This post is dedicated to singer Chris Cornell, who passed away this morning aged just 52. I’ll remember him for so many things – the theme song to Casino Royale, for one – but amongst so many other things in an amazing music career, he had several Audioslave songs appear on PS2 game soundtracks. Your Time Has Come on the FlatOut 2 OST particularly resonates with me given how many hours I’ve put into that game. Rest in power, friend.

Damn Daniel, back at it again with another blog post?

Yes. And stop calling me Daniel.

Anyway, enough outdated memes – WELCOME BACK TO AJ’S GAMING GENERATION GAME!! Three days in, and I hope you’re enjoying it so far. Today we tackle the big one. You know, THAT one. The console I’ve said before is the best console generation of all time. Why do I say that? You’ll have to stick around to find out. For now, let’s get into it.

Overview

My first PS2 was, like my first PS1, a hand-me-down from my cousins. Unlike that first PS1, it actually worked – hurrah! I wound up owning multiple PS2s; two of the original bricks, one of which I currently own now, and one ‘Slim’ model which was a regular PS2 but the size of a paperback book. All of them hand-me-downs and/or bought second-hand; funnily enough, I’ve largely had the same attitude to mobile phones down the years. Just call me Captain Cutting Edge.

First Game – Stuntman

In my first year of secondary school in 2003, I was OBSESSED with this game. In hindsight, it could’ve been because for the first month or so of playing it, I didn’t yet own a memory card for my PS2.

I can still recite the first three levels of this game from memory to this day.

The game was worth this level of replaying, though; a tech demo for Driv3r (and in hindsight, maybe they should’ve worked more on Driv3r instead of making this?) and a really novel concept of filming movie stunts and car chases came together. It’s controller-smashingly frustrating when you keep missing a jump by a micrometer and the director demands you do the ENTIRE SEQUENCE ALL OVER AGAIN FOR THE BILLIONTH TIME, but the satisfaction of seeing your efforts in the final film trailer ultimately makes the frustration worthwhile.

Does it make the ‘Favourite Games’ list? Hell no. One reason I believe the PS2 era is the best generation of gaming ever is the sheer amount of great games we got on the platform, which I feel my ‘Top 5’ list amply demonstrates…

Favourite Games: 

5. WWE Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth & TOCA Race Driver 3

Yes, this ‘Top 5’ list is so full of great games, it’s actually a Top 6. Sue me, it’s my list. And I put both games here because both are important games; I’ve ploughed SO MANY HOURS into in both single and multiplayer modes for both.

The former is my favourite wrestling game of all time. I know you’ll scream and shout about Here Comes The Pain, but this was the game I happened to get and I loved it so much I wound up staying with it for years. I still have my original save files, including all the various Create-A-Wrestlers I made: 13-year-old me as a wrestler, a dude called The Devastator built like a brick shithouse with a gimp mask and an exclamation mark on his butt (because LEL BOTTOMS ARE FUNNY WHEN YOU’RE 13), an old granny, and Boris Johnson. No, really. The controls are nice and simple, career mode expansive and rewarding, and the roster is right on the edge of that Ruthless Aggression era of awesomeness; The Rock, Stone Cold, Triple H, Hulk Hogan, Kurt Angle, Ric Flair, ‘American Badass’ Undertaker, and my faves Rob Van Dam and the Hardy Boyz. Too swe-I mean too good.

The latter is here a) partially as penance for not finding room in my PS1 top 5 for TOCA 2 Touring Cars, b) because in the entire TOCA/GRID lineage of games, this is arguably the best of the lot and c) without it, I might not have my best friend of 10 years. Seriously, when we first started hanging out, this was THE ONLY GAME WE PLAYED. And we STILL play it relentlessly now. This is what would lay the groundwork for the future GRID games; a humongous toybox of assorted race cars and tracks, a career mode which can spin off in different directions, and lovely simcade handling that makes everything from F1 cars to V8 Supercars a joy to handle on pad and wheel. One day, we will get a new GRID/TOCA game on next-gen; and when it’s announced, someone check that I haven’t spontaneously combusted with excitement.

4. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I know the whole point of Metal Gear Solid 4 was to wrap up every single loose end and give the MGS series a fitting climax, but for me it was a totally unnecessary, bloated nostalgia trip. The final chapter had already been written in an almost-perfect, if completely bonkers, trilogy.

MGS2 was a great sequel to the first MGS up until the final 45 minutes when it went completely pants-on-head retarded, and in hindsight trying to follow that up with a direct sequel was a big mistake. MGS3 had the right idea – tell the origin story of the mythical Big Boss and completely change up the gameplay with a simple switch of scenery. The 1960s Cold War setting and jungle environments meant stripping back the stealth gameplay, introducing new mechanics like camouflage, and placing emphasis on survival. Fixing wounds with specific medicines and bandages and hunting for food by killing animals…on reflection, the Far Cry series might owe a big debt to this. The story is Hideo Kojima in full-on James Bond fanboy mode given its Cold War setting, but the central dynamic between Naked Snake and the original Boss is fascinating and the climatic boss battle between the two is so beautifully done. Pretentious? Absolutely. Just like all the best MGS games. But like those games, it stays on the right side of totally fucking bonkers for long enough to become an endearing classic.

3. Burnout 3: Takedown

When stupidly fast street racing isn’t enough, just add over-the-top car combat. Sorted!

Criterion Games figured out what made Burnout 2: Point of Impact a massive hit – super-speed street racing and MASSIVE CRASHES – and went full Spinal Tap with it. The Takedown mechanic of the title meant the game became full-size Micro Machines, except with additional epic slo-mo ‘get a load of this doofus’ cam for that extra smug satisfaction of sending a rival plummeting off a cliff. And even when you yourself crashed, you could BLOW YOUR OWN CAR UP AND THEN MOVE IT IN MID-AIR. Suck it, Carmaggedon. A massive sprawling career mode and superb soundtrack topped off this Raspberry Pavlova of flaming cars and massive grins perfectly.

A great game, and one that personifies PS2 arcade racers at their very peak; creative, addictive and stupendously fun.

2. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

The best game ever? It’s in the conversation.

And in fact GTA:SA continues a trend on this list; games that build on the promise of previous games in the series, using them to hit new heights. It redefined what we all believed was capable on the console; one city became three cities bubbling with life, secrets, side-quests, quirky characters and humour, and a simple third-person shooting/driving core mechanic evolved into a full-on life simulator/do-whatever-the-fuck-you-want-’em-up. The budget, voice cast and sales figures all hit Hollywood blockbuster levels, and GTA:SA’s staggering success represented the moment games properly took over the mainstream and never looked back, for better or worse.

1. Gran Turismo 4

So if I’ve spewed forth all that gushing praise for GTA:SA, what possibly could beat it?

For me personally, the best racing game of all time beats it.

If the Gran Turismo games on PS1 were marvellous and boundary-pushing, the editions on PS2 defined the genre and became iconic. I wouldn’t argue if you pitched Gran Turismo 3 for this spot – it’s worth it for the Feeder opening FMV sequence alone – but I put GT4 here given that it used the foundations GT3 built on an amazing graphics and physics engine, and surged into GT2 levels of depth and vastness. Over 700 cars, a stonkingly varied career mode, interesting additions like the Photo Mode and a B-Spec ‘race manager’ mode, more licensed real-world tracks including the full 12-mile Nurburgring Nordschleife, and a scope beyond anything ever seen before in a console racing game. There’s a wonderful freedom to this game, and ultimately it reflects creator Kazunori Yamouchi’s ultimate vision; an entire game world designed purely to celebrate humanity’s love affair with automobiles.

Arguably we haven’t seen anything quite like it since; subsequent Gran Turismo sequels have struggled to hit the same heights, and it has served as a template for the entire Forza Motorsport series over on Xbox. Ultimately, there can only be one pioneer, and the fact of the matter is this; the racing game genre as we know it today is a world created by Gran Turismo 4, and everyone else is merely allowed to live in it.

Honourable Mentions: NASCAR 07, Pro Evolution Soccer 6, Need For Speed: Underground 2, Black, TimeSplitters 2.

Return Verdict

Earlier I claimed that the PS2 is the best console generation of all time, and here’s where I qualify that statement.

Yes, graphics technology has moved forward massively. Yes, we can do things in games now that leaves the PS2 in ZX Spectrum levels of obsolescence. But what we got with the PS2 era was just the right balance of great graphics, gameplay innovation, third-party support and cost-effectiveness. Consoles weren’t locked in a hardware arms race, games weren’t ruinously expensive to develop, nor did they require a remortgage on the house to afford the pre-order bonuses and DLC packs. This meant there existed room for developers to experiment; they weren’t as restricted to provably bankable IP and guaranteed returns on investment as they are now, so while we did get a lot of dross, we also got a lot of quirky and revolutionary titles.

In my opinion, the 13-year lifespan of the PS2 was the best period in gaming ever seen. Will we see a better one? I hope so.

…and breathe. BLIMEY that was a beast of a post. Let me know your thoughts on my bold claim, as well as your happiest PS2 memories and favourite games on the console (OR the original Xbox if you went that way!), and I’ll be back tomorrow with the PS2’s smol handheld cousin – the PSP!