Since we’re just ramping up, we’ve missed the game of the year awards. However, I’ve decided to not let that stop me. In fact! I’m making up for lost time. I’m giving you not ONE, but ELEVEN Game of the Year awards from my personal opinions. This will be put up in two posts, the next one coming tomorrow. The Winners are italicized, the runners up are not, and the honorable mentions are below the runners up. It’s quite a long list, but every game in it is a gem.
Some quick notes I want to make about my list. This is a retroactive Game of the Year list. I don’t think my choices would have been the same had I been asked this question that year, but this is what my choices are looking back. Also, I can’t be 100% certain I played all of these games the year they came out, but I am placing them in the list according to their state-side release dates since it’s the only consistent way of ordering I could think of. Third, I know it’s a cop-out, but I just can’t decide on some, so bear with me as I have some years with many ties. Finally, I know I missed some games, I’ve looked at as many lists as I could find for releases, but I’m sure there are just some I missed.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC)
Being a long time fan of BioWare this was my obvious choice for this year. I was a huge fan of the original Baldur’s Gate and this was more than a worthy successor. In the years to come we would get spiritual successors to this series in the form of Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age. However, this is where it began with BioWare and it will always hold a place in my heart.
The world wasn’t theirs, but they brought the Forgotten Realms to life with great characters, a compelling story and relationships, and enjoyable classic D20 RPG gameplay. Their games have changed a lot over the years, but one thing has always remained consistent, even this early. The quality of their writing. Don’t confuse these games with the later Xbox games of the same name, these are in a totally different league. If you’re a fan of classic western RPG’s and would like to see some of BioWare’s early often, these games are well worth your time.
Phantasy Star Online (Dreamcast, PC, Xbox, Gamecube)
I suppose for many people, this would be their pick, but while I played the crap out of this game, it was never really a good game. It was fun, but a lot of that derived from the community at the time and the novelty. It was a tedious hack and slash with a good story, but bad storytelling. Looking back now, it’s not a game I want to go back and play, nor have I enjoyed the few times I tried to in recent years. It was great for it’s time and for what we had, and it will forever hold a special place for me, but I can’t name it my GotY.
Honorable Mention: Diablo II (PC)
Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox, PC)
This is the obvious choice, but I’m fine with that. At the time, the Dreamcast was dying and I was angry at the gaming world. I decided I would refuse to buy one of the newcomers systems, Microsoft and Sony. I opted for a Gamecube instead. Sadly, as time passed I was more and more disappointed by my decision, as I did not enjoy Metroid Prime, and Phantasy Star Online was beginning to grate on me. My brother on the other hand, had gone the Xbox route, and one night we rented a game that changed things for me in a way few games have.
You see, I had never liked FPS’s. I was an Adventure Game, RPG and RTS guy. Duke Nukem bored, as did Doom. The closest I played to an FPS at the time was Descent, which doesn’t really count. I had marginally enjoyed Half-life, but got bored halfway through, though I did finish it. Halo changed all that. I was entranced from early on, and it blew my mind.
To this day I cannot quite put my finger on what was so addicting and compelling about it, but I know this. I went through campaign dozens of times. I haven’t ever replayed through a game as many times as I have that one, and I doubt I ever will. Whole swaths of the game are committed to memory, such as the Silent Cartographer, or the first meeting with The Flood. It turned me onto FPS’s and since then I’ve gone on to enjoy so many other games because of it.
Sonic Adventure 2 (Dreamcast, Gamecube)
This was close, but could not quite beat out Halo. However, this is still in my opinion, the best Sonic game in existence. The Tails and Robotnik levels could be annoying, but I enjoyed the full cast of characters and playing as Knuckles/Rouge/Shadow in addition to Sonic. The story was fun, and the A-Life system just added endless hours of replayability. Not to mention some of the most imaginative and enjoyable levels in any platformer.
Honorable Mention: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2(PS2)
Shenmue II(Dreamcast, Xbox)
The Shenmue games were a love them or hate them type. I was of course, the former. They are also one of the greatest tragedies of gaming. An amazing vision that was lost to us due to so many unfair circumstances. True, Shenmue had it’s faults. The voice acting being the most glaring one, but none were enough to hide it’s brilliance.
Yu Suzuki felt he had created a new genre with the game. Maybe he had. Many of the components of the games had been seen before, and would be seen since, but the way they all came together is something I thinks games are only now beginning to accomplish. Things like real-time weather, with daily routines for AI characters are things are still touted by big games like Skyrim, but Shenmue had them a decade before. The visuals were amazing for the time, and the story, while simple at a glance, has so much more depth to it in the characters and relationships formed.
However, one thing that will forever stick with me, was the final portion of the game. It is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a game, and has garnered negative reactions, but I think it was cheer brilliance. Walking through the mountains and forests and fields with Shenhua, and just talking, and maybe running, and just spending that time getting to know her felt right. This was after, someone whose importance had been foreshadowed for some time, and the relationship and character building there is something I haven’t seen until the Mass Effect series. Though there is little hope that we’ll ever see the end of this epic saga, there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of us out there who will continue to remember, and hope.
Age of Mythology (PC)
Alas poor Ensemble studios, I knew them well. A studio of living worlds and of most excellent gameplay. Age of Empires, their first game, was the first game I ever played online competitively. However, Age of Mythology was the first time they were able to form a truly compelling offline story campaign for their games. Age of Empires 2 was good, but Age of Mythology was great, with a great take on the myths of the ancient civilizations portrayed. They deserved a better fate than to be disbanded and dismissed so by Microsoft. It still saddens me to think of what we missed out on with Halo Wars 2 and Age of Empires 4.
Honorable Mentions: Neverwinter Nights (PC), Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (Xbox)
Legacy of Kain: Defiance(Xbox, PC, PS2)
The amazing climax to a great saga. Defiance finally got everything right. The combat was truly of an action game caliber with great flow, and the puzzle were as great any of the previous. The story came to a satisfying and surprising close that was heartfelt and brought things together so well.
The dialogue was always great in these games, and this game was no exception. Helped even more so by what I think is likely the best casts of any game I’ve played. It was like watching Shakespeare with vampires and demons. And that was what was amazing as well, the world they built.
Begun by Silicon Knights, Crystal Dynamics and Amy Hennig created a gothic world of Vampires and Demons unlike any other. There were no human protagonists, and there was no attempt to make these characters sympathetic to humanity. You lived and breathed their world, and you came to care about these characters fates and destine AS VAMPIRES and DEMONS. Truly, an amazing accomplishment. Sadly, this is another story without a true ending as Amy Hennig moved on after this game. She is now working on a little series you may have heard of called Uncharted.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox, PC)
Runner up? Why not GotY? You ask. Well, a couple of reasons. The first being, I was not as impressed by this game as a lot of people were having been previously exposed to many BioWare games. I think this was a first experience for many people, and is one of the reasons it impressed so many people as much as it did. However, for the most part if felt like a reskin of Baldur’s Gate to me. Still, it was a great game with a great cast of characters and an equally great story. Sadly, the story was somewhat spoiled for me, so it never had quite the impact it should have. It’s unfair yes, but the game could never quite impress me as it others because of that.
Honorable Mentions: Panzer Dragoon Orta (Xbox), Otogi: Myth of Demons (Xbox)
Fable (Xbox, PC)
Ah Fable. Another love/hate series for people. So many people felt cheated by the overblown promises of Molyneux that this series has forever become the target of hatred and jokes that it may never live down. However, if like me, you were the kind of person who eventually managed to look past the hype and the disappointment, what you got was one of the most enjoyable experiences to be had in gaming.
Fables biggest appeal for me was the world Molyneux created. While not as large or as deep as many, it felt more alive than any others I had seen. The towns felt vibrant and the people and monsters and aesthetic lent the whole thing a fairy tale feel that was very entrancing. The ability to decide the moral path of your character was hardly knew, but it was implemented in new and interesting ways. Most of all though, the game was well written, well voiced and funny. Something he has kept going in the more recent entries. Molyneux may overpromise, but I love that he dreams and refuses to keep striving for the impossible. If he ever achieves his dreams we’ll have the greatest RPG ever made, and if he doesn’t well still get a damned great game anyways. It’s a win-win.
Halo 2 (Xbox, PC)
A disappointment to many fans was Halo 2, but not to me. I enjoyed playing as the arbiter. Yes, you heard me, I though it was a great idea and loved every minute of it. The ending did not disappoint me at all and I feel some of the most memorable moments in the game were to be had in the arbiter sections. For instance, cutting the cords in the Heretics stronghold and fighting as the station plummets from orbit. Brilliant.
Honorable Mentions: Burnout 3: Takedown (PS2) (Xbox), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords (Xbox)
The little game that almost could. I have been a fan of Tim Schafers works since Full Throttle. I later went back and played the Monkey Island games as well. However, quite possibly the highlight of his career right behind Grim Fandango is this game, and only slightly behind.
Combining Adventure game and platform elements worked perfectly, and his comedy was spot ion as always. The writing was just excellent overall and hilarious. The level designs were mind-bendingly awesome and the characters enjoyable and fun to get to know. This game has quite possibly the single greatest level of any platformer even in the Milkman Conspiracy. If you haven’t played this game, you need to. It’s a classic.
Phantom Dust (Xbox)
Another overlooked game that year was Phantom Dust. I couldn’t decide between the two so I had to include this. Phantom What? you may ask. This is a game from Yukio Futatsugi who you may be familiar with from Panzer Dragoon. He was working for Microsoft Games Studios at the time. This game was poorly promoted, and sold badly, but it was not deserved.
The basics of the game were a lot like a Collectible Card Game. You used different abilities granted to you by the dust, but you had “deck” of them you went through in combat. However, it’s not so boring. This was helped by the gameplay and level designs. Envision this.
You’re on the shattered landscape of a freeway with overpasses and streets suspended and broken in the air in fragments. You are standing on one, and across the other side is your enemy. He launches himself fifty feet into the air and unleashes a barrage of energy attacks at you which you deflect back to him with you your energy shield but one gets through. It hits you square in the chest and launches you backwards into the wall behind you, which smashes and you fly through in a spray of concrete landing on a lower level. He rushes at you at high speed while a giant flame swords forms in his hand, but you bring up a new shield and his flame sword chatter when it hit it. You then unleash a 360 degree wav of energy that launches him 20 feet and you follow up with a massive stomp on his prone figure that smashes him through the floor and the whole floor collapses taking you both down to the next level.
The fight would go on like this with the world around being used as cover, as you unleash waves of powers at each other, one after the other. The world around you crumbling and being destroyed as you fight. This was amazing in and of itself as were the breathtaking level designs, but Phantom Dust had something even more going for it. One of the best stories of that generation. It was told simply, but well and came with a twist for the ages.
Jade Empire (Xbox)
BioWare’s first original world since Red Steel. This one is often forgotten and overshadowed by BioWare’s other offerings both before and after, but it deserves the recognition. Their trademark morality system is there, as is their ever great storytelling. Sporting an Asian themed universe, it was certainly a unique direction for them, but a memorable one. This another game in a long list games that deserves a sequel.
Advent Rising (Xbox, PC)
Another forgotten title, Advent Rising was a troubled game. It had it’s fair share of glitches, and some of the storytelling left a lot to be desired. However, when it worked, it was glorious. The story was great, but the gameplay was were it really shined. It was a third person shooter in the vein of Mass Effect, where guns and powers came into play, but also, bullet time. In this, the combat is as of yet unequalled by Mass Effect, and the way the powers worked with the gunplay was nothing short of breathtaking. Sadly it’s legacy is an epic ending, and a cliffhanger for the ages. Another series that will never see its culmination, leaving us to forever wonder.
Honorable Mentions: Age of Empires III (PC), Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (GCN, PC, PS2, Xbox)
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Morrowind was the first of the Elder Scrolls games I played, and it was a disappointment. Yes, I know, blasphemy, heresy, vile lies! But hey, it just didn’t do it for me. So as you can imagine I came into Oblivion with some trepidation. However, that was gone the moment I stepped out of the imperial sewers.
I think that’s a sentiment many of us who played Oblivion share. That sheer sense of wonder and overwhelming awe that hits you when you step out into the open air and see that massive world awaiting you. People mock the graphics now, but at the time it was an impressive sight. 200 hours of time I logged in that game, and relished every one. Not to mention some great DLC, like The Shivering Isles, which was actually better than the entire main game. Oblivion was just endless hours of addicting fun.
Phantasy Star Universe (Xbox 360, PC, PS2)
There’s not much more I can say that hasn’t already been said. This game was PSO done well. Fast fluid combat, greater variety of missions and enemies, and an offline story. The expansion brought things further and deepened things greatly. We never got all the updates we deserved, but this game allowed the series to evolve beyond the stagnation of PSO, and PSO2 will be the ultimate evolution of all the work started in PSU.
Chromehounds (Xbox 360)
I hardly think this game requires much. It was a mediocre offline game, but the online component brought a novel idea that was to entrance a small group of gamers into a clan, and eventually building this website. Fighting in hulking mechs to capture territory and control the world was a memorable experience. I miss this game, and hope that maybe someday, From Software will consider giving us a sequel.
Honorable Mentions: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent (All), Viva Piñata (Xbox 360), Gears of War (PC, Xbox 360)