Twenty-eleven was not a banner year for games. Sure, the fourth quarter was once again overfilled with AAA titles that brought in billions of dollars of revenue (and review scores centered squarely at the top end of the scoring chart), but many of those titles weren't exactly mindblowing in their awesomeness. The games weren't bad, mind you—it's just hard to shake the feeling that 2011's fourth quarter was more about treading water and maintaining the status quo than actually innovating and bringing anything new to the table.
Of course, that was sort of the mantra of 2011 as a whole. New IPs were relatively few and far between as big name sequels to established franchises fought for market share. Gamers seemed okay with this—which is why things like Assassin's Creed: Revelations sold significantly more copies than titles like Rayman: Origins. Gamers talk a good deal about wanting "new" titles, but when it comes time to vote with their wallets, it seems like sequels continue to rule the roost.
Despite this feeling of malaise that has covered the industry for the past 12 months, 2011 did have some good titles. I completed 45 games in 2011—and it would have been more had I not had a spring and summer fling with Final Fantasy XI. That's a lot of games—but not enough to have played all the major releases of the past year. I've still got to catch up with the aforementioned Rayman and Saints Row: The Third, but aside from that I'm comfortable with highlighting the ten best games of the past year. I suspect Rayman might have made the list, but it got lost in the holiday shuffle for me as I tried to get through Skyward Sword (a mistake). So, without further ado, here are my top games of 2011.
Dead Space 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Isaac Clarke's back to kill more Necromorphs in Electronic Arts' follow up to Dead Space, which is generally a good thing. Some new weapons and gear, a new locale, and more story details make up the sequel's positives, which finds our favorite engineer stuck in a deserted space colony where he fights a horde of bloodthirsty aliens and his own personal demons. Honestly, I expected Dead Space 2 to place higher on my list, but it's hard to get around some of the game's more glaring flaws. Isaac, a classic silent protagonist in the original game, now speaks—and we see his face too. That's not a deal breaker for everyone, but I'm willing to bet that a lazy final level (featuring an unkillable enemy) and a final boss that can be very difficult with the wrong weapons loadout will certainly annoy everyone. Despite those flaws, Dead Space 2 is just creepy enough to sneak onto the list. Whether that's a testament to its overall quality or a statement on the nature of its competition is something you can decide.
Hunted: The Demon's Forge (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
I can all but guarantee that inXile's fantasy homage to Gears of War 3 is a title you won't see on five other Best of 2011 lists—which is a shame, because Hunted: The Demon's Forge is actually an entertaining third person action title.
The game's mechanics are a mixture of the hack-and-slash action role-playing game (RPG) with the cover-based mechanics of Epic's Gears franchise, and surprisingly enough, it all works well. Players can switch between two characters—brawling human Caddoc or Elven archer E'lara at various points in the narrative, meaning the combat experience has some variety to it. The environments are fairly standard high fantasy settings and the graphics are serviceable, but the writing and characters are especially good. It's nice to see a game featuring a male and female main character that's completely free of romantic subtext and sexual innuendo. Caddoc treats E'lara like a capable partner, not a potential conquest.
The game isn't perfect (there are some bugs to uncover...), but it's an interesting spin on the Gears of War formula and well worth a look for anyone who likes action RPGs. Too bad we're unlikely to ever see a sequel...
Bulletstorm (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Speaking of games that will probably never see a sequel, we come to Epic and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm. Cut from similar cloth as Gears, Bulletstorm replaced the pop-and-drop shooting mechanics with a laser lasso that could rope in enemies and fling them around—allowing for combo-heavy takedowns that award creativity as much as savagery—and a smart alecky and profane tone to replace all the pathos and melodrama of Marcus Fenix's series. The results were wholly satisfying.
While not for everyone, Bulletstorm is so gleefully over the top and stupid that I couldn't not love it. In a gaming landscape filled with somber space marines and the like, alcoholic mercenary Grayson Hunt is a delightful breath of fresh air. There's no arguing that the game is juvenile and silly, but it's also a great reminder that not all games have to be art. Sometimes it's okay to just kick back and laugh at guys making wildly vulgar and inappropriate jokes while shooting mutant monsters in the junk.
On the one hand, I'm glad people are finally starting to discover (and enjoy) Bulletstorm. On the other, it sucks that it happened so far after the fact that we'll probably never get to see Grayson Hunt in another game. Oh well, at least we'll always have Bulletstorm.
Shadows of the Damned (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Japanese game developer Suda 51 is a bit of an acquired taste—either you love his wild, weird, and quirky games for what they are, or you can't get past the inherent flaws and find them a mess. I'm more the former than the latter, which is why I liked Shadows of the Damned more than the majority of games I played in 2011.
Playing demon hunter Garcia Hotspur is a hoot, particularly for horror fans. Garcia and his talking skull partner Johnson have to head into Hell to save Hotspur's girlfriend after she's kidnapped by a demon lord. What follows is a bizarre mix of Resident Evil, R-Type, and a buddy comedy flick wherein Garcia and Johnson solve puzzles, kill demons, and crack jokes along the way.
The gameplay is not without some minor issues (the "big Johnson" level is a disaster, for example) but the writing, characters, and Suda 51 weirdness make Shadows of the Damned one of the most bizarrely entertaining titles I've played in ages.
Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection (PlayStation 3)
I'm sort of conflicted on the whole HD remake thing. On one hand, I like the idea of being able to revisit classic games on my new TV without it looking like my PS2 threw up on the screen after a night of binge drinking. On the other, shelling out $40 for games I already own is a bit problematic.
In the case of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I put aside financial concerns for the joy of getting reacquainted with two of the greatest games of the previous console generation. I'm as torn as ever on whether or not games are really art, but Ico and Colossus are certaintly compelling arguments that they are.
These new HD versions are essentially the same classic games, only with improved graphics to take advantage of the giant leap forward in TV technology of the past decade. In this regard, the package is a success—the games look great, but not so great that they lose their original charm. That being said, it's the games themselves that are really worth talking about. Ico and Colossus are as timeless as ever—and I suspect that we'd all still adore them even without the high-def makeovers. These two games are about more than gameplay—there's an atmosphere, an ambiance—a mood that permeates both experiences that is ultimately unforgettable. It's so powerful that it convinces the player to overlook the minor niggling issues of each game. Are games art? Who knows—but I do know that this collection was one of the best things I purchased this year.
Batman: Arkham City (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Arkham Asylum still gets my vote for the greatest comic book game of all-time, but Arkham City is no slouch either. Developer Rocksteady brings the Caped Crusader back for another adventure that's sure to satisfy comic fans even though the story falls apart toward the end.
While I prefer Asylum's more enclosed environments to Arkham City's gigantic sandbox, the setting isn't nearly as important to the experience as is being Batman. Controlling the Dark Knight is more satisfying than ever thanks to a refined combat system (that truly is quite heavenly in its intuitiveness) and the ability to grapple hook your way around the sprawling metropolis of Gotham. Yes, it's more of the same (with some minor refinements), but Arkham Asylum was so great that I can't imagine many folks being disappointed with another helping of that gameplay. It truly is a shame that the endgame is so underwhelming—with a better story and a more compelling final boss, this one could have been a contender.
Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)
The final chapter in Marcus Fenix's fight against the Locust is every bit as melodramatic as you'd expect, with so much testosterone flying across the screen that I thought my television might start growing stubble before the end credits rolled. Gears 3 is a fitting swansong to the series that manages to answer most of the major questions and resolve dangling plot threads (except the one about why the Locust Queen looks human...) of Cliffy B.'s video game soap opera.
The gameplay is satisfying (albeit easier than any of the other games in the series), but the real selling point is spending time with Marcus, Cole, Baird, and Dom again—which makes it sort of annoying that Epic decided to saddle us with Jace Stratton for huge chunks of the game. That complaint aside, Gears 3 is pretty much everything fans expected from one of the 360's flagship series. It's not likely to turn up on anyone's list of great moments in gaming narrative design, and it certainly doesn't even attempt to bring anything new to the table, but it delivers exactly what fans expected—a compelling conclusion to a story we've been following for the better part of a decade. Now bring on a Gears of War movie already...
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (PlayStation 3)
Nathan Drake's third outing isn't quite as good as the magnificent second game, but Drake's Deception isn't exactly Return of the Jedi when compared to Among Thieves' The Empire Strikes Back, either.
Instead, Naughty Dog brings us another action-packed cinematic title that works diligently to blur the line between film and game. The story twists and turns, revealing the backstory of how Nate and Sully met while interjecting gigantic set-pieces between the narrative interludes. Yes, the game stretches the willing suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion and yes, the Uncharted formula is starting to look a little frayed around the edges, but when Uncharted 3 works, it really works. Set-pieces in the latter half of the game are sublime in their staging and execution and a chase on horseback stands as perhaps the greatest single video game moment of 2011.
Little problems abound in Uncharted 3—the story gets weird at the end, enemies are bullet sponges, the aiming can feel a little wonky, and so on—but I love these characters so much that I'm willing to forgive the flaws in favor of the greater good. Naughty Dog is going to have to think long and hard about where this franchise is headed moving forward—lest it become even more Tomb Raider-esque—but that's a problem for another day. For now, let's just bask in the glory that is Uncharted 3.
Catherine (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
In a sea of sequels and new games borrowing elements from other franchises, Catherine stands alone as one of the truly unique gaming experiences of the past twelve months. Leave it to Atlus to shake things up with a puzzle game/dating sim/surrealist nightmare game experience that was utterly unlike anything else on the market this year—or in recent memory.
With a heady mixture of social simulation game and box moving puzzles (and people with sheep heads—can't forget about that...), Catherine isn't likely to appeal to everyone. Story interludes find Vincent—a character who's the clear winner of this year's Gaming's Biggest Douchebag award—juggling a relationship with two women: Catherine and Katherine. When he goes to sleep at night, he's whisked away to a weird nightmare world where he must move boxes to clear paths up a wall and out of a hellish pit. Fail to do so and he dies in his sleep. As Vincent progresses, he begins to unravel the mystery of what is happening to him and all the men around him—and it's really something you have to see to believe.
Catherine is really a reminder of how wacky and fun Japanese games can be. The puzzle levels are fiendishly challenging (I wimped out and played on Easy) and the story is so bizarre that you'll want to continue just to find out what's going on. When a game is not only this original, but this well done, you have to stop and give it some props. Catherine could have easily been my game of the year.
Dead Island (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
While not as blazingly original as Catherine, Dead Island ultimately earns my top honor of 2011 for providing the most satisfying zombie-killing experience I've had in ages. Think Dead Rising with most of the annoying bits removed and you're on the right track.
When the zombie apocalypse breaks out on the island of Banoi, it's up to you to help your fellow survivors escape to civilization while unraveling the mystery of what caused the outbreak in the first place. What ensues is a tense journey across a zombie-infested island where death lurks around every corner. It's arguably the closest a game has come to mimicking the feel of films by men like Lucio Fulci and George Romero.
It's unfortunate that Dead Island had such a disastrous launch featuring some genuinely horrifying glitches and bugs—because those negative first impressions hurt the game overall. However, those coming in now will experience a much more stable and satisfying game—one that features a pulpy but engaging story, immensely satisfying weaponry, and the sheer joy of lopping off four zombie heads with one swing of an electrified machete. Dead Island doesn't reinvent the wheel of zombie games—but it does refine the formula in a way that makes it a really satisfying experience for folks who love intense survival horror experiences. Because of that, it's the best thing I played last year and my Game of the Year for 2011.