2011 was a much better year for me than 2010. I learned how to use Twitter, I got to go to PAX, there were a crap-load of really great games and I met my future wife. (Author’s Note: that list was not arranged in any particular order of importance like the one below, for the record). I also learned that while some games can make phoenix-like returns to awesomeness after a decade, other games should just stay dead. I learned that you can make a Top Ten Games of the Year list without including the shoo-in GotY (Skyrim) and not feel bad about it. And most importantly, when it comes to lessons learned in 2011, I learned that, while Mama GiffTor may be pretty badass at some games, she is epically bad (but hysterically entertaining to watch) at Fruit Ninja for Kinect.
2011 was full of big-name, AAA releases but not all of them managed to include the one thing that got me into gaming in the first place: fun. There are shiner games out there (Skyrim) and there are more dramatic games out there (L.A. Noire) and there are certainly more popular games out there (Modern Warfare 3) but none of them have the sheer sense of goofy, enjoyable fun present in SkyDrift. Sure, it was a downloadable title with no story whatsoever, but when you’re combining Mario Kart and PilotWings, a storyline would just get in the way. I may have spent some time gritting my teeth trying to win a race coming off of the last turn with no missiles left and my boost bar completely empty but I spent just as much time laughing maniacally as a competitor ran into a strategically placed mine and yelling, “Bring it on, assholes!” at the AI as I moved into first place with a leveled up EMP and shield in my arsenal. I played “better” games in 2011, but none of them have the replay value, relative budget pricing and sheer fun level I found in SkyDrift.
9. Portal 2
I’ll admit it – I haven’t finished Portal 2 yet, but I couldn’t leave it off of this list and sleep at night. Returning to Aperture Science Enrichment Center as Chell, complete with the Portal Gun and with the additions of Wheatley and Cave Johnson (voiced by Stephan Merchant and J.K. Simmons, respectively) as well as some new toys to play with like Repulsion Gel was a treat. Being reacquainted with one of gaming’s best villains, though, is why Portal 2 made the list. There are plenty of evil robots in gaming and film, but none of them can stack up to GLaDOS because none of them are out for a very-human revenge against you, personally, or equipped with the passive-aggressive insults that Valve penned for its villain. (Look, some people are afraid of spiders. Or zombies. I find the concept of an AI unbound from Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics to be horrifying.) I would be remiss without mentioning, you know, the fact that Portal 2: is much more of a full game than its predecessor; has puzzles just on the right side of the challenging/frustrating line; has the best co-op of any game I’ve ever played; allowed for multi-platform co-op! I may have put off getting into Portal 2 well past its release date, but until I break GLaDOS again, I’m not going to sleep well at night.
There was a glut of quality downloadable games this year and I mean that without any of the negative connotations that “glut” carries with it. One of the pre-Mega Release Fall (copyright E. Moses, 2011) games was a gorgeously rendered platformer loaded with Shadow of the Colossus-sized bosses (without the guilt), great atmospheric music and sound effects that gave the entire game a feeling of solid-ness. Combined with responsive, smooth controls, a high-but-not-impossible difficulty level and plenty of metroidvania-esque backtracking for new items and powerups, Outland easily made it into my Top Ten Games of the Year list. I can’t even quite put my finger on what separated Outland for me from some of the other fantastic side-scrolling platformer/action/quest games that came out this year, but if I had to guess, it was the combination of the Ikaruga-style polarity, smooth controls and semi-kabuki theater presentation. Or it might just have been that there’s some part of me that’s never going to get tired of slashing shadowy spiders with a Strider-style sword and picking up the coins they drop. Either way, Outland was a no-brainer for this list.
7. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile
Clearly, 2011 was a good year for side-scrollers with great art styles and the sequel to 2009’s The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai was no exception, especially considering that Ska Studios’ founder James Silva‘s art style, for some reason, reminds me of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics (that’s a good thing, by the way). The storyline’s fairly bizarre, but considering the cyberpunk gorefest gameplay and unique art style, it just…works. I hate to go all “…and when we walked 10 miles to school, it was barefoot, in the snow, both ways!” on younger gamers, but The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile‘s unforgiving gameplay made me think (fondly) of all of those hours trying to get past that one part of a level by knowing which enemies were coming from where and trying out different techniques to clear the room. When you add in the facts that there’s a chainsaw arm available (Shop smart! Shop S-Mart!), you can crank your combo counter up into the high-hundreds in some of the later rooms, there are War of the Worlds looking walker-things that you get to kill, and I got to watch Coop do a straight-through playthrough…you’ve got me hooked.
6. L.A. Noire
If you’d asked me before I played it, I would have told you that L.A. Noire would have been in the running for Game of the Year based on what I’d heard about it. Having played it, though, it wasn’t difficult to realize that it does belong in my Top Ten List, but it’s not #1 quality. There are a lot of great things to say about L.A. Noire – the facial modeling and body motions of suspects were as promised: above and beyond anything I’d ever seen. The recreated 1940’s Los Angeles is an achievement unparalleled even by the Assassins Creed games, which were no slouches and the noire atmosphere (dialog + music + storyline) was straight out of Dashiell Hammet or Raymond Chandler. Unfortunately, L.A. Noire had some rough edges that kept it from fighting for the top spot. Despite solid post-release support in terms of extra cases, one of the principal game mechanics, interrogation, was frustrating at best with facial clues giving no help in knowing whether to confront or prod your suspects and some of the in-game action sequences were incongruous with actually being a cop (see the review here for more). Since Team Bondi has since moved on, we have no idea whether there will be any Chicago: Noire‘s to follow, but we can hope. With a little bit of tweaking, 2011’s L.A. Noire could have been a contender.
5. Saints Row: The Third
This game was so far off of my radar at the beginning of the year, it might as well have been one of those hyper-stealthy drones that the Air Force likes to crash in hostile territory, but holy crap! Saints Row: The Third is over the top. It’s hysterically funny. It used up the universe’s quota of funny dick jokes and left Bulletstorm and Duke Nukem Forever with the leavings. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It rewards you for doing the insane crap you want to do in a sandbox-style game, anyway, and has a level-up system that builds cheat-mode type upgrades into your gameplay. It has some seriously awesome cameos. It has a gameshow where you kill people dressed in those annoying mascot uniforms. It refers to the “sprint” button as the “awesome” button. And it has a three-foot-long, purple dildo/bat/weapon thingy. Saints Row: The Third is flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal fun. If it weren’t for the incredibly high quality of the games appearing below, this could be a Game of the Year. Look, I can’t really describe all of this coherently other than to say that the fun-factor was so high (including its multiplayer “Whored” mode) that it catapulted Saints Row: The Third from “What the hell is Saints Row, a GTA clone?” to “Oh, my God. I’m driving a Tron-style tank down the main road flanked by my gang members: a gimp, an astronaut, a biker and a luchador. What’s next?!”
You can’t talk about the games of 2011 without talking about Bastion. Supergiant Games‘ debut is part shooter, part quest and part imaginative story with the best narrator you’ve ever heard. Bastion spread like a slow burn among the Horrible Night crew and I may have been one of the last to pick it up, but I can’t tell you how glad I am that I did. It’s hard to quantify everything that makes Bastion great, though. The weapons, which you can upgrade several times, never get old. The art style is slightly whimsical with a dose of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards thrown in. Even though it’s possible to fall off of the edges of the patchwork, shattered world, it’s not nearly as frustratingly precarious as it could have been without lots of attention from Supergiant. The story is haunting, the music is outstanding and the menagerie of enemies that populate the world is endearing and broad. Some of the highest praise I can think of to level at a game is, “It’s over already?! But…I want more!” Bastion earned that from me and then some.
3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
My reaction to Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution could be spelled out in a 2,000 word review…or I could sum it up in one: relief. The original Deus Ex was a groundbreaking, Warren Spector helmed game – multiple endings, incredible interactivity with NPC’s including the ability to sway their opinions, a fusion of RPG and action/shooter and a great storyline. It remains one of my favorite single-player gaming memories. It was followed up by the lackluster Invisible War, which we will not speak of further. So it was no surprise that I was more than a little nervous about how Human Revolution was going to turn out – would it be a true sequel (even though it’s a prequel) to Deus Ex, or would it be another rotten mackerel of a game like Invisible War? Thankfully, with the exception of farming out the boss fights (which they apologized for), the talented group over at Eidos Montreal turned out a game that was true to the original while moving in its own creative direction. There’s plenty to do in Human Revolution and the more you do, the more you’re rewarded. The dialog tree is well done, the combat is fun and leaves plenty of room for different approaches and there are enough twists in the story line to make a pretzel or two. If it weren’t for the boss fights and the lack of a new game + (few games call out for it as badly as Human Revolution) this would be my game of the year.
2. Batman: Arkham City
If this is your first time visiting Horrible Night, you should know: the Justins are big Batman fans; everyone else knows of our
obsession affinity for all things Dark Knight related. And when it comes to Batman in the video game realm, no one, and I mean no one comes close to Rocksteady Studios Ltd.’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. As awesome as the first installment of the Arkham game/story arc was, which was the best super hero game ever, Arkham City took it even further. One thing that no superhero game has gotten fully right before is translating the hero’s powers or skills in such a way that felt right; Rocksteady Studios pulled it off. When you play either game, you feel like the Bat – the combat/counter/dodge system is so smoothly polished that when you actually get hit, you know it was your fault; the Batman would never have missed that counter. The dialog and voice acting are top notch and the story line(s) feel like you just sat down with a two-year story arc collected into one giant trade paperback. As incredible and praiseworthy as Arkham Asylum was, Arkham City took it up another level – the combat feels even more smooth and the seamless integration of your gadgets into combat makes the experience even better. I could go on and on about how great this game is, but let me stop by putting it in perspective: my biggest gripe is that there are too many gadgets. Yeah. It’s that good.
1. Gears of War 3
The fact that the conclusion of the Gears‘ saga in attempting to retake their planet, Sera, from the Locust hordes and the explosive, mutated Lambent is at the top of my list came as a little bit of a surprise to me. Don’t get me wrong, I knew it was going to be a great game before I played it and I loved (almost) every minute I spent actually playing it (the 11 hours of Horde Mode was a little much, frankly). But it took a lengthy post-podcast discussion with the guys before I realized just how incredible Epic Studio’s final installment with Delta Squad really was. The game’s very similar to Gears of War and Gears of War 2. There are some new weapons, dedicated multiplayer servers, a completely redone co-op Horde Mode and the new Beast Mode, but it’s still very much the same experience. The same experience that had extremely tight and well designed controls, an engrossing (if slightly dude-bro) storyline, plenty of run-and-gun and pitched battles, a co-op mode most games would kill to achieve and both a great singleplayer campaign and top-of-the-line multiplayer. There’s a reason that Epic didn’t change much – the franchise was already great. But when it came time for the last piece of the trilogy, Epic had honed its flagship series to perfection. It knew where to leave a good thing alone and where to smooth off any remaining rough edges. To take the top spot on my Games of the Year list, you have to be the whole package, and Gears of War 3 delivers. (Author’s Note / Spoiler Alert: I would have given the #1 spot to Batman: Arkham Asylum if Carmine’s fate had been different).