Another year, another breakdown of the year's best games... according to me.
Before getting into what made the cut, I went back and looked at what I'd picked for 2010. At the start of last year's article, here's what I wrote:
Looking back, 2010 was an odd twelve months. Catching many players and critics by surprise, a large number of the most hotly-anticipated titles ended up being unexpectedly disappointing, leaving the top honors wide open for a number of lesser-known, smaller-budget projects. Unfortunately, while many of these smaller games displayed promise and creativity, most of them were flawed or uneven enough to give pause. The result? A year where (in my view, anyway) there really was no single runaway pick for the year's best.
So, if you took "2011" and switched it out for "2010", I think that paragraph would be just as applicable for me now as it was back then. Some people may disagree, but for my taste, a lot of the games walking away with top honors right now just weren't cutting it. Of course, your mileage may vary (and probably does) but for me, the ten titles below were the ones that left the best impression and were most deserving.
Two Worlds II (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Although I'm sure the heads of Skyrim fans will explode after seeing that this game made my list and that one didn't, for me the difference was the ease and speed of play, the variety and humor in the quests, and the quality of the characters. Although it's rough around the edges, there were several great ideas implemented in the game's formula and there is definitely something to be said for an open-world role-playing game (RPG) that doesn't feel like a slog to play. The combat was fast and easy to get a handle on, the upgrading and modifying was satisfying, and the writers had a sense of humor that I appreciated. It's not the biggest, deepest, or most polished out there, but it did everything just right enough and came together in a package that was easy to enjoy.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
The original Deus Ex is one of my favorite games of all time, so I was quite excited to see the franchise revived after a long period of laying fallow. Although it had issues like the absurd energy system (I need more energy bars, stat!) and a strange fetish for tinting everything yellow, it was respectful of the source material and felt like an honest continuation of those same ideas. I also admit that I'm a sucker for stealthy play when it's done well, and popping up out of nowhere to subdue guards silently just never got old.
Escape Goat (Xbox 360)
I am definitely a fan of Ian Stocker's work, and his latest didn't disappoint. I was already intrigued by the concept of a goat escaping from a magical prison, so it was a treat to see that the implementation was just as good as the idea. The quality and craftsmanship on display are superior to the vast majority of what pops up on the Xbox Live Indie channel, and the elegant mechanics clicked with me instantly. What do you get when you combine a barnyard animal, a wall-climbing mouse and a magic hat? A damned good puzzle game.
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Xbox 360)
When brilliant artwork is married to a time-tested formula, the result can only be a great thing, and in this case, that proved entirely true. Although the core Metroidvania gameplay may seem overly-familiar at first, it's soon made evident that each area in the game was hand-crafted to present a constantly fresh series of puzzles, challenges and environments. Play progression was smooth and confident, there was absolutely zero filler from start to finish, and high-intensity multiplayer modes gave gamers a reason to keep coming back after their mission was complete.
Rochard (PlayStation 3)
This physics-based action/platformer was quite a surprise. With very little buzz before release, it came out of nowhere and displayed a masterful level of pacing and production. Each puzzle to be solved used the game's gravity gun in clever ways, constantly introducing new mechanics while building upon the previous ones. The decision to make the main character a portly, Southern mechanic with a colorful, down-home personality was a great change of pace from the usual "hero" stereotype, and the integration of storytelling without interrupting gameplay was spot-on.
Fate/Extra (PlayStation Portable)
While it's true that the PSP didn't get many strong releases in 2011, this was not only a must-play portable, but one of the better games to be released for the system overall. The unique combination of Visual Novel and Japanese RPG genres delivered an interesting story with sci-fi and historical elements, and one which was perfectly suited for pick-up-and-play sessions thanks to a compact design and discrete structure. The new spin on paper-rock-scissors for combat was brilliant, and it was always possible to feel as though progress was made regardless of how much time was put in. Also, it earns special kudos for having an ending which felt satisfying and appropriate for the story mode—something that's entirely too rare these days.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Nintendo DS, iPhone)
This neo-detective story stars a main character who gets murdered in the game's opening and then has one night as a disembodied spirit to figure out who killed him and why. It's an original, engaging premise that's matched by equally creative gameplay. In order to interact with the physical world, the character must possess inanimate objects to trigger them in various ways. Figuring out the solution to each puzzle is akin to putting the pieces of a Rube Goldberg machine into place and watching it click and clank in absurd, unexpected motions. It's bizarre... yet delightful. Toss in a cast of eccentric, memorable characters and a level of art and animation that's a sight to behold, and it earns its spot on this list quite handily.
Catherine (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
It's no secret that I like the unusual and the unorthodox, and both of those labels fit this game like a glove. At first glance, it seems like utter insanity to take a 3D Q*Bert update and combine it with a love triangle that tasks the player with deciding whether to live a calm, orderly life or one that's more chaotic and hedonistic. However, that's exactly what Atlus did, and I was hooked from the start. Thanks to some great writing, memorable characters, and gameplay that was engaging (and challenging) enough to keep interest high, no one who plays Catherine ever forgets it. It is literally like nothing else out there.
Mortal Kombat (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
For a fighting series that's been sketchy and irreverent at best (and a pile of absurd, smoking garbage at worst) I was blown away by the incredible step up in quality here. Not only was the gameplay totally dialed-in to a level that's never been seen in this franchise before, the story mode did something that few fighters ever do: it actually took the time to tell a story and fleshed out characters that players have never known very much about. It was, bar none, the best fighting game campaign mode I've ever seen, and the game certainly wasn't hurt by an insane amount of content in the single-player mode. Flawless victory.
Dead Island (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Intense, visceral combat. An open world large enough to explore, yet one that never feels empty or pointless. Fantastic atmosphere and beautiful environments. "Realistic" quests that one could imagine doing if zombies were real. Dead Island offers all of this, and more. Although dozens of games cram the undead into various modes and one-offs where they make for good target practice, very few titles attempt to create a zombie apocalypse in the way often written about in books or shown in movies—scavenging environments for necessities, establishing safe houses, finding medicine, and so on. Although it's not the perfect simulation I think zombie fans like myself hope for, it comes closer than any other game before it and does it in fine style. For me, Dead Island was the most enjoyable, most unforgettable experience in 2011, and one of the very few that I could not put down until I'd seen and done every single thing. Well done, Techland.
...And there you have it, my top ten of 2011.
Agree? Disagree? Post a comment at the bottom and let me know what you think.
Now, bring on 2012!