Alex Hajdasz lists a personal best video game for each year since 1994. The only rule is that he must have played an entry in the same year it was released.

Halo …For 2002

Played on: Microsoft Xbox

Halo Xbox NTSC-U Box Art

Halo

The year 2001 onwards is where my memory dramatically improves. Every single game featured in this series from here represents a well-remembered moment in gaming (for me anyway), as I grew older and gained enough independence to fund the hobby without relying on friends or Xmas gifts to get exposed to new releases.

Halo got its PAL release alongside the original Xbox console on Thursday 14th March 2002 — a fact I recall very well because my mother let me skip school that day to buy them!

I was hyped beyond belief for Halo due to word of mouth. I didn’t own a PC back then, so classic first-person shooters like Half Life and Deus Ex were still out of reach. I was dead right though in thinking Halo was my chance to join in on the genre’s ascendancy.

When held to such lofty expectations, there was every possibility Halo would be a big disappointment, but the real disappointment would come from the legion of games following in its wake; titles that couldn’t hope to match its greatness.

The stunning graphics, vehicle physics, and unforgettable soundtrack is backed by a cooperative campaign and multiplayer modes; all of which helped make Halo a worldwide phenomenon. I’ve reflected on this masterpiece before, but I’ll definitely be playing it again soon for my Xbox Files series.

 

Panzer Dragoon Orta …For 2003

Played on: Microsoft Xbox

Panzer Dragoon Orta PAL Box Art

Panzer Dragoon Orta

We’re at the point where CelJaded risks becoming a Panzer Dragoon Orta fan site — such is my indefatigable fawning over this Xbox gem. Whether it’s my numerous best-of lists or the exhaustive retrospective I did last year, I just adore this game so much.

Some people considered its shooting formula to be anachronistic in 2003. To begin with, I also felt a slight tinge of disappointment that the series was abandoning the RPG design of its predecessor, Panzer Dragoon Saga. In the wake of the Dreamcast’s failure though, Sega was taking some of their big franchises “back to roots” and whilst the likes of Sonic Heroes and Toejam & Earl III emerged as spotty efforts, Panzer Dragoon Orta was a different case entirely.

It’s a well-balanced and intensely fun shooter with a bounty of missions to beat and secrets to unlock. It looks amazing, sounds wonderful and just feels so right. It’s certainly one of the premier exclusives that the Xbox had in those early years.

Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S owners can purchase a graphically-enhanced version from Xbox marketplace. It’s the best way to experience this classic today mainly because the increased resolution makes all of those laser beams and berserk specials look even more awesome.

 

City of Heroes …For 2004

Played on: PC

City of Heroes PAL box art

City of Heroes

As I mentioned in the Sudeki retrospective, 2004 was the year I turned eighteen. This was my era of leaving school, getting a part time job and attending university. Near the university campus was a music store that sold imported media and this is where I discovered City of Heroes. A friend suggested we buy into it together since we had spare time in between studies. Looking back, it’s a miracle this experiment worked out as well as it did.

Consider that World of Warcraft released mere weeks after this and changed the MMORPG landscape forever. These games also had monthly subscriptions to consider, and City of Heroes itself hadn’t been released in PAL territories yet so there were long connection times to American servers to factor in as well. That last point could be particularly stressful with so many students competing for bandwidth around campus.

City of Heroes arrived on the cusp of our adulthoods — it was my first time using a credit card online! — but thankfully the game itself turned out really well.

The secret ingredient was the stellar character creation system, which allowed players to create unique super heroes complete with fantastic powers and their own backstories. The original comic book universe shaped by Cryptic Studios had massive environments and memorable characters aplenty. Their writing was also sharp; an underrated quality that made it very easy to get sucked into this world of good vs. evil.

Whilst officially the game has been long discontinued, some diehard fans have set up third-party servers to keep Paragon City alive and kicking to this day.

 

Sid Meier’s Civilization IV …For 2005

Played on: PC

Side Meier's Civilization IV German box art

Side Meier’s Civilization IV

Whilst my affections for it have faltered somewhat in recent years, Sid Meier’s Civilization remains one of my favourite gaming franchises. I started with the third instalment and got progressively more involved with its empire-building premise from there.

Civilization IV is considered the high point of the series by many fans, but whilst I enjoyed this entry at the time, the fifth game is where I fully committed as a player. In fact, my strongest memory surrounding this fourth entry is the amazingly cheap deal I found when buying it online!

This was the first Civilization to feature 3D graphics. It had a fresh look and modding only made things better. My favourite mod called Blue Marble uses real life satellite photography to enhance the appearance of map terrain to an incredible degree.

And I must mention the title theme, Baba Yetu, which won its composer the first ever Grammy award for a piece of video game music. I always loved that theme and really appreciated how the expansion packs let players revert back to the original title screen to keep hearing it.