[Kicking off Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Chris Remo reflects on the year in PC gaming and selects his top five titles -- including Torchlight and Empire: Total War -- plus several honorable mentions.]
In more ways than physically, the PC is something of a black box. Gaming's only true open platform can be a tough nut to crack for developers. Its install base is ostensibly enormous (Steam alone, just one of its many communities, numbers over 20 million gamers) but success on the PC can be elusive, and it lacks the plug-and-play simplicity of its console cousins.
Triple-A big-budget action experiences have clearly found their place on consoles, and those games are becoming less common on the PC (although sometimes they're just a few months late). But the platform is increasingly emerging as fertile ground for an astonishingly wide breadth of games that don't fit that particular mold.
This year's best offerings included games that play to the system's strengths -- either by demanding high levels of input precision or by being so accessible that only minimal computational hardware is required, and everything in between.
The PC in 2009 saw a front-loaded schedule. It was the first half of the year that was most densely packed with ambitious and quirky exclusives, bolstered by some notable multiplatform standouts in the fall.
As a result, the PC's year in gaming ranged from Empire: Total War's grand strategy to Dawn of War II's RPG-like strategic micromanagement; from Dragon Age: Origins' epic fantasy to Torchlight's bite-sized lootfest; from The Sims 3's single-player interpersonal relationships to Left 4 Dead 2's online zombie-killing cooperation.
This year, the strongest case yet has been made for the PC as the affordable gaming platform, despite its costly image. Cutthroat competition between digital distribution operators (with more on the way) has resulted in nonstop rotating deep discounts, without the permanent devaluation that comes with retail's bargain bins. At any given moment, the PC gamer has access to amazing deals on a wide array of games, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.
Finally, it's worth pointing out the originality on display this year; of the 15 games highlighted here, more than half hail from newly-created properties. And take heart, PC fans: nearly all had PC as the lead development platform, with the majority exclusive.
Top 5 PC Games of 2009
5. Torchlight (Runic Games)
Torchlight offers proof that a game's pedigree makes a huge difference. When you put the founders of Diablo creator Blizzard North in the same room as the guy responsible for Fate, you get the most fluid and addictive action RPG since the mighty Diablo II itself. (Well, first you apparently get a public beta of another game. Then you get a new studio and Torchlight.)
What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit. And it's certainly not a complete coincidence that neither of them have featured the wonderful music talent of original Diablo composer Matt Uelman until now either.
Impressively, Torchlight succeeds even without a multiplayer component, an omission that was worrisome when first announced but which ended up detracting little from the game's charmingly cocaine-like old-school dungeon-clearing. And its system requirements are soft enough that the game's option screen even includes a "netbook mode"!
4. Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly)
Grandeur is the touchstone in the Total War series, and The Creative Assembly more than lived up to that reputation with its latest entry, Empire. Encompassing a massive geographical scope during a period that was immensely formative in modern civilization, the game's many systems interweave to create an incredible historical narrative -- or a plausible portrayal of what might have been. And as is customary for the series, its extensive automation options mean Empire stays accessible without forcing a reduction in depth. It's a game of uniquely PC scope.
In a creative medium so dominated by fantasy, science fiction, and Rambo-esque combat theatrics, there is something laudable about a developer like The Creative Assembly that pursues an entirely different, and more accountable, kind of wish fulfillment. Such ambitious depictions of vast swathes of history rarely receive such lavish production values.
The game's launch was unfortunately marred by technical issues for many users, some of which have reportedly persisted. But The Creative Assembly hasn't abandoned the game, even after announcing next year's Napoleon: Total War: Empire's long-promised multiplayer campaign enters beta today.
3. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve)
Last year's excellent Left 4 Dead (which ranked #2 on the 2008 list) demonstrated how much room for exploration is left in the multiplayer shooter arena. A genre-defying mashup of round-based multiplayer and cooperative campaigning, it carved out a unique place for itself in the unforgiving marketplace of online gaming.
Left 4 Dead 2, which famously sparked an ultimately short-lived protest against its year-later development cycle, demonstrates the abilities of a team that, having worked through the establishment of a successful subgenre, has been able to explore the space in a deeper, more confident, more fleshed-out way. Its setting reflects a more perceivable geographic progression, its levels house a broader array of inventive gameplay conceits, and its mode and playstyle options are more numerous.
Along with Valve's neverending Team Fortress 2 content and the pseudo-episodic Half-Life 2 series, Left 4 Dead 2 provides yet more evidence that Valve understands the value of iteration better than most.
2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Relic Entertainment)
Real-time strategy doesn't occupy the same headline-grabbing position it once did (except when StarCraft II is delayed again, anyway), but for the past decade, Relic Entertainment has been creating some of the most progressive, fun RTS games around. A few years ago, it received well-deserve acclaim for Company of Heroes, and this year it continued to take liberties with established strategy game design in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which pushes even further away from the base-management norm to great effect.
The single-player campaign, which can be played solo or cooperatively, offers an engaging persistent loot and leveling system informed by Diablo and its ilk, with the map and control mentality of an RTS -- a formula that pays off. And the multiplayer mode is a heavily teamwork-driven action-strategy experience that can seem initially unfamiliar, but whose fast pace and roots in well-established gameplay underpinnings lends it to quick learning.
Like a couple other games on this list, Dawn of War II is an admirable reminder that design risks can pay off, and there's no such thing as permanent standardization for a genre.
1. Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)
Dragon Age is a game full of compelling contradictions. Its gameplay paradigm is a revival of the kind of systemic, arcane PC RPG that BioWare previously revived in the late 90s with Baldur's Gate -- but its finely-tuned modernization and playability deflect anachronistic impenetrability. At first glance, its setting seems like forgettable boilerplate fantasy -- but that surface level belies a slate of unexpectedly engaging and believable party members, and well-integrated undercurrents examining its world's class and race relations.
These days, not many multiplatform games feel so intrinsically native to the PC as Dragon Age. Some elements play equally well on any system -- characters, dialogue, situations, choices -- but the intended feel of the game is best conveyed with a mouse and keyboard, and the more complete UI. Using the mouse wheel to seamlessly scroll between the modern chase cam and the old-school remove-the-ceiling top-down view is oddly satisfying in its own right, and is endlessly practical as the game flows between exploration and tactical combat. Characters can be direct-controlled, clicked-and-dragged, given automated tactics; as with the narrative situations, player choice is the name of the game.
Dragon Age's pre-release marketing implied tired, shallow characters and situations. The game itself has an uncommon smartness and genuineness. Rarely have I grown as attached to virtual characters in video games, or developed distaste for them based on something other than poor writing. Even better, they convincingly engage in their own independent banter as you lead them around the world. The game and its setting aren't devoid of cliche, not by a long shot; but few games offer such a volume of well-conceived interaction and observation. (Those driven to the game solely by its current angry-bloodbath television campaign are likely to be confused by the thoughtful experience with which they are presented upon startup.)
Like Fallout 3, last year's winner, Dragon Age promises a life beyond its shipped content with official PC modding tools (and the inevitable paid content). And yet again, it's great to see the characteristically PC-derived traditions of player-driven systemic worlds available in many genres and on multiple systems. But Dragon Age is still best experienced on the platform that gave rise to its kind.
Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)
AAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan Games): Many hours were spent playing this surprisingly compelling BASE jumping simulator, which brilliantly conveys the fun Dejobaan must have had making it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios): It's the first good Batman game possibly ever, and it's supremely playable, setting the template for good multiplatform PC conversions.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward): In the end, Infinity Ward's proprietary online backend isn't ideal in all respects, but it gets the absolutely top-shelf multiplayer across well enough.
Dawn of Discovery/Anno 1404 (Blue Byte/Related Designs): This city builder's preoccupation with economic micromanagement pays off in satisfaction when you get everything running like clockwork.
League of Legends (Riot Games): One of several companies hoping to inherit the Defense of the Ancients crown, Riot has crafted a tight, polished (and free) strategy/RPG effort.
Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games): It turns out turret defense design hadn't been exhausted; PopCap makes a strong, playable argument here for conciseness of design.
Risen (Piranha Bytes): This deep RPG inherits both the ambition and the slight jankiness of its Gothic forbear, still doing cynical roleplaying better than most.
The Sims 3 (Maxis): If you want what The Sims does, the original series is still the only real choice around, and this entry is admirably polished and expanded.
Tales of Monkey Island (Telltale Games): Impressively, Telltale has made one of gaming's most resolutely stagnant genres feel much fresher, while keeping a venerable license largely intact.
Trine (Frozenbyte): This clever single-player-cooperative (or same-screen) sidescroller offers fun platforming innovation, pretty visuals, and a wizard.
Zeno Clash (Ace Team): Don't try to figure out what the hell is going on, just enjoy the imaginative surrealism and brutal first-person face-punching.