[29 January 2012]
Our Game of the Year list is taking shape. I don’t remember the previous year being so full of nauseating dilemmas. “Mass Effect 2! DONE.”
—Ludwig Kietzmann (@ludwigk), Senior Editor, joystiq.com
It’s not clear yet exactly what 2011 will mean for video games once we gain the perspective of hindsight. It could be that the increased quality of independent and digitally-distributed games is blurring the lines of what are considered truly great game experiences; it could also be that the most highly anticipated offerings from the most revered franchises in gaming uniformly underwhelmed. Much anticipated entries from triple-A franchises are still the kings and queens of pure sales figures, but the games that truly ingrained themselves into our hearts and minds came from a ridiculously diverse range of places. Independent games, iPhone games, action games, puzzle games, portable games, console games, and yes, even a few of the big franchises are all fair game for Game of the Year mentions this year; never, in the short history of the medium, has the apparent quality of a given game seemed so subjective.
Of course, this has led to much navel gazing in the critical community as writer after writer tries to come to terms with what the word “review” means, what the word “criticism” means, and how those things interact with each other. Should a review always be purely evaluative of the game’s objective merits, or is there room for “feel” in a review? Is a review considered criticism? Must criticism be critical? Are review scores too low, too high, just right, or utterly useless?
There are nuanced, individualized answers to all of these questions, answers that help to shape the ways that we evaluate the games we play.
Today, we debate a new option for 2011 GOTY: nothing.
—Stephen Totilo (@stephentotilo), Deputy Editor, kotaku.com
Trying to wrap all of the great games together into a single comprehensive list for the sake of a definitive answer to the question of “What was the best game that came out this year?” is folly. We do not evaluate games as they exist on the shelf of the local big box, we evaluate games as we ourselves play them, and as such, there is a personal element to the experience that cannot be avoided. Unlike films, music, and books, the experience of a game could well be very different from one person to the next; while the rule set will stay the same from player to player, the experiences within that rule set can vary wildly.
What makes these lists interesting isn’t the finality of picking the “best” games, what makes them interesting is seeing whether the readers’ tastes and experiences align with the writers, whether there are any surprises that might inspire a second look at a game that might not have gotten a fair shake the first time around.
While this has always been true, outlets such as Steam, Kongregate, the various App Stores, and even Xbox Live Arcade are facilitating the mainstreaming of the best of the independents—all it takes is a little bit of buzz and one of Steam’s ridiculous sales, for example, and a game that had been bubbling under the radar suddenly becomes a hit. People find things to love about it that even the developers never imagined, and suddenly, it’s a phenomenon, ripe for just the sort of list that we’re trying to make here. It’s actually kind of beautiful to be watching as the organic and largely word-of-mouth publicity cycle of independent games starts to compete with the corporate publicity cycle of the year’s Big Sequels. It doesn’t speak to the relative quality of one type of game to the other, but it certainly makes for sentimental favorites.
What you may notice right off the bat is that the writers here at PopMatters apparently don’t own any portable gaming devices. That said, it’s clear that the varied interests, experiences, and preferences here at PopMatters have resulted in a list that very well encapsulates the year in gaming. This year was a year when something called Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars can be celebrated alongside the latest Gears of War game. This was a year in which one of the most reviled games is also one of the most revered (Dragon Age II).
It’s kind of a conventional list in some ways and kind of a weird list in others.
—G. Christopher Williams, Multimedia Editor, popmatters.com
Let’s get down to it, then.
20Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars
Let’s be honest: by their very nature, video games are a bit sadomasochistic. Players willingly subject themselves to challenging situations in which they possess limited control. This is especially true in Anna Anthropy’s Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars, a game that delights in teaching painful lessons.
Much like the 1980s arcade classics after which it is modeled, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars punishes failure as much as it rewards skill. As the Spider Queen, players must navigate a top-down maze while reeling in hordes of rebelling slaves. The queen’s web slowly draws captives towards her, but the copious number of escapees gives you a good incentive to keep moving. One false move, one random knife, or one unfortunate turn in the maze will cost you one precious life. Losing all of your lives yields a humiliating choice: while controlling a rope-bound Spider Queen, you can choose to squirm your way to freedom and forfeit your score or retreat back to the title screen in shame. Either way, you are physically linked to the choice.
Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars is an 8-bit homage with sexploitation sensibilities that will deal out as much punishment as the player wants. However, like the any healthy sadomasochistic relationship, you remain in control: you can either tap out or learn to overcome the game’s challenges. Racking up a huge score or discovering a new tactic to capture those impudent slaves is stressful but immensely satisfying. It sounds glib, but it’s true: Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars just hurts so good. Scott Juster
Dead Island is a hybrid of an FPS and an RPG, and it’s also more than the sum of its parts since all of its mechanics work to emphasize horror. Combat demands that you get up close to enemies that can easily kill you, and since the zombies level up with you, there’s a never a moment when you feel powerful.
But the best thing about Dead Island is that it’s actually two games in one. Its single player experience is a brutal horror game that makes you feel weak even as you collect better and better weapons. Its cooperative multiplayer combines the action of Left 4 Dead with the random chaos of Borderlands. One moment you’ll have to decide whether to risk your life to save a friend or leave him to die, the next moment you and that same friend will be jousting with trucks. The game works either way and that makes Dead Island one of the most surprising games of the year as well as one of the best. Nick Dinicola
18The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
If you’ve ever played a Legend of Zelda game before, you’ve played Skyward Sword. You’re an elf. She’s a princess (or your sister or a goddess or whatever felt interesting to the game designers at the time). She gets captured. Cue heroics.
Maybe it was the release date then, so late in the Nintendo Wii’s lifecycle, or the realization of the dynamic Wii motion controls, but something about Skyward Sword feels different and better. It’s not the graphics, writing, or lack of voice acting, all of which scream “2002!” anytime that you pick up a new object or launch a laughably grainy cut scene. It may be the shift in gameplay to a purely puzzle-based system (gone are the days of galloping through Hyurle Field—now you’re flipping levers at every turn) or the increased difficulty that the motion controls add. All of that is too clinical, though.
Skyward Sword is joyous precisely because you’ve played it before. It’s that batch of chocolate chip cookies that your mom bakes when you come home for Christmas. Though they haven’t changed in decades, they’re still spectacular. Every once in a while, there will be a change to the recipe that just isn’t quite right, but you keep waiting for that batch that comes out perfectly. Skyward Sword is baked just right. Chris Gaerig
You cannot call Battlefield 3 revolutionary. It’s not. Ostensibly, the game offers only larger levels, drivable vehicles, and better graphics than the industry standard, the long running Call of Duty series. And yet it is without hesitation or sarcasm that I call it the greatest military shooter of all time (this coming from a devout Counter Strike—beginning with Version 1.3—and Call of Duty player).
What’s brilliant about Battlefield 3 is that it’s not about shooting, nor about killing people; it’s a role playing game. The goal of Battlefield 3 is to accomplish objectives toward your team’s ultimate goal without dying, which means everyone has a role to play, and if your team is going to be successful, you kind of have to stick to it. If you’re a sniper, you’re not going to get very many kills but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the most effective member of the team. The game offers the kind of autonomy (largely because of the enormous levels, vehicular battle, environmental interaction, and gameplay style) that is indicative of more classic role playing scenarios. And yet the game shields itself from the kinds of scoffing and dirty looks that an “RPG” gets by presenting the most fluid, stunning, and emotionally disturbing first person shooter ever made.
It’s tough to call the game “important” because, again, it’s not, but it has undoubtedly changed the way that military shooters can and will be made in the future. Chris Gaerig
Mortal Kombat is one of those rare experiences when nostalgia and reality live together in harmony. The game is a fitting tribute to the much loved series and a worthy addition to the competitive fighting game genre.
Although it has many new features, the 2011 version of Mortal Kombat manages to channel the essence of what first drew me to the series in the early 1990s. The violence is as ridiculous as it is graphic. The hypersexualized, campy, and flat out weird character models sprint past the line of good taste. The combos and special moves retain their unique feel. Whereas games like Street Fighter are largely defined by quarter and half-circle sweeps, Mortal Kombat is about quick directional taps and single, well timed uppercuts. Everything that I loved about the early games has been faithfully updated: from the gross-out appeal to the approachable rules, Mortal Kombat remains a thoroughly accessible game.
Watching people play can be as fun as actually participating. For serious players, Mortal Kombat’s appeal has proven to be more than skin deep. The game has appeared at the Evo fighting game tournament and has been covered by the Major League Gaming network. Smart additions like an attack meter that dictates combo breakers and special moves adds deeper tactical elements to the game. At its best, Mortal Kombat is a ludicrously gory chess game, one that honors the series’s legacy. Scott Juster
15Shadows of the Damned
A brash, bizarre, and tragically under selling game from the twisted mind of Suda51, Shadows of the Damned was a refreshingly obnoxious summer release after the too, too polished sequel to Suda’s No More Heroes in 2010.
Suda’s return to form follows the descent of demon hunter Garcia Hotspur into the depths of hell to rescue his girlfriend Paula. As usual, Suda flips the bird at video game conventions and conceits, especially by turning the basic plot of “saving the princess” on its head by the game’s conclusion. The game is full of scatological humor, grotesque enemies and friends, and a fairly engaging bit of hybridized puzzle-shooting mechanics that involve playing with light and darkness. All of this congeals into a grimy, ugly title that fully intends to be as offensive as possible.
Suda, as long as you are around, punk is still not dead. G. Christopher Williams
14Gears of War 3
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” could have been the mantra behind Epic’s latest entry into the incredibly successful Gears of War franchise. Indeed, much of what made the first two games great remains the same.
The studio delivers cover-based level design as solid as ever and the enjoyability and lethality of the iconic Lancer chainsaw-gun persists. Yet in many ways Gears of War is more daring than either of its predecessors. Tower-defense elements make their way into the game’s traditional Horde mode, offering players a chance to barricade safe zones with barbed wire, to take out armies of Lambent with gatling guns, or even to create a devastating mech-suit with which to mow down enemies, all of which make horde mode more thrilling, engaging, and interesting than its earlier incarnations.
In Beast mode, players turn the tables and control ever more impressive Locust troops, ranging from the infamous tickers to the new Giant Serapede or Berserker, designed to eviscerate AI humans and their constructions. One round of Beast mode will leave you wishing it were part of a much larger competitive multiplayer that pitted locust players against human players instead of just AI.
Epic also surprised players with a far richer narrative experience than the first Gears games and showed that with a little tact, they could actually pull off a moment of sadness and vulnerability within the “shit, yeah!” mood of the franchise. Gears of War 3 manages to tell an inglorious and tragic war story without ever diminishing the rock solid and thrilling gameplay that we know and love. Jorge Albor
13Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Rebooting a franchise with a prequel that appears 11 years after its predecessor was released seems like a recipe for mediocrity, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution more than rises to the challenge. In fact, that long wait works to its advantage. As a prequel to a decade old game, Human
Revolution evokes that old-school cyber-punk sci-fi that you just don’t see anymore. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it combines those influences with a unique score and visual style to create a game that feels both familiar and new.
But style wouldn’t matter if it didn’t play well. Human Revolution successfully mixes multiple genres (it’s a stealth/shooter/RPG), and the clever level design ensures that there are always multiple solutions to any problem. Boss fights aside (and the last one really isn’t that bad), this is absolutely one of the best games of the year. Nick Dinicola
12Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Uncharted 3 is an exciting game on many levels. Most obviously, its spectacular visuals and engaging action sequences set it apart from every other game out there. However, Uncharted 3‘s dedication to immaculate presentation goes beyond bombast; it’s the little details that make the game one of the most impressive experiences of the year. A multitude of architectural details, knickknacks, custom animations, and excellent acting performances imbue the game’s environments and characters with a unique vibrancy.
All this attention to visual detail and traditional storytelling is entertaining, but Uncharted 3 is also exciting from a design perspective. While the single-player campaign is more glitz than substance, the robust multiplayer mode offers a unique shooter experience. Stages make use of both horizontal and vertical space, and victory often requires as much climbing and jumping as it does taking cover and throwing grenades. Additionally, Uncharted 3‘s spin on the Call of Duty-style perk system takes the sting out of being a new player. Persistent medals for helping teammates, making use of terrain, and even surviving close calls allows everyone to partake in the combat bonuses.
Each Uncharted game has outdone the previous in terms of sheer spectacle, and it seems that Naughty Dog has perfected the highly scripted, yet exquisitely crafted action adventure formula. Uncharted 3 is a thrilling victory lap that hints at the excitement of a new journey. Naughty Dog has grown comfortable with the current Uncharted formula and seems poised to begin a new adventure. Scott Juster
11Batman: Arkham City
The claustrophobic halls of Arkham Asylum give way to the crime infested streets of Arkham City in Rocksteady’s newest Batman title. If Arkham Asylum offered a seemingly authentic sense of “being the Batman”, Arkham City broadens the experience of playing as the Dark Knight by trying to expand and enhance the spaces that he can operate in.
Featuring a host of new villains, a really amazing playable version of Catwoman, and more Riddler challenges than any player could want, the game takes its “more is more” approach to the limit. The plotline is a little less focused than last time out, but the game does pay off with one of the more powerful conclusions to a Triple A action title this year. G. Christopher Williams
10Fate of the World
Fate of the World is a hardcore strategy games that in no way looks like a hardcore strategy game on first or even second glance. Its simplicity belies the complexity of the world that it seeks to represent. The game presents a number of different scenarios, each with different goals and initial conditions that you have to meet in order not to save the world, but to allow it to survive into the next century – and even that feels like an impossible feat. You don’t fix problems or regions so much as get them under control long enough to not blow up in your face while you try to help somewhere else. It shows systematically, no matter what ideology you subscribe to, that the world will bend only so far and for so long.
Fate of the World is one of those works that is so incredibly difficult to talk about without having it sound like an absolute mess. When describing it, you will still always miss some element that is crucial to understanding the game and the explanation as a whole will suffer for it. Like the world, nothing is unimportant, and it all connects to something else. To quote the character Lester Freamon from The Wire, “All the pieces matter.” Eric Swain
9Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations continues Ubisoft’s trend of giving players improvements that we didn’t even know that we wanted: The Mediterranean Defense mini-game is far more involved this time, better narrative context gives your every choice a greater sense of consequence, and the addition of bombs to your arsenal will significantly change how you approach all combat scenarios. While the sci-fi frame story of Desmond and the end-of-the-world remains frustratingly static, the game does bring Ezio’s story to a surprisingly touching end, as promised.
The multiplayer also makes a triumphant return. Several new modes, like variations of “Capture the Flag” and “Tag”, emphasize the game’s unique cat-and-mouse nature. You play as a Templar recruit working your way up the corporate ladder, and these story elements reinvigorate the often stale
process of leveling up in a multiplayer game.
For fans that remember the crazy ending of Assassin’s Creed II, there aren’t many revelations in Revelations, but there are more than enough clues to keep you playing and obsessing about the long running series. Nick Dinicola
8The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I don’t remember playing any other game in which I’ve paused just to look at the scenery. Everything in Skyrim invites the player to look, to explore why it’s there. Don’t care for the Dragonborn storyline? That’s fine, because there are many caves and houses for you to get into to satisfy your time in Tamriel. Cheese wheels and political intrigue? Yes, please. Skyrim shows how the world is a character, the player’s main sidekick or antagonist. The introduction of the perks system and guardian stones add more choice and flavor to a game that promotes thinking on your toes, developing a character from the kinds of adventures that they are surviving through.
Bethesda continues to tap into the essence of play with The Elder Scrolls’s latest installment, peeling away the bulky aesthetics and unnecessary minutiae of the previous games. It’s no secret, Skyrim is a further improvement on a successful formula, enticing players with a new land to romp in rather than purely packing in flash and glamour. With Bethesda’s active encouragement for the development and sharing of mods of its game, an exciting aspect of gaming culture attains a potential that few have had before. Gamers will be talking about Skyrim for a long, long time. Mattie Brice
7Dragon Age II
There will probably be many blank stares and shaking heads upon seeing Dragon Age II on a Top anything list. However, something makes it the darling underdog game of 2011 for many critics, despite some of its wider disapproval. BioWare focused on writing in this sequel, a quality painfully undervalued in the gaming community that deserves applause and encouragement. Its narrative is socially relevant and romance options serve as a progressive push that games need to become more inclusive. The conflicts in the game are a source of seemingly endless conversation, building a looming sense of anticipation for the series’s ending that rivals its sci-fi sibling. Needless to say, Dragon Age II rocked a lot of convention for the better, all in that patent BioWare style.
The implementation of the conversation wheel is at its best in Dragon Age II, breaking away from the binary morality systems that many games adopt to simulate “player choice”. Instead of being good or evil, you explore the nuances of Hawke’s fellow party members and the circumstances of the tragic situations that they are involved in, all the while learning that there might be more to games than saving the world. The characters are some of the best written, especially Aveline, who is one of the best female characters ever written for a video game (developers, take note!). The game had its issues, like every other, but there was ingenuity and honesty here that you just don’t get very often. We want more! Mattie Brice
6Inside 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
5Dead 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
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
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
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
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