I mocked this "re-imagining" of Silent Hill when it was first announced. I thought Harry Mason had become an older, life-hewn Harry Potter and considered the town's frosty makeover as nothing short of sacrilege. But an encounter with the game at E3 2009 (and with candid producer Tomm Hulett) quickly changed my mind. While the game departs significantly from the franchise's known lore, it retains and streamlines much of what made Silent Hill stand out against games like Resident Evil. Encased in the game's frigid atmosphere, you'll experience a sense of bewilderment that, if you've been playing these games for a long time, you will not have felt in years. Indeed, the best surprises prey on those of us who think we know everything about Silent Hill.
Red Faction: Guerrilla
For a game that lets you smash everything in sight with a massive hammer, there's a wonderful, understated elegance to Red Faction: Guerrilla. Thinking outside the box is much easier when you can simply drive a truck through it, after all. While formulating surgical strikes against an enemy that bested me both in technology and number, I felt like I was making a difference on Mars and disassembling an oppressive force, brick by brick.
Nostalgic, rhythmic hypnosis. That's how I'd describe Bit.Trip Beat, a simple but challenging (like, really challenging) game that demands in-the-zone mastery of its controls -- or rather, control. The Wiimote feels so responsive, it's like turning a handle that's physically attached to your on-screen paddle. And you've got to love those chiptune ... tunes.
Resident Evil 5
Resident Evil 5 is a poor survival-horror game -- but it's a helluva action game if you've got the right co-op partner. Very replayable and packed with different weapons, upgrades and treasures, I kept returning to the campaign throughout the year. The game is clearly built for teamwork, with several action sequences and boss encounters knocking out a poorly coordinated team. Yes, the final boss was a tedious struggle (especially if you're playing as Sheva), but isn't that also true of Joystiq's top 3 games of 2009?
"Man, I'm like one of those guests that don't know when to leave," says a friend, trying to do just a few more air flips in one of Trials HD's minigames. "38 FLIPS! That is the thing!" I take the controller back -- I'm going for 50. It's 2AM. MORE FLIPS.
House of the Dead: Overkill
You know House of the Dead: Overkill has crossed some sort of line when you start shooting at a flying, psychic, paraplegic mutant guy. The grindhouse pastiche is charming, but everything else about this fast-paced, snappily written shooter is vulgar and off-putting and absolutely hilarious. It's worth it for the ending alone.
I rolled my eyes at most of Dirt 2's extreme in-your-face bro 'tude (does Dave Mirra really need to cackle in my ear when he overtakes me?), but that usually proved disastrous while driving. You've got to keep your eyes on the road! After all these years, Codemasters can still strike a perfect balance between gorgeous visuals, responsive controls and the sensation of just barely being in control of your vehicle. I couldn't let go of the controller for fear of flying right off the couch.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2
The Xbox 360 version of Ninja Gaiden 2 was ruined by excess. The increased number of active enemies per encounter drove the camera mad, unbalanced the difficulty and broke the framerate. I like all of Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2's bonus content -- new playable characters, a surprisingly fun online co-op mode and new bosses -- but I love that Team Ninja removed so much of the junk. Exploding armadillo twins? Be gone. In trimming some of the fat, the developers have produced a slick, challenging action game that feels like the Ninja Gaiden sequel we were meant to receive a year ago.
Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time
This is the best Ratchet & Clank I've ever played. Mind you, I probably haven't seen even 50 percent of the series, but I just couldn't put this one down. Splitting the characters up for most of the adventure was a smart idea, giving Clank his own Portal-like puzzle adventure and Ratchet another crisis to demolish with a wide array of destructive toys (and, oh my, the hoverboots!). I was also quite surprised by some of the script's Douglas Adams-esque humor. Tools of Destruction made me smile, but A Crack in Time made me laugh.
P.S. Insomniac, you've got to release "My Blaster Runs Hot" as a PSN game. Speaking of which ...
Outside of replacing the second "t" in the title with an "n," I can't think of any significant way to improve upon Shatter. The price is right, the Arkanoid-esque paddle play is very difficult to shut off and the pounding soundtrack fuels the don't-blink challenge well into the early hours of the morning.