Felix Threepaper’s Top 5 Games of 2009

OK, so I’m back from the beach* and I’ve finally stopped writing 2009 on my bank cheques**.  I have a calm sense of detachment from the previous calendar year in every important sense – temporally, spatially and olfactorily.

I am therefore ready to enter the Cave of Assessment and emerge with my objectively objective list of the top 5 games for 2009.  Given that yesterday’s hit game becomes tomorrow’s discounted bargain, this Top 5 will serve as a purchasing aid for the thrifty gamer, as well as being plagiarism fodder for cultural studies undergraduates who are sick of writing essays about The Simpsons.

First, the rules on how a game may qualify for Threepaper’s Top 5 of 2009 and a self-serving justification of my selection methods.

  • The game must have been released in 2009.  This is very important.
  • I must have finished the game.

I am merely a humble cosmic shaman who plays games for fun.  I am not a “professional game reviewer” who gets “promotional copies” of games before their “release date” in exchange for a “favourable review” that contributes to a “metacritic average” that is the basis for a development team’s “payment structure”.  I don’t have “deadlines”.  Instead I have an erratic, second rate Muse who is in the midst of a decades-long absinthe bender.  Frankly, she is too preoccupied lighting farts and trying to make me write bad emo poetry to give a fuck about imparting me with any universal truths on games.

Upshot is, I play a lot of games I don’t finish.  I could justify this, but why?  You’re just as bad as me.  Plus, this rule cuts out about 70% of the games I played in 2009 from contention, making my time in the Cave of Assessment more efficient.  On the flip side, if a game draws me in enough for me to finish it, it must have done something right over and above its classmates.

This rule also cuts out 2 problematic games for me – Demons Souls and Brutal Legend.  Demons Souls’ “start again”, trial-and-error approach to enemies and level design made me feel awesome when I progressed to a new stage but made me cry like a toddler whose ice cream has fallen on the floor when I spent an hour playing and realised I was still restarting from the same point.  This game also made me hate my girlfriend for doing annoying stuff, like trying to feed me, when I had important shit to do, like trying to kill the red knight.

Brutal Legend was my most anticipated game of 2009.  I even played the demo, which I usually avoid.  Once the full game arrived, I felt swindled by the game’s Mexican turnover.  I stared in disbelief at the RTS where a brawler should have been.  I ejected it from my console.  Then other games came along (see below).

However, I did not finish either Demons Souls or Brutal Legend so they won’t get a mention in this article.

In that short paragraph break, with the above rules in mind, I entered the Cave of Assessment.  Working smarter, not harder, I focused my synergies and I can now present the following outcome — the Threepaper Top 5 Games of 2009!

#5:  Fallout 3 DLC (Bethesda)

Yeah yeah, so it’s not a full game, but it’s an example of DLC done right.  In this age of digital distribution, where the line between sequels and expansion sets is increasingly blurred (*cough* Rock Band *cough*), and most DLC is merely a new skin or a weapon you should have got in the game itself, good DLC should be rewarded.

The various bits of Fallout 3 DLC make this top 5 because they give you almost another games’ worth of playtime and heaps of extra value on your Fallout 3, if like me you frikkin loved the Capital Wasteland.

Broken Steel fixed the game’s original crummy ending and replaced it with a decent endgame worthy of the original Fallouts.  It also lifted the level cap to 30, which brought back that lovely “Ching!” noise and encouraged further exploration.  If Broken Steel was the only DLC to come out, it would probably still have made my top 5.

Point Lookout provided a questline almost as long as the main quest, some great set battles, a new postapocalyptic environment in the key of “Redneck swampland” and overall-wearin, buck-tooth, Bubba-lookin enemies to go with it.

Operation Anchorage was a run’n’gun simulation which was very combat focused but it also filled in some of Fallout’s historical backstory.  What with being able to pick a squad and give them rudimentary tactical commands, it was also a bit of a shout out to Fallout Tactics.  Also, it provided the coolest armor in the game (Chinese Stealth Armor – awwwwwwwww yeah).

Mothership Zeta explored Fallout 3’s “Future 50s” aesthetic with a romp on a flying saucer against aliens who did not attend the Star Trek school of Universal English but rather crammed the “Speak like the Aliens in Mars Attacks” TAFE course over the weekend.  Once again, the quests were very combat-oriented –you can’t have meaningful dialogue with aliens who just go “Dinka Dink!!” – but the new environments, alien enemies and spaceship battle finale made it a worthwhile diversion.

The Pitt provided us with that RPG staple, an arena, plus a kind of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome slaver story.  The ingot-finding sidequest attempted to turn Fallout 3 into a platformer, which I found to be a welcome variation.

Each episode of the DLC provided an environment to explore that was a visual relief from the washed-out Wasteland (which even a fan like me will admit to getting a teensy bit drab after 40+ hours) and presented a different piece of the unique Fallout 3 world.  They also presented some new game mechanics, enemies and loot, providing over 10 hours of more play in the world of Fallout 3.  What more could you ask for?

All up, the DLC inspired me to roll up a new character and play Fallout 3 all over again.  This is a big step for me, because usually after I finish an RPG once, put a fork in ’em, cos they’re done, man.  So for dragging me back into the Wasteland, the Fallout 3 DLC gets a very special 5th place.

Category Rating
Atmosphere: 8
Story: 7
Addictiveness: 7
Overall: 7

#4:  Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time (Insomniac)

Where’s the love for this game?  Everyone seems to have forgotten about it.  Sure, it’s a PS3 exclusive, but the guys at Insomniac have been churning out quality titles in this franchise for years, ever tweaking it and adding new bits, and this new iteration is bloody good.

This game is a perfect example of how to include a variety of game styles or minigames in a game without it getting cluttered.  This game has a bit of everything – platforming, shooting, puzzling, spaceship pew-pew action – and it’s all presented in a way that stops any one bit from getting tedious.

It also has a nice sense of humour, in that crappy, G rated kids’ TV kinda way.  I think I laughed out loud*** twice, which isn’t bad for me for a game.  I don’t get that many yuks watching kids’ TV for the same time.

It has become very trendy in shooters these days to let the player only carry two guns at a time.  In my view this trend sucks and I have awarded bonus points to Ratchet and Clank, not only for letting you keep every weapon you pick up during the game, but because some of those weapons include a burping fish and Mr Zerkon.  The weapons upgrade the more you use them, which encourages you to try the different weapons rather than just rely on trusty favourites.

Ratchet and Clank is also a refreshing smoothie for the eyes – the vibrant colour palettes on display in each world you visit is a welcome departure from the 25 shades of brown that seems to have been handed out to current-gen console developers.

So for all that – solid platforming, environment puzzles that make you feel smart for solving them, shooty action with unique weapons and a galaxy of stuff to do and explore, Ratchet and Clank hoverboots in at number 4.

Category Rating
Atmosphere: 8
Story: 7
Addictiveness: 8
Overall: 8

3.  Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog)

Yep, this game was amazing and everybody thinks so.  Once again, it is an example of game developers, in this case Naughty Dog, tweaking what already worked pretty well in the first game and giving more of the good sauce too.

I’m not usually a graphics whore, but I stood out on a street corner in my fishnets at 2am for this one.  They were a notch above Drake’s Fortune, which was already the benchmark for graphics on the Sony system, despite what the Killzone 2 fanboys scream at you IN CAPS.  Plus, all those other Sony fanboys who secretly carried a small skidmark in their dirps, borne from the realisation that they have shelled out all this extra cash on a HDTV and PS3 and the Xbox versions of games still look better, could finally breathe a sigh of relief because it looks like at least one developer gets the concept of delivering superior graphical quality on a system that has superior hardware.  However, Sony fanboys, you still have skids in your pants.

The environments in Among Thieves were simply awesome, not just detailed and high-res, but the colours helped you know which bits were interactive during firefights.  The cutscenes were good, for a videogame – which still means they were crappier than your average insurance advert.  I actually found more personality in the little asides Drake would make about bits of the scenery than in the cookie-cutter-triple-cross-love-triangle-who-gives-a-fuck-really storyline.  But that’s just me.

The improvement of the melee combat and being able to shoot while hanging off a ledge added more spice to the combat sequences, which got a bit samey in Drake’s.  The set piece battles were generally exhilarating, despite another cheap boss fight at the end.  As for the new weapons – pistol shotgun.  That is all.

So why isn’t Among Thieves higher on this top 5? Because it’s a little too short.  I know it’s good short rather than bad short – Willow rather than Mini Me – but I finished this game in about 2 sittings on Normal difficulty and was drunk for most of the first sitting.  The ride was great while it lasted, but it was over too soon.  Once you do the main story, there’s no incentive to replay.****  I don’t measure a game’s quality only by the number of hours I put in, but I need reasons to split my top 3.  I put in twice as many hours into each of the games above Among Thieves on this list and still loved them, so I can’t in good faith put Among Thieves any higher than this.

Category Rating
Atmosphere: 9
Story: 7
Addictiveness: 8
Overall: 8

2.  Assassin’s Creed 2 (Ubisoft)

Disclosure: I, along with 47 other people, actually finished the first Assassin’s Creed, despite its repetitive missions, simplistic late game difficulty-increasing equation of “kill 10x more guys” and Altair’s strange instadeath allergy to water.  I also know Florence and Venice, in the Biblical sense.  Therefore when these cities were announced as the setting for Assassin’s Creed 2, I knew this game had my alley auto-mapped into its GPS well before it came out and it was my second most anticipated game of 2009.

Assassin’s Creed 2 is testament to how big developers are not always evil rehashing exploitative dicks, and how listening to fans’ complaints doesn’t always ruin a game.  The Ubisoft Montreal team look like they really listened to the criticisms of the first game and once they stopped crying in the corner and eating tubs of chocolate ice cream, they manned up and improved all of the identified faults.

They made the Desmond bits more interesting, they imbued the main protagonist Ezio with personality and flair, making a refreshing change from the usual parade of mutes or Nolan North (who still got a look in as Desmond, so don’t worry).  The crypt exploration missions made better use of the parkour mechanics, the other side missions were more varied and actually fun to do.  Combat was also given more variety – more weapons and gadgets and the ability to hire various followers gave one a plethora of options for taking out one’s mark.  The collectibles actually had some meaning within the game, unlike the crappy flags from Ass 1.

People criticised the assassination missions in Ass 2 for being too easy, but I think Ubisoft did well to provide the player with genuine alternative options for killing people.  Sure, most times you could just jump in and kill the guy, but I had more fun trying other methods.  If I got frustrated, I could just jump in and kill the guy anyway.  Also, poisoning a guard, then poisoning his mates while they watched the first guard do his little poison dance never got old.

On top of this, Ubisoft also created distinct and beautiful Renaissance cities to Rome (heh) around in.  Florence, Forli, Romagna and Venice were a breath of fresh air after visiting so many generic space ships, New York and Nazi castles in other games.

Despite a broken economy (how could anyone NOT earn enough florins to buy their own villa in Renaissance times? No wonder there was so much art back then) and too-easy boss fights, Assassin’s Creed 2 provided a truly nice place to visit, and a better place to rob and kill in, which the first game promised but never quite got there.  Therefore AssCreed 2 sneaks in and stabs the Number 2 position on the Threepaper Top 5.

Category Rating
Atmosphere: 9
Story: 8
Addictiveness: 8
Overall: 9

1.  Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady)

Game of the Year 2009

Reviewed here.  In ranking this over Assassin’s Creed 2, I have made a philosophical choice.  Do I reward the Creed’s incremental improvement from the firm base of a known experience, or the serendipity of Batman, which swooped out of the darkness with little warning and smacked me in my preconceptions?  Is an unexpected pleasure better than an anticipated one?  Those of you who have woken after a big night being licked by your girlfriend’s new puppy will know the answer.

I could go into detail about all the cool (if not new) design features at work in Batman that make it a treat, such as the upgrade tree that gives cool new abilities, and gadgets that provide access to new areas of the environment, encouraging exploration, or the Riddler puzzles that demonstrate the best use of a movable camera in a 3rd person game to date, or the simple yet engrossing combat system, or the awesome stealth takedown stages, or the excellent voice acting by Mark Hamill***** as the Joker.

But the highest compliment you can pay the game is that it makes you feel like the Batman.  As an experience in escapism, this cannot be rated highly enough.  The fact that the historical chips were stacked against a game based on a comic hero being any good just made it more impressive.  Rocksteady Studios, you glided into my Cave of Assessment, sprayed goo all over my previous top 5 list and detonated it to earn your game the top spot in Threepaper’s Top 5 Games of 2009.  Well played sirs.

Category Rating
Atmosphere: 9
Story: 8
Addictiveness: 8
Overall: 9

Honourable mentions:

Infamous/Prototype: these superhero games are so similar yet different in crucial ways, it was hard to choose between them, so out of respect for them both I picked neither.

Games of 2008: Metal Gear Solid 4 and Oblivion got some repeatment in 2009, which was a first for me.  These games were surprisingly just as awesome the second time around.  Also I played Saints Row 2 for the first time in 2009 and giggled my nuts off.

I hope you pwn everything in 2010.


* It is summer in my world and we are blue.  Join me, northern hemispherians!

** you mean, there’s an easier way to pay?

*** If only there was an easier way to say that.

****Oh yeah, I should explain that I don’t do online.  If I wanted to meet new people and hear what they had to say I wouldn’t be sitting on my couch playing videogames.

*****Yes I know!! The dude who played Cocknocker and Fire Lord Ozai!!


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