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Was 2004 the Best Year for Gaming?

Which year was the greatest for gaming? There's a solid argument that it was 2004, with games like 'Halo 2' and 'San Andreas' helping define a generation.
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Gamers love to argue about everything, from which console generation was the best to which publisher has the best overall gaming catalog. Today, we’re looking at 2004 and asking whether its stellar game lineup makes it the most stacked year in gaming history.

There’s some stiff competition. A lot of players point to 2001 as a stellar year in gaming history, as it contains Advance Wars, Halo, and Golden Sun. Others point to 2007, the year that Halo 3, Mass Effect, and Bioshock came out. There are plenty of candidates!

Gaming really started to hit its stride by the end of the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube era in 2004. Developers were able to push the envelope and create impressive open-world titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Jak 3, and Meal Gear Solid 3. Beyond that, the year was full of incredible first-person shooting titles like Half-Life 2 and Halo 2, as well as unparalleled RPGs like World of Warcraft and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The third Grand Theft Auto title blew gamers’ minds back in 2001, and Rockstar Games kept the hits coming throughout the 2000s. In 2004, they released their masterful PS2 title GTA: San Andreas, the most ambitious GTA game to that date. It features a huge explorable space, the fictional state of Los Santos, based on real-life Southern California. 

The game centers on protagonist CJ, an enterprising native of San Andreas, the game’s stand-in for Los Angeles. CJ gets wrapped up in a life of organized crime as he attempts to make enough money to get ahead in the cutthroat world of Los Santos. The gameplay is classic GTA, featuring explosive car chases, white-knuckle shootouts, and plenty of open-world roaming.

San Andreas set a new precedent for open-world games. It’s got a huge, sprawling map full of secrets for players to discover. Every car you see, you can steal. There are helicopters and planes you can pilot, as well as boats and other vehicles you can take out on the water. It’s essentially a giant sandbox in video game form! The game raised the bar for open-world titles and remains one of the most popular GTA entries. 

Halo 2

The first Halo game was a revelation. Developer Bungie mastered the difficult task of creating an aim-assist feature that felt natural for a first-person shooter on a home console. The traditional analog stick setup makes game controllers inherently less precise than the old-school mouse and keyboard setup. Bungie’s aim-assist feature threaded the needle perfectly by helping guide the players’ reticles without making it overtly obvious that the game was helping them land their shots.

The company upped its game for Halo 2 in every conceivable way. The sequel had better graphics, more weapons, more enemy types, and, critically, support for online play. Halo 2 was the first major title to use the then-new Xbox Live service to connect players with others around the world for intense competitive matches. Online play made the game a sensation, becoming a mainstay of game nights and competitive matches the world over.

The storyline also takes the Halo series in new directions. A new playable character, the Arbiter, offered players a glimpse into the inner workings of the Covenant faction. Watching the Arbiter break from the leadership of the villainous Prophets and eventually join forces with humanity made for one of the most satisfying arcs in the series. 

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

The first Paper Mario game was one of the last first-party Nintendo games to release on the N64. Its sequel, The Thousand-Year Door, immediately caught the attention of fans with its distinctive art style and return to the robust role-playing mechanics of the original. Players control Mario in a turn-based RPG, outfitting him with new gear and stat-boosting badges.

The game sports the same smart writing and laugh-out-loud humor as its predecessor, too. Seriously, the Paper Mario series might have the best writing of any game in the publishers’ repertoire. This one follows Mario and his group of allies as they hunt for seven Crystal Stars to seal the ancient Thousand-Year Door. It’s a surprisingly epic adventure for such a humorous game and one that players have called the best storyline in the series.

Sadly, Nintendo has never returned to this gameplay style for Paper Mario. None of the sequels, including Super Paper Mario, Sticker Star, Color Splash, or The Origami King featured the core RPG mechanics that made Thousand-Year Door and the first title such beloved classics. Nintendo instead seems to view the series as an adventure series that dabbles in RPG mechanics instead of an RPG game with some exploration.

World of Warcraft

There are two eras in the MMO genre. There are games that came out before World of Warcraft and games that came out after. WoW marked such a massive change in the way developers created and marketed their MMOs that it’s unfair to compare any titles from before WoW to any that followed. Notably, Warcraft is still getting expansions and has thousands of active players, even 18 years after its initial release date.

The game presents a sprawling fantasy world populated with orcs, goblins, dragons, and elves. Players can create their own fantastical avatar and join one of two warring factions as they attempt to make their mark on the world. It’s a satisfying experience to watch your character grow from level 1 all the way to the maximum level, accruing power and loot and becoming an unstoppable slayer of monsters. 

Essentially, WoW gives players a chance to play Dungeons and Dragons without needing to gather a real-life party of friends to play with. In fact, many players have made lifelong friends by playing WoW and joining in-game guilds to tackle the toughest dungeons. 

Metal Gear Solid 3

Hideo Kojima is nothing short of a storytelling genius. His idiosyncratic direction is impossible to miss, and, if you’re a fan, nothing else scratches the itch for Kojima’s particular narrative style. The Metal Gear Solid franchise follows the adventures of Solid Snake, a cloned soldier who acts as a special operative for the secretive FOXHOUND organization. The third entry details the origins of the franchise’s alternate history, focusing on Solid Snake’s progenitor, a soldier codenamed Naked Snake. 

Snake is tasked with sneaking into Soviet Russia during the height of the Cold War and investigating an experimental weapons platform. Players learn that the platform is a prototype of the titular Metal Gear, bipedal robots capable of launching nuclear weapons across continents. You know, normal military stuff.

MGS 3 is a revolutionary title due to its advanced enemy AI, outlandish storyline, and memorable boss fights. I’ll never forget the tense sniper duel with the aging ascetic, The End, who pinned me down in a wide wilderness region and harassed me with constant gunfire. I got so stuck in the fight that I put the game down for a while. When I came back weeks later, The End had died of old age while I was gone. 

Jak 3

Another open-world classic, Jak 3, hit the PS2 in 2004. This title sees the title character lead a revolution against the totalitarian government in the dark future he and his buddy Daxter first entered in Jak 2. The third entry takes place mostly in a harsh desert region, and much time in-game is devoted to exploring the vast, arid wilderness. 

Players are able to upgrade a massive arsenal of weapons and can advance the story at their own pace. The game serves as a beautiful send-off to one of the most important PS2 franchises and ends the main storyline in a surprising and satisfying way. 

Half-Life 2

Many gamers consider Half-Life 2 to be the best game ever made. It’s a sprawling first-person shooter that tasks players with repelling an alien invasion–years after the invaders have already won. Protagonist Gordon Freeman has been mysteriously held in suspended animation for years and is suddenly dropped back into reality several years after the villainous Combine faction has already conquered the Earth.

Half-Life 2 features a fast-paced storyline that makes the player feel like an unstoppable hero. As you continue to take down the Combine’s defensive outposts and break their grip on the planet, you can see the resistance movement rally to your side. It’s a genuinely affecting storyline that feels natural and believable–partly because the entire game is seen from Gordon’s perspective, with no cutscenes or breaks after the adventure begins.

The game s renowned for its advanced physics engine, which was a technological breakthrough at the time. Developer Valve was so proud of the physics engine that the studio included a “gravity gun” as a primary weapon, allowing players to pick up random objects from the environment and pelt enemies with everything from circular saw blades to crates full of grenades. Needless to say, it’s easy to see why many players feel that 2004 was one of the best years in the history of gaming!