December 31, 2009

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2009 in video games
What a surprise, everything got louder and shinier
By Glenn "Fat Princess" Given production@hippopress.com

Wii/DS
It was a plateau year at best for Nintendo. With their traditional reliance on franchise titles and a shotgun spread of mediocre games aimed at the “casual gamer,” Nintendo fared well but failed critically. When it comes to the big N, there is really only one standout new title for the Wii: New Super Mario Brothers Wii. With four-player co-op platforming gameplay and the ability to basically have the title play itself, NSMBW is another coat of turtle wax on the classic roadster of gaming. The downloadable WiiWare service offered more original nibblings with Lost Winds: Winter of Melodias, a sequel full of clever Wiimote wind-whipping platforming. The year’s surprise came from on-rails shooter Dead Space Extraction, a prequel to 2008’s excellent cross-platform sci-fi survival horror Dead Space.

Nintendo showed more gumption with their DSi rollout and a slate of excellent handheld titles. A train full of addictive puzzles await in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box and the Pandora’s Box playstyle of Scribblenauts top my list for must-buys.

Xbox 360
If Nintendo just skated by this year, then Microsoft hit the ice square on its ass. Sure, Russia baiting with Modern Warfare 2 may have moved a staggering amount of units, but a title that full of glitches and exploits can’t be on the block with more polished fare. You could count cross-platform stealth actioners Assassins Creed 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum as stellar titles (though the PS3 version of Batman offers more juicy extras). With all their big guns held by cross-platform releases, the best game of the year for the 360 is its least-respected, Halo 3: ODST. The Halo fanbase roundly panned the title (though not until after shelling out millions) due to its shift of focus away from series herald Master Chief, but ODST does more to advance the playstyles and story of the Halo franchise since its inception. The sad reality is that Microsoft needs its motion control gimmick Project Natal to hit hard next season or its going to slide into third behind the more accessible Wii and superior performance and offerings of Sony.

PS3/PSP
Here’s where the smart money went. From lightening-blasting open-world superheroics in the morally variable Infamous to downloadable retro re-imagination in PixelJunk Shooter, the PS3 built an impressive head of steam going into 2010. Artsy and arcade titles like Flower and Fat Princess litter the field among both cross-platform giants as well as extraordinary exclusives. The Die Hard meets Indiana Jones extravaganza Uncharted 2: Among Thieves may be the most entertaining 12 hours I’ve spent on a console. Hardcore fantasy action RPG Demon’s Souls, a game that can only be truly experienced by repeated in-game deaths, takes network-enabled gaming to a subtle new pinnacle. Their PSP line knocks it out of the park with with its adaptation of Disgaea 2 and Little Big Planet. Sony’s Playstation Network continues to outshine Microsoft’s Xbox Live on reliability, performance and cost. The PSN has snapped up many of the elite offerings that some thought would remain exclusive to XBLA, like Braid and the Netflix streaming service. And Sony’s online services remain free. Many see the PSP Go and its games via download-only model as a misstep for the brand, but I’ll put my money in favor of digital distribution any day. Perhaps for a hand-held, it’s too early, but it’s still the right step to make.

PC
Computer gaming has gone through its fallow phase. With the consoles firmly entrenched, PC gaming has broken down into two camps: ports and innovation. While many of the 2009 marquee titles of console gaming (Modern Warfare 2, Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed 2, etc.) find their primary home on consoles, it is on the PC that they find their best fit. Louisiana Zombie love affair Left 4 Dead 2 is best played with mouse and keyboard via Steam (the digitial distribution/hosting service) than with thumb sticks on the 360. Post-apocalyptic RPG/Shooter Borderlands likewise shines on your desktop. And many of the best titles of the year are either unavailable on console (in the case of the spiritual Diablo sequel Torchlight), are distinctly born of PC gaming (like the episodic Tales of Monkey Island) or simply have no place in the living room (like the turn-based RPG King’s Bounty: Armored Princess). I’m all for spreading the joy of computer gaming to all available players, but frankly, you’re never going to get a better FPS experience than mouse aim on a smoking-hot PC. Also, relying on the vertical monopolies of console publishers to update, support and expand their titles in an affordable and expeditious manner is a fool’s errand. If you are serious about your gaming, then you should be investing in your computer before you shell out $60 for the latest Xbox shovelware.


Top 5
In no particular order, the five games that rocked hardest in ’09:

Torchlight (PC): click and slash dungeon crawling.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3): Run away from tanks, crash buildings into helicopters and break into Marco Polo’s house.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (PC/XBOX/PS3): Mark Hamill is the best Joker ever in this Bat-themed Metal Gear Solid.

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars (DS/PSP): Run drugs while on your train commute!

Left 4 Dead 2 (PC/XBOX): Crack zombie skulls in ‘Nawlins with a cricket bat and three friends