By dankempster 2 Comments
We've finally come to the end of the road. On the last day of the year, I bring you the last part of My End of 2011 Awards. This is the spot reserved for the biggest movers - the titles that left the most profound impact on me over the course of the year, and the gaming experiences that I will forever associate with 2011. Before we get stuck into the Top Ten proper, though, I'd like to acknowledge some of the games that didn't make this list.
Some Honourable Mentions
As you've probably guessed, games were only eligible for award-winning this year if I completed them and they ended up on my 'Games I Have Played In 2011' list. That's the best way for me to organise these things, but at the same time it means that some games don't get the acknowledgement they deserve at the end of the year. This year there were a few titles in particular that I didn't finish, but really stuck in my mind. This Honourable Mentions section is intended to provide those games with that acknowledgement, in their own mini-award ceremony.
- Best Multiplayer Experience - Party Time with Winnie The Pooh - Party Time with Winnie the Pooh is the purest form of shovelware. It lifts the formula of other popular mini-game collections (most notably the Mario Party series), dresses it down with new themes and characters, and still ends up noticeably worse than the game it's ripping off. And yet, playing it with friends was undoubtedly the most competitive multiplayer fun I had this year. I think it's because the friends I have are so awesome, and we found so much in it to laugh at, that we were able to draw so much fun out of what is a pretty terrible game. Whenever I'm round their house now, it's customary for us to play at least one round of Party Time with Winnie the Pooh, and hilarity always ensues.
- Game I Tried in 2011 and Need to Buy in 2012 - Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing - Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing has no business being as fun as it is. And yet, against all odds, it's perhaps the most fun I've had with a kart-racing game since Crash Team Racing on the original PlayStation. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with it at a friend's house earlier this year, and that was more than enough time to make up my mind about it - I need to play this game.
- Best Sports Games - Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 and International Cricket 2010 - I don't play a lot of sports games these days, mainly because I tend to spend so much of my gaming time trying to push through story-driven titles, but these were without a doubt my favourite sports games that I played in the last twelve months. Pro Evo 2011 hooked me in a way that the last few iterations of the franchise didn't manage to, sucking me back into Master League where I'm sure I'm destined to waste several more hours in 2012. International Cricket 2010 covers similar ground, restoring my faith in Codemasters' cricket games by making some meaningful new tweaks to the gameplay formula.
- Game I Simultaneously Spent Too Much Time With, and Not Enough Time With - The Sims 3 - I won't go into huge detail about why I had so much fun with The Sims 3 this year, as I've already covered that in this blog. All I know is, despite spending nearly thirty hours with it, I've barely scratched the surface of what it can offer me. I'm sure I'll return to it in earnest in 2012, and maybe even invest in a couple of the more meaningful DLC packs to expand my Sims experience.
- Game I Haven't Finished Yet, but Will Probably Clean Up in My End of 2012 Awards - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES - In a lot of ways, I feel bad that Persona 3 didn't feature in this year's awards. But despite sinking well over fifty hours into it at this point, I still have a feeling that I'm not even halfway. Nonetheless, I'm really enjoying it, and hope to wrap it up early in the New Year, where it will be eligible for next year's End of Year Awards.
- Lifetime Award for Continued Services to This Blog - Final Fantasy VII - It's been almost two years now since I began 'Enduring Final Fantasy VII', my serial blog looking at Square's most popular game with a more objective eye. Since then I've written eighteen episodes, covering the whole of the first disc. For that alone, FFVII deserves some recognition in these awards. But this award also acknowledges that the game is going to be a fixture in my Now Playing list for a long time still to come, as I continue to push my way through it and document my adventures in blog form in 2012.
The Ten Games That Made My 2011
This is what the last four days have been leading up to - the ten defining games of this year for me. When I look back on 2011 in years to come, these will be the titles that I'll remember fondly.
Some quick disclaimers before this list gets underway. For a start, I should probably disclose that I only played a measly four games released in 2011 - Dead Space 2, Pokémon White, Portal 2, and L.A. Noire. Given that including only these four titles would make for a pretty boring culmination to these awards, I've instead opted to make everything I've played since January 1st eligible for this final Top Ten list. That's why you'll be seeing some non-2011 releases on it. Second, I'm dead set against the notion of organising these lists into any kind of hierarchy, purely because so many of the games I put on these lists are often interchangeable with one another. A result of this, these games are not in a ranked order. For the sake of simplicity and organisation, I've listed them in alphabetical order. With those two points made and out of the way, let's take a look at the ten games that made my 2011.
Assassin's Creed II
(Ubisoft Montréal - X360 - 2009)
When I played the first Assassin's Creed last year, it left me with some very divisive feelings. On one hand, I loved the aesthetics, the alternate-historical narrative set in an era criminally neglected by video games, the parkour-style navigation, and the thrill of each DNA sequence culminating in a unique and tense assassination sequence. On the other hand though, the game suffered from its highly repetitive incidental tasks, and an open world that didn't really have a lot to do in it. Assassin's Creed II not only addresses these issues, it also polishes up all the good parts of its predecessor to create something truly great. Gone is the repetitive incidental information gathering, replaced with uniquely crafted missions. The previously barren open city environments are now full of odd jobs to do and secrets to find. The combat system is meaningfully built upon with new moves and a fully fleshed-out weapon inventory system. Renaissance Italy (another inspired but little-used setting) provides a perfect backdrop for Ezio Auditore's own story, which is easily just as interesting as Altair's, if not more so. Assassin's Creed II is everything the first game should have been and so much more besides. I had so much fun with it, I even stuck with it past the credits rolling and made it my third ever S-rank.
Dead Space 2
(Visceral Games - X360 - 2011)
I have to admit, a lot of the development details that emerged before the release of Dead Space 2 had me a little worried. Promises of a campaign that would be more like the scripted set-piece-fest that was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the decision to give previously silent protagonist Isaac Clarke a voice didn't quite sit right with me. By the time I got my hands on the game, though, almost all of those fears were dispelled. Dead Space 2 is a fitting continuation of the franchise, expanding on the first game's brilliant foundations in ways that make sense and improve the gameplay experience. The pacing is not only faster, but also much smoother, propelling Isaac through some of the most harrowing moments I've ever experienced in a video game. The combat is a little slicker too, a welcome change when dealing with some of the faster and more plentiful Necromorph hordes. While Isaac's new-found voice doesn't really hurt the game, the shifted focus of the game's storytelling doesn't quite match up to the first game's masterful use of audio and video logs. The fact the story is something of a clusterfuck doesn't help, either. Even in spite of these shortcomings, though, Dead Space 2 is one hell of a ride. Hopefully it won't be the last we see of Isaac this generation.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
(Ninja Theory - X360 - 2010)
I really deliberated over whether or not to include Enslaved on the list, because as a game, it doesn't really do anything spectacular. Mechanically it's very reminiscent of third-person action games like God of War, with its combo-based combat, upgrade system, and simple environmental puzzles. While it's all put together well, it didn't really set my world alight. What earned Enslaved its place on this list are its characters and story, both of which are some of the best the medium has ever seen. The gradual development of the relationship between Monkey and Trip is expertly delivered and, perhaps more importantly, genuinely believable thanks to some truly brilliant voice-work and motion capture. I also really admired the game for its ending, which raises some interesting questions about what it means to be alive, and whether or not ignorance really is bliss. More than anything that I actually did in that game, it's those characters and that narrative that will stay with me for years to come.
Fallout: New Vegas
(Obsidian Entertainment - X360 - 2010)
As someone who had a brilliant time with Fallout 3, I would have been happy if Fallout: New Vegas had just been more of the same. Instead, what I got was more of the same, and then a hell of a lot more on top of that. So much, in fact, that I'm really not sure where to begin explaining it. The story was a marked improvement over Fallout 3's, driven by much stronger writing and dialogue, and against a much more interesting backdrop of inter-factional conflict. Those factions were another of the things I was really impressed by - the fact that your standing with one faction will influence the opinions of other factions to the point where you can't do absolutely everything with a single character is a welcome alternative to, say, Oblivion, where you can push one character through all the guilds. I loved the inclusion of Hardcore mode, as well, which definitely layered an additional level of challenge over the core game and encouraged me to get involved in the new crafting aspects governed by the Survival skill. Even after sinking well over seventy hours into New Vegas and its DLC, I'm still eager to revisit it in 2012 and take a different path through it. That's how much I adored New Vegas.
Forza Motorsport 3
(Turn10 Studios - X360 - 2009)
In case you couldn't tell, writing up this year's list has been incredibly hard. Part of that is because I've had to make some decisions about what it really represents - is it a list of the games I enjoyed playing the most over the course of 2011, or is it a list of the games that I will remember playing the most from 2011? Forza Motorsport 3 is one of the games that definitely ticks the latter box more than the former. 2011 was very much the Year of Forza 3 for me, as it maintained a semi-regular position on my Now Playing list from early January right up until I finished the Season mode in mid-October. As a consequence of investing so much time into it, it's hard for me not to associate gaming in 2011 with Forza 3. Looking back on it as objectively as possible, a lot of that time was time enjoyed, as well. I had a blast racing the new tracks and designing decals for my cars, definitely more so than in any other Forza game to date. It's unfortunate, therefore, that I'm probably also going to associate Forza 3 (and by extension 2011) with the onset of my racing game fatigue. But that's a problem inherent in me, with racing games in general, and I shouldn't hold that against Forza 3. It fully deserves its place on this list, because it genuinely did define my year.
Halo: Combat Evolved
(Bungie - XBOX - 2001)
In a year when I largely avoided the first-person shooter genre, it was refreshing to end the year by playing one with such an excellent campaign. I originally played Halo back in 2006 or so, and dismissed it as a good-but-not-great FPS with some neat ideas. When revisiting it this year, I was doing so with the added benefit of having played some of the greatest examples of the genre - the Half-Life franchise, Call of Duty 4, BioShock, and Far Cry 2 (yeah, I went there). With that kind of education under my belt, I felt like I was in a better position to judge Halo. And do you know what? The game is a lot better than I initially gave it credit for. The campaign is well-paced, the environments hit just the right balance between guided linearity and the openness that encourages tactical diversity, and the combat is both engaging and challenging thanks to some excellent weapon balance and impressive enemy AI patterns. Ten years after its release, Halo is still an incredible shooter, and I have no qualms placing it on the same level as the likes of the original Half-Life.
(Team Bondi - X360 - 2011)
A lot of people were hyped for L.A. Noire because it had the Rockstar seal of approval on the box. Most of those people were probably expecting a familiar experience, and came away from it disappointed. By contrast, I went into Team Bondi's 1940's noir drama expecting something different, and came away from it absolutely stunned. The facial animation tech is incredible, and often had the effect of making me forget I was playing a video game because the animations were so true to life. The detective work aspect of the game was a lot of fun for me, too, especially in light of the game's tolerance of (relative) failure. More than anything else, though, it was the narrative that drew me in and didn't let me go. Full of dark twists and seedy conspiracy, the only thing that bested L.A. Noire's plot for me was its bitter-sweet, but totally fitting ending. I don't think the game is perfect, by any means - in my opinion it suffers from 'Assassin's Creed Syndrome', where the raw utilities for something genuinely incredible are present, but not fully fleshed out. It's a damn shame that we most likely won't see a sequel to L.A. Noire, but part of me is hoping against hope that maybe one of Rockstar's development studios will pick up the baton and use those utilities to create something more substantial in the future.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
(Nintendo, Flagship Co. and Capcom - GBA - 2005)
In a world where almost every other Zelda title receives heaps of outspoken praise, The Minish Cap sticks out like a sore thumb. The fact it seems to be the least publicly admired of all the Zelda games is made even more conspicuous by the outstanding quality of the game itself. Easily the best handheld-exclusive Zelda I've ever played, I'd even go as far as to say it rivals A Link to the Past for the title of Best 2D Zelda Game. The Minish Cap has all the hallmarks of a classic Zelda game. The overworld and dungeons are brilliantly put together, and every boss is a well-constructed challenge. It features some innovative new inventory items, all of which are welcome additions to the Zelda canon. It boasts a huge number of side-quests and distractions, all of which are easy to become absorbed in. Its Wind Waker-inspired graphics are consistently gorgeous, and the writing is warm and witty in a way that had even this twenty-one-year-old grumpy cynic smiling and chuckling to himself. No aspect of The Minish Cap feels half-hearted, or compromised for the sake of playability on a handheld. It is as complete a Zelda adventure as A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, or Wind Waker, and should be recognised as such. Hopefully its place on this list goes some way towards fulfilling that.
(Valve Software - X360 - 2011)
Portal 2 is exactly what I wanted out of a sequel to what is probably one of my favourite games of all time. In terms of gameplay, it focuses on expanding the scope of the original Portal's logic puzzles with a wealth of new ideas and concepts, all of which feel natural and appropriate in the context of Aperture Science's clandestine test chambers. The way the developers slowly introduce these concepts before beginning to stack them on top of each other amounts to a masterclass in video game pacing, and the gameplay is at its strongest when it demands the player to combine their knowledge of various puzzle components into a satisfying solution. Valve have proven themselves the undisputed masters of video game narrative time and again, and Portal 2 met my expectations in that regard. The voice-acting from Ellen McLain as GLaDOS and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is absolutely stellar, but the real star of the story is Aperture Science itself. Taking the time to explore each environment is its own reward, as players are able to glean information pointing to narrative threads that aren't even hinted at in any of the spoken dialogue. Add to this one of the most unique and satisfying endings in video game history, not to mention the deeply satisfying stand-alone co-op campaign, and Portal 2 proves itself more than worthy of its position on this list.
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation
(CORE Design - PS1 - 1999)
Much like Forza 3 above, I'm not sure if The Last Revelation is on this list because it was one of my favourite games played in 2011, or if it's here because I'll associate it with this year for a long time to come. I definitely enjoyed my time with Lara's fourth adventure on the original PlayStation, even if a lot of that enjoyment was probably born out of fond memories and twelve-year-old nostalgia. Whatever was the cause of it, I certainly didn't find myself getting frustrated by the simplistic combat or the fiddly tank controls. For what it's worth, I also thought the puzzles in this game were genuinely challenging to tackle and rewarding to solve, although some of them probably could have been mapped out slightly better. What means more to me than simple enjoyment of a fun video game, though, is the fact that after twelve years in limbo, I was finally able to play this game through to the end and witness its final cut-scene. It was one of the defining moments of 2011 for me, and I think it means that The Last Revelation is truly deserving of a spot on this list.
...And That's Your Lot!
Now that all the awards have been handed out, and the most memorable experiences of 2011 have been acknowledged, it's time to draw the curtain on these proceedings and wrap up My End of 2011 Awards. In reflection, I'd like to say that it's been a fantastic gaming year for me, and I hope that it's been equally fantastic for everyone else here on Giant Bomb. Here's hoping that 2012 proves to be just as amazing, if not even better. Thanks very much for reading, guys. I'll see you on the other side of midnight, in the New Year.
Currently playing - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PS2)