Fan Voting Coming Thursday

Best Graphics -- Age of Empires III

Computer graphics are getting so powerful that we're seeing a law of diminishing returns. These days, any game can have an advanced 3D engine with lots of great lighting effects. Nowadays the devil is all in the details: the subtle attention to artistry and nuance that makes a game stand out as absolutely striking.

Age of Empires III was just such a game, boasting a graphics engine with all the high-end technology you'd normally find in first-person shooters. When it all comes together it's gorgeous. Water ripples gracefully over a shallow pebbled riverbed while reeds dance in the flow nearby. The sun glints off of the rough barrels of cannons. A file of longbowmen, hit with a cannonball, go hurtling through the air, their weapons whirling away in all directions. A cannonball rips through the translucent arms of a windmill, sending debris cascading down to earth and causing the whole structure to pivot unevenly. A wing of Canadian geese flies quietly overhead, casting real-time shadows on swaying grasses. The world of Age of Empires III is breathtaking -- not at all what you'd expect from a real-time strategy game where you're trying to blow up your opponent, but it works.

Honorable Mention: F.E.A.R.. and Nexus: The Jupiter Incident - Using an all new engine featuring real-time dynamic lighting and an advanced physics system, every firefight in F.E.A.R.. was a spectacle to watch, as sparks lit up darkened corridors, blood and smoke would hang in the air, and the game's slo-mo ability would allow you to enjoy every last detail. Nexus, on the other hand, wasn't nearly so frenetic. Instead it was a space combat game that presented beautifully animated ships in combat among 3D asteroids and some of the most beautiful starscapes we've ever seen. The multicolored lights of lasers, the trails of missiles and the different colored explosions completed the effect, making it one of the most amazing-looking space games we've seen since EVE Online Either way, these two games were among the most eye-catching of 2005.

Special Achievement in Art Direction -- Psychonauts

Great graphics are more than just layering the latest technological gimmick onto a game. It means using that technology to create a vivid world on the other side of the screen, the kind of place that's not only compelling, but actually invites the player in to explore another world. This year, no game did that better than Tim Schafer's Psychonauts.

Psychonauts is the story of Raz, a young boy who runs away from home to Whispering Rocks Psychic Summer Camp to join America's foremost psychic defenders, the Psychonauts. The world of Whispering Rocks is an extraordinary place, a bizarre collection of freakishly tilted trees, weirdly angled buildings, and human campers that deserve to be called "human" only by dint of the fact that we really don't know what else to call them. Then, just as the player gets used to the "real world" of Whispering Rocks, they enter the surreal dreamscapes of the minds of many of the camp's residents in order to unravel a bizarre conspiracy.

One of a Psychonaut's major powers is the ability to travel inside another person's mind in order to get information, and these through-the-looking-glass trips make up a large portion of the gameplay. What really makes these trips special, though, is that every mind that Raz enters is a reflection of the real person. That means that they're all wildly different and done up in amazingly diverse art styles. The brain of Coach Oleander, a former military man, is a shell-torn landscape where old war movies are projected on the sky. Emotionally repressed agent Sasha Nein's brain is a black-and-white cubist landscape, and the mind of party girl Milla Vodelo is a Peter Max-style lava lamp dance party. Other favorites include the artificial "Pleasantville" of a conspiracy theorist where sinister forces lurk behind the most benign faces, and one that resembles those cheesy black velvet Elvis paintings found in stands along the side of the road. From start to finish, Psychonauts is a wild treat for the eyes, and while the gameplay is excellent in and of itself, it's worth taking the trip through Whispering Rocks just to see what visual wonder lies around the next corner -- or inside the next mind.

The 5th Annual Lens Flare™ Award: Real-Time Dynamic Lighting

Every year, we give this award out to the hot new technical gimmick that everyone's putting into their games. Previous winners have included the obligatory lens flare, ground clutter, ragdoll physics, and last year's "honoree," bloom. This year's winner continues that trend with a focus on real-time dynamic lighting effects, which are rapidly making their way into all sorts of games.

The most obvious examples this year: F.E.A.R. and Quake 4. Both games let you spot enemies in both single-player and multiplayer via shadows cast by opposing players (or enemy A.I.) unaware they'd given themselves away. And, of course, where ragdoll physics had the human pachinko machine as its poster child, real-time dynamic lighting now has the swinging ceiling light as its demo of choice. But this feature started making its way into other games -- even Age of Empires III had advanced lighting effects that went as far as birds flying overhead, and casting shadows on the ground. We imagine it won't be long before Chessmaster 2006 hops on the bandwagon.

Age of Empires III

Developer: Ensemble Studios

Publisher: Microsoft

Release Date: 10/18/2005

ESRB: T

$39.99

Psychonauts

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Majesco

Release Date: 04/19/2005

ESRB: T

$29.99