Only two games left to go. They’re each amazing in their own right. Let’s get to it:
2) Red Faction: Guerilla
The quintessential Red Faction: Guerilla experience, for me, is arriving at an enemy base on foot, eating a hole into its wall with the nano-rifle, making a mad dash to jump into a tank housed there, blowing up as much of the base as I can, leaping out of the tank just as it explodes, then using the jet-pack to glide and skate through the ruins, launching rockets at anything that’s still standing. It’s a fantastic sandbox to play in. There are definitely some bad missions in there, where the scripting feels too stiff (there was a particularly bad escort mission), or the objective is vague, but for the most part, the game capitalizes well on its mechanics. The puzzle missions where the objective is to level a structure using constrained resources are delightful. The best missions were the ones where enemies were holed up in the upper floors of buildings, and so allowed a wide range of strategies (break in through a wall; fly up to the ceiling and punch a hole in the roof; just level the whole building). The combination of mobility and environmental destruction made for an exhilarating experience.
The game should particularly be commended for balancing on-foot and vehicle gameplay. When you get in to the right vehicle – a tank, or one of the mechs – you experience a huge power increase, and get to go on a good long rampage. But I, at least, rarely felt overmatched when on just foot. Between the hammer to beat an escape path, the nano-rifle to quickly dissolve infantry, the electricity-gun to disable ground vehicles, the jet-pack for mobility, and the plentiful rocket-launcher ammo, I always felt I had the tools I needed even if I lost my vehicle.
On easy difficulty, Guerilla is a joyride. Running head on into enemies (and friends) and smashing them with the hammer never gets old:But I found it really shone on normal difficulty, where I had to be more thoughtful and precise about managing engagements. One of the best examples of a game where the process of escaping from a tight spot is as engaging as getting into trouble in the first place.
(As a side-note, I’m really kind of concerned about the upcoming sequel, Red Faction: Armageddon. The more-heavily scripted missions, and the story, were the two weakest parts of Guerilla, and the move away from the open world would seem to be playing towards these weaknesses. That said, the magnet gun looks like a blast.)
1) Assassin’s Creed 2
Dragon Age and Brutal Legend are great as structured narratives. Borderlands and Red Faction: Guerilla are great sandboxes. Assassin’s Creed 2 is amazing in both categories. It takes what was already solid traversal gameplay from the first game, sets it in a world that’s easier to get around (thanks mostly to all the wires connecting buildings), fills in a few obviously missing core skills (the three you get taught at the beginning, that let you surprise targets from above, below and in hiding), adds in even more tools (poison, pistols, thieves, money-tossing), and then throws you in to mission after mission where you’re encouraged to use and combine these tools how you see fit. And, like in Red Faction, trying to escape when things go wrong is every bit as fun and satisfying as having things go right. It also pulls off Crackdown’s trick of changing how you look at your own environment once you turn it off and go outside.
Then there’s the story, which, while not a great work of fiction, is interesting and well-constructed, especially in its use of historical figures. And it earns so many points in my book for the hilariously blasphemous final boss fight. The only complaint I had at the time I played it was that there wasn’t a more extended Rome segment of the game leading up to the final mission. A complaint that has now been rendered obsolete by the follow-up, Brotherhood.
But the biggest, best point in Assassin’s Creed 2’s favour is its world. Bustling and vibrant streets give way to gorgeous roof-top vistas. I spent a handful of days in Italy some years ago, and while I was there, I was on a kick of climbing every tall building I could find and looking out over the view. I climbed up the Duomo in Florence and the Campanile in Venice, both of which are featured in set-pieces in the game. I found the experience of the Duomo in the game uniquely affecting. It begins with a slow, circling ascent through the interior of the structure that, in spite of the game’s traversal mechanics, still feels like it closely mirrors the actual ascent. This inside of the building is wonderfully captured, this bright, long, almost cavernous space, and touring it evoked such a strong feeling of nostalgia within me. After the wondrous ascent, there’s a brief pause while the player loots a small treasure-room containing the quest-objective. Upon exiting this room, I expected either to end up back on the inside of the cathedral or else on the streets outside its doors. Instead, I found myself outside, in full daylight, at the very peak of the dome, looking out over Florence in all its shining wonder and majesty. It was beautiful, and breath-taking, and I don’t fall in love easily but in that moment I did.
No game from 2009 made me cry (I’m pretty sure Lost Odyssey is still the last game with that distinction). Plenty of games gave me moments of joy. A small handful gave me a moment of sadness. But no other game from 2009 gave me a moment like that one at the top of the Duomo. I’m also not a religious person, but still, that was a moment of awe and ecstasy and overwhelming nostalgia, not something one experiences every day, and not something I expected to feel from a video game. (Playing Shadow of the Colossus is the only other gaming experience I’ve had that has approached this height of feeling (pun intended), though there the ecstasy is shaded by melancholy and regret, rather than nostalgia.) That alone would secure it a high spot on this list. As it is, there’s so much more great and good about Assassin’s Creed 2 that I haven’t even mentioned (the combat, the integration of the UI into the narrative, the ingenious, if now a bit over-packed, control scheme, the flashback/dream sequence). And so, in the end, it’s a pretty easy call to make Assassin’s Creed 2 my top game of 2009.