In which I try to rationalize and quantify my top 10 games of '11

So let me start off with saying that my personal list was a little hard to trim down to ten. That's nothing new, of course, so barely warrants mentioning. I ended up looking through my steam list and my shelves and realized that this was definitively the year of the return to PC gaming for me. I played almost nothing on consoles this year, instead opting to further permanently indent my assprint in my desk chair like some sort of grotesque thumbprint at least partially (I assume, since I haven't sniffed it) identifiable by smell. So the long and short of it is if you see a game here that is a multiplatform release, I am referring to the PC version.

10. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Please place your ill-conceived rocket-pack in it's full and upright position.
Please place your ill-conceived rocket-pack in it's full and upright position.

I have always held the Warhammer 40K universe dear to my heart. I am not a fanatic, and I have only played the tabletop game once, at a convention, using a borrowed army. I didn't know what I was doing, but the terms and concepts and dice flying everywhere hooked me, even if not enough to go out and spend my hardly earned allowance on figures and turn their silver pants blue through meticulous and eye-straining use of single bristle brushes and paints with odd names like pustulous green and...cotton...candy....yellow? I don't know. I lost my train of thought.

That said, my love of the mythology and stories of 40K was always at the forefront of my interest in the universe, though I dabbled in the RTS games. The Dawn of War series, as well done as they are, never really drew me in like that one tabletop game did. But I knew that Relic had something there. You could tell they had respect for Games Workshop and their craft and they were interested in not just making a good game, they were committed to respecting the creators and the fans of 40K.

Now, THAT said, when I heard that there was an action game being made in the 40K universe and it was being done by Relic, I was not excited to hear about it. Relic had a pedigree and a proven track record of respect to the material, but they were not known for this type of game. And, yes, they got a few things wrong.

The multiplayer, as fun and engaging as it is, does little to draw you in. The leveling aspects are interesting but lack a real sense of any sort of improvement on your existing weapons, though some of the perks do add some interesting variety to the play. My biggest gripe with the multiplayer was the distinct lack of maps in the initial release. A small handful of maps and two game types seemed to be odd for what is typically more of a robust experience in modern multiplayer shooters. It was acceptable, but nothing that drew me in enough to play more than a couple hours. What I really enjoyed was the single player.

Relic's proven respect for the universe really shines in the single player. There are some things that I am sure die-hard fans that know more than I would complain about, but these niggling details are nothing I care about. Space Marines are not soldiers. Space Marines are an entire battalion in one person. From the opening scene where your character is told that regulations forbid him from jumping out of his dropship to address the small Orc problem, you know that laying waste to those that would oppose the Emperor is what this man is about. I found myself absolutely goggling at the brilliant set pieces, sprawling Gothic architecture, the way that slaughtering the xenos causes them to simply mist into red clouds of viscera was oddly beautiful in it's violence.

9. Dungeons of Dredmor

Ten seconds later, he died. Twice.
Ten seconds later, he died. Twice.

I'd love to say that I have been a die-hard Rogue-like player for years and years. I dabbled with Nethack here and there over time but never really took all the time to advance very far. The concept was always interesting to me, but the barrier for entry was high with it's pages and pages of actions and it's simple ascii graphics. To be fair though, that last bit was what sort of drew me to it and got me into MUDs and other similar bits of escapism, which is why I almost surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Dungeons of Dredmor, since one of the biggest selling points for it is it's accessibility into the genre. Cartoonish, simple, but fun graphics mixed with a decent interface are one of the first things that are in it's favor.

But really, it's the humor that kept me coming back. The references, nods, and winks to so many games and other sources kept me chuckling even as I was getting slaughtered by diggles or getting burned alive by a floor-trap. And that's the appeal of these games. It's almost zen-like in how you just have to let go of the concept of winning and just accept the inevitability of dying. And you will die. Over and over. Perhaps you can't wrap your head around it, but think of games like Super Meat Boy. You will die in that and maybe you will never succeed, but every time you got just a little bit farther, that moment of adrenaline and elation were just as strong as the last time you make it a bit farther.

With a low price point, an even cheaper DLC that adds in more monsters, more environments, and some new skills to pick from such as Werediggle, you really can't go wrong with the shelf-life on this accessible and entertaining entry to the shelf of masochism that is roguelikes.

8. Magicka

Oh hey, you got a little...fire...just...right there.
Oh hey, you got a little...fire...just...right there.

What is it with the Swedes lately? Lots of great stuff coming out of that country. If I could buy the country as a whole a beer, I would. I'd imagine it would be a very large beer though, so maybe I could just....shake their hand.

Magicka hits on a lot of great notes. The humor is obvious and widespread. Most people I know say that they picture the wizards in the world of Magicka as not dissimilar to those in the Discworld novels, and it's fairly accurate. Most of those wizards aren't really known for their devastating and ridiculously overpowered spells, though. They mostly just eat and drink and avoid work.

Wizards in Magicka are definitely not afraid to get their hands dirty as they fling impressive spells using a very imaginative and unfortunately a little difficult to grasp (much less master) interface. There are eight different elements of magic and you mix and match them to do different effects. Earth shoots out rocks as projectiles while fire acts like a short-range flamethrower. Combine them and you shoot out a flaming ball of rock. As you progress through the hilarious and often downright insane campaign you will find spellbooks that unlock special spells that you can cast with specific combinations of elements. There also is a bit of a loot factor as you find interesting replacements for your default staff.

The DLC was fast and furious for this game and I honestly think it sort of worked against them. While a lot of it was very clever and referential, I found myself overwhelmed by the number of robes you could pick and all the strange attributes that came with the wardrobe changes. There were robes that referenced Space Marine, Day of the Tentacle, Reservoir Dogs, amongst others. But, even if it was a little overwhelming, you have to hand it to a studio that is willing to continually churn out content for the devoted few that stuck with this game long past it's initial hype. That hype, unfortunately, was quickly deflated by massive bugs on day one launch that frankly made it unplayable by many. They took a jab at themselves with the addition of the 'blue screen of death' spell added in as free content when they fixed most things. For a small studio, I can forgive them their mistakes and just enjoy blowing things up with fire lasers and ice shard shields.

7. Star Wars: The Old Republic

You can get a Wookie Companion. Shut up and take my money!
You can get a Wookie Companion. Shut up and take my money!

A recent release, this game shot up very quickly for me and since it's release, most nights off work have been spent playing at least a little bit of this. Dubbed as one of the most expensive games ever produced, most people thought this would be a flop the closer it got to release and the more that was seen of it. I held onto hope, though, and preordered it despite my love/hate relationship with MMOs. I always want them to recapture that first few months of World of Warcraft. I was in love with that game for a while, but, my fundamental flaw with multiplayer games came through. I just don't like multiplayer that much. And I hate multiplayer with strangers even more. So the further I went in it, the less interested I got as it became more and more of a necessity to play with other random people. I never did hit the level cap in that, even before the first expansion.

The Old Republic scratches the itch that I have had for years now, the one that popped up every time a new MMO that had promise came out. Rift had some interesting pieces to it, but it really never pulled me in like I wanted it to. Star Wars hooked me from the moment I started it up. I'd likely equal parts the addictive grind of MMOs, the nostalgia factor of even just the sounds from the movies, and the Dirty Kick.

It's such a trite thing, and it seems like a really ridiculous thing to hook me, but the Smuggler class has an ability learned fairly early on that will stun opponents for a second or two and it's called 'Dirty Kick'. It's exactly what you're thinking. That space pirate bothering you with his lightsaber-knockoff-vibroblade? Kick him in the nuts. That slavering space beast looking to bite your face off? Kick him in the nuts. That space lady getting too interested in what you'd look like riddled with holes? Kick her in th....ok, maybe it doesn't exactly work right all the time, but come on. Even the ICON for the skill is hilarious.

The crafting is interesting and varied and they take some interesting approaches to getting you back into the action rather than having dozens of people all standing around a forge hammering at thin air while they make their fifteenth Scabulous Groinplate of the Weasel in a row, hoping to scrape enough gold in the auction to buy their next set of skills.

In fairness, I have yet to reach level 25, the level at which you get your 'mount', but I am finding myself engrossed in this game in a way that I haven't felt since those heady first days of WoW.

6. Bastion

Kid just raged a while.
Kid just raged a while.

I am unsure what I can say about Bastion that hasn't been said a thousand fold by the bomb-crew. This game is amazing. Beautiful graphics, engaging story, narration that is engrossing without being distracting. This game hits every mark that a quality game should. I liked this game so much I not only bought it twice (once for 360 and once for PC) but I also bought the soundtrack. I convinced multiple people to buy it as well. I even bought it for some people myself because they didn't believe me.

The only reason this game didn't really rank higher for me, frankly, was I didn't really have much interest in playing through it again. I never finished it on both systems, but every time I look at it, or think of it, or listen to the music I get a little smile. Supergiant games got my respect on this one, not least of all because of the small team that developed it. From the first moment they were brought in for Building The Bastion, I could see this would be something interesting. I, like others, didn't realize just how good it could be. I might go back and play it through again sometime, maybe even on new game plus, but it will probably be a while.

5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Oh man, Charlie really ran into hard times when he left The Island
Oh man, Charlie really ran into hard times when he left The Island

I came kind of late to the Deus Ex party. I didn't have my ticket, so I only got to sort of look in from the outside. The original Deus Ex looked fascinating, but I just don't think it holds up without a decent peppering of nostalgia. Since I didn't play it until long after it came out, I really feel that the reason I didn't play more of it is because it just was not very accessible with more modern game mechanics so deeply seated when I played it.

That said, I really looked forward to the latest in the Deus Ex series, having played at least enough of the original to find the world to be interesting, if not engaging enough to pull me in. This game, however, did pull me in and hooked me good. I found myself exploring every possible way in and out of a destination, looking to find those little hidey holes that got you into a room in a way that you didn't think of. It kept happening all the way up through to the end. I would find my way into a room and then find a different way out only to say to myself 'Oh, wow, that would have been way easier if I had gone that way'. I would search meticulously for every little detail and scrap of information I could find. I would break into people's computers and read their email like I was Zero Cool himself.

There....are flaws with this game, to be sure. The atrociously mistreated endings with recycled stock footage of the polar ice caps and all text headlines really made me feel dissatisfied. Thankfully they made it easy to see all the possible endings with a quick reload, though this hardly excuses that most of the rest of the game had really interesting design with it's impressive and sometimes intimidating sprawl cities reminiscent of classic cyberpunk backdrops. The jarring boss fights were frustrating, with the first occurrence being the first time I really got angry at the game, thinking I had done something horribly wrong and was just not seeing the missing puzzle piece. Thankfully, the later fights got a little more excusable if only through judicious use of repeated grenades to the face of the other cyberpeople.

DLC came as too little too late to draw me back on this one, the endings leaving a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Up until that point though, and overlooking the bad boss fights, this is a great game with a really engaging and interesting story...though HR really needs to discuss racial discrimination to whoever designed that homeless lady. Ugh. You know the one. Captain.

4. Portal 2

Your Partner in Science. Your stupid, stupid partner.
Your Partner in Science. Your stupid, stupid partner.

Portal 2 is the only game I ever took a day off of work just to play. And I played through the entire single player campaign that night. It's not the longest, but it really is one of the greatest experiences I have ever had. The exhilaration I got in just the first five minutes of playing was amazing and it kept going through the whole stretch. The only stumbling blocks I ran into were the occasional puzzle that I just couldn't wrap my mind around. A quick wander off to do something else for a bit cleared my mind and removed the tunnel vision that was keeping me from solving what I would thereafter be almost angry at myself for not being able to solve.

The voicework is, in my opinion, what really sold me on this game. I found myself begging for more dialogue in some of the quieter moments...not that I didn't appreciate those as well. The times when you would walk into a new environment and just bask in the immensity of it as you are continually amazed at how massive Aperture really is were frequent without being overwhelming. Despite bringing up many new questions, it certainly answered a lot of questions, particularly through the fantastic voicework of J.K. Simmons as Cave Johnson and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley.

The twists and reversals of character roles actually got me, though I think it would have been more obvious if I hadn't been devouring the campaign like a starving man at a hot dog eating contest. I regret not doling it out slowly, a little bit at a time, over a longer period. We all know how slow the clocks run on Valve time. If I had to pick any gripe with Portal 2, it would be just how quickly it went.

But that's only half the game. The co-op campaign is as long as the single player campaign and if I can make any recommendation on it, it would be please make sure that you and your partner both have not played through it before. The experience of both you and another coming across a room and seeing the different approaches to an unsolved puzzle is a large part of the experience, and while you certainly can play through it where one or both of you have solved the puzzles before, I don't recommend it. Really, some of the most fun I have had all year was me and a friend of mine mocking and insulting each other, tricking each other to go through portals only to come out the other side staring into a trap.

I dabbled with some user-created levels when I had exhausted everything Portal 2 had to offer, but it just wasn't the same. I certainly give a nod to the community for the effort in duplicating the wonder of Valve's team, but it's just....not quite there.

3. Terraria

This is basically what my eyes look like after a long night digging.
This is basically what my eyes look like after a long night digging.

I have whittled away far more nights off with this game than I would care to admit. I have sunk hours and hours into digging up just a little bit more of some sort of ore until my eyes stung with exhaustion. This is one of the most addictive experiences I have ever had, and damn your Minecraft. Minecraft just never really appealed to me, even though in describing this game to people I have to say it to bridge some sort of language barrier. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Minecraft, and the fact that saying it to describe Terraria to people proves that Notch created something special in that.

But again, it's no Terraria. I can't recall many games where I have actually intentionally scrapped my progress, sometimes dozens of hours, just to restart a world and see all the things I can find. Every little crevice, every little nook and cranny are fascinating to me. I have multiple worlds. I have worlds where I farm things. I have my first world where I keep most of my stuff, despite a couple updates making that world almost worthless. I have a world that I only play with a certain friend, someone that we agreed we would only explore it together.

Maybe it's the 16-bit style graphics or maybe it's the charming music. It certainly has at least something to do with the exploration and discovery. I spent some time looking at wikis for it, but there is something far more fun in finding things out on your own. Honestly, if you aren't willing to spend the $10 on this, much less the frequent cheaper price from steam sales (5 bucks right now! Go, goddamnit! Go!) than I hate you as a person. Really. Go die.

Please don't do that last bit. That was rude of me. But do the first part.

2. Saint's Row: The Third

Yeah, sure. Ok.
Yeah, sure. Ok.

I never even touched the first Saint's Row. I only played the second Saint's Row after some people recommended it as a nice alternative to GTA. See, I have a confession. I hate the Grand Theft Auto series. I find it boring and repetitive. I love the concept of an open world game where you do bad things, but it just...never clicked for me. I have played at least a couple hours of every GTA game and with the exception of the first two, I found nothing that really interested me. So when I heard about Saint's Row 2, I thought I would give it a try. I played it on the PC and, as many flaws as it had, I loved it and played it most of the way through.

Saint's Row: The Third, though, I played through to 100% completion. Every side mission, every assassination, every carjacking. I earned 100% gang territory domination through effort, not money. Co-op in SR3 is both fun and seamless, with missions completed working just fine. Some smart, subtle changes to side missions happen when playing co-op versus single player.

I found myself really wishing I could just go back and play certain missions, with a certain rooftop penthouse invasion coming to mind first and foremost. I played that mission co-op and the laugh out loud in joy moment when you and another person jump out of that helicopter while Kanye West's 'Power' played in the background is near perfect.

The only flaws I can really call out on this is the issues that occasionally came up as a result of physics. Clipping a corner on a turn sometimes put you to a full stop when it should have sent you spinning, and despite being invincible to everything, sometimes being in a car when it blew up would kill you anyway. That said, I honestly find almost nothing wrong with this game and would recommend it to almost anyone. The absolute absurdity of the game is tempered with the impressive technical achievements of an only rarely broken game and even the more tedious side missions were still fun in retrospect, even if I did yell at that damn insurance fraud more than a couple times.

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Man, wait till he lands. I am going to punch that dragon so hard.
Man, wait till he lands. I am going to punch that dragon so hard.

This game has consumed my soul and spit it out only to laugh as I ask for more. I had dreams about this game. I would actively seek out anyone that I personally knew to ever have played a game in their lives and ask them what they were up to in Skyrim, knowing damn well that the chances of them playing it would be near 100%. Everyone played or is playing this game and with damn good reason. It's near perfect. Even it's flaws are near perfect. The visual and system bugs that always pop up in open world games are, of course, ever-present hear and I definitely had some frustrating ones but I enjoyed them none the less.

One that particularly stood out was sneak suddenly just stopped working. I had spent a long, long time getting sneak up to 100, to finding the perfect weapons and armor combination, enchanting, spells, everything to kill almost anything in one hit. It was glorious every time I would kill someone right in front of their friend and they wouldn't even blink. Then suddenly I loaded it up and went into sneak and was immediately spotted. I moved to a new area, and the same thing happened. I would get charged by Forsworn and Necromancers that saw me from what seemed like miles away and for two whole levels it was a struggle to survive, to hold my own in the worst situation I could imagine and I absolutely loved it. I was angry as hell, but I still loved it. Then sneak started working again and I was back to murdering people.

As of this moment, I have 74 hours logged in Skyrim, but I think Steam is lying to me. A couple weeks ago, I had a hard drive failure and the drive that died was where all my games were installed. I replaced it and reinstalled and was devastated until I realized the saves were on another drive by default and I jumped back in for more.

Even at all that time I have yet to see what looks like even half the map. I have pages and pages of quests yet to finish. I have barely even touched the main quest, despite being 6 levels away from the level cap. If Saints Row The Third is for everyone, Skyrim is for everyone that ever was or will be. I realize that I have honestly said very little about what makes this game great and frankly, I am unsure how to quantify it. It sates every desire and to me is more social that MMOs. There is barely a day that goes by when I don't run into someone else playing it and instead of hellos and how are yous, it's a back and forth of the latest cool things we found. I can't even imagine how much worse things will go for me when DLC hits.

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Game-Themed Drinks

After those game-themed bar nights, I always thought the idea of drinks designed and named after little nods to various games was a neat idea. There's a site that compiles them that is pretty good. 
http://www.thedrunkenmoogle.com/

 I particularly like the Fat-Man, Fallout 3 themed drink using Dr. Pepper and Vodka, Whiskey, and Rum.

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Humoring Gordon Freeman

Years back, I played through Half Life. Then I played Half Life 2 and early on, when I got to the point where Barney joked about Gordon Freeman putting his M.I.T. degree to good use by flipping a switch, it got me thinking.
 
What if Gordon Freeman is mentally retarded? Or perhaps just really slow. Brain injury? At no point in any of the games is there anything that is done that would demonstrate some sort of advanced degree or special training. In the first game he pushed a box on a track. The argument for him being specially trained is that it's a dangerous experiment and he would know when to insert the material for the experiment to work, but really.....they pretty much just stuck him in a hazard suit and had him go push a box.
 
There are a number of instances where people either congratulate him on a really well done job when it doesn't really seem like he did anything that involved using his head, and in most cases when anything needs to be done on a computer or anything complex needs to be done, either Alyx or Kleiner or even one of the Vortigaunts does it for him.
 
Where is the office of the genius theoretical physicist at Black Mesa? Why is this genius reduced to an errand boy at the facility? Why is Alyx the one to always open doors for him?
 
Every time I replay any of the Half Life games I have this perspective now where all the scientists are in on it. They all like Gordon, so they make him feel good about himself by praising him for the mundane tasks he completes. In his mind he's a brilliant scientist, beating on computers with his crowbar. When he leaves, other people just shake their heads and sigh, saying 'poor guy. he's so nice and willing to help. shame about the head trauma.'

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