Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The PS3 Retrospective Part III : 2009.

After 2008's strong third-party support solidified the PS3 as a worthy rival to the then-dominant Xbox 360, Sony built on its new-found momentum with a sexy new slim redesign of the console and one of the system's best years in first-party releases, starting off with...

Killzone 2 (Feb 27, '09)

Killzone 2 was a major bone of contention, as Sony assured us this trailer from 2005 was gameplay footage, and - given that the entire thing looked canned and pre-rendered - everyone in the world said "seriously?"  It took way too long for Sony to 'fess up and admit that no, that gorgeous trailer was just a target render, but when Killzone 2 finally dropped, it did a... decent job, at least, of containing all the pretty effects the trailer showcased.

Killzone 2 is the last game in the series to retain (what was then) Killzone's trademark "weight," a sense of inertia in movement and heft to weapons that reduced the player's ability to quickly snap to targets, but added a king's ransom in immersion to the gritty sci-fi battlefields the game shuttles you through. A game that managed to make bleary, gray, war-torn rubble gorgeous, KZ2's remarkable effects and technical techniques solidified Guerrilla's place as one of Sony's premier developers, and one of the few studios capable of pushing the limits of what was possible on the PS3.

One of the year's most-anticipated games (after the universally acclaimed RE4), Resident Evil 5 (Mar 13, '09) took the series in a different direction, and not always in a good way.  Capcom's new engine ensured the game looked wonderful, but cries of racist imagery and a constant co-op partner cut the eerie tension of the venerable franchise.  As a co-op action game, Resident Evil 5 is good, wielding as it does the sharp third-person shooting Shinji Mikami pioneered in RE4.  As a creepy Resident Evil game..?  It was wanting.

The fact that those accusing the game of racism were pretty on-the-nose didn't help its case, either (the game takes place in Afrika, with mobs of mindless, violent dark-skinned folks clawing at its heroes in echoes of classic anti-black imagery, and there's a section where you're in a "traditional" village, and they literally chuck spears at you).

Bionic Commando (May 19, '09 - review) wasn't a major title.  A relatively humble attempt by a studio known as Grin to bring back one of Capcom's cooler properties from the NES era, it fell short of the triple-A standard, was burned alive by critics and gamers for not putting its swing mechanic in an open world, and quickly ignored by the public.

I too was swayed by those reviews, and didn't touch the game until I saw it in a bargain bin for $10 the following year.  I had a deep affection for Bionic Commando back on the NES, and wanted to to be good.  Plus, I'd read one single review on a non-major site that assured me the game was fun as hell, and ended with the words "it's true."

Friends, it's true.  Bionic Commando is fantastically fun and a worthy update of the NES classic - and that's why it's on this list.  Speaking of games with major fun factor...

inFamous (May 26, '09 - review)

Sucker Punch Productions was, at the time, a third-party studio, having partnered with Sony for the previous eight years on the PS2 Sly trilogy - a cute, cartoony series of liquid-smooth 3D platformers about an anthropomorphised cat burglar raccoon.  Those games were pretty good.  They were fun.  They were kids' games, but, y'know, nice.  Very pretty.

When I heard about inFamous, I was only disappointed at the news.  Instead of a new, slick, high-def Sly, we were getting a "gritty" urban game about a guy with electricity superpowers, which seemed like the dumbest thing ever, at the time.  But Sony knew what they had, with inFamous.  They knew it was Sucker Punch's first game that really approached the triple-A standard, and so they tied in access to the (highly anticipated) multiplayer beta for Uncharted 2 with first-run copies of inFamous - which is why I picked the game up.

I played it, enjoyed it, then picked it up a few months later and realized I was in loveinFamous became one of my all-time favorite PS3 franchises.  Combining Sucker Punch's knack for delightful art direction, animation and slick, smooth 3D platforming with solid third-person shooting mechanics and a wide-open world, it was - bar none - the funnest game of 2009.

A direct competitor to inFamous, as it's also a game about a guy with superpowers in an urban setting, Prototype (Jun 9, '09 - review) was Radical Entertainment's attempt to break out of licensed-game purgatory with an original IP.  After years of making licensed crap for Activision - and finding a modicum of real success with the sublime Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction - Radical tried to leverage the sense of freedom and power they so masterfully offered in Hulk.

Prototype never quite caught on to the degree they'd hoped - its mission design, its narrative and the variety of mechanics doesn't live up to the standard they'd set for themselves in Hulk - but it was still a wide-eyed, gleefully gory fantasy of freedom and violence.

Batman : Arkham Asylum (Aug 25, '09 - review)

We'd heard a lot of good things about Arkham Asylum prior to its release, but we didn't believe it.  Preview articles from the major gaming sites always view upcoming games through rose-colored glasses - the better to secure ongoing coverage of a game with - and the idea that a Batman game could actually be good?  That's laughable.  A great superhero game (see: Radical's Incredible Hulk, Treyarch's - yes, that Treyarch - Spider-Man 2) is the rarest of breeds, and there had never been a decent Batman game.  Ever.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a great Batman game.  With world's greatest detective-esque puzzle-solving, a cool Metroidvania structure which sees Bats exploring a steadily-expanding free-roaming game world via a collection of cool Bat-gadgets, capable stealth mechanics and a totally fresh, unique combat system that allowed the caped crusader to literally fight forty goons at once, Batman: Arkham Asylum became an instant Game of the Year contender and a new high-water mark for what a superhero game could be.  Its decent graphics tech (the ubiquitous Unreal engine) is buoyed by lush, gothic art direction that plugs in to our unconscious expectations of Batman's world, and a decent script is elevated by the voice work of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, reprising their roles as Batman and Joker from the hugely influential WB Batman animated series, allowing us to instantly buy in to the game's reality.

A landmark title, it catapulted developer Rocksteady - who had only ever, previously, made the middling shooter Urban Chaos : Riot Response on the 6th gen - to the world's stage, and made the studio's name.  The Arkham City name would, for the next four years, be synonymous with quality.

Artificial Mind & Movement's WET (Sept 15, '09 - review) was the developer's Dead Space, their Prototype.  It was a shovelware developer's attempt to break out with their own original IP, and it just wasn't... quite... there.

It had a ton going for it, not the least of which was a phenomenal psychobilly soundtrack and a really successful pulp aesthetic.  A game that tried to combine the bullet-time death ballet of Max Payne with the wall-running platforming of Prince of Persia and score attack mechanics, WET just wasn't as polished as it needed to be, and it faded into obscurity as the developer went on to produce the (terrible) Naughty Bear.

Still, I've got a soft spot for this one.

Demon's Souls (Oct 6, '09 - review)

A spiritual successor to Japanese dev From Software's King's Field, Demon's Souls was produced in co-operation with SCE Japan, and published by Sony in the east.  It was a huge hit, but Sony didn't think the game's ultra-hardcore design would find acceptance in North America.

They were wrong.  Demon's Souls would go on to be the most-successful game venerable localization house Atlus USA had ever published, at the time, and Sony actually admitted they were wrong to not bring it over.

Beyond setting wholly original new standards for the blending of single and multi-player, which has now seeped in to major blockbusters like Watch DogsDemon's Souls defined dark fantasy on the seventh generation, with rock, rock-hard challenge and ridiculously satisfying, weighty combat and movement, making it one of the most successful action games of its age.  This is a game in which you can feel every pound of your armor pressing down on you and the heft of your sword.  A game of fantastic tension and immersion, in which you keep your shield up as you creep, just a teensy bit further, into the blackness than you'd ever dared.

An instant classic and frontrunner for Game of the Year.  Sony's mistake in failing to localize it would come back to bite them a few years later, but that's for another day.

Brütal Legend (Oct 13, '09 - review)

An explosion of creativity and lusty joie de vivreBrütal Legend was only the second game from the critically-adored Double Fine, a studio helmed by legendary Lucasarts adventure game-smith Tim Schafer (Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, Monkey Island), which had previously only produced the (again, critically-adored) commercial flop Psychonauts.

Originally an Activision title, Brütal Legend was almost lost to limbo when Activision decided the game's musical bent might eat into the sales of Guitar Hero, and shelved it.  Shafer took the game to Electronic Arts, but Activision attempted to block the game's sale again by suing Double Fine, saying they (by purchasing the company that was supposed to publish the game) had invested $15 million in it, and had rights to it.  Shafer sued them back, famously saying "hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it. Oh great, now Beyonce is going to sue me too."

Eventually Shafer won out, and the biggest, most triple-A game Double Fine had - or would - ever produce made its way into consumer hands.  A better experience than game, Brütal Legend is a hilarious, gorgeous love letter to heavy metal, with a world that looks like it sprung from countless metal album covers, a lead character well-served by the irrepressible energy and earnest charm of Jack Black and a supporting cast of real-life rockers and voice acting heavyweights like Jennifer Hale.

An open-world game with 'play that's half brawling action, half RTS, Brütal Legend's gameplay isn't quite as spectacular as the world, the art, the writing, the music, the characters that surround it - but its experience taken as a whole is... singular.

We may never see its like again.

Uncharted 2 : Among Thieves (Oct 13, '09)

When it appeared, Uncharted 2 dropped jaws across the world, and (along with Demon's Souls) swept the Game of the Year awards in 2009.  This is my review from four years ago, in its entirety:
"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.

That's Uncharted 2. I'm not kidding. During my first playthrough, I was so giddily thrilled with the experience I found myself laughing out loud. Not at a joke, or a clever reference - simply because my Cup of Happy was bubbling over, and had to be released through exultation.

It's wonderful. It is - far and away - the best game I've played in 2009 (or 2008 for that matter - and that includes the PS3 port of BioShock). For my money, it is the single best game on the Playstation 3. "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.

Oh, there's also multiplayer."

Uncharted 2 is a supernaturally accomplished game across every facet.  Art, tech, gameplay, design, writing - it cemented Naughty Dog's reputation as one of the single greatest developers in the world.

Ratchet & Clank Future : A Crack In Time (Oct 17, '09 - review)

Never owned by Sony, Insomniac Games is a private company that had been in a partnership for the better part of a decade, and after the following year's Resistance 3, Insomniac would announce plans to branch out to multiplatform development with Fuse, a critical and commercial flop multiplayer shooter.

We didn't see that horizon at the time, and while Crack received generally positive reviews, most critics noted it was more of the same-old, same-old.
"Insomniac has accomplished something rather unique on the current generation of consoles - they pump out one triple-A game every year. I can't think of any other studio that manages it, but the price they pay for consistent quality is an almost disappointing level of consistency.

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time is precisely what you expect it will be - another great Ratchet & Clank title. These games always deliver. Whenever you see a new R&C release in the store, you can pick it up with the confidence that it will be one of the better games of the year, and a worthy investment of your gaming dollar - and Crack in Time is no different.

It's gorgeous, it plays perfectly, it takes you to strange worlds and lets you blow the holy hell out of everything - it is another Ratchet & Clank game - and even though I find that perfectly satisfying, it's still just another Ratchet & Clank game."
-from the review-
We took you for granted, Ratchet & Clank.  Insomniac would go on to provide the series lip-service with two deeply disappointing spin-off titles that were R&C in name only, and only returned to the series' joyous central mechanics with the brief-but-satisfying Into the Nexus in 2013, as Insomniac proper ramps up work on the Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive.

I miss you, R&C.  Come back.

Dragon Age : Origins (Nov 3, '09 - review) was the first BioWare RPG to ever appear on a Sony platform.  The respected western RPG development house had enjoyed close ties with Xbox for the previous decade, with games like Star Wars : Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and of course Mass Effect appearing exclusively on Microsoft platforms.

It was Mass Effect that really stung for Sony gamers, as it went on to become a major player in Game of the Year lists of 2007 (protip: Mass Effect isn't actually a very fun game - but I didn't know that at the time), but with Dragon Age, we could finally throw down with a BioWare title on a Dualshock.

Dragon Age had been in development for almost nine years when it finally launched, and it was an odd mix of gorgeous close-ups and blood-spatter, standard-setting writing and voice work and questionable textures and last-gen geometry in some backgrounds.  Designed first and foremost as a tactical RPG for PCs, the game's controls didn't translate very well to consoles - something they addressed well in its sequel.

While Dragon Age was a satisfyingly mature RPG and a welcome taste of the intelligence and gray morality BioWare brings to the genre, its combat systems held it back from real greatness on consoles, and the PS3 wouldn't see the best that BioWare could offer until 2011.

Assassin's Creed II (Nov 17, '09 - review)

What a difference two years can make.  Assassin's Creed II is everything a sequel should be.  It retains what was beautiful in the original Assassin's Creed and smooths out every rough edge, addressing every concern.  The stoic, unlikable hero Altair was replaced with the charming, sexy, funny Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young nobleman of Florence who stumbles across his family's legacy and - armed with a friendship and the zany inventions of Leonardo da Vinci - sets out to right the wrongs that are creeping across renaissance-era Italy.  With slick platforming, capable stealth and a gorgeous game world, ACII earned its place among the luminaries of an already stellar year in gaming.

A stunningly attractive game with smart design that directly recalled Ubisoft Montreal's roots with the Prince of Persia franchise, Assassin's Creed II and its sequel, Brotherhood, remain the high points of the AC franchise to this day.

* * *

Between Killzone, inFamous, Demon's Souls, Uncharted and Ratchet & Clank alone, 2009 was an excellent year to be a PS3 owner.  The stream of high-caliber exclusives would thin out a bit in 2010, but strong third-party support would continue to build the system's library.

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