At the end of last year Modern Warfare 2 landed with such explosive force that it not only breached its way into mainstream press headlines, but it also sent dozens of excellent games scurrying for cover in Q1 2010, which is now the most impressively packed first quarter I can recall. The hype was justified given Infinity Ward’s past performance, the impressive in-game footage already shown off, and the fact pre-orders alone guaranteed profits dwarfing pretty much any other title this year. It is, for all intents and purposes, the public face of gaming for 2009. Which is hugely disappointing.
It is not, let me be clear, because it is a bad game. On the contrary, I’ve just finished playing it and am on the same high as with the climax of its predecessor. While it had a rocky start jumping erratically around the world with short missions that felt like a greatest hits of Bond locations, it gradually sucked me in so that I really did care by the final twists and turns of its tale. It is a stellar title at the peak of the shooter genre, but in some ways therein lies the problem. This is a genre that has existed in much the same form since the early 90s, though the graphical technology and AI has improved in leaps and bounds. It is still what springs to most non-gamers’ minds when they think of videogames. I am not about to apologise for the genre — it can be vibrant, creative and in some cases is arguably a valid competitive sport. However given the wealth of varied experiences offered through videogaming in the past year, it’s a shame the mainstream public will just think of another military shooter.
So what were the best games this year?
Batman: Arkham Asylum: A licensed game that did not poorly ape the recent film but instead struck out its own path, drawing on Batman’s comicbook heritage. Mark Hamill’s deliciously insane turn as the Joker rivals Heath Ledger’s performance (in a different way). Combining intelligent investigatory and brawler elements with the back-catalogue of villains locked away in Arkham, it was a surprise debut hit from Rocksteady Studios this summer.
Braid: Independent developer Jonathan Blow lovingly crafted this beautiful, haunting, artistic and fiendish puzzle platformer in which you affect time to complete your goals. Its careful learning curve may sharply steepen but it does reward the patient. Its ingenuity on par with Valve’s Portal (though Braid’s indie development arguably compares more directly to its predecessor Narbacular Drop).
Assassin’s Creed 2: While it might seem there is only so creative a sequel can be, this was the consumate sequel, as if Ubisoft had listened to every single complaint about the first game and addressed it, particularly the repetitiveness. The action shifted to Renaissance Italy, once again recreated in stunning architectural detail (right to the peak of every church and tower since you can scale them all) but now feeling much more alive. Perhaps not wishing to waste all the historical data they gathered during development, the in-game database is fascinatingly educational as you explore Florence, Venice and more. Depending on your perspective it could be as much an art history project as a videogame.
Uncharted 2: There is a long-running debate as to whether games should become more cinematic and story-driven or strive to differentiate themselves. There are merits to both approaches, but none nailed the cinematic feel so much as Uncharted 2. Arguably the only reason people were not even more impressed by this game is that the first installment was already so good.
Dragon Age: Origins: this adult fantasy roleplaying game opens with a different Origins story depending on your chosen class, which then affects portions of the main story, may be something of a gimmick. Very real, however, are the characters Bioware has created, each with their own personalities and rich backstories that really drive the game forward moreso than the overt (and somewhat derivative) plot. Fully voice-acted, the biggest disappointment is that whenever selecting party members for a quest, you know will be missing great dialogue and banter from the others. And if they dislike you, they’ll even leave. Meanwhile, ike 2007’s The Witcher, its darker tone also allows it to deal with heavy themes like racial tensions.