With the holidays almost over, Canadians are now faced with the onset of that most horrific time of year: the dead of winter. It's a time when we become bear-like by hoarding food and transforming our homes into caves until the warmer weather returns.
On the plus side, it's an ideal situation for video gaming. If there's ever a time to plant oneself in front of the television and zone out for hours on end, it's now. Fortunately, 2009 produced a host of great games to eat away the hours until spring.
We've limited our list of the year's best games to five, to spotlight the truly outstanding releases — there's no filler here. As with all lists, it's subjective, but all five set new levels of excellence in varying ways, and each offers many hours of entertainment.
Canada continues to shine as a world leader in video game design, counting two of the top titles. Obviously, the cold weather doesn't just result in Canadians playing a lot — the annual requisite hibernation apparently forces us to design great games as well.
5. Dragon Age: Origins
It would actually be more surprising if Dragon Age: Origins wasn't on this list, given that its designer — Edmonton's BioWare — is the industry's undisputed master of role-playing games. BioWare's previous RPGs, including Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, each subsequently raised the bar in the genre, and Dragon Age is no exception. The game sets players in a typical fantasy world with elves and dwarves, where they must deal with a looming invasion by demonic creatures known as the darkspawn. As in most RPGs, players gain experience by fighting monsters and completing quests, acquire new skills or spells and buy weapons, armour and other gear. BioWare sets itself apart, however, by letting players build meaningful relationships with other characters in the game, which serves to bring the fantasy world to life and the game's storyline more memorable. On several occasions — whether intentional or not — this has provoked controversy. The company faced criticism in 2007 for Mass Effect, wherein gamers could play themselves into a sexual situation. Dragon Age duplicated the feat and attracted attention by giving gamers the possibility of playing into a same-sex love scene. BioWare has been consistent in its defence of such scenes — they're meant to depict character relationships in mature, meaningful and real ways. Controversy aside, this measured and mature realism is why the studio's games consistently end up on best-of lists.
4. Batman: Arkham Asylum
It's a well-worn truism that video games based on other entertainment licences, especially comic books, tend to suck. Batman: Arkham Asylum, designed by London-based Rocksteady Studios, bucks that trend in a big way. Players control the Caped Crusader as he is plopped into the middle of Arkham Asylum, an Alcatraz-like prison for the criminally insane, which just happens to be in the middle of a full-fledged riot. Batman's long-time nemesis, the Joker (with trademark voicing by Mark Hamill), has taken over. The Dark Knight must stop him and all the other super-villains holed up in Arkham in this Gothic action-adventure. The game is chock full of variety and features Grand Theft Auto-like "sandbox" play, where players can progress through the plot and side quests at their own pace, rather than following a linear, scripted plot. Along the way, Batman can be customized with new skills and gadgets. Players have the option to be as stealthy as they want when taking down the escaped inmates, or they can instead use brute force. There are also tons of bonuses to be found, hidden around Arkham by the Riddler, which unlock a veritable cornucopia of Batman comic book lore that fans will love. That said, you don't have to be a Batman aficionado to enjoy the game. With its great graphics, voice acting and customization options, Arkham Asylum could very well have been designed to work without the Batman licence as an original stealth-action game. That's perhaps the best lesson for other licensed video games: the secret to succeeding is that the product should be able to stand on its own, even without a proven name behind it.
3. Assassin's Creed 2
The other Canadian entry on this list, Assassin's Creed 2 — designed by Ubisoft Montreal — is simply a joy to play. Like Arkham Asylum, it features non-linear sandbox-style play that lets gamers gallivant around Renaissance Italy at their leisure. Players control Ezio Auditore, an assassin bent on avenging the death of his family, but the real star of the game is Italy, or more specifically the cities in which the story takes place. Florence, Tuscany and Venice are fully realized, not just with stunning graphics, but with thousands of people who seem to be individually alive. The attention to detail is astounding and the game is made up of the little things — like the mason repairing the wall of his shop, or the peasant who curses at you as you shove past him — that make for a fully immersive experience. The first Assassin's Creed, released in 2007, featured all of this as well, but it was universally panned for repetitive and otherwise boring gameplay. The sequel doesn't just correct that problem, it abolishes it. Assassin's Creed 2 introduces an economy system that lets players upgrade their weapons and armour, and run their own villa, or mini-town. Ezio can choose to erect new buildings in his town, such as a bank or church, or he can buy real Renaissance-era paintings to spice up his own mansion, all of which improves his villa's attractiveness as a tourist destination. There are also numerous side quests that require players to collect various hidden items, and a host of optional puzzles to be solved. It adds up to some of the most varied, exciting and fun gameplay of the year.
2. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Over the past few years, the Call of Duty series has become the yardstick by which all online multiplayer games are judged. Modern Warfare 2 certainly continues the phenomenon by introducing advancement and customization options that are almost as deep as a BioWare role-playing game. Besides allowing players to shoot each other up in a variety of different games modes, such as capture-the-flag and the ever-popular team deathmatch, Modern Warfare 2 lets them unlock a huge variety of weapons and skills, which they can use to endlessly customize their online soldier. Despite there being millions of gamers online playing Modern Warfare 2 at any given time, the sheer number of weapons, equipment, bonuses and skills — known as "perks" — means that just about everyone can have a unique character tailored to his or her preferences. Yet somehow the designers at Infinity Ward have managed to keep all things equal; each weapon or perk has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. And let's not forget the offline single-player mode, which is equally fantastic. As with all Call of Duty games, Modern Warfare 2 does an excellent job of immersing players in the feel of a large-scale war, where they are just one small part of a larger force, and where every stray bullet can mean death. Modern Warfare 2 is also full of unconventional surprises, such as forcing players to navigate an icy cliff with pitons, or fight out a battle in suburban America in a scene reminiscent of the Patrick Swayze movie Red Dawn. Taken together, it's no surprise that Modern Warfare 2, released in November, is already one of the biggest-selling games of all time.
1. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
There are many factors that go into a great game: stunning visuals and sound, a compelling storyline, exciting and fun action, and increasingly, good replay value through an engrossing online multiplayer mode. This year, no other game put all these elements together quite like Uncharted 2, designed by Naughty Dog studios. The game stars Nathan Drake, a treasure-hunting adventurer who is sometimes referred to by gamers as "Dude Raider," a riff on that other well-known Indiana Jones wannabe, Tomb Raider Lara Croft. In Uncharted 2, Drake cavorts through exotic locations around the globe in search of mythical Shambala, which is pretty much the Shangri-La of legend. Along the way, he must climb up perilous mountain sides, sneak past guards, shoot it out with rival treasure hunters, solve ancient puzzles, hop from one moving truck to another, duke it out atop a speeding train and even run away from a rampaging tank. It really is an Indiana Jones movie come to life, a fact that commercials for the game, which feature a male gamer hushedly talking to the camera about how his girlfriend thinks they're watching a movie, have hit on. More to the point, the graphics are simply jaw-dropping; it's easy to get distracted from your main quest when there are so many beautiful sights, like a Himalayan mountain vista, to admire. The fully realized multiplayer mode is also fun, allowing for Call of Duty-like shoot-'em-up action. Unlike many single-player-oriented games that have added multiplayer functionality, Uncharted 2 hasn't done it in a way that seems tacked on. Ultimately, this game came along at exactly the right time — it's exclusive to Sony's PlayStation 3, which dropped in price at about the same time as the its release. Uncharted 2 is the perfect showcase game to help sell the PS3 and is an emerging franchise that may very well turn out to be Sony's Halo.