At this point, plastic instrument games were really hitting their stride. Although I didn't love the "battles" vs. the other guitarists, I liked the way that so many talented guitarists were given name recognition (you know you like Rage Against the Machine, but did you know that the guitarist in the group is Tom Morello?). The game also featured online co-op, and maintained the stylish animated characters that Guitar Hero has become known for. When you weren't absolutely jamming to rock like Queens of the Stone Age and Pearl Jam, you were following along with beautiful compositions like Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover."
Shadow of Chernobyl was one of the first open-world FPS experiences I had. It featured a dangerous, emergent world, featuring warring factions, environmental anomalies, and mutated wildlife (some of which was invisible). The game featured multiple endings which were determined by the player's actions in-game. I enjoyed scrounging this desolate world for supplies and triumphing by the skin of my teeth. Although GSC Game World produced two more games in the series, the original remains the only one I was able to get into. Perhaps I was more patient back in 2007?
I can't recall when exactly I learned about Peggle, but I do know that I ended up playing the crap out of it. Although every shot (at some level) comes down to luck, there still something immensely satisfying about making each one. There is a strategic element in determining when exactly to hit the green "peg" (and activate your "master's" power-up ability), and in choosing which master to use for each level. There was an audiovisual pleasure in the lighting of pegs as the ball hit them, and the ascending tone you heard as you hit multiple pegs at once by creating the correct angle through a curve. I tried to hit every peg in every level, and spent hour after hour chasing the challenges.
Immortal Throne expanded the base game by including a new mastery, a new act in which the player explores the Underworld, and adding a new item slot for "artifacts," powerful items that had to be crafted via complex recipes. The new mastery, "Dream," was tremendously powerful and coupled well with either ranged or melee characters. The new act included tough new foes, such as the Dactyl Gigantes, that dwarfed your character and slammed you with multiple shockwaves. Titan Quest just has a unique charm. One thing I've always loved is the way that certain enemies actually wield the weapons they drop upon death. If you see an Ogre carrying around a sword that is pulsing with lightning, you'll see it drop when the Ogre is slain. I also liked the ragdoll physics system in game. If you hit an enemy with much more damage than is required to make the kill, the enemy will fly across the screen. This provided a tangible sense of "powering up" if you revisited areas that you'd come through earlier in the game, knocking satyrs around the canyons like baseballs with a baseball bat.
Until very recently (I'm writing this in 2020), this is the last anyone had seen of the Half-Life franchise. Episode two expertly integrated expansive environments, physics puzzles, and Half-Life's signature sound design. Music is very sparsely used in Half-Life, and the wooden cracks of boxes breaking, the crackling associated with taking damage, and the sterile BOOP of picking up health are among the most distinctive sounds in gaming. I found the fight with the Antlion boss to be exhilarating, as well as the use of the Strider-killing Magnusson Devices. Lastly, I found the story pieces to be compelling, including Alyx's relationship with her father and Gordon's friendly encounters with Vortigaunts.
Although the Darkness II was a more polished product, there was just something special about the original. The story was more cohesive and grounded (as grounded as a story can be about demon possession), and it was the first time I'd ever felt so much like a predator. I loved shooting out the lights in these dark alleys, only to slither up behind my enemies using the "Creeping Dark" ability. Jackie can also deploy a "Black Hole" that draws in and damages all enemies around it. As in the sequel, the Darkness itself is magnificently voiced by Mike Patton.
The Shivering Isles Expansion
Of all the Daedric Shrines that players encounter in the Elder Scrolls series, the most bizarre is always that of Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness. Therefore, it was a stroke of genius to set the most prominent expansion for Oblivion in Sheogorath's realm. The prince himself, along with his assistant Haskill, is delightfully bizarre, featuring amusing, well-written dialogue delivered capably by voice actor Wes Johnson. The quests also reflect the madness of the realm's master, and are anything but boring. An excellent expansion for an excellent western RPG.
"50,000 people used to live here...now it's a ghost town." I've heard that line countless, countless times. I first played Call of Duty 4 back when it released on the XBOX 360. Hours and hours of multiplayer, with solid weapons that felt good to shoot such as the M16 and RPD. Then we played it again when it was remastered for the PS4. More hours with its well-designed maps. Then, it was released for free on PS+, and we again sunk hours into it. It doesn't hurt that it actually featured a stellar single-player campaign (back when I played Call of Duty campaigns). It's very much a fan favorite in my group, although superior multiplayer experiences have been released in the meantime.
Even if you're much younger than I am, you've likely heard references to phrases like "the cake is a lie" or heard the high pitch of GLADOS singing "Still Alive." Portal was actually the game that showed me that it was possible for me to like puzzle games. The game featured exciting momentum-based physics puzzles that were designed to guide players to their solutions without being obvious, a mysterious and compelling story, and of course the beloved companion cube. Portal also kept its run time short, which meant that I could see the story without getting burned out from puzzle after puzzle after puzzle (like many of the puzzle games I've played since).
For anyone that knows me, this is certainly not a surprise. Bioshock was my favorite game ever for almost a decade, and remains in my top 5. First of all, the game just features excellent characters. It would take this entire entry to discuss them all. Even better though, is the way that you learn about them and what happened to them in Rapture. The art deco environmental design is excellent and provides clues as to what happened in each section of the city, but the game also provides multiple audio logs that you can listen to and learn from without being pulled out of the experience of playing the game. You are rewarded for being thorough not only with compelling stories, but with the many resources that are found through scrounging (another gameplay mechanic I love). I loved the customization aspect of the title, mixing and matching plasmids and tonics and choosing which of my weapons to enhance at upgrade stations. I liked the game's theme, of ruthless capitalism and objectivism run amok. Though the game isn't flawless (the final boss comes to mind), it is just about as close as a game can get, especially for how ambitious it is.