This hasn’t been a banner year for Xbox Live Arcade, and indeed by many accounts it’s been PSN that’s had the most interesting releases. Trust a sequel to one of Live Arcade’s brightest gems to keep up appearances on Microsoft’s platform, and it’s an example of how a sequel should be done.
How so? Well, it’s the original, only better in every way. There wasn’t a huge amount of variety the first time around, whereas this one took in warehouses, countryside, towns, and the now-compulsory levels based on other indie darlings. Despite simple appearances, it’s technically very impressive too.
That Gigatrack stage took me an embarrassing 22 minutes the first time through, incidentally. It became a priority to post a more respectable time, but it’s quite a time commitment even when you do well.
Trials is endearing mainly because of its purity. It’s basically one trigger and a stick, but the way it harnesses its physics and makes use of the full range of motion on the analogue inputs – I’d argue that I haven’t been as aware of the fine-grained control to this extent since Super Mario 64 – makes it both accessible and frighteningly deep. One of the masterstrokes is how it shows the progress of friends overlayed on your game, which, unless you socialise with the savants who post ridiculous times on YouTube constantly drives you forward. This is an approach to high scores that I first noticed in the superlative Geometry Wars 2 and still hope for it to become the standard.
It was a shame how thin on the ground great XBLA games seemed this year; I hope the relative dearth of innovation is a mark of development switching to new platforms rather than, as part of me suspects, a sign that the interesting indie developers have moved to other platforms in the last couple of years. But if this does prove to be a last hurrah for the service, it’s a fine way to go out.
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…