Sega | PlayStation 2
It has criminals, so it must be a free-roaming, mission-oriented action game, right? No. Wrong. That's not how the world works. Not in the least interested in ripping off Grand Theft Auto, Yakuza aims for an entirely different play style. GTA's main influence is waking Japan up to the idea of making a game aimed at adults and steeped in the seedy world of organized crime.
Otherwise, it's purely the invention of the talented team at Sega, pulling influences from all over: the fighting is bold and meaty; an evolution of the fighters and action games the company has been putting out for years. The quest owes more to games like Final Fantasy than it does to GTA - though speedy gameplay erases tedium while the punchy story, written by a popular crime novelist, ratchets up the tension.
In short, this game kicks seven kinds of ass, but you probably just thought it was Japanese equivalent of True Crime: New York City. Nope, Yakuza is the real deal, and won't be ignored. We reward that boldness with an award.
Honorable mention: Bully
Rockstar | PlayStation 2
When this high-school simulator finally hit stores in August, the huge controversy surrounding it sort of fizzled - as did the enthusiasm of some gamers, surprisingly, when they found out you couldn't steal cars or shoot up the school. It was still excellent, but Grand Theft Auto: The Early Years it wasn't.