15. Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge
Crimson Skies sucks you in with its cool steampunk setting full of gigantic zeppelins and weird-looking Howard Hughes fighter planes, but it's the arcade-style dogfights that keep you playing. With the dramatic sweep of an adventure serial, Crimson Skies has you effortlessly swooping through lush, craggy landscapes as you take on air-pirate missions and blast bogeys out of the sky.
While there was plenty of charm in Crimson Skies' mission-based, pulp-fiction storyline, it was really just a training ground for the high-flying Xbox Live deathmatches. Pre-Halo 2, this was unquestionably one of the best online games on Microsoft's black box, and shoving magnet-guided rockets into 15 other opponents still has an undeniable charm today.
Unlike seemingly every other giant-robot game on the market, MechAssault wasn't a slow, methodical, walking-tank-battle that stressed customization and weapon management over fun. It was fast, relatively simple, and packed to the gills with explosive carnage, which made it a perfect candidate to be one of the first - and therefore most important - Xbox Live games. That it's still one of the most fun doesn't hurt that standing, either.
Whether playing online or by yourself, MechAssault's real draw is the feeling of piloting a big, fast, armed-to-the-teeth battlemech through open landscapes dotted with fully destructible cities. It looks a little fuzzy by today's standards, but there's still nothing quite like fighting lightning-fast rocket duels as huge futuristic buildings get pounded to rubble all around you.
13. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Sands of Time is a truly classic adventure that teeters tantalizingly close to perfection. While the ability to "rewind time" is the game's party piece, it's the Prince who steals the show with his repertoire of athletically impressive moves. Warm, hazy lighting lends an ethereal glow to the brilliantly designed levels, and navigating the Persian hero perfectly from an elaborately plotted A to B is a satisfying thrill.
The best part of the whole thing? It's a love story! A well-written, heartwarming love story! In a game! A video game! No princesses in other castles! No contrived hero/damsel claptrap! Best of all, no anthropomorphic animal/human affection (we're looking at you, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006)! Just good ol' movie-style romance that gets us right in the feels. How many games can truly do that?
12. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Take the go-anywhere, do-anything philosophy of Grand Theft Auto and stick it into a fully realized fantasy world and you've got the best first-person RPG ever made (at least until the next-gen sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim, came along). Will you follow the epic main quest to become a prophesied hero and free the land from demonic oppression? Or will you wander from town to town, stealing wooden spoons and murdering elves for their hats? It's up to you.
Morrowind features countless plotlines and battles that you could tackle any way you saw fit. Whether through intense first-person sword-fighting, magic, sneaking or just talking your way through a bad situation, there's often a perfect solution for your current mood.
11. Jade Empire
BioWare's first few hits were based on established franchises, with Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons holding up its fantastic games. Jade Empire was one of the developer's first attempts at creating an entire universe of its own, and while the world isn't as involved as Mass Effect's would one day be, it's still incredibly interesting. There's little wonder why fans clamor for sequels to this day.
You make plenty of choices on your way to the end of the game, choosing to follow either the Way of the Open Palm or the Way of the Closed Fist as your protagonist fights to find their master. Early seeds of future BioWare game mechanics - including player romance and choice-driven gameplay - were present in the game, making Jade Empire a true spiritual predecessor to games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.
10. Panzer Dragoon Orta
Xbox's then-superior power was put to spectacular use in Panzer Dragoon Orta, creating one of the most breathtakingly cinematic shooters ever seen. Even back in the days of the Sega Saturn, Team Andromeda were pushing their hardware further than anyone thought possible, and while Orta may not have been quite as revolutionary, it was still a magnificent spectacle.
Add in a strategic dragon-placement system similar to that found in obscure RPG classic Panzer Dragoon Saga and you soon find yourself cunningly avoiding enemy fire and moving around to exploit weak spots for massive damage. Although it's essentially an on-rails shooter, such words can't do justice to the game's majesty. You'll suspend your disbelief until you really are riding a terrifying dragon beast through fiery skies... what better recommendation can we give?
9. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay
It's a pity that Escape from Butcher Bay was tied to such a crap movie as The Chronicles of Riddick. The characters in this prison-break drama are more compelling, the action is far more brutal, and it is a far, far better vehicle for a charismatic antihero like Riddick than any lame summer blockbuster could be.
More than that, Butcher Bay is a seriously awesome adventure; the first-person perspective is really just there to rub your nose in the beautiful horror of its grimy sci-fi prison. It also puts an especially personal touch on all the fistfights and knife fights you got into, and makes it just that much cooler when you pull off stunts like making a guard blast himself in the face. Add some immersive, cinematic action sequences that'd put Half-Life 2 to shame, and you have an ahead-of-its-time inmate sim that still stands as one of the Xbox's best games.
8. Project Gotham Racing 2
The original Project Gotham Racing hit when the Xbox launched, bringing fantastic control, beautiful representations of real-world cities... and a lot of little problems. PGR2 erases those potholes with one of the most engrossing single-player racing epics seen last generation. As you gradually improve, progress further, and unlock new cars and tracks, you begin to get a feel for the game's subtly-tuned racing system and the global cities that make up its tracks.
The smooth and steady gameplay progression is completely addictive, and attempting to wow the computer and earn Kudos - points awarded for daring and stylish driving - is an added incentive to bring your A-game. Once you think you have it all down pat, you can take the fight to Xbox Live. When the game originally launched, Xbox Live was just coming into its own, and this game was a landmark driving title that showcased just what Microsoft's online service was truly capable of.
7. Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow
We saw no shortage of Splinter Cell games on Xbox, but the standout of the group is definitely this second entry. Pandora Tomorrow's single-player campaign is yet another masterpiece in stealth and tension, with exotically detailed locales, top-notch celebrity voice acting, and fluidly animated new moves like army spins and upside-down shooting. What really distinguishes Pandora though is its unique and utterly addictive multiplayer.
The two-on-two versus mode enables you to sneak and shimmy through matches as a Sam Fisher-like spy, with agility and shadow as your most powerful weapons. Or, be a mercenary and rely on more traditional weaponry like assault rifles, grenades, and trip mines to blast holes in those pesky black ninja suits. Mercenaries even played in first-person mode, making the asymmetrical competition even keener.
6. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Before it veered off into a more serious direction, Grand Theft Auto was all about over-the-top, ultraviolent, rags-to-riches excess. No game embodied that ideal better than San Andreas. While it's not that pretty to look at now (and wasn't back in 2004, really), San Andreas doesn't just offer up a city in which to go nuts - it gives you an entire fictitious state, with three distinct cities and miles of open countryside and small towns in between.
It also features a compelling story that starts small, with gangs fighting over neighborhoods in Los Santos, but soon ramps up to become a ridiculous crime epic with jetpacks, VTOL jets, and multimillion-dollar real estate. It's still one of the best games imaginable for creating insane stunts and just going completely berserk, and was an ideal way to get that out of our collective system before moving on to the more restrained GTA 4.