With 2011 behind us, I wanted to take a look at my favorite games from the past year. This list won’t be exactly what you find everywhere else — for one, I didn’t play every top game, like a gaming website would have — but is instead a reflection of my personal top 11 for the year.
That basically means Skyrim didn’t make the cut, because I didn’t love Oblivion, and haven’t bothered to take the plunge on its sequel yet. Maybe I’ll retroactively want to add it sometime in 2012, but as of today, it’s not a thing for me.
I’m not big on numbering a Games of the Year list. I didn’t feel compelled to do so when I used to write about video games as a job, so if I’m just doing it now for kicks, it’s certainly not happening. Just know that out of the [embarrassingly large number of] games I played in 2011, these are my top 11.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (Xbox 360, PS3): The title of this game is a lie — for the most part, I have more questions than I did before I popped the disc in — but that’s about the only complaint I have with this game. If you didn’t like Assassin’s Creed games before, Revelations isn’t going to change that for you (unless your only experience is with the dull first entry in the series, anyway). But if you are already hooked, then this is one more injection of an addicting series, meant to keep you happy until November 2012.
Constantinople bustles with activity, the people of various geographical and religious backgrounds, and is full of both the natural and constructed beauty that befits a city that acted as one of the hubs of civilization for over 1,000 years. Ezio Auditore remains as charming a lead character as ever, possibly even more now in his later years. What the game lacks in story relative to Assassin’s Creed 2 or 2010’s Brotherhood, it makes up for in streamlined improvements and the introduction of new elements. Recruiting assassins now leads to a more involved and more connected game-within-a-game, and the introduction of bombs creates some fascinating scenarios and seemingly unlimited options for how you want to go about each mission. That’s not all, of course, but spoiling it all isn’t fun for you.
Stephen Totilo’s review of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was one of my favorite reviews of the year, if you’re curious what I would want to write were I far more capable.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS): I’m an Ace Attorney nut, to the point where my cat is named Miles Edgeworth. It should be no surprise I enjoy the next game developed by Shu Takumi, then.
You play as Sissel, who is a ghost that isn’t sure how he ended up that way. You play through the game to initially figure out just who you are and what happened to you, but as with many games, the story broadens to involve far more than just the main character, in both number of characters and scope of importance. It has your typical Takumi humor, in that it is just ridiculous but comical at almost all times. The animation is superior to anything that else that released in 2011, as even the most mundane of activities and movements is presented with a memorable flourish — oftentimes that flourish is key to solving the puzzle presented before you.
Sissel haunts objects, and has to move from item-to-item in order to solve the room or environment he is in. He can move time backward and recreate events, and if he is able to solve the puzzle — which means preventing a murder or death from occurring — then he can change recent history itself. Like, four minutes ago history. Four minutes at a time, Sissell changes the fate of everyone he encounters, and eventually learns about his own.
J.C. Fletcher’s review was one that helped push me out the door to grab this game when it launched, with more excitement than I already had for it. It turned out to be one of my favorite game purchases of the year.
Bastion (Xbox 360, PC): Easily the top downloadable game released in 2011; an impressive feat considering the competition. Bastion featured a narrator that never stopped narrating, as long as you kept plugging along. It was as if you were hearing a story told to you, instead of at you, and it worked because you were the focus of the story itself.
It was basic hack-and-slash gameplay, but the balance of difficulty was just right, and the story was more appealing than you are used to in this format. The level design was excellent as well — even more intriguing because you could see it designed immediately in front of you. The ground you walked on formed in front of your feet as the world rebuilt itself after the calamity. And in the end, you got to decide just how the world would rebuild — a weightier decision than first impressions lead you to believe it would be.
No single review of Bastion led me to purchase it, but the launch trailer for it, that featured the narrator and the odd level layout, pushed me to give it a shot.
Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, PS3): What could go wrong when Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami get together to make a game together, with backing from EA? Suda is the creative force behind games like Killer7 and No More Heroes, while Mikami is responsible for a little thing known as Resident Evil, as well as his work at both Clover Studio and Platinum Games.
As for what could go wrong… well, EA could absolutely botch the marketing of a high-quality game, despite their resources, and despite its release during a relatively dead period of the year. Then no one could buy it, and therefore very few people could end up experiencing something those who do manage to play end up loving. Hey, guess what happened?
Garcia Hotspur is a fantastic lead character. He’s vulgar, but vulnerable, and as hard as it is to believe about a game where the sidekick is a talking dick joke, he’s the focus of a love story. All Garcia wants is for the love of his life, stolen by demons, to come back to him. And he goes through both literal and metaphorical hell to get there. It’s like Dante’s Inferno, but with jokes about boners (and probably closer to the real sentiment than the game “based” on the poem. Which EA marketed the hell out of, by the way.)
The humor seems immature on the surface, but the writing is smart and self-aware enough that it comes off as enjoyable even for those who might scoff at a lowbrow one-liner.
It’s a third-person shooter with fun weaponry, nifty rules and enemies, and a high-quality cast of characters in a wonderfully-realized environment. The story seems like the least important element at first, but over time, you’ll come to realize it’s something that separates Shadows of the Damned from the rest of the market. If you can find a copy, anyway.
Phil Kollar knew the deal with Shadows of the Damned. If you didn’t pay attention the first time, now’s your chance.
Catherine (Xbox 360, PS3): Let me tell you how much weirder this game is — one where both the lover and mistress of the main character, are named Catherine, albeit with alternate spellings — when your own lady friend is named Katherine.
The gameplay is wonderful, as it’s a mix of slow-building puzzle-platforming that eventually becomes intense, and what is essentially playing a point-and-click role in a narrative relationship adventure game. It’s… odd. At least in theory. But once you play it, it works nearly seamlessly, and all makes sense within the context of the story.
There is little I can say about Catherine that hasn’t been said better — read Leigh Alexander’s fantastic take on Catherine and it’s mature questions, for one— but believe me when I say you need to experience it. If for no other reason than it’s a rare instance where innovation means something, in a games’ culture where that word is often tossed around for buzz more than truth.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Oddly, it wasn’t any review of Human Revolution that caused me to want to try this. It was reading the emails Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander sent to each other as he introduced her to the game’s original, combined with my personal guilt over never playing a Deus Ex game before, that brought me to the store, $60 in hand.
My guilt led me to something positive, though, as Deus Ex was not only played and enjoyed by me, but thoroughly consumed — I played it through twice, with plans for a third go-around, and each time it will have been played completely differently.
And not just from a personality perspective. Deus Ex is a game about choice, and that choice starts with how you respond to people in conversation, leads to whether you will talk to someone at all, and ends with whether you are planning to knock out your enemies and leave them to nap, or put a shotgun in their back.
The experience playing a game both the way you believe you would play, were you that character, and as a completely different character, someone you can never picture yourself being, is somewhat intoxicating. I understand why Hamilton loved the original so much after playing, and I’m excited for the inevitably third playthrough as well. This goes without mentioning the wonderful, ambient soundtrack, too, one that’s just perfect for a futuristic and troubled Detroit.
Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360): Go ahead, make fun! It’s about a bunch of muscled-out dudes shooting alien creatures that are even uglier and burlier. But there’s something satisfying about the shooting and fighting in this game that I just don’t find very often in anything else in the genre.
There’s nothing exceptionally new here in Gears of War 3; it simply builds on what was already a winning formula of strong campaigns, difficult set pieces, and a strong cast of characters with memorable lines and motives. It’s an action movie in game form, so don’t expect to be blown away by Shakespeare, but it’s at least one you can take seriously.
The real reason it makes this list, though, is that it is likely the game I will put the most hours into out of all of the 2011 releases. The multiplayer is fine enough, as it was in past installments, but the real reason to come back is Horde move. Wave after wave of enemies, now with far more variation, boss waves, tower defense modes, and the all-consuming addiction of leveling up and XP boosts for performances. I’m picky about my multiplayer experiences, but Horde keeps me coming back.
Super Mario 3D Land (3DS): It’s difficult to keep doing new things with a franchise that’s now over 25 years old. New technology affords developers the chance to tinker and imagine, though, and that’s just what Nintendo did with Super Mario 3D Land. On a system where it wasn’t quite clear if third-party developers knew what they had — reminiscent of the Wii’s early days — Nintendo came through, developing a game that didn’t require 3D because it was there: it required 3D because it enhanced the experience.
It wasn’t your popcorn flick 3D, just popping out of the screen. This was Nintendo explaining how they see in 3D. Rooms that weren’t how they appeared. Levels that were built on top of levels. Levels inside levels! An emphasis on incredibly accurate jumps, made possible by the extra depth that 3D afforded. And an even more impressive looking — and fuller looking — title than that the system was capable of rendering without the 3D technology.
That’s not even mentioning the sheer excellence of the post-game level design, where the difficulty is ramped up, and the time you have to complete things lowered. It’s some of Mario’s finest platforming, fine-tuned for his new platform.
It’s Mario. In 3D. And it’s not gratuitous 3D. Chances are good if you own a 3DS you already bought this title, but if you don’t own either, might I suggest this as your sampler plate?
Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, PS3, PC): Arkham City was different from Arkham Asylum, in many respects. Whereas the original was something of a Metroidvania with Metal Gear Solid elements and a wonderful combat system that made it feel more like a Batman simulator than game, Arkham City is more open-world. It’s Batman without the restrictions of a small environment, Batman in his real home: Gotham City.
It’s also different in that every villain that could be thrown in the mix was. In movies, this is a bad thing: you’ve only got so much screen time to explain both the characters and their motivations, and the more villains there are, the less emphasis there can be on each of them. In a game world, though, where things can go say, 30 hours — or 10-15 times longer than in a movie — having well over a dozen adversaries is doable. Or, we found out it was doable, thanks to Rocksteady’s Arkham City.
It’s an amazing follow-up to one of the better games we have seen this generation. It’s wonderful for many of the same reasons, but presents many of its own arguments, and the combination of open-world city and seemingly endless Riddler challenges means you can spend all your time in Gotham. Just like Batman!
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii): As much as I like Twilight Princess, it was a GameCube game with motion controls, released at launch for the Wii. Skyward Sword is likely both the swan song and first real Zelda title for the system, but it was worth the wait.
It’s not a complete revision of the Zelda formula. In fact, for much of it, it feels very much like many other Zelda titles you have played. While that’s comforting for some, 25 years in to a franchise, it can start to wear on others. Things change about halfway through, though, thanks to new styles of gameplay, an emphasis on the future and its technology, a believable (and surprisingly touching) relationship between Zelda and Link that is introduced at the outset but only grows with time, and, of course, the successfully-implemented motion controls. The fact Nintendo also went through to completely remove certain items from the game (the basically iconic boomerang, for instance, is nowhere to be found), while introducing wonderful new ones (hello, Beetle), also goes a long way, as did their emphasis on making sure you always have reasons to use items long after you acquire them.
I don’t know how else to tell you how fantastic this entry in the Zelda series is, so I’ll leave you with this: Eurogamer gave it a 10/10. That’s a 15/10 from almost anyone else. (Love you, Eurogamer. Keep using that whole scale.)
Portal 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC): Oh, like you didn’t know this would make the list. Portal 2 took everything the original was — smart, tight puzzle-platforming with a small but impressive set of characters and personality — and basically multiplied it. The game is longer, the game is smarter. It’s far more hilarious, the puzzles less obvious and more satisfying to complete, and it even has a completely separate co-op mode.
It’s hard to pick a favorite voice actor from it, as everyone was exceptional. GLaDOS, who so clearly stole the first by virtue of being basically the only voice in the story, was overshadowed by both J.K. Simmons’ Aperture founder and Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley. Nolan North’s various roles were also entertaining, but for once in his career, not the show-stopper. That’s a compliment, not a detraction.
If you forced me to pick just one of these games, it might be this one. But maybe not! See, I don’t have to think about this.
There are a few honorary titles to mention; not so much for being The Very Best Of 2011 or anything, but games that stood out to me for one reason or another.
El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron: The combat is somewhere between satisfying and throwing your controller out the window, and the story, without some knowledge of the source material, might actually cause physical damage to you. But the art direction is so magical it is capable of repairing any such trauma, making you forget entirely about the game’s flaws through the simple act of a jaw-dropping gaze. It switches between a third-person and side-scrolling perspective at will, and looks amazing regardless of where the camera is pointing.
Just go look at screenshots. They don’t even do the game’s art justice, but go look.
From Dust (Xbox 360, PC): The game itself was average — enjoyed my time, but wasn’t necessarily dying to re-enter the game’s world at its conclusion, either. But the game’s main concept, where you are the creator through the simple act of picking things up and putting things back down, was brilliant. It’s a shame it wasn’t attached to a game that had more of a sandbox element to it, but it’s worth playing to experience regardless.
The “things” you pick up and put down are the kind of things you would expect a deity to work in. Earth, water, lava, exploding trees. It cries out for this sandbox mode, so you can just watch the world react and change to even the most subtle changes. The best example I can think of, the one that made me the most guilty? Attempting to build a seawall out of lava that would form into a cliff face. In my attempts to do so, small amounts of lava would fall a little less accurately than others, helping to block up a river over time. While the initial effect was small, erosion and the now unnatural flow of the river turned the area into a ticking flash flood time bomb that eventually wiped out any village in the area.
Being god is hard, you guys.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (3DS): I don’t care how many times you’ve played the original. It’s Ocarina of Time. It’s in 3D, it’s cleaned up, and it plays better than the original. Also, you can put it in your pocket. This was by far my favorite remake of the year, as it was altered just enough, in just the right ways, in the same manner someone who appreciates a perfectly remastered version of a classic album can understand.
And if it leads to a Majora’s Mask remake on the 3DS, then I like Ocarina of Time even more.