’re quickly trusted into an oppressed city controlled by Breen and his allies, the alien race known as the Combine.

Half-Life 2 looks absolutely stunning. Sure, maybe id Software’s “Doom 3” engine looks better, but Half-Life 2’s visual style and animations are unmatched. The facial expressions in the game are lifelike and give you a sense of the wide range of emotions cast by the various characters in the game. The locals in the game are also gorgeous and reminiscent of various modern day European cities.

The game features some of the best voice acting seen in modern gaming. Valve commissioned some well known actors to portray the lead roles in Half-Life 2. The voice talent includes Robert Guillaume (as Doctor Eli Vance), Robert Culp (as Doctor Wallace Breen), Michelle Forbes (as Doctor Judith Mossman) and Lou Gossett Jr. (as the Vortigaunts). Also, fan favourite Michael Shapiro returns to replay his infamous G-man character. Thanks to this pool of talent, you have a group of characters in a game that you actually care about.

In this latest adventure, our hero has access to an arsenal of seven weapons, including three new items that were not featured in the original title: the Pulse Riffle, the Pheropod and the Gravity Gun. Out of all the weapons, the Gravity Gun has to be the most unique of them all. With the Gravity Gun, you’re able to take solid objects and hurl them towards unsuspecting foes. The gun can also be used to manipulate items in order to progress in a particular situation in the game. For example, one might need to gain access to a ledge that’s out of reach, by using the Gravity Gun you could take crates that are positioned nearby and pile them up in order to gain access to that previously unsurmountable area.

The game does have a few negative aspects to it. First off, the load times in the game are horrendous as they really slow down the game’s pacing. One minute you’re racing on a speed boat, the next you’re waiting for the game to load-up. This is unacceptable for a title of this caliber when a game like Halo 2 managed to have almost no load times whatsoever. Lets hope Valve releases a patch someday that will reduce the game’s atrocious load times. It’s been done before, so why couldn’t they do it for Half-Life 2?

Another well-documented issue is the game’s stuttering problem. Users hit with this issue experience audio that cuts and stutters during dialog sequences in the game. Valve hasn’t officially released a patch for the bug yet, but they’ve issued configuration runarounds that solve the problem. Now will your average gamers be able to configure their systems to get the issue disposed of?

It might have taken six years, but Half-Life 2 developer Valve delivered what is considered by many as the the best first-person shooter of all time. The game is an absolute blast and provides gamers with a first-rate first-person shooter that conveys a sense of cinematic realism. Expect many gaming publications to name Half-Life 2 as one of the best titles of 2004.

Andre Barriault lives in Dieppe and is co-editor at the gaming website www.XGR.com – Originally published in [here] magazine in Dec. 2004

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