The Year In Games – 2011

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole on occasion, but I really did think that 2011 would go down as one of the best years of all time.  Last December, I did my usual Lust List and my predicted top 5 looked like a Murderer’s Row of kick-ass:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Portal 2
  • Skyrim
  • Batman
  • Mass Effect 3

Now, as it happens, that Top 5 isn’t totally off the mark.  While it’s true that Mass Effect 3 ended up moving to 2012, those other 4 wound up in my Top 10.  That being said, when I look over the year now, I think it’s clear that this was not the mega-fantastic year that I thought it’d be.  Truth is, we’re near the end of this console cycle, and so developers are reluctant to do anything terribly risky.  (Exhibit A – 8 of my Top 10 games are sequels.)  Graphics have improved, certainly, but there’s only so much more that developers can do in that regard.   Frankly, I spent far more time whining this year about how nothing was coming out than I did praising all the good stuff that I was enjoying.  And I developed shooter fatigue in a big, big way.  Still, all things being equal, this was a pretty solid year.  The big blockbusters delivered, more or less, and pretty much everything I played this year had something worth experiencing.

As for the nitty gritty:

I used to start these year-end recaps with a count of all the games I played.   Last year that count went a bit askew, because I’d included iPhone games in the total.  Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that despite my OCD tendencies when it comes to keeping track of this stuff, I kinda went a little bananas with iPhone games this year.  And I should also say that Steam killed me this year; I bought way too many games for my PC because of rampant Steam sales, and I hardly played any of them.  (Furthermore, a lot of those Steam games were games I’d already played on consoles.  I am a whore.)

So I think it’s more accurate to look at the games that I actually sat down and played, like, for real.  This isn’t to discount the iPhone as a platform, though.  In fact, fuck it – let’s just get to the iPhone section.

The biggest thing I came away with, when reviewing 2011, is that I clearly do not have any need for a 3DS or a Vita.  I am done with Mario and Zelda, for one thing, and there’s no indication that Nintendo is interested in moving beyond their core IP, ever.  And anyone who bought a 3DS in its current form is a sucker, regardless of the insane price cut Nintendo was forced to apply; everyone knows that v.2 is coming next year with a 2nd analog stick.  (Is there any compelling software yet, though?  That doesn’t have Zelda or Mario in the title, I mean?  No?  OK.)  The Vita is a bit more intriguing, certainly, but since it isn’t a phone or a tablet, it’s 100% dependent on killer software, and I just don’t know if the killer software will ever show up – it certainly didn’t for the PSP.

Meanwhile, the iPhone continues to be the coolest gadget I’ve ever owned, and I am totally OK with it being my handheld gaming device.  I’ve grown accustomed to being able to listen to music or podcasts while I mess around with a game.  And I’ve gotten really accustomed to paying $1-3 for an engrossing experience, and splurging for Infinity Blade 2 at, like, $7 is worth it.  The fact that I’ve currently got a nice-looking, playable port of GTA3 in my pocket is awesome.

So, yeah, OK, let’s do my iPhone GAME OF THE YEAR:  I am still obsessed with Tiny Tower, as it is a remarkable outlet for my aforementioned OCD tendencies, but the game that I enjoyed the most is probably Jetpack Joyride, the best iteration of the popular “non-stop runner genre” on the iOS platform.   (Surely there’s a better name for it than that?)  The objective is still, generally, to keep moving while avoiding obstacles, but there are also numerous sub-objectives that constantly shift how you play – whether it’s high-fiving scientists, or rubbing your head on the ceiling, or reaching a certain distance without picking up any coins.  It’s got a great sense of humor and whimsy, and Halfbrick has been great about providing a steady stream of updates to keep the game fresh.

Honorable Mention:

  • Sword & Sworcery
  • Quarrel
  • Slam Dunk King
  • Tiny Tower
  • Infinity Blade 2

OK, as for the consoles.  I played around 55 games or so, spread around the Xbox360, PS3 and PC.   (As noted above, I bought a lot of games through Steam’s numerous sales, but I’d either (a) already played them on consoles, or (b) didn’t really spend more than 30 seconds with them, and so I’m not really counting those.)

I “finished” 22 games this year, although this list is in no particular order:

  1. ICO
  2. Portal 2
  3. L.A. Noire
  4. Batman Arkham City
  5. Deus Ex: HR
  6. Mortal Kombat
  7. Stacking
  8. Bastion
  9. Dead Space 2
  10. Bulletstorm
  11. Dragon Age 2
  12. Gears of War 3
  13. Uncharted 3
  14. Modern Warfare 3
  15. Little Big Planet 2
  16. LEGO Pirates of the Carribbean
  17. Resistance 3
  18. Rage
  19. Killzone 3
  20. Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet
  21. Infamous 2
  22. LOTR: War in the North

GAMERSCORE:  I started 2011 at 64607.  I will most likely finish it at around 77200, depending on how Achievement-hungry I get in Skyrim.   Speaking of Achievements:

FAVORITE ACHIEVEMENT:  This is silly, but I have to give this to Rock Band 3, “Well Connected.”  All I did was link my virtual band to the Harmonix website, which netted me 6 points; more importantly, it got my total Achievement score back to 0s and 5s.  This had been driving me crazy for years, people.  I’ve stopped being so insane about chasing Achievements, but it’s very, very nice to have round numbers in my life again.  And speaking of numbers:

BEST GAME WITH A 3 IN THE TITLE:  (Apologies to Tim Rogers and this Kotaku feature.)  Certainly didn’t think this is the way it would go down at the beginning of the year, but I have to give it to Saints Row the Third, and it’s not even all that close, surprisingly enough.  I’ll have more to say about Saints Row a little later on, but for now it’s fair to say that this franchise should be Exhibit A when it comes to the right way to develop sequels.  Each game has been markedly better than the last, while still keeping the series’ roots intact.  And considering what the “roots” of this series are – i.e., being as completely insane as possible – it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

Honorable Mention:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Dirt 3
  • Gears of War 3
  • Modern Warfare 3
  • Killzone 3
  • Resistance 3
  • Serious Sam 3

RANDOM OBSESSION:  I got fiercely addicted to Plants v. Zombies over the summer, and I played it on pretty much every platform it’s available for.  No idea why, actually – that game is (1) old, and (2) stresses me out.

DID NOT FINISH, WOULD LIKE TO FINISH SOMEDAY:  There’s no excuse for me not having finished Trenched / Iron Brigade.  I was having a blast with that when it came out – some of the most fun co-op I’ve ever had.

Honorable Mention:

  • Driver: SF
  • Yakuza 4
  • Serious Sam 3

DID NOT FINISH, COULDN’T GET INTO (BUT STILL RESPECT):   Quite a few of these, actually, but the winner is The Witcher 2.  Enough people gushed about this to make me feel guilty for giving up on it.  I tried it both pre- and post-patch, and while I appreciated the patch’s new tutorial, I still had a hard time getting sucked in.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and I can see why people love it, though.)   I also really feel bad about not getting into Dark Souls, and every time Amazon’s had it on sale lately (which is a lot), I keep thinking about splurging for it.

Honorable Mention:

  • Dead Island
  • Dark Souls
  • Shadows of the Damned

DID NOT FINISH, DO NOT WANT TO FINISH:  The winner of this category immediately follows the runners-up.

  • Crysis 2
  • Alice: Madness Returns
  • Burnout: Crash

WORST GAME / MOST DISAPPOINTING GAME:   I feel bad just admitting that I bought it, frankly.  But I was home, sick, and Duke Nukem Forever had finally launched on Steam, and in my delirious state I went against my better judgment (and all the advance reviews).   I had been a huge Duke 3D fan back in the day, and ultimately that won out.  What a huge piece of shit this turned out to be.  Let’s move on.

THE 5-MINUTES-OR-LESS ALL-STARS:  You know how you can just tell that a game isn’t for you, right from the beginning?  Yeah, there were a few of those.

  • Shift 2 Unleashed
  • Dungeon Siege 3
  • Metal Gear Solid HD.  I’m just not sure I’m ever going to get what’s so great about this franchise.

DID NOT PLAY:

  • NBA2K12
  • Need for Speed: The Run
  • Battlefield 3
  • Zelda
  • Minecraft
  • Catherine
  • Halo Anniversary
  • Once Upon a Monster
  • Nintendo 3DS

OK, let’s move on to the good stuff.

BEST NEW IP:  There really wasn’t much to choose from, actually, which is sad.  That being said, while it had its fair share of problems, I really enjoyed L.A. Noire.  That facial tech is pretty extraordinary, and Team Bondi did a pretty spectacular job at recreating post-war Los Angeles.  (It’s a shame that there wasn’t all that much to do in it, but it was really nice to explore just the same.)  I think Rockstar could clean it up a bit and put out one hell of a sequel, the way they did with Red Dead Redemption.

Honorable Mention:

  • Bastion
  • Bulletstorm
  • Rage
  • Dead Island

BEST SOUNDTRACK:  I don’t know if it’s because I’m a composer and am therefore inherently snobby, but I generally don’t really pay that much attention to soundtracks – be it game or movie or what-have-you.  There’s only been two times where I’ve seen a movie and needed the soundtrack as soon as I walked out of the theater (Rushmore and Ocean’s 11), and it’s never happened for a game.  That is, until this year.  Surprisingly enough, the game in question is an iPhone game.  I never did end up finishing Sword & Sworcery, but I fell in love with the soundtrack immediately, and bought it on iTunes (where it actually costs more than the game, I think – and it’s worth every penny).

Honorable Mention:

  • Rayman Origins
  • L.A. Noire

BEST TREND:  This isn’t necessarily a 2012 thing, but we saw lots of HD remakes of classic games, and I’m all for it.

BEST HD REMAKE:  Alternately, this is the Most Anticipated HD Remake:  Ico/Shadow of the Colossus.  And I haven’t even finished Shadow yet!  That said, it was really nice to finally experience some of the most talked-about games ever made.  Definitely on board for The Last Guardian now.

Honorable Mention:

  • Beyond Good & Evil HD
  • Metal Gear Solid HD

GAMES I’D LIKE TO SEE GET THE HD REMAKE TREATMENT:  I know this isn’t strictly a 2011 category, but while we’re on the topic, a boy can dream:

  • Skies of Arcadia
  • Grim Fandango
  • Rayman 2
  • Crash Bandicoot 1-3 / Crash Team Racing

GAMES THAT ARE GETTING THE HD REMAKE TREATMENT IN 2012 (that I’m aware of, and that I’m totally psyched about):

  • Tony Hawk Pro Skater (sort of)
  • Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee / Exoddus  (judging from the Stranger’s Wrath screenshots, these games should look fantastic)
  • Rayman 3
  • Final Fantasy X

MOST-PLAYED 2010 GAME:  Pinball FX2, whose steady stream of quality DLC kept it in my rotation for pretty much the whole year.

MOST FORGETTABLE:  This was a pretty dismal year in terms of quality driving games, and so I give this out to both  Motorstorm Apocalypse and Test Drive Unlimited 2, both of which were also quite terrible.

MOST OVERLOOKED:  I’d never played the first two Resistance games, but I ended up trying Resistance 3, and it was really, really good.  Certainly one of the best weapon arsenals I’ve ever messed around with, and the leveling up system was smart and well-implemented – it encouraged you to play with everything.  (Unlike Gears of War 3, where I used the Lancer from start to finish.)

MOST OVERRATED:  I’m not sure there’s a game that came out this year that was truly “overrated”, as I tended to agree with the general critical reception of any particular game.  If I had to award this to anything, I’d probably give it to Crysis 2, which got so incredibly stupid towards the end that I started getting angry.  It featured some of the worst  dialogue I’ve ever heard, and in service of a nonsensical story.  It looked great, sure, but there’s only so much stupid I can take.  I know that creating an engaging narrative is not necessarily priority #1 in today’s games, but this was just ridiculous.

THE “SACRED 2” AWARD FOR MOST TIME SPENT PLAYING A GAME THAT I ACTIVELY DISLIKED:  I didn’t hate it the way I hated Sacred 2, but I only played Lord of the Rings: War In the North to completion because I was home sick for two days with nothing to do.  And boy, that’s a lot of time that I’m never going to get back.

THE BEST ARGUMENT BOTH FOR / AGAINST USING HEAVY DRUGS DURING THE CREATIVE PROCESS:  The Japanese are weird.  And Shadows of the Damned is fucking weird.  And I don’t do drugs anymore, and so I’m not sure I’m ever going to understand what all the fuss was about.  Still, it’s hard to deny that there was a pretty fierce vision behind this one.

BEST IMPLEMENTATION OF A “SEASON PASS”:  The Season Pass is a somewhat controversial topic these days, but when it’s done right, it’s a thing of beauty.  The Season Pass attached to L.A. Noire was worth every penny; it kept me engaged in that game for months after its release.  Sure, it felt like the cases were “deleted scenes” from the game proper, but it was still fun to play.

BEST SYNERGY BETWEEN WRITER, PERFORMER AND ANIMATOR:  This is a complicated way of saying that while Stephen Merchant’s performance as Wheatley in Portal 2 was perhaps the greatest voice performance I’ve ever heard in a game, credit must also go to the incredible dialogue and the remarkably humanizing animation, considering that Wheatley is a talking sphere.  Apologies to the cast and crew of Uncharted 3, but holy shit.

BEST GRAPHICS:  If I’m being honest, there was a lot more to Rage than a killer graphics engine; it did fall apart in the end, but for the most part it was a really enjoyable experience.  But WOWEE ZOWEE, I didn’t know my Xbox could look that good.   (As noted above, I didn’t play Battlefield 3, so, you know.)

Honorable Mention:

  • Uncharted 3
  • Skyrim (kinda)
  • Rayman Origins

I WISH I DIDN’T SUCK AT FIGHTING GAMES:  I did eventually finish Mortal Kombat, but only on the lowest difficulty setting.  Clearly, that’s one of the most complete packages ever released, and if you’re a fan of the franchise, you probably already know that.

DEVELOPER OF THE YEAR:  You know how happy it makes me to give this award to DoubleFine?  So happy.  It looks like they’ve finally found their niche, with these delightful downloadable titles.  2010’s Costume Quest, Stacking and Trenched – er, Iron Brigade – were all wildly different from each other, and all had a ton of charm and were fun as hell to play.  All were memorable, distinctive, and unique.  And I would’ve played the Sesame Street game if I had a kid.  (Still might, eventually.)

OK, let’s do this.

GAME OF THE YEAR, Honorable Mentions.

  • You Don’t Know Jack
  • Dragon Age 2
  • Resistance 3
  • Killzone 3
  • Little Big Planet 2
  • Dead Space 2

10.  Bulletstorm.  I said before that I experienced some serious shooter fatigue this year.  That certainly wasn’t Bulletstorm’s fault, which did every goddamned thing it could do to stay interesting and distinctive.  And colorful!  Who knew that it was still possible to have colors other than brown and gray in a shooter!

9.  Gears of War 3.  It’s the best Gears game yet, despite that ridiculous football fantasy sequence.  I didn’t spend enough time with the online stuff as I suppose I should’ve, but the end of the year sorta got away with me.

8.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  I had such low expectations for this, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to see that this wasn’t a total piece of shit.  Indeed, it totally wiped away the sour taste that was still lingering after all this time from Deus Ex 2.  Even though the bosses were kinda shitty, and even though the ending was only rivaled by Rage in terms of least amount of effort applied, this was a great game, and I do plan on playing it again eventually.

7.  Uncharted 3.  OK, the combat grew tedious and tiresome.  OK, the “story” was just something they patched up after they came up with their setpieces.  OK, the spiders didn’t make any sense.   Still, the things that this game does right, it does better than anyone else.  I still prefer Uncharted 2, but this was not too shabby.

6.  Bastion.  Seems like every year there’s an XBLA darling that makes an appearance on my list, and Bastion is a worthy entrant.  Remarkable music, gorgeous art direction, simple and intuitive gameplay, and a compelling story.

5.  L.A. Noire.  Everything I said earlier applies here.  But I was also pleased to see that they implemented Red Dead’s combat system (to the extent they could), which means that it’ll most likely appear in GTA5, which is good news for everybody.

4. Batman: Arkham City.  What was nice about the first game was that it left me wanting more.  Arkham City gave me so much more that I felt a little overstuffed, frankly.  But that’s hardly enough reason to complain.  It’s still the best melee combat system in the business.  The side missions were a great diversion.  And I was totally hooked by the story – and that ending!

3.  Saints Row The Third.  You can’t talk about Saints Row without talking about GTA, but it’s really nice to see that Saints Row has truly embraced its own thing.  The game is completely insane, and it’s also really well made.  I wouldn’t mind seeing GTA borrow some of its innovations – like the new GPS system, which keeps my eyes focused ahead instead of in the corner, trying to make sense of a tiny map.  It’s not an open world – it’s a sandbox, through and through, and they give you so many toys to play with that they’re almost daring you to get bored.

2.  Skyrim.  According to my profile at raptr.com, I’m 55 hours in.  Some of that is from extended pauses, but still – that’s definitely the most I’ve spent with any game this year.  And I only hit level 30 last night.  There is SO MUCH MORE TO DO.  I could see this game taking me straight through to February.

1.  Portal 2.  This is my friend (and sometime SFTC contributor) Gred, who says it better than I ever could:

When I think about the “best” games of the generation, the thing about Portal (and Portal 2) that I keep coming back to is that I cannot honestly think of a way the games could be better, that they could execute better on what they are trying to do.  Furthermore, they are doing plenty of new and ambitious stuff.  So it’s not simply a matter of executing a genre game perfectly, it’s a matter of inventing a genre, and then executing it perfectly.

Skyrim is excellent.  But ultimately I feel like its existence was inevitable.  It is the living D&D video game you pictured as a kid in the far-off future.  It is a bigger and better Oblivion.  It is still unique, because no one has dared to try this on anything approaching the scale Bethesda has tackled here.  But Bethesda or not, there would have been a Skyrimish game eventually.  Maybe not this generation, maybe not this good, but its newness derives mostly from its insane scope (including its wonderfully deep ecosystem and all its component moving parts).  True, that lends itself to insanely varied and complex gameplay experiences, while Portal will play much the same for everyone.  But the existence of Portal, to me, is a gift in a way that the existence of Skyrim, while very, very welcome, was a matter of time.

Thanks for reading, everybody.

2 responses

  1. I’m being 100% sincere when I say that it is a rare day to find someone who writes this well. I REALLY enjoyed this post, and I look forward to seeing more. A fine choice giving Portal 2 GOTY, it was simply a pleasure to play.

    By the way, I know you have shooter fatigue, but when that subsides you must check out Battlefield 3. It has captivated me in ways no other shooter has (with the possible exception of Goldeneye 64 from back in the day). And I’m like you, Mortal Kombat was awesome, but I think I’m just not that great at fighting games lol.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I am certainly interested in checking BF3 out eventually, but right now I’m up to my ears in Skyrim…

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