From the deliberate shock and awe of Modern Warfare 2 to Rocksteady's uniquely stylish distillation of the Batman mythos, 2009 was a year that brought us a lot of intense video-game experiences. But none featured more visceral excitement, stunning visuals, and uncontainable momentum than our pick for Game of the Year.
Game of the Year, 2009
First off, there's your main character, Nathan Drake. Despite his incredible, preternatural physical abilities, Nathan Drake is no superhero. He is, for all intents and purposes, a dude in a t-shirt. A dude in a t-shirt who just so happens to be racing around the globe in search of an artifact of supernatural significance, juggling an exceptionally evil Eastern European heavy and some duplicitous companions with their own agendas, while dodging a near-constant hail of gunfire, falling buildings, and helicopters. Considering the incredible situation he's gotten himself into, it's impressive that he's able to come off as Average Joe as he does, but it's a key part of the character's appeal, and the game's overall success. That the first time you see Nathan he's sitting on a wrecked train with a bullet in his gut reinforces that this guy is incredibly fallible, which brings a sense of danger to everything he does, despite his actual resilience and the infinite opportunities the game affords you to try and try again. Nolan North, who provides Nathan's voice, deserves much credit for establishing the tone for a character that doesn't quite know what he's doing, but is going to do it anyway, hoping for the best.
Uncharted 2 is also an absolutely gorgeous-looking game, the best we've seen in 2009, which puts it very high in the running for best-looking game of all time. The colorful, exotic environments are rich with detail, and the game's pacing is so relentless that you never linger in one place long enough to even begin trying to pick at it. A combination of performance capture and crazy technology that we have little hope of understanding produce character animation that impresses simply by looking natural in a way that few games would even know how to approach, let alone have the technical skill to actually pull it off. Uncharted 2 aims for a look that's just on Hollywood side of real with its world and its characters, which it pulls off while deftly avoiding the uncanny valley. It says a lot that the game is able to pull of subtle stuff like convincing facial animation and realistic-looking hair just as capably as it is a breakneck chase sequence or a fight with a helicopter.
It's one hell of a production, but Uncharted 2 isn't just about shiny things, it's got a real tactile feel to all of the running, jumping, climbing, and shooting that you'll engage in. And this is all to speak nothing of the game's highly credible co-op and competitive multiplayer modes, which leverage both the strength of the shooting and traversal mechanics which are the backbone of Uncharted 2's single-player experience. Too often do we see single-player games paired up with an afterthought of a multiplayer game, or vice versa, but Uncharted 2 nails it with both, and without ever compromising the tone of the game.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the total package, a crowd-pleasing thrill ride that's incredibly difficult to put down and remarkably easy to recommend without ever feeling like it's pandering to the lowest-common denominator. It's funny, it's exciting, it's beautiful, it's nerve-wracking, and it's our 2009 game of the year.
Runner-Up: Batman: Arkham Asylum