One of the more pleasing developments in gaming over these past couple of years is that the industry is moving away from releasing all its triple-A games in the September to December window and now has a more reasonable spread of quality games across the whole year. Funnily enough, its moreso the movie industry nowadays that has most of its best new releases sandwiched in a 3 month window.
Personally, it was another year in which the majority of my gaming was done on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Both consoles had a continual output of good quality games that kept me playing throughout the year. I was pleased to see the Wii go out on a high note with Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword but looking back on the five year lifespan of the Wii, its certainly been a console that has had a very thin lineup of software which has been punctuated by the occasional awesome game from Nintendo. Hopefully this is something they can rectify with the Wii U.
Despite the amount of video games I play across a wide number of platforms, there’s probably never been a time where I’ve been more out of touch with what the majority of people are playing. This is not a conscious choice but I simply have no interest in what the vast majority of people are being drawn to. I have never played Minecraft, Terraria or World of Warcraft on the PC. I have never played Farmville or any other Facebook game. I have never played Angry Birds which passed the milestone of having 350 million copies sold this year. I don’t play Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty, the latter of which made a billion dollars in sales in under a fortnight. I mostly like to play single player console games and nowadays that puts me in a tiny, tiny minority amongst gamers. It’s kind of weird how that happened.
Anyway, enough rambling. Here is my pick of the ten best games of 2011.
Clash of Heroes: Might and Magic (Xbox Live Arcade/Playstation Network/Steam) – Game of the Year
I don’t know how they did it but Capybara Games, the creators of the excellent Sword and Sworcery and Critter Crunch, have created a variation on the match-3 puzzle game format that is so good and so addictive that its my pick for Best Game of 2011. It almost feels like playing a board game like Chess or Go. Two opposing players are given a limited number of pieces which they must navigate on a tiled board. You are allowed a fixed number of moves each turn and are given a variety of playing pieces, some of which have special powers. The object of the game is to simply strike your opponent until their health reduces to zero. It sounds stupidly simple but it is so addictive and well designed that I could lose hours playing this game. I really hope in 2012 we get an iOS version of the game so I can revisit it on the iPhone or iPad. This game really deserves a bigger audience.
Bastion (Xbox Live Arcade)
I wish more games had the creativity and artistic ambition of Bastion. This six hour game is a short, well contained tale of how a silent protagonist wakes up in a world just after it has been devastated and torn apart by a disaster referred to as a calamity. The game is filled to the brim with character, from its colourful watercolour palette to omnipresent whisky-voiced narrator.
Batman: Arkham City (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
The successor to the surprise hit Arkham Asylum is a worthy follow up that expands upon the scope of the original. Whereas Arkham Asylum followed a design template comparable to Metroidvania games, Arkham City is a more of an open world game with plenty of sidequests and Riddler puzzles to reward exploration. There is still no better game today that gives you the sensation of total empowerment than when you control the Dark Knight and silently take out Joker’s hired goons one by one.
Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
I can’t remember who came up with it, but I always liked the analogy that compared the Dead Space games to the Alien franchise. The first game has a smaller scale and is focused on a small number of alien creatures that stalk Isaac Clarke aboard the USG Ishimura. In the sequel, its more like Aliens where the action ramps up, there’s slightly less tension but still a goodly amount of horror. This is a very impressive sequel that really builds on the play mechanics of the original. Once you really get going and start having battles against multiple enemies where you’re targeting limbs, using a slow-mo attack, a gravity gun to harpoon objects scattered around the level and an assortment of different weapons, you really appreciate just how much depth and quality Visceral Games have put into Dead Space 2.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
The thinking man’s shooter made a return in 2011 after a long hiatus. Has there been a stronger first time effort for a studio than this game from the newly formed Eidos Montreal? I love the image above of a cybernetically altered Jensen smoking a cigarette which I think captures what is so intriguing about the Deus Ex universe. The game provided multiple avenues to overcome the game’s enemies and half the fun of the experience was comparing your approach with other friends also playing the game. If you want an interactive modern day Bladerunner game, this is pretty much it.
Mario Kart 7 (Nintendo 3DS)
Once again, I refer to the image above which I think encapsulates what makes Mario Kart so much fun. There is a plumber in a go-kart with a hang glider attachment soaring through a world with floating coins and pipes sticking out everywhere. It’s frenetic, chaotic, colourful fun. Having smashed the single player mode and unlocked the various kart modifiers and unlockable characters, I’m now spending an unhealthy amount of time racing online against other players around the world. I <3 Mario Kart.
Portal 2 (PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3)
Easily the funniest game of the year and also the game with the best ending. Portal 2 offers more of the mind melding puzzles from the original game and also more of the charm. The highlight of the original game was the mute protagonist’s relationship with the passive aggressive GlaDOS. This time around you keep the company of Wheatley, a dim-witted robot companion voiced by Stephen Merchant. It’s a great tale, is full of challenging and enjoyable puzzles and as I mentioned before…that ending is pretty special.
Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS)
The original Super Mario World made me a lifelong video game fan. No other platform game since then has bested it in my eyes but this game comes mighty close. Super Mario 3DS Land has some fantastically creative levels, awesome boss battles and plenty of unlockable content to keep you playing.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Playstation 3)
The long awaited sequel to my favourite game of 2009. While Uncharted 3 doesn’t quite hit the heights of Uncharted 2, it is still an outstanding game. There are some ridiculously great graphics in this game, the usual frenetic and carnage-filled set pieces that the series is known for and more of the great characterization that helps set it apart from a market filled with dour military shooters.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo Wii)
He was there at the launch of the Nintendo Wii and now five years later, Link is back to see out the end of the console with Skyward Sword. Being in development for this long has allowed Nintendo to really go for broke with the dungeon designs. The game is absolutely crammed with all sorts of interesting items and creative levels in which to use them. The combat is made much more interesting with the inclusion of Wii Motion Plus controls and even the storyline is a little bit different to what we’re used to.
From Dust – A great digitial download game in which you play a God that helps a wandering tribe find their home through a hostile planet
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD – this year had plenty of HD remakes of classic games and none were better than this one. A chance to revisit my pile of shame and finally finish Ico.
Pullblox – a neat little digital download game for the 3DS. Only $5 and it gets you over 100 puzzles to solve. Great fun and good value.
Yakuza 4 – I’m pretty sure the next Grand Theft Auto game is going to steal Yakuza 4‘s idea and have an open world game where you control multiple characters to see the story from different perspectives.
Gears of War 3 – a great finish to an entertaining trilogy of games on the 360. Make sure you bring a buddy and play co-op.