Matt's Year in Review, Part I: The Most Disappointing Games of 2009

Ghostbusters Screenshot

In my opinion.

If I've learned anything from countless flames and attacks by trolls during my time on the Internet, it's that prefacing highly subjective statements like "Most so-and-so" with "In my opinion" usually dampens some of the aggression.

In the next few posts, I will be going over what I feel are the most disappointing, overrated, underrated, and downright best games of the year. Naturally, this is just one humble blogger's take on a rather eventful year, and I will be more than happy to receive any disagreements, diatribes, words of encouragement, non-sequitors, and excoriating rumors regarding my manhood in the comments section. Just please remember to keep it somewhat civil.

After all, I am not writing my opinion down to see my own thoughts on a web page. I'm sharing it; and I would love for others to reciprocate. No man is an island, and all of that. Be gentle.

So, about 2009: I had the chance and great fortune (or should I say, I spent a great fortune) to experience many of the year's high-profile releases. Naturally, I will leave quite a few of these titles off of the aforementioned lists, not because I feel that they are unworthy of attention, but because I simply do not feel strongly enough so as to define them as "most" or "best" anything. These include games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Demon's Souls, and Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time.

Disclaimer: Because I have to purchase my games like any normal gamer, there were quite a few notable releases that I did not get to experience, including: A Boy and His Blob (Wii); The Beatles: Rock Band, LEGO Rock Band, Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, etc.; Dirt 2; Empire: Total War (PC); FIFA 10; Little King's Story (Wii); LostWinds: Winter of Melodias (Wii); Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (DS); Need for Speed: Shift; NHL 10; Plants vs. Zombies (PC); Punch-Out!! (Wii); The Sims 3 (PC); Torchlight (PC); Trials HD (Xbox 360); Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (PC); and just about any iPhone game (I don't own one).

In other words, while I do own all five major consoles of this generation, I'm not about to go broke for the sake of being thorough (although I have come damn close). If you feel I made a terrible error by not experiencing a particular game, or that I have left something crucial off, please let me know.

The Most Disappointing Games

Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines Screenshot

Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines (PlayStation Portable)

Developer Gryptonite should be given a great deal of credit for successfully emulating the atmosphere and feel of Assassin Creed's city exploration on a portable system. The graphics are generally crisp and fluid, and the controls do the best possible job of emulating the game's console brethren given the system's constraints. Unfortunately, Bloodlines suffers from a severe lack of polish: no context for the Animus interface, little in the way of interesting story, voice acting all too reminiscent of Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within (*shudder*), load times in the middle of environments, and far too many clipping errors. The game is not a total failure; the boss fights are suitable given the game's smaller scope and the setting makes for a pleasant enough six or seven-hour romp. Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that the initial promise of the game's engine and graphics created a massive letdown as the game progressed and every ugly blemish reared its head.

Brutal Legend Screenshot

Brütal Legend (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Tim Schafer: game designer extraordinaire. Jack Black: generally amusing (if not sometimes overly bombastic) comedic actor. Their forces combined should have yielded a rock-tastic platformer to put Psychonauts to shame. Sadly, three letters ruined what could have been a magnificent and charming title: R. T. S. Real time strategy elements that felt woefully out of place sent me packing well before I made my rounds in the game's unmistakably dull open worlds. You know something is wrong when Schafer has to write and release a separate commentary on how to play the game properly. Bonus points for a terrific soundtrack and the surprisingly excellent casting of Ozzy Osbourne, but good sound does not a quality title make.

FEAR 2: Project Origin Screenshot

FEAR 2: Project Origin (PC, Xbox 360)

After genuinely enjoying my time with Monolith's previous shooters--Condemned, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, and FEAR—I eagerly anticipated this year's follow-up to the sublimely violent and creepy 2005 title. While FEAR 2 is not necessarily a bad game, it's not exactly what I was expecting from the talented studio. Nothing about the game—it's story, art design, gameplay, atmosphere—is particularly unique or memorable. While "mech-suit" sequences were introduced to break up the shooter gameplay, they feel rather out of place and poorly conceived. In fact, several parts of these sequences give the player little direction as to where to go and when to get out of the suit, making it all the more jarring an interlude. Perhaps most disappointing is the game's anticlimactic boss fight and brief ending. Whereas the first game had one of the most memorable and frightening final levels of any FPS I've played, the sequel settles for a rather banal (albeit graphically impressive) chase-a-thon in a psychic playground. Like the Ring movies that serve as these games' inspiration, FEAR probably should have stopped at Part 1.

Ghostbusters Screenshot

Ghostbusters: The Video Game (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

I'm not sure why I got my hopes up for Ghostbusters. It is a movie tie-in, after all, and these sorts of games have a spotty record to say the least. But I consider myself a fan of the films: When it was confirmed that Akroyd and Ramis would be writing the script and the original cast members would be performing the voice-overs, I let out a geeky squeal of delight. The actual game, on the other hand, made me squeal in a different way. Mediocre graphics, unresponsive and unintuitive controls, extraordinarily linear levels, a useless hub between levels, and tedious puzzle filler cannot not make up for the surprisingly bland story. Even worse, the voice acting, while by no means poor, is not exactly up to snuff. A sleepy Bill Murray gives a stilted performance that sadly sets the bar for the rest of the quite bland aural experience. By the time I arrived at the game's dull finale (featuring none other than Bill Murry's older brother Brian Doyle in no doubt the most shameless spectacle of nepotism this year), I was happy to take the DVD out of my 360 and go back to watching the original film on Blu-ray.

LocoRoco: Midnight Carnival Screenshot

LocoRoco: Midnight Carnival (PlayStation Portable)

Midnight Carnival is the answer to a question no one would ever, ever ask: Where is LocoRoco's version of Super Mario's infamous "Lost Levels"? You see, like Lost Levels, the handful of levels in Midnight Carnival are hard. Really, really hard. Mindnumbingly, frustratingly hard. Whereas LocoRoco 1 and 2 built their charm on the basis of breezy, large levels to explore, Midnight Carnival asks the player to zip quickly and efficiently through a nightmarescape of chasms and cheap deaths. And unlike Demon's Souls, there is very little reward for one's progression through the game. You can play the mini-games, but they are dull and trite. You can buy apparel and items for your favorite colorful blob, but they don't really do anything. Even worse, at $15—about five dollars less than the far superior LocoRoco 2—this game will take you about three or so hours to complete... granted that you have the patience to do so.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix Screenshot

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (PlayStation Portable)

In a world without expectations, the rather tepid Galactrix would be a perfectly acceptable strategy and puzzle adventure. Unfortunately, the game has the sizable misfortune of being pegged with the "Puzzle Quest" moniker—a label that immediately conjures to mind fond memories of the immensely addictive Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. Comparisons are inevitable: Puzzle Quest has a user-friendly setup and an easy-to-follow set of rules. Galactrix, on the other hand, features gameplay that relies so much on the numbered "weapon" spaces that can enter from a number of directions, it ends up feeling like a game of chance more than a game of skill. Add that to the fact that the game is at times brutally difficult and has a ponderous outer-space setting and you have one of the more underwhelming releases this year. Thankfully, a true sequel to Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords will be out in the Spring.

Scribblenauts Screenshot

Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

Earlier this year, I previewed Scribblenauts by calling it a potential "Game of the Year contender," arguing that the game's proposed "bricolage" gameplay would allow players to tap into an unusually vast set of resources to solve puzzles. Yet the game turned out to be something not quite a bricolage at all: Sure, the player can summon various objects, but most of them do not interact or interrelate in any way (at least not how you would logically expect). It is a title that features loopy puzzles and a large lexicon of tools at your disposal... yet those tools are actually facades, not really carrying heft or meaning. This leaves one to wonder why the developers even included such a large number of items when so many of them are rendered inoperable by the game's dimwitted lack of common sense. Scribblenauts is more a picturebook dictionary, less a game of rules and reason... a semiotics that communicates to no one in particular.

Wolfenstein Screenshot

Wolfenstein (Xbox 360, PC)

All right, so I have a confession to make: I have not played the full game of Wolfenstein, only the demo. But is it not a bad sign when a demo so completely depresses me and turns me off of a game, if not an entire franchise? The problem is, I know Wolfenstein. I love Wolfenstein. This is a franchise that I hold close to my heart. I have fond memories of the original Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, and Enemy Territory. I consider Return to Castle Wolfenstein on the Xbox a seminal entry in the system's catalog of Xbox Live-enabled titles, and perhaps the first game other than Mech Assault to truly make Live seem impressive. What I saw in the demo for this game, however, was what seems like a completely substandard Medal of Honor clone that has as its key feature a graphically-impairing mechanism that distorts your view into a series of blurs. Perhaps, given some gentle nudging to do so from other gamers, I will be spurred on to give the full game a fair try. However, judging by the game's mediocre critical reception and poor sales, I have a feeling that will not happen. (I should note: It pains me to write this because I know that Manveer Heir did a terrific job championing this game earlier this year, and his "I'll pay for your copy" promotion against Madden was ballsy to say the least. He's an undeniably amiable fellow whose Twitter feed I greatly enjoy reading. I do not feel that Wolfenstein—or at least its demo—is wholly reflective of him, Activision, or anyone's talents over there. But I do feel that it needs to be written that this is a historic franchise... and it deserves a quality successor.)

The Most Disappointing Trends

Trend 1: The Lack of a Full-fledged Single Player Mode

Perhaps it's a stretch to call this a "trend," but while some multiplayer-only games do well by their limited scope (see Warhawk on PS3 for reference), other games that you would expect to have at least some semblance of a structured single player mode have been seemingly... let's say... neutered. Cases in point: PSP titles Gran Turismo and Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny. Ditto for King of Fighters XII. And while I quite enjoyed my time with Borderlands, the game could have stood to feature a few structural differences between its multiplayer-centric gameplay and the often lonely and frustrating single player option. Perhaps a more gentle XP curve? A Monster Hunter-style pet?

Trend 2: Mission Hubs

Okay, developers. Not EVERY game needs to ape Grand Theft Auto. Three of the games mentioned above—Brütal Legend, Ghostbusters, and Wolfenstein—are primary culprits for having superfluous hub designs. Red Faction: Guerilla? Hardly an Elder Scrolls title in terms of open-world content. Halo ODST, though admirably stylized, features a hub whose gameplay is rather unappealing when compared to the more boisterous and involving mission sequences. There's nothing wrong with linearity when it's appropriately handled; just look at Uncharted 2.