Back when Mafia came out, there were a lot fewer games with this theme. I loved the old environments, cars, tommy guns, and music. Mafia also nailed the accents and dialogue that are emblematic of the time and place. The game also featured compelling cutscenes, cinematically shot. Although Grand Theft Auto III (released the previous year) was a superior game, Mafia filled a distinct niche.
I still hear from time to time what a miracle it was that Tolkien's saga made it to film, and that it was done as well as it was. The Two Towers game tapped into some of that same magic, allowing you to play as these fascinating characters in locations taken directly from the films, often featuring very cinematic camera angles. It was a competent gauntlet-esque action game in its own right as well, featuring an upgrade system, combat moves taken from the film, and engaging boss fights with trolls and the like.
For some reason, my friends and I found the main character of this game, John Mullins, to be hilarious. Perhaps it was because he was just such a stereotype. While looking up this game, I learned that he was a real guy! So maybe he's more interesting than how the game portrays him. Double Helix featured a "dismemberment system" where enemies reacted in the most gruesome ways to your shot placement. This got especially gnarly when coupled with the game's automatic shotgun. For instance - if you shot a fella in the arm, he might not die immediately, but he certainly wouldn't have that arm anymore. When I was in high school, I was into it.
You saw the sequel on the 2004 list, so you might've suspected that the original would make an appearance. I think I've now decided that perhaps Bloodrayne was actually just a fun action game. Surely, watching this sexy vampire run and jump around was part of the appeal, but there was a bit more to it. The guns, melee attacks, time slow abilities (I'm a sucker for this in any game), and rage abilities lent the combat an engaging loop, and abilities like possession were excellent additions to Rayne's repertoire.
Although I'm not sure I ever actually played the story in this one, I spent a lot of time playing matches with bots. The game's force powers were fun and convincing, including things like lightsaber throws, force pushes, force grip (choke), and lightning. I loved turning on a dismemberment mod that I found online in order to make those lightsabers do as much damage as it seemed they should, lopping off limbs and cauterizing the wounds.
To this day, I feel that the Morrowind main theme is one of the best pieces of video game music in history. When Morrowind came out, I had very little experience with RPGs, so everything in it was new to me - races, classes, skills, astral signs, alchemy, enchanting, shrines, etc. I loved putting together my own unique creation. I was also very impressed with Bethesda's skill system - the way that skills level up through use. Although it could feel silly running and jumping everywhere to level up Athletics and Acrobatics, nothing beats the feeling of jumping from one canton to another in Vivec. Morrowind certainly had some jank, but it seemed permissible with everything that the game attempted to do and include. Less permissible was the enemy cliff riders...
When Saving Private Ryan released in 1998, it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. The gore, intensity, the shell-shocked soldiers...It brought home the horror of war to non-military viewers in a way that almost nothing else had. This is one of the reasons that Allied Assault made such an impact on me - the D-Day scene seemed to be taken straight from the film - floating in on the landing crafts, weaving through the Czech hedgehogs (metal cross-ties), etc. Although I'm sure it doesn't seem this way viewed now, the graphics seemed excellent at the time, and 17 year-old me felt like I was there. What an intense experience!
I covered much of what I liked about this title in my 2003 list with Frozen Throne. However, to reiterate, I liked the stylized graphics, the introduction of hero units into the RTS space, and the varied units for each faction. And just yesterday I was speaking to some friends about the cutscenes that Blizzard developed in this era. Warcraft III had the same awe-inspiring cinematic feel and attention to detail that the developer displayed earlier in Diablo II.
It was with No One Livers Forever 2 that my love affair with Monolith Productions began in earnest. Right of the bat, the engine was just silky smooth. Jupiter was crisp and responsive, ensuring weapon accuracy and environmental detail. The game featured creative weaponry, a rudimentary upgrade system, fitting spy music, and was genuinely funny! It can be very easy to miss the mark when it comes to putting comedy in your game, but No One Lives Forever 2 nailed it.
It's just outright insane to see this game in the top spot for me. I generally dislike competitive experiences, and competition is really all that SoulCalibur II brings to the table (the single-player campaign is mostly pointless). It remains the only fighting game I put a significant amount of time into. However, lucky for me, it was a balanced, responsive, and fun experience. I enjoyed developing my own playstyle, and I predominantly used Voldo (a character most of my friends found too strange to take seriously). However, he turned out to be a very powerful character, and my time in the practice mode and watching expert players online paid off. It felt good to gain proficiency, and I have many fond memories of the moves and countermoves developed by my playgroup over time.