#1. Halo 3
Like a pebble that has been rounded over the centuries by the gentle splashing of the ocean waves, Halo 3 has become the perfect hardcore first-person combat simulator. By dint of painstaking labor on the part of its developer, Bungie, it has been refined over three installments to the point where it delivers only pure, unadulterated gaming bliss. Every combat is even-sided and complex and can be waged in multiple ways, using an arsenal of long- and short-range weapons, plus grenades and hand-to-hand moves. Every level is perfectly paced and balanced and graced with soaring architectural compositions. Plus it’s graphically gorgeous. The epic storyline and the stirring score don’t hurt either. In one of the greatest years video gaming has ever seen, Halo 3 is the very best of the bunch.#2. The Orange Box
There are five things inside The Orange Box: Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. All share Half-Life 2’s bleak, unsettling vision of a planet Earth devastated and defeated and picked over by horrific invading aliens, rendered by a beautiful physics engine and astonishingly evocative audio effects. The real surprise is Portal, a satanically innovative puzzle game involving a gun that creates wormholes that zap objects from place to place. And don’t forget Team Fortress 2, a multiplayer shoot-’em-up where players take on different roles and character classes. Taken all together — or for that matter, even in pieces — The Orange Box is an astounding achievement.
#3. Rock Band
Experience all — or at any rate some — of the musical highs, the camaraderie, and the sexual tension of being in a rock band without having to carry around amps or actually learn how to play an instrument. One dude sings, three other dudes play drums, bass and guitar. It’s as simple, and as awesome, as that. Grooving along with tracks by the Rolling Stones, Weezer, Radiohead, R.E.M., and dozens of other legends — and these are the original recordings, mind you, not covers — is an experience unlike anything else in gaming.
#4. Super Mario Galaxy
That Bowser! He really doesn’t get tired of kidnapping Princess Peach, does he? The story is hoary, but everything else about this Mario game is absolutely new: the wee mustachioed plumber is now in outer space, zipping through a spinning, candy-colored, deliriously surprising universe of tiny Little Prince-like planetoids, chasing his nemesis and servicing his endless addiction to those sparkly stars.
Absolutely the best action-role playing game set in a ruined art-deco underwater city that you’ll play this year. Beautifully written and acted, BioShock tells a rich, weird story about a metropolis beneath the waves, ruled by an Orwellian madman whom you must assassinate, through the medium of a complex combat system that involves modifying your own DNA in real-time to give yourself a rotating arsenal of superpowers.
#6. Call of Duty 4
As in the real world, war never ends in the Call of Duty series, and the latest entry renders battlefield experience with a dramatic power and immediacy and realism never seen before in any video game ever. Playing as a Marine and a British S.A.S., you’ll be shunted around the globe, from battlefield to battlefield, Russia to the Middle East, taking the worst that modern warfare has to offer you, house to house and toe to toe, and spitting it right back.
#7. Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
Nintendo’s most sprawling, elegant, epic franchise comes to its most compact handheld hardware. And it’s a perfect fit. Link is back, this time plying pirate-wracked seas and exploring islands and delving into the dungeons of the Temple of the Ocean King — it’s amazing the multitudes of worlds they’ve fit into that tiny package.
#8. Mass Effect
Role-playing games aren’t the hip thing in gaming these days, but Mass Effect brings back some of that old-school, story-driven, single-player magic. Set in a rich, original science-fiction universe, it approaches the long-sought-after ideal of game-as-interactive novel. You play a kind of galactic 007 agent on a mission to deal with another agent gone rogue. Choose a class, level up, earn weapons and armor, assemble your party, talk to startlingly realistic aliens. Mass Effect has all that good stuff that games used to be about before the Internet came along. Plus you get to shoot people — and there’s an alien make-out scene.
#9. Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation
Whip through the skies in a succession of high-performance fighters, around peaks and over cities and under bridges, while surprisingly crafty foes dog you turn for turn. Isn’t this what video games are for? The action is blisteringly fast-paced, and the landscapes and atmospheric effects are astonishingly vivid. You’ll bliss out on the vapor trails the missiles leave even as they’re snaking up your tailpipe.
#10. God of War 2
Like the fading old gods themselves, the Playstation 2 has a final mighty hurrah with this beautiful titan-clasher set in the world of classical Greece. Kratos, a war-god stripped of his powers, goes after a pantheon of mythical figures with a bloody, astonishingly cruel arsenal of moves and weapons. Watch for his extended slugfest with an animated, glowing-eyed Colossus of Rhodes the size of a skyscraper. Sublime.