The decade that began with the GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and ended with the Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, saw huge technical advances and remarkable innovations in storytelling and gameplay – these are the standout games of the noughties
15. Left 4 Dead
Four players take on waves of zombies in a post-apocalyptic landscape: it doesn’t sound like the most innovative proposition, but Valve infused this enthralling co-op blaster with brilliant technical flourishes. The game’s clever artificial intelligence system, named “Director”, varied the numbers and ferocity of enemies as well as the lighting and music, depending on the skill and strategies of the players, making for a superbly choreographed experience that felt both spontaneous and cinematic. And veteran fans still have nightmares about the Witch …
(Q Entertainent, 2001)
Inspired by his love of dance music, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, produced a euphoric combination of rhythm action and rail shooter in which the player navigates a deteriorating AI system that resembles a nightclub lighting display. Successfully shooting enemies locks you in with the beat of the music, adding extra layers to the instrumentation, so that you’re not just completing a level but also composing the soundtrack. Alongside other titles such as Jet Set Radio and Samba de Amigo, the game symbolised the creativity and youthful exuberance of the Dreamcast era.
13. Wii Sports
The industry laughed at the idea of the Wii, with its weird motion controller and comparatively dated hardware … until they saw people playing Wii Sports. Its collection of five perfectly tuned events made competitive multiplayer gaming accessible to everyone in the house, from toddlers to octogenarians, helping the machine shift more than 100m units and contributing to the idea that games can be a highly social bonding experience. There were arguably better games on Wii – Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros Brawl, for example – but Sports was the title that defined the machine and its ethos.
12. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
(Infinity Ward, 2007)
Some people will argue Battlefield 1942 was the more accomplished military shooter of the era, but we’re going with Modern Warfare for the way it brilliantly added RPG-style progression mechanics to the multiplayer component, and killstreak rewards that brought new levels of structure and compulsion to the online experience. The campaign was excellent too, drawing on Andy McNab-style heroics and pacy 1990s thriller movies and, with Captain John Price, providing one of the only truly memorable characters of this whole genre.
11. Shadow of the Colossus
(Team Ico, 2005)
Fumito Ueda had already introduced the world to his dreamy, impressionistic design philosophy with the beautiful Ico, but Shadow of the Colossus cemented his reputation as a genuine visionary. A young warrior sets out to revive a dead girl by slaying 16 giant monsters; but are these hulking, mournful creatures – which exist both as enemies and living architectural models – really the baddies in this scenario? A wondrous meditation on grief and game design.
10. Guitar Hero 2
Who knew, when a little known music game developer first released a pint-sized plastic guitar into the world in 2005, that music games would briefly become the most beloved and popular thing around? For a brief period in the late 00s, living rooms everywhere were inundated with pretend guitars, mics, drums and even DJ decks, to go with the torrent of rhythm-action games that had suddenly flooded the market. The popularity of rhythm games didn’t endure, but that changes nothing about how transcendentally brilliant they were. For many gamers, Rock Band, with its full complement of plastic instruments, was the best, but Guitar Hero was the original, and it was Guitar Hero 2 and its superb soundtrack of nailed-on rock classics that launched this genre to true worldwide fame. There is no experience in gaming like falling to your knees, tilting the guitar to unleash Star Power, and absolutely nailing the solo in Sweet Child o’ Mine.
9. Silent Hill 2
The original game introduced Konami’s surreal, psychological take on the survival-horror genre; the sequel took it in bizarre, daring new directions. Troubled protagonist James Sunderland turns up in the eponymous town looking for his dead wife, but what he finds amid the mist and radio static is a Freudian menagerie of fetishistic monsters, including the unforgettable BDSM overlord Pyramid Head. As with all great horror fiction, once you’ve experienced it, it haunts you for ever.
8. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
From the moment you emerge from the sewers in the first hour of Oblivion and see how far its lush fantasy world extends into the distance, and are suddenly overwhelmed by the amount of freedom that you are given to explore it, it is apparent that this is a gigantic leap for role-playing games. This is the game that set the template for open-world adventures, a genre that would become dominant in years to come. 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had the thornier, more interesting setting and story, but it was also an absolute drag to play; Oblivion let you fight and talk and connive your way through its world with ease, using magic or swords or a silver tongue to shape the adventure however you wanted.
7. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
The weirdest, saddest, most memorable Zelda game was released right at the dawn of the decade. Whisking hero Link away from the realm he’d just saved in 1999’s Ocarina of Time, it transplanted him to a doomed and twisted place, where he became caught in a three-day time loop. As a grimacing moon draws ever closer to the planet, the residents of Termina go ever more urgently and anxiously about their business, and we try to figure out how to avert disaster. Link dons masks that transform him from child to grotesque living shrub to mountain troll or mermaid. Majora’s Mask’s time travel is so clever and artful that few games dared imitate it in later years, and its tone captures the powerful melancholy of a half-remembered myth.
(2K Games, 2007)
Beginning with a jawdropping descent into the submerged libertarian paradise of Rapture, a failed city state that took Randian objectivist principles to their logical extremes under the leadership of Very Problematic visionary Andrew Ryan, Bioshock was, at the time, a rare shooting game that had something interesting to say. The superpower-bestowing tonics that sent most of Rapture’s residents mad also provided for some very fun and flavourful combat, but it is the grandiose setting and big ideas that earn Bioshock its place among the greatest games in this genre.
5. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
The first stealth-action Metal Gear Solid game had been a huge hit on the original PlayStation. Its grizzled hero, Solid Snake, was on the way to becoming a gaming icon. So for the sequel, Hideo Kojima and Konami got rid of him and made us all play as effete stranger Raiden on a boat. Few games have ever messed with players as much as Sons of Liberty, with its wide-ranging political themes and a prescient preoccupation with misdirection and fake news. It is an anarchic postmodern masterpiece.
4. Halo: Combat Evolved
There was a time when people scoffed at the idea of a great first-person shooter on a console, rather than a PC. Halo was what changed that, setting the scene for shooters to become the dominant genre of the 00s. After exhausting the space-opera single player story, with its beautiful vistas and vicious, intelligent alien zealots, the teens and students of the 00s would lug TVs and Xboxes around and fiddle with LAN cables to enable 16-player multiplayer battles before online gaming was a thing. From learning to wrestle a warthog to absorbing the all-time great score, playing Halo was a defining experience of the decade.
3. Deus Ex
(Ion Storm, 2000)
Drawing on the legacy of formative role-playing classics Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project, Warren Spector and his team at Ion Storm created a sprawling, ridiculously ambitious sci-fi thriller about nano-augmented super agent JC Denton and his globe-spanning battle against dystopian corporations. The game drew together real-life conspiracies and cyberpunk lore, then let players take part how they wanted, sneaking through the world or blasting it wide open. It redefined the whole concept of an immersive video game adventure.
2. The Sims
It was famously dismissed as “the toilet game” during development, because it required players to clean up their bathrooms as a key gameplay component, and Will Wright had to fight to get his life simulator taken seriously. But its combination of interior design kit and interactive soap opera enraptured a new audience of players who had PCs at home but didn’t necessarily want to play Doom. The rise of reality TV has since shown us that people are fascinated by the grubby minutiae of normal lives manipulated into voyeuristic entertainment – but The Sims got there first.
1. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
(Rockstar Games, 2004)
Grand Theft Auto III provided the 3D blueprint, GTA: Vice City brought the tone of super-stylised movie-referencing anarchy, but it was San Andreas that gave us the ultimate expression of Rockstar’s open-world gangster adventure series for the noughties. Channelling hip-hop music, the films of John Singleton and the Hughes brothers, and the Los Angeles riots into one narrative of revenge and rehabilitation, it was a staggering achievement, redefining the whole concept of open-world video games and providing unparalleled freedom of expression and experience to players.