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Markup's 2001 Mark-Up - The Year in Review

The champagne has been sipped, kisses exchanged, and work has started up again - this can only mean that 2001 is now officially a memory! For some, it was a year gratefully left behind: Bear markets ate away at retirement plans, dot-coms continued to fall, child-killers seemed to appear on the news every night, and terrorists struck at the heart of America. For others, it was a time to celebrate: Arizona won the World Series, the government gave taxpayers money back, and we all discovered that heroes still exist. It has been a painful year, but not one without its moments of joy.

But I'll leave all of the heavy philosophical debates to another site; I'm here to talk about GAMES, and I try not to disappoint the readers. So here is the year in review - from hardware to software and consoles to computers, I'll revisit it all. For those of you with short attention spans rotted away by too many half-hour sitcoms and caffeinated beverages, I'll spoil a surprise and let you in on a little secret: at the end of this article, I'll even give out awards for the best (and most disappointing) games of 2001. Feel free to skip down to that part, or read on and relive 2001 one more time...

Hardware: Down, Down, DOWN in price!

The first thing most computer enthusiast will remember about 2001 is how low the prices dropped on just about everything. The recession and a public tired of upgrading their systems caused a major slowdown in PC sales, and the price slashing began! Extremely powerful computers could be purchased for $1000.00 that surpassed the previous years $2000.00 models. RAM, once an obscenely expensive upgrade, became affordable. Hard disk drives grew larger, faster, and more affordable. In short: if you had the money, it was a great time to buy!

2001 was also the first year in a long time that many of us didn't feel the need to purchase a new video card. The GeForce 3s, NVIDIA's latest chipset, just wasn't that much better than the GeForce 2. In fact, the GeForce 2 Ultra video card - an earlier and discontinued version - dropped in price and tended to outperform the buggier GeForce 3. Still, not everything was bleak in the graphics market - video card prices dropped, and decently-performing "value lines" became more available.

Finally, it was announced that the original design of the iMac would be retired. While not of importance to most MS-Windows people, the iMac did do a lot for the computer industry. First, it brought Apple back from the brink of ruin with its high sales. Second, it helped spark a design revolution: no longer did PCs have to be big gray boxes that seemed, well, boring. The iMac inspired new computer colors, changes in design, and just general reminded us that technology does not have to look so sterile.

Operating Systems: New OS, New Bugs.

Apple and Microsoft both released new operating systems in 2001.. though rumor is that they won't be completed until 2002. Apple's OS X for the Macintosh, while pleasing to the eye, seemed to be less than stable when installed on many computers. Windows XP, Microsoft's "next best thing" for PCs, also had its share of bugs - some of which allowed major breaches in security. Sales of XP were a bit below expectations; a sign, perhaps, that consumers are tired of purchasing a new operating system every year.

Console Gaming: Casualties and New Blood.

One of the most disturbing events in the console market during 2001 was the death of the Sega Dreamcast. The system, which had its production halted in late February and early March, was a next generation console built to compete with the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's "Next Generation" system (which we now know to be the GameCube). Sega decided to scrap the Dreamcast when sales in Japan just couldn't compete with the PlayStation 2. What's more, Sega decided NOT to develop a new console system, but to instead focus on developing games for the PlayStation II and Gameboy Advanced (among others). The Dreamcast being Sega's third big failure in a row (anyone remember the SegaCD and Sega Saturn?), the decision was understandable.

But 2001 also saw the release of three new gaming systems! First came the Gameboy Advance, the successor to the Gameboy and the Gameboy Color. The Advance brought with it color graphics on par with the Super Nintendo, a decent selection of release titles, and backward compatibility with older Gameboy games. Next came the Xbox, Microsoft's first entry into the console market. A hybrid of computers and console systems, its release title HALO has raised many eyebrows and helped spur sales. Nintendo's GameCube followed shortly there after, and also had a strong release accompanied by such titles as Star Wars Rogue Squadron II, Super Smash Brothers Melee, and (the slightly delayed) Pikmin. All of these new systems were in high demand during Christmas, and promise to heat things up in 2002.

MMORPGS: More Competition, Fewer Differences.

Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games saw some solid financial backing in 2001, resulting in a large number of releases. WWII Online (which would turn out to be not so "Massive" by year's end), Anarchy Online, and Dark Age of Camelot were all new games released during the year. They went head-to-head with updates of the old favorites - Ultima Online: Third Dawn, Asheron's Call: Dark Majesty, and EverQuest: Shadows of Luclin. Each new release saw a hoard of players migrating from the other games, only to leave again when the next new release came out. So, why didn't the players just stick with one game? MMORPG consumers seemed to want something more and different than what they were getting, but just couldn't find it from a string of releases that were all basically the same game slightly retooled. Go figure.

There were also a number of shakeups in the companies that RUN MMORPGs. While both UO and EQ lost valuable developers, one of the most stunning changes was when Destination Games - the company formed by "Lord British" Richard Garriott and his brother Robert - became part of Korea's NCSoft in May. Garriott was placed in control of the American version of the world's largest subscription-based on-line game Lineage: The Blood Pledge (and, yes, the Korean version does have a larger active player base than EverQuest). In this reviewer's eyes, the relaunch of Lineage was not particularly stunning - but there's still time.

Scary Trends: Things That Should Not Be.

2001 also had its share of scary trends - and not just those involving terrorists. Retailers, distributors, and a host of other powers all showed just how unscrupulous they could be when it came to making a buck.

Electronics Boutique began acting as a distributor in 2001, releasing a number of "EB Exclusive" games that could only be purchased at Electronics Boutique for the first few months of their release. Wizardry 8, Battlecruiser: Millennium, and Strifeshadow were just a few of the exclusive releases that were offered. Some consumers hailed EB's new strategy as groundbreaking and the only way "small market" titles could be released in retail; others called it the destruction of competition and the beginning of higher game prices. No word yet on whether CompUSA or Best Buy will start their own "exclusive" game lines.

"Package Deals" also dominated console releases in 2001. Starting with the Gameboy Advance, many retailers would not sell the game systems to consumers unless they also purchased costly extras such as games, lights, and battery packs. Xboxes and GameCubes were also similarly marketed by retailers, who forced rabid gamers to buy extra controllers, memory cards, games, and the occasional extended warranty if they wanted the new systems for Christmas. Sometimes adding up to $300.00 to the cost of the systems, these bundles were seen by a number of people as unfair to consumers - many of whom just wanted the console and a game. Though the systems were eventually sold individually a month after release, the necessity of buying package deals if you wanted a console for Christmas sent a number of parents home from the mall fuming.

Microsoft somehow escaped justice in its anti-trust trial through a series of legal maneuvers and questionable decisions by the appeals court. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (many of us are still wondering how the case got to this particular court) in June said that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson was guilty of "judicial misconduct" and sent the case to a different court. The break-up of Microsoft averted, the government quickly gave in and a much more lenient deal towards MS was drawn up. Angered by how weak the new agreement was, a number of states vowed to take the fight to their own courts.. which means 2002 should see more fireworks.

2001 - The Best and Most Disappointing.

Now we come to the fun part: Markup's Best and Most Disappointing Gaming Awards for 2001. There are 6 categories this year: Best Computer Role-Playing Game, Best Strategy Game, Best Console, Best MMORPG, Most Disappointing Console, and Most Disappointing Game. Winners will receive nothing but the cheers of their fans and the envy of the losers. We begin with...

Best Computer Role-Playing Game of 2001

The nominees are...

Troika game's first release, Arcanum, was highly anticipated by the CRPG community - after all, it was being developed by some of the same creative forces that worked on Fallout. The result was a game that mixed steampunk with high fantasy to form.. something different. A unique concept, a large number of quests, and interesting new character classes are all points in Arcanum's favor; a slightly frustrating user interface, no manual with the world editor upon the original release, and unbalanced classes all work against it. 

Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal (Expansion Pack)
The Baldur's Gate series reinvigorated the dying CRPG market, and truly brought "Dungeons and Dragons" games back to the computer. BG2: Throne of Bhaal is Bioware's official end to the Baldur's Gate series, yet the game does not lose any of its potency in its final installment. Characters continue to gain power, visit new areas in search of adventure, and finally learn all of the secrets that have been hinted at throughout the series. In short: it is an excellent expansion to an excellent game!

A German import that was translated into English, Gothic saw very little publicity during its North American release. Never the less, it proved to be an excellent action/RPG hybrid with some solid non-linear story lines, tremendous day/night NPC scripts, and respectable graphics. My only real complaint is with how the plot becomes so linear during the middle and end phases of the game, but I still found it very much worth playing.

Wizardry 8
A.K.A. "The Game That Almost Wasn't." This will most likely be Sir-Tech's last game, but it is certainly worth it. Players can return to one of the most beloved fantasy CRPGs of all time for one last romp, rolling up new characters or importing their samurai and bards from previous installments in the series. The graphics are respectable, and my only complaint is about the blend of high-technology with high-fantasy. Still, that's more of a personal preference, and not enough to keep it off of the list.

And the winner is...

Wizardry 8
A part of me felt like giving this award to Wizardry simply because of the trials that were faced in getting it published (a story, alas, that is better told elsewhere). But ignoring the odyssey it went through to get to retail shelves, what you still have is a very interesting RPG with good controls, graphics, and a story line. Add in the flavor of the Wizardry world, new skills, and new spells, and you have what I consider to be the best CRPG of 2001.

Best Strategy Game of 2001

And the winner is...

No one. The strategy game market was flooded in the last quarter of the year with titles too numerous to count (let alone play). You'd think, with all those games, that at least ONE would be a true stand out, drawing players in for a long period of time and making them beg for more - but none of them did. Sure, there were a number of interesting games out there - Battle Realms, Civilization 3, Empire Earth, Conquest: Frontier Wars, and a host of others that all had good points - but none of them had what I personally believe it takes to make them jump out of the pack and grab the "Strategy Game of the Year" title. Therefore, no one wins. :)

Best MMORPG of 2001

The nominees are...

Dark Age of Camelot
Mythic Entertainment (a merger between AUSI and other companies) steps into the mainstream after years of semi-hits like Dragon's Gate and Magestorm with this graphical MMORPG. DAoC had one of the smoothest launches in MMORPG history, putting the extremely buggy releases of Anarchy Online and WW2 Online to shame. Low downtime, an improved quest system, good graphics, and an emphasis on PvP combat at higher levels attracted players in droves, but also earned it the title of "EverQuest Lite."

EverQuest: The Shadows of Luclin
The long awaited "upgrade" to EverQuest, SoL added a new race, a new class, new areas, horses, and improved graphics to this legendary game. Still, if you didn't like EverQuest before, these alterations aren't going to change your mind about it - the game remains fundamentally the same. As well, the minimum requirement of 256 megabytes of RAM and the recommended amount of 512 megabytes earned the expansion pack the title of "EverQuest: S#@t Out of Luck" from those with less than cutting-edge computers.

And the winner is...

EverQuest: The Shadows of Luclin
This award was pretty much Dark Age of Camelot's to lose rather than EverQuest's to win. DAoC made a number of improvements on EverQuest, and that initially attracted players from the older game to it. However, the world of DAoC is extremely small (and has rarely been expanded), the quests are weak, a number of promises by the developers have not been kept (the new trade skills were supposed to be in shortly after release. We're still waiting), the feedback system is horrible and has gotten WORSE since release, and the high-level Player vs. Player combat (known as Realm vs. Realm combat in DAoC) was found by many to be disappointing. In the weeks after DAoC's release, many of the players that had fled from EverQuest began to return "home" to their previous game, with the EQ:SoL expansion pulling even more back. EverQuest: Shadows of Luclin wins the MMORPG of the Year award because, even with its flaws, EverQuest is still the most interesting MMORPG on the market.

Best Console of 2001

The nominees are...

GameCube (by Nintendo)
What is NOT to like about the Nintendo GameCube? It is small (especially compared to the Xbox), has a much better controller then those on the N64, has a decent number of release titles (Smash Brothers Melee, Rogue Squadron II, and the slightly late Pikmin), reported compatibility with the Gameboy Advance (through certain games), and a $200.00 price tag ($100.00 - $200.00 LESS than the competition). With Nintendo reaffirming its commitment to gameplay just prior to release, what you have is potentially the "next big system" to beat.

PlayStation 2 (Sony)
Though the PlayStation 2 was not released this year, it was still one of the hottest selling systems for Christmas. With a huge library of titles, backward compatibility with the original PlayStation, and some of the hottest releases on the market, it is THE system to beat. Now if only the controllers were made for adult-sized hands...

And the winner is...

PlayStation 2 (Sony)
This one was really a no-brainer. Which system has the largest selection of games, the most "good" releases, and the largest selection of accessories? Answer: PlayStation 2. Add in the ability to watch DVDs (which the PlayStation 2 has) and you have the winner of the Best Console of 2001 award!

Most Disappointing Console

And the nominees are...

Dreamcast (Sega)
The Sega Dreamcast is a next generation console designed to compete with the PlayStation 2 and other "new wave" systems - so why was production stopped so soon after release and even before the other "next generation" systems like the GameCube and Xbox were released? For whatever reason, the Dreamcast just didn't take, and a lot of consumers were left holding the bag with a "dead" system. On a bright note, games for the Dreamcast are now extremely cheap - you can get between 4 and 6 Dreamcast games for the price of 1 new GameCube game - making it the "poor man's console."

Xbox (Microsoft)
Why is the Xbox bad? Let me count the ways: #1 only one stand-out release title (HALO); #2 a number of units were defective (and turned into a nightmare for parents who bought them for Little Timmy's Christmas present); #3 the Xbox is quite possible the UGLIEST console ever made, and is far too bulky for many entertainment centers; #4 the controllers are terribly designed, and hard for many people to hold; and #5 it appears that the Xbox may be susceptible to viruses that can be picked up from playing on-line. The Xbox may very well go the way of WebTV in the not-too-distant future.

And the winner is...

Dreamcast (Sega)
No matter HOW BAD the Xbox is, NOTHING is more disappointing than have your "next generation" console pronounced dead by the manufacturer. For this, the Sega Dreamcast has earned the title of Most Disappointing Console of 2001.

Most Disappointing Game of the Year

And the nominees are..

Anarchy Online
The initial game launch earned AO the title "Anarchy Off-line" from consumers; disrespect from staff members in the official forums, hundreds of bugs, a lack of class balance, and broken promises made it the poster child for what is wrong with online gaming.

Black and White
A decent concept that was poorly executed, Black and White reminds us that massive hype does not always mean an interesting game. Ignoring the fact that "training" your giant pet monster was more work than it was enjoyable gameplay (house-breaking a real-life dog is easier), the B&W was just bad: a terrible save game system that over-wrote part of ALL the saved games with each new addition, the inability to skip the starting tutorial (which took FOREVER), poor on-line play, and some painful bugs added up to make Black and White a disappointing game rather than a smash hit.

Survivor: The Interactive Game
Every negative review you've read about Survivor is true: it is one of the most disappointing games EVER. While games that cash-in on the popularity of television shows DO make a lot of money (witness the electronic versions of Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? for proof), they usually retain some of the excitement of the original. Survivor was just BAD. NPC conversations made no sense, skills and attributes did next to nothing, and the game was just too boring for most of us to play (IF you could get it to work on your system, which many people could not until the patch). In short: a terrible, terrible game.

WWII Online
This was the MMORPG that wasn't massive nor really an RPG. Buggy and painfully laggy during release, few people gave it a try; fewer still stayed around after the trial period was up. There's nothing like walking 20 minutes to a battle, only to be shot dead by an NPC in 2 seconds and having to start all over again.

And the winner is...

Survivor: The Interactive Game
MAKE THE PAIN STOP! MAKE THE PAIN STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPPPPPP!!! Quite possibly one of the most disappointing games ever (and this is coming from a fan of the T.V. show), Survivor: The Interactive Game is voted off the island and earns the title of Most Disappointing Game of 2001.

And that pretty much summarizes 2001 from a gamer's perspective. See you in twelve months, when answers to questions like, "Will the Xbox be popular?" and "Which MMORPG will be the first to go out of business?" will be answered. Until then!




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