Best PS2 games: The greatest hits from Sony’s most beloved console

By Jeremy Peel, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 15:53 GMT

They were still making PS2s when Journey came out in 2012. The console outlasted not only the release of its successor, but almost long enough to pass the baton straight to the PS4.

Sony’s current machine might have restored the company’s place at the front of the market, but the PlayStation 2 remains its most beloved, and most important, contribution to games. Entire genres were birthed here, while others evolved beyond all recognition.

We’ve picked 15 of the best PS2 games to represent 12 years of the console, which – well, it’s a mug’s game, isn’t it. Inevitably a number of greats haven’t made the cut, so if you could help us out by making the case for some of your own favourites in the comments, it’d be much appreciated.

15 of the best PS2 games ever

  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

GTA III might have nailed the mechanics first time – and the dreary spirit of Liberty City is still part of Rockstar’s design DNA today – but Vice City was the entry to deliver on sense of place. It built an entire world around the ‘80s of the public imagination: pastel suits, Motley Crue excess, and money.

Vice City was far more densely packed than the GTA that came before it, presenting a livelier play area with less downtime and more ice cream trucks. What’s more, while Rockstar was still ripping – sorry, riffing off Hollywood gangster classics, it found a protagonist worth voicing in Tommy Vercetti: hot-headed and ambitious, a match for the fast-living pace of the game.

  • Gran Turismo 4

The license tests can make Gran Turismo 4 feel austere compared to today’s colourful simulators and their open-world spin-offs, as the game solemnly asks you to prove your understanding of braking distances. But the time you put into understanding what’s going on under the hood will be rewarded tenfold.

The DualShock 2 might not have quite had the nuance that contemporary controllers offer, with their half-trigger squeezes as you slow for a corner, but the rumble of the pad alone gave you all the feedback you needed to know what was happening beneath the wheels. Polyphony Digital displayed mastery of its instruments with Gran Turismo 4, and demanded no less from you to get the most out of its unparalleled simulation.

  • Psychonauts

Let’s be frank: Ron Gilbert, not Tim Schafer, is point and click adventure gaming’s best ever designer. But Schafer is undoubtedly its finest worldbuilder, and it’s that quality which he applied to the 3D platformer with Psychonauts. Where others in the genre had simply connected hubs and levels, Double Fine created an entire other existence to hop about in. As with all of Schafer’s games, it mashed together his obsessions at the time, offering a spy story that played out inside the brains of its characters, set against the backdrop of a stunningly-realised summer camp.

No wonder it took so long to make – every trip into a mind is a distinct experience, casting you as a kaiju monster, a piece in a strategy general’s campaign, or a tool of surveillance in the head of a conspiracy theorist. Rarely has so much invention been packed onto one disc.

  • Shadow of the Colossus

What’s extraordinary about a game that has influenced so much in the realms of action, monster-hunting, and storytelling, is just how little there is going on with it. Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece of stripped-back design, sending you out across mostly-empty landscapes to bring down 16 bosses. Where games today sometimes drown us in codex entries, Colossus draws you in by telling you nothing at all, filling its otherwise-vacant world with a palpable sense of mystery and sadness.

Bluepoint Games, the Austin master of remasters, rebuilt Colossus from scratch for the PS4. But if you want to play the version Fumito Ueda and his team of visionaries had their hands on, you’re best returning to the PS2.

  • The Simpsons: Hit & Run

GTA III inspired many copycats, but the formula served few as well as it did The Simpsons. Springfield’s riotous set of residents and familiar locations were the perfect fit for Hit & Run’s antisocial driving sandbox. The drive of Radical Entertainment, who would go on to make the Prototype games, must have been infectious – the game managed to muster not only the proper voice cast but a script written entirely by the telly team, which resulted in a genuinely funny trip through the show’s most famous spots. Who knew there was a road that took you straight through the centre of the nuclear plant?

  • Final Fantasy X

Sadness became a hallmark of the best games on the PS2. Perhaps Sony and its collaborators could sense that these were the platform’s glory years, and they could only go downhill from here. Whatever the reason, Square decided to set Final Fantasy X in a world where even the prospect of saving everyone from whale-god Sin carried an aftertaste of loss. This was a bittersweet, and at times beautiful, twist to the series formula.

The strange pacing and editing of the cutscenes doesn’t stand up to the cinematic standards of today. Let us not forget, this was Square’s first fully-voiced game, and it shows. But hey: laughter yoga is back in vogue again, and in that sense Tidus was ahead of his time.

  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

When Ubisoft acquired Far Cry it made a clean break from Crytek’s original – which makes its approach to rebooting Prince of Persia all the more surprising in retrospect. The publisher hired series creator Jordan Mechner as designer, which turned out to be an inspired move.

Mechner brought with him an obsession with time, earlier explored in the original 2D platformer and adventure game experiment The Last Express, which yielded a rewind mechanic that has spread into many genres since. The ability to reverse a mistake not only made for great spectacle, but encouraged you to treat Prince of Persia’s levels as environmental puzzles to think your way through.

  • Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

With Sam Fisher on extended leave, the deep cuts of Splinter Cell’s catalogue are all the more enticing, and Chaos Theory is the very best. Under the direction of Far Cry 2’s Clint Hocking, the series took on influences from immersive sims, placing a new onus on staying quiet as well as unseen.

Chaos Theory featured Ubisoft’s most thoughtful take on international espionage, too, exploring the underhand ways superpowers wage war. In fact all of the dialogue here, from Fisher’s wry exchanges with his handlers, to the conversations overheard between guards, is infused with a subtlety that winds up being the game’s defining trait. Blacklist, for all its considerable merits, has a plot that comes off as bluster and scaremongering by comparison.

  • Resident Evil 4

You can see the power of Resident Evil 4 in all the games that have cribbed its best ideas – not least God of War (2018), which took the over-the-shoulder camera. And the zoom that mimics Leon Kennedy’s aim as he looks down the barrel? That’s been adopted by practically every third-person game to feature a gun since.

That redistribution of ideas might rob Resident Evil 4 of some of its initial shock today, but it’s got plenty of other surprises in the plotting and enemy departments. By shifting from lumbering, traditional zombies to the unpredictable Ganados, Capcom really gave us something to aim at. This game marked a shift for the series into full-fledged action, and was a high point the publisher would chase for many years afterwards – only really succeeding with 2019’s barnstorming Resident Evil 2 remake.

  • Guitar Hero 3

This isn’t necessarily considered the quintessential rock star rhythm game – by this time, original developer Harmonix had been snatched away to make Rock Band. But by the third iteration Guitar Hero was at its peak – and the status of the series, both culturally and as a serious money-earner for Activision, resulted in coups like a specially re-recorded version of Anarchy in the UK courtesy of the Sex Pistols. The cover versions that had cheapened previous entries in the series were fewer, and Slash featured as a playable character.

New developer Neversoft made note placement a more forgiving experience, allowing Guitar Hero 3 to become the most celebrated party game of its era. And it still had its challenges: is any boss battle more iconic than Dragonforce’s Through the Fire and Flames?

  • TimeSplitters 2

In later years, as multi-platform releases became commonplace, first-person shooters from the PC and Xbox would shape expectations for the genre. But for a little while, each console enjoyed its own take on the FPS, and TimeSplitters 2 was the pinnacle on PlayStation.

The word ‘zany’ is often a red flag in videogames, but this shooter had a playful energy that made a merit of the term. TimeSplitters 2 was only improved by its peculiarities – like the watermelons that cropped up at regular intervals as you chased aliens back and forth through history. The premise allowed Free Radical’s level designers to hop between the Wild West and gangster-heyday Chicago; Assassin’s Creed Unity isn’t the only place you can still visit Notre Dame.

  • Silent Hill 2

You could argue that the Silent Hill series has had a part in the invention of two distinct genres: first the horror game, then the psychological thriller. Rather than an ensemble piece, Silent Hill 2 was a deep dive into the brain of a single man.

James Sutherland haplessly follows the ghost of his wife to the titular foggy town, and as you become acquainted with the monsters and the puzzles, you unlock the secrets of his psyche too. In an era of jump scares, it was like nothing else. Sadly, due to the abandonment of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s Silent Hills, it’s yet to receive the contemporary follow-up it deserves.

  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Metal Gear Solid 2 might have been a masterpiece in self-commentary, but the Big Shell was hardly a location anyone relished holidaying in. Kojima had deliberately echoed his first 3D game, and in doing so created two entries entirely about crawling through the interiors of grey facilities. In that context, Metal Gear Solid 3 was a revelation, escaping the winding levels and plotting of its predecessors for the Cold War and the jungle.

What a journey the series went on from the original game’s satisfyingly simplistic stealth to here, where vision cones were long and Snake had to rely on camo and the environment to go undetected. Wide-open areas allowed you options, as did the addition of close-quarters combat, truly viable for the first time in the series.

  • Beyond Good & Evil

In the wake of an unexpectedly atmospheric and highly successful Rayman 2, Michel Ancel’s Montpellier team felt emboldened to try something doubly odd. The Ubisoft developers coupled their admiration for Studio Ghibli, and particularly its anthropomorphised beasts, to a post-9/11 unease with the people in power.

In Beyond Good & Evil, a European-styled idyll is kept under the thumb of its military – which has introduced draconian new measures of control under the guise of protection from unseen invaders. Hint hint: the game’s most memorable piece of music is a hip hop track called ‘Propaganda’.

It’s remarkable that this tribute to photojournalism got made by a major publisher. Your protagonist, Jade, is handy with her fighting stick – but can only solve the world’s problems with her camera.

  • God of War II

Where Final Fantasy X arrived early in the PS2’s lifespan, proving its potential, God of War II acted as its swansong. It did the console justice in every respect. This was Cory Barlog’s first stab at directing the series, and his approach was to go large, pushing his art team to capture the Homeric world with unprecedented scope and spectacle.

Thankfully, though, God of War II wasn’t hamstrung by respect for its literary forebears. An early betrayal at the hands of Zeus meant Kratos wasn’t so much stepping through the halls of Greek mythology as toppling its pillars. If Icarus is still regretting that business with the sun, he’s also cursing Kratos for making of with his wings during the events of this game. God of War II was a noisy celebration of its console, and a better party than any available at the launch of the PS3.

Now you’ve had your nostalgia fix, check out our list of the best PS4 games.

Evergreen list

The best games of each platform

Best of genre

Best of series and misc

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