Let's face it, unless you're one of the many people whom enjoy picking up a sports game ever year with the little things added, or the holders of an IP or a publisher, most people do not look forward to licensed games. Not often because of the license itself, but generally because the game is poor. It's been the same year in and year out for the longest period of time now.
But it looks that as we close out 2009, that publishers and developers are starting to 'get' the fact that just because you have a cool and/or interesting license doesn't mean you can't release a product that doesn't reflect this cool and/or interesting license. Sure, we had a few of those in the form of Star Trek D-A-C, parts 1&2 of Watchmen: The End is Nigh, Terminator Salvation and the recently released GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but for everything else? Well, it's generally been pretty good.
The first one that immediately springs to mind is Activision's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie was one of the worst and most disappointing movies of the year. And yet, the game has been even more favourably rated. The Uncaged Edition (i.e. the super, over the top bloody one that was released on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3) rates around the low to high 70% mark on Metacritic, and around 75-80% on Game Rankings, proving to be one of the more surprisingly good licensed games to be released this year. In fact, the one thing that the game did right better than the movie was that made you feel like you were Wolverine, which is something that really cannot be done with the movie. Oh, and made it bloodier - something that Wolverine fans would've loved.
THQ's UFC 2009: Undisputed is another example of this. Very few people were looking forward to the game before it came out (I was one of them), and then when the demo was released onto the Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network, it blew a lot of people away - even more so since it was a completely different sport to what developer Yuke's (developers of the WWE Smackdown series, also from THQ) were used to. It scored even better than Wolverine, with an average score of 83 and 84% on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 from Metacritic, and an average of 83% from Game Rankings.
Hell, even rhythm games have had their fare share of great licensed games. Take Activision's Guitar Hero Metallica for instance, two IP's that are almost synomous with selling out. Average scores? 84-86% on Metacritic and 85-87% on Game Rankings, with many reviewers praising (and rightly so) at just how well Neversoft created an experience ripe for Metallica fans. And while it hasn't been released yet (as of the time of writing), MTV/Harmonix's The Beatles: Rock Band looks set to follow in this trend of an excellent band focused rhythm game.
Though the one biggest recent example would have to be Eidos' Batman - Arkham Aslyum. Eidos are not exactly the most popular publisher with the general gaming populace (one only has to look at the Gerstmann-Gate saga or the reports of managing the scores given by reviewers), and the developer behind it, Rocksteady Studios, had only one other game under their belt - the somewhat underrated (going by reponses to people who've played it) Urban Chaos - Riot Response. And the other factor going into this? There hasn't been an excellent Batman game in years, with people citing Sunsoft's late 80's NES adaptation of the '89 Batman movie or Konami's 1992 and 1994 adaptations of Batman Returns and the Adventures of Batman and Robin as the only really great Batman games. Everything else? Medicore at best, unbelievably awful or cancelled (as was the fate of the planned game based around the Dark Knight movie) at worst.
The response was almost impossible to believe.
Metacritic averages the critical responses at around 91-92%, with Game Rankings averaging it at around 91%. It's nuts. So nuts that the Guinness Book of Records actually NOMINATED the game for a World Record - the Most Critically Acclaimed Super Hero Game Ever. I couldn't be making this up if I tried. Though generally, it does seem quite deserving, as from all accounts - the game is quite excellent. Not perfect, but still one of the better games to be released this year.
This trend could extend somewhat to whatever few major licensed games are left coming out this year. EA's NHL 10, given the last two iterations, should still hold up as being a fantastic game. Another EA product, FIFA 10, also looks to continue the series recent trend of being excellent. I'm also having high hopes for THQ's WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2010. Not only because it's THQ's last year as the publisher of WWE games, but because based on previews so far, it definitely seems like one hell of a game to go out on.
2009 has been one of the more interesting years for video gaming. We're talking about a year where some of the biggest and most interesting games scheduled to come out around this time have been pushed back to avoid conflict with Microsoft's Halo 3: ODST and Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, two games that although will sell ungodly amounts. Though the one trend that I pray carries over into 2010 is this trend of great licensed games. It can be done, which is the one think that everyone has learnt from this year.
EDIT: Had to remove a few of the links because of some ridiculous errors. Even when they're from the same parent company...