Video games of the Year 2009
Happy New Year! As we welcome the start of 2010, it’s time for our annual look back over the past twelve months.
Over the Christmas break the writing team each voted on their favourite games. We all had quite diverse lists, a reflection of the sheer number of high quality games the industry produced in 2009. Below are the top echelon of games that received the most votes.
What was your most memorable game this year? You’re welcome to list your top 10 in the comments below, particularly if some lesser-known games deserve highlighting.
Seth: Whilst not breaking any new ground, Modern Warfare 2 is perfect example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Varied objectives, detailed environments, precision gunplay and wide-ranging locales distract from the somewhat silly WW3 storyline. The new Spec Ops mode brings co-op gameplay to the COD franchise in excellent fashion, and the removal of infinite-respawn enemies makes Veteran mode much less about luck and all about skill. Oh, and the multiplayer is just as addictive as ever.
Stephen: Small on plot perhaps but big on big ideas, taking its counter-terrorism and manipulating and predicting world events to new extremes. The presentation is flawless and the level design is some of the best in the business. It may be more of the same but Infinity Ward still managed to step up their game.
Thomas: You’d think we’d be tired of shooting things by now, and truthfully we are, but Infinity Ward seem to have a knack for dragging us back in for one more go. From a single player perspective MW2 was a joy to play through, with a developer reveling in showcasing to us what they are best at. No way was it worth £55 though. Silly Bobby!
Pricing: £1.19 on iTunes/App Store
Sean: Well, we had to put at least one ‘iDevice’ game in here, didn’t we? The platform has seen a surprising amount of genuinely decent games head its way during the course of 2009 (and more than enough rubbish, too), but Unify is easily one of the shining examples of how iPhone/iPod Touch games should be done. While other companies are busy trying to adapt home console experiences to the platform, complete with sub-par 3D graphics and wonky on-screen analogue sticks, games like Unify are happy to play to the platform’s strengths. It’s a puzzle game that sees you pulling in coloured blocks from the left and right of the screen, to meet in the middle and explode when four or more of the same colour blocks are connected to one another. It starts off easy enough, but the game soon starts to increase the speed and number of colours you have to deal with, and you soon find yourself having to adapt and aim for combos (where one explosion causes other blocks to fall into place, then they explode, causing more blocks to fall, etc). It’s addictive as hell, and the fact that the music is utterly brilliant doesn’t hurt, either.
Thomas: With game budgets shooting up into the multimillions, you would not expect a lowly puzzle game to stand a chance at cracking into ‘best of’ lists any more. However, as the likes of Tetris, Lumines and others show, when a puzzler gets it right, it can be one of the most addictive and compelling games ever. With exciting gameplay, some cracking music, and a decent use of the iPhone’s unique capabilities, this is exactly what Unify has achieved.
Dominic: Persona 4 is the Playstation 2’s king of JRPGs and is an awesome sending off for the system. The improvements are just exactly what the game needed to progress forward. Compared with its predecessor, it looks more stylish, plays better, has superior dungeon designs, and features more interesting characters. Every single man, woman and child who has any interest in the story or has even the tiniest interest in the RPG genre has to check it out.
Review | Pricing: £6.29 on the console’s PlayStation Store
Ben: Q-Games’ PixelJunk franchise continues to impress with its modern take on old ideas, fused with compelling design and plenty of style. This is a more mainstream outing than last year’s Eden, and one that is sure to entertain most gamers, even ones without an affinity for the genre.
Sean: I’ve a horrible feeling this is going to remain one of videogaming’s best-kept secrets, because the name doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s a bloody PSN title, so nobody’s playing it. Yes, it’s a twin-stick shooter, but the real fun lies in learning how the world’s materials all interact with one another, and using those interactions to progress through the levels. The game is a bit short, but it’s perfectly-paced – not one of the mechanics overstays its welcome, nor does the game bombard you with new rules to learn every five minutes. Just when you’re thinking “Yeah, okay, I get it – water cools lava to make stone, very clever” – BAM, you’ve got a new material to deal with, with its own set of properties. Clever, fun, beautifully presented and, crucially, it’s only about six quid. If you’re a PS3 owner, you’ve really got no excuse not to.
Pricing: Wii (£23.47)
Sean: Despite being a cult hit over in Japan and the US, Muramasa has failed to make much of an impression here in Europe, with many retailers refusing to even stock the blessed thing. And that’s a huge shame, because it’s a bloody wonderful video game with some genuinely stunning art direction. The initially mind-blowing combat does get a little shallow as you progress, but it’s backed up quite nicely with RPG elements that keep things fresh by having a tangible effect on how you fight, instead of just making your numbers bigger. Rumours abound of a 360 port on the way, which will hopefully result in Muramasa getting the attention it deserves.
Thomas: This is my personal top game of 2009, and here is a secret, no one else on our staff voted for it. I can see why, as it is a 2D game, and it is on the Wii. Everyone knows both of these things are useless, and you should never have either on show in your living room. People will laugh at you, seriously! It’s also subtitled (people talk some crazy language called Japanese in it) – so there’s yet another reason to put you off playing. However, in spite of all that, Muramasa does a lot to impress, it’s like your favourite action game (such as Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden) shrunk down into a compelling adventure viewed in 2D. It looks beautiful too. No, not beautiful for a Wii game, just stunning in its own right. There are no ‘waggle’ controls tacked on either, there is no need for them – and there even the option to plug in a GameCube controller. Most of all, and most importantly, it is a whole lot of fun to play. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Ian: From smacking your first wall with the sledge-hammer, to running full speed through a military complex in a giant mech, like some kind of demented toddler at Lego Land, Red Faction: Guerrilla never ceases to excite or satisfy. It constantly rewards players throughout the single player campaign and always manages to introduce something new to change the way the game is played. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable adventure in an original and believable (if not exactly realistic) setting, and sets a totally new benchmark for technical achievement in a video game. Now go and blow something up already.
Sean: Ian pretty much covered everything in his review, but I thought I’d chip in to add that my favourite thing about this game is the way it constantly reacts to the building destruction without batting an eyelid. Most first- or third-person shooters rely on their carefully-constructed arenas and scripted AI in order to deliver a compelling experience, but Red Faction: Guerilla throws all that out of the window. As well as looking cool as shit, the GeoMod engine allows for battlefields that are constantly shifting and changing, with ceilings being brought down on enemies’ heads, or bits of rubble functioning as temporary cover. This freedom allows players to make their own fun, and come away with their own unique stories of brilliant physics-related mishaps. Sure, the AI has the occasional wobble (most notably the fact that it seems to always know exactly where you are, no matter what), but considering how adaptable it is, it’s really impressive.
Pricing: Wii (£34.71)
Gloria: If there’s one video game character that has done it all it’s Mario, but with all the sports titles and the like it’s easy to forget what made him big in the first place. Well we got a big reminder this year in the form of New Super Mario Bros Wii, with not only the solidest slice of 2D platforming we’ve seen in years, but some multiplayer madness too. If there was any doubt that Mario had lost it this put the record straight.
Ben: In the age of online, this is a new sofa classic. Nintendo has succeeded in taking one of the best-known singleplayer games and without changing too much, has turned it into a hugely entertaining multiplayer game.
Thomas: For me New Super Mario Bros. Wii is an easy to learn but difficult to master Mario game that harkens back to the Nintendo of old, and for that reason alone should easily make it onto any GotY listing. Furthermore, it is fun in both single and multiplayer, and quite simply blows the DS version out of the water for the amount of new ideas and clever tricks on show. Wait a second, why isn’t this higher?
Ben: Point & click games often heavily rely on humour to mask the often trial and error nature of the genre – but Machinarium’s game design stands up so well I never felt I was wasting my time, even though it can be quite challenging. It’s fairly short, but the memorable world draws you in, and could easily be revisited in a sequel. The artwork is wonderful – some of the best I’ve seen in a video game.
Emily: An amazingly crafted game made by such a tiny team. This is a brilliant way to spend eight hours or so.
Thomas: I’ve never been a huge point and click fan, and back in the day I stubbornly played just a few games in the genre only because, at the time, they were the best source of comedic writing in games. However, Machinarium seems to be a step above that, with gameplay that is compelling enough to be entertaining in its own right. Furthermore, it is probably one of the most unique games you’ll ever see, offering a world to play through that is both fascinating and visually stunning. A ray of light as the industry seemingly continues to move down a samey ‘me too’ culture with every year that passes.
Stephen: Evolving the basic gameplay of its predecessor, L4D2 was the perfect sequel. Bar giving us even more content than they already did it’s hard to find anything realistically important to complain about. If you loved the first, then you’ll love this.
Seth: Anyone who says this is a cheap cash-in is a nobhead. L4D2 expands on the original game in every aspect, whilst keeping the superb foundations that made the original our GotY last year. The new Specials fit perfectly into the Infected family, and Scavenge mode is excellent for those players looking for shorter bursts of the best team dynamics that gaming has to offer.
Thomas: I have to say it is a bit samey, and could be considered a bit of a cash-in by some. Can that be considered a bad thing though, seeing as the original was held in such high-regard? There are new ideas in there, new modes too, and everything you’d expect from a quality sequel. The only problem, in my opinion, is that it lacks the fresh feeling of the original. Yours sincerely, Nobhead.
Pricing: £6.29 on the console’s PlayStation Store
Sean: I’m pleasantly surprised that this ended up so high in the list, as I thought it’d just be me waving my poncy indie flag while everyone else sighs and shakes their heads. I finally got a PS3 this year, and Flower was the first thing to assure me that I hadn’t wasted my money. It’s the sort of game you simply won’t find on Xbox Live Arcade, and not just because of the heavy reliance on SIXAXIS motion control. It’s not quite as conceptually heavy as, say, Braid – but it’s just a complete joy to behold, and I still fire it up occasionally just to explore the game’s environments and listen to the wonderful soundtrack (which, incidentally, was meant to appear on iTunes months ago, but never did). It’s a perfect marriage of idiosyncratic game design, a usually wonky control method and some of the most incredible aesthetics we’ll see in a video game until The Last Guardian comes out. So, er, a marriage involving three people. That’s probably illegal.
Ben: In Flower, many common video game expectations (such as the HUD and dialogue) have been removed, leaving you with a refreshingly unpredictable and intuitive experience. This kind of experimental title really plays to the strengths of PSN, offering shorter experiences that you can jump in to. Flower has to be one of the most innovative releases of the year and was a memorable change of pace.
Ian: Flower is beautiful, thought-provoking and for a while was the only thing worth having on the PS3. It even uses SIXAXIS without being shit.
Andi: Skate 2 is a game that I have come back to repeatedly since it was released in early 2009. It even got a few spins during the busy Christmas period, when there were plenty of other new games sat on my shelf waiting to be played. The gameplay is wonderful, improving on the formula that destroyed the Tony Hawk franchise a year previous. A bunch of new tricks were added, but crucially, without ruining the intuitive controls. This allows you to try absolutely anything you can think of within the city of San Vanelona.
The second reason is the multiplayer. For every ultra-competitive score-based session, me and the podcast regulars have spent DAYS in the online freeskate mode, finding spots, attempting difficult lines and creating videos with the genius editing package built into the game. Throwing some music on (not to discredit the excellent soundtrack), chatting with your mates and skating around the city is as much fun, as competitive or as relaxing as you want it to be. Skate 2 captures absolutely everything that makes real life skateboarding so great, and no amount of plastic peripherals will be able to get a feeling so close to the real thing that this manages with its “trick stick” control method.
Ian: Skate 2 is going to last for a very long time, there’s so much to do, so much to discover and create, that its potential seems limitless, and it’s for this reason that it deserves to be heralded as the truly great step forward that the genre needed. What EA Black Box have achieved is near enough the ultimate lazy Sunday afternoon with your friends and a bunch of skateboards.
Sean: A game so good that it made Activision pump out a shite game with a wonky plastic peripheral in fear. The DZ team still crack out Skate 2 for the occasional online session, much as we did with the first game, right up to Skate 2‘s release. We all feared that Skate 2 would fail to innovate like its predecessor had – after all, how could it? – but it more than made up for it by building on the original’s ideas and polishing the hell out of them. With only three months or so to go until Skate 3‘s arrival, the fact that we’re still playing Skate 2 easily secures its place in this list.
Thomas: My obsession for loot gathering may have waned a bit since the early days of Diablo II, but with both Torchlight and Borderlands offering something a little bit different for the genre over the course of 2009, my addiction has somewhat undergone a resurgence. Both games are top-notch, but it is Borderlands that comes out on top in this battle for me, as it really does something unique for the genre, with clever gameplay, and an eye-catching look. There is even 4 player co-op too, and I feel compelled to buy the DLC for the game, which is a rarity for me. Now, if they would just raise the level cap!
Sean: Regulars will recall that we’ve said some unkind things about Borderlands in the past, so it’s with a huge sigh of relief that we put it so highly in this list. Several of us have always been suckers for your OCD-inducing loot-based RPGs – Borderlands delivers on that front in spades, yet shocked everyone by being a compelling action game in its own right to boot. A lot of gameplay footage made the game look more like a cardboard cut-out shooting gallery (something I’m now more eager to accuse Modern Warfare 2 of, if anything), but playing the game for yourself reveals moments of real tactical depth, with efficient use of cover and your team’s varying abilities becoming key to your survival. Only the game’s reluctance to let you play with friends at different levels and the insultingly rubbish ending prevented Borderlands from being my personal game of the year.
Ian: Thought by many to have been ‘sent out to die’ during the jam-packed later months, Borderlands came as a bit of a surprise. A combination of Diablo-esque dungeon crawling with solid FPS combat, set in a post-apocalyptic environment with some stunning art direction, Gearbox ticked almost every box on the gamer’s ‘want list’. Had the online co-op been better designed it could well be at the top of this list, but even so it’s an addictive and compelling ‘shoot and looter’ regardless.
Dominic: 2009 was a really good year for fighting fans. There was a big selection to pick from ranging from Tekken 6 to BlazBlue, but the real star of the year was Street Fighter IV. It put the fighting genre right back on the map by bringing back our favourite characters with similar moves but updating them with extras and new looks for 2009, but still keeping the heart of the game intact. The old Street Fighter games were legends and this sets to be the next gold crown in its heritage with its ever-increasing popularity and fantastic addictive gameplay.
Ian: If there’s any game other than Skate that has single-handedly revitalised an entire genre, it’s Street Fighter 4. Outside of the obvious aesthetical changes, it provided a multi-tierd fighting system that allowed newbies and experts alike to play the game at their own level. The addition of the focus attack brought about a whole new strategic approach to the series and the almost-flawless net code provided ample opportunity to practice it on Kens world-wide.
Sean: This one got a vote from me, largely because it’s single-handedly responsible for getting me into fighting games. Of course I’ve played others in the past and got away with a rudimentary understanding of the mechanics involved, but something about Street Fighter IV really got me interested in the genre, and I’m not the only one. Its design is elegant enough that even a total novice can really begin to understand how high-level play works (even if they’ll never put the hours in to take on a real pro), and the superb online play provides a constant stream of real opponents in a (mostly) lag-free environment. And anyway, it must be good, because I went out and spent 70 quid on a stupid joystick just to play it properly.
Andi: Street Fighter IV is the perfect fighting game. It is simple enough for even the fight game virgins to jump into and have some entertaining bouts against their mates, yet deep enough for even the absolute best in the world to never, ever be able to master. There will always be someone out there working out a way to counter all of the best tricks and techniques you have learned. Every fight you have tells its own little story, be it the legend of your “no health” comeback to the cautionary tale of the time you relied on one technique a little too much, and got severely punished for it. By looking to its past and stripping away a lot of the complexities that had started to weigh down the fighting game genre, taking things back to its basics, Street Fighter IV has surpassed all of its rivals and, somewhat ironically, left them looking incredibly dated. My favourite game of 2009, by a mile.
Ian: Rocksteady have proven that they’re a company that really care. They actually ‘get’ Batman, they’ve looked at the character from every conceivable angle and strived to make this everything anybody could possibly want from a Batman game. It’s an adult presentation of an adult character, and not once does it fail to make the player feel anything other than the Dark Knight himself.
Stephen: While a fantastic action game in its own right, it’s Batman’s comic universe that tips this over the edge. The potential of a truly great Batman game has been realised and the interpretations of the Scarecrow, Killer Croc and The Joker have already become iconic gaming villains.
Sean: One of this year’s most welcome surprises, Arkham Asylum shocked everyone not only by being a fun and well-designed video game, but for the incredible respect it showed for its source material. From the inclusion of all the character bios (totally superfluous but entirely interesting all the same) to most of the cast from Batman: The Animated Series reprising their roles for the game, Rocksteady embarrassed a lot of developers who’ve worked on licensed properties in the past, as well as including so many sleek design decisions that’ll leave you wondering why so many games still think it’s okay to shove ‘SAVING, PLEASE WAIT…’ screens in our faces.
Thomas: No, I did not trust Gamesmaster either. That 96% did seem a bit high at the time, especially for a licensed game. However, when the topic in question is quality games, I am always happy to be proved wrong, and after just an hour with Arkham Asylum that certainly was the case. However, what was really surprising is that it just kept getting better from there on in, with great gameplay, quality scripting, and top-notch ideas all coming together to make a fantastic game. That trailer for the sequel doesn’t look half-bad either.
Ian: It’s the amalgamation of action games, adventure stories and box office smashes rolled into one ten-hour action sequence. It’s Indiana Jones meets Broken Arrow, meets Cliff Hanger, meets Bad Boys – and then some. The production values are through the roof and the level of polish that’s gone into this game are something else.
Stephen: It’s the smaller things that bring Uncharted 2 to the next level. The dynamic camera that functions as more than just the player’s eye into the world, but actively makes the game more exciting. The looseness of the controls that make Drake’s movement feel less scripted, less mechanical, and far more fluid.
Dominic: Uncharted 2 is one of those games that doesn’t do anything innovative, but takes everything we know about the action genre and turns it up that extra notch. From start to finish it’s a maximum adrenaline journey that would put Indiana Jones’ adventures to shame. Everything from the graphics, sound, animation to the exciting gameplay is exceptional. Only one thing is wrong, and that is that it has to end, but boy the ride is unforgettable.
Seth: If I had to use one word to sum up Uncharted 2, it would have to be: stunning. The best animations, the best graphical and environmental details, the best voice acting. It so excellently merges the gunplay and climbing mechanics of the first game, that it becomes an effort to ever turn it off. If you needed a reason to own a PS3, it’s right here.
Sean: A popular GotY pick for a lot of gaming sites, and they’re all absolutely spot-on. The sheer levels of polish and attention to detail on show in Uncharted 2 quite simply put most other video games to shame. Visually, the game is an absolute masterpiece – not just because of the fancy lighting effects and such that Naughty Dog have squeezed out of the PS3, but the sheer amount of hard work that’s gone into making almost every room in the game feel unique and lovingly-crafted. Throw in some entirely likeable protagonists, two wonderfully-fused gameplay styles and a surprisingly solid multiplayer mode, and it’s not hard to see why everyone loves Uncharted 2 so much.
What a year 2009 has been! Hopefully there’s a game or two in there you’ve yet to try. If you’ve devised your own list, you’re welcome to share it in the comments.
From everyone at DarkZero, wishing you the best for the year ahead.