Matt's Year in Review 2009

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves 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.

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.

Matt's Year in Review, Part II: The Most Overrated and Underrated Games of 2009

Street Fighter IV Screenshot

I should note that by "underrated," I mean under-appreciated or overlooked by the media and public. These are games I feel deserve just a spot more attention than they initially received, or sold very poorly relative to their quality. Similarly, my selections for "overrated" games are not necessarily massive hits or top-tier critical choices, but I do feel each one undeservedly dominated a specific part of the gaming conversation at some point or another this year. They're not bad games; just not as good as they could have been.

In my opinion.

The Most Overrated

Blazblue: Calamity Trigger Screenshot

Blazblue: Calamity Trigger (PlayStation 3)

Blazblue is a fundamentally solid fighting game with good online multiplayer, but very little distinguishes it from the countless Guilty Gear titles that preceded it. The story, told sporadically (almost Ran-style) in static bits that look more like Clip Art than part of a polished, $60 release, is a mess (not that anyone plays fighting games for the story). The graphics, while extremely crisp, are not quite as fluid as one would like, lacking the frames of animation of a Capcom game nearly a decade older. Characters are forgettable and the stentorian music is just plain annoying. In all fairness, had the game been priced lower or not received such unusually high review scores (Gamerankings.com currently has the PS3 version at 88%, making it one of the top-rated games of the year), it probably would not be on this list. That said, Blazblue is coming to the PSP next year in what will undoubtedly be a lower-priced package, and a portable system's more casual, pick-up-and-play setup may serve a better fit.

Left 4 Dead 2 Screenshot

Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360, PC)

If I could give one game I played this year the "Please Give Me My Money Back" Award, it would be Valve's extraordinarily overrated Left 4 Dead 2. Now, I was not a huge fan of the first game, which I felt was similarly overrated, but I enjoyed it all the same. My main quibble with the title was that its multiplayer focus was not backed up with much in the way of diverse maps or play-throughs of the levels, and as fun as splattering zombies with three other humans was, one could only hold off the rooftop so many times before it became old. Only a year later and Part 2 has arrived to largely glowing reviews. Either the gaming media has conspired against its readership or I have missed the point: This game is barely different from last year's edition. Sure, some of the zombies look different and there are one or two new ones... but the level design is similarly uninspired and the gameplay receives little boost from new powerups and foes. Even the new array of melee weapons is puzzling: How does a samurai sword feel weak compared to a cricket bat (and why are these things littered all over post-apocalyptic New Orleans)? There was a great deal of fuss made over this game's possible status as a quasi-expansion pack vs. full game; I'm sadly and squarely placing myself in the camp of "Why does this cost $50-60?"

The Path Screenshot

The Path (PC)

It's difficult to call indie titles "overrated" when so many of them go unnoticed, but The Path had the rare fortune of gaining moderate media attention and thereafter received a very positive reception from press and public alike (admittedly more from the latter than the former). Personally, I feel rather torn about the title: As an extended "demo-scene" or interactive piece of art, The Path is a compelling thought experiment. Its creepy atmosphere and deft exploration of feminine self-discovery and loss of innocence is quite memorable and brainy stuff compared to your average adventure title. On the other hand, as a game, The Path fails and fails miserably. The controls are poor, the graphics are jagged and glitchy, the map is useless (perhaps symbolically?), and the pace is kept unnecessarily plodding. I think developer Tale of Tales would similarly admit that The Path is more demo-scene than game, as most of the company's comments with regard to the title involve its complex and roundabout storytelling mechanism, not its gameplay or interface. Unfortunately, The Path is marketed as a game and priced as a game, and its reception by the media has been that of a spotlit horror game in the vein of Silent Hill. For those reasons, I consider The Path to be one of the most overrated games released this year.

Street Fighter IV Screenshot

Street Fighter IV (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)

The way I see it, there are two critical factors working against Street Fighter IV and its unearned critical reception: 1. Its regression from the grossly underrated Street Fighter III, and 2. The fact that an improved and expanded "Super" Street Fighter IV game is coming out next year to steal your money yet again. (How very early '90s of you, Capcom.) At its core, Street Fighter IV is essentially a very polished 3D version of Street Fighter II with a few new faces thrown in. These new characters are interesting and play well, but they arrive with an unwelcome guest: The new boss, Seth, is unimaginative and cheap. The gameplay is a massive step backward from the more complex Street Fighter III and Alpha setups, featuring only one super move per character. As for the roster, largely a holdover from previous Street Fighter titles: I know Capcom has stated that they received considerable backlash for introducing too many new faces in Street Fighter III, but did they have to make part IV reek of sameness? Capcom takes very few chances with this game; it's a streamlined version of a title all fighting fans know and love, but one that does not warrant critical acclaim nor widespread commercial success. I can hear the rebuttals now: "It's Street Fighter with a few upgrades; that's the point!" The problem is, if I wanted to play Street Fighter II, I could play Street Fighter II. Doing so would be a far less costly endeavor.

The Most Underrated/Overlooked

Half-Minute Hero Screenshot

Half-Minute Hero (PlayStation Portable)

Half-Minute Hero is the kind of quirky XSEED import that is so hard to define and market, it's not difficult to see why gamers would not be chomping at the bit to play it. A Japanese RPG farce that is as hilarious as it is unusual, Half-Minute Hero has players taking part in extremely brief exercises, Warioware-style, in one of four off-kilter storylines. The deliberate 8-bit graphics may cause a headache for some, but I found the game's visual style to be complementary of its throwback gameplay. Half-Minute Hero has received several positive reviews from the gaming press yet generated little in the way of public enthusiasm, never once cracking the PSN Top 20 (or assumably coming close). If you own a PSP and enjoy offbeat Japanese humor (well translated by XSEED), I advise you to plunk down the $20-30 for one of the most enjoyable diamonds in the rough this year.

House of the Dead: Overkill Screenshot

House of the Dead: Overkill (Nintendo Wii)

Sega had a rough year on Nintendo's console, with House of the Dead: Overkill and MadWorld both underperforming to say the least. Quite tragic, because I feel they are two of the most overlooked titles this year. For fans of light gun games, Overkill brings a delightfully pulpy '70s grindhouse style to what was once a distinctly Eastern franchise. A hilarious, albeit quite vulgar, storyline provides the backdrop for some terrifically squishy graphics and sound. While the game is prone to minor slowdown, particularly in co-op sessions, I never found it to be gameplay-impairing. At a current price of $13-20, Wii owners can walk away with a steal... and one of the best mature games on the system.

 Screenshot

MadWorld (Wii), Honorable Mention: Resistance: Retribution (PlayStation Portable)

MadWorld is a very unique title for a uniquely motion-based system, although its mature content makes it a rough fit with the slew of Mario and family-themed titles that come down the pipe. Genuinely funny (albeit slightly repetitive) "commentary" by Greg Proops and Futurama's John Di Maggio sets the tone of this often silly take on the Violent Game Show Voyeurism trope (ala The Running Man, Manhunt, and Smash TV). One would not expect to find much depth underlying the game's simple "beat the high score" arcade gameplay, but a surprisingly gritty storyline and numerous secrets bolster what could have easily been 2009's version of The Club. Some of what's there is forgettable (particularly the last two boss fights), but MadWorld certainly did not deserve to sell as poorly as it did. As with Overkill, any interested Wii owner can find Madworld at a budget price of $13-20.

Matt's Year in Review, Part III: My Favorite Games of 2009

The Best of the Best

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Screenshot

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3)

Big surprise, I know. Uncharted 2 will inevitably rack up countless Game of the Year honors and will be forever remembered as a crowning jewel in the PlayStation 3's game library... but it will deserve every glowing remark, every spot of praise. While I was similarly fond of the first Uncharted game, Uncharted 2 expands upon the successes of its forebear with even more stunning graphics, breathtaking set pieces, and some of the best voice acting and writing in the business. Game Design Advance's Charles Pratt recently wrote that he feels too many bloggers are eschewing discussion of game's form to highlight its fiction, and while I find the claim debatable, if any game makes a case for continuing the "fiction" conversation, it's Uncharted 2.

It's not that the story of Uncharted 2 could not be emulated in another medium; nor am I equating Uncharted 2 to mere "interactive cinema." Uncharted 2 lovingly displays its gaming and cinematic influences—from FPS gunfights to Indiana Jones-style temples—in one narrative mesh that is as much a product of its sharp gameplay as it is tight direction and pacing. All I know is that the entire game—its mechanics, its technical feats, and its story—have captured the imagination of bloggers, developers, and the industry at large. But it's the fiction part that gets the most attention, and deservedly so. Uncharted 2 is not just a technological labor of love... it's a technological marvel whose narrative and sense of mythos lets you fall in love with it. Its story and world are the carrot dangling in front of our heads, drawing us in. Surely, Naughty Dog is just as proud to be labeled master storytellers as they are master game designers. Uncharted 2 is proof that they are both.

The Best of the Rest (or the Rest of the Best)

Dead Space: Extraction Screenshot

Dead Space: Extraction (Nintendo Wii)

While one's attraction to a game like Dead Space: Extraction will largely depend on one's affinity for rail shooters, it is hard to ignore the game's overall level of polish (unusual for the genre). For one, the game's graphics are quite stunning for a Wii title and approach the level of detail found in the original Dead Space. Sound is haunting and atmospheric, with voice acting coming across as appropriately intense rather than jarring or cheesy. Controls are extremely dynamic given the genre; I enjoyed the ability to switch to a secondary fire by tilting the Wii-mote. Co-op, too, is highly enjoyable and not at all an afterthought: My favorite sections were those in which one player must fight off endless hordes of monsters while the other fixes a panel or opens a door. For fans of the first Dead Space game, Extraction takes on a whole new life... starting precisely in the place where the first game ends and forming a sort of narrative book-ends. In a genre full of sloppily assembled arcade ports, Dead Space: Extraction is the rare light gun shooter that takes itself completely seriously, filled to the brim with tightly executed narrative sequences and engaging set pieces. Of course, like other rail shooters, Extraction is a bit on the short side... but it's a trip worth taking multiple times.

Flower Screenshot

Flower (PlayStation 3)

Flower may be a controversial choice for a list like this, but I have a funny feeling it will make its way on to many a GOTY list. It's not quite a game, and what's there isn't particularly complex. All I know is that Flower is a singularly enjoyable, serene, and moving experience... an ecologically-tinted masterpiece amidst a sea of cold and pessimistic software. It's also inexpensive, makes good use of the SixAxis control scheme, and is quite pretty to boot. There really isn't a sour note about it... nor any excuse for a PS3 owner to miss out.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars Screenshot

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)

One would think that a return to top-down perspective would mark a regression for the Grand Theft Auto series, but on the contrary: Chinatown Wars is perhaps the strongest entry yet in one of gaming's most accomplished franchises. Gone are the usual cheeky voice acting and 3D exploration, but in their place are a slew of enjoyable mini-games, stunning mission variety, and precise controls. Even better is the long-awaited (and arguably long-needed) option to restart a mission directly from its originating point. And the trademark compelling/offbeat storyline? Still present, and as culturally pertinent as ever. After the disappointment of the "Stories" titles on PSP, Chinatown Wars shows that this sort of gameplay can be done right on a portable system.

Infamous Screenshot

inFamous (PlayStation 3)

While I was pleasantly surprised by this summer's Prototype, I was absolutely enraptured by inFamous' strongly designed open world and involving comic book-style storyline. Yes, the game has faults, as astutely pointed out by Brad Gallaway. Yet for all these faults (namely repetition, a flaw of most open world titles not developed by Bethesda), I found inFamous to be enthralling: the sense of freedom from climbing massive structures, the high felt from smashing down on foes with a burst of raw power, the way the game's world feels alive and responsive to your moral standing. It's all very pre-programmed, pre-packaged stuff... but call me a sucker, I fell for it. Perhaps a little too much.

Shadow Complex Screenshot

Shadow Complex (Xbox 360)

There was a great deal of debate this year over Shadow Complex's relationship to author Orson Scott Card, and, while educational, it sadly took away a bit of luster from one of the year's brightest accomplishments. Shadow Complex is not only a magnificent example of what a polished downloadable title can be, it's perhaps the most richly conceived take on the "Metroidvania" genre of action games released to date. Key to this claim are the game's sublimely designed levels, an intricate network of secrets that will have even the most jaded Symphony of Night or Super Metroid fan smiling.