I'm in a good mood. Usually when I'm inspired to write a review or article on The Future Machine it's because I've been inspired by rage or disappointment as a result of experiencing something ridiculous in the entertainment world, but I was playing Mass Effect 2, and despite a few minor gripes-I'm not keen on the new non-existent inventory menu or the lack of options in the character creator, it seems to be a remarkably entertaining and moving experience the more one plays it, and then I switched over to Batman: Arkham Asylum for my regular challenge room check up and it got me thinking about all the joy I've experienced thanks to gaming in 09 and I'd like to highlight a few.
Most of these games are under-appreciated or disrespected as a result of a lack of polish or a lack of hype. But they deliver on what I believe to be the most important aspect of gaming: the experience of joy. I find a lot of games that everyone else love have these nagging issues that always get in the way of the fun and these games get a free pass mostly due to their graphics and a few highly-polished moments, and thus these games force me to lash out at them, ignoring anything right that they do accomplish. The games that make my favorites composite don't suffer from that symptom. I'll tolerate any technical issue so long as fun is always the focus of the game. So while I had some fun with Modern Warfare 2 and still have fun with Left 4 Dead 2, they don't quite make my favorites of '09 unlike most.
It's not a top ten list, I abhor such lists as of late (with the exception of Ariotti's of course).
So instead I'll just put together a little thank you note to a few games that really won me over and that I feel provide a great deal of entertainment, and/or some innovation to the medium. Also, if you haven't played any of these, give 'em a go even if you've heard bad things. I promise it's worth your time.
These will follow the convention of least to most impressive, however.
GHOSTBUSTERS- while this game didn't allow me to live out my childhood dream as well as I would have liked, it still managed to tug at my nostalgia strings just enough to make me look passed the clunky gameplay and Bill Murray's phone-in. Dan Akroyd and Harold Rammis make this game amazing. The game gradually gets better and more interesting as the gamer progresses through the story, which weaves together the first two films and gives us an experience of an interactive third film. Listening to Ray and Egon banter with the same passionate vapor-techno-babble is a joy. There are also a few moments in the game that are genuinely creepy, just like the films. When one really thinks about what The Ghosbusters movie is (a supernatural buddy comedy?), its uniqueness and unlikely quality make it that much more wonderful to appreciate.
DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS - I doubted this game for a little while, unimpressed by every video I'd seen. But once I started playing it, I was hooked and had to buy it. The graphics are bad by today's standards, the environments are pretty stale (true to BioWare form), and invisible walls abound, and yet the story is so compelling, the combat so engrossing, and the characterization so perfect and intriguing that it becomes remarkably easy to overlook any gripe (also true to BioWare form). This is the first game in a long time that had me immediately caring for the digital characters with whom I interacted. It's even more effective than Mass Effect in that regard. The characters who join your party, whether it be a sexy mage named Morrigan or a war dog that I named Bruce Wayne, all are fleshed out and deliver performances better than most living actors. I honesty cared about them and my own character and what the future held for them and this is all thanks to the brilliant writing and the combat which gave players a strong sense of teamwork.
RED FACTION: GUERRILLA - This game is beautiful. It's beautiful not because it's written well (it's actually poorly written) or without technical issues, because it has its fair share. It's beautiful because it lets me plant C4 on a giant truck, ram that truck into a giant building, run out, and then blow up that truck, and then watch the building descend into a giant pile of shattered girders, steel, and rubble. I've never encountered a game with such a wonderfully destructible environment on such a vast scale. And, unlike most free roam games that punish you for seeking out hi-jinks and pure fun, or have systems in place that keep your exploration or destructive tendencies in check, Red Faction encourages your child-like desires to SMASH! rewarding you with loot and gear that allows you to smash even more effectively.
THE SABOTEUR-I haven't beaten this game yet despite having had it for over a month because it's just too much fun to run around the Parisian rooftops killing Nazis and listening to the main character curse. Every aspect of the gameplay mechanics are flawed. You can't run straight, drive straight, jump straight, or shoot straight. But I still love it. Perhaps it's the Irish-fueled rantings of Sean that endear me to this game, perhaps it's the gorgeous and stylized black and white French landscape, and perhaps it's the fact that there's no poorly written sci-fi plot interrupting the gameplay every fifteen minutes, but there's something about The Saboteur that, for me, makes it a fantastic and fun game that far exceeds any other similar free-roaming platformer on the market.
X-MEN: ORIGINS WOLVERINE-Before Arkham Asylum came out this was the best comic book game ever. Yes, it's got some painful little issues like any other game of its kind, but the combat is so visceral, so satisfying, and the graphics so shockingly excellent, this is a game that when I think about it, the more I want to play it again. It's a good game to keep in one's library for the lunge mechanic alone. It improves upon the film in every way and is the bloody Wolverine experience that fans deserve. From whipping out the claws to tearing dogtags off dead bodies, this game is the very definition of pure entertainment.
HALO WARS-I've only come to this game recently. I was skeptical, despite my love of Halo and RTS games because the demo didn't give a proper representation of how deep the gameplay actually gets and how satisfying it is to see a bunch of ODSTs, Warthogs, Grizzlys, Hornets, and the like unloading on Covenant bases. The online experience, while remarkably challenging, also gives gamers a competitive experience they simply can't get anywhere else. Being able to control an entire base and units is a joy few console gamers have had the pleasure of experiencing, and while Halo Wars doesn't let me micro-manage the way I usually want to with an RTS, it provides a unique experience, seeming to create its own genre, a streamlined but in now way reduced strategy game that perfectly represents the Halo Universe.
BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM-This is the best game of 2009. This is the best video game since BioShock. It frustrates me that it doesn't earn more legitimate respect. Sure, it gets high scores. Sure, critics love it. Sure, gamers love it. But it didn't win Game of the Year. It doesn't earn the level of critical acclaim one sees with a game like Uncharted 2 or Gears of War or Modern Warfare and the like. And it's better than those games. I say that confidently, bias aside. I think the reason it doesn't break through to that top tier of triple A titles is an unfortunate aspect of the same mentality that resulted in The Dark Knight not even receiving an Oscar Nomination let alone a much-deserved Best Picture Win. It's because the critics acknowledge the quality of Batman and his various iterations but at the end of the day it's a comic book...and it's a man dressed like a bat for God's sake. C'mon. We can't take that seriously. There's no way that's as a good as a bunch of grunting marines or a wise-cracking poor man's Henry Jones or a slumdog!
It angers me that this mentality exists, especially in the gaming community because one would think gamers and gaming critics weren't cut of the same snobbish cloth as film elitists but they are, and games like Arkham Asylum will receive praise and recognition but it will always come with this little caveat that says, "You're good kid, but you're not quite ready for the big leagues". It's a level of pretentiousness that will only grow stronger as video games become more like movies and movies become more like video games.
If you haven't played Batman: Arkham Asylum you are missing out on one of the truly wonderful Batman stories ever crafted and the purest experience of The Caped Crusader one can possibly have. It nails every aspect of Batman's personae wonderfully and innovates on multiple genres and on multiple mechanics. The combat system is the best brawling system in the history of gaming.
There are so many games out there where, as I said before, have systems in place that get in the way of the fun, whether they are cover systems, regenerating health or no regenerating health, or a constant need to search for necessities like ammo. You don't ever have to worry about reloading with Batman. Batman's philosophy is one game designers need to embrace. We need to stop worrying about creating challenging experiences by forcing a gamer to die again and again before they figure out a contrived system of gameplay. We need the power to be in the players' hands from start to finish, and in Batman:Arkham Asylum the power is always in your hands. The challenge is in trying to master the "easy-to-use" combat. And when one does master it (I openly brag to being ranked no.3 on planet earth...I was no.1 for a couple weeks but some bastard stole it from me) one experiences a level of gaming euphoria that cannot be felt anywhere else.
All of these games, in one way or another, don't get bogged down in trying to create unecessary challenges, and instead focus on giving gamers a rewarding, enjoyable experience.
Never once did I care about BioShock's lack of difficulty. So many, after the fact, complained about the vita champers making it too easy etc, etc. Why not just be happy with the remarkably beautiful experience that the game is. So too, is Batman:Arkham Asylum a beautiful experience. And the promise of a sequel, as well as the potential for more challenge maps, will keep me checking in for years to come.