AJ’s Picks: The 12 Best Games of 2009 – A 12-Year Retrospective

Well, it's a new year and I'm back again with another best-of retrospective. This go round, we'll be taking another 12-year look-back, at the best games of 2009, and unlike with the last one, I'm happy to be able to deliver it in a more timely, and thus, sensible fashion. 2009 was another great year for games. But really though, aren't they all, just about? Let's just say, it wasn't any slouch. Please join me as I take a look back at some of the following reasons why.

12 Assassin's Creed II

  • Publisher: Ubisoft
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

Assassin's Creed II was the 2009 follow-up to Ubisoft's 2007 original. The first fictional-adventure-in-a-historical-setting game had somewhat divided critics as far as its execution was concerned, but the idea behind it had showed quite a bit of promise. So naturally, Ubisoft decided to step up their game for the sequel.

​For starters, they jumped the story ahead 300 years and changed the location, from the 12th century Holy Land, during the Third Crusade, to the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. The change in setting allowed for the inclusion of more varied and interesting architecture and locales, as well as notable figures from the period such as Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolo Machiavelli, and the de' Medicis. In addition, Ubisoft added greater variety and interactivity to the proceedings by way of new abilities, vehicles, side missions, and even a day/night cycle. With the much needed depth, more compelling setting, and the greater wealth of content, Assassin's Creed II was hailed, not only as a vastly superior follow-up to the original, but as one of the best games to come out that year. It was even nominated for several awards. Quite an improvement over its critically divisive predecessor.

11 MotorStorm: Arctic Edge

Best Multi-Platform PlayStation Exclusive

  • Publisher: Sony
  • Platforms: PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2

MotorStorm: Arctic Edge was probably the most outstanding game to come to the PSP in 2009 (though it did come to the PS2 as well). The title marked the first and only time the excellent series came to Sony's original sexy little portable, and it brought along an environment that hadn't previously been explored in any of the PlayStation 3 entries, namely, the Arctic. Critics praised the way the title managed to accurately capture the same fun and the feel of those games, and successfully squeezed it into a smaller, less powerful portable whilst still bringing something compellingly new to the table. Arctic Edge has also been described as one of the very best racing titles ever to grace the PSP.

10 Batman: Arkham Asylum

  • Developer: Rocksteady
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam

Over the years there have been a few decent video games set in the Batman universe. Both of the Super Nintendo versions of Batman Returns and The Adventures of Batman & Robin stand out as particular highlights. But there had been a fair share of games that ranged from the mediocre to the downright terrible as well, most recently of which (as of 2007) had been EA's incredibly lackluster 2005 movie adaptation, Batman Begins. Fortunately, for Dark Knight fans everywhere, then publisher Eidos picked up the rights to the Caped Crusader in 2007 and approached a then little-known studio by the name of Rocksteady to see if they could do anything interesting with it; and did they ever! With the possible exceptions of the arcade Marvel Vs Capcom games, and its own 2011 sequel, Arkham City, Batman: Arkham Asylum was perhaps the greatest superhero game ever created.

To pay proper respects to the fans, and the incredible success of the Batman animated series, Rocksteady tapped award-winning writer Paul Dini to pen the story, and Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin to reprise their respective rolls as Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn (a character which Dini himself had co-created). While these were all inspired decision by Rocksteady, they wouldn't have helped much if the game wasn't fun to play. Thankfully, the developer spent a lot of time and effor getting the combat just right, ultimately perfecting a compellingly unique system that felt almost rhythmic in nature and was both easy to learn and difficult to master. When it was released in the summer of 2009, Arkham Asylum was a massive hit, receiving so much critical acclaim that it actually set a Guinness World Record. As noted above, the team went on to create an equally successful 2011 follow-up in Batman: Arkham City. Taken together, the two titles remain to this day, not only one of the greatest Batman games, but two of the greatest video games of all time.

09 Ratchet & Clank - Future: A Crack in Time

  • Developer: Insomniac Games
  • Platform: PlayStation 3

Ratchet & Cllank - Future: A Crack in Time was Insomniac Games' 2009 follow-up to their fantastic 2007 installment, Ratchet & Clank - Future: Tools of Destruction (and its 2008 side story, Quest for Booty). While they mostly stayed faithful to the tried and true formula of their other popular series entries, for A Crack in Time, Insomniac did manage to spice things up a little with some very interesting and well-implemented additions, such as new abilities, weapon upgrades, several time-based mechanics (hence the title), as well as the ability to freely fly Ratchet's ship between planets to complete challenges and earn special items. Unsurprisingly, the title was well-received, with reviewers praising the new features and the overall high quality of the game. What the whole package represented was one of the absolute best entries in an already highly-acclaimed series, which makes A Crack in Time something that is truly timeless.

08 Halo 3: ODST

  • Developer: Bungie
  • Platform: Xbox 360

From the moment it first stomped onto the scene, alongside the launch of the original Xbox in the fall of 2001, the Halo series completely redefined the first-person shooter genre, and succeeded where most others had failed by finally making home consoles, not only an acceptable way to enjoy them, but the preferred way to play them. By the beginning of 2008, the series stood strong at 3 titles, with each of the two new entries having out-performed the previous in terms of sales and popularity. Originally conceived of as a smaller-scale side project, Halo 3: ODST was meant to merely fill the void until the 4th main Halo entry would be ready for release. As development progressed, however, the game began to take on a life of its own, and eventually grew in scope until its size rivalled that of other full-priced AAA titles.

When it was released in September of 2009, Halo 3: ODST was well-received by critics and fans alike. Particular praise was given to the brand new cooperative multiplayer mode, Firefight, along with the unique musical score by series veterans, Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Despite having a different overall feel, and missing several popular features of other games in the franchise, ODST still managed to become the top-selling game in the month it was released, as well as the 9th-best overall for the year. While it may not have the biggest or the best-selling entry, Halo 3: ODST was still a more-than-worthy addition to a downright legendary series, and without a doubt, one of the absolute stand-out titles to be released in 2009.

07 Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon

Best Nintendo DS Exclusive

  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Platform: Nintendo DS

Intelligent System's 2009 DS release, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, was actually a remake of the very first entry in the series, their 1990 Famicom title, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. The game had never received a Western release, but it did star the character Marth, who made his 2001 debut there, not by way of the Fire Emblem series, but rather via Nintendo's Gamecube fighter mega-hit, Super Smash Bros: Melee. The decision to remake his very first title for sale in the West no doubt helped sell copies to legions of Smash Bros devotees, whether they were, or were not already familiar with Intelligent Systems' fantastic Fire Emblem series. Either way, the game was well-received and brought plenty of welcome new additions to the original, such as completely updated graphics, new music and updated remixes of classic tunes, and the addition of a multiplayer battle mode which could be carried out either via a local wireless connection or online. Whether you were a fan of Fire Emblem, Smash Bros, or just great games in general, in 2009, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon was definitely one title not to be missed (especially given that Westerners had already missed out on it once before).

06 Street Fighter IV

  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam

Capcom's Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike are not only the two greatest Street Fighter games, but without a doubt, two of the greatest arcade fighting games of all time. They are the best looking (and arguably sounding) games of their whole incredible series, and they both offer an extremely compelling variety and depth that is tough to beat. With that being the case, Street Fighter IV had some very big shoes to fill. Which isn't to say that Capcom didn't try.

Presumably, to make the Street Fighter III series stand apart from earlier entries, Capcom had made the highly controversial decision to drop the vast majority of fan favorite Street Fighter II characters (as well as all of the newly-popular Alpha ones) in favor of a nearly entirely new stable of fighters. To make up for this much-maligned misstep, one of the first decisions they made regarding the design of Street Fighter IV was to bring back every single playable character from the Champion Edition of Street Fighter II. Capcom then added a few new ones to boot. While not all of these newcomers were interesting or even welcome additions, the publisher/developer did have the good sense to bring back some additional fan favorites from Super Street Fighter II and the Alpha series for the console release of the game.

Capcom also made sure to retain some of the combat depth that they had found such success with in Street Fighter III, while keeping things fresh with new techniques special moves. While the visuals may have taken a hit with the decision to use cheaper computer-rendered polygoal characters, as opposed to the beautiful hand-drawn sprites of old, Capcom did include a unique-looking calligraphic style to the proceedings to keep the game from looking like a total graphical disappointment (by comparison). All in all, while Street Fighter IV may not be able to stand toe-to-toe with the best entries in the series, it was still a well-crafted fighter that paid proper respects to those legendary precursors and, as such, easily stood up to most other fighting game competition on the market.

05 Resident Evil 5

  • Developer: Capcom
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam

Since 1996, Capcom's Resident Evil franchise has been both thrilling, and scaring the pants off of its millions of faithful fans, first via the many games, then later with books, films, and even comics. Over the 5 years between 1999 and 2004, Capcom created several different prototypes for the hotly-anticipated 4th numeric entry in the series, one of which ended up turning into another now well-known Capcom property, Devil May Cry. After trying and failing several times to create an installment they were satisfied with, their efforts finally resulted in something special. What they ended up with was a very well-crafted and stylish action thriller that still managed to maintain and build upon the established lore, characters, and general creepiness that the series had become so famous for. The game was met with universal praise and affection, and set a new bar, both for the franchise, and for third-person action games, in general.

Given the unparalleled success of Resident Evil 4, expectations were understandably high for number 5. Capcom tookk another 4 years to try their best to meet those expectations. One welcome new feature they brought to the game was the inclusion of a cooperative teammate to assist the protagonist throughout the entirety of the campaign. This teammate could either be controlled by the game's AI, or by a second player, either in the same room or online. A multiplayer versus mode was another greatly-appreciated addition. Although Capcom certainly gave it a heroic effort, when they finally released Resident Evil 5 in March of 2009, it couldn't quite manage to live up to the same level of hype as the previous installment. Despite this though, the game still managed to garner a respectable amount of praise from critics and fans, particularly for its (then) incredible graphics. While it may not have received quite as much acclaim as its precursor, Resident Evil was still a pretty massive hit that rivaled the best games to come out that year. It even remains, to this day, one of Capcom's best-selling titles of all time.

04 Halo Wars

  • Developer: Ensemble Studios
  • Platform: Xbox 360

Neither this title, nor the next, were simply two of the best Xbox 360 releases to come out in 2009, but a couple of games that I felt were two of the best to ever grace that console. The following is what I had to say about both titles in my 12th anniversary Xbox 360 Retrospective: "While Halo 3 may have been the raison d'etre of the Xbox 360, it wasn't the only Halo in town - far from it. Halo Wars, on the other hand, was the only Halo of it's kind on the system. Whereas Halo 3, Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Reach, and Halo 4 were all traditional first-person shooters (almost all made by Bungie), Halo Wars was something else entirely. Something special - a strategy game made specifically for consoles. And it wasn't made by just any old developer, either, it was made by the renowned strategy game developer, Ensemble Studios. As a matter of fact, it was the last game made by Ensemble Studios, before their untimely disbandment by Microsoft. That effectively makes Halo Wars their swan song; an honor it lives up to. Halo Wars constitutes a compelling, well-crafted, strategic spin on the Halo universe. It's a worthy edition to the franchise, a shining example of a console strategy game done right, and a must-own title for Halo fans, as well as 360 owners in general.

03 Forza Motorsport 3

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive

  • Developer: Turn 10
  • Platform: Xbox 360

"There was a time when Project Gotham Racing ruled the virtual roads on Xbox. Indeed, PGR 3 was even able to outshine the Forza series' first showing on the 360; and that game, Forza Motorsport 2, didn't even come out until a year and a half later. It actually wasn't until the following installment, Forza Motorsport 3, that Forza developer Turn 10 was finally able to surpass the Project Gotham Racing series (although by that point, it had, unfortunately, already been discontinued).

Yes, Turn 10 definitely got it right with Forza 3. Not only was it the best looking Forza game to date, but it also included several fantastic new tracks, hundreds of the hottest cars imaginable, and several key features that allowed it to stand apart. By taking a cue from PGR and finally offering a much-needed cockpit view (that they had bizarrely decided to leave out of Forza 2), as well as including the popular rewind feature (and Le Mans race track) from the equally impressive (Race Driver) Grid, Turn 10 was able to make Forza Motorsport 3 into the finest racing game around."

02 BlazBlue -Calamity Trigger-

Best Multi-Platform Game

  • Developer: Arc System Works
  • Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

In 1998, then little-known Japanese developer, Arc System Works made a name for itself with a fantastic new PlayStation-exclusive fighting game called Guilty Gear. The game was so unique and well-crafted that publisher Sammy commissioned the arcade/PlayStation 2 sequel, Guilty Gear X, whereby they actually gained the rights to the property. This didn't become a problem for Arc System Works (who later created a second sequel for Sammy with Guilty Gear XX) until 2004. That year, Sammy merged with SEGA and then restructured themselves, transferring over the rights to all of their games in the process. With Sammy no longer focusing on game publishing, and the rights to the Guilty Gear property now owned by SEGA, Arc System Works was forced to come up with something new.

Enter, BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger, a game that had a very similar flavor to those excellent Guilty Gear titles, but a completely new look. While the game played similarly, it had a style and story that was all its own. In the same way, some of the characters bore more than passing resemblances to a few Guilty Gear favorites, while others were pretty wildly new and unique. The game was a hit with the fans, and the critics, who praised it both for its similarities to, and differences from the Guilty Gear series. BlazBlue went on to become a successful series in its own right, and Arc System Works ended up buying back the rights to their Guilty Gear property from SEGA, and now have two fan-favorite fighting franchises to develop games for.

01 Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Best PlayStation 3 Exclusive, Game of the Year

  • Developer: Naughty Dog
  • Platform: PlayStation 3

As with my 2008 Games of the Year list, my 2009 one is also going to borrow from my 12th anniversary PlayStation 3 Retrospective: "In 2007, Sony developer Naughty Dog released Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, a thrilling, treasure-hunting action-adventure title in the same vein as Tomb Raider or a modern Indiana Jones story. The game was pretty fantastic and... the developer [saw] fit to release a mind-blowing sequel in 2009. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves upped the ante with an even more thrilling campaign, more realistic graphics, and the addition of both competitive and cooperative multiplayer modes. The game was so incredibly well-received that it claimed multiple game-of-the-year awards. It might just be the best PS3 game ever made."

Well, that's another retrospective in the books. Or blogs, as it were. If you were gaming at the time, I hope the surprises were pleasant and the memories were endearing. If not, I hope this article has been as informative as it was authoritative. As usual, feel free to share your thoughts and reminiscences in the comments below.


(This is a repost of an article that originally appeared on 12/12 Games.)

[Images: Arc System Works, Ubisoft, Sony, Rocksteady, Insomniac Games, Bungie, Nintendo, Capcom, Ensemble Studios, Turn 10, Naughty Dog]

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