After last week’s look at the origins of Xbox, Kristan Reed looks over the games that helped shape Microsoft’s first entry into the console market.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Release date: November 15, 2001
Microsoft knew it needed to have a system-seller when the Xbox launched, and Halo proved to be exactly what was required to get gamers to slap their dollars on the counter.
Quite simply, Bungie nailed the console shooter on its first attempt, with perfect controls, superb visuals and adaptive, flexible AI that made every single firefight challenging and unpredictable.
The first couple of hours of Halo remain among the most memorable of any video game, and the fact that it also had a genius multiplayer mode ensured that millions bought into Xbox even if they hated Microsoft with a passion. When the online-enabled sequel arrived in 2004, resistance was futile.
Project Gotham Racing 2
Developer: Bizarre Creations
Release date: November 17, 2003
We all knew that Project Gotham Racing was a great launch title for the Xbox, but it felt like one with unfinished business. Bizarre Creations certainly delivered on that potential, delivering a landmark sequel that united the casual and hardcore audiences in this street racing classic.
Apart from being generally superior in every department, the really exciting addition to the follow-up was undoubtedly online play. It was one of the first games to justify shelling out for Microsoft’s controversial Xbox LIVE service. But at the core, the obsessive appeal of continually replaying tracks to scoop the top medals remains one of racing gaming’s best-ever ideas. Now, if someone would only get around to making another.
The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Release date: June 1, 2004
Normally we tend to bellyache about games failing to do movies justice (honestly, we could bore you at 1000 paces about it), but in this case, Starbreeze’s genre-hopping barnstormer of a game proved that it can work the other way around.
Not that it was exactly difficult to top Vin Diesel’s turkey, but few could have expected Escape From Butcher Bay to be one of the most critically revered games of its era. Not only was it a stunning technical achievement, it was a fascinating blend of game styles, with everything from stealth, melee combat, first person shooting and even mech combat thrown into the mix.
Rallisport Challenge 2
Developer: Digital Illusions
Release date: May 4, 2004
It seems odd now, but rally games were a dime-a-dozen back in the early noughties, and to stand out took something special. DICE’s jaw-dropping sequel was so far ahead of what everyone else was doing it was faintly embarrassing.
With visuals that pissed over the competition, brilliantly intuitive handling, an intensely enjoyable campaign, and the added novelty of online multiplayer, it should have been massive. But what happened? Hardly anyone bought the bloody thing and DICE never made another racing game.
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Release date: April 19, 2005
It might not have been one of the best games ever made, but Double Fine’s surreal platform adventure is certainly among the most-loved – and for good reason.
While most games are content for you to bring down the growling megalomaniac, Tim Schafer and co. sent you into other people’s minds to rid them of their personal demons.
The result is uniformly hilarious, with The Milkman Conspiracy among the funniest things in the history of laughing. Dribbling hyperbole aside, it’s a damned fine platform game in its own right, and one that would’ve been an Xbox exclusive had Microsoft not ditched the bloody thing midway through development. Buffoons.
Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black
Release date: May 4, 2004
Signing Tecmo exclusively to the Xbox for a few years was an absolute masterstroke. Yeah, we’ll gloss over Dead Or Alive Breast Volleyball – it was worth it for Team Ninja’s hack-and-slash masterwork alone.
Renowned for its deep fighting system and fearsome difficulty, Ninja Gaiden didn’t encourage the casual button-masher. Once you adapted to the intricacies of its combat engine, it made rival action-adventures seem piss weak by comparison.
It was also one of the games that Xbox owners could justifiably lord over owners of rival systems – and we all know how important that is.
Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic
Release date: November 19, 2003
PC stalwart BioWare making an RPG for a console seemed risky at first, but led to the game once described by Kieron Gillen as “the reason to invite Bill Gates into your house”.
The fact that it all worked out brilliantly essentially elevated RPGs as a genre from the nerdy preserve of a few, and made it palatable to many, via perhaps the most engrossing interactive storytelling system anyone’s come up with. Without KOTOR, you wouldn’t have had Mass Effect, so the fact that this game popped up first on Xbox was a huge win for the platform.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release date: November 17, 2002
We all knew the Xbox was a pretty capable system when it came out, but few were prepared for quite how jaw-dropping games could look on it when a top-tier developer got their mitts on it. Even PC owners started to get a bit jealous.
Developed by the now-ubiquitous Montreal team at Ubisoft, Sam Fisher’s debut outing proved that the Xbox could have a neck-breaking stealth agent of its own. Its uncompromising difficulty would bloody the noses of the powder puff gamers of today from 100 paces, but if you want to know what a real stealth game looks like, look this bad boy up.
Oddworld Stranger’s Wrath
Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants
Release date: January 25, 2005
Lorne Lanning and co’s last Oddworld title might have died a death on the high street, but Stranger’s Wrath remains one of the games that Xbox owners hold closest to their hearts.
Like so many of Oddworld Inhabitant’s warped, surreal titles, it’s bonkers on pretty much every level, and that’s why anyone who played it still bangs on about it so much. Apart from being utterly beautiful artistically, it’s also a wonderful game that seamlessly combines third person exploration with some of the weirdest, most creative first person combat you’re ever likely to see. A true one-off, and luckily for you all, due to get an HD re-release on PS3 very soon.
Release date: September 12, 2002
Has any game ever been as insanely, misguidedly ambitious as Steel Battalion? I sincerely doubt it.
Capcom’s Xbox exclusive mech shooter shipped with an absolutely colossal peripheral that was required to actually play the bloody thing, and featured two enormous analogue joysticks as well as a vast console panel with about 40 buttons.
But if you had the desk space to accommodate it, it was like having a crazy arcade machine in your own living room, and required that players flick an inordinate number of switches to boot the OS to start up the mech. But the most bananas thing of all was that if you forgot to hit the eject switch when directed, your in-game character would die and all the save data would be lost. Hardcore.
As someone of an aficionado of the Xbox’s dark corners, I’m painfully aware that there were an impressive amount of interesting games that we missed off this list – not least the wonderful Panzer Dragoon Orta, which, while one of my all-time favourites didn’t exactly ‘define’ the Xbox.
And then there’s the excellent Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge, Thief: Deadly Shadows, Rainbow Six 3, Ghost Recon, Secret Weapons Over Normandy, Call Of Cthulhu, Quantum Redshift, Kung Fu Chaos, Full Spectrum Warriors, Deus Ex 2, Jade Empire, Forza, Fable, OutRun 2, Soul Calibur 2, Shenmue 2 and a truckload of amazing games that were ported over from PS2, such as Beyond Good & Evil, Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time, Black, plus all the Burnout, Silent Hill, TimeSplitters, Grand Theft Auto, Project Zero and Hitman titles.
Can the Xbox really be 10 years old already?
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