Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Games of the Decade

It's year-end recap season, obviously, and even if the decade isn't technically over until next year, these are certainly the end of the 00s, which means it's decade recap season as well. (In case you're curious, here are my decade recaps of music and books.)

It occurs to me that my personal decade recap of videogames is, in part, a eulogy. I can call up any album I've ever owned on my iPod, and I'm already well on my way towards acquiring a similarly era-spanning library on my Kindle, but I'm not entirely sure I could play Crazy Taxi on my HDTV without having to run out and buy an appropriate set of cables; hell, ever since I got the original Xbox back in 2002, my Dreamcast has been sitting in a box in a closet, and right now I'm not sure that I even have my original Xbox anymore. And, of course, whenever I play a PS1 title on my PS3, it takes me a little while to get used to how fuzzy and low-res everything is. When I played Final Fantasy VII earlier this year, I had a very difficult time believing that this was (at the time) the most beautiful game ever made.

The point is, with a shortage of cabinet space and in the absence of backwards compatibility (and/or pirating/hacking), a lot of my favorite games in the first half of the 00s are games that I'm probably never going to be able to play again - and even if I could, I'm not entirely sure that I'd want to. Let's take FF7 as an example again - I never played it when it originally came out, so I have no original glow of memory to compare it to. But even by today's JRPG standards - a genre that is incredibly reluctant to evolve in any truly significant way - it's a bit antiquated. Sure, you can still play it, but it's missing features that I've grown accustomed to. Similarly, an FPS like Quake 2 - one of my personal favorites, a game that I've played through numerous times - just feels dated now. Graphics have changed, sure, but so too has storytelling.

Which is a long way of saying that a 10-year recap of videogaming, especially considering the technological advances of this particular decade, is somewhat problematic. Videogames, as a medium (dare I call it an art form?), have evolved almost to the point of being unrecognizable. I now take 1080p, wireless controllers and online voice chat for granted, and I'm more or less ready for digital distribution to be my primary method of acquisition - hell, I've already been doing that with Steam on my PC for years. And these are all things that never would have occurred to me 10 years ago as being necessary.

That being said, there's a nice symmetry for me here. While I was rabid about videogames when I was a little kid (the Atari 2600 era), I wasn't really agog until my friend bought a PS1 in 1998, with which we played Oddworld and Crash Bandicoot almost every single night. And I didn't own my own console until December 1999, when my then-girlfriend bought me a Dreamcast as a birthday present. So in many ways, the last 10 years have been all I've ever had to go on.

So: please pardon any obvious gaps in the ensuing post. I'm doing my best with what I have.

CONSOLE OF THE DECADE. This is undoubtedly the PS2, and here comes the first aforementioned obvious gap - I never owned one. I loved my Dreamcast fiercely, which took me through the first few years, and when the opportunity arose (on 9/11/2002, as a matter of fact) I opted for the Xbox, specifically because of Munch's Oddysee. (Really.) But I'm not an idiot. The PS2 still sells upwards of 100K units a month these days, and I'm not above admitting that I've considered getting one just so that I could play all the great PS2 games that I missed - FF10, FF12, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, etc. (The recent release of the God of War Collection, however, has sated that need for the time being.)

BEST STORY. I should probably mention here that these categories and their respective winners are of my own personal choosing; I'd originally intended this post to be a larger, collaborative effort between me and some friends, but for whatever reason that kinda fell apart. That being said, there was a considerable amount of debate over certain categories, this being one of them. Fellow SFTC scribe Gred felt that this was Half-Life 2's category, and I can certainly agree that Valve's approach to storytelling has always been unique and innovative. That being said, I've played all of the Half-Life saga multiple times, from the original game and its expansion packs up through HL2 Episode 2, and I'm not sure I'd ever really be able to articulate what's going on beyond the basic Humans v. Combine conflict. Ultimately, for me, this category falls between two distinct titles, and I'm giving it to Grand Theft Auto 4. Niko's story is by turns tragic, hilarious, nihilistic and redemptive, and it features some of the best dialogue and voice acting the medium has ever seen. For once in a GTA game, the story was every bit as impressive as the technology.

FAVORITE "WOW" MOMENT. I could easily write a 1000-word post on this category alone; there's almost too many to choose from. To be honest, though, a lot of those "wow" moments stem from graphical showcases - pretty much all of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Bioshock and Uncharted 2 would fall into that category. Certainly almost every car crash in every Burnout game has generated an audible "wow", as well as the first few times I played with Half-Life 2's gravity gun - and then, similarly, the first few times I played with the Portal gun. There was a part of me that was tempted to give this to GTA3 - not because of any particular bit of mayhem I had caused, but rather that I was able to find a quiet seaside cliff and watch the sun rise over the ocean, and that it was beautiful to see and hear. But there's really no question that this particular moment goes to the plot twist reveal in Knights of the Old Republic, which is the only time that I've ever literally dropped the controller from my hands and had my jaw drop involuntarily. I still get chills when I think about how that went down. I had played as a light-side Jedi the entire time, and I'd really gotten absorbed in the story and the characters, and when it was revealed who I actually was.... wow.

MOST OVERLOOKED/UNDERRATED GAME. It's funny; when I was putting this post together, this was one of the first categories I came up with, and Voodoo Vince was going to be my winner. It may have been just a shallow platformer, but it had a great visual style and one of the best soundtracks I'd ever heard. But then I remembered Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath, and it occurred to me that I can't logically award this category to the first game that pops into my head. (And while I love it dearly, I never considered Beyond Good & Evil for this category - it was overlooked and underplayed, but it was also (and still is) a critical darling, which O:SW never was.) O:SW was a truly unique first-person shooter in so many ways - the live ammo concept was brilliant, and it took full advantage of the Old West setting. But it also had a great story, a quirky (if somewhat juvenile) sense of humor, and utterly fantastic production values from top to bottom... and almost nobody bought it. It more or less sunk Oddworld Inhabitants as a game developer, and it made EA pretty wary of original IP for a few years.

  • celebrity voice acting
  • Nolan North (great voice actor, but he's in friggin' everything)
  • light bloom
  • cloth physics
  • "open world sandbox"
  • amnesia in JRPGs
  • post-apocalyptic wastelands
  • game titles with colons
  • zombies
  • Nazis
  • the Unreal engine
  • Quick-Time Events
  • expensive, oversized peripherals with limited usage (i.e., plastic instruments, everything that isn't the standard Wii remote)
The one that's starting to grate on me the most, though, is the overuse of moral choices. It was genuinely interesting in KOTOR, but now it feels a bit almost like a cop-out on the part of the developers, freeing them up from having the responsibility to tell an actual story - and considering that most games have dumb stories to begin with, it feels even more lazy. I'm all for branching paths, customization and games that change based on the decisions you make, but more often than not these moral choices are really just "be nice" or "be a jerk", and then you turn slightly more blue or red, and maybe you'll get a few new powers, and then at the end you'll see a slightly different cutscene. I'd like to see games in general improve their storytelling, since it almost always feels like an afterthought, and they can start by having some balls and committing to a plot.

BEST YEAR. This has to go to 2007, doesn't it? Consider: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Portal (and the Orange Box), Call of Duty 4, Super Mario Galaxy, Halo 3. And that was all more or less in the second half of the year. That's INSANE. 2008 is pretty close, and 2010 looks to be pretty amazing as well, but those 6 games I listed above alone put 2007 over the edge; I'm sure there's at least 10 more hidden gems that I'm not recalling.

BEST GAME I NEVER ACTUALLY FINISHED. I first played Grand Theft Auto 3 on my PC; then I bought it as part of the Double Pack for my original Xbox; and then, during a lull, I played it again on my 360 just to see if there was any discernible difference in graphical fidelity. I've probably spent more cumulative time with GTA3 than any other game this decade (and if not, it's certainly pretty close). And yet, after how many hours (probably 150 or so), I've still never seen the ending. And I'm probably never going to - as fond as I am of that game, the controls are beyond archaic, now, and the punishment for failing a mission is too severe.

BEST FRANCHISE. Certainly there's a number of big-name nominees for this - Halo, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Gears of War (and some personal favorites like Burnout and Uncharted) - but none of them had the seismic impact that Grand Theft Auto did. GTA changed everything. It might not have invented the concept of non-linear gameplay, but it certainly made it the most fun, and it easily reached the biggest audience. It fundamentally changed not only how we played games, but our expectations of what a game was capable of doing. I'm going to quote Caro here, from our behind-the-scenes discussions - this was actually from her "Biggest 'Wow' Moment":

I'm not sure anything compares to the moment I first took control in GTA3. My jaw literally dropped in amazement. I couldn't believe it. Never before and never since have I been so aware of experiencing something that was going to change games--and, to some extent, our wider culture--forever. After spending my whole life in games whose environments were ripped from science fiction and fantasy, here was a world that bore a dark resemblance to my own, a grimy, dirty city that really felt alive. Music played on the radio. Rain fell from the sky. I could run over old ladies walking down the street. It was exhilarating. It was extraordinary. It was as if it was something I had always craved, without realizing it.

And now, my FAVORITE GAMES OF THE DECADE, in chronological order.

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum. My #2 game of 2009, and one that I can't wait to play again.
  • Crackdown. Orbs, how I love thee.
  • Mass Effect. Maybe it wasn't the true KOTOR sequel I was hoping for, but it was a fully realized sci-fi epic which lived up to its ambitions, elevators be damned.
  • Mercenaries 2. Of all the GTA clones, this was the best, and it did a lot of things better than GTA itself did.
  • Metal Gear Solid 4. In spite of how completely in(s)ane the story is, the gameplay is legitimately thrilling.
  • No One Lives Forever. It's a shame this never saw a console port; more people might have played it. This game oozed style and was genuinely funny.
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Yeah, the combat sucks. But everything else about it is glorious.
  • Psychonauts. I don't even mind the Meat Circus, to be honest.
  • Skies of Arcadia. Still my favorite JRPG.
  • Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. This was the best of the original Xbox games, with graphics that are still jaw-dropping.
  • SSX 3. The best snowboarding game ever made, for whatever that might be worth (probably not much), but an exhilarating experience all the same.
  • Super Mario Galaxy. I haven't finished it, but I can't deny that it's an incredible experience.

Rayman 2, Dreamcast
, 2000. According to Wikipedia, this came out in the Spring of 2000, which means its eligible. I'm going to call it - this is my favorite 3D platformer of all time. It was genuinely charming, which is all the more impressive considering the game featured a lead character with no limbs and a language that was entirely gibberish. It had a save-the-world story but it was told with genuine pathos, and the world you were saving was filled with lush detail and was absolutely joyous to behold. It was easy to pick up, it never got frustrating, and it was expertly paced. Even now, all these years later, I can't help but smile whenever I think about it... and I get genuinely bummed out when I see what's become of the franchise. (Not that Raving Rabbids isn't fun, or whatever, but, I mean... come on.)

Knights of the Old Republic, Xbox, 2003. I've already spoken of its plot twist, but the game underneath it is not too shabby, either; this was not only the best Star Wars property since the original trilogy, but it's one of the best RPGs ever made. It took the concept of a "role playing game" quite literally, which is partly why the aforementioned plot twist hit me so hard - I was thoroughly involved in my character's development from the get-go, and I never saw it coming. Every character in the game is richly drawn and expertly acted; the worlds you explore are rich with detail. You feel invested. I'm having a hard time remembering just how the combat worked, but it worked well enough that I didn't ever have a problem with it (unlike, say, Dragon Age). Yeah, the frame rate bogged down every so often, and you couldn't really look up; but that was besides the point; for 40 hours, I was a Jedi.

Burnout 3, Xbox, 2004. As far as I'm concerned, Burnout 3 changed the driving genre forever. It was faster than anything I'd ever seen; hell, it was the most spectacular game I'd ever seen. It took the main obstacle from other driving games - crashing - and made it an explosive, interactive, integral part of the experience. And the fact that it could be played online... I've still never played as much of a game online as I did with Burnout 3.

World of Warcraft, PC, 2004. I wasn't originally going to include WoW; I'm a little ashamed of it. I lost more hours of my life to WoW than I care to admit; I took sick days from work, I missed band rehearsals, I stopped hanging out with my wife. And I never even hit 60! Let's move on.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Xbox, 2005. I've written too much about GTA in this post alone, so I'll keep this brief. Each entry in the GTA franchise has been a landmark experience, and what's truly remarkable is that even though they're all similarly designed, each one has a unique and distinct personality. If I had to pick one, though, I'd pick San Andreas, which was so stuffed with things to do that they actually scaled back for GTA4.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Xbox 360, 2006. I'm not entirely sure how much time I spent playing GTA3, but my save file for Oblivion tells me I spent 110 hours with it; I got every Achievement for it and played all the DLC for it. And I still have quests I never finished!

Portal, PC/360, 2007. I wish I had graduated from high school in 2007, just so that I could have used "The cake is a lie" as a yearbook quote. Anyway, I don't know what to say about Portal that hasn't been said a hundred times better by a hundred different writers. There was something truly special about this game, and I think that's why it keeps getting talked about; nobody had ever seen anything like it, and we're all still waiting to see anything approach it. It took enormous risks in its narrative, and yet it seems so effortless because of how hilarious it is. It slowly taught you how to play it, and then it threw everything out the window and tried to kill you. I can't possibly imagine what Valve must be going through as it develops the sequel (and you are developing a sequel, right, Valve?); I have absolutely no idea how it can be topped or improved upon.

Bioshock, Xbox 360, 2007. Certainly one of the most atmospheric games I've ever played; the graphics and art design are certainly top-notch but it's the sound design that really puts this one over the top. "Would you kindly" never quite got the same traction that "The cake is a lie" did, but it certainly resonates deeply with those who were taken by surprise. And count me as one of the many whose belief was firmly suspended for the entire ride; after I finished the game I read a number of articles by smart writers who ripped the game apart for certain plot holes and contrivances. Maybe I'm dumb. But I fell for this game, hard.

Rock Band 2, Xbox 360, 2008. As a musician, I've always been a little skeptical about music games; as a NYC resident, storage space is at a premium, and I can't necessarily justify having plastic instruments lying around my apartment. But as a human being, there are few greater thrills than feeling like you're playing your favorite song with your best friends. There's a reason why cover bands still get paid these days; people like hearing their favorite songs. Similarly, there's a reason why an evite with "Rock Band?" as a subject will get immediate affirmative responses.

Uncharted 2, PS3, 2009. My #1 game of the year, but also just a staggering achievement from top to bottom. If I had known back in 2000 that games could eventually look and play like this, I'm not entirely sure I know how I would have managed to cope with all the bullshit I'd have to play in the interim.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Best Games of 2009

If I'm being completely honest, 2009 was a bit of a let-down, and not just because it followed the staggering heights of 2007 and 2008, or that so many high-profile titles eventually slid to a 2010 release. Case in point - Resident Evil 5 was my #1 title, purely by default, right up until August.

August, of course, is when Batman: Arkham Asylum was released, and from that point on it seemed that every week held something of promise. And what made 2009 so special is how so many of the good games seemingly came out of nowhere. Uncharted 2 certainly lived up to its hype, but who could have foreseen how good Borderlands would turn out to be?

Here's my take on the year that was, starting with some raw data.

I played 76 games that were released this year. Of those:
  • 42 were on the 360 (including the 2 bits of GTA4 DLC);
  • 15 were on the PS3 (not including 2 PS1 titles which were made available on PSN in 2009);
  • 8 were on the DS;
  • 7 were on the Wii;
  • 4 were on the PC; and
  • 0 were on the PSP, which is just as well, since I traded it in towards the WiiPlus remote in July.
I "finished" 19 of those games. That doesn't mean 100% complete; it means that I finished a game's main single-player mode. In alphabetical order:
  1. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
  2. Assassin's Creed 2
  3. Batman AA
  4. Beatles Rock Band
  5. Borderlands
  6. Flower
  7. Ghostbusters
  8. God of War Collection (both 1 and 2)
  9. InFamous
  10. The Maw
  11. Modern Warfare 2
  12. Outrun Online Arcade
  13. Peggle PC
  14. Peggle DS
  15. Resident Evil 5
  16. Sacred 2
  17. Shadow Complex (twice)
  18. Uncharted 2
  19. Uno Rush
And now for some arbitrary superlatives:

BEST NEW IP: Can Batman: Arkham Asylum count, even though it's based on an existing IP that everybody in the world already knows about? No? Even though it felt remarkably fresh and exciting? OK, then it goes to Borderlands, which maybe lacked in story but certainly made up for with art design, mechanics, and sheer feel.

MOST CRACK-LIKE: Here we go, I'm about to lose whatever cred I might have had. It's true that I got hooked on Borderlands this year, but if I'm really being honest with myself, I have to acknowledge the diabolical combo of Facebook's own Farmville / Bejeweled Twist. Bejeweled I can at least explain: when work gets boring, Bejeweled is a great way to get through the day, and Twist features some great stat-tracking and leaderboard integration. But Farmville? I don't even like real farming, or even going outside. There's no enemies in Farmville; there's no real challenge. And once you plant your garden, there's nothing to do until everything's finished growing. And yet I've logged into it pretty much every single day since I got started with it earlier this summer, and I've even spent real U.S. currency on stupid power-ups for it. I am currently at level 37, which means there's no new seeds for me to unlock. I have "beaten" Farmville, and yet I'm only #2 amongst my friends. Zynga, I have no idea how you do what you do, but I have succumbed to your will and there is nothing I can do about it.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: To be fair, I only played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 for about 30 minutes, but that was long enough for me to know that this was never going to be as joyously awesome as MUA1. I'm not enough of a comic book nerd to appreciate whatever changes they might have made to the roster; I just wanted some kick-ass beat-em-up RPG action. MUA2 felt clunky, under-polished and soul-less. I had very high hopes for MUA2 - I'd hoped it would get me through the summer doldrums, and instead it got send back to Gamefly and I ended up being productive with my life.

MOST DISAPPOINTING PLATFORM: PSP. The Wii was pretty inessential this year, to be sure, but at least it tried. The PSP, on the other hand... I don't even know where to begin. Wait a minute, yes I do. It had no games. It didn't even have any bad games that I could at least rent as an excuse to dust the damned thing off. I traded in my PSP and the 7 (old) games I had for it towards Wii Sports Resort in July, and even if I'd accidentally set Wii Sports Resort on fire before I'd made it home from making that transaction, it would have been worth it.

WORST GAME OF THE YEAR: And maybe this is because my expectations were far too high, especially for a puzzle game. But let me be clear: I bought and played the original Puzzle Quest on both DS and XBLA and loved the hell out of them, and was looking forward to Puzzle Quest Galactrix with an anticipation that bordered on rabid. Galactrix was a mess on pretty much every conceivable level; it looked ugly, it had an unacceptably shitty frame rate (it's a fucking PUZZLE game!), and it took forever to load. And, of course, the actual puzzle itself was completely unintuitive and featured an enemy AI that cheated even worse than the original Puzzle Quest, which is saying quite a lot.

BEST GAME I DID NOT FINISH: This is a tie between two of the DS's best: GTA Chinatown Wars and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story. While I can't remember why I eventually put GTA down, I do know that I got stuck in M&L right near the end. Chinatown Wars was quite an accomplishment - it really felt like GTA, even with the DS's hardware limitations, and the little touch-screen minigames were clever and engaging. Mario & Luigi, on the other hand, was as good as I'd expected; maybe it tried a little too hard with the humor, but the mechanics were as solid as ever.

FAVORITE NON-LINEAR ACTIVITY: Driving around the heavy-metal landscape of Brutal Legend. I never was able to get past (or even into) the RTS business, which is a shame because as a result I never got to see the rest of the world, and the world of Brutal Legend is as fantastic and unique as any game I've ever seen. I did as many side quests and found as many hidden collectibles as I possibly could, and that never stopped being entertaining. The Deuce Coupe was a pleasure to drive. Runner-up: grinding on rails in InFamous.

BEST GAME I COULDN'T GET INTO NO MATTER HOW HARD I TRIED: Tie between MLB09 and Street Fighter 4. MLB09 is absolutely the greatest videogame adaptation of baseball I've ever seen, and I'm terrible at it. I can pitch decently enough, but I can't hit to save my life, even if I tweak the options so that it's more or less slow-pitch softball. Likewise, I can appreciate Street Fighter 4's artistry and charm, and it certainly brought me back to my childhood playing SF2 with my brother on his Genesis, but I couldn't win more than 2 matches against the computer even on Very Easy.

BIGGEST INCONGRUITY BETWEEN EXCITEMENT FOR THE RE-RELEASE OF A BELOVED OLDER TITLE AND TIME SPENT PLAYING SAID TITLE: The XBLA release of Secret of Monkey Island. I made it out of the first town, saw the opening cutscene that opened Part 2, put it down, and never got back to it. I'm such an idiot.

MOST UNFAIRLY DERIDED / BIGGEST SURPRISE: Resident Evil 5. I've been seeing this pop up on a few "Worst Games of 2009" lists, which is odd, because I seem to recall it getting pretty good reviews when it was first released. Anyway, I can't speak to the multiplayer, which I never tried. And I can't compare it to RE4, which I tried playing on the Wii for about 20 minutes before wanting to break it in half, such was my frustration with the controls. What I can say is that I played the shit out of this game. I played it enough to unlock infinite ammo for the super bad-ass Magnum, which in technical terms means "a lot." The game's mechanics are awfully contrived and yet they still worked, and some of the game's levels are truly wonders to behold - I'm thinking of the ruins of Chapter 4, specifically. I went into RE5 hoping that it would be engaging enough to get me through a dull winter; I emerged with it as one of my favorites of the year.

BIGGEST GAME THAT ENDED UP BEING SOMEWHAT OF AN AFTERTHOUGHT / MOST OVERRATED: Considering how drastically it altered the release calendar, as most publishers moved their big titles to 2010 Q1 just to get out of its way, it's more than a little interesting to see how far down the radar Modern Warfare 2 has slipped for me. The game's multiplayer strengths are without peer, certainly, and the SpecOps co-op mode is truly something to savor, but the single-player campaign ended up being somewhat ridiculous, derivative, and just plain weird. The "No Russian" level was as controversial as advertised, but perhaps not for the reasons the developer may have anticipated; similarly, the game's constant attempts at shock value and upping the ante ended up being nearly comical, if not simply incomprehensible.

MOST ANTICIPATED GAME THAT I HAVEN'T PLAYED NEARLY ENOUGH OF: Without a doubt, this goes to Left 4 Dead 2, which I've played exactly twice. There's no excuse, other than that my preferred group of friends to play it with live in different time zones and it's hard to get everybody together at the same time.

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT: Unlike in years past, I can't really recall one particular Achievement that stood out from the rest. So I'm going to give it to whichever Achievement it was - presumably in Assassin's Creed 2 - that put me over 50,000.

BEST TREND: Quality DLC. And I'm including regular XBLA/PSN arcade titles in this as well, because there were a LOT of great games that emerged without corporeal form. Remember how everybody fawned over Braid a few years ago? A lot of that was because there wasn't really much else for it to be compared with. This year saw the release of Shadow Complex, Trials HD, Flower, Pixeljunk Shooter, The Maw, 'Splosion Man, and Shatter; and while they might not have been as artful and meditative as Braid, they were all really well made and loads of fun to play. But to then add GTA4's 2 DLC campaigns, as well as most of Fallout 3's DLC and Borderlands, and it's clear that DLC is for real.

MOST OVERLOOKED: InFamous. I keep forgetting how much I enjoyed this one. At first glance it felt more or less like a Crackdown clone, but it had a lot of personality and a remarkable level of polish. Perhaps it felt a little, I don't know, small; it didn't take that long to finish the story and all the sidequests. But it's definitely in a good place for the inevitable sequel, which I suspect is going to be stupendous.

I HAVE NO IDEA WHY I SPENT SO LONG PLAYING THIS GAME, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH OF IT THERE WAS TO DISLIKE: I actually finished Sacred 2's single-player campaign, which in retrospect I feel like I ought to have won some sort of medal for. That game did not deserve the 40+ hours I sunk into it, especially as I generally played it with the sound off, because it featured the worst voice acting I've ever heard. But that's the Diablo formula for you; mindless hack-and-slash action never seems to get old. This is proof positive that the first half of 2009 was severely lacking in quality content.

THE 2009 "10 MINUTES OR LESS" ALL-STARS: These are all the games I played in 2009 that, for one reason or another, I played all I was ever going to play in 10 minutes or less:
  • Halo 3:ODST. I'm officially done with the Halo franchise; I just don't care anymore. I'll probably try Reach, but out of curiosity/boredom, not out of need.
  • Lego Indiana Jones 2. Not sure this warranted a second iteration, considering how terrible the 4th movie is.
  • Super Mario Brothers Wii. I rented this and tried to play it with my wife; we both eventually ran out of lives and didn't really care one way or the other.
  • Prototype. I stopped playing this because it sucked.
  • Wolfenstein. It didn't necessarily suck, but it felt awfully by-the-numbers and uninspired.
  • Fuel. I think Codemasters did this, which is why I rented it in the first place - I'm a huge fan of DiRT, and thought GRID was OK. Maybe Fuel needed more capital letters?
  • Henry Hatsworth. I rented this thinking it might be something to keep me occupied on an upcoming weekend holiday, saw that it wouldn't, and sent it back.
  • MX v ATV Reflex. Talk about uninspired! These games are usually worth at least a couple hours of screwing around; this just had nothing in it for me.
  • Onechanbara. Not really sure why I rented this one; it was pretty horrible.
THE "I REALLY NEED TO FINISH THESE GAMES" LIST: These are games that I was enjoying and got distracted from, or games that I just never had enough time to get into but still want to revisit.
  • Left 4 Dead 2.
  • Demon's Souls. Maybe this shouldn't be on this list. I played it right up until I died for the first time, saw how much I'd have to do in order to get back there, and decided to send it back to Gamefly. But I think that's only because I was impatient and didn't really have the time to truly punish myself; I can see why this game has supporters.
  • Ratchet and Clank. This (and others on this list) were victims of the Gamefly Curse, so named because if something else was coming up right behind it, I either had to play it enough to buy it or send it back immediately so that my Queue wouldn't get screwed. I liked the first PS3 game, and while this one wasn't necessarily knocking my socks off it was still pretty good, but I had to make way for something and it just wasn't good enough to keep.
  • Dragon Age: Origins. If this list were being ranked in order of regret, this would be right at the top. I just haven't had the time to get immersed in it, and the 360 version is just clunky enough to make it difficult to get into.
  • Little King's Story. I'm not much for strategy games, but this Wii title was engaging and charming and had some interesting things going on. I may yet re-rent it and give it another go.
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla. I finished the first "world"/"area"/"section", drove around a little bit in the second area, and for whatever reason got sidetracked and never picked it back up. It wasn't amazing, but it was certainly entertaining.
  • Scribblenauts. Once I heard about the magnet/vending machine glitch, I kinda stopped caring. But enough time has gone by where I could probably give this another go with some fresh eyes.
  • Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I generally do most of my DS playing right before bed. I was somewhat enjoying this one - I got right up to the part where your train gets a cannon, so obviously I'm not that far in but I still had enough of a taste to know what was in store. But then I got a Kindle as an early birthday present, and as a result I've been reading before bed instead of DS-ing.
THE GAMES I CURRENTLY HAVE OUT FROM GAMEFLY THAT I REALLY WANT TO PLAY BUT HAVEN'T REALLY GIVEN ENOUGH TIME TO, WHICH PROBABLY WON'T AFFECT THE TOP 10 BUT YOU NEVER KNOW: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Dead Space: Extraction. I've given Silent Hill about an hour or so - the chase sequences are a bit wonky but the rest of it is exactly what I'd want out of the Wii controls, and it truly feels unique and exciting. I have not yet tried Dead Space, and I'm hoping to do that before the end of the week.

And now, without further ado, THE TOP 10 GAMES OF 2009.

10. Flower. I am not necessarily all that interested in debating if games qualify as art anymore; there are plenty of shitty films, books and albums that come out every year that shouldn't qualify as art, either, and yet the Earth continues to not crash into the Sun. That said, Flower is as close to playing a dream as anything I've ever experienced, and for that I am in awe. It uses the PS3's motion controls better than anything else on the platform; it should be the last game on the system to use them, frankly, until the wand comes out in 2010.

9. Torchlight. I said it before in talking about Sacred 2 - mindless hack-and-slash never gets old, and when it's really well done it's positively narcotizing. I haven't yet finished Torchlight, but it's not like there's a story - I've left- and right-clicked enough to know that this game is well worth its price tag. Also - I miss gaming on my PC. My PC is 5 years old and struggled to run World of Warcraft 3 years ago at an acceptable level; Torchlight scales remarkably well and it runs like a dream on my ancient machine.

8. Resident Evil 5. I talked about it before, but I didn't mention how fantastic the game is at encouraging multiple playthroughs; the rewards for doing so are quite thorough and worthwhile. It's definitely archaic, and the series could definitely do with a reboot, but I'm of the opinion that it went out with a thoroughly enjoyable bang.

7. InFamous. Again, probably the most overlooked gem of the year. I have high hopes for the sequel.

6. Shadow Complex. I played through it twice, the second time opening 100% of the board, and I loved every minute of it. Outstanding.

5. The Beatles: Rock Band. Well, this certainly lived up to my expectations, even if I never successfully guessed the set list. Aside from being a remarkable adaptation of the Rock Band formula, the game featured oodles of cool miscellanea for the true Beatles nerd; never-before-heard studio banter, photographs, biographical information - all of it presented with tender loving care. I'm not sure any other band will manage to cause the same stir with their own vanity imprint; once again, the Beatles got there first and did it better than anyone else.

4. Borderlands. This came out of nowhere and became an instant favorite; it outdid Fallout 3 at its own game. Fallout 3 certainly had a better narrative, but its combat was always clunky and slow-paced, and the world was oppressively brown. Borderlands took the Unreal engine and finally did something truly cool with it - indeed, it's the first cel-shaded game in years that really matters. But most importantly, it absolutely nailed the combat. Shooting just felt right; guns felt suitably powerful and each minute change in weaponry had a tangible impact in the field. I'm on my 2nd playthrough - I think I hit level 41 the last time I played, and I'm going back and forth between the Zombie Ned DLC and the regular game world.

3. Assassin's Creed 2. Had I given an award for most improved sequel, this would've been it. It kept everything that worked in the first game, got rid of everything that didn't, and then added a ton of cool stuff that made it even better. I was worried that it would end up getting swallowed up by Modern Warfare 2's immense shadow, but as it turned out it held its own quite admirably. I enjoyed virtually every minute I spent playing it; the only reason it's at #3 is because the games at 1/2 were that much better.

2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I went back and forth with it, but putting this at #2 shouldn't mean it's any less deserving. I was genuinely astonished at how good this game turned out to be, and when I played it last week it still felt as good as it did when I first tried it out. It's a complete package; a good story, fantastic voice acting, immersive graphics, intuitive and thoroughly satisfying hand-to-hand combat, challenging puzzles, and a world that is detailed and littered with things to do and see. But most of all, it makes you feel like you're Batman. When you set up a trap, turn on your nightvision and swoop out of the darkness to knock out a thug, you feel like a badass. It's a remarkable achievement and one can only hope that next year's sequel (!) is given the same amount of time and care that went into this one.

1. Uncharted 2. I saw Avatar this weekend; I kept my expectations low. All I really wanted out of it was to see something I'd never seen before, and to that end I was thoroughly satisfied. The movie itself was pretty good; a little hokey, a little cheesy, but certainly good enough to justify the absolutely mind-boggling visuals. And, dear God, those visuals were astounding. Uncharted 2 had similarly mind-boggling visuals, at least for its medium, and from beginning to end I saw stuff I'd never seen before in a game. But to its credit, U2 is far, far more than its good looks. The game's got charm. It's got charisma, and it's got personality. And it's also got pathos. Nathan Drake is as 3-dimensional as an action hero can get, and considering that he's completely polygonal, that says quite a lot. U2 might not be the paradigm-shifter that Bioshock or Portal might have been, but that's not giving it enough credit for being what it is, which is the best interactive roller coaster ever made. It is absolutely reason enough to own a PS3; it is an experience that needs to be seen to be believed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Some quick impressions, a tangent, and then what's next

Sorry for the lack of updates; after I finished AC2, time get away from me.

So, here's what's been cooking lately:

1. Finished both halves of the God of War Collection. God of War 1 was very good, albeit excruciatingly frustrating in certain sections; I nearly broke my controller in half throughout several areas in the 2nd half of the game. God of War 2, on the other hand, was absolutely phenomenal from top to bottom; the HD upgrade looked fantastic, the combat was just as crisp and bloody, the locales were varied and gorgeous, the sense of scale was much more epic; I am now fully on board for God of War 3.

2. Dabbled a little bit in The Saboteur. I have a soft spot for Pandemic; I was bummed to see them dissolve last week. And I knew that the reviews weren't really all that kind; I still figured I'd give it the benefit of the doubt. The reviews, unfortunately, were right. The game is glitchy as hell, and the free-running/wall-climbing feels awfully stiff, especially after playing AC2, which nailed it so well. It's got interesting ideas; it's just shabbily executed. Sad to say that this was becoming par for the course, as far as Pandemic was concerned; they peaked with Mercenaries 1.

TANGENT - It occurs to me, in the wake of The Saboteur, that game criticism has a unique set of criteria that other media don't generally have, i.e., technical proficiency. An album can be recorded with shitty microphones and yet it still kicks ass, almost because of how lo-fi it is (Guided By Voices); film can work in much the same way. But a videogame's technical shortcomings are never done on purpose, and they are nearly always detrimental to the player's experience. No game has a shitty frame rate on purpose; screen tears and physics glitches and bugs will always be annoying. And these sorts of anomalies don't really have similar counterparts in movies and music. Sure, a close listener can spot a rough overdub, and certainly there are continuity errors in film, but that's not quite the same thing as hitting LB and X to perform a stealth kill in The Saboteur and having nothing happen, over and over again, until the Nazi you're trying to murder turns around and then stands in one place shooting at you. The closest thing I can really think of is CG in movies, especially with a movie like Avatar - are the effects good enough to fully suspend disbelief? [I need to expand on this idea, I think; it's early in the morning as I write this and this is isn't as well formed as it could be.]

3. Played through the first stage of PixelJunk Shooter last night. It's pretty good, actually; it's got a great visual style, the music is terrific, and it has a really nice feel to it. You don't necessarily realize that you're actually playing a puzzle game instead of a dual-joystick shooter, and that's probably the most impressive thing about it.

The next thing you'll see on this site, aside from impressions on the new Zelda DS game, is our 2009 Games of the Year. And soon after that, we'll post our Games of the Decade.