X360A's 2009 Game of the Year Awards
Written Thursday, December 31, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
In a year where the world tried desperately hard to recover from an economic depression, the gaming industry continued to grow in leaps and bounds. A year that will be remembered for Modern Warfare 2’s record breaking sales, copious amounts of downloadable content and more 2010 slips than we cared for, 2009 was a good year to be a gamer. Despite all those 2010 slips though, we saw some great titles in 2009 and now, as usual, it’s about time we lavish our eternal praise on the best of the year in our end of the year awards. Get comfy, we’re in for a long night of praise, criticism and idle anecdotes.
As we did last year (and will continue to do so every year), we kick off this year’s awards with the best premise (i.e. concept) of the year. Whether they delivered or not is moot, if they had the best concept, they’ll be heralded here.
Picking up the first award this year is Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. Whilst last year’s winner of this category didn’t quite nail the implementation and delivery of the premise (The Force Unleashed), Arkham Asylum did. The premise was bold and actually difficult to achieve, and that was simply to create a licensed Batman game with a whole host of iconic franchise villains to fight off against, ultimately giving Batman the chance to be a silent predator as well as a powerful brawler. Rocksteady delivered there without a shadow of a doubt and the way in which they delivered it was both entertaining and in true spirit of the Batman legacy. An easy choice for us this year.
2009 brought us some mighty fine stories and in our runners-up and winner spots this year, the usual suspects are all present and correct, but we also welcome a new boy into the fray.
It comes as no shock to us that industry story legends, BioWare, managed to deliver the year’s best story with their spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age. A story that offered more choices than the McDonalds Pound Saver menu and more twists and turns than Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction. Dragon Age had it all. In it you play the role of one of the Grey Wardens and after choosing your origin, you’ll set off on a trip to build an army big enough to destroy the Darkspawn that plagues the world. Dragon Age: Origins boasts a great cast of characters, superb emotional twists and decisions, many epic battles and a world that you shape, making it our story of the year.
Multiplayer is as big in gaming as it ever has been, whether we’re talking competitively or co-operatively. Simply put, people live for these types of games and these types of games alone. 2009 was a great year for multiplayer gaming and so picking 3 alone was a tough task... but one we thrived on.
Sitting in the runners-up spot this year is Valve’s surprise 2009 sequel to the 2008 winner, Left 4 Dead. The sequel was more of a robust package than the original, offering more co-op campaigns, more versus maps and even a few new game modes. Despite all the new modes, Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2 wasn’t entirely fresh enough to wiggle to the top of the pack, but it had a bloody good go.
Failing to miss out on the top spot just like Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2 was Gearbox’s co-operative shooter-RPG, Borderlands. It took home the gold in our top 5 co-op titles of 2009 in the build up to Christmas, but the simple fact that other titles offered a much more robust multiplayer package overall than Borderlands could offer, means that the title will have to settle with a runners-up spot. I’m sure Gearbox would take that though considering who the winner is.
There was no doubt in our mind that the best multiplayer game of 2009 was anything else but Modern Warfare 2. Whilst the 2 player co-op mode, Spec-Ops, wasn’t enough to win the co-op game of the year awards – the same one Borderlands won – but coupled together with its well crafted and addictive multiplayer, it’s easily enough to take home the gold here. Infinity Ward may stupidly have lost points for disabling party chat in most online playlists, however, it wasn’t enough to dethrone itself this year. If it does it again though, we won’t be so forgiving. Heed our words Infinity Ward. Dismiss them at your peril.
We all love our eye-candy, right? I mean that’s why we choose to game on the Xbox 360 and not the Wii, right? Oooohhh. Sorry, couldn’t help myself there. Anyway, it’s time to turn our attention to polygons, HDR lighting and detailed textures as we praise the year’s best looking games.
Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum was easily one of the year’s best looking games this year, leading the way with its supremely detailed and well rendered character models. Not only that, but Arkham Asylum itself was a dark, moody and superbly realised environment to play around in. The attention to detail in Arkham Asylum’s world and its characters means that it’s more than good enough to squeeze its way on to the podium this year as one of the year’s hottest titles.
Joining the caped crusader is a game of a totally different genre, but a game with equally as impressive visuals. Turn 10’s Forza 3 not only pushed the boat out from a physics standpoint, but it was a visual master class. The cars are not only the best cars we’ve seen so far in this generation of consoles, boasting HDR lighting and high count polygon textures, but the scenery is easily as epic. We’d like to have seen more effort and time put into the game’s damage system, but other than that, a worthy runner -up this year.
Taking home the best graphics award of 2009 is Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2. I mean seriously, has war ever looked so good? The wide range and diverse locations were fantastically created, the animations were top draw and the attention to detail was second to none – just take a look at the eyes rolling into the back of the skull of the enemy soldier during the last mission with the rappel knife assassination, simply stunning. It’s all well and good creating all that, but Infinity Ward took things one step further and created a mood and atmosphere with its visuals that is unique in every level, whether you’re rolling through suburban America, storming the Whitehouse or advancing through the favelas in Rio De Janeiro, the visuals are always top draw. A well rounded and visual masterpiece if ever there was one and a more than worthy winner.
2009 was not only the year of the DLC, but it was also the year of the original score, with all three of our nominees worthy of the top place on the Christmas tree. It just goes to show how far the industry has come as well in terms of maturity... I mean, you don’t get scores as epic and as varied as these in films these days!
No surprise here that Marty O’Donnell’s Halo 3: ODST and its original score makes the top three. It was a superbly diverse musical score with a piece for every occasion. So whether you’re scavenging through Covenant remains as the lone rookie on the streets of New Mombasa listening to the chilling and isolated compositions, or you’re knee deep in out-and-out action, playing along to the traditional upbeat Halo symphonies. Epic stuff all round.
Modern Warfare 2 and its Hans Zimmer debut video game soundtrack makes its way into the runners-up spot alongside ODST this year. Not quite good enough to capture the top spot, but definitely good enough to get a mention; Zimmer’s score matches the fast paced action that the Modern Warfare 2 campaign delivers from start to finish. The soundtrack isn’t that much of a step up from Call of Duty 4’s impressive showing, but that doesn’t make it any less of a stunning soundtrack.
Jesper Kyd did a superb job with Assassin’s Creed 2’s score this year, taking the best score award by a nose-length. Emotional, engaging and ever-changing are just a few adjectives to describe Kyd’s original score. Right from the get-go Assassin’s Creed 2 had an accompanying composition for every different scenario. Whether you’re watching one of the game’s many tragic events, stalking your prey on the rooftops of Venice or using Da Vinci’s flying machine, every piece is as fitting and as emotional as the last. Top job Jesper, top job indeed.
New franchises are essentially what keep the gaming industry fresh every year. There’s only one chance to join this illustrious group of winners... and that’s on the first try. Three worthy nominees, but only one winner.
Coming in as one of the runners-up this year is Ubisoft’s new Tom Clancy franchise, HAWX... and yes, there’s a new one every year, Tom Clancy game that is. HAWX fills a gap in the Tom Clancy franchise by offering air-to-air fighter plane combat both online and offline. Boasting a robust and extensive co-operative enabled campaign as well as some manic online gameplay, HAWX was one of the year’s sleeper hits and strong new franchises. Setting off to perform numerous objectives and destroying a whole range of targets in co-op with a friend was one of the year’s best co-op experiences, even if you got stuck being Goose and ended up dying in the end.
BioWare’s Dragon Age makes the other runners-up spot this year. Easily one of the year’s best RPGs, Dragon Age delivers a fantastic story, plenty of character growth, an in-depth group relationship system and it even gives you the chance to shape your role as you see fit. An easy and accessible RPG, that boasts plenty of depth, multiple storylines and superb value for money. There’s no doubt in our mind that this was one of the strongest new franchises to see the light of day in 2009. BioWare’s post release support thus far has also been excellent, so it could be a game to take up a few months of your life as well.
Borderlands is our pick for franchise of the year, following in the footsteps of our choice last year, Left 4 Dead. Not only did its sales figures prove that it was the year’s biggest new franchise, but the review scores also backed up its claim. Its unique art style, the melding of two popular genres (shooter & RPG) and its sheer amount of looting won the game serious points, but it was its co-op gameplay and its comedic charm that carried it over the finishing line. Borderlands according to 2K is now another major franchise for them following its instant success and 2009 was the year that it went from zero to hero in one fell swoop. Congrats to the guys at Gearbox, a job well done.
The Xbox Live Arcade grew in leaps and bounds in 2009 and the expectations of what we expect from the service were suitably elevated. Going on current growth levels and the general improvement in quality, 2010 should be even better, but before we look ahead, let’s look back.
Twisted Pixel have been making a name for themselves recently with original and engaging arcade games. Kicking the year off with The Maw, they went one better in the summer when Splosion Man exploded on to the service. A unique platformer with a subtle sense of humour, Splosion Man offered plenty of platforming puzzles, large bosses and even a co-op mode to tempt in the masses. A fantastic Xbox Live Arcade title and another success out of the Twisted Pixel camp.
Our other podium placed Xbox Live Arcade game goes to a title that is both addictive and frustrating in equal measures. Of course, we’re talking about none other than RedLynx’s HD release of their popular Trials franchise. With such unique and simplistic controls, Trials HD offers a mechanic that might seem trivial on the surface, but dig deeper, and there is an art to master here. Well, that’s if it doesn’t drive you to death with frustration along the way. With well placed checkpoints and your goal always within touching distance, the “just one more go” mantra seems to be an overriding feature of the game. Great visuals, plenty of amusing and tasking puzzles, Trials HD is worthy of a place on this year’s podium.
The proverbial Xbox Live Arcade bar was raised this summer when Epic/Chair Entertainment and Microsoft released their 2D Castlevania/Metroid cross breed, Shadow Complex, on the Xbox Live Arcade. The game not only looked great and told a pretty decent story, but it offered hours of gameplay and had plenty of replayability all for $15. It not only set a new standard on what we expect on the Xbox Live Arcade, but this badboy put some fully blown retail titles to shame. Now if that isn’t a testament to what a great game it is, I’m not sure what is. 2010 better take note now, because the best of the Xbox Live Arcade in 2009 is going to take some beating next year if they don’t recognise this new benchmark.
There wasn’t much in terms of actual gameplay innovations this year and as a result, the innovations podium winners for this year’s category are made up of various other mechanics and features that the top publishers decided to hedge their bets on.
Taking the gold this year for the second year running is Ubisoft, as they look to take Microsoft’s “awardables” one step further. With their new uPlay brand – that saw the light of day with the release of Assassin’s Creed 2 – Ubisoft opened gamers up to a new world of interactivity and gamer rewards. The fundamental mechanic is simple... perform well across all or some of Ubisoft’s products and they’ll reward you with exclusive in-game content that can be purchased using the uPlay points you’ve earned from other Ubisoft titles. So if you completed Assassin’s Creed 2 and wanted to unlock a unique gun in Splinter Cell: Conviction next year, that’s what the system looks to do. We’ve always said that achievements (and now awardables) ought to unlock bonuses in-game that are either cool, a novelty or aid your cause... it looks like Ubisoft were listening. Either that or they just used their common sense.
In order for a game to make our surprise list, we must simply have either low or no expectations for it. If a title meets either of those criteria and turns out to be bloody impressive, chances are it’ll make this list... although, there’s only space for 2 runner-ups and 1 winner.
Prior to Ubisoft’s release of HAWX, our excitement for the game rested in the, “yeah, it could be okay” camp. After playing it though, our inner fighter pilot was more than impressed... so impressed that it scored an 85 from ourselves. Its simplistic controls, room for expert flying manoeuvres with its “OFF” mode, great visuals, fantastic missions, and even better, the game was 4 player co-op and had a crazy competitive online battle arena. We literally didn’t expect it to turn out this good. Pleasantly surprised is a nice way to put it.
What usually happens when a popular franchise moves across into other genres to effectively broaden its horizon and ultimately make more cash? Can anyone say flop? Especially considering that we’re talking about a genre that’s never really been a sales magnet before. Of course, there is always an exception to the rule. In Halo Wars’ case, Ensemble not only did a fantastic job with a simplistic RTS setup whilst staying true to the license, they also shifted more copies of a console RTS than anyone before them. That just shows you the strength of the brand, but it was the quality of the title that shocked us. A co-operative campaign, simple controls, great authenticity, decent set-pieces, a fantastic score, the best cutscenes of the year and some pretty immersive competitive skirmishes. That spells a pretty damn good game to us... and that Halo Wars was.
Taking the podium this year for the surprise of the year category may come as no surprise if you’ve been reading our recent coverage... ironic, I know! We’ve been singing the praise of DJ Hero around here for sometime after discovering a hidden gem behind a diluted and over-milked brand. The “Hero” brand has been around the neighbourhood more times than the village bike, but still, FreeStyleGames proved that despite the generic label, they can create something both familiar and fresh at the same time. The soundtrack was top notch, the DJ talent was immense, the peripheral is durable and responsive, plus, they had Daft Punk. DJ Hero is one of the musical games of the last few years if we say so ourselves. Did we see that coming when it was announced this year? Did we heck!
Unlike the previous surprise category, the tables are turned on its head here for the disappointment category. For a game to be nominated as a disappointment, we must have had some hope for a decent game. There were more than a few disappointments this year, but of course, only 3 can make the cut.
Taking home the disappointment gong this year is the unfortunate Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. If you thought that the mantra that a sequel must be better than its predecessor is true, you’ve obviously not played Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Whilst the story was better structured and the fusion powers were a nice addition to the franchise, to do so at the expense of the individual super power moves and the old equipment system, you have to wonder what they were smoking during the meeting when that design decision was made. Note to Activision and Vicarious Visions, if something works and is liked by the fans of the original, don’t kick them in the teeth and remove them from the sequel. Thank you. Don’t come again.
Getting named as the best studio of the year is no easy feat. Certain things are expected of certain developers these days, so it’s not just enough to create a great game. To get named as the best studio the developer must have had to tackle some issues and overcome them, do something extraordinary or literally pop-up out of nowhere and create some magic. Let me tell you, 2009 was a magical year.
This year’s best studio winner is a fairytale, from rags to riches story, as Rocksteady Studios go from just another run of the mill studio, to a studio that has the ability to churn out triple A titles. Apart from Rocksteady’s 2009 outing – Batman: Arkham Asylum which we gave 93% this year – they had one solitary title to their name, Urban Chaos: Riot Response – a title that saw the light of day in 2006 to a tepid response from reviewers (MetaCritic rating of 72% on the Xbox). Zoom forward 3 years and Rocksteady have created one of the year’s most atmospheric titles that not only impressed the critics, but impressed with its more than strong sales figures. If that isn’t an unexpected shift in quality, we don’t know what is. Nobody else did enough this year to topple this fantastic studio from our number one spot. Funny thing is, people even forget that the game was delayed this year as well. All is forgiven.
Now on to the best publishers of 2009... the category where we take into account the publisher’s highs and woes, and then judge who we think had the overall best package. We not only look at the strength of the line-up here, but consistency is also key. Let’s kick off things with the runners up...
After only just missing out to Microsoft in this category last year, the tables have turned for EA this year as they make their way to the top of the podium. Skate 2 kicked off their proceedings in impressive style and their strong catalogue of sports titles saw them through the summer, with all but NBA Live 10 being the top dog in the genre. FIFA delivered again, as did NHL and the return of Fight Night was a boost to their line-up. Of course Madden and co helped the proceedings... as they usually do. The success even extended out on to the Live Arcade this year in the summer months, with BF 1943 breaking all sorts of records, and here’s not forgetting the arcade sports titles as well. Throw in a strong year end with Brutal Legend, Dragon Age: Origins, The Saboteur and their EA Partners support with The Beatles: Rock Band and Left 4 Dead 2, and you have an extensive catalogue that delivers across the board. As for our review scores for the retail titles; 1 title scored between 50-59; 3 between 60-69; 3 between 70-79; a staggering 8 between 80-89; and even 2 90+ games. A great showing from EA this year.
This is it... the moment you’ve all been waiting for and the moment we’ve been building up to. It’s time to unveil our Game of the Year for 2009... and boy was it a tough one to call this year.
Taking one of the runner-up spots for this year’s GOTY award is Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2, a game that had it all; a Hollywood style, non-stop action single player campaign, a enjoyable and robust co-operative scenario mode; and more of the infamous Modern Warfare online multiplayer. Infinity Ward took COD4’s impressive Game of the Year showing and added a ton of detail from everything down to online customisation to its single player score and presentation. If the campaign had been a little longer, the plot a little more engaging and the Spec Ops mode a little more unique and separate from the main game, Modern Warfare 2 might just have had higher place on the podium.
Joining the runner-up ranks of Modern Warfare 2 for this year’s GOTY is Rocksteady’s impressive next-gen debut, Batman: Arkham Asylum. Offering a gripping story, a fantastic voice-cast, plenty of twists and turns, some great villain cameos and one of the best looking games of 2009, Arkham Asylum delivers a video game based on an iconic character that we’ve not really been privy to in recent years. Everything in Arkham Asylum screamed triple A and Rocksteady and Eidos/Square Enix deserve their place in the spotlight this year as they do the Batman brand complete and utter justice. Warner Bros must be ecstatic that they’ve picked up the publishing rights to the sequel after seeing the sheer amount of quality that was on show here.
Taking the gold this year is none other than Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed 2, or what we like to call, the perfect sequel. Whilst Assassin’s Creed had a marmite effect with gamers – you either love it or hate it – Assassin’s Creed 2 does everything right from the get go. A superb cast of characters, an epic story, a moving and emotional original score, a fantastic recreation of the Renaissance period and more importantly, a ton of mission variety. Ubisoft Montreal laid the foundations of the franchise with the original and took the game to a whole new level with the sequel. New assassination skills, a ton of weapons, your very own Renaissance crib and so much more. The game has so much depth this time around that the oversights of the original are long forgotten. Assassin’s Creed 2 most certainly was our GOTY and with it, our expectations for the sequel are so much more than they were a few months back. Congrats to Ubisoft Montreal for doing a fine job and a worthy accolade for a stunning sequel.