Casey's Top 10 of 2011

Despite suffering from severe sequel-itis (only 2 games on this list aren't sequels or remakes of existing franchises), 2011 managed to produce some great games, and at least a few undisputed classics. Here are my Top 10 Games of 2011.

10. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Like most gamers, my expectations for Naughty Dog's follow up to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves flew about as high as a cargo plane quickly losing crates (and Drakes). Uncharted 2 was so exciting that even seeing the Dogs give talks about its development at GDC made me anxious to return home and play it through a second time. While Uncharted 3 doesn't forever change my expectations for cinematic adventure the way the Among Thieves did, it certainly meets those (extremely high) expectations by providing as many huge set-pieces, exotic locales, and "holy crap!" moments.

Uncharted 3 isn't without stumbles - there are unfortunate control tweaks, controller-smashing difficulty spikes, and a too-often feeling that the cinematic storytelling puts gameplay on the back burner. Lesser games would collapse under those problems, but Uncharted 3 somehow manages to keep me going, not only because of the outstanding action, but because the writing and casting combined creates a real connection to characters. I care about Drake and Chloe and Sully, want to see what happens to them, and would gladly go on any adventure with them, despite its flaws.

9. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

That I was going to play a Zelda game was a given. Not a given? That it would be so emotionally moving and so aesthetically gorgeous. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game I've played where, despite Link's iconic "silent protagonist" status, story and character were placed in a higher order of importance than the land of Hyrule. Instead of seeking to rescue Zelda directly, Skyward Sword instead has Link chasing after her, constantly one step behind. And the act two break, when Link finally comes face to face with her, was so sweet and sincere it wrestled a tear or two from my cynic's heart. A Zelda game!

Skyward Sword isn't all heart - it's got looks to match. Despite being on the Wii, Nintendo makes Skyward Sword visually arresting by using a pseudo cel-shaded look for its up close characters, while low-resolution textures for far away places and people made the lands I explored appear crafted from brush-strokes instead of polygons. Defied expectations don't fully serve Skyward Sword. Normally an open-world franchise, this Zelda game sometimes feels claustrophobic. And flying, which should feel free and exhilarating, feels like a chore meant to pad play-time. Thankfully, Nintendo knew exactly where to deliver what I wanted, as the dungeons are uniformly great, and occasionally surpass any in the series to come before. While I'm not sure Skyward Sword would crack a list of my Top 5 Zelda Games, it was easily good enough to be in my Top 10 of this year.

8. You Don't Know Jack

A franchise I never expected to see brought back from the Good Will bins of donated PC games, You Don't Know Jack returned this year with a sharp wit and brought welcome relief from playing Rock Band with my friends and relatives when the Xbox came out during family gatherings. Beyond proving a non-music game to play in a party setting, though, the series trademark combination of pop-culture and high-brow knowledge and balances it with some extremely careful and elegant game design. Maybe other people don't have the appreciation for getting 4 players into a game as seamlessly as YDKJ does, but I have some anecdotal evidence that drunken Midwesterners and Bostonians alike can get into a game with ease. And those episodes are the perfect length - not so short they feel insubstantial, not so long that I ever felt like I played for longer than I wanted.

The sharp wit and actually funny snark (a tone the internet has mostly run into the ground for me) meant that in most cases, I wanted to play for a while. You Don't Know Jack goes above and beyond in terms of whipping out inspired bits at times I least expect it - writing during the skippable tutorials and ramp-up to the gameplay are worth re-watching for laughs if not for knowledge, and mini-audio sketches play over the game's credits. That writing is what separates You Don't Know Jack from other attempts at porting Game Shows to consoles, and is what I expect will keep me playing it well into 2012.

7. Jetpack Joyride

It's pretty tough to imagine what's next for the endless side-scroller genre after playing Jetpack Joyride. Not content to perfect the process of moving as far to the right as fast as you can, Joyride also fills itself with dozens of missions and achievements for you to complete, costumes to buy, and power-ups that manage to make riding a jetpack feel dull by comparison.

Beyond the (extremely addictive) gameplay, Jetpack Joyride defines well executed microtransactions and post-release support on iOS. Don't feel like grinding out coins to get that top hat and monocle? Sink in a buck or two as a convenience charge and any damn thing in the store can be yours. Or you could just stick it out in-game and get that money, son. It's not forced down your throat, but there if you want it, and makes for a great middle ground for casual players and the hardcore. On top of that, developers Halfbrick continue to pump new power-ups into the game for free, including a flying robot dragon. If this list was based purely on bang-for-buck, Jetpack Joyride would top it, since I've spent as much time this year with this .99 cent release as most of these $60 titles. It's a buck! Go buy it!

6. Batman: Arkham City

It's hard to fault Batman: Arkham City for its intense focus on providing players with more of what they liked in 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum. Villains? We've got both returning enemies from Arkham Asylum, as well as Bat-foes new to the series. How about Arkham Island? Well, there's a great, big, highly improbably prison city for you to explore. Somehow, though, by focusing so hard on adding more Arkham City becomes less. The writing feels looser than the meticulously plotted and scripted Arkham Asylum, with dialog both out of place (Batman's characterization often feels irritated and crabby more than anything else) and troubling (the whole "Bitch" thing). And while the open world of Arkham City provides some fantastic scavenger hunt opportunities and the most fun traversal system since Spider-Man 2, the story sections get gradually less exciting and thoughtfully developed as you reach the conclusion.

These problems keep me from turning on the Game Of The Year Signal onto the clouds skyline of my heart, but they don't keep this from otherwise being the best damn Batman Simulator to date. The combat system is sharp as ever, the detective elements engaging, and the gadgets plentiful. Also, that traversal I was talking about? For a guy who can't fly, the fun had during Batman's swooping and gliding around the devastated Arkham City puts other flight mechanics in games to shame (I'm looking at you, Skyward Sword). If you want top-notch Batmannery, look no further.

5. Rayman: Origins

Rayman: Origins was the first game starring the titular limbless goof-ball that I've played. If they're all as brilliant as this one, I could not have been missing out more. Rayman: Origins feels like a platformer from another time, a game that demands the laser-like precision of an NES game and a difficulty curve that reaches such heights I felt like I needed a Sherpa. At the same time, Rayman: Origns couldn't have existed before now - the stunning animated visuals, lush backgrounds, and sometimes dozens of characters moving around a level use current generation technology to keep that experience hitch-less and fantastically smooth.

I don't want to underplay how important those visuals are, either. Each game world Rayman dives into in Origins is a fully designed feast of whimsical details - levels made of spicy and frozen foods, musical desert levels full of instruments for you to leap over - that manage to freshen up their otherwise somewhat standard settings. And in a year full of fantastic music, the score for Rayman: Origins sets exactly the right ukulele plucking, high-stepping, jumping around tone. All these elements combine to slap a smile on your face, then change that expression to a mixture of terror and joy normally reserved for photos taken going down the big drop at amusement park log-rides.

4. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

2011 probably won't be remembered as a year that was terribly kind to the Adventure game genre. Telltale Games, normally the flag-bearer for quality puzzle solving and episodic content, released the poorly reviewed Jurassic Park and the first abysmal episode of Law & Order: Legacies. Those failings aside, Adventure fans did have at least one shining jewel to grab onto - Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, the best adventure game since Maniac Mansion 2: Day of the Tentacle.

Ghost Trick is a distinctly Japanese game - one character exclusively dances, Michael Jackson style, in and out of pretty serious crime scenes, and many of the jokes are punctuated by a over dramatic shouting and prat-falling. But this works, more often than not, in Ghost Trick's favor. More jokes hit than miss, and, though exaggerated, the character designs are stunningly animated. I mean, have you seen this game? It's on a DS! All this over-the-top chicanery is balanced out by smaller character moments, a compelling mystery, and dozens of Rube Golberg machine based puzzles for your ghostly ass to posses. Besides, there's a talking Pomeranian dog ghost named Missile - what more do you people want?

3. Dead Space 2

Despite the series having a sequel in Drake's Deception, Dead Space 2 is the game that most felt like the successor to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves' new standard in action adventure. I was nervous about bringing back Dead Space's silent, stomping Isaac Clarke for another go-around, but from the first, insanely gorey, butt-clenching sequence Dead Space 2 lets you know that things are going to be bigger and crazier than the last time. And while those action sequences go to insane extremes - at one point, you actually get SHOT THROUGH SPACE - Dead Space 2 never loses sight of the far scarier psychological horrors. [SPOILERS] Having the story's winding plot eventually turn towards a return to the setting of the first game was a master stroke in messing with my head. [END SPOILERS]

Like the first Dead Space, Dead Space 2 doesn't really do anything new. Taking a dash of Resident Evil 4, sprinkling in some BioShock/System Shock, and a then whole lot of Aliens, EA's Visceral Games combines these elements so well, so deftly, that it doesn't just avoid feeling derivative, it somehow feels new. And if we're all being honest, more exciting than anything out of any of those inspiritations in years.

2. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Confession time: I haven't actually finished Edler Scrolls V: Skyrim. I'm not crazy about putting games I haven't finished on this list, but I ask you - how the hell do you finish Skyrim? 20 Hours into it and I've barely scratched the surface of the main quest line, and feel like my character is still pretty low level in terms of his progress towards being the crazy Dragonborn warrior of legend he's meant to be. So instead of rattling on about how beautiful the land of Skyrim is, how richly populated it is with people, quests, and foes, Iet me list some things I have done that are NOT part of the story:

Chased a ghostly rider through a field until I stumbled upon a den of Orc raiders that I spent 2 hours fighting off. Picked flowers, so many god damn flowers. Helped a talking dog kill a bunch of vampires. Found an old woman in the middle of the woods, who seemed a little suspicious, and turned out to be extremely suspicious. Explored underwater dungeons, lakes and shipwrecks. Helped a werewolf find his freedom at the behest of a Ghost Stag. And in probably the best accidental moment in gaming, I unintentionally dropped my weapon, causing me to punch a dragon in the face... and stun him. Skyrim is amazing.

1. Portal 2

No one here would argue that the original Portal is anything other than a stone-cold classic, a game to be placed in museums and on "Greatest Games of All Time" lists. That's great, because I love Portal, but maybe a shame, because in almost every way Portal 2 is better.

The puzzles are richer, adding more variables to the previous formula of cubes and buttons. Portal 2's locations are shocking in their variation - from crumbling test chambers to underground bunkers, giving me the opportunity to use the portal gun in a slightly more open environment, the way I'd been imagining since first playing with it. And where Portal gave us a new, fascinating, hilarious character in GLaDOS, Portal 2 adds two more in Wheatley and Cave Johnson. But while adding more semi-disembodied voices could just provide some comic relief, all three of these characters get a rich story arc that makes sense, and occasionally touches. This is all before even broaching the topic of the amazing co-operative multiplayer mode.

The absolute height of level design, game mechanics, writing, voice-acting... heck, the height of near everything a game could be, Portal 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and easily my favorite game of 2011.

-Casey-

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