It was a truncated year in games, as publishers pushed their late-2009 releases into the next calendar year. Whether they were spooked by the recession or by Activision’s Modern Warfare 2 (which didn’t make this list, a decision sure to raise no protests whatsoever), the result was an unusually quiet holiday season. That might be a blessing, as the dearth of December releases will give players a chance to catch up on these, The A.V. Club’s top 10 games of 2009.
10. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
This ambitious attempt to cram all of Liberty City’s back alleys, shady characters, and hidden diversions onto Nintendo’s tiny DS and Sony PSP is an unbridled success. Jumping off from the original top-down GTA design, Rockstar adds full-fledged PDA and GPS functions that give the handheld a real workout and make the game world feel more complete than ever. Hands-on hotwiring and other touchscreen-specific flourishes add tension to basic gameplay actions and variety to mission design. Shorn of GTA IV’s cinematic aspirations, Chinatown Wars offers gameplay as addictive as Liberty City’s best crack.
The year’s other big superhero game casts you as a cross between Spider-Man and Electro, then lets you choose whether to save the city for noble reasons, or evil ones. As you make your way to the final antagonist (and an unsatisfying twist ending), inFamous combines a solid mix of missions with a wide-open city, which you can save—or conquer—’hood by ’hood as you electrocute enemy gangs.
8. The Beatles: Rock Band
Rock Band’s competitor started the band-specific game trend with 2008's Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, but no amount of digitized scarves can compete with the love and attention to detail lavished upon The Beatles: Rock Band. The game does the Liverpool quartet proud by letting fans rediscover songs that have been misappropriated as commercial jingles, and see them for what they are: timeless, enduring classics. While not revolutionary, it stands as a pinnacle for the Rock Band series, as no other band deserves such royal treatment.
7. Red Faction: Guerrilla
Released while gamers were swooning over inFamous and arguing over Prototype, Red Faction: Guerrilla flew under the radar, getting attention mostly for its eminently destructible buildings. The physics of Guerrilla’s Martian landscape are phenomenal, but more remarkable is the subversive story, which sympathetically portrays a terrorist insurgency making an explosive stand against Earth’s occupying forces. The developer dubiously claims that the game’s parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan are coincidental, but the connections are there, and they are thought-provoking.
6. Assassin’s Creed II
The original Assassin’s Creed was an overambitious mess of gameplay ideas, but the sequel miraculously turned out to be a far more refined, compelling experience. Though the voice acting is hammy, the science-fiction meta-narrative is hokey, and the open world is a little too open—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the fully realized, hyper-detailed landscapes of Venice, Florence, and the Tuscan countryside—lurking on moonlit rooftops as 15th-century Italian assassin Ezio while scoping out your next target is tense, exhilarating fun.
5. Dragon Age: Origins
BioWare described Dragon Age: Origins as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. But while it uses elements of that game’s combat system and brings the graphics up to date, Dragon Age offers a more mature, graphic story. In the deep, twist-filled plot, players’ decisions from character creation onward have a real effect on the game world. With such a high level of specialization and choice, no two playthroughs are the same, making it a game where finishing the story is just an opportunity to start again.
4. Brütal Legend
Brütal Legend is a love story on two levels. It’s the funny, charming tale of roadie Eddie Riggs, and his quest to rescue his darling Ophelia. It’s also a passionate document of its creator’s love for heavy metal. Brütal Legend is such a personal work for Tim Schafer that it makes the best case yet for the auteur theory of videogames. It’s also accessible, no mean feat for a game whose subject matter, heavy metal, is known (fairly or not) for its insular, intimidating fan base.
3. Demon’s Souls
Demon’s Souls’ dark, steeply difficult swords-and-sorcery grind seems like an anachronism in an era that prizes accessibility and friendly narratives. But it’s constructed with precision, making players feel fully responsible for every success and failure, so progress genuinely feels like learning. Inspired by the concept of anonymous Good Samaritans, the world is populated with phantoms of other players who can help in subtle ways, providing a sense of community alongside the increasingly rare experience of empowering, meaningful challenge.
2. Left 4 Dead 2
With Left 4 Dead, Valve threw a pipe bomb at the concept of genre, exploding Counter-Strike, Resident Evil, and Gauntlet into pink mist, then stitching the gory chunks into a spectacular monster. With the heavy lifting of re-invention out of the way, Left 4 Dead 2 is something of a creative victory lap. This pass is harder and funnier than the first, but the game’s biggest triumph is how vibrant the Southern setting feels. Left 4 Dead birthed new life out of old, but Left 4 Dead 2 found the series’ uniquely American pulse.
1. Batman: Arkham Asylum
UK-based developer Rocksteady took on what was supposedly a doomed project—there had never been a decent Batman game in the history of the medium—and deftly delivered a dense, dark, adult experience that stands as the benchmark by which all superhero videogames will now be measured. The game has the most distinctive sense of place since BioShock—Arkham Asylum is this year’s Rapture. And the game clocks in at a lean eight hours, which means that, unlike practically every other game on this list, it also has the good sense to quit while it’s ahead.