Gamasutra's Best Of 2009

Ending out 2009, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from disappointments through game of the year and beyond -- with bonus reader feedback.

Ending out 2009, Gamasutra puts together the definitive compilation of our year-end lists, from disappointments through game of the year and beyond, with bonus reader feedback from the charts' original posting in the site's news section.

While the year has seen the world slowly recovering from the grip of financial recession, the video games created this year and resulting creative and business trends have been as vital -- if not more so -- than previous years, and we're delighted to present our impressions of 2009 in this format.

You can also compare this year's set of charts against 2008's 'Top 5s' compilation and 2007's similar compendium to see what has changed -- and what overarching trends have ended up staying the same over the years.

Without further ado, here are the charts:

Top 5 PC Games

In more ways than physically, the PC is something of a black box. Gaming's only true open platform can be a tough nut to crack for developers. Its install base is ostensibly enormous (Steam alone, just one of its many communities, numbers over 20 million gamers) but success on the PC can be elusive, and it lacks the plug-and-play simplicity of its console cousins.

Triple-A big-budget action experiences have clearly found their place on consoles, and those games are becoming less common on the PC (although sometimes they're just a few months late). But the platform is increasingly emerging as fertile ground for an astonishingly wide breadth of games that don't fit that particular mold.

This year's best offerings included games that play to the system's strengths -- either by demanding high levels of input precision or by being so accessible that only minimal computational hardware is required, and everything in between.

The PC in 2009 saw a front-loaded schedule. It was the first half of the year that was most densely packed with ambitious and quirky exclusives, bolstered by some notable multiplatform standouts in the fall.

As a result, the PC's year in gaming ranged from Empire: Total War's grand strategy to Dawn of War II's RPG-like strategic micromanagement; from Dragon Age: Origins' epic fantasy to Torchlight's bite-sized lootfest; from The Sims 3's single-player interpersonal relationships to Left 4 Dead 2's online zombie-killing cooperation.

This year, the strongest case yet has been made for the PC as the affordable gaming platform, despite its costly image. Cutthroat competition between digital distribution operators (with more on the way) has resulted in nonstop rotating deep discounts, without the permanent devaluation that comes with retail's bargain bins. At any given moment, the PC gamer has access to amazing deals on a wide array of games, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.

Finally, it's worth pointing out the originality on display this year; of the 15 games highlighted here, more than half hail from newly-created properties. And take heart, PC fans: nearly all had PC as the lead development platform, with the majority exclusive.

Top 5 PC Games of 2009

5. Torchlight (Runic Games)

Torchlight offers proof that a game's pedigree makes a huge difference. When you put the founders of Diablo creator Blizzard North in the same room as the guy responsible for Fate, you get the most fluid and addictive action RPG since the mighty Diablo II itself. (Well, first you apparently get a public beta of another game. Then you get a new studio and Torchlight.)

What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit. And it's certainly not a complete coincidence that neither of them have featured the wonderful music talent of original Diablo composer Matt Uelman until now either.

Impressively, Torchlight succeeds even without a multiplayer component, an omission that was worrisome when first announced but which ended up detracting little from the game's charmingly cocaine-like old-school dungeon-clearing. And its system requirements are soft enough that the game's option screen even includes a "netbook mode"!

4. Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly)

Grandeur is the touchstone in the Total War series, and The Creative Assembly more than lived up to that reputation with its latest entry, Empire. Encompassing a massive geographical scope during a period that was immensely formative in modern civilization, the game's many systems interweave to create an incredible historical narrative -- or a plausible portrayal of what might have been. And as is customary for the series, its extensive automation options mean Empire stays accessible without forcing a reduction in depth. It's a game of uniquely PC scope.

In a creative medium so dominated by fantasy, science fiction, and Rambo-esque combat theatrics, there is something laudable about a developer like The Creative Assembly that pursues an entirely different, and more accountable, kind of wish fulfillment. Such ambitious depictions of vast swathes of history rarely receive such lavish production values.

The game's launch was unfortunately marred by technical issues for many users, some of which have reportedly persisted. But The Creative Assembly hasn't abandoned the game, even after announcing next year's Napoleon: Total War: Empire's long-promised multiplayer campaign enters beta today.

3. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve)

Last year's excellent Left 4 Dead (which ranked #2 on the 2008 list) demonstrated how much room for exploration is left in the multiplayer shooter arena. A genre-defying mashup of round-based multiplayer and cooperative campaigning, it carved out a unique place for itself in the unforgiving marketplace of online gaming.

Left 4 Dead 2, which famously sparked an ultimately short-lived protest against its year-later development cycle, demonstrates the abilities of a team that, having worked through the establishment of a successful subgenre, has been able to explore the space in a deeper, more confident, more fleshed-out way. Its setting reflects a more perceivable geographic progression, its levels house a broader array of inventive gameplay conceits, and its mode and playstyle options are more numerous.

Along with Valve's neverending Team Fortress 2 content and the pseudo-episodic Half-Life 2 series, Left 4 Dead 2 provides yet more evidence that Valve understands the value of iteration better than most.

2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Relic Entertainment)

Real-time strategy doesn't occupy the same headline-grabbing position it once did (except when StarCraft II is delayed again, anyway), but for the past decade, Relic Entertainment has been creating some of the most progressive, fun RTS games around. A few years ago, it received well-deserve acclaim for Company of Heroes, and this year it continued to take liberties with established strategy game design in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which pushes even further away from the base-management norm to great effect.

The single-player campaign, which can be played solo or cooperatively, offers an engaging persistent loot and leveling system informed by Diablo and its ilk, with the map and control mentality of an RTS -- a formula that pays off. And the multiplayer mode is a heavily teamwork-driven action-strategy experience that can seem initially unfamiliar, but whose fast pace and roots in well-established gameplay underpinnings lends it to quick learning.

Like a couple other games on this list, Dawn of War II is an admirable reminder that design risks can pay off, and there's no such thing as permanent standardization for a genre.

1. Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)

Dragon Age is a game full of compelling contradictions. Its gameplay paradigm is a revival of the kind of systemic, arcane PC RPG that BioWare previously revived in the late 90s with Baldur's Gate -- but its finely-tuned modernization and playability deflect anachronistic impenetrability. At first glance, its setting seems like forgettable boilerplate fantasy -- but that surface level belies a slate of unexpectedly engaging and believable party members, and well-integrated undercurrents examining its world's class and race relations.

These days, not many multiplatform games feel so intrinsically native to the PC as Dragon Age. Some elements play equally well on any system -- characters, dialogue, situations, choices -- but the intended feel of the game is best conveyed with a mouse and keyboard, and the more complete UI. Using the mouse wheel to seamlessly scroll between the modern chase cam and the old-school remove-the-ceiling top-down view is oddly satisfying in its own right, and is endlessly practical as the game flows between exploration and tactical combat. Characters can be direct-controlled, clicked-and-dragged, given automated tactics; as with the narrative situations, player choice is the name of the game.

Dragon Age's pre-release marketing implied tired, shallow characters and situations. The game itself has an uncommon smartness and genuineness. Rarely have I grown as attached to virtual characters in video games, or developed distaste for them based on something other than poor writing. Even better, they convincingly engage in their own independent banter as you lead them around the world. The game and its setting aren't devoid of cliche, not by a long shot; but few games offer such a volume of well-conceived interaction and observation. (Those driven to the game solely by its current angry-bloodbath television campaign are likely to be confused by the thoughtful experience with which they are presented upon startup.)

Like Fallout 3, last year's winner, Dragon Age promises a life beyond its shipped content with official PC modding tools (and the inevitable paid content). And yet again, it's great to see the characteristically PC-derived traditions of player-driven systemic worlds available in many genres and on multiple systems. But Dragon Age is still best experienced on the platform that gave rise to its kind.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

AAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan Games): Many hours were spent playing this surprisingly compelling BASE jumping simulator, which brilliantly conveys the fun Dejobaan must have had making it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios): It's the first good Batman game possibly ever, and it's supremely playable, setting the template for good multiplatform PC conversions.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward): In the end, Infinity Ward's proprietary online backend isn't ideal in all respects, but it gets the absolutely top-shelf multiplayer across well enough.

Dawn of Discovery/Anno 1404 (Blue Byte/Related Designs): This city builder's preoccupation with economic micromanagement pays off in satisfaction when you get everything running like clockwork.

League of Legends (Riot Games): One of several companies hoping to inherit the Defense of the Ancients crown, Riot has crafted a tight, polished (and free) strategy/RPG effort.

Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games): It turns out turret defense design hadn't been exhausted; PopCap makes a strong, playable argument here for conciseness of design.

Risen (Piranha Bytes): This deep RPG inherits both the ambition and the slight jankiness of its Gothic forbear, still doing cynical roleplaying better than most.

The Sims 3 (Maxis): If you want what The Sims does, the original series is still the only real choice around, and this entry is admirably polished and expanded.

Tales of Monkey Island (Telltale Games): Impressively, Telltale has made one of gaming's most resolutely stagnant genres feel much fresher, while keeping a venerable license largely intact.

Trine (Frozenbyte): This clever single-player-cooperative (or same-screen) sidescroller offers fun platforming innovation, pretty visuals, and a wizard.

Zeno Clash (Ace Team): Don't try to figure out what the hell is going on, just enjoy the imaginative surrealism and brutal first-person face-punching.

- Chris Remo

You said:

Mathieu Marquis Bolduc: "About Empire Total War... I love the Total War series, but I think you understate the scope of the 'technical problems'. It took 4 patches before the AI was functional enough to make the grand campaign playable, and cannons defending a fort still think its a good idea to fire at enemies through their own gates. AI was never the strong point of the series, but its the first time it really broke the game. I hope Creative Assembly rethink their approach to AI in the next game."

Richard Putney: "Trine and Borderlands are my picks for outstanding titles this year. These titles were both incredibly fun to play, quirky, and innovative. DoW II was great fun, but I really dont think their redefinition of RTS did as much for the genre as the original DoW."

Donald McArthur: "Am I the only one who enjoyed Demigod? It was my go to game for two months and I still enjoy going pack for a quick match."

Top 5 Controversies

Generally, video games are fun, touching or sad; the video games business is just business. But there are always more complex news stories that surface from among the daily reports of publisher revenues and franchise sequels -- with such a passionate community of players and creators in the industry, controversies always get a major share of buzz.

Now, let's look back on 2009 to reflect on some of biggest controversies; here are the news stories and sagas that got us really talking and thinking this year.

5. Brutal Legend's Love Triangle

Gamers were saddened when Brutal Legend, the joyous heavy metal opus from fan-favorite designer Tim Schafer, was unceremoniously dropped from Vivendi's publishing slate in its merger with Activision -- it was a creative risk that lacked franchise potential, according to the company.

So when the game found a new publisher in Electronic Arts, everyone cheered it as the de facto avatar of the creative and quirky, creating a narrative that pitted Brutal Legend against the ills of big corporate. And that plot only thickened when Activision sued, ostensibly to hamper the game's release by claiming it still had the rights.

Ultimately, of course, after a countersuit by Schafer's Double Fine and a settlement in court, EA launched the title.

But almost as fun as the success story was the visible show of ill will, albeit good-humored, between the rivals -- EA's comment that Activision was behaving "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy" was nearly as delightful as Schafer's own timely reference to pop star Beyonce's homage to single women: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it."

4. Richard Garriott, Fraud Victim?

Famed Ultima Online forbear Richard Garriott returned from his much-publicized trip to space to find his latest project, NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, had become little more than a heavy drag on the publisher's finances, and declared he would leave NCsoft to pursue other interests inspired by his stint as an astronaut. That was last year.

Early in 2009, Tabula Rasa shut its doors with a bang, and that's when the surprise came: Garriott's claim that his was no peaceful resignation, but a force-out grossly misrepresented by NCsoft. Garriott now claims he'd objected to his dismissal but was forced to leave -- and that the company re-categorized his termination as "voluntary" so as to impact his stock options.

He claims he was forced to choose between exercising his options in "one of the worst equity markets in modern history," or take the risk that the company would refuse to honor them later. Garriott now claims he's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in costs and taxes, and has sacrificed "millions of dollars in value" having lost two-and-a-half years of his options period.

3. The Complex Orson Scott Card Issue

Swaths of gamers couldn't wait for Epic and Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex, a refreshing return to the exploration-driven "Metroidvania" style of gameplay many remembered fondly from a simpler time. That was until some began to take a closer look at the personal philosophies of author Orson Scott Card, friend to Chair lead Donald Mustard and writer of the fiction from which Shadow Complex was derived.

The problem? Card is vocally against gay marriage, and is in fact an active political opponent to it as founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to address "the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures."

Those who believe that same-sex couples should have an equal entitlement to marry as heterosexual couples balked at the idea of allowing such an active opponent to profit even in small share from their purchase of Shadow Complex; game fans on the popular NeoGAF forum discussed and debated the issue, and Gamasutra's own Christian Nutt took a close look at the proposed boycotts.

Political beliefs and causes are highly personal. But as state governments across America begin to consider the issue, passions and polarities are increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and news. More importantly than arriving at a "right-or-wrong" answer for Shadow Complex was the fact that a wider world issue had reached gamers, generally more likely to get up in arms about far more insular issues.

It may or may not be appropriate to politicize video games, but the Shadow Complex controversy got everyone thinking about the places where our entertainment medium of choice and issues of wider relevance can overlap.

2. Who's The Ultimate DJ Hero?

Developer 7 Studios started out with the kind of story that makes small developers everywhere take heart: A rep for publisher Genius Products visited the cash-strapped studio -- still reeling from the Brash Entertainment collapse -- and stumbled upon "a labor of love" tucked away in "this audio engineer's closet of an office," and was swept away.

That little one-man experiment, or so the story goes, was a turntable controller, and from that discovery was birthed the project that would become Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, an inventive concept that sought to leverage the tide of the music game boom in the direction of DJ music with the help of legendary musician-producer Quincy Jones.

No sooner had the team announced their project, however, than things got ugly very quickly. Activision, monarch of the music genre with Guitar Hero, wanted to put out a turntable-equipped video game too. Claiming it was helping out a cash-strapped studio -- and indeed, Activision had given 7 Studios staff contract work in the past to help them stay afloat -- the publisher purchased the developer.

Genius Products and partner Numark didn't quite buy the charity act and found the timing a little too coincidental, and it wasn't long before the pair slapped Activision -- along with its former collaborators 7 Studios -- with a lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and claiming 7 Studios was making it hard for Genius to get its assets back. According to Genius, there was a plot afoot to keep Scratch from launching before Activision's own DJ Hero.

There was a restraining order, and a countersuit from 7 Studios claiming it was Genius' "unsavory business practices" that caused Scratch's delay, and the costs kept ramping up: Activision reportedly shelled out at least $350,000 in legal fees, while Genius and Numark had to put up a $2 million bond to have Scratch's source code returned.

Genius and Numark say they still haven't gotten back everything that's theirs, but plan to finish the game anyway with a new developer, Commotion Interactive, for release in the year to come. Just before the release of DJ Hero, Activision gave some 30 developers at 7 Studios their walking papers, saying it wanted to focus the studio more on music games. Unfortunately for all involved, most analysts think the music game heyday has passed; although DJ Hero generally received a strong critical reception, its sales were only modest.

1. Modern Warfare 2

Where popularity goes, scrutiny follows, so perhaps it's to be expected that the biggest game of 2009 was also the most controversial -- not just one, but three of 2009's scandals emerged from this title alone, and that's excluding the silly back-and-forth over whether to put the "Call of Duty" branding on it or not. First, there was the revelation that PC gamers would have no dedicated servers for the game's multiplayer -- and PC gamers can always be relied upon to sound their displeasure the loudest when they end up with the short end of the stick. Just one of several online petitions received 234,351 signatures.

Infinity Ward revealed details of IWnet, the matchmaking service unveiled in place of dedicated servers, but they still weren't enough to please vocal PC fans, many of whom permanently soured on the game. Then, fresh on the heels of the dedicated-server debacle came F.A.G.S, an unbelievably ill-conceived marketing video designed as a fake PSA warning against grenade spam -- but offending many for its frathouse-homophobia brand of humor.

And if that weren't enough, there was, of course, "No Russian," the game's much-buzzed sequence wherein the player must accompany his enemy in an airport terrorist attack on civilians. Certainly the implications were offensive to Russians, but the critical consensus, encapsulated here by Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen, was that the scene -- heavy-handed and inappropriately following an adrenaline-fueled snowmobile chase -- missed the mark so badly that it was offensive to gamers.

Of course, none of it seemed to hurt the game's record-breaking, 4.7 million-unit day one launch; probably, the most likely damage was done to the blood pressure of Infinity Ward community manager Robert "FourZeroTwo" Bowling, the one who had to field all the drama (and who incidentally appeared among 2008's top controversies, too).

Other controversies this year: Gamers decry EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes price restructure, possibly indicative of just how EA plans to shift to a primarily-digital revenue model; Tim Langdell angers the development community with his vigilant ownership of the word 'Edge' in game-related trademark form; WoW goes dark in China as it battles government regulators; Steam rivals call Steamworks a 'Trojan Horse'; 3D Realms and Take-Two brawl over Duke Nukem

- Leigh Alexander

You said:

Leonardo Ferreira: "The 'No Russian' so-called 'controversy' is so cynical that it angers me profoundly; this sequence must have gone throught contless focus groups, in orders to measure the right amount of 'controversy' it could generate. Apparently, instead of creating a meaningful discussion, the guys at Infinity Ward just put together a flashy and misguided marketing act that is just going to do more harm than good to the industry as a whole."

Jeffrey Parsons: "It's utterly hilarious that a person believing in traditional marriage constitutes a 'controversy', particularly when this didn't have anything resembling a big impact on the games scene."

Adam Bishop: "Whether or not anyone happens to agree or disagree with the [Shadow Complex] controversy, it certainly was one, as the massive comment threads in numerous articles here and elsewhere would attest to."

Top 5 iPhone Games

Since opening last year, the iTunes App Store -- the mobile storefront for iPhone and iPod Touch games and applications -- has grown exponentially in size. The App Store boasted more than 10,000 available apps at the end of 2008. One year later, as of this writing, that number has risen to more than 112,000.

Developers rushed to the platform after witnessing its potential as a gaming device. Some indies became overnight success stories, generating thousands of dollars in daily revenue. Soon, even big-name industry publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision turned their attention to the platform, eager to capitalize on its growing market.

App Store developers now face tougher competition than ever before. In addition to competing against high-quality offerings from established publishers, many independent developers now wage a race to the bottom among themselves, pricing their offerings at cutthroat rates in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on Apple's daily sales charts.

In this highly competitive market, it takes a truly exceptional game to stand out from the crowd and earn the recognition it deserves. These are the five best titles released for the iPhone and iPod Touch this year.

5. Skee-Ball [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Freeverse)

Throw a wooden ball up a ramp. With skill, you'll land it in one of the cups at the end of the lane, earning points. After throwing nine balls up the ramp, the game ends. Get a high score and you'll earn tickets, which you can redeem for pointless prizes.

So what's the big deal, here? Why was such a simple game charting as one of the App Store's top sellers for months on end? Skee-Ball isn't innovative by any means, but it manages to so effectively translate an arcade mainstay to the iPhone's touch screen that you'll fin

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