We’ve had a bit of a discussion about golden years, particularly the massive string of games that dropped in the late ’90s. But if you were a PC gamer in particular, there was one year that changed the shape of the market permanently.
It’s hard to imagine a gaming world without internet, or one where online multiplayer wasn’t the primary focus. And for a large part of the ’90s, that was the case. Not only was implementing online multiplayer difficult – and a powerful factor in licensing other companies’ engines – but most people barely had quality dial-up connections.
Some were fortunate to have ISDN or cable – Optus Netstats was the holy grail for a few years – but for the large part, gaming on 180ms or higher was the way to go. And different games handled that differently. Unreal Tournament was more favourable for dialup users, while you needed proper broadband to enjoy Quake 3 online.
And up until 1999, that was largely OK. There were plenty of cracking games with good multiplayer – Quakeworld and StarCraft are still kicking around for a reason – but nothing really captured the imagination quite the same way that Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 did. Not only were both those games hugely enjoyable in singleplayer, but they pretty much dominated the LAN scene the second they launched. If that wasn’t enough, this was also the same year that Counter-Strike and Team Fortress Classic dropped.
On top of that, 1999 was enjoying the best part of the strategy clone craze. After the rise of games like Command & Conquer, Civilization 2, Age of Empires and Total Annihilation, TAstrategy games were still one of the hottest genres. You couldn’t comfortably replicate a 4X on the N64 or Dreamcast – it’s still tough to do on consoles.
And by God, did 1999 get some cracking strategy games. For example:
Heroes of Might and Magic 3
Possibly my favourite video game manual, thanks to the wonderful sketches and concept art of each of the creatures scattered throughout. You can see that yourself if you own Heroes 3 through GOG (but not the HD version released by Ubisoft). Here’s a manticore and phoenix from the original and Armageddon’s Blade‘s manuals:
The game itself also happens to be the most beloved in the series by a considerable distance, and one of the best TBS fantasy games for many. Really wish the developers didn’t go with Conflux for the AB expansion, though.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Beyond Earth was a disaster, but at least we’ll always have Alpha Centauri. Sure, the psychobabble was a bit much, but that’s part of its charm.
Age of Wonders
Like HOMM, but for the Tolkien nerds. A great game that still holds up well today, although the crowdfunded AOW3 is good fun too.
This isn’t a shot from the original Homeworld – it’s from the Remastered Collection – but you get the idea. Needless to say, there have been very few games like Homeworld, before or since.
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
It wasn’t Red Alert 2, sure, but are you really going to complain about more FMVs with Kane and James Earl Jones?
An open-source version of Warzone 2100 has been kicking around for the last few years, having been released to the public in 2004. It’s got campaign, skirmish and multiplayer, and worth firing up for some nostalgia. Warzone did launch on the PS1 as well, but really, this was a PC game through and through. (Finding good footage of the original is difficult, so here’s a 1v1 from the open source version to give you a taste.)
Jagged Alliance 2
Yes, this is still some of the strategy games that launched in 1999. The footage above is from the HD version, but if you want to see the vanilla in all it’s glory you can see that below.
A good character creator is like a powerful first scene, or a good first page in a book. And while there have been many takes on ways to make a character, Jagged Alliance 2 is still far and away one of my favourites.Read more
Strategy of a different kind, it would be criminal not to mention Chris Sawyer’s genius here. Possibly the best game coded in x86 assembly, which — having a dad who used assembly code to program commercial projects of his own, and someone who tried to pass that code onto me — is an astonishing accomplishment. (Also, good luck porting assembly code to consoles.)
Dungeon Keeper 2
Exactly what you wanted from a Dungeon Keeper sequel: a huge graphical overhaul that brought the underworld alive, better sound, more trap varieties, more enemies, improved combat (although not that improved) and a bunch of hidden secrets to find as you worked your way through the campaign.
Oh and while there were other PC classics that dropped in 1999, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this…
Age of Empires 2
And that’s just the strategy games that ’99 had to offer. The PC also got all of these…
System Shock 2
Unequivocally, a genuine masterpiece.
Aliens vs Predator
Whoever kept sneaking this onto the John Therry PCs in the IT lab – you are an absolute legend. The multiplayer for AvP was an absolute cracker – it’s still good at LANs today, once you get the controls downpat – and having three separate FPS campaigns with very different playstyles was a blast.
Legendary perhaps not for Freespace 2 itself, but what modders were able to do with the game in the many years afterwards. The Battlestar Galactica and Wing Commander mods were especially wonderful. Star Wars fans, however, had something else…
Yes: all these games came out in 1999.
BG technically launched at the very end of 1998, but most Australians wouldn’t have seen the game on shelves until early January. Fun fact: this was the highest selling PC game in Australia for the year. Also completely unsurprising. (And yes, I know the above is from the Enhanced Edition.)
Omikron: The Nomad Soul
Where David Cage convinces David Bowie to turn up in a video game.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
The PC version launched shortly after the PS1 version, but still a cracking adventure. Another fun bit: Amy Hennig was the lead director, one of the lead writers, designers and producers, having worked as the design manager on Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain previously.
Still prefer the original, although the inclusion of gangs and factional warfare did change the dynamic up neatly.
The Wheel Of Time
Would still love to play a copy of this (only because I could never get into the books).
The Longest Journey
April Ryan’s adventure has 30 screenshots on the Steam page. I can’t actually think of another game that has so many screenshots uploaded.
Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned
Granted, the menu music is more memorable than the actual adventure. But still, a good transition for the series away from FMVs.
Quake 3: Arena
Unreal Tournament (1999)
It’s probably not a good sign that I’d rather play UT99 than the new version Epic has been working on for years. Partially it’s because I’ve moved on a little, but also just the sheer affection I had for rounds of instagib on Morpheus and Deck16.
A game that the gaming industry owes an awful lot to.
Remember it being a huge thing that passengers would always jump out of the way at the last second? Microsoft couldn’t have people going full GTA, after all.
Ultima IX: Ascension
OK, this is the other side of the coin. Possibly the most botched release of the decade; it was kind of spectacular how poor a state the game actually shipped in. It was so broken that it would barely qualify for Early Access these days, given how unfinished and buggy it was.
The long review from Spoony Experiment (at the end of covering each of the older Ultima games) touches a bit on the troubled development history, particularly the part where Origin staff were redistributed to work on Ultima Online and then forced to rush Ascension out the door. (Note: lots of swearing and off colour stuff in the video, but Spoony does do a neat job of illustrating how pissed Ultima fans were in the day.)
The MMO that kept going, until the servers were shut down last year. Not bad, given that the last content update was pushed out in 2014.
How can you not love a game that let you stack five nerds in a corner?
Star Wars: Episode 1 Racer
The best thing to come out of the Star Wars prequels.
Team Fortress Classic
I could go on – like, honestly. There’s a ton of games still coming to mind, like Silver. Or Disciples. Or Heavy Gear 2. Christ, Descent 3 let you fly outside. Opposing Force was the best Half Life expansion by miles. Starsiege was a surprisingly good mecha game, more of a Mechwarrior 2 flavour for those who weren’t in the more action-heavy styling of Heavy Gear. And Pandora’s Box will always have a special place in my heart. (As will Drakan, even though that game was genuinely rubbish.)
But for a single platform in a single year, it’s actually an insane amount of quality top to bottom. And so I put it to you: 1999, for PC fans, was the year. If you were on the PS1 or were looking at things more broadly, maybe the situation would be different. But if the PC was your platform of choice, if you had a decent-ish 3D accelerator (nothing like a cheap Riva TNT2) and a good Athlon/Celeron to back it up, you were spoilt month after month.
Hell, some of these games I wish I was playing right now. Anyone still got a copy of Wheel of Time lying around?