Hey Giant Bomb! Hey blog! Long time no see! Seeing as I posted my roundup last year, I felt it only right to do the same this year. In 2011, I think I must have played easily double the number of games I played in 2010. This, despite the fact that I had left university in 2010 and this year obtained full-time employment and thus my time for playing games dropped significantly. Perhaps it was because I had less time I felt more compelled to play games. In any case, 2011 was another excellent year for games, with a serious glut of great games appearing in the last quarter. Here is my rundown of the best and worst games I have played this year. Usual disclaimer: These awards contain only the games I have actually played this year, not necessarily released this year. Anyway, onward to our first category…
Most Important Game, Best Independent Game, Best Use of User-Generated Content
Minecraft: What is there to say about Minecraft which hasn’t been said already a hundred times before? This is a game so freeform it doesn’t have a proper ending if you don’t want it, and it doesn’t have any expressed objectives at all aside from simply building stuff. It is a game with three pillars of design: Creativity, open-endedness and simplicity. In the end, Minecraft is just a really simple game where you can build whatever you want in a cute, pixelated world whilst occasionally fighting off hordes of skeletons and creepers who want to blow your creations to smithereens. It wins the Most Important Game award because in the space of a year, it effectively created its own genre out of nowhere. Plus, I feel that user-driven created content is going to form the backbone of many games in the future.
Best Racing Game, Most Homicidal Police Force
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit: In the Need for Speed things are always rather ridiculous, but Hot Pursuit takes this to another level by giving everyone involved an unlimited budget. The illegal street racers speeding through the mountains and canyons are driving $100,000 cars, and the police force is likewise incredibly well-financed and easily able to equal the horsepower of the racers, if not outdo it. The Seacrest County Police Department think nothing of barrelling into a car at over 100mph, spinning him off the road, over the crash barrier and off the side of a sheer cliff. With a super-smooth framerate and crisp graphics, Hot Pursuit brings the thrill of the chase to life very well.
Best Zombie Shooter
Left 4 Dead 1 + 2: Let me say right off that I played both Left 4 Dead’s entirely single player with AI controlled team mates, so make of that what you will. In Left 4 Dead, there are many, many zombies whom stand in the way of the survivors’ objectives, and it is your job to prevent them from messing up your plans. Left 4 Dead 2 is the more polished co-operative experience where you must rely heavily on teamwork to get through levels effectively, but the original game is no slouch either. With friends and online I’m sure that Left 4 Dead feels entirely different, but it is clear to see that both games are well made and interestingly designed. Playing them though, I’m still not entirely sure they’re my cup of tea.
Best Zombie Game
Dead Rising 2: Off the Record: I have played over 12 hours of Off the Record, and as of now I still haven’t played a single second of the actual storyline. That’s because unlike every Dead Rising game before it, Off the Record comes with a sandbox mode where there is no time limit or overall objective other than to go nuts and roam around Fortune City killing a load of zombies. There are challenges scattered around the place to pepper the experience, but they are entirely optional. Whilst the joy of slaying literally thousands of zombies does wear thin after a while, the journey getting to that point is gruesomely amusing, which is why Dead Rising 2: Off the Record wins this category for its sheer ridiculousness.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2: The Battlefield series to me has meant one thing: 5 minutes of running to wherever the action is, and then immediately getting sniped by someone I can’t see sitting in a building 500 metres away. I’m pleased to say that Bad Company 2 can still give me this joy, but it does give newcomers a few more ways to get into the action quickly. There are still vehicles including helicopters and tanks, but unlike Battlefield 2 a lot of the cover on the field is destructible, meaning that you could think you’re safe sitting in a building before it is destroyed by incoming mortars. Bad Company 2: Vietnam is also an interesting diversion which is similar to the main game, but has more Creedence Clearwater Revival which can only be a good thing.
Borderlands: Borderlands is a shooter with loot. Maybe it’s a Looter? A lot was said about how this game has an infinite number of guns, and while that is technically true most of them are variations on a theme. Nonetheless, almost every gun feels great in its own unique way; so that when you get a really great weapon it’s a simple joy to just pull the trigger. The game has almost no plot at all and no characters to speak of (aside from maybe General Knoxx, who I saw as a William Shatner type guy), but despite this failing it’s still a very enjoyable game to play. In a similar way to the likes of Oblivion or Skyrim it has the feel of a single player MMO because you are constantly improving your character and gaining better loot. The final boss is a disappointment though because you expect to receive some awesome gun from beating it, but you don’t really get anything.
Best Action-Adventure Game (In Absentia), Best Licensed Game (In Absentia)
Batman: Arkham City: As of writing this roundup my copy of Arkham City is still sadly sitting shrink-wrapped on my shelf, untouched. I will presume that it would win these categories if I had played it, but it looks like it will have to be an early entrant in the 2012 edition.
Best Puzzle Game, Best Lighting (Technical)
Portal 2: Creating a follow-up to Portal was always going to be tough, not least when Portal is now seen as almost a perfect diamond in the rough, with not an ounce of padding or weak content in it. Thankfully Valve didn’t disappoint, and Portal 2 is a larger, more epic story than the first game, but still feels true to the series roots. There are more characters, more environment s and set pieces and the story veers into utter ridiculousness at the end, but the experience throughout is excellent. The puzzles are more complex but mainly very intuitive, and because the game is much longer there are three “acts” which break up the flow and segment the action. Also, Portal 2 has the best lighting I have ever seen in a video game. This is a game where the shadows look real, and that is frankly incredible. Minor point overall, but it really stood out for me.
Best Use of Gravity, Best Retro-inspired Style (Artistic)
VVVVVV: I got VVVVVV in 2010 and played it in early January 2011, but the game has stuck with me through the year. It is a singular game with a singular style, perfectly emulating the Commodore 64 with its beautiful blocky, retro-graphical art style. For a small indie game it has an art style which is completely second to none. Captain Viridian who’s the main character you play cannot jump but instead inverses his personal gravity by falling upwards to the ceiling and downwards to the floor whenever he wants. The puzzles are very punishing throughout but for the cowardly such as me there is a built-in God Mode which can be activated so you can dance through the levels just enjoying the incredible music.
Best Use of Time Manipulation, Best Puzzle-Platformer
Braid: Braid is a puzzle game where you must manipulate the flow of time. This one facet forms the basis for what makes this game feel special. The time-manipulation devices change from level to level as to how time might alter, so that even if you mess up and die you can actually rewind time to prevent your death. Couple this with an incredibly haunting soundtrack and a very neat finale plot twist you definitely don’t see coming, Braid will continue to stick in your mind long after you’ve finished playing it.
Best Prequel/Sequel, Best Use of a Cyberpunk Setting
Deus Ex: Human Revolution: I felt very nervous about Human Revolution before it came out, but upon actually playing it most of my fears were allayed. Although there were the egregious boss fights, the vast majority of the game feels very true to the source material of Deus Ex. Adam Jensen fits into the cyberpunk world of 2027 very smoothly and he has a nice variety of weapons and melee moves which he can break out when in a tight corner. But along with this there are many characters to converse with and dozens of computers to hack. The Deus Ex series means a lot to me so it is nice to know that we will hopefully be seeing even more grand conspiracy theories in the future.
Best Point-and-Click, Funniest Game
Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse: I wish I had seen the light with Sam & Max earlier. I remember that a few years ago I looked at the Sam & Max series and thought “Why is this supposed to be funny?” How wrong I was. Sam & Max are hilarious and The Devil’s Playhouse, which is their third series from Telltale Games, is the pinnacle of the story arc. Sam & Max may be the best double act in video gaming. Sam is normally the straight man but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get plenty of his own laughs, whilst Max is totally crazy and off-the-wall and is the perfect foil for Sam’s more grounded, sensible reasoning. As a point-and-click Sam & Max was previously by the numbers, but the Devil’s Playhouse shakes things up a little by giving Max a variety of psychic powers which allow him to do a number of even more crazy things.
Best Adventure Game, Best Characters, Best Acting/Voice Acting
L.A. Noire: The Complete Edition: Put aside the troubles of Team Bondi, the bad working conditions and controversy of the end credits and the fact that they went into administration shortly after this game came out. If you are able to look at just the game itself, then what you see is something extraordinary: Something which has never been done before. This is essentially, a big-budget adventure game. Yes, there is occasional shooting and driving as well as on foot chases, but these are not the backbone of the action and if you fail them enough times you can actually skip past them. In L.A. Noire the story is right at the forefront driving the action and your methodical police investigation and interrogation is the crux of the game. If you care about video game stories, you have to play this game.
gbrading’s Game of the Year, Most Addictive Game
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Dear Dragonborn, you don’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t played Skyrim. Did you think Oblivion was huge? Did you think Fallout 3 was good? Wait ‘till you see what Skyrim has got in store. Skyrim is a gigantic game. In fact, gigantic doesn’t really cover it: Skyrim is epic. I have invested now over 70 hours in that game and there are still entire quadrants of the map I have never visited festooned with Dwarven ruins and quaint little sawmills. The backstory to the Elder Scrolls series has gotten even more complicated and there are still hundreds of in-game books to read, people to talk to, quests to complete, houses to buy, dungeons to delve and enemies to slay. Skyrim doesn’t do a whole lot different to what Oblivion did, but it adds an extra level of polish and finesse to everything which makes even a minor quest feel special. Few game worlds have felt as alive and dynamic as this. I now can’t wait to imagine what Fallout 4 might be like because if it is anything like this it’s going to be a hell of a game.
Most Generic Experience (Single player)
Battlefield: Bad Company 2: The single player of Bad Company 2 is the epitome of a dull experience. There are some generic 2-dimension characters thrown in to try and make it meaningful and there is something to do with a super weapon the Japanese developed during the Second World War, but never does anything meaningful happen at all. Perfect example is that at one point you and your team decide to defy official orders to rescue their helicopter pilot. This should be a moment which feels emotionally significant, but in the game it feels like the most clichéd piece of stupidity ever. It doesn’t help matters that the helicopter pilot is a stereotypical 60’s hippie anyway.
Biggest Mixed Reaction
Back to the Future: The Game: The things which Back to the Future: The Game does right do outweigh the things it does poorly, but only by a narrow margin. The voice acting is very good throughout and the general plot of the game is pretty good, but the actual part of playing the game isn’t really fun at all. The problem is that Telltale’s kind of Point-and-Click has become a bit stale in recent years because it has been done ad-infinitum in Tales of Monkey Island, Sam & Max, etc. The puzzles are mainly easy and the rest are just boring, and the hint system, although designed to make the gameplay more intuitive just actually makes it feel unchallenging. I’m glad that Back to the Future didn’t get the butchering that Jurassic Park got a few months later, but Telltale have got to get more inventive if they make more of this kind of game.
Worst Voice Acting
Just Cause 2: Just Cause 2 has an absolutely mind-bogglingly big country to explore, zip around and sooner or later blow up, but its population is completely comprised of second-rate British actors pretending to sound like they’re from Malaysia or Singapore. There are many, many examples of this “so bad it’s good” voice acting in Just Cause 2, but occasionally it gets so bad it’s actually kind of offensive. I recommend going to YouTube and having a watch of some of the videos of the ridiculousness, but who can forget “My name is Bolo Santosi” and “I want you to help me transport this very sensitive cargo!” Just Cause 2 is a very fun game to play, but that’s certainly no thanks to its voice acting.
Worst Save System
Magicka: The first 40 minutes of Magicka are great. You get to try out a great deal of spells and experiment with what the different mixtures can do, whilst walking around a fantasy world where everyone talks a weird blend of Simlish and Swedish. I got to what I thought was a natural break: I’d gotten out of the starting castle and had helped defend a farm from goblins. This seemed like a good place to take a break so I looked for a Save Game button in the menu but there was none. I pressed Quit, and the game warned me that “All progress in this level will be lost!” Well that’s ok, I said to myself: I’ll just have to fight off the goblins at the farm again, because the last fade to black was south of the farm. But no: When Magicka says all progress in the level will be lost, it means all progress in the chapter, i.e. from the beginning of the game. I had played easily 40 minutes of the game and although I had been through half a dozen fade to black transitions and also encountered a checkpoint, these are only usable if you die while you’re playing. If you quit, you are dumped back to the beginning of the last chapter you completed. This is moronic. It gives the player zero control over how much of the game they want to play. I have no way of knowing if I am close to the end of a level and whether I will have the time to finish it. In my opinion the save system of Magicka is utterly broken, and that ruins the game for me.
Most Actively Evil Game
BIT.TRIP RUNNER: Until the last month Super Meat Boy was the most Actively Evil Game of 2011 due to its soul-crushing difficulty, but BIT.TRIP pipped it to the post at the last hurdle. BIT.TRIP RUNNER isn’t just an infuriating game: It’s a goddamn nightmare. Each level you must complete without any mistakes whatsoever. A single toe out of line and you are thrown back to the beginning and made to do the whole thing again. Because Commander Video runs at a constant speed you can’t pause to reflect on anything like you occasionally could do in Super Meat Boy: Here everything is done on instinct. Trouble is that instinct in this game often leads to failure, which leads to frustration which leads to self-hatred which leads to me wanting to put a foot through my computer monitor. So well done BIT.TRIP RUNNER for doing what Super Meat Boy had been trying to do for so long: For being such an evil game I don’t want to play it anymore.
Worst Flow-Breaking Moment
Crysis: There is this moment about two thirds of the way through Crysis where things have gone from bad to worse on the island where the game is set and the temperature has plummeted to dangerously cold. You regroup with a member of your squad, but his nanosuit isn’t working correctly which means he isn’t properly shielded from the bitter cold. It’s your task to protect him and keep him close to sources of heat, so his blood vessels won’t freeze solid. I have tried to protect this guy easily over 20 times, sticking close by him, protecting him from attacking enemies and trying to make him walk towards sources of heat. Each and every time, he has died. Main issue is the AI isn’t smart about protecting itself, which means that when he is close to death he won’t try and make a bee-line for a fire: He’ll just stand around until you lead him over to one. I found the entire situation ridiculous and it prevented me from continuing with the story, so I will now probably never finish Crysis.
Borderlands: Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot: Underdome Riot is the definition of a pointless DLC. For a start, it’s an arena-based, round-based, wave-based deathmatch, which is already a hard sell. The second stupid thing about it is that you don’t earn any XP for killing enemies in it, which goes against everything Borderlands is about. Finally, it is utterly repetitive in the extreme. I played almost all of one challenge in one arena, but close to the end when there was a low gravity round, a Skag somehow managed to jump out of the playable area into the skybox, meaning it was unkillable and I was forced to quit the whole thing, losing all of my progress. Save to say I felt zero desire to ever touch Underdome Riot again.
And that’s your lot for 2011! Here’s to the winners and commiserations to the losers. With games such as BioShock Infinite and Mass Effect 3 to look forward to in 2012, I think we could be in for a pretty good year.