Best of 2009 #1: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

It had to be, didn’t it?

It’s not often that a game is this clearly my game of the year, and it’s usually not this obvious as soon as I play it, but Uncharted 2 is just so far ahead of everything else that any attempt to be controversial and give the nod to something else becomes impossible. Obviously there’s the visuals, which are simply staggering, but then there’s the seemingly never-ending list of the voice acting, the performances, the animation, the much-improved gunplay, the massive scale, the set pieces…

Naughty Dog moved the goalposts, showing how to make a game cinematic without trying to be a film. People who think that Metal Gear Solid 4 did that need to take a long look at this, because Uncharted 2 tells a story and renders some truly epic action scenes while letting you, you know, play them.

Take something like the train sequence, the helicopter attack in Nepal, the tank attack, the Pursuit Force-style truck chase – you get the idea – and it would fit in as a finale or banner set piece in any other game, but Uncharted 2 has almost one per level, and it still finds time to slow things down for the walk through a Tibetan village or fairly straightforward puzzle sequence. Lessons had clearly been learnt from the original’s shortcomings because this one neatly sidesteps most of them. The tightened-up shooting and lack of zombies is enough to more or less wipe out my complaints.

Uncharted 2 was absolutely incredible and a huge step beyond what any other company did this year. Bow down to Naughty Dog, because the ball’s firmly back in everyone else’s court. Good luck with that.

Best of 2009 #2: Batman: Arkham Asylum

One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Batman: Arkham Asylum was the surprise of 2009. I had absolutely no expectations until the reviews started flowing in and, as a Batman fan, I fell in love with it almost immediately upon playing it.

Like Christopher Nolan’s films, it absolutely nailed the source material. It didn’t take the easy route and just copy his work, but rather picked the best bits from a variety of Batman media and created its own mythology to fit the game. It’s a common trick of comic books – good luck negotiating the minefield of different storylines and origins if you’re getting into a long-running character like Batman – and not many of their gaming adaptations seem to have picked up on it. Not falling into a common trap like that was only the first step, though, and thankfully Rocksteady built a bloody good game on top of it.

Arkham Asylum ticks the same boxes that made me love the Splinter Cell games, with the frequent rooms where you’re isolating and stealthily nabbing enemies as their buddies get more agitated really doing it for me, and I loved the endless character cameos.

It also helped that it was insanely pretty, remaining one of the few Unreal Engine 3 games not to just look like Unreal Tournament III or Gears of War. There was a fantastic sense of place and the plethora of Easter eggs and things to find – a Metroid-esque progression system of opening new areas in old stages when you gain upgraded equipment – that made exploring a joy. Throw in the way that it visually revamps pretty much everything towards the end and you have a massively impressive end product.

What I think it was, ultimately, was that you felt like Batman. If a Batman does this and is otherwise in any way competent I’m going to like it, and Arkham Asylum is more than simply competent. Bring on the sequel.

Best of 2009 #3: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Brash? Oh yes. Subtle? Absolutely not. Like Michael Bay made a video game? Are you telling me he didn’t?

The launch and sheer dominance of the world’s friends lists of Modern Warfare 2 may have humbled 2007’s mental Halo 3 launch, and the run-up may have been mired in controversy after controversy as Infinity Ward showed signs of taking after its parent, but if I put that aside, what must surely be the gaming event of this generation delivered.

Even with such a malign influence standing over it, Infinity Ward took what we already knew Call of Duty to be capable of – massive, action-packed, scripted war scenarios – and blended it with a ridiculous action movie to make something that was amazing fun. It wasn’t nearly as clever as it thought it was, to be honest, and I still maintain that that scene could have been handled better, and there’s maybe an argument that after the generally realistic World War II setting makes it look even more ridiculous, but it’s fun, and ultimately that’s all that matters.

Multiplayer, too, although it seems to be marred by annoying glitch after annoying glitch, is phenomenally good and will be a staple of my 360’s drive for months to come. I’ve already played that mode more than most full games, and that’s discounting my one and a half (currently) playthroughs of the campaign and mere dabbling with Spec-Ops mode. For all the criticism of its price hike – and I’m sure someone will disagree with me here – it’s the game that, through amount of content and time that will be spent on it, came closest to justifying it.

Best of 2009 #4: Street Fighter IV

“Oh my god. This is the shit.”

That summation, taken from a friend – a huge Street Fighter II fan – after his first few silent moments with Street Fighter IV, pretty much captures how I think most fighting fans felt when they got their hands on it. Street Fighter III was great, but it was such a step away that it was always going to be difficult to love quite as much.

Capcom, seemingly, knew this when it came to doing the sequel thing over again. This wasn’t Street Fighter III, and it certainly wasn’t Street Fighter EX; this was Street Fighter II’s successor.

It’s quite simply a magnificent fighting game. While its competitors, which have been more active over the past few years, have built dauntingly huge character rosters with moves lists the length of a toilet roll and more and more realistic visuals, Capcom eschewed such nonsense and took a pleasingly retro tack with this, and it was a big part of what I loved about it. A cherry-picked line-up with some largely inoffensive new additions – I don’t count Seth there, obviously – and moves list that fit on a single screen not only made complete mastery both tempting and feasible, but also brought back that old-school chess feeling, where your small pool of resources is well balanced and every character can beat every other one; you just have to work out how.

It was the only game that enchanted me into spending over £100 on a controller – not for Activision’s lack of trying – and I’ll probably be buying Super Street Fighter IV in a few months if that gets the old crowd in for another round. Capcom did a phenomenal job of actually following up Street Fighter II while keeping the essence and making it feel modern, and so here’s my recognition of that massive achievement.

Best of 2009 #5: Shadow Complex

If there was one genre that I didn’t expect to see making a high-profile resurgence this year, and from Epic of all studios, it was Metroidvania. With Metroid having gone all first-person and Castlevania not taking no for an answer in its attempts to be the new God of War, the two standard bearers seemed to have abandoned it. Indeed, we didn’t even know this existed until E3, which made the surprise of how bloody good it was all the more pleasurable.

Given that there’s not a lot of pedigree for these kinds of games around any more, it’s all the more remarkable. A first attempt, on an engine more used to high-budget shooters – I believe part of Epic’s plan when picking up this title was to showcase Unreal Engine 3’s surprising versatility – and they created a game that I’d certainly put up there with the best in the genre.

It impressed me with how well the engine adapted, and a few kinks with the three-dimensional aiming aside, the technology only enhanced it, with some extremely impressive set pieces and sweeping changes to environments that just wouldn’t be possible on last-gen or wholly 2D engines. And even though it undeniably followed the genre template down to the smallest detail – really, the fact that you start from scratch rather than losing your all-powerful character’s weapons and abilities after the prologue is the only difference between this and Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid, structurally speaking.

I loved Shadow Complex, and it kept me going right to the brink of finding absolutely everything, where only a few irritating secrets remain. So with this and Battlefield 1943 showing that new takes on classic concepts works just as well as twin-stick shooters on Live Arcade, let’s hope that 2010 brings us more of that. I’d love to see some of my favourite long-dead 16-bit era gaming styles making a return.

Best of 2009 #6: Battlefield 1943

Look at how far downloadable games have come. From Geometry Wars and 16-bit arcade ports to what basically amounts to a fairly significant chunk of the classic that is Battlefield 1942, all completely remade for DICE’s latest engine and with all the next-gen goodness that it entails.

OK, so it wasn’t as feature-filled as other, similar stuff like Warhawk, and it did only have three recycled maps, but Battlefield is Battlefield, and I’ve loved this series through 1942 and Battlefield 2 – I pretend that Battlefield Vietnam didn’t happen, as does DICE from the interviews I’ve read. 1943 was a blast to play online, as I did for many, many hours – it’s only the second 360 game that has moved me to relieve it of all its achievements – and even now, with Bad Company 2 on the horizon, I’d gladly drop points on some new maps for it.

For all the cynicism surrounding World War II as a setting for a new(ish) video game, there’s something to be said for driving a unwieldy great big hunk of metal through some destructible trees in pursuit of some little bugger who’s after your flag. Modern combat may be where the big bucks are these days, but sitting in an AC-130 is just far too clinical by half. Let me run someone through with a bayonet any day…