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John Vignocchi's Top 10 Games of 2011

Johnny V! In the place to be!

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John Vignocchi is a development director at Disney Interactive. When he isn’t working, travelling, partying or being overly sensitive somewhere on the Internet, he can be found playing video games and hanging out with people like you.

OK FIRST: Some titles are noticeably missing from this list. As an industry we happen to load up our releases around the holidays, making it physically impossible for us to work/go to school, have a social life, hang with family, tell our wives/GFs they are hot, eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and play all the latest new games. To that end, you’ll notice AC: Revelations, Bastion, Dance Central 2, Skyrim, Orcs Must Die and others missing that, while I’m sure are worthy to make my list, I haven’t had a chance to get deep into this year.

As an industry we need to stop loading up our releases around the holidays – and as gamers we need to show our support by buying more games throughout the year.


…Shoot I just realized MK isn’t on my list and it should be. Vinny/Ryan, PLEASE NOTE MORTAL KOMBAT SHOULD BE ON MY LIST. Damn it. I can’t believe I forgot… Shit.

10. Cars 2

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OK STOP! I know half of you jerks are already going “Come on, JV!” but hear me out… Even though I’m employed by Disney, like a lot of you I probably would have probably skipped over this release for all the obvious reasons:

Licensed game? Check.

Movie based? Check.

Kinda kiddie? Check.

So yeah - All the warning signs were there, but since I was asked to work on a double-secret-top-secret-secret project with developer Avalanche SLC (details soon, promise!) I wouldn’t be a good team player if I didn’t give their latest game a whirl, y’know?

So as the team was beginning to archive the project, I took it upon myself to snag a green disc and get familiar with the game... And while I had reservations of the actual property (I admit - I was never exactly enthralled with the Cars) I quickly discovered it didn’t matter.


Because Cars 2 is a great friggin’ game!

…Even IGN said it is a “great multiplayer game that rivals Mario Kart” and as a big kart racing fan I couldn’t agree more. I played this one for hours on end by myself, during the week, over the weekend, with my wife - even my skeptical friends (“Dude, JV, we honestly gonna play Cars right now?!”) really had a great time with it.

From a game play perspective, the driving feels exactly the way you want it to, every track has those San Francisco Rush-inspired precarious short-cuts, a unique trick system, multiple paths, Crazy Taxi-esque big jumps, weapon load-outs, multiple game modes, tons of unlockables and an honest to goodness “easy to pick up, hard to master” difficulty ramp that will challenge even the most seasoned kart racing fans.

Cars 2 also is no schlep in the graphics and animation department. I feel like I’ve already gushed enough, so to break it down in one sentence: The game doesn’t just feel like it was “inspired” by Pixar, it has that touch that makes it feel like Pixar actually made it.

In game dev, every feature discussion ends with the same argument – “It doesn’t matter, so long as it is a great game.” Avalanche delivered a really great kart racing title, and even if you say “look dude, Cars isn’t for me” I encourage you to put your ego aside and give it a try – It is time everyone started getting familiar with these guys as they are making really great product… and the best is hopefully yet to come!

9. Star Wars: The Old Republic

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First off, we all owe EA and Bioware a big apology. Say it with me:

We’re sorry for doubting your ability to deliver an MMO, Bioware.

We’re sorry for making fun of how much money you supposedly spent on this, EA.

We’re sorry for writing it off when rumors about it not being any good started coming out of the closed beta.

We’re sorry for secretly mocking your multi-million dollar FMVs at E3 each year. It was only because you never showed us game play.

We’re sorry for losing confidence in the game when everyone started saying it was “just a single player MMO.”

We’re sorry for doubting that you were actually making something that might challenge World of Warcraft.

So while I agree with Ryan in that any reviews of this game prior to 2012 are total BS, I think this title is worthy of a nod on the sole fact that EA and Bioware stood behind what they were making for all these years. Not many game companies would have stuck their neck out for this long, and at first blush it looks like they have delivered one hell of a product.

So with all that being said: We gamers applaud you, EA and Bioware, for having the resilience to stick to your guns for all these years in the face of so much speculation and doubt. You’ve done a great job.

…And just because there is video evidence of me running in circles on Korruban while snoring doesn’t mean that the game is boring. I was just exhausted that night, but glad that I ended up falling asleep next to my new favorite MMO.

8. The Gunstringer

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No secret: I’m a huge fan of Twisted Pixel. I think I might be their first fan… In fact, I might actually qualify as a fan boy. It wasn’t long ago that some of these talented guys were walking down the crumbling hallways of Midway, doing contract gigs for us while working on this small little game called “The Maw” in their spare time, hoping it would make a big splash on Xbox Live Arcade…

Twisted Pixel’s latest, The Gunstringer, continues their tradition of storytelling with a hilarious Kinect-based third person shooter starring a bad ass puppet. I actually didn’t know what to expect from the game at all – I had played the demo a few times at various trade shows and had watched interviews with Bear and Wilford talking about how the mechanics of the game worked, but it wasn’t until I sat down with it (or should I say stood up?) and played from the start that I witnessed the magic that has always separated Twisted Pixel apart from other indie developers.

For those of you that haven’t played it, the opening FMV is live-action and follows this good looking girl as she heads into a crowded theatre to watch a play. Soon thereafter we cut to behind-the-scenes where a bunch of stage hands are running around backstage (all the actual game devs at Twisted Pixel – and my buddy Bill Muehl’s big screen acting debut!) who are frantically getting ready for the play to start. The title then seamlessly transitions to the start of the play, where the curtain pulls back to reveal a crowd eagerly watching us control The Gunstringer, cheering, booing, hissing, as we take control and move him through a tutorial full of hilarious characters, witty writing and great surprises.

To me, that entire opening was friggin’ magic and forced me to spend a half day running around Disney like a jerk telling the handful of people that actually play games “you have to check this out!” – and those that did thought it was a really slick execution. It’s that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes these guys, and all of their games, a cut above the rest.

I haven’t completed the game yet (my wife and I are enjoying it together) but the time I have spent with it has been a blast. It is rare for a game to keep you smiling the entire time you are playing it. I don’t think it came as a surprise to any of us when these incredibly talented devs were acquired by Microsoft - Everything they do is dripping with creativity and passion for their craft, which is what makes their games, stories and characters feel like they are truly alive.

Hats off to the guys at Twisted Pixel for knocking another one out of the park – We’re all excited to see what you do next!

7. Crysis 2

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Like a lot of you, upon first putting a new game into my Xbox I pull up the achievement list during the legal screen nonsense and company intro videos to get familiar with the game.

“Ok, looks like the single player story achievements stack” I thought to myself, quickly deciding it would be a great idea to crank the difficulty to the highest level (Super Solider) and push through the campaign. I figured why not - I’m sure it can’t be more difficult than Legendary in Halo and I always beat the crap out of that game, right?


About five hours later I found myself with a joker-like-grin, dried spit on the corner of my mouth, eyes slightly bleeding with frustration, shaking, thirsty, and wondering if that brutality was truly worth the extra those extra 25 achives.

It wasn’t. BUT what it did allow me was the opportunity to marvel at how magnificent the AI was at this difficulty level, along with much thought went into creating each combat situation. Honestly, this was a game that, at least on this difficulty level, truly never felt like the same experience twice.

Eventually I turned it down and started playing on a more human difficulty level and still REALLY enjoyed what the guys at Crytek created. I loved leveling up my Nanotech and felt that each incremental upgrade actually felt different and was valuable. I enjoyed all the different weapons and the character designs and graphics were state of the art. All this, plus the multiple pathways per combat situation made the game so much fun even on regular difficulty. By the end of the game there were still a ton of situations that had me sweating afterwards saying to myself “I can’t believe I’m still alive!”

I thought Crysis 2 was a really great FPS this year, and one that certainly didn’t seem to get enough love from the core. In fact, I’m willing to say it was the best sci-fi shooter this year. I remember I kept thinking to myself “these should have been the guys making the next Halo game.”

6. Super Mario 3D Land

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You could have given me fifty free games and it still wouldn’t have made me feel better about being an early adopter of the 3DS. But seeing my old friend Mario in an all new adventure, with a great soundtrack, tons of new enemies and a truly FUN game with great level design? I’ve never been happier to own a 3DS.

5. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

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This game is like those old school Frosted Flakes commercials (or snitch interviews in Gangland): While I want to tell everyone how awesome this game is, I kind of want to be sitting in darkness with my voice masked while I talk about it. I’m glad Gerstmann is into it as well, although I’m still a little creeped out by our late-night Xbox Live conversations about which Skylanders are the best, along with our leveling strategies.

So good news/bad news:

Bad news: I’m hopelessly addicted to Skylanders.

Good news: By the time I beat the game I had maxed out four Skylanders (the three starter characters plus Drobot which I bought separately)

Bad news: Activision just sent me a big box of all the adventure packs I didn’t buy.

Good news: The success of this first game means more Skylanders games are on the way.

Bad news: I’m friggin’ 30-something hotly anticipating a new Skylanders game…

Good news: I don’t really care and I’ve admitted to the Internet that I love this game – a good game is a good game, right?

4. Tie: Batman: Arkham City and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Arkham City:

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So I didn’t like Arkham City at first… Within the first hour I was totally freakin’ overwhelmed with the amount of content being thrown at me. Kudos to the designer(s) at Rocksteady who kept pushing the whole “Guys, we’ve got to make users feel like they are Batman” because congrats – I did – and my head just about exploded in the process:

“Bruce, I’ve got a trace on joker! Head over to the steel mill!”

“I’ve been watching you Batman. To see if you are ready…”

[Press < to learn more about this character]

“Augmented reality training… Activated.”

[Phones Ringing]

“Destroy six titan containers and meet me back here.”

[Press < to upgrade]

“Alfred, send me my…”

“We’ve got a fix on Batman… He’s kicking ass out there.”

[Press < to learn more about this character]


There is was no question in my mind I was Batman and felt totally immersed in this Arkham City… But a Johnny V version of Batman, complete with a total case of WTFBBQ ADD. As I would run from one objective to another, that little voice in my head was like [DURR PRETTY BALLOONS!] and [GLOWY GREEN QUESTION MARK?] No sooner could I re-focus on the task at hand before it was back going [TELEPHONE…RINGING…] and [HELICOPTER!!!] /drool

So yeah, at the start I really had a hard time trying to make heads or tails of WTF I was supposed to be doing. And after spending a few hours with Arkham City I remember poking off my Xbox, taking a step back and thinking “You’ve got a whole mess of problems going on in there, little buddy…” (The Xbox, not me, jerks)

…And then came the second time I tried to play the game. [CAT WOAH-MAN?]

There is a problem with your DLC. It is corrupt. You can’t play this game. Delete it and restart. Loser.

“Ok,” I thought, “no biggie.” So I went ahead and deleted everything, re-downloaded it, and tried again… And again… And again.

In the mean time, the rest of the world played past me, taunting me with tweets about how amazing the game was (Victor Lucas, I’m looking at you!) and how it was truly the GoTY. I kept trying to play, futzing with every manner of deleting, re-downloading, saving, clearing cache, etc. before I eventually gave up. Shout out to all the Giant Bomb community that tried to help, BTW!

In the end, a conversation with Dave Lang helped me work around the issue (or was it that 6MB patch?) and I was able to get back into the game. I LOVED Batman: Arkham City, and while there was an overwhelming amount of content at first I was able to get into a rhythm and had a ton of fun playing through the game. There was so much great content, incredible voice acting and fun distractions [BALLOONS] that this game kept me busy for weeks. Even all of the various challenge scenarios outside the game were a blast, and just running around and exploring the city at my leisure was a ton of fun.

Great work on not getting the Sophmore slump, Rockstead, and props to the guys at Netherrealm who helped out with some engine optimization towards the end of the project. Batman Arkham City is a beautiful, polished and FUN game. That UE3 engine is a powerful thing when in the hands of some serious developers!


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If Batman: Arkham City made me feel like a super hero, Call of Duty reminded me of how bad ass real heroes truly are. My pops was an airborne ranger, and during my wandering teenage years there came a time when he told me that “the best thing you could ever do is join the service.” My teenage angst I always mocked him, saying I would never even consider it because I didn’t want to turn out like him…

“That’s fine,” he would say with a smile, “’they would never take you anyways, ‘cause you are too fat and huge wuss.” J

Jokes aside, video games are a great escape from reality. Whether it is reliving moments as Michael Jordan in 2K, doing the impossible in Tony Hawk or saving the world in Call of Duty, games now a days are more than just entertainment - they are truly inspiring. I sometimes wonder how many people signed up for the Army, Navy or the Marines based on their experiences with games like CoD or Battlefield. Simply put, if I had a game like Modern Warfare 3 growing up I probably would have tried to join the service. MW3 lets you pretend to be a hero, but once you put it down, adrenaline still pumping, you want to go out and be a hero.

I salute Activision and (most importantly) the talented team at Infinity Ward for having the resilience to stick together and deliver us another awesome Call of Duty title – You guys are heroes in your own right for hanging tough throughout all the drama. And while I could arguably never make it in the service at this point, my experiences with Modern Warfare 3 reminded me that there are real heroes out there fighting to make a difference every day. The game inspired me to go out of my way to shake the hands of every soldier and thank them for protecting our country. That kind of small change to my life is reason enough to make Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 a top ten title this year. It is inspiring.

…And to my father: I’m proud to be your son. J

3. Gears of War 3

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I would love to spend a bunch of time writing about how awesome I think Gears of War 3 was, but RAAM’s Shadow was just released and I’d prefer to play that then tell you what you already know – Gears of War 3 is an absolutely amazing game.

As a big fan (I admit I’ve even read one of the books) Gears of War 3 ended the franchise exactly the way I wanted and answered most of the questions that I had. But there is only one issue I have with Gears of War 3: I don’t want the franchise to end.

Thanks to everyone at Epic for making sure even fanboy dorks like me can continue to enjoy this great franchise even after it is supposedly “done.” Hats off to all of you talented folks for consistently delivering an amazing product with each and every iteration, and for creating (and wrapping) one of the most kick ass franchises this decade. You guys are masters of your craft!

2. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

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“Dude, it’s like playing a movie.”

That is the line everyone kept telling me about their experience with Uncharted 3 and it painted a bad picture for me. You say “playing a movie” and I think Heavy Rain, Dragon’s Lair, Mad Dog McCree or Sega’s Time Traveler. I think of games that my wife might like because she doesn’t have to move a camera with a right analog stick.

So I got a little scared… Then I browsed metacritic and of course all my journo buddies are freaking out over it. But even now-a-days you can’t tell who has been touched by a magical PR campaign and who actually gives you the straight dope (part of the reason why I love GB) so I still remained skeptical. I finally went with my gut and plunked down $60 to give it a try. It didn’t matter what everyone else said or wrote, because ultimately in my heart I’ve always been a fan of Naughty Dog, from Way of The Warrior to Jak to Uncharted (Even Jak Combat Racing!) and I knew that they wouldn’t let me down on their latest release.

Hmm...What to say about Uncharted 3... I guess this might summarize it up: To me, this game doesn’t even deserve to be ranked on a scale of 10, or by stars, or by a letter grade, or “likes” or whatever weird system you are into.

It deserves to be rated on a scale of how many times you unconsciously say “holy sh*t” out loud while playing the game. And for me that was at least eleventeen times, three of those during the ship sequence alone.

There are so many jaw dropping parts to this game, whether taking in the sheer beauty of an environment or the ridiculousness of a situation. I remember watching the waterfalls in the jungle level, waiting to see where the texture would repeat itself and IT NEVER DID. At one point I came across a small brook and I ran upstairs to get my wife - “OMG you have to look at this!” – only to get that did-you-really-interrupt-Dr. Drew-and-bring-me-downstairs-to-show-me-virtual-water?” face, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was. But look, this kind of attention to even the smallest details is what makes Uncharted 3 above and beyond everything else that is out there.

Also, I’m not afraid to admit that Drake is a cool dude. In my book, Nathan Drake has replaced Indiana Jones as the coolest adventure hero in entertainment. Even us cynical 30-somethings aspire to be a little bit like Drake… Or at the very least hang with as beautiful women as he does!

The controls and combat have been made even better from Uncharted 2, which is no small task either. At no point are you ever struggling with the controls, except perhaps a few small sections during the Young Drake portion where it began to feel a little Prince-of-Persia-esque as opposed to an upgrade of previous games. This went away as I got further into the game, but that was the only part where I wasn’t completely immersed in the title. The melee combat system is also a lot more fun than it was before, even if it takes a clear nod from Rocksteady’s Arkham Asylum/City.

The number one reason Uncharted 3 made it onto my list this year though? The product has story, characters and gameplay magnificent enough to make me want to spend another 8-10 hours playing it again after I beat it. That alone makes Uncharted 3 a very rare gem in my collection.

Thanks for continuing your hit streak, Naughty Dog, and know that in my heart I never doubted you for a second. J

1. Saints Row: The Third

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I asked my co-worker Matt what he wanted for Christmas. He responded “what is the one game you think I have to play?”

“Oh that is easy, my man – Saints Row: The Third” I said.

“Why is that?”

“Imagine an open world game like GTA, but, like, if I designed it.”

“Sounds pretty horrible,” he said, “Actually, I bet it sucks.”

“Oh yeah? That is good news then because I think you suck.”

If you loved goofing around in Crackdown and never truly matured past the age of 13 (see above), then you will probably consider Saints Row: The Third to be the best game ever created. I’ll never forget everyone continually poking fun of me for talking about this title. I remember John Drake actually doing a real FACE PALM when I said it was the title I was most excited about at E3 this year. And yes, Ryan – I accept your apology for doubting me. The fact of the matter is that I loved the first Saints Row, played the hell out of the second one and just KNEW the third was going to be off the hook.

Saints Row: The Third is an open world game that cranks the insanity to an 11, and then tweaks it somewhere between 15 and 20 as you continue to play. For those of you who haven’t played it, about 15 minutes into the game you are calling in missile strikes and are allowed to keep the weapon and use it whenever you want. Shortly thereafter you find yourself escaping a cloning lab with a naked Russian hulk named Oleg who joins your gang and fights by shoulder charging vehicles and then throwing them. Not long after that you find yourself in a shoot-out on rickshaws being pulled on-foot by a pimp - dressed up as a gimp - who speaks in AUTOTUNE. Oh and he joins your gang, too… And the game actually gets more crazy from there…

Story aside, the customization options are such a blast. You can create your own character and customize him/her whenever you want. You can customize any car in the game. You can customize every member of your gang. Want a crew of Ninjas? Yes you can. You can level up your character and buy new abilities, like the ability to fall from high buildings or get hit by cars and not die, which is hilarious. You can acquire properties - You can even set a nuclear powerplant as your crib and upgrade it with neon lights and helipads. You can participate in mini-games where the sole purpose is to cause as much destruction as you can, or purposely throw yourself in front of traffic for bonus cash. Want a character acting all gangster during a serious cut scene that is dressed in a hot dog outfit? YES YOU CAN. Seriously, the options are almost limitless and are always hysterical.

So far, Saints Row: The Third is the closest we have ever gotten to an open world game that feels more like a playground than a monotonous crime simulator. The game is ludicrous and doesn’t take itself too seriously which is what makes it so much fun. The game is everything I loved about GTA without any of the frustration and all of the freedom right off the bat. The game is just damn FUN all the way through it. Saints Row: The Third is an awesome game and we want another one, STAT! J

I can’t stop smiling just thinking about this game while I write this. I mean come on - THERE IS A GANG MEMBER THAT SPEAKS IN AUTOTUNE. The hilarity of this character alone is worth sixty bucks!