The Best Year in Video Game History

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There have been a lot of great years in video game history. Last Thursday, on #Polynauts (noticing a theme here?), our unofficial chat, someone pointed out that 2011 was a great year for video games. Think about it for a minute: just last year, we saw the release of games as wonderful and diverse as Bulletstorm, Saint's Row: The Third, The Witcher 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Halo: Combat Evolved: Anniversary, Gears of War 3, and Dark Souls. Oh wait, I also forgot Bastion, Batman: Arkham City, Rage, Forza 4, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I've no doubt I'm missing others as well, like Dead Space 2 and Total War: Shogun 2.

That's all well and good, but these games, as great as they are... seem to be missing some thing, some quintessential essence of life-changing, industry-defining games. Some years are better than others. Some years are years you'll never forget, because they didn't just see the release of great games--they saw the releases of some of the most profound and incredible games in video game history. It's one thing to make a great game, and another thing entirely to release something that changes the way the industry makes video games.

I've picked three years in video game history. I know some people have arguments for others, and I'm excited to see them in the comments below, but for now, I'd like to focus on the three I believe are the absolute best.

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1998. Wow. What a year. Most people know it for two things--er, wait, no, thre--wait. No.

Geez.

This stuff gets long. 1998 had a lot of games.

Inarguably one of the most important video games of all time, Half-Life was launched in 1998. Where people had used 3D before, it was Half-Life that combined both 3D, video game AI, and scripted events to create what was, at that point, the most believable 3D video game experience ever made. Half-Life didn't just change all first person shooters that followed--it changed the way the industry thought about 3D. It wasn't the only groundbreaking FPS, however: Epic's Unreal, which launched earlier that spring, brought Epic into the spotlight with its Unreal Engine, which has become one of the most widely-adopted engines in video game history. Shooters were more varied, back in the day, which meant that we weren't just getting arcadey, fast-paced games, but slower, more thoughtful games like Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, or the humorous, mech-driven SHOGO.

1998 was an important year for RTSes as well. Not only did Starcraft and its expansion Brood War get released, but Age of Empires: Rise of Rome greatly advanced the formula found in 1997's Age of Empires and paved the way for 1999's Age of Empires 2 (the greatest RTS ever maaaaaaaade!).

Japan had one of its best years ever in 1998, with two of the greatest JRPGs of all time, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Xenogears, launching within a fortnight of each other, the former for the Sega Saturn, and the latter for Sony's Playstation. Not to be outdone, Nintendo released the second-greatest Zelda game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. Shortly after, Suikoden II released.

When it comes to real RPGs, 1998 was one of the best years ever, seeing both the release of genre heavyweights Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2. While often ignored, Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven scored really well with many reviewers.

And to think: I haven't even mentioned games like Banjo-Kazooie, Grim Fandango, Resident Evil 2, Falcon 4.0, or Sonic Adventure.

All that said, 1998 was one of the best years in gaming history because it was defined by stealth titles. Metal Gear Solid released that year, to much acclaim, as did Tenchu: Stealth Assassins. While these were noble efforts that had an impact on console gamers, it was Thief: The Dark Project, created by Looking Glass Studios (a veritable who's who of "most influential game designers in history"), that dominated stealth games. Look at any stealth game today, and you will see Thief's influence.

1998 was an incredible year for gaming history. What followed, however...

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There's a big part of me that wants to say that, despite some of the greatest games of all time releasing in 1998, 1999 absolutely blew it away. Why?

...where do I even begin? Homeworld, Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and Age of Empires II, three of the best RTSes ever made, were launched and transformed the way people thought about the genre. While Starcraft is one of the most famous RTSes ever made, each of these three games are vastly superior. Homeworld, interestingly, was the first fully 3D RTS ever made (and one of the few Space RTSes in existence). Another RTS launched in 1999 was Warzone 2100. Legendary 4X game Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri was released in February, practically perfecting the 4X genre. X-Wing Alliance, Descent3, and Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000 were released at the peak of the flight simulator craze, and each one was a fantastic exploration of the genre (though some argue that the earlier X-Wing games were superior to X-Wing Alliance).

1999 saw the release of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, which launched what was one of the biggest game franchises of all time, as well as the launches of new franchises like Roller Coaster Tycoon, Silent Hill, and Syphon Filter. The Kain series got a reboot with Crystal Dynamics' Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. Several franchises transitioned into 3D, with releases like Rayman 2: The Great Escape, Chrono Cross, Donkey Kong 64, and SWAT 3: Close Quarters Battle.

Gamers received other, more experimental games, like Outcast, an action adventure game driven by voxel technology and AI that was, for the time, extremely advanced, and Shenmue, a game that ambitiously recreated 1980s Yokosuka, Japan. Shenmue was, for a long time, one of the most expensive games ever released.

For RPGs, Bioware released Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast, an expansion pack for the previous year's Baldur's Gate, and Black Isle releases Planescape: Torment, an RPG so good that nearly everyone who has played it swears that it is the greatest RPG ever made. Ultima's last installment, Ultima IX: Ascension, also saw a release, but it was poorly received, and Origin Systems, thought by many to be the greatest, most influential developer in video game history, was shut down as a result.

Two important types of video game rose to prominence in 1999. Everquest and Asheron's Call, two influential MMOs, were released just two years after the genre's birth with 1997's Ultima Online. Mods also gained significant traction, because Valve, who had released Half-Life the fall before, helped release both Counterstrike and Team Fortress Classic, two heavily influential first-person shooters.

Speaking of First-Person Shooters, the aforementioned SWAT 3 is, interestingly, one of the earliest examples of the transformation from one genre into first-person shooter, as SWAT 1 and 2 were both Sierra Adventure games. Medal of Honor, which Stephen Spielberg produced after his work on his 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Half-Life: Opposing Force, the first expansion to Valve's Half-Life, and, arguably, the best game in the entire Half-Life series, helped launch noted FPS developer Gearbox to prominence. Epic also released an expansion, the Return to Na Pali expansion for Unreal, but that wasn't all--they also released one of the greatest tournament shooters of all time: UNREAL TOURNAMENT. Just a few days after its November 30th release, on December 2nd, id released Quake III Arena.

Lastly, and most importantly, 1999 was the year that System Shock 2 was released. If ever there was a single game that influenced as many great games as System Shock 2, I do not know it--in fact, I believe that System Shock 2 was so great that anyone who imitates it has no choice but to make a great game. Whether it's Dead Space, Portal, Bioshock, or Doom 3, System Shock 2's extremely atmospheric, immersive influence is what elevates them. That System Shock 2 is one of the few games that can truly be considered well-written is another reason it should be considered the greatest video game ever made, and Looking Glass one of the greatest studios that ever existed.

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There are plenty of other great years in video game history. 2007, for instance, was the year Valve released The Orange Box, legitimizing Steam as a platform. Crytek's Crysis, one of the best-looking games ever, is often cited as a tech demo, but in truth, it's also one of the best first-person shooters out there, really capitalizing on the power of the shooter as a genre. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, originally intended as a new franchise entirely, also capitalized on what the genre was capable of. Oh, and let's not forget Halo 3, Assassin's Creed, STALKER, Resident Evil 4, Forza Motorsport 2, God of War 2, Bioshock, or World in Conflict. In other words, it's fairly easy to come up with some good years in game history, so yours, and why?