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GOTY 2011

Top ten games for 2011. Didn't play everything I wanted to, but here's what made it out of what I did.

As a side note, Dan Teasdale's recommendation of Kerbal Space Program? Fucking amazing. That game is crack. But I'm going to wait til next year to put it on my list, since it'll be more of a game then. Also, I'm like 99% sure that if I played that copy of Rayman Origins sitting on my desk that it'd make the list... but I didn't. Sorry, Michel Ancel.

List items

  • It's the best. No other game packs as much punch in as tight a package. Starting with Half-Life, Valve has shown the industry how to tell stories on all levels: implicit or expository; environmental or scripted. Portal 2 is on an entire level. Wolpaw and his writing staff manage to tell not just the story of a girl and her passive-aggressive robot friend, but of the history of a company spanning nearly four decades without actually *telling* you anything.

    It certainly doesn't hurt that the portal mechanic is still fresh and exciting, and despite the game being loaded up with more mechanics one would suspect it could bear, incredibly smart level design keeps everything down-to-Earth. Unlike that incredible ending.

    If there were anything to complain about, I'd point at the game's relative ease. The co-op puzzles do get somewhat complex, and are probably the game's best achievements from a gameplay perspective, but even so the critical path to most puzzles is clear enough that one never really needs to do any truly critical thinking.

  • Look, I get it. You knew what to expect from this game, and you're butthurt that it didn't somehow blow away your expectations.

    Who the fuck cares?

    I don't think the criticism Naughty Dog has endured from the staff is fair. I don't understand the complaints about the combat; I played UC2 on normal and UC3 on hard, and yet I can count a dozen instances in 2 where I would die repeatedly in firefights and not be able to tell you how I could have done better, and only about three fights in this game where this was the case. If you're playing Uncharted like Gears of War, you're doing it wrong. Uncharted is about being in motion and constantly changing the equation of the battle with better vantage points — after all, it's what the AI is trying to do to you. It's fair to blame the game for maybe not teaching you this fact, but calling the combat definitively worse for it simply isn't fair.

    The cruise ship part of the storyline takes a lot of flack, too, for being narratively unnecessary. I don't know if as many people would be crying foul about this had NDI's own commentary not mentioned how the setpieces come before the story was devised. Was the train in UC2 really more "meaningful"? The entire point of it was supposedly to "rescue" Chloe, and yet in the end she just says "naw dude."

    Gripes about other people's opinions aside, I don't know what to say about why this game is great that isn't immediately obvious to anyone who's played it. Amy Hennig is getting better with each iteration at weaving a character focus in with the treasure hunt, and the action is as good as it's ever been.

    My only knock on the game is that the last half hour or so aren't quite as incredible as UC2. I didn't even mind the "lost city environment" retread, but the last game did such an incredible job at keeping you on your toes for the whole last chapter that it's a shame such a thing wasn't replicated here.

  • No other game serves up as much compressed awesome as this. Many give you better, more awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, or meaningful experiences, but they're not awesome. They're not "jumping from a helicopter into a nuclear plant cooling tower to steal a Matrix chair from the Tron gang" awesome. So that makes them not awesome.

    Enough has been said about the ludicrousness of this game on this site that I'm going to forgo the rehash altogether. Instead I'm going to talk about how immensely difficult it was for Volition to do what they did here.

    A lot of people look on a surface level at how "crazy" SR3 is and how "crazy" SR2 is, and say "well, all they did was get it right this time." And, that reductively, it's true. But the reality is that the kind of insanity that this game delivers is actual, sustained goofiness and humor that is as remarkable in its subtleties as it is in its concept, *and* is backed up by quality, top-notch gameplay. Saints Row 2 was, in my opinion, *really fucked up* mechanically. Aiming and shooting just didn't seem like it felt right, and everything fell into place around that. And even ignoring that, there's a vast gulf between "hey look a truck spewing shit everywhere" and the elaborate shit this game gets up to.

    The reason it doesn't land higher on this list has been previously stated: it's too short. I'd rather it be this length than it be diluted with filler content, but I feel like if Volition had another three months with the game, they could have really amped it up to another level.

  • It's vast, it's beautiful, it's terrifyingly open, and it's a lot of fun to play. You could get lost for days just pointing your character at each icon that shows up on your compass. The moment I got out of the Cave of Introduction, I headed in the opposite direction from what I was instructed, and instead found the city of Falkreath. First thing I did in the game, and half the staff hasn't even been yet.

    Here's the thing, though. Well, here's two things.

    1. I work a lot. When I get home, I'm exhausted, mentally and physically. I want to be able to pop in a game for less than an hour and get something great out of it. And while exploration is fun and the mines are neat, the return on my time simply isn't as high as with these other games.

    2. The missions, somewhat reductively, are all fetch or assassination quests. Yeah, this can be said about a lot of games, but usually they give you a good story reason that you have to do these things. By the time the 50th stranger tells me that they need so and so killed in so and so mine because of some reason or another, I start to lose interest. I start to see through the fabric of the game — these quests are here as an excuse to put icons on your map and to direct you around the world. It's a pretty world, and exploring it is fun, but it's not *that* fun. I feel like there are better-spun fantasy RPG experiences to be had this year from a story and quest perspective.

  • In Arkham Asylum, you were Batman dealing with some crisis on some island for a few hours. Arkham City makes you *Batman*. You can swoop around anywhere, do anything, and for at least as many hours as you'd like to, the content probably won't run out. The open world really elevates the game in many, many ways.

    Add onto that a reasonably well-assembled storyline with an all-star cast, even more gadgets to use both in and out of combat, and an update to the fighting mechanic that made the first game start out, and you've got yourself a great sequel.

    But they whiffed the ending. =(

  • I always got consoles late in the generation as a kid, so I was generally limited to playing shareware games on the PC. It turns out that most of the shareware you could find in those days were puzzle games. There were puzzles to be had of every persuasion. Good thing I like puzzle games.

    No other game captures my love for the genre and for that era of my gaming history as well as Spacechem. The core mechanic is brilliant — the programming of your waldos to perform various actions is like crack for engineers. The puzzles are well-made, and the story, while simply told, is surprisingly effective.

    The best feature in this game, though, is that little graph that pops up after you beat a puzzle and tells you where you fell relative to everyone else that's come before you. You get graded on quickest runtime, fewest parts, and fewest reactors. Sitting in front of a reactor for an hour or more trying to figure out how to save just one more step per cycle is twice as rewarding when that little chart pops up and the line proclaims you to be far ahead of the pack.

  • It's kind of amazing how well this game sustains the high bar it sets at its outset throughout hours and hours of content. The game's film noir milieu is perfectly executed, the facial recognition is well-done, and the crimes are sufficiently intriguing to carry the game, but what really made it stand out in my mind is how consistent it was in achieving its goals.

    One would expect that it'd be difficult to construct a game of this length, using the mechanics provided, that wouldn't end up feeling like it was full of filler. But for the first half of the game, you're so stoked about everything that's happening around you (dude, it's noir man! it's happening! you're living it!) that you don't care if the cases are more than villain-of-the-hour, and for the back half the gradual crescendo of conspiracy tying the cases together and the gradual slide of character into darkness sustain the game's intrigue and suspense masterfully.

  • I didn't actually play this game. I did, however, watch quite a few hours of it being played on OnLive's little "see what other people are playing right now!" feature. I'm sure the experience would have been better if I'd been making my own decisions, and I do intend to pick it up sometime next year, but what I saw was enough to convince me of how great this game is. Patrick Klepek's point about it was on the right track but not completely made. Here's, I think, the full argument.

    The original Deus Ex came out at a time when games were simpler in scope, and generally pretty lightly scripted. The trend was all about giving you room after room and arena after arena of great action gameplay, but it was all very simply done and pretty freeform. There were, of course, exceptions to be had, but if you wanted to play the latest and greatest 3d games, that was more or less what you got. The freedom that the game gives you, and that it's so celebrated for, was remarkable because it was difficult to do. At that point in the industry's development, ambitious design produced more Daikatana's than it did Deus Ex's.

    The fact that DXHR manages to recreate that quality of the original feels significant for two reasons.

    The first is that game design has changed so much from how it was when the original came out. The concept of a corridor shooter was barely known — everything was about wide open spaces. Action setpiece moments were unheard of; it would be years before games like Call of Duty and Uncharted would come to redefine what action should be in a video game. The expectation for games to deliver a dense, tight, action-packed experience was nonexistent a decade ago and pumped up to unrealistic levels now. The fact that DXHR manages to adapt the freedom of the original into the modern era and still deliver reasonably well on those expectations is pretty impressive.

    The second reason is similar to the first, but with a different conclusion. With action games becoming more and more scripted and on-rails, it's impressive and important that this game came along and completely ignored those trends, and did so in a way that still convinced people to buy it. I think it's remarkable enough for that reason to stand among the top ten games of the year.

  • I've had great respect for Greg Kasavin for many, many years now. Back when he was preaching MGS to an office full of people who for the most part wouldn't have any of it, I came to like him for his thoughtfulness about aspects of game design that most reviewers don't care to contemplate. It was no real surprise to me when he headed off to become a producer at EA, and later went to design games for himself with the small team at Supergiant.

    Bastion is remarkable for how many different sensibilities it marries, and they all make sense for having come from or been influenced by Greg. The great storytelling is the result of his endless thought on that dark art. The tight gameplay, with moves that can be cancelled out of are among the best you'll find anywhere, fighting game or no.

    That the art and music are among the best I've ever experienced are just icing on the cake.

  • I hate the fact that "real" mini-turbos are probably gone for good. And, no Mario Kart will ever be as mechanically interesting and demanding as Double Dash. But Mario Kart is great, so I'll play it if they put one out.

    And hey, this one's pretty great. The flight thing is neat, I guess, and the new lucky number 7 powerup is pretty fantastic, but what really makes this iteration good enough to land on this list is the fantastic level design. The usual boring courses are in there, of course, and Bowser's castle can't compete with the barely controlled fury of the Wii edition, but there are more courses in this game that I would consider great than any previous iteration, and that makes this game stand out amongst its brethren.