If 2002 was a hallmark year for the Nintendo GameCube, then 2003 was an amazing year for Xbox owners. Out of the ten best games (as rated by critics), 4 were Xbox releases and only 2 were PS2 titles. At this point, Xbox games had started to surpass other consoles in terms of visuals and technical proficiency.
Elsewhere, Grand Theft Auto continued its domination of the video gaming market, and Nintendo introduced a new mainline Zelda game with The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Still, 2003 had plenty of great games on all systems.
For starters, Soul Calibur II, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and Virtual Fighter 4 barely missed the cut, despite all of them holding an average score of 90, or above, with Game Ranking’s critics. Another notable miss is The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on Xbox.
10. SSX3 (PlayStation 2) – 92.28
The SSX franchise was huge in the early part of the 2000s. While the game seemly had a yearly iteration, EA Canada always managed to keep things fun and interesting.
SSX 3 freed gamers from the shackles of unconnected racetracks and introduced an open world (or mountain) which could be ‘free roamed’ at the player’s leisure. It was now possible to ride from the very top of the mountain down to the bottom without load times or any sort of interruption.
Critics felt that the game was an improvement and expansion over its prequel Tricky in every way imaginable. These reviewers also found that the open world nature of the game lent itself well to exploration, and it was a monumental task to achieve 100% completion in the game.
SSX 3 would win many ‘Action Sports Game of the Year’ awards and is generally recognized as one of the best games in the series.
9. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Xbox) – 92.67
By 2003, 3-D gaming ruled the land. Yet, some old school franchises were still making the transition to the third dimension. Prince of Persia was such a franchise.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a 3-D reboot of the 2-D franchise. Yes, there was a 3-D ‘attempt’ made on PC and the Dreamcast in 1999 called (unsurprisingly) Prince of Persia 3-D. However, that game stands at the bottom of the franchise as its worst entry and one that Prince of Persia fans would rather forget.
Sands of Time was different. It was released under Ubisoft and was probably one of the best and most influential games of the 2000s. The Sands of Time introduced fun acrobatic combat and a different brand of platforming to 3-D games.
The game would ‘wow’ critics of the era with its visuals on the Xbox (though the game saw PlayStation 2, and GameCube ports). Critics praised the game’s gameplay as well, citing its challenged and pulse pounding moments as an unforgettable gaming experience. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time would go on to win many “Action-Adventure Game of the Year” awards and it would end up selling over 14 million units. More importantly, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed was born out of ideas for a Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time sequel.
8. Project Gotham Racing 2 (Xbox) – 93.16
In the early days of the PlayStation 2 vs. Xbox era, Sony’s machine had Gran Turismo while Xbox had Project Gotham Racing. With over 112 cars available, PGR was the closest thing that Xbox fans would have to Gran Turismo (at least until the inevitable arrival of Forza) though both games differed in the way that they handled their racing business.
PGR2 was more of an arcade racing gaming experience. Gran Turismo wanted to you to drive ‘realistically’, but PGR wanted you to drive with style. Indeed, the game’s Kudos (style) points system was essential in the quest to unlock new cars.
To top it off, PGR2 offered a robust online experience that was both addictive and fun. If you owned an Xbox in 2003, you were not left wanting for a great racing experience as Project Gotham Racing 2 covered nearly all of the racing bases on the system.
7. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (PC) – 93.19
Bioware’s masterpiece set in a galaxy far, far away was an unexpected success. At least it was for me. Knights of the Old Republic achieved most of its fame on Xbox, as it was released first on Microsoft’s home console system. That said, the PC port was just as good as its Xbox counterpart.
The Star Wars prequels were hugely popular at around this time, but KOTOR took things further back in time, long before the Skywalkers and Obi Wan Kenobis roamed the galaxy. The game introduced new and interesting lore into the franchise.
Perhaps most important of all, KOTOR allowed players to live their Jedi, or Sith, fantasies by allowing them to make important choices during the game’s run time. KOTOR also featured plenty of side diversions including swoop racing.
Bioware’s party-based RPG was one of the best reasons to delve into either PC or Xbox gaming at the time.
6. NCAA Football 2004 (PlayStation 2) – 93.27
If I told you that NCAA Football was Madden but with College teams and players, as opposed to professional football ones, I would be telling you the truth.
In today’s gaming climate that doesn’t seem like an impressive feat, but 20 years ago NCAA games did very well. While NCAA was never my cup of tea, as I preferred the NFL and its products over it, many fans and critics alike loved a good college football romp, and NCAA Football 2004 managed to make it high on this list despite the many other great games that were released in the year.
5. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox) – 94.21
I don’t remember if it was as a result of Morrowind or KOTOR, perhaps both, but the Xbox quickly turned into the ‘Western RPG console’, as opposed to the PlayStation 2 which had most of the Japanese role-playing games of the era.
Western AAA RPGs on the Xbox weren’t numerous, but what we received was gold. Knights of the Old Republic appealed to both the RPG gamer and Star Wars fanatic in me, and it was one of the best reasons to own an Xbox in 2003.
Coming from a JRPG background, I wasn’t used to making “decisions” in my games. KOTOR was full of them, and the allure of the “dark side” was always present. The game was a joy to play and its Star Wars lore remains priceless. The story on the game is based on a comic series, so Bioware cannot take all the credit in terms of the storyline. However, the implementation of the lore and storyline into an RPG that offered freedom of choice was flawless.
As a Star Wars fan, KOTOR expanded my horizons as to what could be done with the series beyond the Skywalker saga. Needless to say, critics felt the same way I did. KOTOR would go on to win BAFTA’s best Xbox “Game of the Year” award among many other awards. In 2010, IGN rated KOTOR at #3 in its best games of decade list.
4. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PC) – 94.39
In 2003, the Grand Theft Auto series continued to mesmerize critics and consumers alike. Vice City would arrive on the PC platform about 7 months after its PlayStation 2 debut.
Critics (on the Metacritic side) would rate GTA: Vice City as the highest scoring PC game of the year, and they had plenty to love about the game. Unlike GTA III, Vice City had modest hardware requirements and quicker load times on the platform.
Upgrades in resolution, lighting, and visual quality were present, but some critics felt that the higher resolution did not help the otherwise pedestrian visuals, as flaws were made more noticeable by the higher visual clarity.
Despite the fact that Vice City was a port of a 2002 release, the game managed to win the British Academy Game Awards “PC Game of the Year” honors for 2003.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (GameCube) – 94.43
Finding The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker here is no surprise. The Legend of Zelda always does well with critics, as the games are usually fantastic experiences.
Wind Waker, despite the fact that it stirred controversy upon its unveiling due to the nature of its cartoony visuals, was well received. The game did not reach Ocarina of Time levels of critical adulation, but what game has?
Zelda’s first GameCube entry featured a great plot and a gigantic sea world filled with islands to discover and explore. Challenging puzzles and boss battles made it a true to its roots Zelda game despite the ‘childish’ visuals which turned out to be pretty good in the end.
Critics enjoyed the fact that the game had a ‘playable cartoon’ feel which eased the disappointment (in some camps) about the game’s unrealistic visual direction. The game was beautifully animated, and the characters and world detail brought the experience of Wind Waker to life.
GameSpot and Nintendo Power gave Wind Waker their game of the year honors, and the title would go on to win plenty of awards in other publications as well.
2. Grand Theft Auto Double Pack (Xbox) – 94.60
Perhaps, the greatest single reason for the PlayStation 2’s massive success was its advantage in getting GTA games months before other consoles and PC did. The Xbox would receive the PlayStation 2’s most popular hits in 2003 in the form of a two-game collection.
Despite the game’s late porting, critics were impressed. The Xbox being much more powerful than the PS2 allowed for higher polygon counts, better reflections, and improved audio quality. GTA III and Vice City continued to be great open-world experiences, and critics had no choice but rate the games highly.
Xbox gamers waited months for the collection, and their wait was justified with these improved ports.
1. Championship Manager 4 (PC) – 95.00
And we reach the anti-climactic conclusion to this list. How did a soccer management game manage to defeat a bunch of great games on this list? Well, my own rule of including games with double digit reviews on the list came back to bite me in the arse.
Championship Manager 4 had 13 critic reviews on the page, and in the interest of keeping things fair, the game has to be included here. Apparently, most of these reviews must have come from UK publications.
CM4 sold incredibly well with the British gaming crowd and Computer Game World had the game as a runner up for Sports game of the year. Though it would would lose the award to Madden NFL 2004.
For what is worth, I feel that Virtua Fighter 4 or Soul Calibur II deserved a spot instead, but it is what it is.
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