Myst was three years in the making, yet when it became the best selling PC game ever (until The Sims showed up in 2002), it was dubbed a surprise hit. Most likely due to its simple click-to-move controls that had you waiting as each new, stunningly rendered, picture of the Myst world loaded. Myst's popularity helped push the adoption of CD-ROM drives in an age still dominated by floppy disks.
Resident Evil (1996)
Not only was Resident Evil a pioneer in the horror game genre, but it was a graphical masterpiece. Beautifully pre-rendered rooms, 3D polygonal characters, and fixed camera angles made for one of the most immersive games ever made. The zombies and complex storyline were also a huge factor in its success, of course. But without the beautifully rendered Gill (in an age of Lara Croft fanboys), 6.4 millions copies of the game may not have, so prolifically, been sold.
This is still a great first-person shooter, even if it may look pixelated now. From the graphical creators of Wolfenstein and Doom, this was the PC’s first fully polygonal 3D shooter to incorporate pre-rendered light maps that held a theatre of entertaining characters, weapons and stories. The Quake engine, as the graphical infrastructure was named, was largely open source leading to fan made spin-offs like Team Fortress – a popular online game that helped grow internet multiplayer gaming numbers.
GoldenEye 007 (1997)
Sniper headshots from hundreds of feet away wasn’t even possible on a console until GoldenEye 007 landed on the N64. This is probably still the best film to game adaptation ever created and, along with the rumble pack, made the Nintendo 64 a hugely popular console. Position dependant hit reactions on characters had never been so good. Indeed, shooting an enemy in the arm and watching him dance was more fun than other first person shooters could hope to deliver.
Gran Tourismo (1998)
With one of the highest average review ratings ever, more than ten million copies sold, and over ten spin-offs and sequels – this was one of the most successful graphical jumps in driving games. Of course the minute details on the 180 cars, life-like realistic controls, and 11 racetracks with artificially intelligent competitors also helped make this one of the most addictive driving games around. The graphics also made staring at cars in your garage a big waste of time – that did just that. A lot.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Sure some parts of Link’s world in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were a bit pixelated. But the huge expanse of this magically original world made up for it with a totally immersive environment. An impressive feat on the minimal power of an N64 and its cartridge-based memory system.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
The real birth of espionage gaming couldn’t have been prettier. Intricately modelled bosses, enemy body manipulation that let you hide bodies within environments (without arms hanging through doors), and cleverly devised props were all part of Metal Gear Solid’s charm. The designers’ choice to run cut scenes using in-game graphics showed just how good they were, while keeping the gaming immersion seamless, for the 6 million gamers that bought the start of a (still) great franchise.
Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
Without this game would Microsoft ever have done so well in the console arena? Perhaps not. The brilliant story of the cybernetically enhanced soldier, the Master Chief, defending a twenty-sixth century world from alien threats probably helped. But the character engine that sees ragdoll physics throwing dead bodies, arms and legs flaying about, definitely helped make Halo: Combat Evolved a YouTube sensation as well as a favourite for an army of fanboys.
Far Cry (2004)
Set on a South Pacific island, Far Cry was a beautifully rendered first-person shooter that let you guide stranded Special Forces operative Jack Carver about the dense rainforests, long beaches, towering canyons and deep mines. The game so visually well rendered (thanks to the CryEngine), that you felt like you were on holiday (with more killing). It was also seamless with instant transitions – even between indoor and outdoor areas. The long view (or draw distance) meant sniping enemies a mile away from a mountaintop was graphically possible – as well as very, very cool.
God of War (2005)
Remember the fight at sea as the game begins? Or the epic hydra battle? Surely you remember Kratos and his flaming chained blades? We remember all that too, in spite of this being one of the biggest worlds to land on a PS2, and one of the few games to graphically push the console beyond what was previously thought possible. The lack of load times and chapter breaks made this an unrelenting gaming experience that was really, really hard to pause, even when nature was calling – with insistence.
Xbox 360, Windows
Imagine being trapped underwater in a city infested with giant robots and demonic creatures vying for your blood. Now add an art deco influence and render it all with a modified Unreal Engine 2.5 and Havok Physics. That’s BioShock – one of the best and most visually enticing survival horror games since Resident Evil.
Crysis Warhead (2008)
Crysis Warhead didn’t win the IGN Best Graphics award of 2008 for nothing. Thanks to the new AMD and Nvidia graphics cards of 2008 and Crytek’s design acumen, this was ahead of the pack of next generation graphics powered titles. With dense jungles and vast frozen worlds, Crysis Warhead took you to another world, luckily you were well armed when you got there.
Killzone 2 (2009)
With a name like Killzone 2, gory graphics are important. So attention to detail on muzzle flare, exit wounds and blood that sprays on the destructible environment all get appreciated in their HD glory. The fact that it did all this in a smooth multiplayer mode too helped make this one of the best graphical games of 2009.
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
PS3, Xbox 360
The open world graphics are brilliant in a way Rockstar hadn’t achieved before. If nothing else this game deserves a mention for the scene where you ride into Mexico along a river creek that opens up stunning scenery coupled with music for a, literally, breath-taking cinematic experience. Its acclaim as one of the greatest games of all time is well earned by those graphical designers that worked the RAGE and Euphoria engines to their limits.
Unchartered 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)
Leaving aside the fact that this is the best, most immersive example of 3D gaming to date, Unchartered 3: Drake’s Deception is one of the most beautiful games of all time. The opening scene, in a brilliantly choreographed British pub brawl, seamlessly blends video and gameplay to blur the lines between games and films forever. Graphically moving an entire ship (and all its internal contents) on the sea’s rough waves, rendering a deliriously thirsty trek through an expansive desert, and setting an entire level on a floating city – now all that’s just the publisher, Naughty Dog showing off.