Monday, December 28, 2009

The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection: My Top Ten Games of 2009

The best games of 2009, for me, were marked not by innovation, but rather by doing the very same things that games have been doing for a long time, but doing them better than they've ever been done before. (That's not to say that this was a year without innovation. On the contrary, GameSpot's pick for Game of the Year, Demon's Souls, is boldly innovative and utterly uncompromising, and I respect the hell out of it. I just didn't personally enjoy it all that much.) The two best games of the year for me were particularly exceptional in this regard. Forza Motorsport 3 and Street Fighter IV are like well-oiled, nearly flawless high-performance machines in their respective genres.

Forza 3 is a game of such elegance that I feel like I should be eating excellent French cheeses and sipping fine wine whenever I play it. But not in a stuffy, oppressive way. No, it's an elegance that's perfectly befitting of the beautiful, fine-tuned automobiles it celebrates. And the experience of playing it is about as close as a game has ever gotten for me to being transportive. The handling, the sounds, the visuals are all so convincing that I could almost swear I can feel my car soaring down the Sebring Raceway. I'm such a devoted fan of over-the-top arcade racers over simulation racers that I often catch myself wanting to press A to trigger a vehicle boost, Burnout-style. But where so many other simulation racers have left me cold, Forza 3 is one I can't stop admiring. In addition to the absolutely top-notch driving, the way the game rewards you for each victory, constantly opening up new cars, new events, and new benefits as you earn experience makes playing "just one more race" nearly irresistible.

What Forza 3 is for driving games, Street Fighter IV is for fighters. It hits the sweet spot between pick-up-and-play accessibility and tremendous depth. The incredibly tight controls and exceptionally balanced combat ensure that fights are always exciting and intense for me, and even losses feel rewarding as a chance to observe the techniques of more skillful players and very slowly get better. And the better I get, the more I appreciate how incredible this game is, as I slowly come to grips with things like the focus attack system that adds layers of depth onto the core, tried-and-true Street Fighter II model. If I could stop time for a while and spend unlimited hours playing any one game from this year, this is the one I'd play, because as much as I enjoy it now, I know that being a truly competitive, outstanding player would only deepen my appreciation and enjoyment of it still more.

The quest to capture big, Hollywood-style adventure movie thrills in game form is certainly nothing new. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 pulls it off more effectively than any game has before. Expertly paced, with one terrific setpiece moment after another, and an excellent cast of characters whose relationships make you feel invested in the story.

Modern Warfare 2 was far and away the year's best shooter for me. Sure, you can rightly criticize the brevity of its campaign, but its whirlwind globehopping adventure packs more terrific locations and more memorable moments into its five hours than most games four times as long can manage. Add in the exciting and challenging cooperative Spec Ops missions and the highly addictive competitive multiplayer and you've got a well-rounded and consistently outstanding shooter.

While I have a soft spot for the moody Burton-influenced visuals and catchy tunes of Sunsoft's excellent 1989 NES game based on the first Michael Keaton Batman film, I have to admit that Arkham Asylum represents far and away the most compelling and effective representation of the Caped Crusader in a game. Everything you love about Batman--his gadgets, his detective skills, his use of stealth and shadow, his scarred psyche--is manifested here to terrific effect. It's so effective, in fact, that even if you go into the game not knowing or caring much about Batman, Commissioner Gordon and the other characters who populate Gotham City, you'll probably come away from it with a real appreciation for what Rocksteady has done with them here.

There was very little doubt that The Beatles: Rock Band was going to be good, but I was nonetheless surprised at just how superb it turned out. Harmonix could have taken the lazy route with this one and still sold a bazillion copies on the strength of the Fab Four's catalog of timeless and incredible songs. But instead, they went all-out, creating a rich Beatles experience jam-packed with the kinds of little details that imbue the game with the warmth and reverence the material deserves. Time spent playing this with friends was perhaps the greatest source of pure joy I got from any game this year.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars was perhaps the biggest WOW of the year for me. No other game revealed previously untapped potential in a platform as dramatically as Chinatown Wars did with the DS. No compromises here, this is GTA reimagined from the ground up for Nintendo's handheld, and it is fantastic.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story is the latest and greatest entry in AlphaDream's consistently excellent series of RPGs starring the Brothers Mario. Endlessly inventive, irresistibly charming and completely hilarious.

I'm still inching my way through Assassin's Creed II, one kill at a time. While I find the gameplay a smidge too easy to be completely gripping, the varied, richly detailed and atmospheric cities make this breezy ride a very enjoyable one, and pulling off a stealthy kill in broad daylight, then walking away and leaving no one the wiser is immensely satisfying. I recall the negative reactions of some to the concept of the animus when the first game was released, but here, I find that all the crazy conspiracy theory elements woven into the game make it feel all the more epic and compelling, creating a sense of high stakes and of an age-old conflict that extends far beyond Altair, Ezio or Desmond as individuals.

What Borderlands lacks in story, it more than makes up for in sheer addictive playability. It brilliantly merges the loot-finding and character-building that makes games like Diablo II so habit-forming, with...guns.

An honorable mention goes to Dragon Age: Origins, another title I haven't found the time to conclude yet. In fact, I've still got a long way to go on this epic journey. The pace lagged for me in the early stages, but now that I'm starting to make some serious progress on the main quest, I'm finding myself becoming more absorbed in the fully realized fantasy realm of Ferelden. Bioware's signature talents for creating richly detailed worlds and compelling moral dilemmas are in full effect here, and I'm determined to see this quest through to its blood-spattery end.

In my opinion, the year's best downloadable content was The Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar continues to challenge notions of who and what games can be about. Terrific nightclub atmosphere brings a previously unseen side of Liberty City to life, and the outrageous missions help bring GTA IV to an explosive conclusion.

And since I'm listening to it right now, I'll add that my favorite original soundtrack this year belongs to Shatter. It's a catchy and gorgeous collection of electronic compositions that are as incredible on their own as they are in the game.

1 comment:

Plimer said...

I'd pretty much agree to all of that, except I don't really like CoD... Battlefield can trump it!