By Lou Kesten
The idea that video games were recession-proof turned out to be a myth this year, leading to declining sales, shuttered studios and thousands of newly unemployed developers.
Stalled fortunes also meant less risk-taking from game publishers, who released plenty of sequels and other titles based on proven formulas. But the news wasn’t all bad — at least for consumers — with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all cutting prices on their flagship consoles.
Creatively, Sony and its in-house studios had a spectacular year, releasing three of 2009’s best titles as PlayStation 3 exclusives. And Xbox 360 owners had plenty of first-rate games to keep them busy.
1. “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” (Sony, for the PlayStation 3): Like an interactive version of a classic Hollywood action movie, this globe-trotting treasure hunt delivers thrills, romance and more hairbreadth escapes than the entire Indiana Jones series.
2. “Assassin’s Creed II” (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PS3): Renaissance Italy is the breathtaking setting for this intricate tale of conspiracy, murder and revenge. The tantalizing glimpses of a larger, centuries-spanning power struggle create high hopes for the next chapter.
3. “Dragon Age: Origins” (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PS3): Developer BioWare takes the elements of Tolkienesque high fantasy and recycles them into a gritty, sophisticated epic with plenty of surprising twists.
4. “Batman: Arkham Asylum” (Eidos, for the Xbox 360, PS3): The Caped Crusader gets trapped in Gotham’s nuthouse, where he has to endure the taunts and traps of The Joker. Cleverly designed challenges make this the best superhero game yet.
5. “InFamous” (Sony, for the PS3): The second best superhero game this year is the origin story of a guy named Cole who can control electricity. The option to choose between heroism and villainy adds even more playability to an already stirring adventure.
6. “Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time” (Sony, for the PS3): Insomniac Games’ critter and robot pals are the most reliable characters in games (sorry, Mario), and their latest romp across the galaxies is as clever and colorful as ever.
7. “Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story” (Nintendo, for the DS): Mario did co-star in this lighthearted role-playing game, in which he and his brother explore the innards of their old foe, Bowser. It’s every bit as wacky as it sounds.
8. “Borderlands” (2K, for the Xbox 360, PS3): Gearbox combines the first-person shooter with role-playing elements in this addictive game. It’s set on a hostile planet populated by bandits, rabid dog-beasts and giant insects. Fortunately, it provides all the firepower needed to deal with them.
9. “Forza Motorsport 3” (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360): Fans of hard-core racing simulations already love the “Forza” series, but developer Turn 10 has now made it easy for even the most inexperienced driver to take the wheel of a high-performance vehicle.
10. “Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars” (Rockstar, for the DS, PlayStation Portable): Rockstar Games delivers a handheld chapter of its “GTA” crime saga that’s nearly as immersive as its console-based cousins.
Honorable Mentions: “Shadow Complex,” “Scribblenauts,” “Professor Layton & the Diabolical Box,” “Demon’s Souls,” “Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor,” “DJ Hero,” “The Beatles: Rock Band,” “Rock Band Unplugged,” “1 vs. 100.”
Game of the Decade: “Rock Band 2.” Harmonix Music Systems provided an entirely new type of video-game experience with “Guitar Hero,” giving all of us the chance to live out our rock-star dreams. “Rock Band 2” is Harmonix’s fullest realization yet of that ideal — and the one game I keep coming back to whenever I just want to have fun.