As I said last time around, I never feel quite right with doing “Top #” or “Best of” lists, just because I always end up feeling bad that I’m leaving something off that I genuinely loved. This year had a lot to enjoy that didn’t make it onto the list below: If I had to pick a #6 it’d probably be the excellent Borderlands, but this year also saw great games like the new Professor Layton, Plants vs. Zombies, Dawn of War II, and Street Fighter IV – just to name a few. But with as much fun as I’ve had with brand-new games (and slightly older games – thanks, WoW) this year, there are some that stand out from the rest as my five favorites from 2009.
5. Torchlight (PC)
Torchlight is a game that shows the beauty of not trying to overextend itself. There’s no overarching story, there’s no huge world to explore: You are told that there is trouble in the tunnels below the town of Torchlight, so you get your faithful pooch (or feline) and go a-questing. There are only three classes, there are only thirty levels, and it never really changes things up. But what it does, it does fantastically, and everything just works: The combat is great and clicking everywhere to kill everything in sight works perfectly, the three classes are fun and varied, and the stylized cartoonish art helps bring this rather limited fantasy world to life. It’s got incredibly scalable system requirements, it’s randomized to keep you coming back, and it’s twenty bucks. Why haven’t you got it yet?
4. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
I’m really not a superhero kind of guy, which is why it was so surprising to me how thrilling it was to be playing a game that made me feel like I was the Dark freakin’ Knight (with less of the gravelly Christian Bale voice, thankfully). The biggest thrill of Arkham Asylum, though, is easily its combat system. The game’s brawls are gorgeously choreographed bone-snapping ballets, and the beauty and the fluidity of the combat belies just how simple and effective the controls are. It’s even more mind-boggling when you consider the fact that a game with such intensely awesome hand-to-hand combat can have equally awesome stealth gameplay – and switch between the two seamlessly. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too, you get to have your cake and some pie at the same time.
There’s a ton to love in Arkham, from the wonderful aesthetic that made you feel you were in the cape and cowl of the Caped Crusader, calmly striding towards a terrified thug with your Bat-Cape billowing out behind you (and it didn’t hurt that the voice acting was phenomenal) but even with all the trappings, the game would have never worked so well if it hadn’t had such a fantastic core combat engine.
3. BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger (Xbox 360, PS3)
Guilty Gear XX was probably one of my favorite games of the last generation, and so it’s great to see BlazBlue carrying the torch. It’s impossible to talk about BlazBlue without talking about how damn stylish and original the game is – which is kind of the main reason I love it, because it does not do anything half-assed. The character designs are over-the-top and crazy, with no stoic wandering martial artists or samurai in sight, and they play as differently as they look. Want to be the giant metal homunculus who magnetizes his foes for combos? How about the crazy cat-girl-thing that hurls fish, baby kittens, and even herself at her foes?
And the soundtrack. Sweet fancy Moses, the soundtrack is one of the most hard-rocking pieces of game music I’ve heard in years. Brilliantly slick face-melting rock backs up brilliantly slick face-ripping 2D fighting. Screw Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue is where it’s at!
2. Left 4 Dead 2 (PC, Xbox 360)
L4D2 would make my list if only for the awesome Scavenge gameplay mode on its own, but there’s so much to love here. Melee weapons are incredibly satisfying to use, and I’ll ditch my pistol for an axe or crowbar at the first opportunity just to wade in to the carnage, the dismemberment action makes for some delightful moments of schaudenfreude, but most of all I love how genuinely cooperative it is. If you try to run and gun your way as the lone hero, you will find yourself getting choked by a Smoker or ridden off the edge of a building by a Jockey before you can say “boomstick.”
You need to watch out for your team, and they need to watch out for you – and even if you’re far more expendable when playing as the Infected, the sentiment still applies. In order to finish off the Survivors once and for all, you’ll need to forgo the “let’s all attack them one at a time” philosophy of the villains in Bruce Lee movies and mount a coordinated assault. As Hannibal said in The A-Team: I love it when a plan comes together.
1. Assassin’s Creed II (Xbox 360, PS3)
I love Assassin’s Creed II so incredibly much for so many reasons. The assassination is great, the story is interesting, the puzzles are awesome (and surprisingly historical – like a Da Vinci Code with less crappy writing). But there’s one thing that sticks out for me: If Ubisoft released a game that was just the parkour-slash-climbing sections of the game, it would still be utterly fantastic. You’ve got these gorgeous Italian cities with some of the most timeless architecture in human history, and you can run along the rooftops, swing from the hanging plants, vault over the chimney and up onto the tower of the cathedral, and then jump off into the hay. Screw assassin work, I’m just fine being a professional roof-climber-runner-jumper-guy.
AC2 does so much right that it’s a shoo-in for my number one favorite of 2009, but it’s almost more fun to say “right, screw the story, I’m going to explore 15th-century Venice.”
Come back tomorrow when Greg Tito steps up with his five faves of 2009. In case you missed any of our Fave Fives, check out the full list.