The best and worst video games of ‘04

Picking the year’s best and worst video games can be a lot harder than playing them. 2004 was a great year for gamers, with some of the most anticipated games of all time being released.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.

The best

1. Half-Life 2 (PC, $50): The first game to mold intense, varied action and hyperreal sci-fi locales with such immersive mastery. Video games will never be the same with this latest chapter in the dangerous life of scientist Gordon Freeman. Hollywood, take note: The future of interactive entertainment has arrived, and it isn’t showing on the silver screen.

2. City of Heroes (PC, $40): Finally, a maker of massively multiplayer online games got it right. “City of Heroes” tossed the dungeons and dragons in favor of superhero tights. It also dispatched with many of the genre’s grueling “leveling up” aspects and let gamers do what they really want: band together with dozens of others to battle villains.

3. Burnout 3: Takedown (PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50): A gridlock victim’s wildest dream come true. It stood out from other racers in 2004 by encouraging the one thing you’re usually supposed to avoid – wrecking. With this game, the bigger the crash, the better. And few games conveyed the sense of blistering speed so well.

4. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PlayStation 2, $50): Is it violent? Yes. Should children play it? Certainly not. For everyone else, it’s an excellent game, packed with enough detail and action to keep you playing for months. The graphics are better than previous versions, but what made this gang saga so compelling was the story and characters.

5. ESPN NFL2K5 (PlayStation 2, Xbox, $20): Die-hard Madden junkies will think I’m nuts, but ESPN reinvigorated the football video game genre this season by outrunning and outpacing Madden in a head-to-head bout. And it can’t be said enough: it’s only $20, still $10 less than the reduced price of its crosstown rival.

The worst

1. JFK Reloaded (PC, $9.99): Among the worst ideas for a game, ever. Downloadable and despicable, it lets you test your aim as the infamous gunman in President Kennedy’s assassination. The British-based creator calls it an educational “docu-game.” What’s next, a docu-game of Christ’s crucifixion where you test your nail-hammering skills?

2. The Guy Game (PlayStation 2, Xbox, $40): If 2004 was the year of the sequel, it was also the year when video game makers used sex more than ever. Topping the trash-heap of soft porn games was “The Guy Game.” In a deviant twist on the quiz show format, players guessed if bikini-clad women on spring break were sober enough to correctly answer trivia questions. The more wrong answers these women provided, the less clothing they wore. AP reviewer Nick Wadhams said it best: “Calling this demeaning is like saying anteaters’ favorite food is ants.”

3. Terrorist Takedown (PC, $19.99): I have no problem with budget titles, and “Terrorist Takedown” might seem like a good deal. That would be incorrect. When this bug-ridden title worked properly (and that was rare), all you had was repetitive target practice in a Middle Eastern setting, where you blow away throngs of lookalike terrorists with machine guns and artillery. With no actual fun, I masochistically accepted the many glitches. Highlights: buildings popping in and out of existence, missing artwork and oddly moving chunks of ground.

4. Lifeline (PS2, $40, plus required USB microphone headset): It’s hard to criticize a game that at least tries to be innovative. Instead of the standard controller, you had to use a microphone headset and verbally issue orders to control your character, named Rio. Problem is, Rio was a terrible listener and even the most mundane tasks devolved into shouting matches between me and the game. Great for drill sergeants, but not for me.

5. Spider-Man 2 (PC, $20): A pretty good game so long as you played on PlayStation 2, GameCube or Xbox. But the PC edition was a lame, side-scrolling affair that lacked the freeform exploration and gravity-defying action of the console version. In this era of sequels, why go through the extra effort of creating a bad game when a great one already existed?

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