The 2000s marked a time of change as developers began to embrace 3D environments fulls, the fads of the ‘90s began to slip away, and online features started to reign supreme.
It was here that I began to explore more of what is important in a game for me, and while some of those tastes have changed over time, the time I spent in these games has helped to define how I perceive games being developed and released today.
These games focus on how people could play with one another, how immersive games could be, or how narratives could be told. It was a time of refinement where many games received sequels that built off of the games of the past and often with even greater success.
Halo 3 defined what an online shooter could be for me, and while I don’t really play online games much anymore, it still introduced a world of possibilities and a community that was bursting with creativity.
Halo 3 continued the Master Chief’s story following the cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 and included a 4-player coop feature. While it might seem basic from a story perspective, it’s the sandbox that ultimately makes the campaign as fun to return to as it is.
We can’t forget about the groundbreaking online functions, which included matchmaking, custom games, forge, theater, file sharing, and the list goes on. It catered to the Halo community so that they could continue to keep the game alive long after the release with new game types and maps.
I will never forget the long nights I had with friends, after hours in matchmaking, switching to custom games to figure out a puzzle that someone made with the promise we’d get Recon armor. We didn’t get the armor, but it was still a fun time.
The infamous follow-up to the massive success of Mario 64 was received with mixed feelings. While the world of Isle Delfino was largely received well, the lack of freedom to find sprites, blue coin collecting, and the water mechanics turned some people away.
However, the freedom within levels, I think, is superior to almost every 3D platformer within this decade, and the challenges that Sunshine imposes on the player are some of the best in his franchise.
I wish that Nintendo had built off of Sunshine rather than taking a nearly 15-year hiatus from true open-world 3D Mario games. Wandering around the various tropical-themed areas always felt so good to me and actually clearing challenges felt satisfying, unlike in the Galaxy games, which often felt like I was walking down a narrow path waiting for the end.
Here we come to the best 3D platformer of this decade, and for quite some time, the best ever. Psychonauts introduced players to a world filled with quirky characters, psychic powers, and a mind-bending concept.
Being able to dive into people’s consciousness is such a unique idea for a game, and it lends itself so well to not only gameplay but insane story ideas and character development.
The worlds are wild and seem to capture exactly how many of these characters’ inner thoughts must look like. Each level was bursting with creativity and made me look at each of the different NPCs in a different light.
Psychonauts may not have gotten all the love it deserved at the time, but the fact that people are still going back and enjoying the platformer means that it still holds up.
Half-Life 1 was revolutionary for its storytelling and enemy design which immersed you in this world of alien overlords and zombie crabs; however, Half-Life 2 expanded on its world, environment, and scale, making it a worthy follow-up to one of the most critically acclaimed games ever. Half-Life 2 continues for Gordon Freeman almost immediately after the Black Mesa events but for everyone else, a few years.
The world has fallen to this alien order, and Humanity is enslaved. Gordon must cross drainage canals, run through zombie-infested traffic tunnels, and infiltrate train yards to help out the resistance in taking this threat down.
Everything from the sound design to the character models to the combat still hold up really well, and they help to make this world one that is worth returning to. If only we could see the conclusion of these events in a sequel…
Assassin’s Creed 2
The continuation of the Assassin’s Creed franchise came as no surprise but what did was just how much it evolved between entries. Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced us to Ezio Auditore de Firenze: a young, charismatic soon to be assassin as he grapples with his parents’ untimely death and the secret they withheld from him.
The world is more varied, colorful, and fun to explore as the developers move the location to Renaissance Italy and improve the parkour system.
Running across the tiled rooftops of Venician homes, jumping across canals, and blending in with crowds at festivals felt like everything the first game should have felt like.
This game captured my imagination for all of winter 2009 – my thoughts only focused on Catholic secrets, mysterious orders, and finding Altair’s armor. This is the standard that I have held most action-adventure games to for a long time, and for good reason.
No one thought that Fallout 3 was going to do well initially. You’re saying that they are going to make the top-down, asymmetric RPG series into a 3D first-person shooter/RPG? It sounded like it was going to be a trainwreck.
However, Bethesda blew us all away and made one of the best games in the franchise for many – one that immersed the player in the Capital Wasteland, where the once great capital of the United States sits in ruin.
There is a level of shock value, from an American perspective at least, in seeing D.C. portrayed this way. It’s creepy, but that only aids in giving the player a sense of trying to survive despite the circumstances.
It doesn’t feel like a dangerous camping trip in a foreign world. It feels like you are one of the last remaining members of Humanity trying to make it in a world where it seems everything is trying to kill you.
Left for Dead 2
The legendary team at Valve had one more surprise at the tail-end of the decade with a quick follow-up to their 2008 success, Left for Dead. While people may have been shocked, the fact that this game was my go-to holiday game for years and is still receiving mod support from its community shows that it has legs.
The campaigns were incredibly engaging and utilized weather and environments much more effectively to pressure players and determine how they might disperse throughout the game.
The inclusion of Scavenge was also really well received and was my favorite mode for as long as the player base could fill slots. While it may have been one of the harbingers of putting too much coop in things, it also was the best example, for a long time, of how you should make a coop-focused game.
BioShock completely changed my perspective on how a game could deliver narrative and build its world. Rapture, Andrew Ryan, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters: these are all things that have their own histories that we have come to learn over the past decade.
Every time I load into BioShock, I am swept away into an alternate world where despair is a constant companion, leaking ceilings are a normal, and everyone’s story is waiting to be listened to on an audio file.
While the twist isn’t as special the 50th time around, the combat and setting will hold your attention every single time. I’m not sure when the last time I play this game will be, but it isn’t anytime soon.
Dead Space single-handedly pulled me back into the survival horror genre. Where many famous games in the genre were either put to rest or slowly becoming action-adventure games, Dead Space said no. It wanted to scare the pants off its players, and boy, did it do that to me at the time. The ambiance of this game has been etched into the mere idea of I have survival horror and science fiction.
The combat, while not as advanced as later entries, still feels brutal and enjoyable to perform. The story is well-paced, and the scares even more so. The team at Visceral does a fantastic job at playing on player expectations and determining how they will scare the player next.
That is how you make a successful horror game, and we need more of Dead Space’s design in the horror genre.
Batman Arkham Asylum
Before the release of Arkham Asylum, nobody thought a super hero video game could be done well. From Superman 64 to The Caped Crusader himself, there were a ton of just mediocre or broken comic book hero video games. Arkham Asylum not only introduced a unique story all its own, but it also respected the source material at the same time.
The environment of the asylum is one of my favorites of any game, with its paint-splattered hallways and slowly changing landscape. It really does feel like a long night because it doesn’t stay static the entire time.
The voice acting even uses some of the most respected actors who have already played these characters, such as Mark Hamill’s iconic Joker voice. Even the combat system, which might seem a little basic all these years later, is a great way to incorporate Batman’s gadgets and fighting style into a game while at the same time being approachable for nearly any level of gamer.
Arkham Asylum set the standard for hero games, and now Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy even have fantastic games – all because Rocksteady nailed their outing with the bat.