The Year in Graphics
What was the best-looking game of 2009? Not so fast. One man's "best-looking" is another man's dull photorealism. 2009 had a lot of great graphics on a few different levels. On one hand, the latest, greatest graphic engines did some fantastic work, particularly on the PlayStation 3. On the other hand, some of the year's best artwork was crammed into some of the year's most dated engines. On the third hand, we got some great new aesthetic styles that we'd never seen before. Visually speaking, 2009 was a many-splendored thing.
The PlayStation 3 deserves special mention for a few exclusives that turned its share of graphics whores into PS3 owners. Although Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was lovely, it faced the unenviable task of visiting familiar places where we've been tomb raidering for many years. But when it came to human animation and expressiveness, it was right up there with The Sims 3. Both games breathed life into characters without dipping into the Uncanny Valley where realism meets creepiness and creepiness wins out. Uncharted 2 managed human beings as human as humanly possible, and it did it without veering toward The Sims 3's slightly exaggerated cartoony quality. As such, it was one of 2009's finest achievements in graphics.
To really show off graphics in an artistic flight of fancy, the PlayStation 3 was again a frontrunner with Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time. This is as close as videogames have gotten to Pixar's unique capacity for charm, expression, inventiveness and jaw-dropping moments of "holy cats, that is beautiful!" Landing on a small planet and then gazing back out into the very space where you'd just been flying around, and doing it while looking over the finely furred ears of a Lombax whose glistening eyes were alive with delight, was truly one of the great moments in graphics in 2009.
But you have to look beyond these remarkable PlayStation 3 exclusives to find what I feel is the greatest accomplishment in graphics in 2009. You know how in Uncharted 2 you came across the [spoiler deleted] at the end of the game and you gazed out over the lovely view, but it was slightly less lovely because it was a carefully staged vista that you couldn't walk into? You might as well have been looking at a backlot with wooden facades placed at just the right angles. Assassin's Creed II was every bit as lovely -- more so, I'd say -- but afforded you the freedom to dive into that vista. It didn't have the luxury of carefully angling every building you saw. Instead, it was wide open and no less beautiful for it, and it was even full of exquisitely detailed activity. It was also a place rarely (never?) visited in a fully rendered videogame environment. Once again, Ubisoft's Montreal studio gave us this year's crowning achievement in spectacular graphics. Don't those guys ever get tired of upstaging everyone else?
Electronic Arts gets special props for rebuilding familiar old places in Battlefield 1943, the downloadable update of ArmA II did a great job of showing up other bigger-budget shooters that pretended to take place in open worlds. There aren't many graphics engines that can actually make a forest rather than a loose collection of trees or an impassable clot of geometry.
Then there were the games that managed to be true to a unique visual style. Brütal Legend was built out of an old engine that looked as if it just might run on a PlayStation 2. But it was a perfect example of how graphics engines matter a lot less than actual graphics. When given the choice between artwork and technology, I'll go for the artwork every time. And this year saw no artwork more imaginative than the heavy-metal world of Brütal Legend, filled with stuff you'd never seen before.
When it came to nighttime and shadows, literally and metaphorically, Batman: Arkham Asylum's brooding Gothic aesthetic was the year's dark horse. When it came to sunlight and seashores, the city builder Dawn of Discovery sparkled like an exotic jewel. There's a reason the viewing mode that dropped you down low to admire the graphics was called "postcard view." Need for Speed SHIFT worked wonders establishing a sense of speed and atmosphere with its graphics, something missing in the clean and sterile look of many of the latest driving games. Taking advantage of its off-road freedom, Madworld's "black and white and red all over" graphics made for some of the year's most striking screenshots. You should have seen it in motion!
2009 saw a couple of games arguably cheating by offering 2-D gameplay in unrepentantly 3-D engines. Xbox Live Arcade was this year's home for 2.5-D, with Trials HD played along flat planes in 3-D worlds, but managing gameplay that wasn't the least bit flat. 2.5-D has officially shrugged off the gameplay stigma of LittleBigPlanet. 2009 also saw some remarkable 2-D graphics. Patapon 2 was probably the most joyously drawn game of the year. Half-Minute Hero embraced giant pixels to great effect. Just because it's retro doesn't mean it can't have great graphics. And even the staid turn-based gameplay of Solium Infernum managed some of the year's more fantastic visuals, and not just in terms of the lush hellish artwork for various units and magic items. The map itself managed to recall ancient illuminated manuscripts and engravings. I'll gladly take that kind of character over the busy animated 3-D you get in turn-based games like King's Bounty and Civilization IV.
Thanks for all the eye candy, 2009. Good luck following up on that, 2010. You're going to need it.