My 25 Best Games of 2011
What makes a game worthy of "Game of the Year"? Is it how much time you can sink into the game? Does the game have to make you think beyond what the game itself is? Does it need to be frustratingly difficult but seriously rewarding when you overcome it? Does it just need to be functional and something you like? Is it quirk or spectacle or pretentiousness?
There's no right or wrong answer. There's only the opinion of the one making the judgment. That judgment will not be agreed upon by everyone, but it doesn't need to be. If anything, making this list opens your eyes to realize that this was a phenomenal year to be a gamer. There were so many quality games (especially in the last half of the year) that it will be difficult for anyone to honestly make a 100% perfect list of the best games to come out this year.
As with all my yearly lists, this cannot be a comprehensive list. I don't own a PS3, so I don't have PS3 games on here. If I did, I'm sure Uncharted 2 or LittleBigPlanet2 or something else might show up. They don't. I'm sorry. These are the 25 games that I personally played this year which made me stand up and applaud.
I cannot do it. I cannot find the words that need to fill this space in order to explain and justify to anyone why Bastion is my Game of the Year. I have typed at least twenty different paragraphs over the last few weeks trying to explain it, and every time I do, I find that there is way too much to say. While every other game I played this year that appears on this list was fun and engrossing and a prime example of what good game development should be, Bastion was the one game that actually latched into me beyond just being a fantastic and well-made game. Beneath all the cool little gimmicks of a narrator explaining every move you make like he's unfolding a story at a campfire and how the world literally forms at the base of your feet with every step, there's a great fiction and incredible levels of allegory and philosophy that kept me thinking about the game and what it is saying long after the end credits. With every arrow you fire and every swing of your hammer (if those are the weapons you choose, mind you), the narrator Rucks is laying down the tragedy of this world and its denizens. By the time you reach the choice you need to make at the end, you have been run through an emotional tour-de-force, and the decision you must make is heavy-handed either way. Yet again, here's another paragraph trying to explain my fascination with this game. I don't care if people think it's not the right choice. I don't care if they disagree. This is my list, and this is my Game of the Year.
|2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim|
Skyrim is no pushover, not by any stretch of imagination in either you or me. This will likely be the Game of the Year choice for millions. That's great, because the game is well-deserving of it. Why didn't I put it in that slot? Despite the 50+ hours I've already put into the game, the level of depth that has been added on top of the already-familiar Elder Scrolls formula, the amazing depth of fiction... Despite all of that, Skyrim was just another open-world RPG to me. It's a fan-fucking-tastic open-world RPG, and it happens to be the only entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise that I actually like (flame-shield ON). It's a technical marvel, a stroke of genius on the part of Bethesda. However, after a couple weeks, it was just "the next Elder Scrolls" game, and there was at least one game I could think of that went above and beyond that call.
|3. Dark Souls|
Dark Souls is inaccessible, exploitable, has frame rate issues in areas with heavy amounts of water, and promotes griefing in its online gameplay. Did you ever think you would hear those words before someone says "...and it's easily one of the best games this year because of almost all of it"? Sure, there's an incredibly deep level of character customization available to you and at least a hundred different things you won't get done in your first playthrough because you didn't know about it. However, that's kind of the brilliance of Dark Souls: it allows for players to go into a New Game Plus and still feel like it's a fresh and new game, even by the time you've gone through it four times already.
|4. League of Legends|
"This game came out in 2009". You're right. It did. However, Dominion DID launch in 2011, and that makes me feel justified in adding it to my list. Out of all the games I spent time with this year, League of Legends took the vast majority of it...and more money that I'd like to admit maybe. The new Dominion mode for LoL took the game from being a "DOTA clone" into the MOBA classifier that Riot helped invent, and it is fast-paced fun all-around. It's not just about pushing lanes anymore, and innovations in the genre like this are exactly why Riot is at the top of the MOBA world. Add in all the crazy and exciting champs that were released as well as the introduction of Season Two (with all its game-changing enhancements), and League of Legends continues to prove why free-to-play games are worthwhile endeavors.
|5. Dead Space 2|
I am unapologetic in my love for all things blood and gore. Dead Space 2 fulfilled that need multiple times over in just one playthrough, so it's probably telling that I did three playthroughs before I finally set it down to play other games coming out this year. The continued adventures of Isaac are an obsession of mine, and Dead Space 2 definitely ups the ante in both story and presentation. It was merely the start to a great year from EA.
|6. Portal 2|
Where Portal offered up a complex puzzle game rooted in physics with a minimalist story and one of the most interesting new characters in gaming in the past two decades, Portal 2 expands into an actual story with reason and purpose. It's still that physics-based puzzle game we all know and love, but there's more heart to it this time around. You don't just feel bad for Glados, the determined robot that wanted you dead in the first game. You want to see her succeed in her mission. The writing is even more biting and witty than the first, but the multitude of characters we meet make this world feel alive and meaningful rather than just "something that exists".
|7. Saints Row: The Third|
Absolute, utter, insane ridiculousness does not necessarily guarantee that a game like Saints Row The Third will see the top ten of a "Best of 2011" list. Even a well-designed game with good gameplay mechanics and a ton of shit to do does not necessarily do it for me. The moment where it clicked that this game was goddamn genius was while listening to one of the radio stations. No, it's not the moment when you and Pierce sing Sublime's "What I Got" in its entirety while driving to a location. It's the moment that I heard a commercial on a radio station for a modern day text adventure game where one person states "...but how does the game look in HD" and the reply was "the Helvetica font is sharp...as...fuck" that I realized this game was on a completely different level. The writing, the characters, the environment, the game design - everything about this game is as sharp looking as its boxart.
|8. Shadows of the Damned|
Ludicrous, loud, dirty, vulgar, juvenile, hilarious, disgusting, icky... This is Shadows of the Damned. Suda51 doesn't shy away from the words "over-the-top" here. The mixture of Japanese weirdness guaranteed that I'd fall in love with the game, and despite how short the story is or how wonky it feels to aim your gun at times, I still can't think of any game that presented me with more fun and laughs combined over the course of the year.
|9. Alice: Madness Returns|
Before playing Alice: Madness Returns, I had to ask myself repeatedly "can I give this game a fair judgment?". Back when I was reviewing games, I ended up becoming something of a pen pal with American McGee about multiple topics, one of which was the hope for a sequel to his original PC-only game Alice. He talked about the changing climate of games and whether he'd be able to make the game he wanted. By the time we lost contact, he was in the middle of finding out that the movie for Alice was going to be lingering in development and his OZ project was getting the axe. Now, having played the sequel, I feel like American got to make exactly the game he wanted to without compromising very much at all. The game oozes with style and dread, but it's the way that Alice: Madness Returns really digs into the ideas of the human psyche and how far we will go to push memories out of our mind that really drives Madness Returns into my top ten list. Ya done good, American. Ya done real good.
|10. L.A. Noire|
People got upset over the controversy of Team Bondi, which may have hurt the reputation of this game in some ways. However, the game that Team Bondi developed and Rockstar published was an interesting mixture of adventure game, puzzle game, and action game that the mainstream could attach itself to. The most impressive piece of L.A. Noire, however, lies in its facial animation. The actors of the game were capable of giving what felt like REAL performances in a game, then translate those so seamlessly into an interactive experience. Unfortunately, the game pretty much only holds up for one playthrough, and the DLC was a little hit-and-miss. Still, it was an undeniable powerhouse in 2011.
|11. Battlefield 3|
There are shooters, and then there is Battlefield. It's a first-person shooter that continually deserves to be in a class of its own. The single player campaign was weak, but you come to the franchise for the multiplayer. That seems like a discredit to the game being one of the best of the year, but when a company creates such an undeniably addictive mix of chaos and consistently good shooting in a game, there's literally no way you can keep it off a list like this.
|12. Iron Brigade|
2011 might as well have been called "the year where tower defense was reinvented a million times over". The best of those reinventions, however, was easily Iron Brigade (formerly Trenched). Double Fine's risky little love child trio this year (Stacking, this game, and Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster) proved to be quite fruitful, but Iron Brigade's unique mixture of loot-driven vanity and hyper-fun multiplayer action definitely makes it one of the year's best releases.
|13. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile|
If you were to tell me that I'd dump close to 40 hours into this game over the course of the year and STILL not see all the content it offers, I'd call you a goddamn liar. Like Dark Souls, this game can become bone-crushingly difficult at the blink of an eye, and it will definitely test your "twitch" skill pretty well. The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile is another great instance of how downloadable titles are slowly becoming the new standard of game development in my eyes.
|14. Gears of War 3|
As someone who has never been a huge fan of the franchise, Gears 3 was much like Skyrim for me: it did all the things I wanted the franchise to do in order to grab me and take me for a ride. The controls don't feel nearly as clunky as its previous two installments. The overhaul to Horde mode, the addition of Beast mode, enough online infrastructure to keep people playing for years to come, a reworked community setup... All in all, Gears 3 seemed like the best way to send off the trilogy with a huge bang.
|15. From Dust|
This was easily the most unique game that I played in 2011, and despite being incapable of actually describing what the hell this game is to anyone else, people were always interested in watching me play it. PEOPLE WANTED TO WATCH ME TRANSFER SAND FROM ONE SPOT TO A DIFFERENT SPOT! When a game can capture people like that, you know that it is something special and on a completely different level than the rest of the industry. That's how beautiful and original the game genuinely is, and it's sad that the game had to deal with publisher Ubisoft screwing with the PC audience by making false claims about their DRM setup.
|16. Galaga Legions DX|
When Pac-Man DX came out, there was a crazy simplicity but undeniable level of strategy involved in playing the game. I consistently tried to get within the top 100 highest scores on one of the leaderboards for about two months after the game came out. Galaga Legions DX took that same philosophy and applied it to what was a decent-but-flawed formula from Galaga Legions. Adding in a ton of different visual elements and ramping up the insanity that occurred on-screen, Galaga Legions DX was just what you want it to be: as simple or as difficult as you want to make it, depending on whether you care to chase leaderboard scores or not.
|17. Batman: Arkham City|
Arkham City had some fever-pitch hype surrounding it, thanks mainly to the surprise that was Arkham Asylum. While this installment improved in a lot of areas, those improvements could also be a bit cumbersome in big doses. Arkham City's large world is littered with collectibles...maybe TOO MANY, but they are there for the taking. The main story is good...maybe not GREAT like its predecessor, but the trade-off is a handful of just-as-good side missions. It feels like the quality of Asylum is there, but it's spread out a bit too much and feels overwhelming before you know it. That doesn't mean it is bad by any stretch of the imagination, as the combat system has been streamlined even further and the treatment of the source inspiration is still handled very well.
|18. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet|
I love me some Metroid-vania games, and Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet was a game that oozed both style and gameplay pedigree. Many times, I had to ask myself if I actually liked the game or just the visual style. However, when I consider how much time I put into the Lantern Run (which I still haven't gotten that goddamn achievement on), I know that it was definitely the gameplay. It wasn't just the great co-op multiplayer, though. The single player campaign had a very minimal approach to the story and focused heavily on the actual gameplay. The controls felt incredibly tactile, and the only downside was that the single player itself was a bit on the short side. Still, for $15, it was well worth every penny.
|19. Gatling Gears|
Gatling Gears was a decent surprise in the "bullet-hell" arena this year. While it didn't match the intensity of something like Jamestown necessarily, it had a great visual aesthetic and just happened to be a cheap downloadable title. When you kick the difficulty up, the game can almost become crippling, but getting past a level at that point felt absolutely euphoric. The controls were also very sharp, even if the camera could float a bit on the dodgy side every now and then.
|20. Deus Ex: Human Revolution|
Thankfully, we can say the phrase "Human Revolution was not like Invisible War". In all honesty, I think that's all that genuinely needs to be said here. What, you need more? Well, the game does a lot to offer a free-form style of gameplay to the player - you can be a stealthy assassin, run in and use cover to blast away enemies, or just avoid combat altogether. That's not where the game shines, though. The best parts lie in how deep the fiction goes, as there are literally hundreds of sources within the world to learn more about what is going on, the backgrounds of characters and situations, and overall, these things make Deus Ex: Human Revolution feel like more than just the cheap cash-in that people were expecting before its release.
On the opposite end of Shadows of the Damned and Suda51's Grasshopper Manufacture, you have Bulletstorm and People Can Fly. This game was lewd, crude, over-the-top in the most over-the-top way imaginable, and an absolute blast to play through. Despite being a bit heavy on the "bro-tastic" approach to character and story, it was absolutely unapologetic in everything it did. Mixed into that crass and bold design, you'll find a game that is immense amounts of fun to play.
|22. Dungeon Siege III|
Dungeon Siege III received a lot of flak from critics and fans who felt the game was watered down from what its predecessors were. Personally, I felt that Dungeon Siege III was enjoyable. The story was well-written, the different characters had their own unique playstyles that felt really good, and the world you explored was well-designed for a pseudo-dungeon-crawler. The linear world was a bit of a drawback, but it was far from a fault. The only true issue I had with the game was the weird setup for multiplayer co-op. Other than that, it was a perfectly fine game that I sunk many hours into.
|23. Mortal Kombat|
The resurgence of 2D-planed fighting games helped revitalize Mortal Kombat from what felt like a very slow and plodding 3D fighter death. After a ton of lackluster titles, seeing Scorpion and Sub-Zero return to their former glory was a breath of fresh air. You didn't have to be a pro to enjoy Mortal Kombat, so both beginner button-mashers and guys who know terms like "OTG" or "combo links" or "cancel" could get a solid amount of enjoyment from the title. Add in the fact that it brings the joyous celebration of blood and gore back to the forefront, and you can't help but have this game in your collection. So why is it so low on the list? Well, to be honest, I only played it for two weeks before I got a tad bit tired of playing it. Then again, it's tough to continue playing something when you keep getting your ass kicked in it.
|24. Assassin's Creed: Revelations|
If you are looking for more Assassin's Creed, then Revelations has got you covered. Aside from how much the graphics continue to improve on this old of an engine (seriously, the clothing designs are AMAZING), the game adds on to all of the existing stuff we've come to know in the last two entries. The beginning is still a slow burn like Brotherhood, the online multiplayer has been drastically improved, and the close-out of Ezio's story will leave you with more questions than answers. All of this seems like the proper way to say "requiesce in pace" to Ezio's journeys in the Assassin's Creed franchise.
|25. Rock of Ages|
Last but not least, there's Rock of Ages, the quirky little game from the creators of Zeno Clash. Why is this on the list? WHY SHOULDN'T IT BE?! Despite the fact that it's a pretty good game (single player or against someone else), there's a great sense of absurdist humor mixed with some great referential material that will pull a chuckle out of any long-time gamer. Moreover, Rock of Ages helps to further prove the mantra that games weren't always about shooting stuff and jumping on platforms: sometimes, they were just weird and fun.