Tuesday, December 1, 2009

FEATURE - 2009 Games of the Year - Part 1.

The time has come. Let us gaze back at the year that was, and offer praise for the best of the best, the goodest of the good. I'm going to try to mix things up a teensy bit by including an unorthodox category or two, but beyond that, you know the drill. Occasionally you may see a line in quotations - these comes from reviews or other articles I've written about the title in question.

Enough introductions - come, brothers (and sister - I see you back there!), let us begin with Atmosphere.

Spectacular graphics and a labyrinthine backstory aren't the only ingredients of a compelling game world. No, there's something intangible that draws us deeper into the experience than the rules of the game and the control scheme alone would seem to allow. It's the feeling you get of creeping along a darkened hall, unaware of what may lurk around the corner. It's the sense of awe at a particularly beautiful landscape. It's the moments where we stop playing the game and start living it.


An excessively simple gameplay experience and - for the right player - a profoundly emotional one, Flower is probably the single best PSN exclusive of the year. Ignoring that it presents you with what are easily the prettiest damned grassy fields in gaming, Flower is most impressive for its calming, easy flow at the beginning, eerie, frightening drive forward in the later third and the empowering, incredibly positive finale. ThatGameCompany said they set out to create a poem in the form of a video game, and the result is one of the most moving experiences of the year.

Killzone 2
Killzone 2's weighty, unwieldly-at-first controls and dirty, rusty art direction form the foundation of the greatest asset a first-person game can offer: a believable game world. The plot is abysmal, the dialogue is useless, but the gameplay is tight and the experience is intense, thanks to the remarkably well-realized world you are placed in. Killzone 2 won't make any other appearances on this list, but at the very least I can say that - despite the awful writing - it is incredibly immersive.

Best Atmosphere of 2009:
Demon's Souls is an elegant, vicious, remarkable experience. Due in no small part to its perfectly fair but profoundly challenging gameplay, the game ping-pongs you back and forth between teeth-gritting confidence and staggering terror. Stellar art direction and a minimal score reinforce the eerie, lonesome player experience. Some games have atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife. In Demon's Souls, the knife would get stuck.

Next up...

At its best, art direction comes part-in-parcel with atmosphere, but it does not merely serve to impress a believable world upon us. Real-world fidelity is all well and good, but as video games are - like books and film - an escapist media, their visual art is all the more thrilling when it takes us to places we could never go in life. So show us something incredible - something vital and vibrant and stunningly creative. There are a lot of great titles to point out, this year.


Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
I'm not really one to point towards a game with such ambitions of realism as having exceptional art direction, but even when the player is negotiating a modern-day museum or a spectacularly well-realized bombed-out Tibetan city, the touch of the artists behind the views seems tangible. Beyond the "normal" environments, Uncharted 2 is packed with spectacular set pieces and beautiful locales. Perhaps most impressive of all is that Naughty Dog is able to take us to such glorious places while never losing its grip on the sense of realism that other devs would use as an excuse to paint the world in greys and browns.

I must admit, I'm still debating with myself as to whether or not it deserves the top spot in this category. It really is a remarkable achievement.

Mini Ninjas
Mini Ninjas doesn't have much going for it beyond its concept, but one thing it has in spades is a beautiful style, realized with care. The gentle lapping of a tiny oar against the stillness of a lake. The white-capped peaks of distant mountains. Every level in the game offers at least one breathtaking vista - it's not technologically impressive, but Mini Ninjas is a remarkably good-looking game.

inFamous is
"realistic(ish), but it's realism informed by the style of a graphic novel."
Grungy city streets splashed with vibrant color and sharp enemy designs. Every building, character and vehicle in the game are invested with just enough style to make them pop. The result is a believable world that has an inescapable vitality.

Demon's Souls
No other title I can point to has so successfully riffed on gothic architecture without merely turning it into a caricature. Demon's Souls makes no such mistake, and its oppressive, consistent and varied worlds are utterly haunting. Throw in iconic character designs that neatly sidestep the cliches of Japanese RPGs and inspired enemies, and Demon's Souls easily sports some of the best art direction of the year.

Best Art Direction of 2009:
"Making everything look as if it was stripped neatly from an old vinyl album cover colors the entire game with grand, striking vistas the likes of which you will find nowhere else. Inspired by - and slavishly reproducing - an almost Frazetta-like style of bombastic, iconic images, Brütal Legend's near-cartoony world of epic set pieces and primary colors looks like no other game."

Fine, maybe Uncharted 2 deserves this spot - after all, the fact that it has spectacular art direction without ever sacrificing the sense that its world is a believable place is incredible - but more astounding is the sheer volume of balls-out, uninhibited creativity in Brütal Legend. From the stabbing, chrome tusks of the wild hogs (which can be ridden as motorcycles) to the character and enemy designs to the grand badassery of the world itself, Brütal Legend is visually spectacular. Like Mini Ninjas, this is not the result of technology, but of vision. Unlike inFamous, it's not due merely to stylization, but a total lack of creative restraint.

I could write a half-dozen paragraphs about all the brilliant touches, smart use of color and wonderful designs in Brütal Legend, but perhaps the best way to get my point across is to simply give it this spot on the list. It's amazing.

Moving on...

Overall presentation is a little hard to nail down - it is, perhaps more than anything, a real, deliberate directorial consistency throughout all aspects of the experience. Wisely chosen music, technological prowess - style. These are titles that make you feel just a little bit cooler, simply by interacting with them.


Assassin's Creed II
Everything about Assassin's Creed II is simply slick. Solid voice and art direction are held aloft by technical mastery, and while the loading screens aren't quite as pleasant as the original's, everything else has been polished to a mirror shine. Heck, even the menus in ACII are stylish - and let's not forget the masterful animation. This is a title that takes being triple-A very, very seriously.

Wet is a C-quality title in nearly every respect. Its technology hardly impresses, it has a few troublesome bugs, its gameplay is just shy of balanced, but its soundtrack is phenomenal and
"it is very, very unique. It has more of an identity of style and purpose and I-don't-give-a-fuck than 90% of action titles."
Artificial Mind & Movement slavishly went to work reproducing not only the aesthetic hallmarks of grindhouse cinema (cheesy ads, a grainy filter), but the shameless, exploitive, incendiary spirit as well. There's more than a few things to hate about Wet, but it's easy to love its presentation.

Brütal Legend

This nom has next-to-nothing to do with art direction and everything to do with the overall vibe of the title. The game opens with Jack Black leading you into a record store and presenting you with an ancient, vinyl LP of myth. Press start to open the case and look at the art work inside. Continue your game and the camera zooms into the picture itself, perfectly capturing the game's ambition. The soundtrack is exceptional, the voice work is top-notch, the cutscene animation is second only to Uncharted 2. Brütal Legend is the consistent product of an inspired vision.

Best Presentation of 2009:
""Very, very good-looking" doesn't do its visuals justice. Calling it a third-person shooter doesn't begin to speak to the experience it offers. Talking about the standard-setting voice work and storytelling can't inform you of how you'll feel when the characters banter, or a loved one is put in mortal peril. It is, simply, an astounding experience that repeatedly one-ups itself with boggling set-pieces and ever-higher high adventure over the course of its campaign."
This is probably the easiest call of the entire list - Uncharted 2 is simply a bar-raiser. It is the result of sheer technical genius, but doesn't stagger under the weight of any pretentions (like Assassin's Creed II). The graphics are jaw-dropping, handily outstripping any other game released this year, the animations are the best of 2009 and the gameplay itself is smooth as butter.

Nothing in 2009 looks nearly as good as Uncharted 2, and no other title is so consistently thrilling.

This article is getting pretty huge. Let's split it up into two parts...

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