For every one that made it, many more didn’t, but some came closer than others…
- F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin – I deliberated whether this or Killzone was more deserving of the final spot for a while, but it was Killzone’s technical advances as well as its fantastic multiplayer that swayed it. Even so, F.E.A.R. 2 impressed me back at the beginning of the year with its intense action and clever storytelling – not so much on the story itself, mind – and it actually had a less intrusive version of that game’s weighty-feeling gameplay, so it deserves at least a little recognition.
- Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City – This was in there right until the end, and it was only the facts that (a) I don’t actually own a copy of this exact game – I downloaded both individual episodes – and (b) I decided that a full game was more worthy than a glorified expansion pack that swayed it. Nonetheless, this is as good as GTA IV – maybe better in the case of the phenomenal Lost and Damned – and gives us more of an adventure in Rockstar’s still-stunning Liberty City. It’s still unparalleled as a gaming environment and it’s going to take something special to top it for me.
- Left 4 Dead 2 – I have no doubt that L4D2 justifies its status as a sequel rather than DLC; I just didn’t get enough chance to play it. Its proximity to Modern Warfare 2 and the perception that a worthy sequel couldn’t be produced in such a short period of time meant that very few of my usual gaming crowd bought it, and Left 4 Dead is something that you can’t completely enjoy with random people on Live. I think that Valve has the game where it wants it, though, and should it follow the game’s release with a steady stream of good content in 2010, I’ll be sure to give it the credit it deserves.
- inFamous – This game suffered by not being Crackdown, which remains one of my favourites of this generation so far. Although it was technically far more impressive, this didn’t have the same sense of fun and took itself far too seriously for the ultimately silly subject matter. I enjoyed it – don’t get me wrong – but bolting more stuff onto an existing simple and perfectly good framework isn’t always a recipe for success. inFamous is still great, though, and I hope that Sucker Punch can build on this foundation, whether it’s in inFamous 2 or a returning Sly Racoon.
- Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Believe it or not, this was actually the first Mario & Luigi game that I’ve been there at the beginning for, which is strange considering how much I’ve loved the previous ones. It kept me going for a good ten hours solid when I was in transit from the States and it’s everything you can expect from the series: the brilliant, self-aware humour and writing; some of the best animation around; and a way of gently ribbing those well-loved characters without taking away from them. It’s still very much new Nintendo, from the same box of games that would have never happened in the NES and SNES era as Smash Bros, and it’s even more insane than its precursors. Imagine all the gags that can come from being inside Bowser – the title is only the beginning, believe me – and they’ll pretty much all be there. Except that, you dirty bugger.
- Trials HD – I deliberated for a long time whether this or Shadow Complex deserved a spot more, and the fact that Trials HD was left out shouldn’t take away from it. I knew it was going to be good when I first stumbled across it on PartnerNet and found that anyone who saw it was instantly enthralled, and so it proved because I still see people playing it today and the developer seems blown away by the reception and the boost in profile that its once-niche PC title has received. Proof that retro gameplay – and the insane difficulty that goes with it – isn’t dead. It just got pretty.
As happens every year, there were plenty of big hitters that I just didn’t get to play – Assassin’s Creed II and Dragon Age: Origins to name two – and that’s unfortunate, because I think that at least some of them would have had a good chance. Maybe if some of them had been delayed until early 2010… Oh…
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.