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Gaming: Game of the Year 2009

This post is an attempt to find my personal game of the year from the retail games that released in 2009, a collection that I’m still working through. There’s a little more detail about my process on what will be the hub page.

I don’t think there’s any need to go in reverse order but if you prefer to read them that way then you could always scroll to the bottom and work up. So without further ado, my game of the year for 2009 is currently:

1) Batman: Arkham Asylum

 

There is very little about the game I can fault. The combat is simple but not automatically easy (and there’s more depth there for building up high combos and variation bonuses), as well as being smooth and cinematic.  The stealth is again quite simple but really well done, making great use of the range of gadgets. Compared to something like Hitman or Splinter Cell it’s not very punishing when you’re caught on normal difficulty, but it’s accessible and lots of fun.

The story is excellent, the voice acting is superb (especially from the actors reprising their roles from the animated series), the pacing and boss fights are all handled well and the game really does a fantastic job of replicating what it’s like to be Batman. Lots of comparisons have been made with Bioshock, and while the games aren’t that similar (fighting/stealth versus shooter), in terms of atmosphere, immersion and developing the setting (like Rapture, Arkham Asylum is a convincing location) they really are at similar levels. Much like with Bioshock, actually, once I was done with it I immediately went through again on a higher difficulty because I enjoyed the experience so much. Nothing else has compared to it so far this year, making it unquestionably my current favourite game of the year.

Ice level.

2) Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

It’s become something of a cliché to mention how much Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is essentially like playing an action movie, but it’s said so often because there’s a lot of merit in the comparison (not least because that was actually Naughty Dog’s goal with the game). The dialogue between Drake and the other characters, both allies and enemies, really does capture the feel of an action movie and is often funny, which is impressive when you think how much longer the game is than any movie (my playthrough on normal difficulty clocked at twelve hours, essentially as long as six movies).

There are a lot of cutscenes and scripted spectacle but I don’t think it ever strays too far in the direction of being a movie more than it’s a game. The combat is smooth and clearly carefully designed, the climbing sections are better integrated compared to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (where it really did feel like it alternated between shooty bit, climbing bit, shooty bit, etc.), the locations are much more varied, and in its very light stealth sections it arguably does a better job mixing stealth and action than Splinter Cell: Conviction (though they approached it from opposite directions, Uncharted adding stealth into an action game versus Splinter Cell adding action into a stealth game).

The story is fairly standard Indiana Jones fare, some of the plot developments are obvious, the main villain is a huge cliché and it’s surprisingly ready to embrace gaming tropes, but all of that ties in well with the action movie style Naughty Dog aimed for (though I’m not sure deliberate laziness is much more excusable than actual laziness) and they aren’t major complaints. For me Batman: Arkham Asylum was slightly more enjoyable overall than Uncharted 2: Among Thieves so it still holds on to the number one spot, but the difference between that enjoyment is fairly negligible as they’re both excellent games.

3) The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena

 

I never played the original Riddick game (Escape From Butcher Bay) back when it originally released because I was fully immersed in World of Warcraft at the time and it completely passed me buy. Playing the HD version included with Dark Athena left me impressed but I wasn’t blown away, which was always going to be unlikely when playing it years after release. The gun combat was poor and generally mandatory in certain places, and there were a couple of  sections with monsters that respawned indefinitely and could always detect you, which just weren’t fun.

Assault on Dark Athena, however, was excellent. It felt like years since I’d last played a proper stealth game and Dark Athena delivered stealth wonderfully. Interestingly, despite many reviews criticising it for a greater focus on gunplay I barely used guns at all in the game. I think a lot of people confused being given guns – which in Butcher Bay were held back for use in only a couple of sections – with being forced to use them at all times, which just wasn’t the case. There’s one section where it does become a bit of a shooting gallery (introducing a very annoying, badly designed enemy to go with it) but pretty much everything before or after can be handled with stealth, and it’s brilliant for it.

An important addition to the game is the ulak weapon, a pair of curved blades that gave melee in Dark Athena that extra edge that felt lacking in Butcher Bay. It allowed Riddick to drop into a group of several enemies and tear through them with the kind of speed and skill that the character is supposed to have, and in terms of doing justice to the character I’d put Dark Athena right up there with Arkham Asylum (except Batman is a much deeper character than Riddick).  The story is fairly basic (and pretty much summed up in the title) but it’s how it all happens that really makes the game enjoyable, and the rivalry between Riddick and the ship’s captain, Revas, is well done. I blitzed through Dark Athena’s campaign and pretty much loved almost every moment of it, and until I played Batman it was my favourite campaign and game of the year.

4) Assassin's Creed II

While I enjoyed the original Assassin’s Creed its flaws were numerous. It was repetitive, the Desmond story never really fit and just seemed to make the Altair story that bit worse, both Desmond and Altair were a bit too serious, the ‘surprise’ villain was obvious, the ending was sudden and unclear, and so on.  Assassin’s Creed 2 is a great example of a developer taking feedback on board and completely fixing each and every one of those problems.  The game is much more varied in both its main story path and the side activities as well as having many more weapons and tricks in combat, Desmond’s story is better and feeds into Ezio’s well, actually adding to it, Ezio still manages to enjoy himself, flirting and making a few jokes without ever undermining the darker elements of the story, the build up to the final encounter is suitably dramatic, and the ending both resolves Ezio’s story and contributes to the overall series arc while telling you plenty of information. With Jesper Kyd’s excellent soundtrack adding to the atmosphere there really is little about the game I can fault (although it is a little easy).

Lilith and Mordecai

5) Borderlands

Full opinion post here. Borderlands isn’t much of an RPG, with only a few basic elements like experience points contributing to the roleplaying aspect of this “roleplaying shooter”.  That’s okay though because it’s a great shooter, with a long campaign that allows you to use each character in solo, online or splitscreen depending on who’s around to play with. Pandora isn’t the prettiest of planets (especially when compared to a certain other planet called Pandora that we were treated to last year), but even that aspect is helped by Gearbox’s wise decision to change the art style during development, giving the game a visual style we don’t see often and helping to give Borderlands its own personality.

I’m really pleased that it sold well (especially after analyst Michael Pachter claimed the game had been “sent to die” at retail) and am looking forward to seeing what else Gearbox can do with it. The game’s central story element, the hunt for the Vault, has a good reason for a sequel taking place hundreds of years later if Gearbox decide they would like to make big changes to the planet (and the story leaves enough room for the Vault to still be a valid goal in a sequel), so there’s real potential for a sequel to be even better than the already excellent first game.

6) Halo 3: ODST

 

Full opinion here. I really enjoy the way Halo games play. I don’t think any other shooter has matched the pacing, flow and sheer fun of these games. Even the vehicle combat is excellent; normally I dislike driving in games (especially mandatory driving sections) but Halo’s vehicles are both enjoyable and fun, and driving around in a Warthog with an AI companion on the turret and another in the passenger seat is something I really enjoy to do.

So with all that in mind I think it’s probably clear why I enjoyed ODST so much. The flashback structure of the story means each mission is built around a particularly aspect of Halo gameplay (so there’s the vehicle level, the sniper level, the escape level, etc.), while the lonely journey of The Rookie as he searches for each of his companions adds an interesting survival element to the game, where you’re having to abandon guns because you run out of ammo, and sometimes having to consider whether you’re equipped well enough to tackle an encounter or if you should skirt around it. Throw in the Firefight survival mode as well (which is helped immensely by Halo 3’s scoring system) and you have an extra mode that is likely to become a permanent fixture of Halo games going forward.

7) Brutal Legend

 

Full opinon here. Brutal Legend received a fair bit of criticism for somewhat stealthily morphing into an RTS as the game progresses, after a lot of the pre-release material and the demo all suggested it was more of a Zelda-style brawler. For anybody who doesn’t like RTS games (or Double Fine’s version of it) it was a definite negative, especially as it was practically kept a secret. As somebody who doesn’t mind RTS games though and knew the shift was coming I really didn’t find it an issue.

What stayed with me more was the humour, the excellent characters (even down to the basic troops like the Headbangers), the great world crafted out of heavy metal album covers and imagery, the sheer passion for metal and the game that shines through from both the developers and Jack Black. I’m not even a fan of metal but I still enjoyed the soundtrack. No other game this year has entertained me and made me smile as much as Brutal Legend.

Snowmobiles!

8) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

In terms of the set pieces and pacing, Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent game and probably improves upon the previous Modern Warfare title, but the budget and hype have built it up into a big blockbuster event that means it has lost something between the two games.  It has more of a big action movie feel to it that the the first game (and the Call of Duty series in general) and feels like it embraces the pro-military, “gun porn” style in a way the previous didn’t, with the story building up into improbable events and becoming more about revenge than anything else. The controversial “No Russian” level actually works less well in context, failing to build up the villain or invest you in the events before everything kicks off and essentially undermining what it could have been and making it come across more as courting controversy than anything else.

None of that should detract from Modern Warfare 2’s achievements because it really is a finely-tuned shooter with some great moments and one of the strongest multiplayer experiences around, it just wasn’t everything it could have been.

9) The Sims 3

 

One of the things that really harmed The Sims 2 was the loading screens. Moving from house to house or going to community lots took an annoying amount of time, which was even greater when switching to separate environments like the university campus or holiday destinations. It made leaving the house annoying and time consuming and made it better to keep the family trapped in their little house bubble. Removing all of that and making the entire neighbourhood accessible seamlessly makes a huge difference, and playing The Sims 3 for the first time was liberating.

Beyond that, the traits they’ve introduced to sculpt reasonably unique personalities that affect NPC behaviour (which is more important now it’s easier to go out and interact with them) and shape your Sims’ wishes is a great addition to the game. There’s also the style editor that opens up clothing almost to the same levels of customisation as wrestling games and also allows you to restyle all furniture so that it matches. Compared to other games a lot of it sounds either daft or pointless, but for people who enjoy the series it really was a huge step up.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that my enjoyment of the game increased dramatically once I’d started installing mods that altered a few of EA’s stranger decisions, and the development schedule of the expansion packs means the QA process is still pretty poor, so it’s generally left up to the mod community to actually make the game work as intended (or as it should). It should also be noted that the very first expansion for the game, World Adventures, expands on the game by adding a whole separate area that takes a lengthy loading screen to reach and while you’re there everything back home is frozen in time, which are exactly the things The Sims 3 managed to eradicate from Sims 2, suggesting EA aren’t necessarily as aware of its strengths as they should be.

Cole on a building.

10) Infamous

Full opinion post here. Infamous was a solid debut for this new IP. There are some rougher areas that let it down somewhat – I never really found the combat enjoyable, a lot of the city is fairly bland and for the most part the moral choices you have to make are nothing more than “do you want good points or evil ones?” – but the comic book story was enjoyable and there are quite a few good characters in the game, making it a solid framework for the sequel Sucker Punch are likely already working on. Had the moral choices meant anything there would have been potential for something like Mass Effect, where the sequel could use your save from the original game to alter outcomes, but they’re all so meaningless that all they would need to do upon starting the sequel is to have you start off evil or good as that’s really all it amounts to. Hopefully they’ll work on that in the sequel or just scrap the system entirely.

11) Killzone 2

 

Much like its predecessor, Killzone 2 had a lot of hype behind it as Sony fans again tried to build it up into a ‘Halo killer’, proof that anybody who has for some reason chosen to ally themselves with a games machine need not feel like they’re missing out. At times it can be difficult to separate that hype from the game itself (as is the case for anybody who dislikes a game like Halo or Modern Warfare). Actually playing the game makes it clear that it was going after the Call of Duty crowd more than Halo, as that’s the kind of game it plays as.

Putting all that aside though, Killzone 2 is a very good FPS with a great deal of polish.  The campaign is entertaining and has some good moments, the engine powering the game is impressive, and there’s a great sense of immersion (helped by the way Guerilla have handled the player movement) and atmosphere to a lot of the levels, even if the game never really strays out of the typical FPS tropes to give itself something that would make it truly memorable.

The boss fights are more frustrating than entertaining, especially the final one, which spawned a lot of irritated discussion on message boards about how to even beat the encounter. Its biggest weaknesses are its characters (who are generally your typical foul-mouthed space marines), especially Rico, who is supposed to be your buddy but is a truly unlikeable character who actively makes the campaign worse with his presence. Indeed, it’s only in Radec and Visari, the two main enemy characters, where the game creates good, interesting characters, and they’re the people you’re supposed to dislike. Pretty much everybody else is either unpleasant or forgettable, which is something Guerilla really need to work on in the future.

12) Ninja Blade

Ninja Blade is silly. It’s worth stating that right off the bat. From Software seemed to be aware they couldn’t compete with something like Ninja Gaiden, so they just decided to make things as over the top as possible. Giant boss fights, a lot of quicktime events (which I generally don’t enjoy but I thought they worked well here) and fun combat. I don’t think it will prove a particularly memorable game (and as I play more 2009 releases I think a lot will come in above Ninja Blade) but I had a lot of fun with it.

13) Red Faction: Guerilla

 

When it comes to open world games, I think Volition might actually be my favourite developer tackling the genre, although I’d say Realtime Worlds’ Crackdown is my favourite open world game so far this generation. Saints Row 2 was an incredible amount of fun and never took itself too seriously, and with this newest Red Faction game they proved that they can do a good job even when they’re not following so closely in Grand Theft Auto’s footsteps.

Great destruction physics are the highlight, of course, as well as all the different ways you have to bring buildings down and the great way they integrate destruction into the main story.  There’s also a good variety to the side missions (although not to the same level as Saints Row 2), and while the actual story itself isn’t up to much the game is enjoyable enough to overlook that. The final mission proved very difficult though and was very poorly checkpointed (making you replay huge chunks), to the point that I gave up in frustration and never went back to it.

14) Halo Wars

Halo Wars is definitely the best attempt so far at bringing complicated RTS controls to a console controller. As realtime strategy games go it’s quite a simple one, but then that seemed intentional both to make it work well on consoles and to keep it accessible to Halo fans, the kind of people who maybe aren’t so familiar with the genre and would be lost in all the complexity that PC gamers expect as standard. The story and characters aren’t really on par with the main Halo series but it’s a solid RTS.

Alex punching.

15) Prototype

You can read my full thoughts on the game here, but Prototype generally falls a little short of its goals, aiming for spectacular battles between you and the game’s two rival factions but mostly just ending up too chaotic. A basic story, unlikeable characters and some very annoying boss fights don’t help. There’s a lot of potential in there because at times the game’s version of Manhattan is a great playground and the combat really can be fun, so hopefully Radical will be able to improve upon things in the sequel (and a sequel seems inevitable, as Activision Blizzard have stated how they only like to make games that lend themselves well to being regularly exploited).

Rubi's sword dive

16) WET

Full opinion post here. A2M’s WET is fun for the most part. For whatever reason there aren’t many developers picking up Max Payne‘s slow motion dives and John Woo combat (in fact, John Woo’s Stranglehold is the only other one that springs to mind), and WET does a good job of stamping its own personality on the niche with its slides , wall running and chain kills and utterly embraces the grindhouse movie style, but the combat starts to wear out its welcome by the end of the game thanks to a lack of variety and I think WET will end up being rather forgettable.

17) MadWorld

 

This was one of the forerunners in SEGA’s attempts to appeal to the mature audience they thought was present on the Wii, an attempt they have recently abandoned after sales of this, House of the Dead: Overkill and The Conduit were all rather poor. MadWorld probably didn’t deserve to sell so badly because it’s a fun game, if a little short and very crude (Platinum Games seemed intent on making the game as violent and filled with swearing as they could), and it’s interesting seeing just how much more attention has been given to Platinum’s PS3/360 game, Bayonetta. The combat and Wii Remote gestures in MadWorld worked well, the story (and I wasn’t even sure there would be a story) had a nice payoff at the end and though the main campaign is quite short with little replay value I enjoyed it while it lasted.

18) Lego Indiana Jones 2

 

The reason I’ve played this ahead of a lot of other 2009 releases boils down to one thing: family. My nephew likes to play games with me and I value that time, and there aren’t a great deal of good games that are both child friendly and support local co-op. The Lego games from Traveller’s Tales are among the best of that limited selection. This Indiana Jones sequel marks the biggest upgrade for some time, adding dynamic splitscreen that brings an end to the awkward shared screen that has always plagued the series, an overhaul to the combat and controls and a new hub system that dramatically changes the structure of the game. It’s not perfect and the hub system has some issues that in some respects make it worse than previous games (especially the way selecting characters works now), but it’s a good indicator that the first Harry Potter game they’re working on could be the best game of the lot.

Image Sources:

Sims 3 Image – Alice and Kev

All Others – Eurogamer

Updated Jan 26th 2010 to add WET.

Updated Feb 5th 2010 to add Prototype.

Updated Feb 14th to add Infamous.

Updated March 3rd to add Borderlands.

Updated April 11th to add Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Updated August 14th to raise the positions of The Sims 3 and Halo Wars.

Updated August 29th to add Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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  1. March 3, 2010 at 17:46

    I think Assassin’s Creed should be higher- it was so much better than the 1st one and that was pretty damn good as well!
    But Arkham Asylum was a good game, considering it was based on something else so it needs to be commended for that!
    Ciao

    http://scarletsculturegarden.wordpress.com

    • March 3, 2010 at 20:36

      There really isn’t much separating most of those at the top, I thought they were all excellent. I really did enjoy Arkham Asylum though in pretty much every way, so for me it absolutely earns the top spot.

  1. February 1, 2010 at 18:06
  2. February 1, 2010 at 21:25
  3. February 15, 2010 at 23:23
  4. March 3, 2010 at 23:45
  5. April 28, 2010 at 21:36
  6. August 15, 2010 at 17:02
  7. March 16, 2011 at 15:14
  8. August 28, 2011 at 17:07
  9. October 15, 2011 at 15:22
  10. October 16, 2011 at 15:12
  11. October 17, 2011 at 15:43
  12. October 18, 2011 at 15:10
  13. October 19, 2011 at 03:51

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