Harris Pilton's 2009 Gaming Round Up

I can't claim to be any kind of authority on video games. My history of gaming is patchy to say the least, having been an early gamer back when we used "home computers" for such things, but then never owning a PS2. Also, I tend to stick to games which involve shooting at things - so if you're looking for a well-balanced, concise round-up of the gaming year, you might want to look elsewhere.

My gaming life is divided between the Xbox and the DS. The DS is still the best hand-held gaming device on the planet - with an almost resolutely lo-fi approach both sonically and graphically, it's success is down to gameplay and elegant programming. The PSP (with it's high-end graphics and sleek design) is not pulling in the kid-gamer dollars. In the world of so-called casual games (video-crack, more like), the monkey on my back was mostly Peggle and Scribblenauts. Oh, and re-playing the mind-numbingly addictive Cradle of Rome line-'em-up.  As for the Xbox, now I look at the amount of games I've been through this year, I can't believe I had much time for anything else.

The much hyped Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has been ridiculously successful (sales-wise at least), but in my opinion they done jumped the shark. Brilliant, visceral and engaging for sure, but also short, non-sensical, and rather too easy. It certainly delivered plenty of "fuck me!" moments, with breathtaking use of lighting and sound, but they messed with the multi-player, which is clearly a case of fixing something that wasn't broken. Infinity Ward are edging dangerously close to believing their own myth rather like Bungie have with Halo - all self-aggrandising seriousness and stirring martial music that can't be optioned out of your gameplay experience.

Special mention for post-release support goes to two games in particular. Firstly, Burnout Paradise: here's a rare example of a games developer (Criterion) being willing and able to respond to feedback from gamers. On it's initial release, Burnout Paradise was laced with flaws (ie not being able to instantly re-start a race), but Criterion got on the case - addressing issues, improving gameplay, adding decent downloadable content, and then re-packaging the whole lot at a mid-range price. Excellent work those men in Guildford. The other impeccably supported game was Gears of War 2 - with regular DLC packs of high-quality maps, top-notch graphics and sound, and new gameplay features. Had a lot of good times with online friends fighting off the dirty horde.

We nearly saw the birth of something revolutionary this year, with the release of the most ambitious Xbox Arcade game yet - Battlefield 1943. This was only available as a download, and did not feature a solo campaign. Instead, 4 large maps of territorial contest, planes, boats, jeeps and bombing raids with 24 people fighting online. Sounds good, but bit off more than it could chew. To start with, this game didn't even work properly online for the first week due to "unexpected high demand" or something. Then, once it was working, it wasn't quite as smooth as it should have been. Call me old fashioned if you like, but when I point a machine gun at another player who is only 5 virtual meters away from me, I'd sort of expect him to fall down - all dead, like.

A couple of this year's releases didn't quite make the top-list but are worth a mention (a mention? Hey, thanks Pilton, they only took two years to develop). Wolfenstein (not Return to the Son of Castle Wolfenstein, or Wolfenstein 3 or...) is a game I was getting pretty juicy about. Loved the originals and raised my expectations. Turned out ok, but fell a bit flat for me when (after much enjoyable gameplay) my save file corrupted and I couldn't be arsed to go back through it. Batman Arkham Asylum looked great and played really smoothly - yet was the most on-rails game I played all year. Still good though. Also Flashpoint delivered some enjoyable play - the polar opposite of MW2 this is a game that strives for realism even if that meant spending a large percentage of your mission time walking or running over endless landscapes in order to avoid combat with enemy patrols. Realistic, yes, but essentially lots of dull moments punctuated by some very tough firefights. Halo:ODST was the game for which Blockbuster was invented. A week's hire, rinse it out and forget it ever existed. Nothing original about it, but nothing really wrong with it either. Halo is Halo is Halo - the game that thinks it can fart higher than it's own arse.

This year also finally saw the release of Resident Evil 5 - in which the musclebound Chris ventures into Africa for some wholesale zombie slaughter (sorry, 'infected'. They're not zombies anymore). Jill doesn't nearly become a Jill sandwich this time - and in fact those Japanese translation quirks are wholly missing from RE5 - it plays like a global release, looks like a global release and - my goodness - it was a global release. Once I got used to the lumpy control system, and acquired some decent weapons, I had a wail of a time wading through the increasingly ridiculous scenarios and quick-time fights right up until the bit where you get to fire two RPG's into Wesker's eyes (while he's in a volcano). Beat that.

So, you may ask, since you've wasted so much of your time playing video games this year, what turns out to be game of the year for Harris Pilton? The answer comes with the unexpected late arrival of a classic shooter - Borderlands. A first person shooter with a visual style somewhere between Tank Girl and Metal Hurlant. The joy of this sandbox shooter is that it never forgets it's a video game - never tries to be realistic, pitches it's dark humour just right, and constantly serves up new weapon variants and character abilities. It works well online as a co-op, and the game adjusts the enemy AI to match the skills of the human players - getting considerably tougher when gamers have more collective experience. Borderlands has already delivered an excellent download pack and has promised a sequel for release in 2010, and the completion of the trilogy a year later.

Sadly, there's only so much time a man can devote to the noble art of videogaming, and thus I can make no comment on a slew of other much touted releases including Assassins Creed 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Forza 3, and Sheffield Wednesday nil.