The Best Games of 2009

If I’m being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point – Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here’s my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:

  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.

I “finished” 19 of those games. That doesn’t mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game’s main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:

  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin’s Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush

And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it’s based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I’m about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It’s true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook’s own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don’t even like real farming, or even going outside. There’s no enemies in Farmville; there’s no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there’s nothing to do until everything’s finished growing. And yet I’ve logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I’ve even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there’s no new seeds for me to unlock. I have “beaten” Farmville, and yet I’m only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I’m not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 – I’d hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand… I don’t even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn’t even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I’d accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I’d made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it’s a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS’s best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story. While I can’t remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment – it really felt like GTA, even with the DS’s hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I’d expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I’ve ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN’T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I’ve ever seen, and I’m terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can’t hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it’s more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4’s artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn’t win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I’m such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I’ve been seeing this pop up on a few “Worst Games of 2009” lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can’t compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means “a lot.” The game’s mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game’s levels are truly wonders to behold – I’m thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it’s more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game’s multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The “No Russian” level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game’s constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN’T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I’ve played exactly twice. There’s no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it’s hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can’t really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I’m going to give it to whichever Achievement it was – presumably in Assassin’s Creed 2 – that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I’m including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn’t really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4’s 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3‘s DLC and Borderlands, and it’s clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don’t know, small; it didn’t take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it’s definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2‘s single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I’ve ever heard. But that’s the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 “10 MINUTES OR LESS” ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:

  • Halo 3:ODST. I’m officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don’t care anymore. I’ll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn’t really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn’t necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place – I’m a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn’t, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.

THE “I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES” LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.

  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon’s Souls. Maybe this shouldn’t be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I’d have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that’s only because I was impatient and didn’t really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn’t get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn’t necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn’t good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven’t had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King’s Story. I’m not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first “world”/”area”/”section”, drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn’t amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one – I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I’m not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I’ve been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.

THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN’T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON’T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I’ve given Silent Hill about an hour or so – the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I’d want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I’m hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn’t qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I’ve ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3’s motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 – mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it’s really well done it’s positively narcotizing. I haven’t yet finished Torchlight, but it’s not like there’s a story – I’ve left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also – I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn’t mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It’s definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I’m of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information – all of it presented with tender loving care. I’m not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it – indeed, it’s the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I’m on my 2nd playthrough – I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I’m going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would’ve been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn’t, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2’s immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it’s at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn’t mean it’s any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It’s a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you’re Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It’s a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year’s sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I’d never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I’d never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game’s got charm. It’s got charisma, and it’s got personality. And it’s also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he’s completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that’s not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

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