6 - 1
Inside a Star-filled Sky
(Jason Rohrer; US: Feb 2011)
Inside a Star-filled Sky
Jason Rohrer, the much lauded creator of Passage, once again lived up to his reputation with Inside a Star-filled Sky, an “infinite, recursive, tactical shooter.”
The game offers far more than a competent top-down shooting gallery. Within its infinite depths, between its moments of exploration and bullet hell frenzy, lies an exploration of a shared human submission to our expansive universe. The experience is simultaneously a solitary and multiplayer experience in which players chart a path all their own but find within their world, within its hidden recesses, remnants of other travelers.
The flags that players leave behind, some permanent others transient, mark the influence of others on your own journey. Like all of Rohrer’s games, Inside a Star-filled Sky is an existential journey at its core but manages to use its metaphor to explore more abstract feelings, like solitude, diminuitiveness, and kinship, than its predecessors do.
Only Minecraft rivals Inside a Star-filled Sky with its ability to instill a sense of awe with such a minimalist design. It is no coincidence that both games trade in the exploration of the infinite and the promise that even in our tiny corners of existence, our actions matter. Jorge Albor
Dead Space 2
(Electronic Arts; US: 25 Jan 2011)
Dead Space 2
On the surface, Dead Space 2 looks a lot like its predecessor, but digging deeper reveals a bounty of subtle tweaks and improvements. This time out, Visceral Games does a better job telling a story through the environment: Mutated children show the depths of your enemy’s evil, and a visit to a church fleshes out some important aspects of the Dead Space lore. There’s an increased focus on action as well. The monsters are tougher, the threats greater, but the controls have been appropriately improved, making the game a better overall shooter.
Yet even with its renewed focus on action, Dead Space 2 doesn’t forget its roots in horror. A visit to a familiar location midway through the game provides the single most tense and terrifying gaming experience of the year. Simply put, Dead Space 2 is exhausting, both physically and mentally, as a good horror game should be. Nick Dinicola
(Rockstar; US: 17 May 2011)
LA Noire is not a game without faults. It has been mocked for its repetitive gameplay and its ability to make a player feel entirely inconsequential, but what it accomplishes (or perhaps more importantly, what it strives to accomplish) sets it apart from nearly all of its contemporaries.
Put aside for a minute the jaw dropping graphics and first-of-its-kind facial recognition software. When rumors of a Rockstar-created, open-world detective game began swirling, most people probably thought, “Grand Theft Auto … only smarter,” or nerdier, depending on your perspective. In reality, the game afforded players the ability to live out a TNT procedural while offering at least a bit of autonomy.
Sure, after the first 10 hours or so, analyzing interrogation answers and follow-up questions became routinely dull, and shooting down those baddies who just robbed a bank (which you were serendipitously near at hand to swoop in for) hardly felt like a game at all, but those opening crimes really felt authentic. You found that evidence and asked the right questions to piece together the fake murder, and it was you that was casually driving around 1940s Los Angeles uncovering Easter eggs and walking through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
LA Noire was something new, something special, and even if it was more summer fling than wife-to-be, those fleeting moments were what you’ll tell your son about when he’s old enough and his mother’s not around. Chris Gaerig
(Atlus; US: 24 Jun 2011)
Few games aim to be a mature experience, an adult adventure that doesn’t fall to Leisure Suit Larry standards of “maturity”. Catherine’s subject matter alone made it unique, as how often do you play a game as a 30-something guy who’s in a relationship and only looking to save himself? Vincent is the year’s anti-hero, the guy we so easily love to hate, but mostly because we all know someone like him. There is drama and tension from the start, from the constant stream of messages on Vincent’s phone to the interesting patrons of the Stray Sheep bar. Add in the bizarre puzzle nightmares and the supernatural events that are a staple in Atlus games, and you have a game that you cannot ignore.
Because of Catherine, we know video games can serve as a great medium to explore intimate topics like relationships, topics most thought that games were too immature to handle. It also shows that storytelling is not the sole territory of the RPG genre, that a puzzle game can connect to players just as much as a sweeping epic fantasy. Don’t overlook Catherine because of the anime cut scenes and risqué advertising. It will leave you moving blocks in your head long into the night. Mattie Brice
(Valve Corporation ; US: 19 Apr 2011)
How do you follow up on one of the greatest games of all time, one of the few games that could rationally be called perfect? That was the challenge that Valve faced when it tried to create a sequel to the ultra sublime Portal. Valve’s answer, the answer that most developers come up with when it’s time to create a sequel: go bigger. Portal was a tight package with no fat on it. All of its elements—the writing, the puzzles, the layout, and the design—coalesced into a near perfect, if not fully perfect, package. Portal 2 goes big with everything that it presents but doesn’t forget to grow the game’s thematic scope in tandem with those other elements.
The themes of education, gender roles, science, and existentialism were, from the first, expanded to fit the new mold of Portal 2. We dove into Aperture’s past for a tale of the rise and fall of its founder, the genesis of the Portal universe, and a story of personal redemption. Portal 2 could have simply expanded on all of its technical design aspects and it would have been great, but once again, Valve went the extra mile to create an all time classic. Eric Swain
(Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; US: 20 Jul 2011)
You don’t realize how special Bastion is until it’s over. You spend most of your time running around and either shooting at stuff or bashing at stuff in a setting more than a little reminiscent of Diablo, and nothing that you actually do throughout the game is of particular note. Really, it’s what happens before, while, and after you do that makes Bastion the shockingly effective game that it is.
There’s Rucks, the gruff character and narrator who documents The Kid’s every move. There’s the music, an effective blend of electronics with unusual instrumentation (and a couple of seriously catchy, achingly sad original folk songs) that sets the mood beautifully. And then, there’s the end, which offers a mere two binary choices, choices that prompted nearly as much discussion as any RPG this year. It is a game that begs to be played through twice, a game that can be enjoyed on the first playthrough but not really understood until the second. The gameplay quickly becomes a means of seeing (and hearing) more of the story, and by making that gameplay simple enough to quickly become second nature, we are allowed to fully enjoy those peripheral pleasures.
The result was the most memorable few hours of gaming this year. Bastion is brilliant. Mike Schiller