Why 2004 Was the Best Year in Gaming

Setting the impossible standard.


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Which year was the best in video game history? Which 12 month period had the biggest releases and the most influential games? Join us over the next few days as we look back in time at five of the most outstanding years in games. Today, it's 2004's turn to be put under the microscope.

The early years of video gaming were defined by invention; 2004, by contrast, was about redefinition and refinement. Few of the year's standouts burst with wholly new ideas or introduced new genres. Instead, they set standards by which similar games would be judged in the decade to follow, and in the process, established themselves as masterpieces in their own right. You might call 2004 the year of the sequel, given the many high-profile follow-ups that iterated on the games that preceded them, but the successors that defined the year were hardly retreads. Not to mention, of course, the jewels that launched entire series' of their own, yet still shine even within the shadow of the games that followed.

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World of Warcraft | Blizzard

Leave it to a beloved studio like Blizzard to look at the breadth of a burgeoning genre, strip away the chaff, and infuse it with a vibrant charm that both reimagined a series and introduced the massively multiplayer role-playing game to a throng of enthusiasts who had yet to play one. The result was magical, and all these years later, countless developers still spend a significant amount of time and energy hoping to duplicate World of Warcraft's success. So much success, indeed, that dozens of other games would later be called "WoW clones" simply by daring to test the MMOG waters. Five expansions later, and millions of players keep returning to Azeroth, proving that there is no escaping World of Warcraft's significant gravitational pull.

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Half-Life 2 | Valve

How do you craft a sequel to the best shooter ever made? If you're Valve Software, you replace it with the next game to earn such hyperbolic acclaim. If any game deserves to be described with breathless hyperbole, however, it is Half-Life 2, a shooter so unique that few developers dare to copy its formula, hewing instead to the Modern Warfare structure that has dominated the landscape since 2006. As a result, Half-Life 2's elegantly paced combination of exploration, action, and puzzle-solving stands above the game's peers, and the very mention of the fabled Half-Life 3 is enough to inspire hope and rage among series fans that believe lightning might strike the same place thrice.

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Ninja Gaiden | Team Ninja/Tecmo

2004's graceful and violent Ninja Gaiden must have prompted the breaking of hundreds of controllers, so difficult was its action. But "difficult" is not necessarily the same as "cheap," and Ninja Gaiden countered its highly challenging enemy encounters with fluid controls and slick swordplay that emphasized mobility. The action built tension that you then released in a loud and rewarding sigh when you finally walked away, both worn out and triumphant. Ninja Gaiden wrote the book on brutal melee combat, and action games still crib from its pages.

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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas | Rockstar

Grand Theft Auto III was the game that defined the open-world urban action game; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas defined it yet again, finding the irresistible sweet spot where open-ended sandbox exploration and a criminal underworld merged. You're as likely to remember your hijinks from within the cockpit of the AT-400 airliner as you are to recall your final meeting with Mike Toreno, who was at last prepared to offer you a fitting reward for the seemingly impossible missions you performed for him. Since then, open-world games, including other GTA games, have struggled to recreate that je ne sais quoi that made San Andreas just… so… right.

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Far Cry | Crytek

Before developer Crytek created the GPU-frying Crysis, and before the Far Cry name became associated with open-world icon chasers, Far Cry burst onto the scene, making a name for the studio that created it, and shining brightly in a year bloated with great shooters like Half-Life 2, Unreal Tournament 2004, Doom 3, and Battlefield Vietnam. It was the game's stunning recreation of a tropical island that first took your breath away, but it was the diverse action that made Far Cry such a fantastic achievement. Jungle stealth, on-foot action, and vehicular combat energized this gorgeous first-person shooter, and it was here that its creators sowed the seeds they would later reap from each impressive technical touchstone they released.

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Rome: Total War | Creative Assembly

"Epic" is a loaded word, yet few words could more accurately describe the scope and detail of Rome: Total War, the vast strategy game to which every Total War game, and indeed, every historical strategy sojourn, is still often compared. It was about colossal battles featuring hundreds of pikemen, chariots, and elephants clashing just outside a city's walls, while siege equipment batters the enemy's defenses. It was about ordering your spies to foment unrest and adding new branches to your all-important family tree. In short, Rome: Total War was, as its title states, the totality of war, in all its heartbreaking, political, vicious glory.

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Katamari Damacy | Namco

Can you hear it, right now, in your head? Can you hear that catchy, syncopated tune that played as you first loaded up Katamari Damacy? It's going to be stuck in your head the rest of the day. In fact, you might take this opportunity to queue up the soundtrack and reminisce over every paper clip, every scurrying cat, and every cherry tree that adhered to the sticky ball you rolled across tables and towns. It's fitting that such an unusual game still has no match--and that such an unusual soundtrack can rise from your memories, years after you first heard its melodies.

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Burnout 3: Takedown | Criterion

In most driving games, as in life, we are taught to avoid danger on the roads. With high speed comes great peril, but never has succumbing to the terrible and unforgiving laws of physics been so uproarious. Crashing was a vital element of Burnout 2, but Burnout 3 elevated vehicular collision to such an art that failure itself was a form of victory. It remains the quintessential Burnout game, a form of escapism built upon risk-taking and rowdiness, and an invitation to anyone and everyone to lose themselves in the rush of speed. It was racing for all, and a beautiful explosion of steel and fire that impacted every arcade racer to follow.

Do you think 2004 was the best year for games? Did we miss any other outstanding games released that year? Sound off in the comments below! And don't forget to come back over the next few days for more Best Year in Gaming features.

Check out our previous Best Year in Gaming features below:

Why 1993 Was the Best Year in Gaming

Why 1996 Was the Best Year in Gaming

Why 1998 Was the Best Year in Gaming

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