My Top Games of 2009: Part 2

It’s not often that it’s so easy to spot the underlying themes within lists like this one, but this time it’s pretty easy. These are all big, open world-style games. They’re primarily or exclusively single-player games. Even though they’re predominantly action games, they tend to emphasize strategy and planning over brute force. The exciting conclusion of the list, after the jump:

(Actually, that was a lie. There will be one more entry after this. Also, the exciting-ness of this piece is open to debate.)

5) Brütal Legend
I’ve already written about one moment that I particularly enjoyed but there’s so much more that’s great in Brütal Legend. A beautiful, creative, cohesive open world that’s just plain fun to inhabit. The strategy game at its core is controversial, but I enjoyed it a lot. There are a lot of mechanics at play in the game, and I really don’t think Double Fine has gotten enough credit for how well they all mesh together, and how meticulous the game is about teaching the skills necessary to succeed in the Stage Battles. There’s the obvious examples of being taught how to use new units in separate little story missions, or practicing multitasking by having to command troops while also shooting from a stationary turret, but even elementary things like driving around the open world provide valuable training on how to quickly navigate a battlefield in the strategy game. If I had one complaint, it’s that there isn’t more to the single-player after all this training. There are really only a couple of full-on Stage Battles once all the units and abilities have been unlocked. The multi-player goes some way to remedying this, but I would have appreciated more in the campaign, perhaps while controlling one of the game’s other factions, which feel a tad under-used as is.

And I’ve written all this without praising the soundtrack, and the story, and the characters, and the voice-acting. All very well done, and, again, all unified in tone and purpose. A game bursting at the seams with joy and passion.

4) Borderlands
My fondest multi-player memories of 2009 come from the few, intense weeks of playing Borderlands, right when it came out. This a case of a game with a core concept that is so strong that, with a little style and attitude thrown in, it’s able to steamroll over and past its various shortcomings. Solid shooting mechanics combined with Diablo-style loot and talents is already a dangerous combination.  Sufficiently well-done co-op puts it over the top. It doesn’t particularly matter if the things to shoot aren’t particularly interesting or varied, or that success is overly dependent on character-level. With good company it’s a great, relaxing co-op experience, a refreshing contrast to the high-stress experiences of Left 4 Dead and various horde modes. Even repetitive tasks like, say, collecting hundreds of zombie brains, are better with friends. Which is not to say that there isn’t challenge and excitement to be found if you go looking. There were a couple of total fiascos where boss fights went horribly wrong, and we wiped, and everyone was laughing. And then we were able to all quickly respawn without penalty and jump right back in.

3) Dragon Age: Origins
It was expected from the start that I was going to get hooked on the gameplay. I’m a sucker for RPGs that let you assemble and develop and customize a team. I greatly appreciated the power and flexibility of the tactics system, which, for the most part, let me feel comfortable about letting my party members do their own things while I played my character. (I’m playing Knights of the Old Republic now, and the lack of options for NPCs is infuriating – there’s essentially only two options: one that uses up every available resource, and one that doesn’t use any.)

The story is something of a mixed bag. There are a handful of scenes that still stand out in my mind: the betrayal in the dwarven noble origin, the Joining (together, these two made for quite the strong opening), confrontation over the Anvil, the trial. But a lot of the rest, including the main storyline, didn’t do much for me.

What I didn’t expect was that I’d get hooked on the characters. Bioware has a strong legacy of comedic NPCs (Minsk, HK-47, the golem in this game that I didn’t see because of Project Ten Dollar) but within the pre-Dragon Age cannon I have a hard time thinking of likable, relatable characters, ones that I’d, say, like to hang out with in the wilderness around a campfire. This time around, they did a good job with almost all the NPCs, but what they did with Alastair is particularly exemplary. In some sense, he’s just a nice guy who gets a little snarky from time to time to cover up his underlying insecurity. Even just by that cursory description, there’s more there than in 99% of all video game characters. But, especially because I decided to push the romance subplot, I got to go through this funny, cute, charming, passionate, and then ultimately tragic relationship that transcended the limitations of the game’s mechanics (gift-giving and relationship meters, bah!) and actually made me feel something in my cold, withered heart.

This is running long, so this is all for the day. I’ll finish this up in a Part 3, coming soon.

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