I love this time of year. It’s a time of gift-giving, of saying thanks, of singing songs, of over-eating and generally feeling good about everyone and everything. It’s also the time of year that we typically leaf through our notebooks to remember our favorite games. Usually, this is a bit of a challenge. As you might imagine, when it’s your job to write about games, you can play and write about a good many over the course of the year. This year, though, is another matter.
In deference to my Texan upbringing and general inclination, I’ll put it bluntly: 2009 sucked balls for games. It generally takes me days to pore over my notes to recall the games I played and what I thought of them. This year it took me an hour. Not even, in fact.
Be it the state of the economy, the fact that we’re in a naturally slow period in the life of the current gaming platforms or the fact that last year’s glut is a harbinger of a 1983-type game industry collapse (experts agree that last is unlikely), this year there were far fewer games released than we’ve gotten used to in recent years, and, as a result, far fewer that I’d consider worthy of my end-of-year “favorites” list. And most of the games that made it were released in the past few months.
Thankfully, this made the task of sorting through them easier, if a bit poignant. So it is with mixed feelings that I invite you to pour yourself a cup of cocoa and share my memories of my favorite games of 2009. And if you’re feeling frisky, pour something strong in that cup and drink to a better 2010.
6. The Godfather II
I’m including this game as a bonus sixth pick because, as EIC, I can and also because it deserves to be recognized although – for many valid reasons – it will probably not be.
As a sequel, a cash-in on an pre-existing Hollywood franchise and a half-baked, gimmick-heavy game from EA’s internal studio, it deserves to be panned. But in spite of all it has going against it, I enjoyed The Godfather II.
There have been plenty of mobster games (and I’ve played most of them). They all work to varying degrees because the mafia genre seems ready-made for gaming. You start as a young man with nothing but ambition and greed, you grab a gun and then you kill until you win. The end. And yet most mafia games confuse mobsterism with action movies, in which the end really is the end. In the world of the mob, the end is just the beginning. What do you do when you’ve killed your way to the top and then have to stay there?
That’s the genius of the 1974 movie, The Godfather Part II, and it’s also where the game, The Godfather II shines. The game employs a strategy element in which you have to hold your empire against those whom you’ve bludgeoned to acquire it. And sometimes you have to work with your enemies to defeat them.
That the game is ultimately a victim of the rote repetition and boring misfires that plague many overly-ambitious games is a shame, because when it works, it works. I’d love to play this game done well. If there is a Santa Claus, maybe he will take the lessons learned from The Godfather II and put a better game under my tree some future holiday season.
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum
If videogames and movies have taught us anything, it’s that Batman is incredibly easy to screw up.
Yes, he has lots of ridiculous gadgets, but so does James Bond. You would never confuse the two. He also wears tights and fights crime, but again, you wouldn’t get Batman mixed up with, say Superman. Batman is Batman. He is a superhero genre unto himself.
What makes Batman Batman? Ah, there’s the rub. To my mind, it’s the very fact that Batman is so unique that defines him. He is not Superman, and yet he must play on the same field. He fights many of the same foes, and wins, all without Superman’s natural advantages. Any advantage Batman has is hard-won, or custom-made.
He’s not James Bond, able to break the rules with impunity and then change jackets for dinner. Whether strangling a bad guy or playing a hand of cards, Bond is Bond; his activities sanctioned and licensed by the government of Great Britain. He needs no secret identity. He is protected. Batman wears a mask because he has to. The people whom he protects would be just as happy if he were dead. He is hunter and hunted. He is the uninvited guest without whom there would be no party.
Why is Batman so easy to screw up? Because distilling the mix of seemingly incompatible personality traits, powers and motivations that make Batman Batman into a videogame would have been justifiably called an impossible task if not for the fact that Rocksteady Games did it with Batman: Arkham Asylum.
4. Modern Warfare 2
What I like most about Modern Warfare 2 is that it makes no apologies for being exactly what it is: a dumb, loud, action movie of a game.
I’ve heard this game called pretentious in some circles, and I have to admit I have a hard time understanding that critique. At its core, the Modern Warfare formula is a wire-taught shooter built on the premise that war is a confusing, sensory-overloaded mess. You will carry weapons you may have never heard of, they will perform more or less in similar ways to their real-world counterparts, and you will probably not even notice because being immersed in this game’s battlefields is enough to induce real-world PTSD.
And yet, as if unrelenting realism wasn’t enough of a goal, the team at Infinity Ward decided that what their realistic shooter needed was moments unadulterated action movie insanity, like, for example, staring out the back of a helicopter at a nuclear explosion and being chased by the blast wave.
Modern Warfare 2 amps up both aspects of this formula to 11. In MW2 you will carry even more exotic weapons, be immersed in even more stress-inducing battlefields and be treated to even more outlandish action movie thrills. In one level alone you will climb a wintry slope using ice axes, infiltrate an enemy base under cover of a snow storm, shoot your way back out of said base and then escape in a super-charged snowmobile, leaping a giant chasm to safety.
If there’s anything pretentious about MW2, it’s you, for taking it too seriously.
3. Brutal Legend
I promised myself that I would write the entire review of Brutal Legend without once referring to the game Psychonauts. And I kept that promise, thank you. This was important to me because too often we judge a book by its author’s previous book, and not on its own merits and in so doing, we short change both.
In case you don’t know (and it’s entirely likely you don’t) both games were created by the evil genius named Tim Schafer, who has been making games since probably before you’ve been playing them. To the crowd who knows him, he’s known for witty humor, dark, funny and touching writing and characters who, although strange, are easily identifiable. If you’ve played Brutal Legend, this may sound familiar.
The game stars a heavy metal roadie who’s been magically transported into a land populated by demons and rock. His weapons are an axe and a guitar. He makes magic by playing solos and drives a souped-up roadster across an open world of heavy metal album cover-inspired art with mythological undertones. It is insanely fun.
And yes, it is a lot like Psychonauts.
In many ways this game shouldn’t matter. It’s Wolfenstein. Wolfenstein has been done and done to death. Besides, zombies and nazis has been done better. In essence, Wolfenstein is a run-of-the-mill shooter from a company known for making run-of-the-mill shooters. And yet, that company is known for a reason: Their run-of-the-mill is most people’s “just out of reach.”
I wasn’t expecting much when I fired up Wolfenstein, but it grabbed me in minutes. From start to finish, it did nothing but satisfy. Sure, the setting has been done, and time manipulation isn’t exactly a new idea, but sometimes the old and tired feels comfortable and familiar, like a well-worn pair of shoes.
Think of Wolfenstein as your fuzzy slippers, updated for a new year.
1. Dragon Age: Origins
The problem with using the phrase “long-awaited” is that it’s usually followed with the word “disappointing”. Expectations can be a bitch, especially in the game space since gamers, who are generally imaginative people, are fully capable of imagining – and therefore expecting – a game that would be practically impossible to realize if given enough time in which to do so. This is why many a “long-awaited” game releases to dismal reviews and enough cynicism to launch a thousand websites.
Dragon Age: Origins, happily, bucks that trend. Perhaps because the developers at BioWare have better imaginations than yours. Perhaps because fantasy RPG is hard to screw up. Perhaps because it’s just a decidedly good game. Whatever the case, Dragon Age: Origins stares your expectations straight in the eye and says, “Bring it.”
Come back tomorrow for Susan’s five faves of 2009. In case you missed any of our Fave Fives, check out the full list.