2009 has been a strong end to the Noughties for gaming. The PlayStation 3 has come into its own with some blockbuster exclusives, while the Xbox 360 and Wii have both delivered excellent games of their own. We’ve seen two new handheld iterations in the Western release of the DSi and the global release of the PSP Go, the latter marking a watershed moment for the gaming industry by being a console with only downloadable games. DLC has been an important feature of the home consoles too, with some of the year’s most exciting releases coming on the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live and WiiWare. Meanwhile at retail, the commercial behemoth of Modern Warfare 2 was enough to scare many publishers into giving their titles a Spring 2010 release, while at the other end Activision’s latest Hero venture, DJ Hero, has struggled to hit the half million mark for units sold.
Yet in the midst of global economic trouble, the industry has still managed to churn out many noteworthy titles this year. While 2009 has fallen short of, say, the overwhelming 2007 line-up, trying to decide which games were deserving of which awards this year has been as difficult as ever for the TGR staff. But decide we did, handing out a total of 22 awards across 18 worthy winners – with one game cleaning up across the board. So here they are, the TGR Awards for 2009.
Best Action-Adventure: Uncharted 2: Among Theives
An exciting story that unfolds organically, three dimensional characters, witty banter, and an insane amount of detail during the game’s lulls make for a much more rounded experience than Drake’s previous outing. It doesn’t totally reinvent the action-adventure wheel, but it tells its tale with so much grace and elegance that it’s just plain damning to the competition.
Best Platformer: New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Playing a Mario game with up to three other players simultaneously is probably something no-one had really been demanding, but NSMB Wii offers an experience that anyone and everyone should try. An old school platforming challenge with some charming new twists, Mario returns to eat away those after school hours, this time in multiplayer to keep you jumping for joy.
Best Shooter: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare 2 is a title forged out of maddening hype, ceaseless controversy and an adoring online fanbase so numerous that, if Infinity Ward demanded it in their message of the day, could be assembled into an army voluminous enough to topple China. Maybe its story went a little off the deep end, but either way it’s become the de facto standard for what other (lesser) shooter games are measured by.
Best Strategy/Simulation: Plants vs. Zombies
Peggle creator PopCap has done it again with Plants vs. Zombies. Its imaginative development team created a game that might sound ridiculous but is actually wonderfully addictive. A unique tower defense game plotting the familiar evil of zombies against the unfamiliar might of plants, this downloadable release is quirky, imaginative and utterly fantastic. It’s also a challenge that offers several different ways to strategize and prepare your army of greens against the unpredictable undead, but its charm and wit ensures that it never frustrates.
Best RPG: Dragon Age: Origins
It took a monumentally massive effort from BioWare to nudge out surprise package Demon’s Souls for this award. Dragon Age: Origins spins a sordid tale of medieval fantasy and graphic bloodshed that includes some pitch-perfect twists on role-playing game conventions. Featuring a memorable cast of characters, hundreds of quests, and six unique ways to begin the story, this meaty feast offers constant surprises, entertaining combat, and enough spectacular moments to fill a mile long scroll. Just don’t plan on leaving the house for awhile.
Best Fighter: Street Fighter IV
The fighter has seen a resurgence in the last few years through strong returns for Tekken, Virtual Fighter, and even Mortal Kombat. But Capcom showed it still knows how to do it best with this marvellous reimagination of the beloved Street Fighter franchise. Sure, online play had its niggles, but the depth of strategy within enhanced, painstakingly balanced move sets made us keep coming back for more. While Street Fighter IV was the conclusive winner, we must give a nod to the strong debut showing of BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger.
Best Sports Game: Punch Out!! (Wii)
The Nintendo Entertainment System was the prized childhood possession for most of us. As new consoles arrived and the NES collected dust, there was always one game that we would constantly return to. 22 years and a mediocre sequel later, Punch-Out!! for the Wii immediately drew us back in. Is it fan service? Sure, but the larger than life characters, blissfully smooth animation, and challenging (yet enjoyable) gameplay will offer memories for a whole new generation of fans to look back on. An honorable mention for FIFA 10, only just pipped to the post.
Best Racing Game: Need for Speed: Shift
With Forza 3 released this year along with Gran Turismo PSP, it’s understandable if you’re surprised to see NFS: Shift winning this award considering the recent trials and tribulations of the bloated series. Not only that, but Shift has actually beaten the realistic racers at their own game, expertly delivering a balance between the mainstay arcade themes of the series and purer simulation. Just when you think it’s time to write it off, Need for Speed reinvents itself and earns its place on your must-play list of 2009.
Best Rhythm Game: DJ Hero
Again, maybe an unexpected winner here. Many were deriding DJ Hero ever since its first details were released, proclaiming it the shark to Activision’s water skis. And while those naysayers will point to its struggling sales, those who’ve played the game know that it takes the rhythm game genre a step forward with its masterfully simple controls and refreshing, original mixes. With its pricepoint certain to plummet further in 2010, expect to hear more glowing reviews as the year progresses.
Best Puzzle Game: Tales of Monkey Island series
Guybrush Threepwood returned in episodic form – and in style. Tales has a strong variety of puzzles, sharp writing, and rapier wit. Despite being missing in action for over a decade, the mighty pirate hasn’t missed a beat. Whether you are a longtime fan of the Monkey Island series of games, or are just experiencing them for the first time, the Tales of Monkey Island saga is among TellTale’s finest. An absolute must play.
Best Indie Game: Flower & Trials HD (tied)
Sometimes the best games hit you out of nowhere. Flower was the best looking game of 2009, challenging gameplay conventions and utilising the Six Axis properly for the first time in the PlayStation 3’s history. The mixture of racing and puzzles that Trials HD represented pure, unadulterated addictiveness – the perfect example of a ’just one more go’ video game. There were many contenders in a fantastically strong indie year, too many to actually list, but these two stood tall above the rest.
Best Art Direction: Brutal Legend & Street Fighter IV (tied)
The attention to detail in every nook and cranny of Eddie Riggs’ metal-themed playground is staggering. Mountains of bones, stone relics of instruments, and metallic spiders spinning webs of steel are just some of the more standout monuments in Brutal Legend. but simply driving around doing nothing but observing the landscape was as a joy. As for Street Fighter IV, its visual style was divisive at first. But its beautiful mix of rough, hand-drawn-like rendering and lively calligraphic details made it feel both fresh yet – thanks to some fantastic translation of character design – comfortingly familiar.
Best Sound Design: Batman: Arkham Asylum
Playing this game in surround sound adds a new level of intricacy and even aids the gameplay. You can hear enemies’ voices and determine by sound alone when the perfect time to strike is. The voice acting is superb and uses many of the same actors from the animated series, including Mark Hamill. Sound designer Greg Hainer has worked on some major game and movie titles, and he and the rest of the sound crew designed the audio in this game to be as true as possible to the environment. Their work has not gone unnoticed.
Best Multiplayer: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Only one game could make the multiplayer in Modern Warfare look simplistic and that was Infinity Ward’s much anticipated follow-up. With balanced weaponry, a superb range of well designed levels and a depth in the level and class system never reached before in an FPS, Modern Warfare 2 is an online experience second to none, one that millions of gamers will enjoy throughout 2010. Having said all that, this was one of the closest categories of all, with Left 4 Dead 2 very close to snatching the award in the final stages.
Most Innovative: Scribblenauts
Scribblenauts continues developer 5th Cell’s drive to create innovate original content. The ability and challenge therein of solving seemingly easy puzzles with one’s own vocabulary creates a unique experience for every player. Scribblenauts manages to be one of the most basic titles on this list, and yet it can lay claim to being one of the most innovative at the same time. Hopefully control issues will be improved upon in the inevitable sequel to this DS debut.
Development Studio of the Year: Naughty Dog
Just rewards for this Californian development team who busted their asses off on the first Uncharted game at a time when the PlayStation 3 was not in its element. Two years later, and Naughty Dog has not only learnt from their mistakes with the first game, but implemented a level of attention to detail in Uncharted 2 that simply blows us away. You can tell when a development team loves working on its property, and Naughty Dog clearly adores the Uncharted series.
PS3 Exclusive of the Year: Uncharted 2: Among Theives
A conclusive winner of this award, no adventure this year was more exciting, intriguing, and downright enjoyable than Nathan Drake’s latest journey. The PS3’s visual power was shown off in the breathtaking, wide-open landscapes that reached from the bowels of an ancient temple to a remote village on the side of a mountain. Naughty Dog’s latest was a console-defining experience, one that required the attention of all regardless of where their affection lies. No PS3 owner should be without it.
Xbox 360 Exclusive of the Year: Shadow Complex
Nascent developer Chair Entertainment managed to take Super Metroid’s classic exploration-based formula and re-introduce it to a new generation of gamers via Xbox Live. The resulting product, Shadow Complex, delighted players with its old-school gameplay combined with modern 2.5D visuals. The game’s addictive structure urged players to spend hours uncovering every nook and cranny of the eponymous Shadow Complex long after completing the game’s story. Overall, Shadow Complex serves as a reminder that the simplest gameplay is often the most effective. Like last year’s TGR Game of the Year, Braid, Shadow Complex has proven the worth of Xbox Live as a versatile and superb platform for gaming
Wii Exclusive of the Year: New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Nintendo brought the Mario franchise back to its 8-bit, sidescrolling origins with the series’ latest entry, New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The game retains the best elements of the Nintendo DS’s critically acclaimed hit New Super Mario Bros. while adding an innovative multiplayer option courtesy of the transition to the Wii. This fun-filled, classic platforming formula makes New Super Mario Bros. Wii the system’s best exclusive of the year, not to mention one of the Wii’s finest titles to date.
PC Exclusive of the Year: Plants vs. Zombies
While this looks like it won’t remain a PC exclusive for long in 2010, it’s fitting that we’re filled with doubt regards how Plants vs. Zombies will fare on iPhone or Xbox Live. This quick-fire strategy game felt right with a mouse, but beyond that it deserves this award because it’s a simple yet brilliant downloadable game with a mass appeal that Popcap have become synonymous with. It’s titles like this which show the exciting new direction PC games are taking.
Best Handheld Game: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
A late entry that went on to be the definitive winner of this category. Phantom Hourglass may have done a wonderful job bringing Link’s adventuring to the touch screen and DS stylus, but Spirit Tracks does it one better by capitalizing on all the lessons learned from its predecessor, making for a far meatier adventure. Don’t let the handheld format fool you, this is an epic Zelda adventure with some of the most challenging puzzles in the series’ history.
TGR Game of the Year:
Uncharted 2: Among Theives
There was tough competition from the likes of Assassin’s Creed II and Modern Warfare 2 in the voting, the former failing to pick up a single award from us. But the winner was never in doubt. What more can be said about this superb game? From the very first trailer where we saw Drake hanging desperately on the rails of a carriage itself hanging over a cliff, we were putty in Naughty Dog’s hands. When the game finally reached our PS3s and we actually played through that dramatic opening scene, we were flabbergasted at just how good a game it actually was. It should come as no surprise that it picks up a vastly impressive four gongs from TGR this year because it was simply head and shoulders above the rest. A fitting game to close a fabulous decade of gaming on.
[Words: Sinan Kubba, Jeffrey Matulef, Patrick Mulhern, Joe DeLia, Martin Gaston, Jennifer Allen, Chris Poirier, Dave Whitelaw, Blake Collelo, and David Taylor]