Yeah, that's right, Halo Wars. I've already caught enough flak for putting this on my best-of list for 2009 (it's hard to even remember that it came out way back in February), but it deserves to be recognized ... so pay attention once your laughter has died down. Ensemble Studios (RIP) proved that you could bring a real-time strategy game to a console, and still make it enjoyable. Sure, you'll never have 1:1 parity mapping everything a full-sized keyboard offers onto a controller, but this game came close. It's a pity Ensemble closed, since we'll never see any expansion packs or a sequel. The good news is that, since it wasn't received with blaring trumpets and the sounds of cash registers ringing, you can pick this up for under 20 bucks for some good fun.
When I previewed this game at PAX in August, I said that Pixar + Diablo = Torchlight, and that still holds true. Although there's more Diablo in the mix, particularly with the heavily Diablo-influenced interface and soundtrack ... which you'd expect from the same guys who worked on Diablo I and II (including the composer, Matt Uelmen). Still, despite the deep loot system and traditional RPG mouse-and-keyboard combo, Runic nailed the fun factor square on the head. There's something about this game that keeps you coming back for more, and it'll keep you smiling the whole time. Sure, it's a clickfest, but does that matter if you're seriously loving it? I fear that Torchlight is going to be a gateway drug into a larger world. At least, that is Runic's current plan, so be wary of losing serious free time.
Defense Grid: The Awakening
The PC version of this game made my "Best of the Rest" list for 2008, and while deveoper Hidden Path had told me it was working on a console version, I wasn't sure it would actually see the light of day. Imagine my surprise when it actually came out, and gave me good reason to buy it all over again. Hidden Path added new levels, game modes, and the ability to play it in high definition instead of on my laptop monitor, so I was sold. This is a rainy-day title that's hard to get tired of, and I never thought I'd be praying so hard for tiny little units I'd placed to mow down oncoming rows of enemies. The good news is that it's only 10 bucks, which is a very low price to put on fun. Hopefully Hidden Path will release some updates for this thing -- like new maps or game modes, or even some multiplayer.
In a day and age where the gaming industry tends to churn out things that could aptly be titled BOOBS AND EXPLOSIONS XXIV, Flower is such a beautiful and simple game that makes your jaw drop. There are no challenging villains to avoid, no secret weapons to unlock, and no in-game loot system that will make you tear your hair out in search of some a Diamond Studded Vorpal Scimitar. Instead, you get this work of art that's all about zephyrs, flower petals, and nature.
Between this, UniWar and Civilization Revolution, my iPhone has been very happy this year. Canabalt has one control: jump. Seriously, that's all you do the entire game. Of course, there's lots of stuff to jump over, like crates, gaps, bombs, etc. But you only tap the screen (or click a button in the online version) to jump. So why is it so damned addictive? One of the reasons is the terrific soundtrack, but the real hook is the simplicity and the retro fun factor. You're trying to escape a city that's under invasion from giant alien robots, or something Roland Emmerich dreamed up, and to do so you have to run pell-mell while avoiding danger. I keep reaching about 6,000 meters as my long runs, so I can't understand how people are hitting 35,000 and over. Yet still, I play on.
For most of 2009 I spent a lot of free time in search of, and playing, board games. There's an enormous community of board gamers out there, many of whom never cross over into the realm of video games. That's not to say they can't be enjoyed by both crowds, though, and this year I was introduced to the joys of Puerto Rico, Clans, Last Night on Earth, Pandemic, Dominion, Power Grid, Galaxy Trucker, Pylos (Gigamic makes some seriously gorgeous, all-wooden games), and many others. But my favorite has been a unique card game about magic (the sleight-of-hand kind, not the tap your mana kind) called Illusio. It's all about preparing tricks and illusions for the stage in an attempt to be the world's finest magician, and it's a fun game. Perfect for playing while watching The Prestige or The Illusionist.
Starcraft 2: I know, this game isn't supposed to be out yet, but Blizzard promised us the beta would be made available to us this year. Heck, they even sent out system specs and asked us to make sure we all had the right junk ready. And what happens? It gets delayed. Just like everything else in the free world. Still, complaining about a Blizzard game not coming out on time is about as useless as a new plastic peripheral.
Battlefield 1943: You're probably thinking I'm an idiot for suggesting this, but hear me out. This game rocked the online world when it came out, and it seemed like everyone was playing it. Then EA, with a completely captive audience, does ... nothing. That's right, no DLC of any kind. Sure there was the Coral Sea map that was unlocked once enough playtime had accrued, but it sucked balls. At least toss us some new maps or something so people will start playing again.
Killzone 2: How many people bought a PS3 based on the promises of this game alone? Remember the eyeball-blasting, hair-raising video from back at E3 in 2005? Yeah, I did too. So when this game finally came out, there were an extreme amount of voices crying out in pain that were suddenly silenced. That was the cry of underwhelmed masses of gamers wondering what had happened to the promises of Sony and Guerilla Games. While it's not completely unplayable, it sure didn't bowl me over. Thankfully, Uncharted 2 filled that void on my PS3 later.
My Lack of Free Time: There just aren't enough hours in the day to juggle the time-demanding call of games like Borderlands and Dragon Age: Origins, while trying to cram everything else in. Seriously, I still haven't finished Fallout 3 and its umpteen DLCs, or explored Knothole Island in Fable 2, so where are you people finding the time? Did they unearth a huge cache of unused time in Cleveland or something?
My Impulse Purchase Reflex: Everyone out there thinks we get sent free games and have lifetime free codes to Xbox Live and World of Warcraft and all that, but I can assure you that's not the case. I gave away the copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with some other sweet swag, only to turn around and purchase the Prestige Edition, just so I could get those night-vision goggles. They were fun ... for about 15 minutes. Now I'm just a grown man with a plastic head wearing toy electronic goggles sitting on a shelf. Genius.