Brad Muir is a designer at Double Fine, where he had the pleasure of designing TWO games in 2011: first Trenched, and then a few months later, Iron Brigade!
Even if Brad's sick to death of the Trenched/Iron Brigade jokes, he'll always politely smile and laugh, because that's just the kind of guy Brad is.
OK so this is one that’s probably not eligible. But I’m the one writing the list so I get to put whatever I want on it. I’ve come back to Magic recently and the new set released in October (Innistrad) is fantastic. It’s a little-known fact that Magic: The Gathering is like catnip for game designers. I get weirdly excited just thinking about it. It’s probably a gland thing. It’s such a well-designed turn-based strategy game that’s endlessly expandable, incredibly deep, and super addictive. That being said, Magic Online is expensive, has a terrible interface, an ugly UI, and playing a draft takes two-plus hours of your life. But even through all of this I find myself ponying up real money for digital representations of cardboard cards so that I can play against anonymous people on the Internet. But I have another reason for putting Magic: The Gathering on the list. I have a high degree of “nerd shame” and I feel that sharing my love for magical cardboard with you, dear reader, will somehow help me get over that. I don’t want to be ashamed that I love Magic and I don’t care if you judge me for it. I’ll have to ask my therapist if this is a good idea…
I’ve shot a lot of dudes in the face. And I’ve leveled up a lot. Like, a lot. When MW3 was prepping for launch I was not particularly stoked. I think there was a bit of CoD Fatigue that had set in. But as the hype machine grew I found myself remembering all of the fond face-shootings and leveling up that I had done in the past with my brother. After 4 years, Call of Duty PvP is still best-in-class for me and there are so many reasons why: 60 fps, solid netcode, fantastic matchmaking, tons of meaningful unlocks and customization, a frustration-easing killcam, and a great feeling of “winning” even when you’re getting the shit kicked out of you--that damnable XP bar just refuses to go in reverse! All of this adds up to the stickiest PvP experience on the market and I just can’t talk about my favorite games without mentioning it. As a dude who makes games it’s a definite bummer that the Call of Duty franchise can continue to flourish without its original creators, but until something better comes along I’ll most likely be heeding the Call of Duty next year. And the next year. And the next year.
I’m always wary about RPG-ish puzzle games but my AP Greg Rice insisted that Clash of Heroes wasn’t like the others. The standard fare usually includes taking a well-known puzzle game like Bejeweled and wrapping RPG elements around it. I think that’s a fine and safe way to go, but it doesn’t really push my buttons as a game designer. Clash of Heroes seriously bucks this trend. The Capy team created a tile-based puzzle game that feels super fresh, and they managed to weave the feel of warring fantasy units into the gameplay itself. Clash of Heroes grabbed me and would not let go until I had cracked the bones and sucked the marrow--no mean feat when there were tons of big budget AAA games vying for my attention.
I absolutely love the PvP of Gears of War. It’s fast-paced yet strategic, visceral, gorgeous, and I love the situational awareness that comes with the third-person perspective. I’m still bummed that even with three iterations Mr. B did not add a compelling metagame or customization component. I feel like this was the big lesson from Call of Duty 4 that continues to influence PvP gaming in a positive way. But the addition of dedicated servers created the first fair version of Gears, and the slickness of the matchmaking also brought it up to modern standards like Halo and Call of Duty. Gears still remains a punishing PvP game that isn’t very noob-friendly (shotgun? shotgun? shotgun?), but for fans of the series the third installment is just what the doctor ordered. Oh and on top of the solid PvP there’s a big coop campaign, a ridiculously engaging Horde 2.0 with tons of solid additions, and a new play-as-the-bad-guys Beast mode? How much free time do they have over at Epic anyway?
6. Dead Space 2
I was a huge fan of Dead Space when it was released in ’08--it’s an excellent mix of Resident Evil, Event Horizon, and Gears of War. Dead Space 2 was a fantastic sequel with more of what I wanted from the first game and then some. The addition of competitive multiplayer was pretty baffling, but can pretty easily be overlooked. I really loved that the Visceral team chose to ditch my most hated trope in gaming, the Silent Protagonist, in favor of letting Isaac be more of a character with his own motivations and dialog. The game is super creepy and atmospheric, and the audio tricks that the team pulls off really push the state-of-the-art. It’s also dope seeing an industry stalwart like EA really get behind its fresh IPs and push them to become franchises.
I haven’t dug deep into the latest Saints Row yet, but after playing the first several hours of the game it is absolutely on my list. The evolution of this series has been strange to observe from the outside, but it seems like Volition has really hit their stride with The Third. I guess their niche is complete and utter absurdity? That’s totally fine with me. My favorite aspect of the design of Saints Row is their constant “fun-forward” mentality. It really feels like they went out of their way to make sure that fun features were available early and often so that you’re having a great time right off the bat. I believe that games are much better when you can unchain the fun and let the player do what they want to do. Saints Row is the epitome of this ideology and, like Dark Souls, makes me super happy as a designer that the industry is refusing to be swallowed up by Hollywood-esque thrill ride experiences.
Bethesda games have usually been too broken for me, at least on a game mechanics level. I understand that’s not the point--the point is a MASSIVE world to explore with unparalleled depth across just about every axis that a video game can deliver. I resisted the hype building up to Skyrim’s launch, but I had a copy forced upon me on release day. After playing for two days I immediately Amazon Primed the shit out of my own copy and fell into a dark Nordic abyss. While the systems did eventually break down for me (umm… blacksmithing?) and I had to wrestle with the frustrating Favorites menu to play the caster that I wanted to play, it definitely felt like the least busted Bethesda game to date. And that is awesome. Plus it’s great to see such a hardcore, nerdy D&D simulation breakthrough to the mainstream and post some serious sales!
It’s probably not even eligible, being a free-to-play game that was released a while ago, but LoL has to be near the top of my list for grabbing me and not letting go for the first 6 months of 2011. The MOBA genre is a weird beast…it’s a genre born from mod makers that has a HUGE following throughout the world, and it’s pretty easy to see why. The combination of PvP, RTS-lite strategy, FPS-like teamwork, RPG-esque leveling, and a complete lack of multitasking combine to form an addictive game that sucks people in. LoL is, from what I can tell, a more streamlined and refined form of DotA and it planted some pretty deep hooks in me. It’s also a great example of Free To Play done right--it feels like the fine men and women at Riot are trying to provide actual value for your dollars as opposed to driving purchases through negative emotions. I hope that LoL becomes the gold standard for non-dirty Free To Play games as we move forward.
2. Portal 2
Is there anything else left to say about this game? It’s amazing. Erik Wolpaw is the best. The number of genuinely funny moments in Portal 2 is higher than any game I can remember. I love that Valve exists and I hope they pump out more original IPs like Portal in the future.
1. Dark Souls
I did not like Demon’s Souls. There were glimmers of brilliance in it but the experience was just too harsh. I wish I could remember what possessed me to give Dark Souls a shot, but hot damn I’m glad I did. The open world and the streamlined health potion system helped combat my frustration immensely, and while the game is insanely difficult and I would not recommend it to everyone, Dark Souls grabbed me in a way that no other title of 2011 did. After breaking through the hard outer crust of DARK, SEETHING HATRED from game designer-to-player, Dark Souls is an incredibly deep, satisfying experience that stands out amongst today’s often hand-holdy interactive movie type experiences. I think the design influence of Dark Souls will be felt for years to come as people experiment and tinker with its unique multiplayer features. I’m personally excited to see a hardcore title like this break out and I can’t wait to see what kind of crazy shit the good people at From Software have in store for me in the future.
Thanks for reading my ramblings about my favs from 2011. And thanks to Giant Bomb for all of the support this year with Double Fine’s launch of TRENCHED/IRON BRIGADE. It’s nice to know that people can still give a shit if you make a Game About Love.
P.S. Full disclosure: I’m pretty busy. Or at least I like to tell myself that as I continue playing Call of Duty or League of Legends while ignoring all of these other great games. Here’s my pile of shame for 2011: