Game of the Year is Awarded To...
Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3)
1. Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3)
“It’s a Batman game, how good can it be?” ran through my head until the second leading up to Arkham Asylum’s release late in last summer. The minute after was “this is better than I could have ever imagined.” In fact, I don’t even want to call “Arkham Asylum” a Batman “game,” it’s a Batman experience and that’s crucial. Including the movies, this is the first non-comic Batman title to get all aspects of Batman. From his physicality to his intellect, this game understands who Batman is, what he does and probes ever deeper into the “why he does it” question. The detective, the genus and the ass kicker is all on display and all within your control. What puts this marvelously ambitious title ahead of more obvious GOTY contenders is how enjoyable the exploration is and how intuitive the combat feels. Enter detective mode to search for clues and, when you find them, take out the endless stream inmates blocking your path to freedom.
Batman’s may look like a big dumb wrestler here (what were the designers thinking?) and his moves may appear limited to simple button mashing but stringing together attack combos as you slide seamlessly from one equally bulky enemy to another provides a rapturous and addictive combat high where punches flow with so much elegant precision that the effect is more like choreographed dancing than fighting. And that’s before you bust out all of Batman’s gadgets like the batarang and foamy explosives that can be triggered from a remote location. As for the atmosphere: it’s a perfect overall vision that easily surpasses the artful and claustrophobic “Bioshock,” another game praised for its atmosphere. Locking “Bats” (as Joker, the new warden of Arkham affectionately calls him) up in the most iconic asylum in the history of storytelling is brilliant from both a game play and narrative standpoint. Not only does Batman reconnect with usual suspects (Joker, Poison Ivy and countless cameos like the Penguin’s umbrella and of course the Riddler’s clues) but also the voice cast and writer that made the legendary 90s “Batman” animated series. Swooshing through a dark hallway and perching on Gothic gargoyles like billionaire ninja as you wait for some unlucky inmate to walk under you is a Bat-lover’s wet dream. While playing, Rorshach’s line from “Watchmen” of all things rang true: “I’m not trapped in here with you, you’re trapped in with MEEEEEE!”
2. Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)
The most groundbreaking and original title to come out since “Portal” and that was my game of the year! The fact of the matter is that no game was utilized by a single piece of hardware in better or more creatively in 09 than the “Scribblenauts” on the DS. Think it, spell it, spawn it, use it, solve it and, my god, that totally sounds like a Daft Punk song! “Scribblenauts” is underrated to a point of frustration. When people didn’t outright overlook this game due to the kiddy DS look (big mistake, this game is actually really perverse) many who did play it poo poo all over the controls which often send the chicken hat wearing protagonist Maxwell into every direction except the one you’re pointing to and, okay, that’s a valid complaint (one that will hopefully be addressed in a sequel) but there’s so much more to this puzzle solving game than moving the awkward yet lovable character around. How much more? How about as much as you can think of? In the video below Maxwell must knock bottles down. Simple yet infinitely complex: You can use a baseball, sure, but you can also use a battleship, or, my favorite Lovecraftian problem solver: the great Cthulhu. This is one of those games that if you don’t like it, it’s not because the game is lacking, its because YOU are. Grow an imagination and have yourself some fun. For me that means the simple pleasure to tossing toddlers at zombies to see what happens (hint: it’s not good), for you it’s…
3. Red Faction: Guerrilla (PS3)
You run, you shoot, you smash the hell out of everything you see. There may not be much in the way of gripping story elements (though it is cool that the prevailing good guys from the first Red Faction are now the same evil oppressors you once fought against) but I’ll take an open world game that doesn’t bother much with story and succeeds at everything else versus one that does and gets lost in a tedious, pretentious and downright joyless narrative web like last year’s much lauded “GTA IV.” Unlike that game (and anything else out there), “RFG” lets you loose on mars by letting you physically do whatever you want. Everything topside in this sandy, dust covered world has a reality in the sense that if you touch it, if you shoot it, if you tear it the F down it will react. What’s better than the fact that the Martian physics are spot on is that they are spot on and fun! This is the first true sandbox game experience for me because Mars is literally one big red sand box and its delicate, manmade structures are just begging to be dismantled by your weapons one steel girder at a time. For months after playing I walked into buildings looking around for structural weaknesses, dreaming that I had that Red Faction hammer I would totally go ape shit on that wall. So why didn’t more people like it?
4. Uncharted 2 (PS3)
Only one word is needed: epic. Okay a few more: this is the first game I’ve ever cared enough about to pursuit the achingly hard platinum trophy. I just about thought this adventure would never get old but when it finally did (after many, many hours of shooting, finding cover and elaborate puzzle solving mind you–a fun version of “Gears of War” in other words) I had almost as much fun in “U2’s” multiplayer. I’m glad this game has been received so well (it’s won every major award!) and thrilled to see something finally putting a spotlight to the overlooked PS3’s hardware. Nathan Drake’s return can’t come soon enough.
5. Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (PS3)
Wow. Thank you Sega! How sad is it that many of the Genesis classics included in this ultra cheap box set are better that most new games released this year? Reliving these retro games was such a treat. The value of over fifty games on one disk is hard to resist, even for kids who grew up on Playstation rather than 8 or 16 bit systems. I’ve never been much of a Rom guy so playing these unchanged games is even more special. The usual suspects are as fun as they ever were: “Sonic” 1 and 3, “Phantasy Star,” “Golden Axe,” the “Streets of Rage” series. And I even discovered amazing new games like Comix Zone, Vectorman, Kid Chameleon, and Alien Storm; games that have me wishing I took more chances and expanded outside my Sonic bubble when I had the system in the 90s. It may exist in the shadow of the big N but Genesis and Sega will live on forever. And let’s face it, Nintendo would never be cool enough to release a similar product. A place in my heart will always belong to the Genesis.
6. Bookworm (iPhone)
Scrabble and Boggle, meet my finger. Thanks to this game my iPhone got a lot of action and caressing in 2009. There’s random letters on a board, you see, and you have to make word combos as a worm belches at you. There’s no timer but there are explosive blocks that will end your game if you let them reach the bottom without including them in a word. That simple premise turned into the most addicting thing I played all year. And there’s no doubt it won’t continue into next year because there’s no score high enough to ever satisfy my word hunger.
7. Assassin’s Creed II (PS3)
The first Assassin’s didn’t impress me right away. It was not until after I played it and thought about it that I realized it was one of the more unique games to come out in this generation of systems in some time. Why? Because you lived the Crusades and lived it through DNA memories! The game had flaws (repetition) but the flaws were second to the ambition and style. Well those flaws have been addressed and even thought there are still some issues like wonky controls that sent me hurling off a building instead of up it (drove me F-ing nuts) and a genre changing tone that’s brings in strong(er) sci-elements and a “Prince of Persia” fighting vibe. Right now I’m not sure how well the third act genre twist works for me but I expect this game to grow on me just like the first did though for different reasons. The presentation, the plot and the utilization of the open world (this time Renaissance Italy teams you up with a gayed up Leonardo di Vinci and pits you against an evil Pope) have all been polished to a golden sparkle and while I’m far more interested in the Crusades setting of the first “Creed” this new game has a lot more range, variables and open possibilities for narrative growth in what I hope are many Assassinations to come.
8. Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)
“Zelda” is comfort food at this point. Innovation is second to nostalgia though both is never a bad thing. It’s easy to forget how nice it is to have another new “Zelda” title come out. Sure this game looks pretty much exactly like the last DS “Zelda” entry but what this title does differently, it does well. The combat is improved, the hub dungeon is less annoying and new gadgets like a wind flute thingey you actually blow into (take that Ocarina!) are well implemented. What seals the deal on coolness is a new co-op gameplay twist has been added and can only be described as “Ico” meets “Full Metal Alchemist.” That’s right, Zelda herself (or, at least, her spirit) jumps into an empty suit of armor and actually joins Link on his quest to Defeat Random Bad Guy/Save The Land/Blah Blah Blah this time! How cool is that? And how progressive! Okay, so the story is far from great (this is “Zelda” after all) but I have come to the realization that the Zelda series, at this point in time, works much, much better as a handled game.
9. Mad World (Wii)
Does so much to prove to me that the Wii isn’t a one trick Yoshi. This game has style, artistry and blood. A LOT of blood. It’s an outrageous and funny game, “Smash TV” meets “Sin City,” but a solid brawler is at the center of all the black and white (and red!) pulp. The art design is simply amazing. And while I still can’t believe this is a Wii game, it plays just like one. The system could use more games like “Mad World” and “No More Heroes.”
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PS3)
No great comic book adaptations may have been released in theaters but TWO great ones made it to video games 09?! That’ll never, ever, ever happen again. Choosing (wisely) to not follow the film’s worthless PG-13 storyline, this version of Wolverine’s origin proved to be way more enjoyable than it had any right to be. The basis for saying that is (a) just look at the film it’s promoting, and (b) the sorted history of “X-Men” video games is anything but reliable though I have a soft spot for the Genesis version. Similar to “Batman Arkham Asylum” (but not quite as well realized and significantly lacking in its boring puzzle sections–Wolverine does not solve puzzles, he smashes them) this action game is a success because it figured its character out and in the process allowed players to come as close as anyone may ever get to wielding Wolverine’s power effectively and enjoyably. This game is raw and nasty and Wolverine’s claws cut so deep that it may even have a right to be spoken of in the same breath as the great “Ninja Gaidan” series.
11. Borderlands (PS3)
Take “Fallout 3’s” apocalyptic world, add “Diablo’s” point/xp/treasure system and throw in “XIII’s” extreme FPS cell shading. That still can’t sum up this insane shooter. I put off playing this strange title because it looked silly (and, lo, it is!) but ultimately couldn’t resist giving it a shot, pun intended. I rented it, played it for a full day, returned it first thing the next day and bought it, knowing how much enjoyment I would get out of it. It’s not that the game has any real substance as a narrative or as an “original” FPS/RPG (the quests are repetitive and the game gets old before you beat it), it’s just that this game is insanely addictive. Collecting experience points and searching for new and better weapons has never been this fun. Oh man, the variety weapons is unparalleled in video games. Even impossible combinations like rapid fire revolvers, sniper rifles that explode upon impact, teleporting grenades and shot guns that fire as fas as machine guns are pulled off here with a great and goofy sense of fun.
12. Modern Warfare 2 (PS3)
I really wanted to hate “MW2,” the best selling game of 2009. After playing and liking it I still want to hate it! This game signals a sad shift towards the decline of the single player game experience. “MW2” is overrated for a lot of reasons but as it turns out, popular for even more. I was really annoyed when I bought the game to discover that the story mode clocked in at under six hours. This is more of an expansion than a game but as glorified expansions-yet-not-called-expansions games go it offers way more than the “new” “Halo: OSDT.” When got into the multiplayer though I began to realized that any regret I had was gone baby gone because I will be playing the MP for years to come. So the value is there. And as short as the single player campaign is, it’s as bombastically epic as Bruckheimer movie minus the bad dialogue. The experience as a whole may be lacking but there many wow moments like No Russian: a level where you not only have the option to gun down hundreds of civilians in an airport because you’re “under cover,” but you lose the level if you attempt stop the terrorists (see video below). I can’t say this game didn’t make an impression on me even if it wasn’t a lasting one.
The Rest of the Best
Punch Out!! (Wii)
It’s not “Super Punch Out.” That’s the worst thing I could think of to say about this game. Oh, I could also say there are not enough new boxers to spar with. The one new one is perhaps the most annoying game character to come out since Zelda’s Minda. But that’s it. This game is a blast, a joy, and a total ball buster (I still can’t re-beat all the levels). I’ll take smacking the hell out of King Hippo than anything “Fight Night Round 4” had to offer.
Demon’s Souls (PS3)
Another breakout PS exclusive! “Demon souls” will kick your ass. And you will come back from the dead time and time again having learned something new and begging for more punishment. That’s rare in an industry that is making games easier and easier. The “Lord of the Rings” meets Middle Ages milleau provides interesting if drab visuals. The game is actually very minimalistic, that is until you encounter a giant ass kicking enemy that will put you in your place. And when you die, you die. No continues, no checkpoints. This game is an acquired taste but as many point out, its hard in a way that’s not unfair. While I’m played out on the fantasy RPG genre (hence, no “Dragon Age: Origins” on the list), this is a game I could get into for all these reasons as well as what is perhaps the best and most innovative use of on-line capabilities this year. Not the usual and mindless death match but a quasi MMORPG community of lost souls (actual players!) you see wandering in real-time in a parallel game universe. I love the touch of receiving posthumous tips from other people’s death (relive the last moments of other players’ lives is funny until it dawns on you that you’re probably next. I also liked kindly tips players leave on the ground like “danger ahead.” That’s an understatement my fellow fallen warriors. I should note that this is one of the few games on my list that I have not finished. The masochist in me can’t wait to.
Boom Blox: Bash Party (Wii)
Throwing balls at blocks is as fun as it ever was. That the sequel added on-line, DIY content makes it even better. This series is the best thing to come from Spielberg (he’s a producer) since “Raiders of the Lost Arc!”
Plants Vs. Zombies (PC)
Tower defense game are big these days and “PvZ” provides a fresh spin on things by having you defend your front yard from zombies. How does one do that? Well lets just say this low priced game delivers on the title in every way imaginable and a lot more you can’t imagine because you’re not high.
Street Fighter IV (PS3)
“Round One… FIGHT.” If I ever get tired of hearing those words, kill me. The only thing that hurt my enjoyment of this great fighting game is that I would rather play the superlative “Super Street Fighter II” HD Remix that was released only before IV. This new “Fighter” got its thunder stolen faster than an electrified Blanca zap.
Yeah, okay, okay, it’s as good as everyone has said. It can be siad that the time manipulation, emo guy in a suit sorting through personal issues with a dinosaur story/gameplay has introduced a new video games genre that was previously just available in music and movies: hipster indie games.
Puzzle Quest Galatrix (DS)
If you had told me years ago that the addictive Tetris Attack match-three puzzle mechanic would not only reappear but do so in an RPG form I would have shit myself. And the poop would have looked like red, green, blue and yellow blocks. And it would form a poop combo of awesomeness. And I would get experience points for the poop!
Halo ODST (Xbox 360)
don’t get me wrong this game is a lot of fun. I loved the open worlds aspect, Flood-esq mode and the plot is better than Halo 3 but, come on Bungie, this isn’t a game its a $60 expansion.
Worst Game of the Year Goes To…
Bionic Commando. Combat is a mess. The visuals are boring. The story is stupid. The character looks horrible (dreadlocks!?). The product placements are insulting. And, worst of all, swinging with your bionic arm is not fun which is something I would have thought impossible because even in so-so games like Spider-Man 3 the joy of swinging is a given.
Flawed but Fun
Resident Evil 5–“I’m out of ammo!” Shut up Sheva, SHUT THE FUCK UP.
INfamous–I should have like this game. The game was beat (cool twist!). The game was ejected. The game was never thought of again.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope–not a great year for JRPGs. This Star Ocean prequel will buy time till Final Fantasy XIII
Fight Night: Round 4–This series needs to be revamped.
09 Systems Rankings
- Playstation 3
- Nintendo DS
- iPhone (the games are cheap and they are addictive)
- Xbox 360
- PSP (not one good game released all year, that must be some sort of a record)
Money Spent On Videogames
A number just shy of $1,000
#1 Trend: Playstation trophies and to a lesser degree Xbox achievements. If my increase in video game playing can be attributed to one thing this year it’s a quirky personalty obsession with scoring trophies that reward everything from head shots to beating a game on hard. This trend gave me a tangible reason to play video games other than the fact that they’re really fun.
Good: Online play has reached a new peak. It’s better and more varied than it’s ever been.
Bad: X-Box 360 is an overrated, suck ass system that gathered more dust this year than my Wii. This is the first year that not one Xbox game made my top ten. That’s more sad than bad.
Bad: Xbox again for its unacceptable failure rate and for peopel for not caring that hte hardware is broken.
Good: IPs are strong.
Good: As games get bigger and more polished, even more get smaller and more fun. Games like Brand for PS3, Plants Vs. Zombies for PC and Shadow Complex for Xbox signal a welcome trend of indie games that rely more on core gameplay than production values.
Bad: DLCs (added content for games you own). They suck and are overpriced.
Bad: The words Sony and handheld should never go together. PSP Go is a system that cost almost as much as a PS3 and games can only be downloaded.