Quarterlies 2004
TomChick - Features - Comments - 01/04/05

Most Disappointing Game of 2004

Calling something worst game of the year isn't very instructive. Once you get below a certain level of quality, how do you quantify degrees of bad? Is tasteless budgetware like Terrorist Takedown more tasteless than tasteless budgetware like The Guy Game? Is a bad PC shooter like Soldner worse than a bad console shooter like Terminator: Redemption? Is Superpower 2 more unplayable than Lords of the Realm III? Is a crappy licensed product like The Incredibles duller than a generic license-less product like Medieval Conquest? And would you have ever given any of these games a second thought anyway?

Instead, the more damning award is Most Disappointing Game of 2004, for a game (almost always a sequel) that should have been better. Take, for instance, Ground Control II, which did nothing to follow up on the promise of the original. Or Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, with its "Hey, bitch, check out how dark and hard I am!" tone, which was an unwelcome change in a sequel that didn't change much otherwise. Any change would have been welcome in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, which just added more of the weakest parts from the first game: more backtracking, more aimless wandering, and more playing the same frustrating boss fights over and over.

Doom 3 might have been a good candidate for Most Disappointing Game of 2004 if it weren't for id's consistent reputation as uninspired game designers who happen to make great 3D engines. But unless you believed the first rounds of exclusive reviews, you probably weren't disappointed by how little Doom 3 delivered.

The most disappointing game of 2004 was Burnout 3, mainly for how the developers strayed from the previous Burnouts to bring in the pursuit of more flash and less gameplay: superficial driving physics, hundreds of meaningless unlockables, fixed replays, and a rubberbanding AI that guarantees your skill will have no effect on whether you win a race. And it's all tied together by a front end that simply will not leave you alone, steeped in EA's overbearingly bitchin' teen sensibility.

I know exactly what's going on here. EA wants to broaden the appeal of the franchise. They know guys like me will buy Burnout 3 because we loved the other Burnouts. But they also want to reach out to the non-gamers who made their Sims franchise so successful, the kind of folks who don't know any better than to think the Spike TV Video Game Awards make perfect sense. I expect if you were to walk into a frat house these days, a copy of Burnout 3 wouldn't look out of place. Cool enough, I suppose. Knock yourselves out and make a few million dollars, EA. That's just one less game for me to want to keep playing.

But what's also disappointing about Burnout 3 is that this is yet another instance of how little critical thinking there is among game reviewers. This futile exercise in steering a rocket that looks like a car has a 100% positive review rating on Rotten Tomatoes and averages a 94% review score on Gamerankings and Metacritic. But I can't quite muster my usual "Whatever..." and the accompanying heavy sigh, because it really is discouraging to see such a mediocre game heaped high with so much bland praise, usually consisting of comments about the sense of speed and the cool crashes and the close finishes. It's as if no one else noticed the questionable design decisions, the sloppy Outrun style physics, or the shallow gameplay. Or -- even worse -- maybe they did notice and just don't expect more from their games...

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