A long time ago on an Ars far, far away, video game coverage operated quite differently. In our first ten years of existence , games coverage often blended into a format that revolved around our emphasis on busy, passionate forum posts . Ars authors’ biggest posts could drive commentary, but more often than not, the most bustling threads were the ones started by readers themselves.
It’s interesting, then, to examine the concept of history’s “best Ars games” through the unique prism of forum-driven hindsight. I went into this project of sorting our game-review history with a list of personal favorites that I thought might be borne out by at least some of our readers. I soon found that it was more important to look at the games that enjoyed both instant and lasting acclaim from our picky and obsessive regulars.
The result is a pretty solid list of must-play video games from around the turn of the century, though this list combines some unsurprising trends with a few surprise blips along the way. Thus, let’s go back to 1998, the year ArsTechnica.com was officially registered in late December, and leap from forum post to forum post for the next ten years in this Ars Gaming Week retrospective.
1998: StarCraft & StarCraft: Brood War
We begin this list with an absolute beast of a year in terms of viable game-of-the-year contenders. But if we're being true to Ars Technica's founding vision as a destination for PC enthusiasts, then the year's best console games— Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time , Metal Gear Solid , etc. —are disqualified by default. (Please let this ruling serve as a stern reminder that this is not a certifiable "best game of every year" list. The bias runs strong with this one. But don’t fret—console games will emerge before long.)
Even with that restriction, the choice is still difficult. Windows 95 (and, soon, W98) had solidified its dominance as a gaming platform. As DirectX tools matured, dedicated video cards became more attractive to purchase. The result was a year full of 3D action and adventure games that anyone around Ars could argue was the PC game of 1998, both in terms of immediate sales and lifetime accolades.
You may still argue that the no-brainer choice is 1998’s Half-Life , but we picked another game for a few reasons. In 1998, not every PC gamer had a Voodoo card ready to unlock its full potential (and people were still using Ars’ forums to determine the game’s system requirements in 2001 ). Whereas the 486 and Pentium systems of the world were primed to crank one game's 2D, 480p brilliance upon first boot: StarCraft . What's more, Blizzard turned this game from a sci-fi reskin of WarCraft II into a three-faction explosion of RTS brilliance. This happened in the face of incredible levels of strategy-gaming scrutiny, both as a highly anticipated hit from the beloved Blizzard and as a salvo in that era's increasingly crowded tactical-military fray.
Yes, Half-Life inspired and redefined first-person gaming as we knew it, paving the way for years of future brilliance—and for significant games elsewhere on this list. But StarCraft arguably did the opposite: it stopped would-be contenders for the RTS crown for a very long time. Hence, game fans are still watching, and raving about, high-level StarCraft professional play. Two decades later, readers still come to Ars Technica to keep up on the game .
Though StarCraft gets the honors for 1998, readers didn’t really come to Ars to discuss it —or, really, any RTS—until the following year . By then, at least one user was bold enough to declare StarCraft "the best RTS game ever," and they were joined by others who were already charmed by what both it and its Brood War expansion brought to the RTS table. Still, more than a few others argued that 1997's Total Annihilation was a better entry. Neither side could agree whether StarCraft 's unit balance and unit-grouping limitations were masterful or "StarCrap."
Lucky us, we're not here to pick the better RTS—we're just singling out our pick for 1998. (And let’s not forget, both the default game and its massive, must-have Brood War expansion pack launched in the same year, which was only somewhat common in the expansion-pack era.)
If you're wondering: hell yes Half-Life gets the year's runner-up slot… even if early Ars readers waited until 1999 to argue for its inclusion in any “best of” list.
1999: System Shock 2
1999 was another classic year for PC gaming, and while online multiplayer shooters began dominating retail, the year's nod has to go to the game that Ars' forum users couldn't get enough of: System Shock 2 .
In great news, the game has persisted as a stark, terrifying, and timeless entry in PC gaming's "second" FPS era. By the time the game reached the modern digital-download sphere by way of a GOG re-release, fans had spent years rebuilding and optimizing its bits for newer players. As my Ars colleague Lee Hutchinson wrote in 2013 :
The greatest thing about System Shock 2 is that it doesn’t need modernizing. When you’re crawling through the tunnels beneath the botanical garden on deck 5, grimly searching through hastily buried bodies because you need the crew section access card, it doesn’t matter that the graphics are low-poly and the textures are a bit blurry, because it’s bloody terrifying. The air is thick with the clanking of the horribly disfigured cyber-midwife automatons, cooing their awful cooing to the bloated eggs which fill the crawlspaces. The dulcet tones of the mad artificial intelligence SHODAN echo in your ears, taunting and goading at the same time. You don’t hear the parasite-infested crewman sneak up behind you until it screams “I’M SORRY!” and begins bludgeoning you with a wrench.
Meanwhile, for a decidedly "forums in 1999" take on the game, here's something from our best-of-1999 thread:
System Shock 2 may not win everybody’s game of the year (it won in some places like Looney Games), but it’s the best computer game I’ve played in a long time (I like it better than Half Life ). So, if you enjoy games, and want to play a game that is way cool, complex, and addictive try SS2. Of course, prepare for frustration with some of the complicated puzzles… $#@[email protected] multi-pictures…
Our runner-up race ends in a tie: Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena . Picking a favorite is difficult, if only because we know what flame wars that can lead to, but it's hard to understate their combined impact at retail. Both games came with pesky single-player modes, but they were two huge salvos in a new world of "online required" gaming, and it's fair to say that each needed the other in order to make their case at big-box retailers. (Plus, they paved the way for that year's biggest mod release, Counter-Strike , to make waves with its own standalone retail launch one year later.)
2000: Deus Ex
The rhetoric applied to 1999's System Shock 2 counts doubly here, and Deus Ex even earns a few more nuggets of gushing praise that still apply nearly 20 years later. Up until Deus Ex' s launch, you could make a good argument for another favorite "second era" FPS game: either SS2 , Half-Life , or Thief: The Dark Age . Deus Ex may not count as your absolute favorite compared to those, but objectively, it was the first great game to synthesize the best bits of the previous three.
It really was the pinnacle of the smart-and-sneaky first-person wave of video games, and it came packed with complex RPG systems, tricky traversal puzzles, branching narrative paths, compelling stealth mechanics, and a memorable cyberpunk story full of solid writing and voice acting. One amazing thing is that this game somehow emerged from the same combined company that brought us Daikatana . Give credit to Ion Storm's chief, John Romero; when he wasn't trying to make us his bitch , he apparently left Ion Storm Austin alone—and made sure that its assembled staff, led by Warren Spector, could carry forward its experience on series like Ultima and Thief .
The game's arrival on Ars' forums was decidedly mixed, with one thread lauding its impressive free demo , downloadable ahead of the game's retail launch. Another thread decried the retail version primarily because it didn't run in optimized fashion. (The latter discussion prompted at least one reader to demand that OP update their PC and "drown in the toilet." How's that for year-2000 forum culture?)
But ultimately, Deus Ex won out as readers' most favorably received game of the year. As one commenter put it :
it’s been awhile since i’ve played a single player fps that was so immersive. the only thing missing from making deusex perfect is the fact that dead bodies don’t alert the guards that somehting [sic] is up.
Diablo II earns the 2000 runner-up spot, if only because its clincher of an expansion pack, Lords of Destruction , didn't launch for another year. At the time of the game’s initial release, Diablo II didn't land as neatly as we may all want to remember; Ars' forums lit up during the game's June launch window with complaints about performance (not to mention anger over a two-day retail launch delay, egads!).
2001: Halo Combat Evolved
Talk about a year for console gaming: Xbox arrived. Dreamcast hung on for dear life. Nintendo launched two systems (Gamecube, Game Boy Advance). And PlayStation 2 finally established its footing as a dominant console, largely due to Grand Theft Auto 3 and a bunch of EA Sports games storming the sales charts. Meanwhile, Ars readers at the time conceded that it wasn't a killer PC-gaming year , with the likes of Max Payne , Civilization III , and Operation Flashpoint topping their lists.
While our readers at the time weren't all buying themselves a new Xbox console, the ones who did made no bones about what a blast they had with Halo :
Halo is mind blowing. The AI and people you play with in single player mode is amazing. My friends watch me play, it’s that neat. They realy[sic] don’t even wanna play. The depth of story and mission is amazing. Nothing like it.
That thread also includes shout-outs to the LAN potential of multiple Xbox consoles, which our readers were savvy enough to dub "Xboxen" that early on. Points to the Ars faithful.
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