Welcome to Part One of a new initiative on my blog – the introduction of guest writers! This initiative will be part of a small series looking back at some of the most pivotal games on all time, focusing on the efforts on Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft and PC gaming – if it proves to be popular, I may well extend the project to take in other great names such as Sega and Atari. The basic idea for this project came about because I wanted to take a look back of ten years of Microsoft in the games industry, and then thought that it would be a worthwhile effort to include the other major players in the industry. What you will be getting is a series of top ten lists looking at the games which have defined the companies and their consoles – not necessarily the best selling games, but those which the writers feel have had the biggest influence over time.
And so to the writers themselves – I will be looking back at 10 years of Microsoft, and I have enlisted some of my good friends to write the lists for Sony and Nintendo – they will be revealed in due course. You know, to make it more exciting when you read them.
And so without further ado, here is Part One:
Top 10…Most Important Games On Microsoft Consoles
When the 15th November 2011 marched by a month or so ago, it marked ten years since Microsoft decided to chance their hand at the games industry. Taking the fight to Sony’s PlayStation 2, Nintendo’s Gamecube and Sega’s Dreamcast with its powerful Xbox console (the first to have an in built hard drive), they enjoyed a great deal of success and with the introduction of Xbox Live in 2002, they created an early monopoly on online console gaming that remains strong to this day. The Xbox, despite being crushed by the PS2’s enormous sales figures, nevertheless came out of the sixth generation as ‘the best of the rest’ with 24 million sales, and Microsoft blinked first in the seventh generation of consoles by introducing the Xbox 360 in 2005. With the 360, Microsoft have continued to battle Sony and Nintendo on a level playing field, and the console remains strong to this day, shifting 57 million units – needless to say, Microsoft’s decision to take the plunge in the console wars has been a very lucrative effort.
I think it would be fair to say that much of Microsoft’s success has come through their huge budgeting power – lacking the key first party developers that Nintendo in particular have had for years means that the company has invested heavily in acquiring third party companies to make games for them. This has been far from a bad plan however – as a result of this tactic, the Xbox and Xbox 360 have been home to some of the great games of the last two generations and the origins of some of the biggest game franchises in the world. Picking just 10 games to highlight the successes of Microsoft has been quite a tough process as a result. Nevertheless, I have persevered, and below are the games that I feel have been most important for Microsoft.
P.S I have tried mostly to focus on games that were Microsoft exclusive releases, but some games listed here are also available on the PS3, Wii and PC.
Fable (2004) – Lionhead Studios – If the quality of games were based on hype, then Fable would be the greatest game ever made. It is notorious for being hyped up to ridiculous levels by Peter Molynuex (the creator of Lionhead Studios), and although it never had a chance of living up to the promises, it was well received for being open ended and its portrayal of the world, and at the time of release was the fastest selling game on the Xbox. It has spawned two sequels, the excellent Fable II (2008), and the less than excellent Fable III (2010).
Assassins Creed (2007) – Ubisoft Montreal – The start of one of the most successful franchises of the seventh generation, Assassins Creed follows the story of Altair, an assassin fighting the Knights Templar in 1191 in an elaborate plot weaved with the future. With its blend of free running, stealth and full on action, it was a big hit, a return to form for Ubisoft, and one of the early ‘must have’ titles for the Xbox 360. It has three sequels on Microsoft consoles; Assassins Creed II (2009), Assassins Creed: Brotherhood (2010), and Assassins Creed Revelations (2011)
Kinect Adventures (2010) – Good Science Studio – Kinect Adventures is for the Kinect what Wii Sports has done for the Wii – it’s a bundled in game designed to immediately show off the best capabilities of the piece of hardware, in this case the motion tracking abilities of the Kinect and the encouragement of family playing. It’s not the greatest game in the world by any means, but it does it’s job like Wii Sports has done millions of times over, and demonstrates the new direction of Microsoft in moving towards motion controlled gaming. It spawned a sequel, Kinect Adventures II, released this Winter.
1 ) Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) – Bungie
I have always felt that there is an unwritten rule for games companies – your console can be at the forefront of technology, but it you haven’t got the games for it come day of release, you will struggle. I find the release of the Xbox in 2001 to be a perfect example of this; the console was bulging with techs and specs, but the release line up was quite frankly crap. However, the diamond in the rough was Halo: Combat Evolved – the game that sold the Xbox.
It seems ridiculous to think now, but back in 2001 first person shooters weren’t exactly common. You had the likes of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark ruling the roost on the N64, and stuff like Quake and Unreal Tournament for the PC, but there wasn’t a game that could truly call itself the king. Halo changed everything. What you had here was a fully 3D first person shooter with superb AI and physics, an enthralling space age storyline focused on the efforts of Master Chief (a enhanced super solider), and crucially a barnstorming multiplayer mechanic that allowed four players and great customisation. Its no surprise that this game was picked up by so many Xbox owners, as it was the game for the console (when the Xbox was discontinued, it was averaged that 30% of Xbox owners had a copy of the game on their shelves). Critics are generally in unison that had it not been for Halo, the Xbox wouldn’t have enjoyed half the success it did. Most important launch game ever? You’re damn right.
2 ) Project Gotham Racing (2001) – Bizzare Creations
Alongside Halo, Project Gotham Racing stands as the strongest of the other launch titles available for the Xbox. Bizzare Creations had already had a great history with racing games, and the pedigree was clear to see here. There may have only been four cities, but each one was created in such detail that people really didn’t seem to care. Propped up by an impressive roster of some of the most desirable cars on the planet, PGR became a favourite amongst the Xbox community for offering something a bit different to simulation racers like Gran Turismo – you took part in challenges and earned ‘kudos’ for spectacular driving, like drifting around corners and overtaking. Throw in split screen multiplayer and a expansive soundtrack, and you had a racer that set the standard for the new generation alongside Gran Turismo 3. The game led to three sequels; Project Gotham Racing 2 (2003), Project Gotham Racing 3 (2005, one of my all time favourite racing games) and Project Gotham Racing 4 (2007).
3 ) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) – Bethesda Game Studios
The choice between Morrowind and Oblivion for a place on this list was a very difficult choice, but in the end I plumped for Morrowind due to its early exclusivity on the Xbox. Microsoft did not have the support of the big hitters in the RPG genre, such as Squaresoft, due to its lack of success in the Japanese region, and therefore had to place its faith in Western RPG’s. Morrowind was not universally received by critics, but the inclusion of excellent character customisation, a rich, detailed game world and downloadable content expansions meant that Morrowind was one of the most important titles you could buy on the Xbox. The success of Morrowind has also led to a fruitful relationship between Bethesda and Microsoft, with sequels The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) being released to great acclaim on the Xbox 360, and it has also contributed to the gradual rise in importance of Western RPG’s alongside Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic from 2003.
4 ) Halo 2 (2004) – Bungie
Most important follow up to a game ever? Quite possibly. The anticipation for Halo 2 was nothing short of astronomical – the original had kept people hooked, but the promise of more adventures with Master Chief and the chance to take the excellent multiplayer online with Xbox Live was almost too much for some people to bear. The game itself did not fail to disappoint; featuring a split campaign story that looked at events through the eyes of Master Chief and a new character in the Arbiter (leader of Covenant forces), the main story was given scope to expand and was not as repetitive as the first game, in addition to enhancements with both the game engine and graphics. The ending however was given harsh criticism for its cliff-hanger nature. Any faults with the story were made up for however with the multiplayer, which immediately became Xbox Live’s ‘killer app’. The statistics can boggle the mind: it was the most played game on Xbox Live for two straight years, and continued to be played heavily even when the Xbox 360 has been released – indeed, it was still being played right up until the closure of servers in 2010, and even then a dedicated group of players hung on for an extra 20 days by leaving their consoles on in game. It sold over 8 million copies to become the best selling Xbox game of all time, and it is commonly regarded as the game that broke ground for all the online first person games available nowadays. It was kind of important for Microsoft then.
5 ) Gears Of War (2006) – Epic Games
No Halo launch game for the Xbox 360? No problem – in stepped Epic Games to deliver a hammerblow to the traditions of shooting games. With its cover orientated shooting mechanics, balls to the walls action and more blood than you could shake a stick at, Gears Of War became the first must own title for the Xbox 360, and epitomised the graphical jump between the sixth and seventh generations of consoles. It is also noticeable in that it broke pre-order records that had been set by Halo 2, and was also the game that ended Halo 2’s run at the top of the Xbox Live charts. It also found success in Japan, a trick that Microsoft has failed to capitalise on during the Xbox 360’s lifespan. It spawned two future games in the shape of Gears Of War 2 (2008) and Gears Of War 3 (2011).
6 ) Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) – Infinity Ward
Before 2007, the Call Of Duty franchise was somewhat the game on the sidelines – an enjoyable series of WW2 shooters that enjoyed a small segment of the market while Halo and Gears dominated. The decision by Infinity Ward to move to a modern day setting was an utter genius stroke, and overnight turned the franchise into one of the behemoths of the gaming world. Featuring a short but spectacular single player mode full of Hollywood set pieces and some genuinely unexpected moments, the game would achieve its success via its multiplayer; featuring the chance to level up and earn new equipment while blasting enemies of Xbox Live, COD4’s multiplayer became a social phenomenon, which still features highly in the charts of games played on Xbox Live. The Modern Warfare tag has since become Activision’s cash cow with sequels in Modern Warfare 2 (2009) and Modern Warfare 3 (2011), and this game marks the start of a trend by where the games industry could match blockbuster films in terms of promotion and fanfare.
7 ) Bioshock (2007) – Irrational Games
Few games have created an atmosphere that has captured the hearts and minds of gamers over the last decade quite as well as Bioshock – from the moment you descended into the utopian underwater city of Rapture, you knew it was going to be a special experience. It’s not just an artistic masterpiece however; it’s scary as hell at times and features one of the most jaw dropping plots to have graced a video game, as you uncover the mysteries of Andrew Ryan’s failed social experiment. The morality of the game also bought a new twist, as players could decide to save Little Sisters or harvest them for their own means of power. Four years on, few games on any platform have reviewed as well as Bioshock has, and even the sequel, Bioshock 2 (2009) couldn’t best it. Bioshock Infinite, set to be released in 2012, will look to replicate the success.
8 ) Halo 3 (2007) – Bungie
I make no excuses for including each chapter of Master Chief’s adventures on this list, because each title represents a different step of Microsoft’s adventures in console gaming – Halo was a surprisingly strong first stride, Halo 2 saw them break into a run, and with Halo 3 they were sprinting off into the distance. At the time of its release, it was subject to immense advertising (rumoured to be a snip at near $40 million), and was billed as the ‘biggest entertainment release ever’. The game itself was the biggest and best of the trilogy, offering a bombastic conclusion to the saga (before this years announcement of Halo 4 at least) and a multiplayer experience that has come to personify the Xbox 360 – ridiculously customisable and offering a lifetime of gameplay with strong community support and a fully working stat tracking system offered by Bungie. The statistics speak for themselves – as of this time of writing, 1,902,682,989 games have been played amongst 23,703,858 players; figures that simply dwarf all but a few games in history. It remains the best selling game on the Xbox 360 with over 14 million copies sold, and in my mind there is no dobut that when history remembers the Xbox 360, the one pivotal game that will be remembered with it will be Halo 3.
9 ) Mass Effect (2007) – BioWare
Bioware’s epic space opera is perhaps the best new franchise of the seventh generation. The adventures of Commander Shepard, who it is up to the player to create, as he/she takes on a mysterious alien force known as the Reapers, was a breath of fresh air on the Xbox 360. Blending together aspects of traditional RPG’s such as levelling up and character interaction via the intuitive ‘speech wheel’ device and aspects of third person shooters including cover and guns and death, while offering split paths of morality and romance; it shouldn’t work, but Bioware did a terrific job making it work, offering players an excellent story and a surprisingly deep lore that ranks up there with the likes of Star Wars. It has a sequel in the form of Mass Effect 2 (2010) which found its way to PS3 eventually, but Microsoft alone hold the keys to the original, and it therefore earns its place on this list.
10 ) Fallout 3 (2008)
Bethesda’s take on the long established series, combining the Wasteland environment with the 3D free roaming gameplay of the Elder Scrolls series, made it a sure-fire bet for Game Of The Year in 2008, receiving praise for its levels of detail, emphasis on good and evil with decisions, and the superb VATS targeting system allowing you to aim at certain body parts for more damage. Fallout 3 was released on all platforms except the Wii, and while it was a better experience on the PC, it sold significantly more on the Xbox 360 than its rivals – a common theme amongst a lot of the big AAA titles that have been released this generation. An indirect sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, was released in 2009 by Obsidian Entertainment.
So there it is in a nutshell; the 10 games that I think have been the most important for Microsoft over their 10 year run in the industry. I have missed out on several other worthy games that will only get a passing mention here – the likes of Grand Theft Auto 4, Dead Space, Forza Motorsport & Rock Band, all of which could have made the list if I was a bit more generous when deciding what places should go where. I’d like to hear people’s opinions on this and the consequent looks at the other big names, so feel free to drop comments and post your own top tens. Thanks for reading.