For much of the gaming industry, 2009 really sucked. Those who had proclaimed the games business to be recession-proof soon discovered how wrong they were; game and hardware sales sagged compared to the strong numbers of 2008. Several development houses were shuttered, including Ensemble, who had barely shipped Halo Wars before they closed, and Grin, who produced Terminator: Salvation, Bionic Commando and Wanted: Weapons of Fate in the space of five months before the hammer came down. The enthusiast press was similarly affected, with journalistic stalwarts IGN and GameSpot suffering major employee purges.
And there were the occasional scandals. Valve raised the hackles of the Left 4 Dead loyalists by releasing Left 4 Dead 2 as a stand-alone, full-priced product instead of a free-to-download expansion pack, despite a celebrated Internet petition calling for the contrary. Infinity Ward ticked off their PC customers by not offering dedicated-server support for the PC multiplayer component of Modern Warfare 2, and almost everybody by including a controversial (and completely skippable) scene in the same game about a terrorist massacre in a Russian airport. And not to be left behind, Bioware once again had the temerity to include adult themes other than blood-drenching violence in Dragon Age: Origins; you’d have thought the right-wing crapstorm raised by the omnisexual hookups in Mass Effect would’ve still been in their heads, right?
But, amongst all of 2009′s gloom and doom, several games rose up and gave us all something to savor. By the time 2009 folds up its tent and makes way for the promise of 2010, this year I will have reviewed more than 30 games on four platforms (I still haven’t succumbed to the siren call of the Wii, and the PSPGo is not in my future until the purchase price becomes reasonable). Of those games, four are my finalists for Game of the Year, twice as many as there are on my Coaster of the Year list (Real Deal Slots Adventure and Gobliiins 4; less said about them, the better). And where, you might ask, are games such as Modern Warfare 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum on this list? Sadly, I didn’t have time to play them. But I will. One day.
And the nominees are:
Peggle Deluxe (Xbox 360)
Easily the most addictive, most enjoyable casual game of the year. And, not coincidentally, also the simplest; all you have to do is hit one button and watch what happens (with perhaps a little interaction from time to time). But you’d have to be a stronger person than I to play a round or two and move on; the game just grabs you and refuses to let you go. And what’s even greater, you can play Peggle Deluxe on practically every platform there is. You can even play it while playing World of Warcraft, of all things. An obsessive-compulsive’s dream.
Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 3: Lair of the Leviathan (PC)
The highest point of developer Telltale’s five-chapter series starring one of the most beloved characters in gaming history, Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate. Our hero and his reluctant companion (and biggest fan), the dread pirate huntress Morgan LeFlay (a brilliantly conceived new character to the venerable comedy point-and-click series), try to find a way out of the gullet of a lovelorn giant manatee while searching for a legendary sponge that can cure a pirate pox unleashed by Threepwood during his battles with the demon pirate LeChuck (phew, that’s a mouthful). The pace was perfect, the puzzles were just perplexing enough to be challenging without being infuriating, and the series’ trademark wit was there in full force. The series slipped a bit towards the end, but I look forward to the continuing adventures of Guybrush and company.
Guitar Hero 5 (Xbox 360)
This year was a banner one for the music game. Band-centric editions of Guitar Hero for supergroups Metallica and Van Halen, not to mention The Beatles: Rock Band, plus Rock Band 2, Guitar Hero: Smash Hits and Band Hero. There was LEGO Rock Band for the junior rockers in the audience, and the MCs in the house got an outlet all their own in DJ Hero. But Guitar Hero 5 was the jewel in the 2009 music-game crown, featuring an 80+ song setlist filled with great tunes in various genres, a true drop-in/drop-out party mode that lets everybody play with everyone as soon as the game boots up, and an online multiplayer suite that jettisoned the bad from previous iterations and improved on the good. You can even insert your Xbox Live avatar into the game as your playable rocker. Righteous, dude!
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
The holy grail of modern gaming is photorealism, graphics of such quality that, if you don’t see the controllers, you’re not sure if you’re watching a movie or a game. This particular grail has yet to be found, but developer Naughty Dog has made some serious strides towards it with 2007′s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and this year’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Both of these games are visual feasts of amazing detail, but they also have great stories, likeable and endearing characters voiced by excellent actors, and the perfect combination of platforming and combat. And to add even more to the menu, Uncharted 2 also includes a wide array of online multiplayer modes, something that its predecessor lacked. Now that the price of the PS3 hardware has finally come down, shooter fans who’ve been on the fence about Sony’s console can finally jump off. And when they do, Uncharted 2 should be the first thing on their shopping lists.
And the winner is:
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, for its attention to detail, its addictiveness that rivals that found in the best casual games, and for the illusion it generates that makes you feel like you’re playing a movie instead of a game. There might be better shooters out there, but nowhere is there a better overall package. And these days, the more you can get for your hard-earned buck, the better off you are.