The wait is over! Our 2011 Game of the Year awards begin right now and will continue through the rest of this week. Check back every day until Friday for new awards and Top 10 lists from both the site's staff and some special guests. Curious about how we arrived at this list of winners? Check out today's companion podcast to hear our deliberations in full.
2011's 2010 Game of the Year
Look, we're not even sure how we define this category from one year to the next. Sometimes it's the game from last year we played the most, or at least thought about the most, in the following year. Other times it's the game that got the most and best post-release support and DLC from its developer. Hell, the first year we created the category simply to honor a game we felt didn't get its full due in the year of its release. It's a weird category, OK?
Anyway, we're pretty sure about one thing: StarCraft II continued to make its presence known in 2011. On a core mechanical level, it was an expected matter of course that Blizzard would continue to refine and perfect the game's three-way balance, but it's great to see that even at the highest competitive level, StarCraft II is holding up as well as you can expect as a venue for top-tier players to fairly showcase their skills against each other. Speaking of that tournament competition, it's a safe bet that relatively few people would be saying anything about "esports" right now if it weren't for the continued fervor around the endless high-dollar professional competition taking place entirely within StarCraft II.
And then there's the fact that Brad played more StarCraft II in 2011 than anything that actually came out this year. That guy should probably look into professional help at this point.
Saints Row: The Third - http://deckers.die/
How do you pick a single moment to highlight from a game packed to the brim with highlight reel-worthy moments? Such was the question pitted to us as we attempted to choose a best level from Saints Row: The Third, a game so replete with crazily memorable missions and events that this category might as well have just been called "Best Mission/Level in Saints Row: The Third." Don't worry though, we did at least consider other games. It was only sporting.
When the dust settled and Jeff had stopped screaming, the end result of our deliberations settled upon the http://deckers.die/ mission. As anyone who has played the game knows, this is the level where you play, at various times, a sentient toilet/sex doll/gun-armed TRON man trudging through a virtual reality world filled with giant murderous avatars, ancient arcade game references, and a straight-up text adventure sequence.
Did you get all of that? Good, because even typing all of that was kind of exhausting. http://deckers.die/ is easily the most ludicrously insane mission of a game predicated entirely on the concept of ludicrous insanity. We're not sure how much better we can sum it up than that.
Best New Character
2011's best new character doesn't have arms or legs or... a face, or many distinguishing features at all, really. Portal 2's Wheatley is a metal sphere with exactly one darting, eye-like viewport, but he does more with that single eye--and the breakneck dialogue that comes pouring out of him courtesy of Stephen Merchant--than any other character this year, no matter how many appendages they have. And considering Wheatley shares the stage with both the inimitably sadistic GLaDOS and none other than the disembodied voice of J.K. Simmons, that's a damn impressive feat. So impressive that he's our favorite new character in 2011.
Wheatley is so great. He's great because he's not just there for comic relief, though he certainly does serve that role at first. It would have been easy enough for the writers to just let Wheatley coast through all of Portal 2 on cheeky quips and lovable buffoonery, but this wayward personality sphere goes through a hell of a character arc, emerging as a villain so menacing that he threatens to bring the roof down on all of Aperture Science with... well, with his runaway ineptitude. Plenty of great characters this year made good on a single hook or gimmick, but Wheatley maintains his core personality trait and yet plays a role in the game's story that's much larger than himself. Then he goes on to take part in what at least one member of the Giant Bomb staff considers to be the most sublime final moments of any game in memory. In a way, it's not too surprising that the sequel to Portal offered some damn memorable new characters, but that doesn't make the game's achievement in writing any less special.
Dave's Eastern Bloc Game of the Year
Duders! Let's be honest. This category began as much so I could make The Hunt for Red October jokes as to highlight the overly-ambitious, but lovingly quirky games that hail from the post-Soviet regions where the PC still reigns King. In most cases these were titles that I'd only recommend to older, more patient gamers who enjoyed novelty above polish. 2011 then marks the year where that explanation no longer fits. From Poland came two games, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Dead Island, that were downright blockbuster releases accessible to just about everyone. That leaves Cargo! The Quest for Gravity then to slide in under the previous expectations of this "genre". That is to say, Cargo! was a bizarre, creative game that could only come from guys with lots of Vs in their names.
Dead Island then wins by a hair. And by a hair, I mean it's the game I played the most of the nominees. Remember, this is Dave's Eastern Bloc Game of the Year and while you'd think my tastes would lean towards a pure RPG, the early difficulty and clumsy controls of The Witcher 2 made me hold off on that adventure till a proper patch appeared. Dead Island in contrast was an immediately playable and worthwhile experience that brought true innovation to melee-based combat in the first-person perspective. It's something that is sure to be copied by many games going forward and at least in my opinion was the only reason to see any major fault in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, whose combat felt mechanical in comparison. I really don't think any of us saw that coming. Welcome to the New World Sir.
In a year that saw new music from the likes of Akira Yamaoka, Jeremy Soule, Danny Baranowsky, and Koji Kondo, it's clear just how great the music Supergiant Games audio director Darren Korb created for the studio's isometric action RPG Bastion was to be the clear-cut winner in this category.
In crafting a genre Korb describes as "acoustic frontier trip-hop," he created the perfect soundscape to compliment both the surreal, cartoon art style of the game's visuals, with its folksy, narrator-driven storytelling. The slight variances in arrangement and style give each stage its own unique quality.
The songs themselves even become central to the game's story arc. Think about the instant wave of sadness and ache that swarms over you the first time you hear Zia humming out "Build That Wall" in the middle of the chaos around you, or the little lump in your throat you got when you first heard "Setting Sail, Coming Home" swell up over the final credits. Every single note of music feels utterly interwoven with the fabric of what the game shows you. It's original, ingenious, and eminently listenable stuff, and easily stood out as the top class of this year's musical crop.