2011 was a good year for me. Sure, the world may have been racked by natural disasters, economic collapses, random acts of violence, the endless stupidity of GOP debates, and another terrible Transformers movie, but while society on the whole seems to be going to hell, on a personal scale I really enjoyed myself this year. I mean, yes, I’m still an misanthropic, anti-social bastard who spent a good amount of time cooped up inside, but I’ve had fun. I played a lot of video games. Yes, those hundreds of hours I spent this year in front of my TV or PC probably could’ve been better spent learning a skill or, y’know, getting laid, but hey, you take what happiness you can find. So now that I’m finished making possibly the most depressing and self-deprecating statement ever, allow me to present to you my favorite games of 2011.
2011 will probably be remembered as a tumultuous year for the games industry; “core” game publishers and developers continued to struggle, while smaller developers like Zynga and Rovio made record profits thanks to the growing popularity of social games and iPhone/Android apps. Both Sony and Nintendo launched new handheld systems this year, and both of them have gotten off to rocky starts: the 3DS’s intially tepid sales forced Nintendo to quickly drop its price, and Sony’s brand new Playstation Vita seems to have been met with an equally apathetic reaction from Japanese gamers when it was released there two weeks ago. While it’s still too early to make a judgement regarding the Vita this early, at the very least, the situation looks more hopeful for Nintendo’s embattled 3DS: thanks to the before mentioned price-drop, as well as some recent quality games like Super Mario 3D Land and Monster Hunter, the 3DS has enjoyed strong sales and growing popularity as of late. It’s amazing that Nintendo was able to pull off such a 180 with the system, and you can bet damn sure that Sony will employ a similar strategy if Vita sales remain the way they are now.
But while gamers may have greeted the new generation of handhelds with an emphatic “meh,” there was still plenty for gamers to be happy about in 2011: this Fall was absolutely fully loaded with quality titles, and while this year in particular was somewhat heavy on sequels, (a sign of the harsh economic conditions that have caused publishers to play it safe rather than take chances with new IP,) I don’t think anyone can complain about the flood of the sequels when they result in games like Dead Space 2, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, or Forza 4.
Of course, 2011 had it’s share of disappointments as well: The eternally delayed Duke Nukem Forever finally came out, and proved that somethings aren’t worth waiting for; the gameplay was tired and uninspired, and the attempts at humor just came off as forced, lame, and embarrassing. While that game did manage to sell well and has a few (completely misguided) fans, I think it’s safe to say that Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps the biggest trainwreck to happen to games since John Romero’s Daikatana.
But hey, this article isn’t about the worst games of the year. New Year’s is a time to celebrate the year that’s just passed, and I’m here to tell you about my favorite games of the year. Now, some caveats before I get started: I’m only one man, and I haven’t had time to play certain games this year, despite my sedentary lifestyle. While I’m sure Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Skyrim are great games (possibly even Game of the Year contenders,) I haven’t had time to play them yet so they aren’t on this list. I apologize if my difference in opinion/inability to play everything offends your fanboy senses, but hey, this is my list, so deal with it. Anyway, without further ado, here are my favorite games of 2011:
5. Shadows of the Damned
An excerpt from one of the achievement/trophy descriptions from Shadows of the Damned: “Get five headshots in a row with THE BIG BONER.”
If that doesn’t make you at least want to try Shadows of the Damned, then I don’t know what will. A third person shooter coming from the minds of Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil, Godhand, Vanquish) and Goichi Suda (No More Heroes, Killer7, the upcoming Lollipop Chainsaw,) Shadows of the Damned is one of the most unique games of the year, combining a completely bizarre story line and presentation (to give any details about it would spoil it,) with the over-the-shoulder, third person gunplay that Mikami pioneered in RE4, perfected in Vanquish, and once again polishes up in this game.
In many ways, Shadows of the Damned is the game that Duke Nukem Forever should’ve been: it’s shooter elements, while simple, are still properly challenging and satisfying, and its jokes, while still intentionally juvenile and immature, are genuinely funny and clever, where as DNF’s “humor” really only appealed to dudes who think “Dude, Where’s My Car” is a cinematic masterpiece. With it’s hilarious dialogue, polished gameplay, and an amazing soundtrack by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka, Shadows of the Damned seems destined to be regarded as a future cult classic, much like Mikami’s own GodHand. Do yourself a favor and give this trip through Hell a fair chance.
There were a lot of good downloadable games this year: LIMBO, Radiant Silvergun, Resident Evil 4, Pixeljunk Sidescroller, etc. But among all these great titles, one stood out: Supergiant Games’s Bastion, an action-RPG that manages to be as addictive as it is beautiful, a game that effortlessly manages to prove that the only difference between a downloadable title and a “full” retail game is a cardboard box.
Like Diablo and PSO before it, Bastion is an action RPG with real time combat motivated by that insatiable need to collect better customizable gear, and just like Diablo and PSO, fighting your way through a swath of monsters and turning your version of The Kid (the only name given to the game’s protagonist,) is impossibly addictive. Unlike those games, however, Bastion actually has a story that’s worth hearing, and as much as I kept playing because the game itself was fun, I also kept playing because I genuinely wanted to know what happened next in the story, and I think that might be the only time I’ve been able to say that about an action RPG.
Bastion is also damn beautiful; if you ever need to prove that games are a legitimate medium for art, use Bastion as your prime example. Despite the graphics being 2D and tile-based, every single pixel of Bastion is filled with personality and life, and it’s stylized, painterly style is far more impressive and thoughtfully designed that most big-budget games. Playing Bastion is like getting to experience the best parts of Diablo, reading your favorite book, and looking at your favorite painting all at once. Don’t let the “downloadable” stigma fool you; Bastion is easily a tier above most $60, boxed retail releases.
3. Batman: Arkham City
Many people (myself included,) used to hold Batman: Arkham Asylum up as the best superhero game ever made. Well, that may no longer be true, since it’s sequel has arrived, and while it makes it’s fair share of missteps, Arkham City easily matches the quality of the original, and the two of them together could be taken as the definitive Batman experience, perhaps even moreso than the Nolan Batman movies or even (nerd sacrilege incoming) the comics. As you swing and glide from building to building, surveying Gotham’s streets for clues or stopping random crimes, it’s hard to fall victim to the delusion that you really are Batman, and not just some schmuck playing a videogame.
Arkham City just doesn’t succeed thematically either, as the gameplay succeeds on nearly every level as well; while I was still a bit disappointed with the somewhat shallow combat, Arkham City’s peerless stealth gameplay and adventure game like puzzles easily make up for any other shortcomings the game may have. While Metal Gear and Splinter Cell get top billing in the stealth genre, I think I could easily argue that Rocksteady’s Batman games have superior stealth mechanics over those two genre stalwarts. There’s simply nothing more satisfying than swooping in from above to string up some criminal by the legs, then dropping his unconscious body on the next hapless thug to walk by.
While the game will easily entertain anyone who plays it, Batman fans will find Arkham City’s crime-infested slum to be Heaven. The game is absolutely loaded with Batman fanservice, with almost every major villain in the series making an appearance, as well as loads of cameos from Batman’s supporting cast, and an endless amount of sly nods and references to the comics, animated series’, and movies.
2. Portal 2
The original Portal was the surprise highlight of Valve’s Orange Box. While everyone bought the Orange Box initially because of Half-Life 2, I think most people ended up enjoying the short (but sweet) Portal far more than Valve’s magnum opus. The puzzle game became a sleeper hit, spawning one of the internet’s most famous (though over-used) memes, and when Valve announced that they were making a full length sequel, people understandably got very excited.
Despite all the hype that preceeded Portal 2’s release, it managed to satisfy even the most overblown expecations: the game took everything that was great about Portal, fixed it’s one main flaw (the length,) and managed to build an even more complex game on top of the original’s foundation. The puzzles were more challenging (though still made sense,) the story and the characters were just as well-written and witty, and on top of all that, Valve even managed to add in an excellent co-op mode that featured all the best qualities of the single player campaign, but with extra complex puzzles that could only be completed with two people.
Portal 2 is easily the best game Valve has ever developed, and it’s easy to see why Gabe Newell and company are worshipped by gamers and fellow game developers alike. In an age where nobody seems like they can release a finish product on day one (*cough* Bethesda *cough*), Valve has managed to create a polished, balanced, memorable game that plays perfectly from beginning to end.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Yes, yes, I know, its terribly cliche to get Zelda a Game of the Year award, since Zelda games always get the Game of the Year award for whatever year they were released in, but to be honest, they’ve all deserved it (yes, even Twilight Princess in 2006,) and likewise I reserve the same sentiment for the newest Zelda game, Skyward Sword.
There’s a lot of things that Skyward Sword does that makes it worthy of being the Game of the Year: it manages to finally thoughtfully evolve and substantially improve upon the Zelda formula that was codified by 1998’s Ocarina of Time, and yes, it’s the Zelda game that finally manages to usurp that game’s title as the best in the series. It’s unique, Impressionist like art-style and graphical filter manages to make the game look quite pretty, despite appearing on the antiquated Wii hardware, and it’s perhaps the first Zelda game in history to have a story and narrative that actually matter.
But on top of all that, Skyward Sword manages to achieve a feat that was previously thought impossible: it provides a polished, fully featured “core” game that’s controlled almost entirely via motion controls. Now, ever since the Wii’s debut, motion controls have been given a (deserved) reputation for simply being “waggle” and have been mostly confined to casual games. Skyward Sword proves all those assumptions wrong, as it’s perhaps the first “core”-focused game to provide motion controls that aren’t just accurate and waggle-free, but also manage to genuinely improve the experience: the motion controls add a new layer to combat, where physical technique plays as much of a role as timing or spacing, providing an entirely unique and satisfying experience that couldn’t have been done with a standard controller.
The Wii was released 5 years ago, and despite a handful of worthwhile titles, it’s honestly failed to capitalize on the potential of it’s then-seemingly revolutionary controller. Motion controls have been stigmatized as being a “casual” fad, and even the improved motion tracking of Microsoft’s Kinect remains for the most part, limited to casual and music games. Well, despite the Wii’s lackluster performance in the minds of most gamers over the last 5 years, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword manages to finally cash in all the potential that the Wii initially had and previously never delivered on. It single-handedly justifies the existence of motion controls, and even without considering it’s revolutionary control scheme, it’s simply one of the most polished and well designed games of the year. Regardless of any hatred for the Wii or motion controls you may harbor, give The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a try: with its nearly flawless gameplay, beautiful graphics and music, and yes, its innovative controls, it’s guaranteed to be regarded with the same esteem and considered just as influential 10 years from now as Ocarina of Time is currently. A true classic.