2011 turned out really well. And in some entirely unexpected places! Bodycount had some of the year’s best straight-up no-nonsense gunplay, but in terms of the overall package, Fear 3 was a real stand-out. For multiplayer gunplay, three other threes deserve mention: Battlefield 3, Killzone 3, and Modern Warfare 3 all shine online. Payday: The Heist deserves recognition for its shrewd variation on the Left 4 Dead theme. Virtua Tennis 4 comfortably fit classic Virtua Tennis into a turn-based boardgame campaign. Distant Worlds with its two expansions is a fantastic strategy game in a year with too few strategy games. The Sims: Medieval breathed as much new life into the Sims series as Sims 2 and Sims 3. Little Big Planet 2 managed to be more than just a kit for user-generated content and instead shipped with a great platformer in the box. In a year with some great platformers, deBlob 2 was one of the best. Ascension: Chronicles of the Godslayer and Tiny Wings on the iPhone deserve special mention.
But let’s talk top ten. Toy Soldiers: Cold War, Dungeon Defenders, Driver: San Francisco, Renegade Ops, and Skyrim very nearly made the list. If this had been a top 15, I would have just counted us down to number ten!
After the jump, on to the top ten of 2011
10) Shogun 2
Creative Assembly is back and in fine form with this glorious return to their ancient Japanese roots. Remember Creative Assembly? You will now. From the review:
Imagine you woke up one morning and the village idiot had built a cathedral. At which point someone vaguely recalls the village idiot was once a famous architect and it all kind of makes sense.
9) Need for Speed: Shift 2
Take a beautiful woman. A classically beautiful woman, not some latter day slattern. Convince her to stretch out on a big fluffy bed. Nothing raunchy. Something tasteful enough to paint on the nose of a bomber. Now send her home. Carefully analyze the topography of the bed where she has just lain. Calculate a track over that topography. Now you have the Glendale Raceway.
The sometimes embarrassingly affectionate game diary starts here.
Finally someone broke out of the stagnant model on which MMO worlds are built. From the review:
…if a kingdom can’t change, at least it can be dynamic. This is the thinking behind Rift’s rifts. These are holes that open in random places, like the gates in Oblivion, spitting out monsters. But these monsters don’t stay put. They have places to be, roads to travel, other monsters to meet up with, cities to conquer.
When I consider which MMO I’m finally going to jump back into, this is the one that comes to mind.
7) Dead Island
Dead Island, one of the best zombie games yet made, understands that a zombie isn’t just a bag of hit points. A zombie is a threat. In modern zombie lore, a single zombie is scary because its bite will infect you. A dozen zombies are even scarier. A shopping mall or island of zombies scarier still…But Dead Island, which spends a lot of its graphics resources on a gorgeous, detailed, and remarkably open world and therefore can’t afford dozens of zombies at a time, makes each zombie more important. You might say it restores to the poor creatures a sense of respect. These guys won’t infect you — surprise, you’re immune! — but they’re on more equal footing with you than the trash mob zombies you’ve been killing in other games.
For further elaboration, I would normally refer you to this review, but I asked to have my name removed after the editor insisted on adding text that didn’t match my experience or reflect my opinion.
6) Witcher 2
The Godfather of computer RPGs? From the review:
…the fundamental fact about The Witcher 2 is that it’s good enough to take itself seriously. Its earnestness would be ridiculous in a lesser game. There’s a fundamental maturity about The Witcher 2, with its earthy vulgarity, old-school hardcore RPG gameplay, rich graphics that don’t have to be flashy, complex challenging combat, and superlative low-fantasy writing that relies on people instead of all-powerful doo-dads.
5) Anno 2070
I. Can’t. Stop. Playing. This. From the review:
Any city builder needs to first do two things to be good: constantly give you something to do, and constantly give you something to admire. I can think of no other city builder that does both of these crucial things as well as Anno 2070.
As if that’s not enough, how about a persistent base with crafted upgrades and a ridiculously meaty meta-game? If you’re not careful, this could be the last game you’ll ever want.
4) Saints Row 3
Volition has always done a great job at open-world mayhem. And now they’ve done fantastic storytelling, unforgettable missions, effective writing, and vivid characters. From the review:
Saints Row 3…is immaculately paced because it loves you. Most games can be insensitive clods with occasional rough patches. You get stuck for a while, or it’s slow to start, or you cruise through some filler, or certain design choices are clunky, or the characters are flat and you don’t care about them, or you know exactly what’s going to happen next and therefore when it happens you don’t care. None of this happens in Saints Row 3, which is a textbook example of how to keep me into a game from beginning to open-ended end. I don’t have to slog through a few early missions with a derringer and a puttering ATV. I don’t hit a crazy difficulty level spike half way through. I don’t fight a stupid boss battle at the end. Well, okay, maybe I do because Saints Row 3 knows exactly how to set it up. You’re in good hands. Here is a game that starts you out doing the sorts of things you wouldn’t normally do until the end of other games. And yet, it never stops delivering surprises, twists, and “I gotta get me one of those!” moments. Which is followed by one of those being immediately given to you. Saints Row 3 doesn’t go to 11, because it’s there from the beginning.
Listen to the podcast with lead designer Scott Phillips here.
3) Batman: Arkham City
Can you name another open-world game in which a gun, a sword, or a car isn’t your chief means of interacting with the world? I can’t. Even then, can you name another open-world game this good? I can’t. From the review:
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight and Rocksteay’s Arkham City are both more than just good entertainment that happen to be based on comic books. They’re inspired and inspiring creative endeavors at the absolute top of their form, taking what should have been baggage — A blind squeaking cave bird/rodent as the power animal? A bad guy who dresses up as a clown? A rich dude with a butler fighting crime by night? The sort of car some guy would drive to compensate for a small penis? — and adroitly adapting it to cinematic or gameplay argot. Is there something special about Batman? Or are Nolan and Rocksteady just geniuses who happen to have the rights to a comic book dude?
2) Space Pirates and Zombies
The Toys for Bob game that Toys for Bob would make if they were still making Toys for Bob games: a sci-fi zombie soup-to-nuts apocalypse from a couple of guys who understand zombie mythology, space combat, open-world RPGs, and the sort of design trickery that other developers are afraid to try. From the review:
As you pick your way across the galaxy, taking on different missions or just making a beeline through warpgates to some distant point, you can mix it up. Try different weapons. Try different loadouts. Try different ships. Just because you have a huge pokey cruiser loaded with heavy weapons, you’ll still need to fly one of the tiny mining ships on some missions. There are no dead-ends here. What’s more, this isn’t a game in which you save and reload. You might have to grind some mining to recover from a crushing defeat. I can’t deny that I’ve alt-tabbed out of the game while my ships automatically mine ore in a friendly asteroid belt for a while. I don’t need to be there for that. Privileges of management, and all that. Even when you’re losing, Space Pirates and Zombies has a wonderful sense of momentum, advancement, progression, and variety.
Listen to the podcast with creators Andrew Hume and Richard Clifford here.
Bastion’s narrator will comment on what you’re doing as you’re doing it. When this happens, and when it seems like it came from a choice I made, I feel like the narrator is paying attention to me. He’s not a canned voice playing out a script, like Cave Johnson in Portal 2. Instead, he’s talking directly to me, and we have a relationship, like GlaDOS. But unlike the carefully scripted Portal games, where GlaDOS speaks right on cue and the same way every time, Bastion’s narrator notices things that won’t necessarily happen all the time. He says something about the specific pair of weapons I chose at the armory, or about how I’m out of health potions and vulnerable to a specific monster, or how I’m taking so much time clearing out stabweed. The narrator is not just a recorded voice. He’s here, with me, watching me, commenting on what I’m doing, talking to me in a way that reaches beyond some guy in a sound booth reading lines. It’s one of the most startlingly human innovations since LA Noire’s facial expressions.
The above was something I wrote in a list of 15 things videogames can learn from Bastion, which is also 15 things I liked about the game. But if I had to sum up in a single point why Bastion is my favorite game of 2011, it would be as follows: This is what it was like to be a kid and to play your first Zelda game. Supergiant’s ability to recapture that feeling was profoundly moving.
Listen to the podcast with writer Greg Kasavin here.
Disclaimer: I haven’t yet tried Minecraft, Zelda: Skyward Sword, and Rayman: Origins, all games I had hoped to spend time with before settling on my list. I reserve the right to update this disclaimer if I discover that I’ve made a terrible mistake.