Assassin's Creed II
Much to everyone's delight, Ubisoft decided to publish an actual game for the sequel to Assassin's Creed, as opposed to just another fairly impressive tech demo. A game that doesn't rely on its engine as its sole selling point is just what this series needed.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Batman: Arkham Asylum was hailed as both a faithful translation of the source material and a vibrant entry in its own right, but some of the best parts of the game had nothing to do with the Batman/Joker dynamic. When the Scarecrow's fear toxin sends Batman into a hell of his own design, players are given an unexpectedly deep glimpse into his tortured psyche.
There currently exists no better way to get me in the mood to empty a clip of explosive rounds into the nearest psychotic, axe-wielding midget than the post-apocalyptic shit-eating grins and that god-awful Cage the Elephant song in Borderlands. Presenting gamers with a few thousand pieces of cannon fodder and telling them to go nuts is one thing, but doing so in a way that really, really gets them in the mood to kill is something else entirely. Kudos, I think.
Brütal Legend proved that a well-made high-concept game can find acceptance (if not ground-breaking commercial success) just as well as a Call of Duty clone. It also pushed the boundaries of how much high-profile talent can safely coexist in one game. Perhaps most importantly, it did so without sacrificing the vision of its creators to the whim of publishing execs and market trends. The giant chrome-fanged mastodons didn't hurt, either.
Nobody gets DLC like Bethesda. Early, often, and always content-rich, Fallout 3's five (!) expansion packs have turned the game from a mere 60-hour endeavor into an experience that transcends mortal concepts of time. Forget thinking about is as a game—Fallout 3 is now an investment that occasionally requires an influx of capital in return for dividends of entertainment.
Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story
Way back in 1996, Square teamed up with Nintendo to pull off something really weird with Super Mario RPG, a Mario title that had little to do with platforming (or sports, or paint, or flinging vitamins). While the Squintendo marriage didn't last, the appeal of the Mario-based RPG did. Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story takes the series through a Fantastic Voyage send-up, with microscopic plumbers beating reptilian nerve cells with hammers to give Bowser superpowers. I'm pretty sure this is how biology actually works.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 made two major cultural contributions in 2009: It allowed players to use Captain America to beat the living snot out of Iron Man, a thrashing he's deserved since the Civil War storyline on which the game is based, and it allowed comic book nerds to show their girlfriends how Deadpool is really supposed to act after his mischaracterization in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Red Faction: Guerrilla
Forget buying an island and using it as a staging ground for people hunts. In the future, the weapon of choice for the idle rich will be a dune buggy loaded with explosives, and their chosen prey will be the indigenous Martian building (Edificius Martis). Come for the wanton destruction, but stay for... well, more wanton destruction.
While Blizzard Entertainment spent 2009 charging headlong into yet another World of Warcraft expansion, plucky start-up Runic Games (made up in part of Diablo veterans) took the rogue approach, leaping from nowhere and stabbing us right in our collective pleasure centers with Torchlight, a game that proves what the Diablo II community has known for a decade—that there's still room in this world for dungeon-crawling and loot-grabbing and... hey, did my pet wolf just summon a skeleton knight? Sweet.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
DC Comics' resident bad boy went for deep characterizations and an authentically Burton-esque atmosphere, but Marvel's counterpart bore no such pretensions. Surprisingly, this ended up working to the benefit of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie sucked, but the game—a hilarious Wolverine-themed abattoir in the God of War vein—didn't. It wasn't the meal that Arkham Asylum was, but in small, bloody doses, boy, was it ever a snack.