By dankempster 11 Comments
Hello one and all, and welcome to the first part of My End of 2011 Awards.
Last year, I came up with some categories for awards, and then assigned them to the games that I felt were most deserving of those awards. This year, I've opted for a slightly different approach, inspired by Sparky_Buzzsaw's Awards Extravaganza posted earlier this month (if you haven't read them, I recommend you go and do so now). I've looked at every single game I played this year, cast my mind back to the most memorable things about playing them, and then used those things to shape an individual award for each game. I think this is an approach that's more representative of my year in gaming as a whole, certainly more so than simply picking the ones that I had the most fun with.
The Awards will be split across five days, with a new part launching each day. The first three days will consist of presenting individual awards to all of the twenty-eight games that I've played over the course of 2011. The fourth day will be a look back on my 2011 outside of gaming, exploring my favourite music, books, and moments from the last twelve months. The fifth and final part of the Awards, scheduled to land on New Year's Eve, will present a list of my top ten gaming experiences of 2011.
With all of that exposition out of the way, let's get stuck into the Awards themselves. Our first category is...
'When the Faction's Fractioned' Award for Best Implementation of Rivalling Factions
Fallout: New Vegas
I loved Fallout 3, but if Bethesda's post-apocalyptic open-world RPG had one shortcoming, it was in the way it handled in-game factions. Instead of going down the Elder Scrolls route of allowing players to join a number of factions each with their own quest line, Fallout 3 seemed to forego the existence of factions altogether. The result was a world that seemed hollow, in which everybody seemed blissfully unaware of everybody else and totally unaffected by the player's actions. Obsidian's Fallout: New Vegas is a much better game all-round, I think, and a big part of that is down to the way it incorporates several different groups into its storyline. What's really noteworthy is the way these factions don't exist independently of each other - if you choose to ally yourself with one faction, some other factions may like you more as a result, while others still will turn on you for joining forces with their enemies. It's a feature that goes a long way towards creating a believable game world, and I don't think I've ever seen it done better.
'Broken Open' Award for Worst Game-Breaking Glitch
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
I love Oblivion. I think it's a fantastic open-world RPG that offers an incredible amount of freedom to the player. I've also been fortunate enough in the past not to encounter anything game-breaking in a game of this kind, despite sinking over three hundred combined hours into Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I suppose in some ways I was kind of overdue a rendez-vous with a serious glitch in one of these games, and this year that moment finally came in Oblivion. The glitch in question involved the Thieves' Guild quest line, an aspect of the game that I'd poured around thirty hours into at this point. After completing the Guild's penultimate quest, I happened to pick a specific option in my ensuing conversation with the Gray Fox. The effect of this dialogue choice was to effectively 'shut off' the Gray Fox permanently, putting him in a dialogue loop and rendering me unable to pick up the final Thieves' Guild quest from him. I still had a fantastic time with Oblivion, eventually completing the main story and Dark Brotherhood quest lines, but having this happen definitely put something of a dampener on the whole experience for me.
'River of Blood' Award for Most Gratuitous Use of Gore
A few games left me with divided opinions this year, and the one that stands out most for me in that regard is Rockstar's Manhunt. There were a lot of things about the game I liked, such as its sparse storytelling and grainy, washed-out home film aesthetics. Equally, there were some things that I wasn't too keen on, such as the clunkiness of the stealth mechanics and the annoying spikes in difficulty. More than anything, though, I can't help but remember just how violent Manhunt was. Given the snuff film premise and the style of the gameplay, I was expecting Manhunt to be a violent game, but I wasn't expecting it to be as gratuitous as it actually is. To be fair, some of the in-game violence is justified by the narrative and mechanics, but there's also a lot of stuff in here that struck me as wholly unnecessary. Do we really need to see people's heads breaking apart under the force of a strike from a baseball bat? I'm not sure we do.
'Black Sheep of the Family' Award for Most Under-Appreciated Game in an Established Franchise
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Everybody loves The Legend of Zelda, right? With their engaging adventure gameplay, simple narratives and undeniable charm, the Zelda games have attracted a huge following who rightly praise them for their brilliance. If you ask people what their favourite Zelda games are, you'll invariably happen upon the same answers - Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, and A Link to the Past. Some outliers might even nominate Twilight Princess, or Link's Awakening. One game that I don't think I've ever seen mentioned as an answer to this question, though, is the Game Boy Advance game, The Minish Cap. After playing it myself this year, I seriously have no idea why it doesn't get more love. It offers up a tightly refined, beautifully designed slice of 2D Zelda, supported by some memorable characters and great writing. The Minish Cap is definitely one of my favourite Zelda games, and I'm surprised it doesn't receive the acclaim it deserves.
'(Don't Fear) the Reaper' Award for Most Terrifying Jump-Scares
Dead Space 2
I've never been that bothered by horror films. There's probably some component in my mind which simply forces me to rationalise "That shit's not real", so I can't get lost in a scary movie and allow it to freak me out in the way that other people do. Substitute the medium for horror video games, though, and that bit of my mind seems to shut itself off. Maybe it's the interactive aspect that does it, I don't know. What I do know, though, is that the scariest game I played this year was Dead Space 2, by quite a long shot. Part of that is probably because I didn't really play any other horror-themed games in 2011. But I don't intend that fact to detract from the fact that Dead Space 2 is genuinely heart-in-mouth scary at times. The Necromorphs are without a doubt the scariest, most grotesque kind of enemies I've ever faced in any game, and never knowing what waits around the next corner is incredibly tense.
'Same Old Thing' Award for Least Improved Sequel
Pokémon White isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. The RPG mechanics are solid, the new critter designs are pretty good, and the collect-'em-up aspect is as compulsive as ever. Even in spite of all these facts, though, I couldn't help but feel as I worked my way across the Unova region that I'd seen and done all of this multiple times before. This feeling wasn't helped by the fact that Pokémon White actually seems to take steps backward in terms of incorporating series trademarks into its adventure - I honestly can't remember many cases where I was required to use an HM to progress, berries are drastically downplayed, and the game doesn't even present you with a fishing rod until after you beat the Elite Four. This was my biggest problem with Pokémon White - I can understand why the developers only make small, incremental changes to the Pokémon formula, but to actively and noticeably regress in so many respects was downright disappointing for me. Ultimately, this feeling of 'been there, done that' prevented me from getting stuck into the post-game content. I think I've had my fill of Pokémon games for a while.
'Last Days of the Old World' Award for Old-School Sensibility
Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen
Sometimes, I just want to kick it old-school. Don't get me wrong, I love modern games and all the bells and whistles that come attached to them, but sometimes it's nice to go back to your roots and remind yourself where you've come from. Dragon Quest IV served that role for me perfectly this year, allowing me to get lost in a simple JRPG without having to worry about convoluted plot points or insanely complex battle systems. After the heightened melodrama of Final Fantasy XIII last year, the grounded tone and relaxed pacing of Dragon Quest IV was a very welcome change.
'Salute Your Solution' Award for Best Puzzle Design
I played the original Portal for the third time this year. I worked through it in a single sitting, in preparation for playing through the sequel released this year. It's still a fantastic puzzler, with some truly innovative mechanics and really, really fiendish puzzle designs. After playing Portal and its sequel back-to-back, I feel confident saying that the original game boasts the better puzzle design. While Portal 2 does expand on the puzzle concepts in some very meaningful ways, it always made an effort to point the player towards the exit of each test chamber. As a result, its puzzle structures and solutions were invariably more immediately obvious to me. By contrast, its predecessor seemed much more taxing on my grey matter. The original Portal also has the Portal Challenges on its side, many of which are so brain-melting that I daren't even attempt them for fear of losing my sanity.
'Come Together' Award for Best Co-Operative Play
Portal 2 holds the prestigious role of being the only game I played co-operatively this year - after completing the single player portion of the game, I jumped straight into the co-op campaign with my then-girlfriend. First off, I think Valve deserve a tremendous pat on the back for turning this portion of the game into a separate stand-alone campaign in its own right. It probably would have been easier to recycle the single player game and give each player one half of the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, but instead they crafted a completely unique set of test chambers that really took advantage of the four-portal nature of co-op play. That's the other great thing about Portal 2's co-op campaign - it requires effective communication in order to make progress, so neither player feels like they're just along for the ride. For those two reasons, I think Portal 2's co-op is highly commendable, and an example that other game developers should be looking up to in future.
Here end the first part of My End of 2011 Awards. Be sure to join me again tomorrow, when I'll be handing out ten more awards to games that I played over the course of the last twelve months. Until then, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES (PS2)