Monday, January 16, 2012

Best of 2011 - Game of the Year.


The time has come. Here, we focus on the eight most wonderful and delicious games of 2011. That's right - eight. I refuse to narrow it down any further. I refuse to drop any of the following games from this list, because they are The Games.

If one were consider only measurable criteria, I suppose, one or two titles would get the boot in favor of, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bulletstorm, Dragon Age II, Catherine or Killzone 3- which are all great games. To be one of the best games of the year, though, you have to have something more.

There has to be something different. Call it inspiration, call it magic, call it awesomesauce - it is, simply, a divine spark that elevates an experience from merely good or even great and turns it into a game that can only be described as special. A title that carves out its own little place in your heart, and takes up residence for all time.

These are the games that defined 2011. These are the Games of the Year.






game of the year 2011
acknowledgments







Horror-themed action platformer.
Developer : Spicy Horse
Publisher : Electronic Arts

Acknowledgment : best atmosphere.
Runner-Up : greatest moment.
"Alice is fun. It's a nice game to slip into for the purpose of running, jumping and going snicker-snack with a two-foot butcher's knife of myth - but thanks to its incredible art direction, unique protagonist and exceptional emotional intelligence, it's not just a nice game.

It's a rare one."
2011 boasted plenty of triple-A games - and we'll get to the best of those, in a moment - but there were two B-quality titles that still managed to be gems. Alice is the first, thanks to its profound psychological insight and stunning presentation.

While the game's pacing is best defined as nonexistent - there is simply far too much padding, here - the final impression it leaves and ultimate effect on the player is one of a consistently magical, gorgeous fever-dream where one shudders from awe at its incredible art direction to a deep emotional terror that cannot be adequately understood until its final, triumphant moments.


Alice herself is a sharply drawn and thoughtfully crafted protagonist, and playing as her is a comfortable, easy-going pleasure as you burst into swarms of butterflies to dodge and zip towards a foe for a quick Vorpal Blade combo before finishing it off with a mighty whomp from your Hobby Horse. She twirls and flies through soaring, insane worlds of floating steamworks and bloody rivers, drifting - along with the player - between an infuriatingly passive existence in reality and the horrifying emotional truth of her dreams.

This is a game that one may tear through and find themselves disregarding, due to its thoughtlessly languid pacing, simplified mechanics and lazy, backstroking take on structure - only to discover there is, at its core, a burning ember of uncomfortable emotional honesty that is not so easily forgotten.

Many games in 2011 attempted to tell great stories. Many succeeded - but none carried the same psychological weight and courageous accuracy of Alice. With that remarkable - and practically singular - feat, its brave, unique themes, it consistently thrilling presentation and its smooth gameplay, Madness Returns is one of the best titles of the year.






First-person open-world RPG-lite zombie brawler.
Developer : Techland
Publisher : Deep Silver

Honorable Mention : best atmosphere.
Runner-up : best gameplay.

Picking your way across a deserted beach. Slinking through slums. Edging a bit deeper into the jungle, keeping one ear cocked for the groans of the recently deceased - that's a tense, immersive, fascinating journey.

Beating the shit out of zombies with a fire axe via the most perfectly-realized first-person melee combat to ever grace gaming? That's an unmitigated joy.
"In my opinion, Dead Island is not one of the "best" games of the year. It behooves me to warn you about its bugs, its mediocre graphics, its crap narrative and infuriating system of auto-saves - but I would be remiss in my duties if I did not advise you that Dead Island is easily one of the most tactile, thrilling, immersive and when all is said and done fun gaming experiences of the year.

It is, therefor, one of the best titles to drop in 2011. I love this game."

Dead Island accomplishes a rather stunning feat with a few choice and simple tools - with good music, great atmospheric sound and the best first-person melee combat I've ever experienced, it shatters the bonds of mediocrity which would otherwise relegate it to the bargain bin.

Similar to Alice, it is a far-from-perfect game which happens to boast a singular, blindingly beautiful strength that no other title offers - and so, is elevated to an instant classic. Similar to Dark Souls, your immersion is directly tied to the simple act of playing the game. Dead Island's moment-to-moment combat is so visceral, so brutal and tactical but mechanically comfortable, one cannot play it without being entirely absorbed - and being absorbed in a first-person open-world zombie apocalypse, which so many gamers and geeks have imagined with gleeful, savage grins for decades, is nothing less than a gift.
"First-person zombie bludgeoning. Who knew?"





game of the year 2011
honorable mentions







First-person open-world fantasy RPG.
Developer : Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher : Bethesda Softworks

Honorable Mention : best atmosphere.
Runner-up : best art direction.

I know, it's counter-intuitive - Skyrim only got mentioned in two previous Best of 2011 posts, and here it is, ranked higher than Dead Island and Alice. Why? Ambition. And not just ambition - successful ambition!
"Skyrim demanded a healthy dose of optimism to create, and requires a pinch of the same hopeful, romantic spirit to enjoy. What were the good folks at Bethesdathinking, when their fertile minds spawned this prodigious property? They were being arrogant, is what they were doing - but so beautifully.

Bethesda are the most attractive of optimists. They believed it could be done. They, in their proud, self-righteous way figured they could produce a massive fantasy kingdom for gamers to play in that could be squeezed on to the current gen yet managed to bypass our cynicism. A game that would make us forget about bugs, forget about the graphical limitations of our gaming tech, and become entirely absorbed in a fantasy.

They wanted to make the fantasy game we imagine a fantasy game could be. In assembling Skyrim, they reached for the sky - and descended from those snowy peaks with a definitive experience. Skyrim is a supernatural success."

No other western RPG developer really tries to pull off what Bethesda does with The Elder Scrolls. Let's not count Fallout 3 and New Vegas, here - those are basically in the same boat. For the past seventeen years, reviews for each and every game in the series have shared the same bullet points:
  • Wonderfully well-realized world.
  • The degree of freedom is fantastic.
  • Combat is decent.
  • Way too buggy.
Skyrim does not break the mold - but that's not a bad thing. Bethesda has been re-working and refining their flagship franchise since 1994, and with each iteration we get a game that is markedly better than the last - in this case, it's wonderful to admit Skyrim is par for The Elder Scrolls course. It's a much better game than Oblivion.


Its combat is still dissatisfying, its systems are still a bit questionable - but who cares? No one cares when a dragon slams into ground ten yards away, bellowing a challenge. No one gives a crap about unfortunate loading times when you're picking your way through the swamps south of Solitude, or crossing your fingers that this time you'll be able to pickpocket that 1,900-gold necklace from the Jarl of Whatevertown.

Skyrim shares much of its predecessors problems, but it takes the series' strength and extrapolates on it to a degree that borders on lunacy. The kingdom of Skyrim is obscenely large - its landscapes so rich, so varied, so detailed, so thickly populated that it becomes impossible not to become entirely absorbed in your adventures there.

Characters and stories and adventures just leap off the screen, here, to take up residence in your imagination as you head off to work for the day. You can't get it out of your mind - you're stamping forms or serving customers with rote professionalism, but inside you're weighing potential tactics for dragon takedowns. You're second-guessing whether or not you should have assassinated that politician.

You're living in Skyrim.







Action-adventure / Zeldalike.
Developer : Rocksteady Studios
Publisher : Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Acknowledgment : best art direction and best gameplay.
Honorable Mention : greatest moment and best presentation.

After the frankly shocking revelation that 2009's Arkham Asylum was an excellent Batman game, we paid much closer attention to Arkham City's development - but Rocksteady didn't get a free hype pass. Lightning is not often known to strike twice - but look! It has.

In so many ways, Arkham City is the Batman game we've been waiting for. After all, when we read the books and watched the cartoons and movies as children, we didn't just throw a dark towel around our shoulders and imagine ourselves fighting goons in a series of corridors - we saw dramatic visions of ourselves soaring over a darkened city, perched on rooftops, narrowed eyes focused on a clutch of thugs in an alley below, planning our awesome attack. Our fertile little minds furnished us with all the wonderful toys - we tossed paper Batarangs and fired imaginary grappling hooks - at one time or another, we all fantasized about being the Bat.

Arkham City is that fantasy, realized.


"More than merely a great game with classic structure that harkens back to Metroidand Zelda, Arkham City strikes out on its own in terms of substance, with mechanics pioneered by Batman alone. Its résumé reads like a wish list of gaming: a fantastic central character, an involving story, a stunning beginning and a moving ending. Artistically striking, structurally comfortable and mechanically unique. Wonderfully fun in all its facets - oh, and an open-world game that really rewards exploration.

Love for its source material bleeds from every scrap of dialogue, every perfectly-cast villain, every elegant explosion of violence from its hero, which can do no less than inspire the player to invest further in its wonderful world. Arkham City is a title of uniformly high quality, with no weak link about which to complain.

This is one of the best games of the year. Plus, it's Batman."







First-person sci-fi comedy puzzler.
Developer : Valve
Pubisher : Valve Corporation (PC), Electronic Arts (PS3, 360)

Honorable Mention : best performance.

If I had done a Best Writing or Best Narrative post, Portal 2 would have won, hands down. This game's script - and its writers' grasp of the fundamental values of acts and narrative arcs - is easily the best of the year. Portal 2's story is a funhouse ride of wonderful, funny characters and clever ironic reversals - where your best friend becomes your worst enemy, your worst enemy becomes your best friend, and you are an unstoppable force - but we didn't come here just for a story.

As a contained, directed and linear experience, Portal 2 is among the the most well-constructed game on this list. Long loading screens aside, it's immaculate - and immaculately designed.


"What we have here is a perfectly-playing puzzle game. This thing has been playtested to the ends of the earth.

Valve are supernaturally practiced at introducing new mechanics in steady, comforable beats that never leave the player overwhelmed - and crucially never leave them bored with things they've seen before. They have mastered the art of making puzzles just challenging enough to reach the cusp of frustration before the solution becomes clear, and sweet satisfaction and pride washes over you.

...

Portal 2 is a pleasure at every turn. A wonderful script. A fascinating world. Original mechanics. Rich, chewy gameplay that's smooth as silk, and still wholesome fun on multiple repeat playthroughs. The game's final act of is, without question, some of the best gaming I have ever experienced."

No game in 2011 offered as many moments of near-frustration which unfold into gleeful, proud understanding as Portal 2. Valve have cornered the market on "the a-ha! moment," but that's just the tip of the iceberg, with this game.

It is one of most creative, interesting science fiction worlds we've been invited to explore in years. With cool whites, grubby forest greens and neon accents, it's one of the most artistically striking titles in recent memory. With a supernaturally well-designed campaign, constantly engaging and comfortable gameplay, the unexpected gift of an excellent co-op experience, revelatory writing and wonderful performances from its leads, Portal 2 was one of the few games of 2011 that qualified as "required reading," no matter what genre you favor.







Sci-fi/horror themed third-person shooter.
Developer : Visceral Games
Publisher : Electronic Arts

Acknowledgment : best performance .
Honorable Mention : best art direction.
Winner : greatest moment.

"Dead Space 2 is the rarest of games - a modern horror classic - the likes of which we haven't been graced with since the original, three years ago. At first blush it may suffer from familiarity, but every part of the game has been improved, every facet buffed to a shine.

The story is more involving and more intimate, with a script that wisely knows when it's best to say as little as possible. No environment outstays its welcome - the variety allows for some major payoffs - and no addition to the formula is a missed step (save, arguably, for the stomp-reward mechanic).

It looks fantastic and plays beautifully, with fast, growling combat that benefits from an added dose of strategy thanks to reworked weapons and the viable option of turning enemies' own severed limbs against them. Games of such uniformly high quality don't appear too often - and almost never as a multiplatform release from a third-party developer.

It's excellent."

Dead Space 2 stole the show early in the year, but many seem to have forgotten it. Similar toPortal 2, this is a linear, heavily-directed experience that is perhaps best described as immaculate.

I can't point to any significant weakness in its design, presentation or mechanics. Voice work is strong, art design is fantastic and sound design is better. The gameplay itself is silky-smooth, and the Saturn-orbiting Sprawl is just as well-realized as the haunting U.S.G. Ishimura was in 2008 - which, alone, is one hell of an accomplishment.

What elevates Dead Space 2 above 2011's other gorgeous, triple-A third-person shooter is the sense of legitimate wonder and lack of cynicism that permeates its construction, and interpretation. Dead Space 2 takes nothing - particularly the player's attention - for granted, and makes a promise to never, even for a moment, disappoint with some lax pacing or substandard storytelling.

Nothing, here, feels clichéd, or arbitrary. While it's very directed, and every facet is quite intentionally - thoughtfully - included, one never feels like this plot point or that set piece was shoehorned into a narrative that lacked the ability to elegantly support it.


Dead Space 2 is one of those games I simply can't encourage you to investigate enough. One note made in February's review of the title is that this game seems to be custom-made for those little blurbs you read on the back of a box that make a game sound far better than it could possibly be. In Dead Space 2's case, those blurbs are all true.






* * *







And now, things come to a head. Some of you may be surprised with how it ends, here. I thought long and hard about this one - and what I arrived at is that a great, but imperfect title may be better than a perfect one. There is a difference between the "best" game and the best game.

I went this rout for the following titles because, in the end, I felt it would be... dishonest of me to reverse their positions on this list. So, while I acknowledge and celebrate this next title as an absolute treasure and a tour de force, it's not the best game of the year. It's the "best" game.






* * *





"best" game of 2011







Action fantasy RPG.
Developer : From Software
Publisher : Namco Bandai Games

Acknowledgment : greatest moment.
Honorable mention : best gameplay.

This can be very simply put;
"Dark Souls is a masterpiece."
In the most literal and most passionate senses of the word, Dark Souls is a modern masterpiece. There is nothing here - no mechanic, no creation, no snippet of music - that one could remove without damaging the experience. There is nothing one could add that would not have a significant and negative impact on the title. It's just... perfect - or at least as close to perfect as games have ever come.

Dark Souls - from the first uneasy moments to the final apocalyptic confrontation - is one of the single greatest video games of our time.


While many titles this year have strengths that comfortably appear on bullet-point lists, Dark Souls' otherworldly style and substance assembles to form a beast of an experience that is unlike anything else in gaming - leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, Demon's Souls.
"[From Software] were free to let their imaginations roam to a dark world that echoes the fantasy landscapes we only ever saw in our dreams as children, while our parents read us stories of brave knights, evil monsters, ancient ruins and insane cities. As whippersnappers, we lived in those worlds, curled up on couches or safe in bed, regularly drifting from rapt attention to that ethereal, barely-conscious place that loomed before the sandman took us away - so we could continue exploring in our dreams.

The fantasy worlds we wandered in our larval forms were never crystal-clear - they were swirling miasmas of details we were sure of, and an eerie fog obscuring the minutiae beyond - breeding a feeling of joyous discovery and uneasy trepidation of what unimaginable things lay in wait, just past the doors of our understanding.

That is what Dark Souls feels like..."

Dark Souls achieves this miraculous, romantic, dreamlike immersion with both its wonderful presentation and, crucially, its gameplay. Like Dead Island, your complete and total absorption in the experience is a prerequisite to your survival - it's built in to the very mechanical fabric of the game - and Dark Souls boasts a similarly unique and rewarding combat system.

Where many games with a focus on melee combat can end up feeling inconsequential or "airy," Dark Souls' weapons all seem to have a bit of heft to them. Your decisions within combat - split-second choices of whether or not to block, attempt a forward stab or an arcing slash - have infinitely more consequence here than any other title in memory, and are that much more rewarding. If you make the wrong choice - say, you attempt a heavy swing to dispatch an enemy in one mighty blow, but make the mistake of thinking your sword can pass through solid rock - your blade will clang off the stonework, leaving you vulnerable for one awful second.

In Dark Souls, that one awful second is all your enemies need to tear you limb from limb. Back to the bonfire. Try it again - and don't embarrass yourself, this time.


It sounds brutal - and it is - but that's what makes success all the more thrilling.
"Because, while everything in this world kills, once you've learned its secrets, nothing in it kills better than you."
This game is nothing less than sumptuous. It offers so much that we've forgotten to ask for, in modern gaming. Here, there truly is a rich, vast fantasy world to explore. There are enemies which really will scare the crap out of you - and that alone is something we seem to have lost, somewhere around 2002.

Beyond that, the game is defined by what it quite consciously doesn't offer. Upon arriving in Lordran - if you decide to talk to the only living soul you see - he'll mention something about ringing two bells. That's all you get.

There are no waypoints. There is no glowing line on the ground telling you where to go. There are no moral choices - or, at least, none that are framed as such - and the consequences of your actions are left for you to discover. Nothing is explained, nothing is spelled out.


What it offers - and just as importantly, what it doesn't - makes Dark Souls an absolutely singular title. It resonates on a long-forgotten, deeply shrouded level, possessing you entirely - wielding the simple tools of thick atmosphere, rewarding combat, uncompromising challenge and an air of genuine mystery.

It doesn't merely offer these gifts. It does so with such skill, such considered, thoughtful design, such creative joy and such a wisely restrained hand - adding no half-baked mechanics, no characters, no bullet-point features that would detract attention and focus from its unique and profound vision - that if one must apply a label to Dark Souls, it can only be "masterpiece."

It's not just an atmospheric action-RPG - it's as close as I've ever seen to a perfect one.







best

game

of

2011







Open-world platformer / third-person shooter.
Developer : Sucker Punch
Publisher : Sony Computer Entertainment

Acknowledgment : best art direction.
Runner-up : best performance.
Winner : best gameplay.

There are two distinct schools of modern-day platformers. There are those that allow very linear play - games that build on "combos" of canned platforming abilities like Mirror's Edge, Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed - where you can, for example, run up a wall (at a direct vertical or particular horizontal angle), jump off the wall to swing from a pole (in a canned swing animation), and from there you can leap off. It's freedom to do a lot of things - but those things are very prescribed and very constrained.

Other modern three dimensional platformers have a few simple moves - Super Mario Galaxy,Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank for example - but these allow you to ping-pong your character off the game's geometry with much more moment-to-moment freedom. You can, essentially, do more - but you have fewer tools to do it with, and less tactile interaction with your environment.

inFamous 2 isn't like either of those schools. It is the any-angle, any-surface freedom of the more traditional Mario-esque platformers, combined with the slick animation and deeply interactive environments of the modern Prince of Persia-style. It's neither - it's both - it's thebest.

When it comes to platforming, Sucker Punch are simply the masters of the form - and given that it's a genre that's fast approaching thirty years old, with dozens of storied properties under its banner, that's really saying something.


At its core, inFamous 2 is just a platformer. It's a game about jumping from one object to another object - but it is, without question, the best platformer I've played in twenty-five years of gaming. There's something so... wholesome, so comforting about the act of playing it.

A good platformer is chicken soup for the gamer's soul, and inFamous 2 is as good as it gets. It is nothing but gleeful, indulgent, fantastic fun at every given moment.

Sucker Punch designed New Marais, from the ground up, as a more interesting jungle gym for Cole to run, jump, climb and zip his way through - and the simple act of navigating this world is more pleasurable than any game I've ever played. There's just something delicious about hopping on to a power line on the side of a building that rockets you skyward, leaping backwards off it at the last moment to kick along and off the building opposite, snagging a ledge, kicking offthat, throwing out your hands to repulse gravity and shooting yourself up another five feet to land on a rooftop.

The simple act of playing inFamous 2 the most pleasure I've had with a Dualshock in... well, ever.

Of course, there's more to it than that.


Player-character Cole is an electrically-powered superhero. As such he fires lightning from his hand, lobs electrical grenades, launches energy rockets and throws out street-sweeping ultrapowers like the (always satisfying, absolutely gorgeous) ionic vortex.

inFamous 2 - thanks to its thoughtfully-designed enemies - is a beautiful, tactical but arcadey third-person shooter. That would be fine - it would be decent all on its own - but because this game was designed with the idea of allowing the player to use nearly all their combat abilitieswhile platforming, it becomes something else entirely.

You're not just navigating an environment. You're not just shooting enemies with energy rockets. You're launching yourself fifty feet in the air to float above your target for a moment, raining down a barrage of thumping electrical rockets before transitioning into a 'thunder drop' and crashing into the ground in a blinding shockwave of kinetic power.


There's a unique, silky feel to it. It chains together so beautifully, and so freely - the control of a modern platformer, the freedom of a classic one, completely married with its comfortable shooting. For example, you could be 'grinding' across a power line that joins up with a nearby roof. As you near the top of the power line's gently rising arc, you leap off, repulse gravity with your hands to give you a little extra air and soar over the building, lining up your reticle on four thugs to throw them all, simultaneously, from the roof with a perfectly-placed energy blast before smacking into the rooftop and rolling to a halt.

This game is a wonderful, easy-like-Sunday-morning mix of shooting and the exemplary platforming. Its fantastic controls and elegant mechanics, when turned against its weird and fantastic enemies, make inFamous 2 the single most spectacular, enjoyable action title I've ever played.

Still, there's more to it than just the best gameplay of 2011.


Sucker Punch have long had a flair for visuals. Between their cartoon-inspired mastery of animation and their skill with art direction, they've always been slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to painting a backdrop or framing a move, special effect or set piece so it elicits a gentle gasp, and widened eyes. In inFamous 2, they rupture any previous expectations of what they could achieve.

The team revamped the engine they used in inFamous with input from their artists and programmers, and the results are staggering. In terms of graphics technology, this is the most impressive open-world game I've ever seen. In terms of artistry, it sits right up there with 2010's Red Dead Redemption, and regularly exceeds it.

Rare is the game that demands one stop and stare because the sky is so gorgeous.


Elsewhere, the team recognized that the presentation of their narrative - which they ably handled back on the PS2 with the Sly trilogy - was far from current-gen standards in the firstinFamous. To address that gap in their repertoire, they recast hero Cole McGrath with an actor who could physically stage scenes, and put him to use in cutscenes constructed in the Unchartedstyle - with actors sharing the same physical space, interacting and playing off each other to achieve the most comfortable, believable performances possible.

If inFamous 2's artistic strength matches the gorgeous style of Red Dead Redemption, their use of technology in storytelling plants one foot firmly ahead of Rockstar's gold standard, and flatly trounces L.A. Noire's unnerving rubber-faced marionettes. Never have cutscenes in an open-world game looked or felt this good - and the title climaxes in one of the most affecting, touching moments of the year.

The storytelling is excellent, but still - you no doubt understand, by this point - that there's more to it than that.


The above screenshots (no, that's not concept art) illustrates two different interpretations of the same in-game vista. This clock tower, which you ascend during an early tutorial mission, feels either looming and gothic or strong and pure - as dictated by your in-game choices.

The game's entire color palette will change, depending on your actions. If you are a dastardly, self-absorbed supervillain who doesn't let collateral damage like starving orphans stop you from carpet-bombing your target, the world will change to reflect that. The game's music becomes darker - inFamous 2 has two soundtracks - and even Cole's posture shifts, bit by bit, until he becomes a dramatically different version of his heroic counterpart.

Sucker Punch didn't give us just one game, here. Tonally - aesthetically - they made two, and both are gorgeous.

Woooo!

inFamous 2 is an intensely beautiful game. Intelligent. Touching. Masterfully constructed. It's imperfect - but its few foibles are not what I'll remember about it, one or two or ten years from now.

I'll remember inFamous 2 was, without question, the most fun I had with a Dualshock in 2011. inFamous 2 is the game of the year.

3 comments:

  1. Hearing you talk about inFamous 2 sure makes it SEEM like GOTY. I really liked it a lot too, though my personal GOTY is Arkham City.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, it is to me at least. 2011 was a year of such high general quality that this year doesn't have one definitive GOTY. Mine is different from yours is different from GameTrailers' is different from Eurogamer's - but this year, at least, I'm not convinced any of us are wrong.

    For my part, it came down to "what's the point of playing video games?" Why do we attend to this pastime of ours?

    Well - I like to think, at least - one plays games in the hopes of having a little fun. Therefor, the best game is the funnest game.

    Of course, what's fun is subjective - but I'm not prepared to open that can of worms.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Indeed, 2011 was a historic year in terms of sheer overall quality of releases. It could be argued that there were more AAA releases than the market is generally able to sustain; leading to so many games slipping through the cracks, both in terms of sales and recognition.

    On a different note, it was a great idea to make two distinctive GOTY choices. I find that when you think about a game and judge it, there's a constant balance between "fun" and "quality" to keep in mind. Like you said, the fundamental goal of all games is to make the player have fun. And yet the funnest games aren't always the best designed, or have the best music or the best graphics.

    It's that push and pull between the "fun" factor and technical aspects that I think makes game journalism so interesting.

    ReplyDelete