D+PAD’s 10 Best Games of 2009

2009 was the perfect year to round off a decade that has seen gaming finally ascend to the economic and cultural heights that seasoned gamers, weaned on the expanse of World Of Warcraft, the design genius of Valve, the cinematic verve of Rockstar, had long been predicting. The D+PAD top 10 of 2009, collated from our writer’s votes, reflects this amazing year: from the biggest entertainment launch in history, to the arguable peak of the music game, to the unforgettable return of the classic fighting franchise, it’s all here. Enjoy!


1. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Nathan Drake looks like one of those chaps on a ‘Just for Men Advert’ and stars in a series of games that, on paper, don’t really do anything new; running, shooting, platforming and fighting interspersed with a handful of big budget set pieces – not really much to write home about is it? Well…actually, it is. That Uncharted 2 is D+PAD’s game of the year can be put down to one word: ‘Craftsmanship’.

In Uncharted 2, the wizards at Naughty Dog produced a technical and artistic showcase for videogames and a blueprint for how to make a sequel, building upon the already accomplished original…and then some. Every aspect of it is polished to the nth degree, from the characterisation of its rag tag cast, to a plot that managed to out-Indiana Jones the whip-cracker himself; the adventures of Nathan Drake scream quality. And the visuals…let’s not forget the visuals – if ever there was a game to make you want…no, need…an HD-TV, this is it.

Praise has piled up around Uncharted 2 like the gloriously rendered snow in its imagining of Tibet, and replaying the game, it’s hard to argue with this response. Even when Uncharted 2 deals with the most hackneyed of concepts, a roof top battle across a moving train for example, it manages to be both exhilarating and visually spectacular, effortlessly blending cutscenes and game mechanics. Videogames have fought long and hard to match the types of thrills delivered by big budget action movies, and in this respect Uncharted 2 is more than a match for most of what the box office has to offer.

It’s online components also shine, bringing novel twists to standard modes such as capture the flag and deathmatches, while also including a wonderfully addictive co-operative mode. While its a shame that Naughty Dog didn’t embrace the latter more fully and include coop in the main story mode, as a statement of intent for the series’ future and an additional garnish to an already tasty package, it can’t be faulted. Ultimately, Uncharted 2 is a near flawless example of what videogames can achieve when technological advancements are married to a clear vision. It plays like a dream, it looks like a dream and constantly reminds you why you love playing videogames in the first place. So, here’s to Uncharted 2 – the best videogame in a year featuring some truly astounding releases.(SP)

2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Multi)
Call of Duty 4 played it safe: its middle-eastern country was firmly rooted in the lands of fictional ambiguity. Now officially bigger than Jesus, Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t faff about with things like political sensitivity and decides to quickly plonk you into Afghanistan. It’s a victim of its own hype, and half the time it’s not even aware whether it’s trying to preach a po-faced sentiment about the horror of war and expendability of life in a fear-obsessed 21st century or being all, like, dude, how awesome is it to be escaping from pantomime villain baddies in a snowmobile whilst firing a submachine gun?

It was obvious this would happen when it was revealed – as if Infinity Ward were desperate not to be outdone by Bungie – the game features a bevy of weapons which could be wielded akimbo-style. It’s clearly unrealistic, as the US barely has enough money to arm their military forces with one fully-functional weapon. Any semblance of the series imitating life died with a quick blast to the face from two sawn-off shotguns.

But, really, akimbo is in it for the multiplayer, the uber-popular part of the game that’ll let Activision make millions by selling paid DLC to adoring fans. That, alone, will keep players chugging away for more hours than most other games released this year combined. Meanwhile, the single-player game takes you through a hostile jaunt across countless countries, letting you experience the world and put a good portion of its inhabitants into body bags in exciting ways. It culminates in a white-knuckle dash through a ruined White House, sending a flare from the roof to abort an incoming airstrike.

It’s the first person shooter squeezed through a Hollywood lens and veneered with the essence of Michael Bay, and Infinity Ward’s seemingly magic touch has crafted a record-breaking commercial success that’s (unofficially) terrified any competing games into the Spring of 2010. Modern Warfare 2 is unashamedly the nuclear bomb of videogames.(MG)

3. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi)
Until now, Batman has been long deprived of the treatment he deserves. From the days of the Sega Master System through to the more recent Batman Begins, our sullen hero has suffered limp outings which failed to capture the essence of the character. It’s astounding then how a game featuring the caped crusader could even feature on our list, let alone make the top three. Rest assured, the bloated success of Chris Nolan’s blockbuster has no influence here, nor does the recent surge in comic book sales. Batman’s latest foray into the world of gaming makes the grade entirely on its own merits – and what merits they are.

The action takes place in and around the Arkham institute, a prison of sorts for the criminally insane and home to a number of familiar faces from Batman’s extensive rogues gallery. Naturally, the island falls under inmate control resulting in a grim, unsettling yet thoroughly engaging adventure. Once done with the lengthy tutorial, a fully realised Arkham Island is made explorable featuring detailed graphics, menacing foes and an addictive collection system, offering a light puzzle element to a game that already encourages patience and technique.

The Dark Knight’s adventure also involves a surprising amount of depth; batarangs, plastic explosives and the batclaw are all available to deal with the ever-growing threat. Batman himself is upgradeable, adding quick takedowns and extra tricks to his gadgetry, all of which make your stay at Arkham even more appealing. While this is all appreciated, the truest weapon comes in the form of Detective Mode; with a hit of the left bumper, an X-ray filter detects enemies through walls to assess their threat level. It also serves to push the narrative along in the form of fingerprints and scent trails when needed. As an integral part of the gameplay, there’s little reason to turn it off meaning much of the art design is lost. Even so, Arkham Asylum is a beautiful game sporting contrasting colours a la Bioshock and a tone drenched in dark humour.

With a stirring atmosphere and empowering stealth system to which most games can only aspire, Rocksteady’s effort stands tall as a shining example of how a superhero can, or rather should make an impact on the home console. Proving itself a fantastic experience in almost every way, Arkham Asylum triumphantly swoops in to claim the bronze trophy.(CM)

And the other 7…

Street Fighter IV (Multi)
I want to say I fell for Street Fighter IV when it was announced, but I didn’t. Nobody did. Capcom were attempting to resurrect a bastion of resplendent nineties yesteryear, after all, and in doing so they would have to appease their ultra-hardcore fans, entice the lot who played a bit of SF2 back in the day and, on top of that, they’d probably need to reign in some new players at the same time. All in all it seemed like a bit of a tall order.

A few months down the line, when a few gameplay videos started coming out that made it look like Capcom had actually succeeded, that’s when I knew Street Fighter IV was the one for me. It even managed to make the jump into 3D with a perfectly realised cel-shaded aesthetic. It was good, and if Sagat wasn’t so brutally powerful it might even be perfect.

It’s basically single-handedly responsible for reviving a genre in the West that most people had written off as dead. It convinced an entire legion of players to invest in proper, decent arcade sticks (at £150 a pop, no less) and reminded me, personally, of what it was that made me love games in the first place. Few games have ever given me so many hours of stressful, exhilarating gameplay.(MG)

Assassin’s Creed 2 (Multi)
Most would agree that Assassin’s Creed, the original slay-a-thon, was considered an inventive and visually stunning adventure marred by some unfortunate design choices. No one is more aware of this than developer Ubisoft Montreal, returning this year to present gamers with a more diverse and substantial package overall. In truth, Assassin’s Creed 2 is even better than it needs to be. Rather than just building on the foundations of its predecessor, Creed 2 experiments with new gameplay mechanics; towns have an economy this time, you can upgrade your equipment and buy new attire, twin hidden-blades make for some entertaining kills and you can even travel the canals by gondola.

Uncharted 2 may have nabbed itself the gold prize but if we were to give an award for best sandbox title, AC2 would surely come top. With the likes of Venice, Tuscany and Florence all fully rendered and demanding to be explored, it’s almost impossible to criticise the world that’s been crafted here. With more likeable characters, an interesting story and less of a focus on futuristic gibberish, Ezio’s sequel soars far higher than Altair’s original ever did. Fun, beautiful and varied.(CM)

inFamous (PS3)
A superhero face-off to rival that mighty battle between Batman and Superman in Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns exploded before our eyes in the mid-point of 2009. Maybe we’re overstating it, but it was fascinating to see inFamous and Prototype launch so close to each other, given their apparent similarities in terms of theme, gameplay devices and structure. As it turns out the two games are very different beasts, and we would have to choose Sucker Punch’s adventure over Radical Entertainment’s, as well as selecting it for being one of our games of the year.

It offered a remarkably tight, coherent game experience, with all mechanical facets being an utter joy – the parkour free-climbing combined with superpowers such as gliding and rail grinding became fluent, effortless and immensely satisfying. The plot was always engaging (the characters less so) with some fantastic twists, and the superpowers packed a punch whilst being the right side of absurd. Side missions were plentiful and varied, yet the main story missions wavered dangerously close to becoming repetitive at times – Cole receiving new powers after visiting the same identikit underground power stations wore thin. Cole himself was one of the biggest reasons why we enjoyed inFamous – not him personally as such, but more what he represented – which was a story of an ordinary man receiving extraordinary powers. Original? No. Entertaining? Very much so.(GN)

Flower (PS3)
Flower – life affirming, or melodramatic? Intense, or boring? Euphoric, or pretentious? Whatever your opinion of the second title to be developed by indie darlings thatgamecompany, we’re pretty certain that you’ll have played nothing like it this year, or indeed ever. The game can be everything, and yet nothing – it can be a spiritual journey, a metaphysical manifestation of your life, with soaring highs and melancholic lows. On the other hand, it could be a frustrating, wrist sprain-inducing chore, twisting and churning the Sixaxis in blind aggravation for an objective you see little point of anyway. In truth, Flower was a captivating, thrilling experience that should be sampled by everyone – even those of the iciest dispositions will struggle to not be absorbed by the game as you pollinate the land, returning vibrant colours to the various landscapes.
We refuse to be drawn into the debate as to whether Flower is one of the strongest contenders yet for the pro “Are games art?” brigade, but who knows – like the game beginning with a single flower petal before evolving into a proverbial wave of colour swooping through the clean air, everything has to begin somewhere. thatgamecompany’s existential themes seen in both here and in debut tile flOw continue to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and their existence is important.(GN)

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (DS)
Nintendo has indulged in self-referentiality before of course – with a history unmatched in videogaming, this winning ability to knowingly wink at their audience, many of whom would have grown up with the company, is perhaps vital to stay fresh and relevant. Bowser’s Inside Story though is several double-jumps beyond a mere love letter to all things Mushroom Kingdom (although it is that as well). The most endlessly inventive videogame since Super Mario Galaxy, the latest DS Mario & Luigi game was turn-based RPG one minute, 2D platformer the next, with all manner of videogame celebrating diversions – as well as the best script of 2009 – tucked away in-between. An almost perfect marriage of hardware and ideas, and a fitting end to a decade that has arguably been Nintendo’s own.(ZB)

The Beatles: Rock Band (Multi)
If 2009 was the year that the music game phenomenon imploded (job losses at Harmonix, poor sales of both Lego Rock Band and Band Hero, the threat of a standalone Green Day title next year), then September’s release of The Beatles: Rock Band will come to stand as the genre’s peak. The peerless presentation and excellent note charts were to be expected from the masters of the art, but what elevated The Beatles: Rock Band was its ability to intertwine the by turns euphoric and bittersweet trajectory of The Beatles, this amazing narrative of creativity and development all condensed in a never-to-be-repeated seven years, into a format not previously associated with such ideas. That’s not to say that it wasn’t fun – I think I had more pure enjoyment from this than any other 2009 release – but when you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck rising during the impossibly beautiful Sgt. Pepper/With My Friends medley, to give just one example, it’s clear that The Beatles: Rock Band was also something a whole lot more.(ZB)

FIFA 10 (Multi)
2009 will forever be remembered as the year magazines, websites and gamers worldwide lost interest in trying to pretend there was still any competition between the FIFA franchise and Pro Evolution Soccer. The most acclaimed FIFA released yet, FIFA10 is the culmination of the ever-improving efforts of EA Canada to transform the series’ reputation as a sports title obsessed with back-of-the-box yearly gimmicks to today’s polished, refined and complete football experience.

Where to start? The intricacies of the new features and animations of a single game are so minute yet vital that they only become noticeable after weeks of playtime, and only then can be fully appreciated if you revert to last year’s instalment as a refresher. Manager Mode on the other hand, has been given a massive overhaul and exists now as a mini-Football Manger, with surprising depth. It is however impossible to wade through the multitude of features that will keep FIFA 10 as a 12-month gaming experience but such longevity is exemplified not in the wealth of options and modes, but in the simple joy of a simple 90 minute match between friends and online strangers alike.(EP)

Resident Evil 5 (Multi)
Resident Evil 5 is possibly the most misunderstood game of 2009. Visit any forum and you will hear mountains of complaints, most of which centred on the game’s (apparently) African sidekick, Sheva Alomar. “Bullet drainer”, “keeps choosing her pistol over the machine gun”, and “won’t throw grenades” are just some of the remarks thrown at the game’s surprising decision to include an AI-controlled partner for the single player mode. And yet the simple truth is this – every single criticism is completely valid. Resi 5’s single player campaign is broken, which is why you can thankfully bring in a friend for local or online co-op sessions. Then in an instant, every criticism becomes void and you’re left with the most satisfying co-op experience this generation, Gears of War and MW2 Spec Ops be damned.

Whether you’re fending off multi-ethnic crowds (no racism here!), evading gargantuan crocodiles or marvelling at the beautifully choreographed cut-scenes, Capcom have recaptured the intensity of Resident Evil 4’s set pieces and boss battles with gameplay that begs, nay demands, two human-controlled players to click into place. With scarce ammo and gripping near-death situations from the swarms of enemies, each scenario is further heightened by last-minute player rescues and close-quartered herb-spraying. Simply put, Resident Evil 5 is the first co-op experience where co-operation is the only imperative to survive.(EP)

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