The year 2011 was pretty damn weird for a lot of reasons. Some personal, some not so much. But it sure wasn't lacking for a large assortment of games that were entertaining, surprising, and in some cases, supremely disappointing. I also spent an inordinate amount of my gaming time this year with the 3DS, which I covered in a previous blog post. Now it's time to turn my focus on what the rest of the year had to offer. Let the games begin!
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU.
(Sadly mandatory disclaimer: These awards are my opinions and solely my opinions. If you don't agree with any or all of them, then that's your problem.)
Biggest Disappointment: Publisher Stupidity
Jesus Christ. Poor and inexplicable decision making abounded this year. Where do I even start? The PR disaster that was Capcom's cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3, in addition to releasing two versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in the same year, along with a barely justifiable (if that) remake of Dead Rising 2? Electronic Arts and their apparent complete lack of interest in providing both Shadows of the Damned and Alice: Madness Returns, two major titles in their Partners program, with any form of serious marketing muscle and leaving them to die? Sony completely dropping the ball during the PSN hacking misadventure? Nintendo's steadfast refusal to release three Wii titles in North America that could have otherwise done wonders for the console's flagging North American release schedule? (To be fair, Nintendo does get something of a pass on this, as they are caving and releasing one of these titles in North America next April in a limited capacity. But still.)
Once again, Jesus Christ. There was a period of time this past year where it seemed major publishers were lining up to trip all over themselves in embarrassing fashion. It was just painful to watch, and I hope that these companies all smarten up next year.
Worst(?) Game of the Year: Duke Nukem Forever
Normally, this is an award I would be handing out without a question mark attached. After all, it's not often difficult to pick a game for a category like this, assuming that one plays enough games over the course of the year. That being said, I'm modifying the category this year to lay out my thoughts on a game that I didn't necessarily feel was the "worst." On the contrary, Duke Nukem Forever is far from the worst game released this year. As archaic as some aspects of its gameplay are and as stupidly crass and unfunny as the attempts at humor can be, that it works as well as it does is something of a marvel in and of itself. It's difficult for me to really say that this game is truly a terrible game because, quite frankly, my expectations were set so low that I was pleasantly surprised by the end result.
That's not to say that Duke Nukem Forever is a good game. Frankly, I have a hard time quantifying its level of quality because after fourteen years (I was in high school when this game started development), any scale that I might have been able to measure the game by has been shot. It is, if nothing else, a museum piece, and a deserving one at that. Duke Nukem Forever is a one of a kind game in one of the worst ways possible; the end result of a protracted time-and-money-sink of a development cycle. Students of game design everywhere, no matter what aspect of the development field they enter, should study this game as a prime example of what not to do. And yet, I can't blame anyone that was curious enough to spend $60 to see the end result because while it's a mess, it is a unique mess of the highest order.
Most Disappointing Game: Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II already received this same award from the Giant Bomb staff, of course. But before I go on, I should note that of the games to which I'm handing out these awards, Dragon Age II is the only one I haven't played in any capacity. And while some may cry foul about that, I don't feel any need to have played a minute of the game to make this conclusion justifiable. I greatly enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins. It's easily one of my favorite games of this generation. It's only natural that I was looking for more of the same old school feel in the sequel. But from almost the very first moment that news of the game was released, the disappointment in my mind was palpable.
One of the things I like the most about Origins is, quite simply, the origins and the multiple playable races. While the core of the experience is largely the same no matter what origin the player selects, each origin added its own twist on the story to make them feel unique. My first run through the game, I was a just human noble driven by revenge. In my second, a city elf that hated humans and played the race card at every opportunity. The game was built in a fashion that allowed a fair degree of role-playing despite the inherently rigid nature of a video game in comparison to its pen and paper brethren. And while the story wasn't perfect (I found Duncan to be an asshole and a certain plot twist toward the end unnecessary, at best), I felt enough freedom within its scope to make it my own.
But no, not with Dragon Age II. From the moment that it was announced that the player was locked into the guise of a human character named Hawke, alarm bells sounded in my head, and those bells grew louder and louder as more and more news about the game was revealed. And when it was released, I held off on the game's purchase, hoping to hear reviews that might set my fears at ease. That criticism started pouring in from all corners left me cold, and colder still as I spoiled myself on details of the game's narrative and characters. By this point the alarm bells, had become an unbearable klaxon. I feel nothing but disappointment for the direction that Dragon Age II took; one can blame the truncated development cycle and other behind-the-scenes changes, but the end result is still the same. A game that I simply have no desire to play despite how much I enjoyed the original.
Worst Bugs: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I understand that, at this point, Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games are expected to ship in a buggy state, but it saddens me how many people give them a pass for this. And look, I'm well aware that not every bug is going to get fixed prior to release. I work in software quality assurance. My job is to find bugs in software so that they can get fixed before they have a chance to be encountered by a consumer. Sometimes, they're not considered serious enough to block release and they'll be targeted for a patch or update post-launch. That's just the way it works. But there is a line that should always be drawn. That line that separates "acceptable" from "holy fuck, this thing is busted." Skyrim does not fall into the former category. It shouldn't. It is a broken, buggy game that Bethesda temporarily made even worse in their first attempt at fixing it. Its save file management system is atrocious, with file sizes ballooning each and every time the game is saved.
It's not a well-coded game, is what I am saying. Also, I bought the PS3 version, which was a dumbass move on my part. How the hell does anyone, and I mean anyone manage to justify the glaring issues that plague that version? Does Bethesda do completion testing of each platform version of their games? Did it never come up that the longer you play, the greater a risk you encounter that things are going to become unbearably slow? Did they know about the issue and simply not care? I don't know what's worse. Bethesda's coding or their QA. Either way, it's soured my experience on Skyrim significantly, and considering how much I enjoyed the Companions storyline, that's just disappointing and terrible.
Weirdest Bug: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
And now for the lighter side of buggery.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a fine game by all accounts, but for all of the things it offers, I had to create this award for it, if nothing else. There was a moment in the game's early hours where, as I was sneaking through a facility, I came across a door at the end of a narrow corridor. As I opened it, someone on the other side noticed me. I did what I felt was the sensible thing and backed away, allowing the door to close. I then attempted to sidle myself along the wall in preparation for what was to come, when something I was totally unprepared for happened.
Adam Jensen had found the void. Or more specifically, he found a wall that was completely lacking in hit detection and passed through it into a sea of terrifying nothingness. I'm pretty sure that he didn't ask for this, and it left me completely weirded out. Not even the insane bugginess of Skyrim (a game in which bugs are sadly expected) could match this bizarre moment in my time with Human Revolution.
Best New Character: Zimos
Take your standard, stereotypical pimp. Now increase his lust for hos by roughly twenty-fold, add in a tracheotomy, a pimp cane with a built in voice box/autotuner, and an immaculate business sense, and you have Zimos, who from the very first moment I met him became one of the many, many zany gears that cause Saints Row: The Third to run with such ludicrous, balls-out insanity. Even the simple, gimmicky act of autotuning his every line of dialogue elevates him into the higher echelon of wonderful weirdness that permeates every aspect of the game. He is simply a joy to be with any time he's on screen, whether it be as a partner in a side mission, calling him for help as a homie, pulling a pony cart, or allowing him to drug you up and put you through one the game's many hilarious story missions stark naked, armed to the teeth, and high as the moon.
Best Story: Yakuza 4
Yakuza 4 is a tale of four very different characters. There's a charismatic loan shark, a death row convict, a crooked cop, and the traditional series protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, all taking center stage in turn against the backdrop of a conspiracy that spans decades. The way that their individual tales wrap together as the plot unfolds is something to be seen. It's a blessing that the game includes recaps of the three previous titles, as that background information goes a long way in enjoying the stories of these characters. It may not have the epic grandeur of Skyrim or the lunacy of Shadows of the Damned, but its relatively down to earth tale of mystery, betrayal, and conspiracy, punctuated with lighter moments and asides, is one of the best of the past year.
Best Graphics: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a game that sadly fell under the radar for a lot of folks, but if there is one thing that needs to be said about it, it's that this game is artistically gorgeous. Its use of color and shading is unlike any other game I've seen this year, with wonderful level and character designs that bring, of all things, a religious text to life in a truly remarkable fashion. If nothing else, El Shaddai should be played in order to just be seen. There are very few games from this past year that contain such a unique and wonderful style.
Best Original Soundtrack: Tie (Nobunaga's Ambition: Iron Triangle/BlazBlue: Continuum Shift II)
I know what you're all thinking. "Wait, What?!" Or at least something to that effect.
Though Iron Triangle was released in North America back in 2009, I got around to playing the game quite a bit earlier this year. And while its soundtrack may not be memorable for some, there are tracks that, quite simply, stuck with me due to the moods that they evoke and the point my life was at when I played the game. One such track in particular, though very short, has stuck with me more than any other video game song I've heard all year:
To me, this track evokes a sadness; one that could be said to encompass the troubled era in which the game is set, and in which also embodies the fate of Nobunaga Oda himself, who despite his ambition was never able to attain the unification that he sought.
Now, as for the other game, technically, the majority of the music found in Continuum Shift II comes from earlier releases, but these are my awards, and if I can give one to a PS2 era strategy game, I can give one to CSII as well. More specifically, the award goes to the work of Daisuke Ishiwatari, whose tracks are among the very best in the genre. And he doesn't just stop at character themes. He creates unique themes for specific rival match-ups. Some of his songs have lyrical accompaniment, which is an absolute rarity in fighting games. As an example, here's my favorite track from the game:
It's a shame that my preferred Youtube video of this song seems to have vanished, as the description included fully translated lyrics, which fit the character of Mu-12 quite well, all things considered.
Best Licensed Soundtrack: Saints Row: The Third
*ALARM SOUNDS* THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE END OF SAINTS ROW: THE THIRD. DO NOT READ IF YOU DON'T WANT THE ENDING SPOILED IN ANY CAPACITY. FAILURE TO IGNORE THIS WARNING WILL NOT EARN YOU MY SYMPATHY.
This award could easily double for the "Best Use of Licensed Music." While open world crime games have often been content with including a vast array of licensed music to provide flavor through a variety of radio stations, Saints Row: The Third goes above and beyond in what it plays and when. Much has been said about the use of Kanye West's "Power," which is indeed an effective moment. But for me, it can't match a pair of songs that appear later in the game. Joe Esposito's "You're the Best," and Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero."
In any other game of this genre, both of these tracks would be included on the kitche '80s radio station for nothing more than the sake of ironic humor. You know, "Oh, the eighties and their music. What were we thinking back then?" And for a large part of the game, that's what these songs are as well. Silly radio play.
And then suddenly, in Murderbrawl XXXI, your homie Angel de la Muerte is hurting. Killbane's thugs are coming in to finish him off. And then you bust out a fucking chainsaw, slaughtering the thugs with ease as "You're the Best" suddenly starts playing. Oh, fuck yes. Then you jump in the ring to take on Killbane himself. Come on, Killbane. Bring it. I'm the best around.
But the best, most deliriously wonderful use of licensed music doesn't come until the final story mission of the game. Chaos is raging throughout the city. You've fought throuh three waves of STAG troops and Luchadors. And then you hear that Killbane is about to make his escape, while separately, STAG is planning to kill Shaundi and Viola. Stop Killbane or save your friends. You can only follow one path.
And then Holding Out for a Hero starts playing.
The emotional rush of this moment was the most intense I had felt during the entire course of the game. Every goddamn silly moment, every insane, beautiful, whimsical minute of joy, of kicking ass alongside a cast of crazies, had come down to this moment. And for a brief few seconds, I was awed, unable to decide what to do. And then the music got to me, and I bolted for Killbane as fast as I could, intent on giving him the beating of a lifetime. Like Angel said, my friends would understand. Everything's going nuts, everyone is trying to kill me, and here I am, running, yes, RUNNING, through town to teach that piece of shit who the boss really is, and it sure as hell ain't Tony Danza.
Best Wii Game That Isn't Skyward Sword: Fortune Street
It was slim pickings on the Wii this year, and with Xenoblade Chronicles and Rhythm Heaven Fever waiting in the wings until next year, very little of true note was released for it. Nintendo pretty much placed their Wii eggs in the basket labeled Legend of Zelda and called it a year. But I actually haven't played Skyward Sword yet. I have played Fortune Street, though. It seriously is a fun game, and as anyone that saw the amazing TNT in which Ryan, Patrick, Jeff and Vinny duked it out over the sad sack that is District A could see, it gets pretty cutthroat. It's an odd thing for a virtual board game to be as fun as Fortune Street is, but the game has that great mix of goofy charm from the Mario and Dragon Quest franchises to back it up alongside the intricacies of a stock market.
Also, slime racing!
Best Game of 2011: Saints Row: The Third
It couldn't be anything else. From start to finish, Saints Row: The Third is the most fun I have had playing any game all year. It's as if the developers set out to make a game that emphasizes fun more than anything else. Beyond the glorious insanity and honest to god hilarity that permeates throughout, it's actually fun to play. The cars control well, the gunplay feels great, the melee is great, I can do a Dukes of Hazzard leap into cars, I can punch people in the dick, I can fly a hoverbike around town, go up in the air as high as possible, jump off, hit the ground without opening my parachute, and live because I purchased falling damage invincibility. Saints Row: The Third not only provides the tools to have a good time, the tools are all fun to use, the leveling system is great, and the missions. There can never be enough said about how sublime the missions in this game truly are.
Seriously, play this game. Just play it. It's a thing of beauty.