Tuesday, December 1, 2009

FEATURE - 2009 Games of the Year - Part 2.

Still with me? Good! In that case, bend an ear while we examine the year's best

Oft-overlooked, a game's soundtrack or score has a massive impact on the experience - there is little that sets the mood or thrills the heart like music. Unfortunately, very few games in 2009 stood out to me, in terms of their musical selection, but the three here easily make the grade.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Wet
Wet's brilliantly chosen psychobilly soundtrack is the single best aspect of the game. The music gets your heart up to speed for the game's furious, spectacular acrobatic gunplay and perfectly compliments its grimy, grindhouse-inspired presentation. For weeks after playing the title, snippets of lyrics from Knock Galley West and The Brains would flit through my mind, and I became increasingly annoyed that there doesn't seem to be a soundtrack available.

It's been four months, and I still can't get Children of the Atom by The Hypnophonics off my internal jukebox.


inFamous
The only game with an original score I'm prepared to nominate, inFamous's soundtrack is stunning. It's neat-o that there are dramatic shifts in its tone which reflect your karmic standing, but what blew me away is how - at first - you think you're just hearing the ambient sounds of an urban landscape until it comes together and you realize someone had turned it into music. All three soundtracks listed here are impressive, but only inFamous's made me say "wow" out loud.


Best Soundtrack & Score of 2009:
"Did you know I like Megadeath? I had no idea, until I spent the last few days trying to 100% Brütal Legend. I've also discovered I like Lita Ford and Motörhead. Anyway - thanks, Tim Schafer, for turning me back on to a genre I'd all but forgotten since my childhood - back when the album covers alone terrified the shit out of me."
No contest, here. This game made me like a genre of music I've consciously avoided since I was twelve. Beyond the sheer amount of licensed music in Brütal Legend - which handily outpaces any action game this side of Grand Theft Auto - so much of the game was clearly inspired and informed by the music itself.

Ever wonder where they came up with the title "Brütal Legend "? Go check out Betrayal by Lita Ford.


Speaking of quality audio,

Unlike music, art direction and gameplay, the quality of voice work in games has been on a steady rise for the past ten (or so) years. It was an unexpected treat on the PS1, it became the standard on the PS2/Xbox, and now - due to its widespread use - the caliber on display in gaming runs the gamut from exemplary to excretory. Fortunately, there were some real standouts in 2009.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Batman: Arkham Asylum
My only nod to a game that isn't a real ensemble piece - some of the voice work in Arkham is terrible. The two leads, however, are excellent (Kevin Conroy) and extraordinary (Mark Hamil).
"Heath Ledger wowed the world with his interpretation of the villain, but it is Mark Hamil's Joker that instantly bypasses my cynical defenses and plugs in to my unconscious expectations of the character."

Dragon Age: Origins
Origins deserves a mention not only to the sheer (staggering) volume of ably-performed voice acting, but the fantastic work of the leads. Steve Valentine and Claudia Black - who also headline the cast of Uncharted 2 - are perfectly cast as the self-effacing Alastair and Morrigan, the single most abrasive, practical woman to ever grace a game. The presentation of the voice work sometimes suffers due to editing (unnatural pauses during conversation), but it does not detract from the exemplary work on show here.


Brütal Legend
"Comprised of Hollywood stars (Jack Black, Tim Curry), rock legends (Lemmy of Motörhead, Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne) and some of the best voice over artists in the biz (Jennifer Hale, Robin Atkin Downes), Brütal Legend boasts the single most impressive cast list of the year. This wouldn't be nearly as exciting if the performances weren't enthusiastic and committed, but every performer hits precisely the right notes."
What title could possibly compete with Brütal Legend's quantity of quality? I think you know.



Best Voice Acting of 2009:
The game with the best voice work and dialogue is the one where the director encouraged the actors to go off-script. The easy, fluid-sounding performances of Uncharted 2 are the product of a genius and incredibly simple technique: taking the time and effort to stage each scene as if it were a play, or a film. Weeks are spent in rehearsals, the actors speak their lines to each other on a soundstage, instead of hundreds of miles apart, sequestered alone in a sound booth with a director.

The results are instantly relatable characters, dialogue that pops, and performances that simply set the standard for voice acting in a video game.

Alright, enough side dishes. Let's move on to the meat & potatoes of this affair.

I hardly need to explain this one - we're talking about how a game feels to play. Does it let you slip into the experience and keep you there long after your baking should have been removed from the oven? You get the idea.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Awuhhh? Uncharted 2 is in a category it doesn't win? Well, sure. It does everything exceedingly well, but perhaps something else out there does this a little better (though not by a wide margin, I'll grant you.) Uncharted 2's cover-based gunplay has evolved since Drake's original outing, and it has emerged from its cocoon as a being of pure gaming pleasure.

The single-player experience is tense, thrilling and challenging without frustration - and that's not even touching on the multiplayer component. Like everything else in Among Thieves, the gameplay is simply excellent.


inFamous
"inFamous is solid front-to-back, with slick, comfortable platforming elements that just feel right, which dovetails perfectly with the shooting component. The traversal is satisfying, and the combat is a great mix of frantic action, flashy style and clever strategy. inFamous delivers where it counts, and there's really no complaints to be made. Excellent mission design further elevate the game above standard action fare."
The gameplay of inFamous is like pulling on a pair of well-worn jeans. It just feels perfect.


Best Gameplay of 2009:
"You must fight, tooth and nail, for every inch. After a failure, you may manage to claw your way just a little deeper into the swirling dark, creeping cautiously forward with your shield raised, ready to deflect the unknown attacker you will be better prepared for - once it has killed you."
Demon's Souls' legendary challenge combined with its weighty, visceral combat provides an action experience unlike any other title. Blocking with a shield and swinging a sword feel perfect, and before long you develop a deep affection for - and grim confidence in - your chosen loadout. The fiendishly difficult game, over time, reveals itself to be perfectly fair. When you die over and over (and you will), every time you know it was your fault.

Unlike almost every other title of the current gen, it demands your very best at all times. There is no Casual difficulty setting. There are no easy wins, and so when you do win (and you will), you are granted a level of satisfaction few gaming experiences can even attempt to match.

It is, in a word, unique.

* * *

It comes down to this. Twelve months of gaming, but there can be only one

There are all kinds of great games that could be nominated (Batman: Arkham Asylum, inFamous, Dragon Age: Origins), but why bother? They don't receive honorable mentions simply because they don't stack up to the Final Two. There are two games in 2009 that are simply incredible experiences that blow all others out of the water, and picking one over the other is torturous. How did I decide? I went back and read my reviews, which were absolutely no help at all.

If I could, they would simply tie for the title. But I can't.

HONORABLE MENTION
which, honestly, is totally deserving of Game of the Year status


"Not Devil May Cry 3, not even God Hand can compare to the feeling of playing - and mastering - Demon's Souls. It offers the same severe difficulty, but marries it with a spectacular world to explore, a one-of-a-kind multiplayer component, intensely weighty, satisfying combat and the most thickly choking atmosphere this side of Silent Hill.

If you'd like a different slant on an endorsement, let me put it this way: Uncharted 2 is, by all measurable criteria, the best game of 2009 - but it's Demon's Souls that I can't stop playing.
"

So why isn't it the Game of the Year? Because even though it's incredibly unique and offers something no other title even attempts, and even though Uncharted 2 is offering exactly what many, many other games have successfully delivered before, Uncharted 2 is - by all measurable criteria - the best game of 2009. It's a cold, cold judgment on my part, and I can't say I'm entirely happy with it, but there it is.



2009
Game of the Year

"Have you ever had sex that was so good, so happy that you found yourself laughing, in spite of the intimate circumstances? I'm not talking just physical pleasure here, I'm talking joy.
It really is appallingly impressive on every level.

* * *

And there you have it - the Games of 2009. If you're at all peeved that I didn't mention one of your favorite games of the year, please peruse my disclaimer, which should explain why Supergames like Left 4 Dead 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3: ODST weren't considered.

I'm only one man!

And now? Now it's time to kick back, and look forward to 2010.

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