The Best & Worst Video Games of 2011
Here we are at the end of yet another excellent year of gaming. Much like in 2010, (you can find last year’s awards here) a constant stream of games have kept my wallet light and given me plenty to write about in this, my first full year at blogspot.
2011 was a great year to be a gamer, as it offered one of the deepest collections of games in recent memory, spread across a wide range of genres. A handful of titles managed to stand out from the crowd, though I do think that 2011 lacked a truly great game. For all the excellence that was on offer, I’m not sure that there has been any one title that I’ll be getting all nostalgic about come the end of this generation. Still, the overall level of quality has been astounding.
I played a wide range of games this year, mostly on my PS3, though my 360, Wii and portables all got a look-in. Here are the current gen releases that have graced my consoles over the last twelve months.
PLAYED: Angry Birds, Batman Arkham City, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Borderlands, Braid, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Child of Eden, Crysis 2, Dead Space 2, Def Jam Rapstar, Dragon Age II, Gears of War 2, ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Classics HD, Infamous 2, Joysound Wii Super DX, Just Cause 2, Killzone 3, LA Noire, Limbo, Little Big Planet 2, Mafia II, Medal of Honour, Mirror’s Edge, MotorStorm Apocalypse, NBA 2K11, NBA Jam, Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, No More Heroes 2, Outland, PopCap! Hits, Portal, Portal 2, Resistance 3, Shadows of the Damned, SingStar, Space Invaders Infinity Gene, Super Meat Boy, Super Scribblenauts, Super Stardust HD, Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together, The Last Guy, Uncharted 3, Vanquish, Wipeout HD, WWE All Stars, Yakuza 3, Yakuza 4
CURRENTLY PLAYING: Skyrim (45 hours in), Sonic Generations, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
BOUGHT THIS YEAR BUT HAVE YET TO PLAY: Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Dark Souls, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Final Fantasy IV Complete Collection, Payday: The Heist, Red Faction Armageddon, Saints Row the Third, Yakuza Kenzan
What follows are the best and worst of 2011 spread across a range of categories, some more unusual than others. Be sure to let me know in the comments whether you agree or disagree with my choices (particularly if you agree!) and share some of your own picks.
Enjoy your games and have a Happy New Year
1. Retail Game of the Year: Uncharted 3
After much deliberation, I have plumped for Uncharted 3 over Skyrim for my GOTY. I really struggled with this decision and wouldn’t be surprised if, in a month’s time, I’ll have changed my mind to Bethesda’s epic, as the more I play the more I find myself falling in love with it.
Uncharted 3’s single player is a small step backwards from Uncharted 2, but that didn’t stop it from being the most exciting and polished campaign I’ve played all year. Stunning visuals, impeccable pacing and memorable set pieces mark a campaign that is never short on witty dialogue and likable characters, and one that is packed full of small human touches that bring these lovable rogues to life. Improvements were made to the already outstanding competitive and co-op multiplayer, which will ensure that it keeps a place in my rotation well into 2012. Uncharted 3 is another compelling entry in a series that remains the best reason to own a PlayStation 3.
Honourable Mention: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3, Batman: Arkham City, Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together
2. Downloadable Game of the Year: Outland
Thanks to the PSN Welcome Back offers, I managed to get my hands on a host of excellent downloadable games. It’s just a shame that none of them were 2011 releases. Outland was the best of a pretty uninspired bunch across both PSN and Live. It boasts impressive visuals; excellent gameplay, the highlight of which is its towering bosses; and is pretty substantial for a DL title. Let us hope that 2012 proves to be a more fruitful year for PSN and Live.
Honourable Mention: Limbo (PSN)
3. Best New IP: Shadows of the Damned
2011 was the year of the sequel and there were scant few new IP’s that managed to grab my attention. Shadows of the Damned was one of the few that engaged me; a peculiar beast, it was far from perfect yet greatly entertaining, hugely derivative yet strangely unique. The varied gameplay was interspersed with the kind of twisted and entertaining characters that we have come to expect from Suda 51, and it absolutely deserved to be a cult hit. Unfortunately it bombed, and chances are EA will think long and hard before publishing another risky, new IP.
Honourable Mention: Outland
4. Standout Moment: Skyrim
Early on in my adventure, I decided to abandon my active mission and make a beeline for one of the larger, snowy peaks sat out on the horizon. Not quite at the summit, and realizing that the path I had chosen was no longer tenable, I turned away from the body of the mountain and was instantly taken aback by the beauty of what now lay in front of me. The night sky was peppered with stars and alive with the blues, greens and yellows of the aurora borealis. Lowering my gaze to the land below I spotted settlements, forest and mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see, and I knew that in time I would have the opportunity to explore them all. My Skyrim wander lust has been insatiable ever since.
Honourable Mention: Shadow of the Colossus (fighting the first Colossus), Modern Warfare 3 (the exhaustive climax)
5. Pleasant Surprise: Portal 2
The prospect of room after sterile room of similar puzzles had never really appealed. It all sounded rather dull, and the short time I’d spent with Portal did little to convince me otherwise. However, I soon found myself falling for Portal 2, as I became thoroughly addicted to its puzzles and impressed by its ability to infuse a derelict setting and robotic cast with so much character. The co-op is the icing on the cake, and I quickly came to the realisation that Portal 2 is best experienced with a partner.
Honourable Mention: MotorStorm Apocalypse
6. Biggest Disappointment: LA Noire
I was beyond excited for what promised to be a mature and stylish take on the detective genre, but I was destined to be massively disappointed. When you look beyond the noir styling and impressive facial animation – something most reviewers proved incapable of doing – you have a game with very few redeeming features. It becomes abundantly clear early on that any notion of freedom of investigation is merely an illusion; you do what the game wants you to do, when it wants to do it, including charging suspects that you know are innocent. Noire’s Los Angeles is hollow, the characters uninteresting and shallow, the script heavy-handed and, outside of the murder scenes, gameplay is virtually non-existent. LA Noire was a tragic waste of what was one of 2011’s few promising new IPs.
Dishonourable Mention: Sony’s handling of the PSN hack, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection slipping into 2012 for Europe
7. Best pre-2011 Game Played this Year (excluding rereleases): Just Cause 2
When it comes to pure, unadulterated fun, few games come close to Just Cause 2. I have no idea why it took me so long to pick it up, but I’m glad that I finally did. The tropical island of Panau makes Skyrim feel claustrophobic; it is a giant playground designed with one thing in mind: grappling hook mayhem. What other game allows you to bail out of a jet fighter, free-fall for a couple of thousand feet and then save yourself by firing your hook into the roof of a sky scraper? Certainly not LA Noire.
Honourable Mention: Super Stardust HD
8. Best Remake/Rerelease: Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together
Being that I’m a massive fan of the Tactics series, I was always going to enjoy Tactics Ogre. This brilliant update adds a number of new features to the existing deep and addictive combat, and it features the PSP’s best soundtrack to boot. It’s a huge game – I came to a stop at around 45 hours – and even the convoluted script couldn’t lessen my enjoyment of what stood as my game of the year for the first half of 2011.
Honourable Mention: ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Classics HD
9. Most Confounding Sequel: Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II isn’t a bad game. It’s just that with the exception of a few familiar faces, it has so very little in common with the original. The MMO-style combat is replaced by a simplified hack-and-slash hybrid and your Hero of Ferelden is nowhere to be seen. The exploration that the original encouraged and the sense of existing within a real world are missing entirely, as I found myself trapped within one city and its immediate surroundings for the duration. I did enjoy DA2, but it was a crying shame that it didn’t even resemble the game that I, and fans of the original, really wanted.
Dishonourable Mention: Dead Space 2 (A fairly good game, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just an overly long re-run of the original)
10. Wish I’d Found More Time For: Batman: Arkham City
There was too much to do in Arkham City and far too many distractions for just one play through. Trading the more linear narrative drive of Asylum for faux-sandbox exploration – very much a double edged sword – it had me giddy at the thought of all the crime fighting possibilities. I completed it once and poured a few hours into the combat and challenge rooms, but it had the misfortune of being released at the most inopportune of times: only a week and a half before Uncharted 3, which was immediately followed by MW3 and then Skyrim. I’m thinking of sneaking it into my backlog pile, in hopes of fooling myself into playing it again sometime in 2012.
Honourable Mention: Uncharted 3 multiplayer
11. Best Visuals: Uncharted 3
As expected, Uncharted 3 was a visual masterpiece and made most other games look piss-poor in comparison. The Rub’ al Khali Desert is the shining example of Naughty Dog’s expertise. Your introduction to this most inhospitable of settings requires you to do bugger all except hold down forward, but it matters little as you are best served sitting back and taking in the beauty of the setting. With the camera pulling away, Drake cuts a lonely figure against the brilliant blue of the clear sky. The sand ripples under foot as he soldiers forward along the crest of a towering dune, lost in a never ending sea of sand. This is Naughty Dog at their cinematic best and the depiction of the cruel and beautiful desert instantly brought to mind David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Rare company indeed and a microcosm of the breath-taking visuals and attention to detail found throughout.
Honourable Mention: Crysis 2
12. Best OST: Shadows of the Damned
Akira Yamaoka’s score is the perfect complement to Suda 51’s vision of hell. Covering a spectrum of genres, from Spanish guitar to a spot of metal, this eclectic set of tracks does wonders for the atmosphere, bringing together disparate settings and gameplay sections. No one piece of music sounds the same and each is a perfect fit for the moment in which it appears.
Honourable Mention: Skyrim
13. Most Time Spent Staring at an Arse: Modern Warfare 3
In MW3, if you aren’t shooting someone in the face then you are probably staring at someone’s arse instead. It seemed like virtually every level began with me closely following an ally, usually in a crouching position, with a helpful “Follow” tag pinned to their backside. I quickly became overly familiar with the contours of Captain Price’s buttocks, and soon found myself scrambling to cut a throat or two just to reaffirm my heterosexuality and manliness. Or perhaps I was just hoping that Captain sweet cheeks would notice me. Shit, I’d better kill something and think about vaginas.
14. Biggest Time Waster: Yakuza 4
From the mundane to the exhilarating, there are so many ways to burn time in Yakuza 4 outside of the narrative and plentiful side missions. Why rush to save your imperilled friends when you can waste hour after hour at the SEGA arcade or try to eat everything on the menu at your local Matsuya? Failing that, there’s golf, hostess bars, sexy table tennis, gambling, karaoke or beating seven shades of shit out of turtleneck wearing thugs. Time wasting has never been this much fun.
Honourable Mention: Skyrim
15. Best Online Multiplayer: Modern Warfare 3
Modern Warfare’s competitive multiplayer is better than ever before, thanks to a number of new editions that tweak the existing formula, as well as the new stat-tracking service, Elite. The introduction of pointstreaks, replacing the killstreaks of old, changed the way I approached team matches for the better and ultimately extended its shelf life. I loved the new kill confirmed matches, and the expanded spec-ops and the new survival mode help to make this the most complete and best Call of Duty yet.
Honourable Mention: Uncharted 3
16. Most Opportunities for Mayhem (aka The Just Cause 2 Award): Skyrim
Skyrim may be a little rough around the edges, but you can’t fault its scope and ambition. From murdering a grocer just so you can listen to her attempts to sell you leeks from the afterlife, to stalking a dragon in your underpants or throwing cheese off the throat of the world, there is a staggering amount of troublemaking to be had in Skyrim.
Honourable Mention: Infamous 2
17. Best Character: The Yakuza 4 ensemble
Kazuma Kiryu is one of my favourite gaming characters, but having only completed Yakuza 3 two months previous I was happy to see Yakuza 4 going the ensemble route. Kazuma is still the star, but the three new protagonists all proved more than capable of carrying their own parts of the game, and added new and interesting perspectives to the vibrant world of Kamurocho. I thoroughly enjoyed Saejima’s tale of prison, betrayal and redemption, and although I was not quite as enamoured with Tanimura, a police-officer who tows the line between good cop and bad cop, I could still appreciate what he brought to the mix. The charismatic loan shark, Shun Akiyama, was the most promising of the three and he absolutely needs a game of his own. If Kazuma ever steps down, there is a ready-made lead in Akiyama.
Honourable Mention: Joker (Batman Arkham City), Wheatley (Portal 2), Sully and Drake (Uncharted 3)
18. Most Fun Inebriated: Joysound Wii Super DX
One of the best parts of our trip back to Japan in September - TGS and seeing friends/family aside - was that it enabled us to bring back to England a part of our old lives that we sorely missed: karaoke. The Japan only Joysound Wii Super DX is a karaoke game that features a library of over 65,000 songs, a large proportion of which are English. I am thoroughly tone deaf, but years of singing whilst inebriated has taught me that the ability to hold a tune is entirely inconsequential to karaoke fun and etiquette. I can be found most Saturday nights sat in front of the TV with the wife, and occasionally with friends, beer in hand and sick trickling down my chin, belting out a tune. Feels just like old times.
Honourable Mention: Child of Eden
19. Best Combat: Batman: Arkham City
Time to quote myself: “As good as everything else may be, it's the balletic yet weighty combat that is the real star, as was the case with Asylum before it. While it’s easy to jump into, it does take a while to master, but it is well worth the effort. Once you come to understand the rhythm of the smack downs, how to move fluidly between foes and how best to utilize the different moves and gadgets at your disposal, you have one of the most satisfying combat systems around. In Arkham City, each and every ruckus is full of joy, no matter how severely outnumbered you may be.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
Honourable Mention: Resistance 3
20. Most Good to Come out of a Bad Situation: PSN Hack and a Welcome Back
Having three separate accounts across three regions (UK – US – JPN) I fully cashed-in on Sony’s apology for the PSN hack and their disastrous handling of the situation. Wipeout HD was a blast and The Last Guy, much like Pac Man, was a hugely engrossing game based on a very simple premise. Super Stardust HD was the pick of the bunch and was far and away the best downloadable game I played all year.
Honourable Mention: The early struggles of the 3DS leading to a more reasonable price and a concerted effort to release more quality software.
21. Worst Ending: Killzone 3
I enjoyed Killzone 3 and thought it improved on the first two games in almost every way. Unfortunately, with about ten minutes left to go, Guerrilla Games decided to pack up and go home and gave us by far the worst ending of a year that was full of stinkers. A central character disappearing without explanation, never to be heard from again, and a closing scene that I can only presume was cut by an infant are trumped by a final, after credit sequence that would cause the creators of the Masters of the Universe movie to blush.
Dishonourable Mention: LA Noire
22. Most Fun Stabbing a Creature in the Face: Shadow of the Colossus
I couldn’t finish these awards without mentioning SOTC at least once. It would’ve taken the Best Remake/Rerelease category if not for ICO bringing the whole package down a peg (I could appreciate ICO’s charms, but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed playing it). SOTC is one of those rare games that manage to exceed the hype - five years’ worth of it in this case – and I was blown away by the atmosphere and how it succeeds in making the killing of Colossi such a powerful experience.