As a regular contributor of reviews to The Escapist, I played plenty of games in 2009 that impressed me for a week or two and promptly collected dust the moment I hit the “publish” button. But while many of this year’s heavy hitters retreated to 2010 at the first sign of conflict, there were enough genuine stand-outs to keep me occupied. These are the games that I kept playing past the point of “professional responsibility” and into the realm of obsession.
5. Time Fkuc (Flash)
If browser-based games have a rock star developer, it’s Edmund McMillen, designer of such groundbreaking Flash games as Coil, Aether and Meat Boy (and its upcoming WiiWare sequel, Super Meat Boy). But even those who followed his work were likely unprepared for Time Fcuk. Neatly combining Portal‘s mindbending puzzles and unreliable narrator with Mondo Agency‘s bizarre Lynchian atmosphere and McMillen’s own musings about the passage of time, it’s easily one of the most thought-provoking and unsettling games of 2009, browser-based or otherwise. It’s also the only one to feature a human-shaped tumor named Steven and a future version of yourself that offers helpful hints like “Why do you think we’re being punished?” and “Man, we are so screwed.” Keep ’em coming, Edmund.
4. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
I don’t play games for the stories. In fact, I typically find that games with the fewest concessions to storytelling are the ones that grab me most – games like Portal (“Escape from this laboratory!”), Left 4 Dead (“Escape from these zombies!”) or LittleBigPlanet (“Make this beanbag dude do cute stuff!”). So I’m still at a loss to say why I loved Uncharted 2 so much. Sure, it’s a mechanically sound third-person shooter with solid platforming elements and some light puzzle-solving for good measure – but I didn’t play it for its variety. And the multiplayer, while fairly robust, had the misfortune of arriving a month before Modern Warfare 2 – sorry Naughty Dog, there’s only room for one online shooter in my heart. No, what I most enjoyed about Uncharted 2 were the parts that had almost nothing to do with the gameplay: the phenomenal motion capture and voice acting, the breathtaking environments and the – I can’t believe I’m saying this – propulsive, dare I say cinematic, storytelling. Ordinarily I’m indifferent to the videogame industry’s attempts to ape Hollywood, but when they do it better than the filmmakers themselves, I’m willing to set aside my interactive snobbery for a few hours and enjoy the ride.
3. Shadow Complex (XBLA)
My favorite retro revival of 2009 wasn’t from Nintendo or Capcom. Instead, it came out of a collaboration between upstart XBLA developer Chair Entertainment and North Carolina-based Epic Games. Rather than relying on nostalgia to move product by transplanting familiar characters into different settings and expecting players to follow, Shadow Complex does something far more ambitious: It takes a long dormant genre of gameplay – the “Metroidvania”-style adventure platformer – and meticulously recreates it with modern technology and an entirely new IP. You’ll spend hours exploring Shadow Complex‘s sprawling underground base, slowly acquiring abilities that grant you access to new areas and following a trail of breadcrumbs that lead up to the games climactic (and genuinely shocking) conclusion. And once you finally beat it, the game’s bevy of hidden upgrades and well-designed achievements will likely have you diving back in for another round. There’s leaning on nostalgia, and there’s recognizing that some genres we presumed dead actually have plenty of life left. With Shadow Complex, Chair and Epic have done the latter, which is more than enough to earn them a spot on this list.
2. Spelunky (PC)
The first thing you’re likely to notice about Spelunky is that you suck at it. Every minor error knocks a chunk off your already slight health bar; some mistakes kill you outright. Worse, there are no checkpoints or save slots – when you die in Spelunky, you lose everything. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the most punishing game of 2009. But if all Spelunky had going for it was its near insurmountable difficulty, I would have quit playing when I finally beat it after more than 500 ignominious deaths. Instead, I keep coming back for the surprises. There are so many different objects to interact with in Spelunky that new situations arise almost continually. And because the game generates a fresh map each time you begin anew, you’ll never feel like you’re treading old ground. For all the games out there about exploration, it’s a rare treat to find one that maintains that sense of discovery well into your 1000th play-through.
1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
The original Modern Warfare was already the most mechanically polished multiplayer FPS of this console generation, so it’s telling that Modern Warfare 2‘s main embellishments weren’t borrowed from other shooters, but from games like Peggle and World of Warcraft. Every time I see the word “Longshot!” or “Buzzkill!” pop onto my screen, I’m reminded of a certain skateboarding gopher and his gratuitous, exclamatory praises – but that doesn’t make them any less effective. And the experience-based leveling system, already solid in Modern Warfare, has only gotten deeper and more gripping in the sequel: Thanks to the retooled Perks system, it’s now possible to assemble dozens of unique (yet equally effective) loadouts, each suited to a particular play style; and the new Callsign options let you show off your skills to the world in a way that shooting someone in the face simply doesn’t. All of this adds up to one of the most utterly addictive and downright fun games I’ve played this year.
Tune in tomorrow for John’s five faves of 2009. In case you missed any of our Fave Fives, check out the full list.