It may not be a bold choice, but Half-Life 2 represents more than a singular product to me. When it launched in 2004, it ushered in what would be the changing face of the PC market, namely, it introduced the world to Valve's digital, Steam.
Steam's introduction to the industry was rocky, littered with issues when it arrived. But it has evolved and in the last ten years Steam has become the defacto PC platform. If your PC game isn't on Steam today, customers will be vocal in their disapproval.
Half-Life 2 also handed the business another important element, the Source engine. Powering everything from revamped classic mods as standalone games like Counter-Strike and a plethora of creative independent games, the engine has also proven itself to be malleable enough to jump into the next generation, Titanfall is powered by Source, for example. And where would we be without Source, perhaps we'd miss out on other Valve classics, like Portal, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2 and the ever growing Dota 2.
As for Half-Life 2 itself, why is it my favorite game of the last decade? Continuing the story from the original Half-Life, which was a pioneer in story-telling, Valve introduced us to a world after war. A police state that evolved out of the mistakes made at the Black Mesa Research Facility. It introduced us to new and wonderful characters, we played with physics and the gravity gun, and visited fantastic locations that stand in my mind as some of the best any game has offered. Stepping into the infested mining town of Ravenholm or walking off the train into a secured City-17 are some of my favorite gaming memories. Half-Life 2 told a story that, at its heart, is about endurance and survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I won't argue with anyone who says they hated the airboat sequence, but to me Half-Life 2 was level after level of new challenges, locations, and game styles that we rarely see in games today. And that feeling of getting a new Half-Life? Seeing those promotional boxes on store shelves after waiting so long for a new entry in the series? Finally getting my hands on that game filled me with pure joy.
I love the Half-Life series, it helped shape my perception of what a complete game should be – games that place story in as high regard as gameplay – and I love Half-Life 2 and the original for doing that. And one day we'll learn how its story will end and we'll get our Half-Life 3. But probably not ... Valve's really busy making hats for Team Fortress 2, or something. It's killing me.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory – Ubisoft Montreal / 2005
While I contest that Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the better game, Chaos Theory wins a spot on my list for one particular mission: The bank heist. There's a mission, part of the way through Chaos Theory, that sends Sam Fisher into a Panamanian bank with his eyes on discovering the identity of an arms dealer. In order to cover his infiltration, however, Third Echelon gives Sam a secondary objective: Make it look like a bank robbery. Guiding your way through the twists and turns of the large building after accessing the bank by a skylight, dodging laser trip wires and pocketing $50 million in bearer bonds from a giant vault is the best heist moment I've ever had in any game. It stands up as the best mission Sam has ever been sent on, and the amount of joy I had completing it again and again is what puts it on this list above the more refined Blacklist – a game I selected as my favorite of last year, and one I've put over 50 hours into.
Minecraft – Mojang / 2011
Before it became a sensation, Minecraft was this tiny game that captured the imagination of a few friends who tried desperately to explain to me why they loved it and why I'd feel the same way. To me, it looked and sounded silly. I couldn't imagine why anyone would waste hours of their time on a game that seemingly had objective or purpose; one of the many errors in judgement featured on this list alone. When I finally took the time to play Minecraft I was struck by its simplistic creativity. Truly open world, Minecraft gives you little information and asks you to discover things on your own. On land, in its vast seas, or deep at the core of your own world. On a surface level, the game is about surviving onslaughts of enemies that come out after dark, but hours later you find yourself building a portal to a new dimension with the sole purpose of finding special materials to make your home base look a little fancier than your friend's own rudimentary structures. It's a rare game that becomes as complex as you want it to be based on your own personal goals. It's a wonderful experience and one I am happy to have been proven completely wrong about.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – CD Projekt RED / 2011
My 2011 Game of the Year was CD Projekt RED's gorgeous and vicious RPG, The Witcher 2. Not to take away from any other RPG I've played and enjoyed over the last decade, but nothing holds a candle to the choices available and characters met in Assassins of Kings. The story is complicated, injected with the same level of political intrigue that fascinates viewers weekly with HBO's Game of Thrones. It's systems are very different and particular, its combat can be difficult and mind-warping, but The Witcher 2 is a mountain of a game. It offers challenge rarely seen anymore. Almost like Dark Souls, The Witcher 2 refuses to tone down what it needs from a player to be enjoyed, patience and perseverance. It's a wonderful game and I urge anyone who has yet to experience it to leap at the chance before Geralt of Rivia's story concludes in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Xenoblade Chronicles – Monolith Soft / 2012
A game that almost never launched in North America, if not for the outpouring of fans demanding its arrival, Xenoblade Chronicles finally hit stateside store shelves in limited release in 2012. From the moment the game begins you're treated to a JRPG that makes substantial advancements to storytelling and gameplay. Its tale is set in a fascinating locale: A world literally built on the back of two massive dueling deities. Its combat system takes hints from MMOs and Western RPGs with cooldowns and special skills, but positioning is essential to success. Additionally, Xenoblade Chronicles features a myriad of encounters that players must intelligently consider. It isn't like typical JRPGs where you roam and battle at random intervals, come beasts simply exist in the world and only engage if they feel threatened. It removes the typical sense that everything that isn't you and your party outside of town wishes for your demise. It's natural and lived-in. Xenoblade Chronicles features genuinely charming characters I wanted to protect, an original and mystical setting and a story about discovering your importance in a world that seems too vast to be impacted by a single individual.
Batman: Arkham Asylum – Rocksteady / 2009
I remember playing Eurocom's mediocre Batman Begins game and thinking, "I suppose this is the best we'll get" when considering the history of Batman's video game adventures. NES game aside, the respect video game developers have had for the license had been laid out next to the chalk outline of Bruce's parents in Crime Alley for years. And then little-known developer Rocksteady came out of a mysterious and magical place – I believe they call it London – to bring us Arkham Asylum. What followed was an amazing adventure, featuring performances from voice actors that helped grow my fondness for the franchise as a child in the early 1990s. I prefer the original to the larger Arkham City because it puts Batman in a more isolated scenario. He's the most feared entity in Gotham, but stuck within the walls of Arkham he's faced with his entire career. It's a monument to his success and it's slowly trying to choke the life out of him. From its combat system to its gorgeous effects, Arkham Asylum is an amazing piece of entertainment that finally offered the Dark Knight the respect he'd been neglected.
Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy – Midway Games / 2004
Psi-Ops is a game that was way better than it ever deserved to be. Developed by the now defunct Midway Games, the third-person shooter featured crazy psychic abilities and one of the earliest uses of a game that really embraced its use of the Havok physics middleware. Grasping an exploding barrel with your mind and hurling it at an enemy who'd then blast the sky bouncing off any object it passes was embarrassingly hilarious. Later we'd get games like The Force Unleashed which tried to follow in its footsteps, but failed to capture the same spark. The ability to take control of an enemy's mind, open fire on his squad and then leap off the side of a ledge sending him careening toward certain doom was some of the dumbest fun I had gaming in 2004. It's a weird and random selection, but I remember dying to finish work or school so I could get home to play the same levels again and again.
Hotline Miami – Dennaton Games / 2012
Dennaton discovered the formula for addictive gaming bliss: Rope me in with nostalgic graphical design, add buckets of blood, horse head masks, and one of the best gaming soundtracks I've ever heard and you've got yourself one of my favorite games of all time. Hotline Miami is a weird game, but its puzzle-like structure captured my attention when it launched in 2012. I've since gone through the game again on Vita, exploring every corner in search of those hidden letters to get the "real" ending and I always find myself happy to replay old levels. Did I mention the soundtrack? Wonderful.
Dark Souls – From Software / 2011 I've written a lot of features about how wrong I was when I first played and discarded Dark Souls. I've spilled a lot of blood in-game, struggling through each encounter and learning my mistakes. Dark Souls is a demanding game, but one that never feels cheap. Failing in Dark Souls is purely up to the player. The tools to dominate are all present, but only patience is rewarded. Thankfully, I learned the error of my ways.
Metroid: Zero Mission – Nintendo / 2004
There was some talk internally when I mentioned that I was going to select Metroid: Zero Mission as one of my favorite ten games of the last ten years. Some are adamant that it's a cheat because it's technically a remake of the original Metroid, but I contend that it's far more than that [and editor-in-chief Ludwig Kietzmann sided with me on that, so here it is!]. Metroid: Zero Mission does follow the same loose narrative featured in the NES classic, but it has completely new areas, new gameplay, and features a detailed story that outlines Samus Aran's origin, previously only really fleshed out in manga. Samus is, by far, my favorite video game hero. Metroid Prime and Super Metroid are among my favorite games of all time – both ineligible here – but Zero Mission introduces a new generation to Nintendo's strong female protagonist. We learn where she came from and who doesn't love an origin story?
[Images: Nintendo, Ubisoft, Valve, From Software, Dennaton, ZOO Digital, Rocksteady, CD Projekt RED, Mojang, Monolith Soft]