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5 games in 2009

It's still February for a few more hours, so it's time for that yearly tradition: The best five new games from 2009!

ExciteBots: Trick Racing

#5: ExciteBots: Trick Racing

Building on one of my Excite Truck, one of my favorite Wii games, Monster's ExciteBots is still a ton of tilt-controlled fun at high speeds, except this time it features a wide variety of robotic animals instead of those boring trucks. The rush of speed from Excite Truck isn't quite there and neither is the custom soundtrack option, but ExciteBots arguably makes up for it with a new online multiplayer race mode for up to six people.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

#4: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 is somewhere between being a game and a movie. On the game side, it's got lots of brilliant platforming sections where you climb all over spectacular environments, both modern and ancient, and the shooting segments are exciting and usually take place as part of some mind-blowing set piece. There's also a handful of stealth sections later in the game that took me by surprise, because while it's definitely to your advantage to sneak around and dispatch as many enemies as possible without being noticed, you can still shoot your way out even if you're discovered.

The reason Uncharted feels like a different experience than just a video game is not just the quality of the voice actors' performances, or even the script, which is humorous, full of surprises, and definitely better than that last Indiana Jones movie, but has more to do with the aforementioned set pieces. Often whenever a big, dramatic event takes place in a game, it's in the form of a noninteractive cutscene. But in Uncharted 2, you just keep on playing no matter what's going on, whether your character is sprinting through a narrow alley as a truck crashes through walls behind him, or is trapped inside a collapsing building, or as all sorts of violence takes place on a moving train over miles of track. And all of this is rendered with probably the most gorgeous, fluid visuals I've seen in a game. Sometimes it's frustrating you can't just yell "cut!" to take a look around.

Modern Warfare 2

#3: Modern Warfare 2

So here's the Biggest Game of All Time, and while I don't know if this is the end-all of first person shooters, it still manages to be a lot of fun. Many who spent days playing its predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, complain that this feels more like a point upgrade and not a full-fledged sequel, but I'd argue that the improved perks and weapon customization systems offer much more variety and nuance than CoD4 ever did.

What's particularly brilliant is you can set up your soldier to suit pretty much any play style. Those coming from faster shooters like Unreal Tournament can wield dual submachineguns with added ammo and perks to increase accuracy as they run around, guns blazing. Or for the tactician, you can play overwatch for your team with a motion tracker and a perk that lets you hear enemies' footsteps through walls. And of course there's a whole range of options in between.

The single player plot got a little silly this time around, but that's not much of a concern when the multiplayer is enough reason to keep coming back to this.


#2: Borderlands

Borderlands is sort of like an MMO, except that developer Gearbox took away the stale combat from games like World of Warcraft and Diablo and replaced it with some of the most viscerally exciting shooting in years. On top of first-person shooter gameplay just being more engaging than MMOs' traditionally menu-based gameplay, the guns in Borderlands are just a ton of fun to shoot: Assault rifles thunder as you pull the trigger and oversized revolvers let out a satisfying crack. And it never stops being hilarious watching an enemy explode in a ball of fire or melt down into a corrosive puddle. That sounds a little morbid at first, but Borderlands' dark sense of humor and inspired art direction make it feel more like you're in a more twisted version of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. So it's all OK!

The plot quickly becomes paper-thin as it gets dragged out across 10-20 hours of gameplay, but it's forgiven as it's just an excuse to keep ushering your character into new areas with more bad guys to explode.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

#1: Red Faction: Guerrilla

After a single player demo which made the game out to be little more than a mediocre Grand Theft Auto clone on Mars (albeit one that features fully destructable buildings and a vast arsenal of tools to accomplish said destruction), it turns out developer Volition designed one of the best multiplayer experiences in years. There's a whole host of game modes centering around destruction (and a few classics like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag), a giant arsenal of meticulously balanced weapons, and a unique backpack system that lets your character swap in a special ability including from X-ray vision, a concussive shockwave that sends other players flying, or a charging attack that lets you crash through a wall.

The real star of both the multi- and single-player modes, though, is the destruction. For years, destructible environments in games have amounted to little more than novelties like putting a hole in a wall when there's no convenient door. In Red Faction: Guerrilla, it can change the entire flow of a game. If there's an annoying sniper killing your team from up in some unreachable tower, just send someone with a sledgehammer to tear it down. You can destroy stairs and bridges to deny the enemy team easy access to your base, but be careful they don't knock over a smokestack (or half a building) to create a makeshift walkway. And of course there are several game modes that involve taking out a building's supports to make the whole thing come crashing down, often onto the heads of the other team. The wide variety of weapons and modes already makes Red Faction a top-tier multiplayer game, but the destruction aspect adds that extra element of surprise and chaos that makes this worth coming back to again and again.

Also you can beat people to death with an ostrich.

Honorable Mentions

...And some games from my backlog that I didn't get around to until this year.

Shadow Complex - Really fun Super Metroid clone, although I could have used tighter controls and more laser beams.

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite - Incredibly steep learning curve, but it's so satisfying to finally kill a giant monster that's been making your life miserable. Also, cats that cook for you.

The World Ends with You - The dual-screen gameplay is pretty disorienting at first, but fortunately there's an auto mode that will help ease you into it.

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars - A GTA that doesn't take itself as seriously as its big brother, GTA4, but still manages to be a lot of fun. Also it's got Drug Wars.

Dead Rising - Just imagine how fun it would be to be allowed to pick up any object in a shopping mall and throw/ride/eat/kill a zombie with it.

Street Fighter IV - Hey it's Street Fighter.

Flower - A relaxing, super art-house game from the developer of the wonderful flOw. Also a nice reminder of what color looks like after playing Modern Warfare, Red Faction, etc.

DJMAX Fever - Sort of a "greatest hits" version of my favorite PSP games, DJMAX Portable 1 and 2.

I didn't get around to playing Batman: Arkham Asylum or Dragon Age: Origins, but that's what honorable mention 2010 is for!