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Because there were so many titles to consider for this year's "Game of the Year" awards, we even recruited a couple of extra people to ensure that no games were overlooked. Contributing to the following selections are myself (BuckGB), Thomas Beekers (Brother None), Tyson McCann (Applebrown), and Jay Barnson (Frayed Knights developer and founder of Rampant Games):
Dragon Age: Origins (Winner)
It seems almost inevitable that in any year in which BioWare releases a game, it'll be a leading candidate for our best story/writing award. This year is no exception, but it's certainly a candidacy that comes with some footnotes.
To put it bluntly, the main story isn't very good. The Blight is a standard fantasy trope, the darkspawn look like they were created to be the ultimate clichÃ©, and the foreboding "Archdemon" is never really given any depth or presented as an even remotely interesting adversary.
But none of this is a deal-breaker. Dragon Age: Origins really isn't about the Blight; it's about gathering allies for the Blight, and unifying Ferelden under the guidance of someone other than Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir. Loghain is your adversary through most of the game, and he is an excellently-voiced, subtle character, whose understandable if misguided motives may well bring a measure of sympathy out of the player.
Equally, the best stories are not to be found in the main quest, but in each individual faction. With four factions to work through, Dragon Age: Origins kicks off the franchise with plenty of lore to chew through and draws your interest naturally into the motives and problems of these factions, since you do after all require their help.
The stories behind each of these factions are interesting, with dwarves, elves, and magics being freed from their standard clichÃ©s by clever twists in your expectations. Couple this with the game offering real choices and consequences, as well as some of the best-written companions BioWare has ever produced, and it's a no-brainer as a winner.
Piranha Bytes' first foray into a new intellectual property didn't exactly present us with an incredibly original plot or even a fresh setting (the former not being in-depth enough or original and the latter sharing too many similarities with its stepfather, Gothic), but Risen did excel where many other RPGs have failed: crafting a fleshy, convincing game world with believable characters inhabiting it, dominated not by purely good or bad motives but by exceedingly human motives. The level to which Risen has subtly accomplished this deep scale of grey easily fits it amongst the top of modern-day AAA RPGs.
And as an added surprise, those of us in English-speaking territories were given a professional-grade localization of the script and subsequent excellent voice acting - things often lacking in translated games.
Demon's Souls (Winner)
There's a lot of horsepower under the hood of a PlayStation 3, and Demon's Souls certainly makes use of it. This isn't a game where you sit back and marvel at character renders or sweeping forests, though. Instead, it's the painstakingly detailed environments and larger-than-life boss monsters that serve as last year's best eye candy.
Enter into battle with the Penetrator or Dragon God, or venture through the dark, medieval Europe-inspired Boletarian Palace or the creepy, hallowed prison cells of the Tower of Latria, and you'll come to appreciate the attention to detail that went into Demon's Souls. Only then is it obvious what a labor of love this game must have been to the developers at From Software.
If you haven't yet given Demon's Souls a whirl, pick up or rent a copy and sit down with it for awhile. It doesn't take long to realize that Demon's Souls is a crowning achievement of graphical fortitude and that's why it's an easy pick for our top graphics award.
Dragon Age: Origins (Runner-up)
Running on BioWare's Eclipse engine, a lot of people probably don't think much of Dragon Age: Origins' graphical prowess when comparing it to the technology powering the Mass Effect series. Keep in mind, however, that we're talking about two very different game types with completely different presentation goals.
Despite that, it is an impressive cRPG to look at, in large part because of an expansive gameworld that while nothing exceptionally original looks like it was crafted with love and care to breathe a convincing, dark universe.
In a year of lengthy scripts in dialogue-heavy cRPGs voiced by expensive, famous voice casts, it's the game that does more with less that wins out. While Borderlands' voice acting might be considered satisfactory but not outstanding, the sound design as a whole beats out any other role-playing game we played last year.
Where the game really excels is the music. Video game music as an art has been really up and down over the past few years, and Borderlands is a showcase of how it's done. The atmospheric music setting the arid world's tone is excellent, yet it readily switches to appropriate combat music that pumps you up without getting annoyingly intrusive.
Returning to the more dialogue-heavy cRPGs, Risen stood out this year as having the best overall performance in its voice acting cast. Risen's soundtrack is solid, its sound effects are more than adequate, but it's the voice acting that serves as a masterclass.
Andy Serkis and John Rhys-Davies give subtle tour-de-force performances that help underpin Risen's excellent character writing. Piranha Bytes and Deep Silver were dedicated to getting this game's international release right, and it shows. The high quality of the cast lacking in billable names could serve as a lesson to publishers that tend to rely more on less competent Hollywood talent.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Siege of Mirkwood (Winner)
In a year filled with bite-sized and arguably overpriced DLC, Turbine's Siege of Mirkwood expansion pack for The Lord of the Rings Online stands out as a shining example of how to bring fresh content to an already content-rich game. Though it doesn't provide us with any new classes to pick from, it progresses the War of the Ring storyline within the game while also introducing us to several new areas (including the Ringwraith fortress of Dol Guldur), a unique and highly entertaining skirmish system, an extended level cap, and many fan-requested gameplay enhancements.
The skirmish system is probably the most notable of these additions, as it provides an alternative (and scalable) way to level your character, earn new loot, and experience some of the great battles of Middle-earth. It also brings something very unique to the table - the ability to have a henchman-like soldier fighting at your side, who in turn can gain new abilities and traits as you tackle the skirmishes. There was already a lot to like in The Lord of the Rings Online, but getting to experience the Stand at Amon SÃ»l, the Siege of Gondamon, and other such epic battles with a group of friends has to be the biggest boon to the game yet.
Fallout 3: Broken Steel (Runner-up)
Despite a few DLC launch quirks, throughout 2009 Bethesda Softworks demonstrated that they can deliver quality post-release downloadable content. And of the five Fallout 3 addons released last year, Broken Steel is the one that had the most ambition behind it.
In addition to raising the level cap and introducing new perks and equipment to the game, Broken Steel addresses a major concern that many players had - there was no way to keep playing the game after turning on the purifier at the Jefferson Memorial. Such an alteration probably shouldn't have been necessary in the first place, but it's refreshing to see a company willing to deliver on what the majority of the (vocal) community was asking for.
At a $10 price point, Broken Steel is easily one of the better game additions to reach our hard drives last year.
Fallout: New Vegas
When we learned that Obsidian Entertainment was actually going to get their hands on the Fallout franchise again, Diablo III took an immediate tumble down our most anticipated list. Despite the near certainty that it will be another FPS/RPG hybrid, Fallout: New Vegas overcomes a lot of the associated fears of riding on Fallout 3's FPS-inclined system by doing what most of us would consider a lost dream - returning the Fallout license to some of the people it originally belonged to.
While none of the developers credited as having created Fallout's "original game design" (Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky, Jason D. Anderson, Chris Taylor, Jason Taylor, and R. Scott Campbell) are currently at Obsidian, the studio boasts names like Feargus Urquhart (Fallout 1/2 producer), Chris Avellone (Fallout 2 designer), J.E. Sawyer (Van Buren lead designer), and Scott Everts (Fallout 1/2 designer) amongst its staff.
And so we head into 2010 excited to see what they'll do with the Fallout license, and hopeful they will be able to overcome some of Fallout 3's flaws, most noticeably its less-than-stellar writing. That doesn't seem like much of a stretch, either, considering that these are the same people that gave us Planescape: Torment.
Knights of the Chalice (Winner)
Sometimes genius is indistinguishable from madness, and I'm really not sure which afflicts Heroic Fantasy Games, maker of Knights of the Chalice our winner for the Indie RPG of the year. Taking (old school) to the extreme in some areas, Knights of the Chalice embraces the very old-fashioned 320 x 200 resolution of the VGA era (fortunately expandable to a less postage-stamp-sized resolution), a 2D perspective highly reminiscent of Ultima VI and Ultima VII, and the D20 Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast heavily modified to replicate the flavor of very old-school (1970s era) Dungeons & Dragons.
Amazingly, it all works and works well. The game is heavy on the turn-based tactical combat, which may give it niche appeal geared more towards the hardcore faithful but for the audience, the game is all but heaven-sent. With sub-quests drawing inspiration from classic early-era D&D modules, challenging tactical combat, cunning and brutally efficient AI enemies, monsters and spells from a familiar licensed game system, Knights of the Chalice invokes the feel of an old-school dice & paper gaming with a vengeance. Its greatest deviation is in the outstanding item-crafting system, which allows characters to spend experience points and gold to create literally any magic item available in the game.
Knights of the Chalice is a gutsy, ambitious title that is not without some significant flaws. But its aggressive reach is rewarded by far more hits than misses. It is a compelling experience that makes it easy to overlook its more old-school production values and lack of a deeper storyline. Heroic Fantasy Games knocked this one out of the park, and left legions of fans hungry for a sequel.
The Three Musketeers (Runner-up)
As difficult as choosing the best indie game of 2009 was among almost thirty entries was (and that's about a game every two weeks.), choosing the runner up was even more challenging. Cute Knight Kingdom, two new Aveyond titles, Deadly Sin, Aztaka, and the final chapter of Spiderweb's Geneforge saga were all solid indie role-playing games that truly showcase the quality coming out of the indie scene, and worthy of honors. Unfortunately, we can't pick them all.
The Three Musketeers, by Dingo Games, is inspired by Alexandre Dumas' classic novel of swashbuckling adventure in 17th century France, and is the runner-up for the best indie RPG of the year. Featuring a slower-paced (action) combat that rewards timing and tactics over rapid clicking, the game credibly replicates the swashbuckling feel of swordplay and firearm combat of the source material. Combat often goes beyond one-on-one conflicts into group battles with multiple friendly and opponent targets. Besides combat, the game features numerous sub-games to keep the player occupied, including opportunities to gamble and . play tennis. Clothing and equipment, as always, play a critical role in combat but are equally important in the social statement they make about your character. Success in the circles of French aristocracy demand not the most protective boots, but the most stylish, of course!
But beyond the mechanics of the game, the story, dialog, quests, and world in general capture the romantic, adventurous mood and setting of the book. While adhering to the general narrative of the original story, it still cuts the player loose and lets him explore the game-world, righting wrongs, defending the honor of maidens, and getting into all kinds of conflicts from minor brawls to large-scale military actions. Offering a familiar world that is nevertheless fresh in the world of computer RPGs, The Three Musketeers is a delight to play, and is our runner-up for Indie RPG of the Year.
Demon's Souls (Winner)
We've never had much of a focus on JRPGs here at GameBanshee, but it would have been a real travesty had we overlooked Demon's Souls as just "more of the same". Gone are the storyline clichÃ©s, the stark, colorful graphics, and the teen-aged characters with big eyes and spiky hair. Demon's Souls is a real-time action RPG with new ideas, old school challenge, and enough Western inspiration to convince even the most anti-JRPG fan.
And while Boletaria might be a somewhat generic dark fantasy setting filled with monsters we've seen a million times before, the game excels where it matters most: gameplay. Rather than focusing on randomized loot-hording, Demon's Souls opts for some real depth. Hidden beneath the game's visuals is a hefty character progression system comprised of ten different character classes, several important attributes, and a nice variety of spells and unique equipment. There's also much to be said about the tactical nature of combat; given the game's brutal difficulty, your own skill in performing standard attacks, power attacks, parries, blocks, and backstabs, or keeping at range to fire a bow or spell, is as important as your character's level or the equipment they're using. Add to this the game's bizarre yet fascinating multiplayer component, and you have a recipe for success.
King's Bounty: Armored Princess (Runner-up)
Not so much sequel as version 1.5 of the original masterpiece King's Bounty: The Legend, in Armored Princess the game mechanics, interface, and character progression are tightened up to provide a richer, deeper turn-based strategy/RPG experience overall. The real-time nature of exploration, absolutely fantastic character, land, and creature animations in combination with Blizzard-like 2D graphic polish, and completely randomized world will keep seasoned gamers coming back again and again. Adding to that is the game's tremendous replayability factor, as is its length, averaging at about 40-50 hours per play-through.
Had we not been forced to play as Princess Amelie and with a little more diversity from 2008's effort, Armored Princess might have cinched our top spot.
Dragon Age: Origins (Winner)
First announced in 2004, the originally non-subtitled Dragon Age had a long time to build up expectations. BioWare's releasing of a few RPG-lite titles in the interim Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Sonic Chronicles only served for people to clasp to Dragon Age as a "last hope" of another great cRPG from the company. BioWare played into these expectations, calling this game the spiritual sequel to their seminal work, Baldur's Gate II.
With expectations built up that high, it was easy for Dragon Age: Origins to fall a little short. And in a few elements - most noticeably the lack of character advancement options, the occasional filler combat, and the arguably mediocre soundtrack - well, it did. But despite a handful of shortcomings, the game excelled on many fronts that are crucial to a party-based role-playing game - and it did so without sacrificing a whole lot to today's rampant "consolification" trend. It's our opinion that Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare's strongest title since Baldur's Gate II, and it could even be argued that it rivals their former masterpiece in a few areas.
Drakensang: The Dark Eye (Runner-up)
It's been a pretty solid year for cRPGs, so it was somewhat difficult to choose our runner-up - moreso, in fact, than it was to choose the winner. In the end, we opted to go not with a title that did something spectacularly right, but one that didn't really do much of anything wrong.
Drakensang was not the spiritual sequel to the classic Realms of Arkania series some people hoped it would be. Amusingly, the title is more clearly meant to copy the strengths of Baldur's Gate. It achieves this goal competently, with a solid if somewhat unexciting main story, combat system, and set of companions. But what really pulls the game into a higher tier of quality is its excellent setting and the stats-heavy pen-and-paper system that it's based on.
In all, The Dark Eye makes for a pleasant RPG experience. It's a promising first title from Radon Labs, and the primary reason why we're eyeing 2010's Drakensang: The River of Time so closely.