Hi everyone, and long time no post!
As I do every year, I have compiled a list of my top games of the year--though this time, I did it in a slightly different format. Rather than list my top 10, as I did last year, I am presenting individual awards to the games I think are most deserving. Mind you, these are based on my own personal preferences; they should necessarily be construed as reflecting the winners in any official GameSpot Best-Of category.
This was an impressive year. I played a lot of games in 2009, and while some were immediately forgettable, others lingered, either because they were awesome, or because they were lousy. I enjoy this time of year, for what it's worth, and enjoy being part of the official GameSpot discussions. But the best part is getting to recognize games that would have otherwise been forgotten, had they not done one or two things exceedingly well. For example, Velvet Assassin will not blow anyone away, but its atmosphere was incredible--so incredible it was what made the game worth playing. Cryostasis was somewhat buggy and little-played, but its sound design and story were amazing, and we get to recognize it for those things.
It's also a time of surprises. Some readers believe that we buy into "hype," while others suggest that we should only include games they've heard of. (Obviously, those two things can't coexist, but that's lost on many.) But it comes down to this: What did we play, and love? We're in a unique position. We played a lot of games, the popular and the undersold both, and so we're not concerned with whether a lot of people played a game and are in a position to agree with us--we're simply concerned with whether it was good. In games, as in every other form of entertainment, what's good isn't necessarily what's popular, though sometimes it is. That's why you see categories that include The Sims 3 and Comet Crash living in harmony. (You may never have heard of Comet Crash, but you should damn well play it.) It's because we want to recognize what's good, not what's popular. If there's one hope I have this year, it's that you consider playing a game on our list you hadn't payed attention to before now. Never heard of Deadly Creatures or Bit.Trip Void? Now's the time to see what you were missing!
And so on to the Cubbies!
The Paris Hilton Award for Style Over Substance
I read occasional complaints from folks that see Ninja Blade as a sort of poor-man's Ninja Gaiden or God of War. And all I can say is: So? Gleefully silly, knowingly derivative, and brilliantly over the top, Ninja Blade is pure fun, and doesn't need excuses made for being exactly that.
The I Don't Get It Award
Borderlands gets a lot of love from various corners, but I haven't quite grasped what it is that people seem to love about it. It doesn't draw me in, because it doesn't do enough to hook me. There's no story worth mentioning, the world seems very bare-bones, and I can't shake the feeling that the art style is trying to compensate for a general lack of personality. Borderlands is a great tech demo, but it is a mere shell of what it could have been.
(Runner-Up: Shadow Complex)
The We've Seen This Before So Why Is It So Damn Good? Award
There's nary an original bone in Dragon Age's fleshy, scaly body (which is what makes Bioware's recent comments about JRPGs' recycled elements seem hypocritcal), nor does that really surprise me. It's part Lord of the Rings and part D&D, and features enemy designs ripped right from the Tolkien playbook. Yet it works. Not because the plot is going to set the world (or Middle-Earth) on fire, but because the world is well thought out and filled with memorable characters that bring it to life. We've seen it all, but great writing and dialogue make us care in spite of the familiarity.
The Nicholas Cage "I Know You're Better Than This" Trophy
Empire: Total War is a great game, but a buggy, flawed beast as well; I have high hopes that Napoleon: Total War improves on this shaky foundation. But it's Stormrise that earns CA this nod. Tellingly, publisher Sega released Stormrise at the very end of its fiscal year, just as it did with Universe at War the year prior. It's a sign that the publisher had essentially given up and needed to get a product on shelves that would continue use up resources without any benefit to revenue. In other words: Sega likely had no faith that the game would get any better. And that's because Stormrise is flawed to its very core--and as we all know, you can't polish a... well... you've hear the saying.
(Runner-Up: Rebellion and Bethesda, for the shameful Rogue Warrior. What were they thinking?)
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Prize For Brilliance Over Bugs
Had Cryostasis not been so buggy, it could have been 2009's PC game of the year. But in spite of its technical issues, its story, its ambience, and its originality stood out in a year of endless sequels. This is an awesome and flawed game that deserves its day in the sun. In this cases, an Arctic sun.
The John Cougar Mellencamp "Hurts So Good" Award
It's hard. It's unforgiving. And it's the most brilliant and innovative game of 2009, taking old-school dungeon crawling and infusing it with an incredible online component that's built into the very soul of the experience. And everything is implemented so well, never removing you from the world itself with "gamey" elements that intrude in other games. No "co-op" mode menu, no "player hint" menu, no "invite" menu... it's all built into the Demon's Souls' fabric. This is a game that will be played and loved by its fans long after 2009's sales juggernauts have been shelved and forgotten.
The Barry Manilow "I Can't Live Without You" Award
"What the hell are you talking about, Kevin?" You thought this to yourself just now, didn't you? Well, fear not, for I am not insane. Moxie is an excellent word game for the iPhone that has kept me busy on my commute to work almost every day for months, when most iPhone games have gotten boring, even popular favorites like Bejeweled and Bookworm. You should check it out.
The Stripped Tease Award
Tie: Demigod and League of Legends
It seems like a great idea: Take the Defense of the Ancients mod for Warcraft III and turn it into a full-fledged product. The problem is, we're still waiting for a full-fledged product. Demigod could have been good had it worked at launch, and we garnered a lot of flak for criticizing this competitive online strategy game for barely working online. Fans felt it deserved the benefit of the doubt, but as it came to pass, we see that games shouldn't require that kind of benefit. Demigod still doesn't function properly (though it has improved), and it serves as proof that you can't trust patches to make it all better.
As for League of Legends, it's a great free game, but a lacking retail product. Again, it's a game built around future promises and expectations that delivers very little up front. If this sub-genre is going to take off in the retail market, we need a full-bodied game, a complete product. Until that time comes, there's simply no reason for DotA players to convert; not when it costs money.
The Unsung Hero Award
It was easy to look at Killzone 2 as that "incredibly good-looking shooter." But when I wrote the review, I didn't write about the visuals until the second page for a reason: They weren't the defining feature of this fantastic first-person shooter. Killzone 2 is moody, intense, and the most fun I had with a shooter this year, including the super-anticipatedModern Warfare 2. Its multiplayer is an overlooked and amazing haven for 2009's best firefights, thanks to its multi-mode matches and lots of little features (spawn point cameras, for example) that kept me coming back. When other shooters delivered more of the same, Killzone 2 felt unique, and was more exciting than any multiplayer experience I had this year.
The "You Can't Go Home Again" Needlepoint Plaque
Tie: F.E.A.R. 2 and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena
Some games exist as perfect points of light. They were the right game at the right time, and yet hold up years later as well. But some games are best left shining in the darkness. F.E.A.R. had already suffered from a couple of disappointing expansions, but with Monolith at the reigns of its sequel, I expected more, or at least, something on par with the original. F.E.A.R. 2 is a good shooter, but it isn't a special one. Dark Athena suffers in a similar way, which makes me wonder: Do developers sometimes forget what made their games so wonderful in the first place? It's not always about checking off all the right boxes; the best games grab you by the heart or the bollocks and don't let go.
The "It Isn't Just More Of The Same" Award
The Spore and Sims 3 teams at Electronic Arts
We've come to expect expansion packs that just give us more of the same. Rather than lazily crap out mundane and expected expansions, EA gave us delectable delights with Spore: Galactic Adventures and The Sims 3: World Adventures. In the Spore expansion, you got to create and experience little adventures, and in the process, be a bit of a game designer. In World Adventures, you took your sims on holiday to explore tombs, where all sorts of surprises were waiting. In both cases, we got something unexpected. And for that, I am thankful.
The Dan Brown Award
Assassin's Creed II's ending
You know what? It's nutty, maybe even a little cheesy. And you know what? I loved it. But one thing I am sure of: Whether you liked it or hated it, I bet you'll remember it. I'm already formulating ideas for what I think Assassin's Creed III could be (like I did with the first game), but this time, I didn't feel cheated. An awesome game with a memorable conclusion that had me eager for more. What more could I have wanted?
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
Dissidia Final Fantasy
Along with The Sims 3, this is the game that I had a hard time pulling myself away from late at night, bleary-eyed, desperately needing some rest. The action is great, but what makes Dissidia so difficult to put down is how it keeps doling out the rewards, never running out of wonderful things to give you. More importantly, it doesn't feel like you start with half a game to start with. Instead, the joys just pile on.
The Gift That Could Have Given More
I don't know a single person in our office that wasn't psyched about Scribblenauts. That is, until we finally played the full game. It's a fantastic toy if you're the creative type, but as a game, it lacks. It's exploitable and controls poorly, and after playing through a few levels, I have absolutely no desire to return; the controls killed it for me.
The "On A Roll" Award
Relic has yet to release a bad game. From Homeworld to Impossible Creatures, each of these game delighted and sometimes astounded me, and with Dawn of War II, they have another winner. It wasn't a home run, mind you. Dawn of War II's identity crisis is an issue, and the single-player campaign is nothing compared to Homeworld II's astounding story. Yet online, Dawn of War II is a thrilling and dynamic experience that reminds me that even when it takes chances that don't work out, Relic is a developer you can rely on, when so many others can't consistently deliver.
The "It's Better Than You Think" Award
Tie: Comet Crash and Dirt 2
Forza 3 is brilliant in its own way, but Dirt 2 is a beautiful and thrilling game in its own right. Justin Calvert and I had a conversation not too long ago in which I mentioned that it is very difficult to find anything wrong with it. The cars drive so well, and the game looks and sound so good, that it's hard to find anything to criticize. You may argue that it could have done more, but it's hard to see how it could have done what it does any better, from it's cool menus to the pure fun of kicking up dirt on the tracks. It got overshadowed by Forza 3 (which is a different kind of experience), but I would argue that it's every bit as worthy of your time and money.
Comet Crash is this year's "huh?" game that showed up in multiple categories, including strategy game of the year. And it totally belongs there, though it's easy to see why someone who hasn't played it might be vexed. 2009 was the year of the tower defense games. Yeah, I am getting sick of them too. But Comet Crash does it much differently by keeping you constantly active, and its multiplayer is a total hoot because it lets you create unit paths using the turrets you place. It's an extra layer of strategy that keeps every game different from the last. Don't let its unassuming looks fool you: This is a game that everyone should play, and is deserving in every category in which it appeared.
The "I Will Remember You" Award
Tie: Red Faction and Infamous
Don't worry, Red Faction and Infamous. You're still awesome, and I will send you Christmas Cards every year so you remember how much I love you.
So that's it for this year's Cubby Awards! Don't forget to vote in GameSpot's Reader's Choice awards, and feel free to let me know what your favorites and least favorites were. Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter, where you'll get a lot more from me on a daily basis than you will here. Until later: Ciao!