In an industry where hype is the rule rather than the exception, there is much joy to be found when a title slips under the radar and catches us unaware of its quality and vision. Knowing that a sleeper hit can delight as much – or more – than the latest blockbuster release, it’s worth celebrating those titles from last year that arrived with little fanfare, but left with a bang.
In the information age, a game that is able to surprise us is a rare treasure indeed. Follow me over the jump to look at some of the games that defied our expectations, or blindsided us with win, in 2009!
3. Batman: Arkham Asylum
It may seem strange at first to categorize Batman: Arkham Asylum as a sleeper hit, given that it has sold nearly 3 million copies since its release in late August. Rocksteady’s brilliant homage to the Dark Knight is in practically every GOTY discussion and for good reason.
With a unique art style, and much of the voice talent from the animated series, Batman: AA did more than any previous Batman game has done to preserve the gritty, graphic novel feel of the caped crusader’s roots. Metroidvania-style level design and an intuitive but deep combat system made gameplay a joy for tacticians and casual button mashers alike. With a great mix of stealth and combat, the title did more than any previous attempt to capture the true look and feel of being the man behind the cowl.
Knowing what we know now, it’s tougher to call Batman: AA a surprise. However, if you think back to the summer doldrums, there was almost no hype surrounding the release. Expectations were chilly for the title, and the lousy track record for licensed superhero games certainly didn’t help the outlook.
Luckily, the latest incarnation of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego shook off the effects of the industry’s scarecrow fear gas, and delivered one of the strongest performances of the year. It’s no riddle why this title makes the list of pleasant surprises of ’09.
2. Red Faction : Guerrilla
Hindsight is 20/20. It’s tough now to see how a title with some of the most advanced environmental physics ever seen in a game engine could be so unknown. However, with a glut of anticipated open world titles released in ’09, such as Infamous and Prototype, it’s little wonder that Red Faction: Guerrilla showed up on the scene incognito.
As the reviews rolled in, the love that Volition put into crafting their destructible environments became quickly apparent. Despite taking criticism for everything from story to vehicle controls, the game was still scored universally high.
The ability to dynamically destroy a building, as opposed to relying on arbitrary damage limits and canned animation, may not seem like much on the surface. However, once the controller is in your hand and you’re charged with reducing a stronghold to rubble, the realistic physics make the challenge vastly more strategic and visceral.
A truly fun group of weapons ranging from the trusty sledgehammer (so satisfying) to the disintegrating awesomeness of the Nano Rifle made taking down structures one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences of the year. If you haven’t played it yet, check it out now so that when it becomes the standard for destructible environments you can say you saw where it all began.
For me, this game represents the most pleasant gaming surprise of the past year. Exclusively downloadable titles have been criminally under-marketed since their arrival on the scene. Despite the success of thatgamecompany’s freshman effort, Flow, very few outside of the indie game scene were experiencing true anticipation for Flower. It sure feels good to be sucker punched at times.
Maybe it was the digital distribution platform, or maybe it was the fact that Flower was thrown without its consent into the center of the ballyhooed “games as art” debate, but to this day, the gaming media often neglects to talk about just how much fun the game actually is.
What could have been dismissed as gimmicky motion controls became one of the finest examples of how Sixaxis can and should be implemented. The gorgeous visuals and elegantly minimalistic control scheme made this title accessible to both hardcore and casual markets. No matter what your skill level or engagement in gaming as a hobby, Flower brought “Zen gaming” into homes across the world.
Bold risk taking, masterful implementation, and a price suited for its length, all drive Flower into not only the best surprises of ’09 category, but also a place in the greatest bite-sized gaming experiences of recent years, along with Portal, Castle Crashers, and Braid. I am so glad that I went into Flower expecting nothing, because what I got delighted me that much more for it.
My honorable mention here has to go to Demon’s Souls. As one of the year’s best games (second only to Dragon Age on the RPG front), I would be remiss not to give a nod to this challenging and refreshing title from the minds of From Software. The reason it doesn’t make my top three biggest surprises of ’09 is that hardcore gamers from coast to coast were building buzz about the difficulty level of this game well before it arrived in the US, so it was squarely on my radar by the time it launched here.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that it did live up to all the hype prior to its release. It is incredibly fun, while at the same time demanding every ounce of my focus and skill in order to achieve success. I guarantee you that this will be the game that gets me through the lean summer months in 2010.
What about you all? What games blindsided you with win over the past year?