I’m not big on Game of the Year awards, as you’ve probably noticed in all my years writing and maintaining VGBlogger. The idea of narrowing down dozens (possibly hundreds now when you factor in the booming indie scene) of deserving games to declare one as “the best” just doesn’t jive with the way I view, cover, and consume video games.
Awards have become so predictable, too. Before a year begins, hype and release schedule alone often dictate which games will be in the running. 2011 is a perfect example. Even in January before any of the games were publicly released, it was obvious that by the end of the year most publication’s Game of the Year contenders would come down to heavy hitters like Skyrim, Portal 2, Uncharted 3, Gears of War 3, Batman: Arkham City, Skyward Sword and maybe a couple other big-franchise titles, with notable early year releases like Killzone 3, Crysis 2 and LittleBigPlanet 2 earning less consideration due to the freshness of the holiday releases. (Not including Portal 2, I’d personally take those latter three I mentioned over any of the others.) That’s exactly what’s happened.
So for my part in our collective year in review feature, I’m not going to pick a game of the year or talk about games that have already stacked up mounds of awards; I’m simply going to give a quick, deserving tip of the cap to 13 games that, to my personal tastes, belong in any discussion about 2011’s finest gaming productions but most likely won’t be seen winning any real Game of the Year awards. I started with a much longer list, but in the interest of time and maintaining my sanity, I had to whittle things down to these picks.
Dark Souls has earned its fair share of accolades, true, so I admit it’s a bit of a stretch to include it here. However, once Skyrim came out it seemed like everything that predated the open-world role-playing epic was immediately forgotten about. FromSoftware’s terrifyingly demanding follow-up to Demon’s Souls lands a spot on my list for that very reason; it’s not just “that other great RPG of 2011″. I’m here to make sure everyone knows and remembers how incredibly soul satisfying an RPG Dark Souls is and how the single most impressive game design achievement of the entire year (possibly this entire generation) is the game’s seamlessly intertwining world structure. It’s been so long since I’ve truly lost myself in a video game world like I did playing Dark Souls. I can’t praise it enough.
Alice: Madness Returns:
The sequel to American McGee’s Alice hopped down the rabbit hole in 2011 after a decade-long hiatus. Madness Returns was met with a lukewarm reception overall, but outside of Dark Souls no 2011 game captured my imagination and thirst for fairy tale violence like this game did. Spicy Horse’s nightmarish Wonderland is a triumph of artistic vision and execution, and yet another prime example of how video games are a true art form (a mighty feat considering the game runs on the typically drab and artistically challenged Unreal Engine). Sure, the core action-platforming gameplay may not be anything special, but the inventive weapons (hobby horse sledgehammer anyone? or how about a pepper grinder machine gun?), memorable level and character designs, and emotionally engaging narrative experience are worthy of praise. I’m currently in progress on my New Game+ Nightmare difficulty run towards a Platinum trophy, and I’m enjoying myself just as much as the first time I entered Wonderland over the summer. If you value story-driven games, give Alice a call.
After F.E.A.R. 2 left me wanting, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from F.E.A.R. 3. But I really was blown away by how much it grabbed me. The third installment isn’t as outright creepy as the original, but its unnerving story and atmosphere set a mood that kept me on the edge of my seat through two replays — once each as the two playable characters, Point Man and Paxton Fettel. Co-op is serious fun, one player telepathically maiming and possessing enemies as Fettel, the other slow-mo blasting away in usual F.E.A.R. fashion as Point Man, with a strangely satisfying score and reward system that plays up the sibling rivalry between the two in a unique way. F.E.A.R. 3 also deserves major props for doing something new with multiplayer rather than lazily slapping on plain Jane deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, and zone capture modes like every other FPS. F**king Run is the headliner, a cooperative mode in which four players sprint through waves of enemies while staying ahead of a creeping wall of death. The only downer, on PS3 at least, is the lacking community. With so many other shooters on the market, it seems F.E.A.R. 3 failed to stand out in the crowd, which doesn’t make much sense since it’s one of the few that doesn’t actually follow the crowd.
2011 was a slow, uneventful year for the Wii, but one sleeper special that reeled me in late in the holiday season and still has me hooked is Fishing Resort, a budget-priced angling adventure from Yuji Naka’s Prope team. Fishing Resort is, in a nutshell, an open-world fishing RPG far beyond anything Natsume’s done with the River King series. Fish anywhere, level up your fishing hero, customize your gear, take pictures, complete quests for fellow vacationers, track your daily adventures in a journal, go on submarine tours, showcase your catches in the aquarium, and compare results online against other Wii Remote anglers. Best of all, $20 is all you need to go on this delightful fishing trip!
Saddled with bugs and shoddy performance, the uber-hyped Dead Island got off to a rocky start. Rocky enough to land the game on more than a few “Worst Games of 2011″ lists I’ve seen around the Net. Fortunately for me, by the time I got around to exterminating Banoi’s zombie plague Techland had already released patches that cleaned up much of the mess, so my experience was never tainted by the early launch woes. From a narrative perspective, Dead Island is as soulless as the shambling brain eaters populating its tropical resort hell hole. The characters have no depth or personality. The writing has no character. And the voice acting lacks passion. But you know what? I couldn’t give two frigs. Dead Island is easily one of the most addictive, habit-forming games I’ve played in the past 12 months, with its brutal first-person melee combat and quest-filled sandbox layout. Think Borderlands with zombies — if you dug Gearbox’s role-playing shooter loot-fest, give this game a go.
Sony delivered on a huge year of first-party exclusives, but a game that got lost in the shuffle was SOCOM 4. It doesn’t surprise me. Zipper’s latest tactical shooter presents absolutely nothing innovative or original to distinguish itself in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and after Slant Six botched Confrontation the SOCOM brand has clearly been tarnished. It sure didn’t help that the PSN hacking crisis struck right when the game launched, crippling its main draw of online multiplayer. But none of those negatives mean that the game still can’t deliver on a solid, fulfilling gameplay experience. As far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what it does. I found the story engaging, the squad-based action intense and exciting, the multiplayer deep and compelling. Its use of PlayStation Move also represents a high point in motion control implementation.
Child of Eden:
“Imagine tripping out on a hallucinogenic drug while listening to pulsing techno music, staring into a kaleidoscope, and experiencing the most intense orgasm of your entire life, all at the same time.” That’s how I described Child of Eden, the prequel successor to Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Dreamcast/PS2 classic Rez, when I first played and reviewed the Xbox 360 version. Then, moving on to the PS3 version, I fell even harder in love with the psychedelic rail shooter, wielding a PlayStation Move controller to eradicate the colorful organisms dancing across the screen like a media player visualizer. Xbox 360 or PS3, Kinect/PS Move or a standard control pad, Child of Eden is one blissful shoot-‘em-up.
Legend of Fae:
My indie sleeper favorite of 2011 comes from the two-man development team at Endless Fluff. Legend of Fae is a hybrid of match-3 puzzles and basic RPG elements, weaving elements from games like Puzzle Quest, Bejeweled, and Bookworm Adventures into something altogether unique and brilliant. The Active Time Battle feel to the combat mixed with colored gem matching spell casting is a gameplay combo I’ve never experienced before, and it really, really works. More surprising is the storyline. Claudia’s adventure is full of heart, and you’ll be hooked matching up mana orbs until her endearing quest concludes. You should play it.
Okamiden is a Nintendo DS game, but you know, for a while there Capcom’s portable sequel to PS2 (and Wii) favorite Okami was basically the Nintendo 3DS’s top launch title. That’s not so much a slight against the 3DS launch lineup, but more a compliment to the game and how well it plays using the 3DS Circle Pad for 3D analog control. As an action-adventure game very much in the mold of Legend of Zelda series, Okamiden somehow manages to beat out the likes of Ocarina of Time 3D and Skyward Sword. The story and gameplay do retread familiar ground, so if you’ve played the original before you probably won’t be quite as mesmerized by the game’s calligraphic artistry. But even on the small screen, Okamiden is an elegant, beautiful game, and actually being able to physically draw the celestial brush using a stylus is clearly how the concept was always meant to be played.
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter:
Spiritual sequel to the equally under-appreciated Tail Concerto, Solatorobo for the DS is an action/adventure/RPG blast from the past, beautifully recapturing the spirit of similar anime-style favorites of the SNES and subsequent PS1 eras. Host to a variety of gameplay elements, Solatorobo mainly has you hopping aboard a mech, grabbing and slamming enemies to the ground and taking on odd jobs and fetch quests for townspeople (most involving some kind of heavy lifting). Light RPG elements come into play as you advance in rank and purchase upgrades for your robot, and the breezy story keeps you engaged without bogging you down in lengthy cutscenes or dialogues. It’s like a time capsule of the way games you to be made, and I loved every second.
Dungeon Siege III:
Dungeon Siege III is to the two previous PC-only Dungeon Siege games as Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was to the original PC Baldur’s Gate titles — a streamlined, console-centric hack-and-slash dungeon crawl that will likely enrage the series’ existing PC gamer fanbase, while at the same time thrill PS3 and Xbox 360 owners with its addictive hack, slash, loot, level up ways. Obsidian Entertainment has certainly written more inspired and interesting stories, characters, and side quests than what’s presented in Dungeon Siege III and the online co-op setup is completely janked up, but strictly as a chase ‘n chop action-RPG this game delivered the goods. The combat is challenging and well designed and the four playable characters are distinct enough to warrant replaying the campaign multiple times over. I’ve gone through twice so far and look forward to going back with the other two at some point. In a way, it feels like Snowblind’s Champions of Norrath games reincarnated.
As often happens, games released very early in the year become routinely overlooked by holiday season releases that are fresher in gamers’ minds. For 2011, Crysis 2 was such a game. In a year packed to the gills with high-end FPS experiences (Killzone 3, Resistance 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, F.E.A.R. 3, etc), Crysis 2 comes out at the head of the class for me. The freedom of approach to any situation the Nanosuit and real-time weapon modding provide makes for varied gameplay opportunities, and the sheer graphical horsepower used to render the expansive New York cityscape is staggering to behold. Crysis 2 simply doesn’t get enough credit for being a stellar all-around game.
Nintendo 3DS Inaugural Game Lineup:
This one’s a bit of a cop out, but please bear with me for a moment. Since the Nintendo 3DS launched, it’s been hammered on pretty good for not having a particularly strong game lineup. Early on, that was true. Aside from a few top pieces of software, the launch lineup didn’t exactly set the world on fire. But once the summer months rolled around, I found myself playing one fun game after the next. Dream Trigger, Shinobi, Sonic Generations, Frogger 3D, Tetris Axis, DualPenSports, Nano Assault, Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D… the list goes on. By no means “system sellers” to mainstream eyes, these are all fun titles that have made owning a 3DS a true joy in its first year on the market. To this gamer, the 3DS didn’t need Mario and Link to save it; it already had a strong library of games that didn’t get the respect it deserved.