The end of the week nears, but our dubstep-fueled awards train keeps a rollin', with mores results from our Game of the Year discussion. To see how we arrived at this set of games, make sure to listen to today's companion podcast.
Best Download-Only Game
The rise of the downloadable game may be this generation's crowning achievement, especially in light of a bummer world economy that's forced everyone to stretch every dollar. Just because the downloadable games are cheaper, however, doesn't mean they're any less worthy or our time or admiration. The downloadable market has allowed smaller, focused and more experimental games to thrive, games that would be destined for niche, cult status if they were forced to appear on a shelf with so-called AAA games.
Bastion is a game most of us would have happily paid much more for. The game represents just how much the industry has expanded to include so many more kinds of games through new distribution, and humbles us with the risk some take to bring us something different. Bastion raised eyebrows with its unique take on narration, a hook that would have earned the game accolades all on its own, but it's that Bastion is sublime in every other way that places Bastion above other terrific highlights from 2011.
In the eternal quest for the video game "total package," Gears of War 3 might be the totalest of all packages. There's just so much crammed onto that disc, it feels like Gears 3 really covers all the bases. It's got far and away the best campaign in the series to date, offering explosive highs, quiet character moments, and genuine closure for the trilogy's storyline. It's got a competitive multiplayer mode that will keep you busy for months or years as you try to complete its dozens of unique challenges, provided you can hang with the franchise's ultra-hardcore fanbase. And perhaps most importantly for those overwhelmed by the skill of Gears diehards in deathmatch, the game's cooperative gameplay modes and options have been expanded to such a degree that they touch just about every aspect of the game.
Gears had already come close to perfecting the format of the campaign co-op thing in its first two installments. The only thing left to do was expand the story-mode co-op to four players, and Gears 3 does that. But more than that, its campaign actually feels built with four active players in mind, offering levels built widely enough that you have the room to flank enemies and take alternate paths to reach your objectives. Outside the story, the Beast mode is an interesting (if fleeting) way to turn the tables with your friends and play as the Locust hordes. But it's the Horde mode, with its wealth of new defensive mechanics and its immensely demanding boss encounters, that offers one of the most cohesive team-based exercises we've played in years. At the upper difficulty levels, Gears 3 Horde mode requires team coordination and strategic thinking like few other shooters, and when everyone is on point, it can provide some of the most memorable moments of any game this year. Gears popularized the wave-based survival thing with its original Horde mode in the first place, so it's extra great to see Gears 3 come along and basically redefine that game type with its latest iteration.
The original Portal is often acclaimed for being one of the funniest, smartest-written games of the last decade, and that's not an incorrect compliment to give. That said, there was an air of surprise to Portal's campaign that perhaps helped prop it up in the minds of its players. The game was an unknown quantity in its earliest days of existence, a cool-looking puzzle game crammed in with bigger, more immediately noteworthy games in Valve's The Orange Box collection. Then everyone played it, and suddenly it morphed from a neat little bonus into the darling of the whole package.
Portal 2 didn't get that benefit of shock. Everyone had expectations all of the sudden. Could the writers at Valve some how up the ante on one of the most unexpectedly entertaining games of the last several years?
Credit to writers Erik Wolpaw, Chet Faliszek, and Jay Pinkerton for not only achieving greater success (heh) this time around, but making that success seem so damned effortless. In picking up many, many years in the future, with series heroine Chell once again trapped in a new, decidedly more ramshackle Aperture Science labyrinth, the writers behind the game were given carte blanche to explore the many facets of Aperture's utterly baffling infrastructure, not to mention its very origins.
The introduction of new A.I. helper/antagonist Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant) and the voice of former Aperture head honcho Cave Johnson (perfectly captured by J.K. Simmons) lend a great deal of comedic oomph to the proceedings. These two characters are your primary guides through the various trials and traps laid throughout the game's eight-hour campaign, and each are such perfect sounding boards for the insanity around you that scarcely a minute goes by without at least a minor chortle. And yes, Ellen McLain is back once again as the passive/aggressively murderous GLaDOS, though many of her best moments come during the game's wonderful co-op mode, which is fantastically written in its own right. No matter how you played Portal 2, the writing and quality of storytelling always shone through, making it the easy choice for this year's Best Story award.
Most Disappointing Game
Disappointment can blossom from a number of different sources--your own personal expectations based on the previous entry in a series, or the developer's previous output, promises made during the game's pre-release PR cycle--and no game disappointed quite as thoroughly on all fronts in 2011 as Dragon Age II.
Primarily, though, let's consider the legacy of Dragon Age: Origins, a massive, ambitious role-playing game whose very existence was predicated on creating a classic fantasy RPG experience in the BioWare mold, which ultimately meant incredible levels of player agency at every turn. It was designed as a love letter to stalwart BioWare fans, and as a rebuke to the notion that more crowd-pleasing business like Mass Effect had made the developer soft.
Dragon Age II undoes all of that hard work with an overwhelming sense of half-assed-ness. Even without the BioWare name, or even the relatively freshly minted Dragon Age name to live up to, Dragon Age II is an RPG that feels half-finished, its attempts at scope undermined by pervasive sense of a crushing development deadline. Where they could cut corners, they did. It's hard not to be disappointed when a series goes from so high to so low in just one iteration.
Best Remake or HD Update
The recent tendency among publishers to update the last decade's more memorable games in high definition and then rerelease them on current consoles could be viewed in a more negative light, if publishers were handling the ports less respectfully and charging more for them--if, in other words, those companies were churning out quick-and-dirty cash-ins for a fast buck. But it's easy to feel good about dropping some more cash on a few of the same games you've already played when they're as lovingly restored as this year's rereleases of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Halo, just to name a couple.
Even in that respectable company, Ico & Shadow of the Colossus: The Collection is especially noteworthy if for no other reason than you're getting not one but two of the most hallowed PlayStation 2 exclusives in one $40 package. So it's a great value proposition right off the bat. But the quality of the two ports is also top-notch, since you're getting both games looking nice in 720p and with bonus 3D support. Most importantly, Shadow of the Colossus now runs at a smooth frame rate, which is especially significant when you remember what a notoriously poor performer the original game was. Throw in multiple video features including interviews with Fumito Ueda and a peek at The Last Guardian, a smattering of concept art and test footage, and even a couple of dynamic XMB themes for your PS3, and this collection is practically a new blueprint for the right way to deliver old games in new packaging.