X360A's 2009 Game of the Year Awards
Written Thursday, December 31, 2009 By Dan WebbView author's profile
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.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is the first of our runners-up this year in this category and unfortunately though, it was a game that didn’t quite live up to its premise. The premise of the title was simple, a co-operative open-world realistic shooter where how you tackle each scenario is up to you. On paper it all sounds fantastic, but in practice, the game was far too buggy to let it shine through as Codemasters (and us) would have hoped. If however, you can persuade 3 like-minded friends to pick it up, then you’re on to a winner... until you die because you got stuck on a fence that is.
The other runner-up this year is Ensemble and Microsoft’s Halo Wars, which touched down in February of this year. Like Flashpoint the premise was simple, a Halo based RTS designed specifically for consoles, and whilst the execution was pretty much spot on, it actually seemed a little too simplistic to be called a strategy game. In actual fact, we’d be inclined to say it was more of an action game. Regardless, the premise was alluring, fantastic and ambitious and that’s why it takes home the silver this year.
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.
New boys Rocksteady Studios made a pretty big splash in the industry this year, releasing a triple A title without much pedigree in their back catalogue to back it up and suggest they could do it. The story was a fundamental success in the game’s popularity, as it should be with the digital reimagining of a popular comic book character. The story kicked off with Batman heading back to Arkham Asylum with a recently captured Joker, only to be thrust into a trap and be forced to face off against some of the franchise’s classic villains. The story not only gets praise for its ability to cram so many legendary villains into one plot, but it also gets praise for their seamless integration into a gripping story, meaning Arkham Asylum grabs a worthy place on this year’s podium.
It says something for the quality of Rockstar’s downloadable content when we hail one of their stories as a runner-up in the best story category this year. Rockstar’s GTA IV downloadable episode, The Ballad of Gay Tony, had a pretty in-depth story that saw self proclaimed maniac, Luis Lopez, stuck between a rock and a hard place as he tried to juggle his past with his ambitions and his drug addled business partner. The story remained true to its GTA IV serious crime drama roots whilst instilling a bit of the San Andreas outrageousness in it. A perfect balance if you ask us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2009 was the year of Microsoft’s “Awardables” – another achievement-style gameplay reward that allows you to unlock avatar clothes and accessories in-game. Granted, the awardables movement took a while to catch on, but come the end of the year and a handful of games have them implemented, including Splosion Man, ODST and Left 4 Dead 2. Whilst the system is in its infancy at the moment, the idea is a simple and effective one because we all know that people love to show off their in-game accomplishments. Where better to do it than on your virtual ID’s visual representation? We’re hoping that developers and publishers embrace this system like they have done achievements.
Just sitting below the top spot in this year’s most innovative feature award category is EA Sports’ Photo Game Face. The Photo Game Face feature – which is becoming part of most, if not all, of EA’s sporting franchises – allows you to not only put your face in the game, but anyone’s face you like. Want to smash the crap out of your next door neighbour in a boxing ring, it allows you to do it without the potential for a black eye. Want to kick your old man’s ass at golf for once, you can do it in Tiger Woods 09. It also breaks down the barrier for all other kinds of non licensed athletes meaning you don’t have to wait on DLC to put your favourite fighter in the ring. It could even act as a saving grace for EA’s MMA title next year. Despite making a showing last year, 09 was the year that EA started to perfect its system and make it an integral part of their Sports brand. Not necessarily a game changing feature, but one that’s always nice to have.
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.
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.
Propping up the most disappointing title of 2009 award was EA’s Godfather II. The follow-up to the unsung and cult favourite, Godfather, the Godfather II wasn’t even in the same league as its predecessor. Opting for a new strategical approach to the franchise, the Godfather II was ultimately a shallow, simple and short lived affair. We were hoping for the opposite. And here we were thinking that sequels were meant to build on the foundations of its predecessor. Seems that wasn’t the case here.
Ahhh, Wolfenstein, the reboot of one of the classic first person shooter franchises. It must be good, right? If you assumed that, you’ve made an ass out of you and me. In fact, you’ve made an ass out of everyone. Billed as a shooter with a wide open world to explore, the 2009 version of Wolfenstein gave off that impression but the ability to search the open-world of Isenstadt was largely an illusion. The problem with Wolfenstein was that it looked like the game’s designers had been cryogenically frozen since the creation of the first game and they were still running empty on ideas. It’s tough to watch the rebirth of an old classic franchise treated in such a way that only damages the legacy that was set before it. A real shame.
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.
Gearbox were faced with one of the toughest choices they’ve possibly ever had to make as a studio sometime in late 2008 and they couldn’t really afford another tepid response like Brother in Arms: Hell’s Highway got if the independent studio was to keep the roof over its head. Left with the decision of sticking with the old, standard photo realistic visuals or switching to a new fancy, cel-shaded art-style, the Texan based studio decided to redo the presentation mid project and after millions and millions of dollars had already been invested in it. Why you ask? Because they did what they thought was best for the game and as a result, Gearbox jump into our runners-up podium spot this year for the best studio category for having the cojones to stick by their guns and go with the art-style that not only worked, but suited the game as well. Of course, having created a pretty damn immersive game helped them too.
Bethesda Game Studios takes a spot on the best developer’s podium this year; despite not officially releasing a title in 2009 (WET was developed by A2M before you say). How can this madness be then? Well, Bethesda deserves its place for cranking out and supporting our 2008 GOTY, Fallout 3, with 5, count it, 5 brand new episodes. The 5 episodes did and offered a lot for existing Fallout 3 players that not only included introducing new places and quests, but they also raised the level cap, added a ton more achievements and possibly more importantly, allowed people to play with their save after the credits had rolled. Bethesda have set the bar for post release game support, now we just need to see others following their example. BioWare seems to be getting close with Dragon Age: Origins.
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...
Ubisoft had an incredibly strong year in 2009 with some great titles leading the way. After making the podium last year, their line-up set out to do it all over again in 2009. They didn’t have the legs to carry them on to the top spot, but all their titles performed pretty well with our reviewers. HAWX started the year off in mighty fine fashion, and after giving Wheelman a home in the early part of the year, the line-up went from strength to strength. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood was a solid title held back from greatness by a few glitches and then they ended the year on a high with the fantastic Assassin’s Creed 2. Shame about Avatar though... Otherwise, an impressive year.
Despite Microsoft’s relatively weak 2009 line-up, a lot of things went right for them in 2009. ODST may not have been the big hitter that fans were hoping for, but it sure sold well (surprise!). 2009 was also the year of many solid arcade titles, Shadow Complex leading the way, as well as the new social networking applications on the dashboard and of course, who can forget, 1 vs. 100. Throw in a superb sim racer in Forza 3, a semi-decent hack n’ slash title in Ninja Blade and the well received and impressively delivered Halo Wars, and 2009 isn’t as bleak as you may have thought. Sure it never reached the dizzy heights that 2008 set, but we expected it as much. 2010 though? Well that’s another story for a different day, but with Alan Wake, Crackdown 2 and Halo: Reach leading the way, we kind of expect Microsoft to make the podium in one way or another next year.
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.
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.