I would have sworn I already wrote this, but apparently I just put my list together. Anyway, better late than never.
For those late to the party: I'm naming the best game to come out every year since I was born. (Those keeping score, that was 1984...hey, that rhyme!) You can read all previous sections hither, yonder and thither.
System Shock 2 (PC)
Cliff Bleszisnki semi-recently commented that RPG was the future of FPS. While the actual parsing of that sentence is headache inducing, it isn't hard to see that he's one to something. Of course, if he had been paying attention, he would have known that Ken Levine and Waren Specter already figured that out, more than a decade earlier. With System Shock 2, Levine and his team at Irrational created possibly the most rare of gaming experiences, something both frightening and cerebral. While the game falls much more heavily on the RPG side of the hybrid formula, it shows a vision for games to cross borders much more boldly than any game before it. By using audio logs and ghostly projected images as narrative tools rather than rote cut scenes, Irrational is challenging traditional storytelling devices while also submerging the player into System Shocks dire, opressive world. By the time the game reaches its predicatably sequel-hinting end, the player has been given a glimpse into the future of first-person gaming, even if we're only starting to see the full influence.
Diablo II (PC)
Silent Hill 2 (PS2)
Excuse me to be dismissive for a moment, but the first Silent Hill always felt like Konami's attempt to cash in on the whole survival horror boom that was going on in the late 90s, with the added "twist" of combat being completely worthless rather just mostly worthless. Which is why its such a shock that the first sequel is among the most ambitious examples of storytelling ever attempted. The story of James Sunderland at first seems quite horror 101: he recieves communication from his dead wife, and understandably travels to the mentioned town of Silent Hill to figure out why exactly. However, it quickly becomes quite clear that nothing is quite as rote as it initially seems. Everything that James experiences is thrown into question as it becomes very clear that he himself is not fully sane. So the question becomes if the monsters James encounters are real, or merely projections of his broken psyche. The game never answers these fully, and offers multiple outcomes of various tragedy. But Silent Hill 2 is more about questions than answers anyway, and challenges the player to come to their own conclusions. By respecting the gamer's intelligence, the game rises above its "Me Too" legacy and becomes one of the true masterpieces of a crowded genre.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2)
Few games have defined the last ten years of gaming quite as much as what direction Rockstar decided to move into with the third installment of the Grand Theft Auto series. But it wasn't until Vice City that the games hit their sadistic stride. By shifting away from a nameless protagonist into the shoes of Tommy Verceti, who very quickly learns that there is not such thing as loyalty in the criminal underworld. Thus begins an ambitious journey for power and revenge in Vice City, which is really the star of the game. While Liberty City was a comedic pastiche of urban America (most specifically New York City,) Vice City was set in a specific time and place. The time machine approach of using the Miami Vice environment allowed the game to operate within understood archetypes. By adding meat to the glorious bones of GTAIII, Vice City created a living, breathing world that demands to be explored. It proved that the key to making lasting sandbox games is to create a sandbox well worth living into.
A quick note before rounding out this list: All of the previous games are sequels. Specifically, all but one are the first sequel, and Vice City is the second 3D GTA game, so it also counts. This might come off as a bit soapboxey, but I think that it deserves to be said that gaming is one of the few artforms where the product of the sequel can (and quite often does) far outstrip that which has come before. This is due to the experimentation of the original allowing for greater refinement in the follow ups. Of course, sometimes there can be a misstep, but overall I think sequels can be a healthy and positive thing for most games. Of course, that is not to be mistaken to games being sequeled into death. That, as with anything, is never good. On with the list!
Beyond Good and Evil (Multi-Platform)
And while Beyond Good and Evil is not a sequel, it does form something of a collage of great 3D-era games. It uses the stealth of Metal Gear Solid, the puzzle-platforming of Zelda and the high-speed, low-impact racing of Mario Kart. Even rail photography sim Pokemon Snap has a influence with the photography aspects of the game. The whole sum is a love letter to classic game design, offering a well balanced mix bag of some of the highlights of the previous seven years of gaming. But all of this would simply be novel repurposing if not for the fact that the game is wrapped around one of the most subtlely subversive game narratives released. The political message of never trusting anything on face value, mixed with the game's cartoon sensibility, is instantly memorable for being both mature enough to carry weight while also never becoming heavy handed. The journey for Jade, gaming's undeniable greatest female hero, provides a fitting background for gamers to be given a meaningful, mature experience without resulting in sometimes juvenile wish-fulfillment.
Alright, we have one more week of yesteryear, covering the years that can be described best as the current generation. And then, in two weeks, I finally decide what game is going to be my favorite of 2009. Stay tuned.