There’s no denying that 2011 was a big year in games. Every year’s holiday season seems to be better than the last, and 2011 was no exception. Unfortunately, that also means there were a ton of games I couldn’t get to. Bastion, The Witcher 2, Anno 2070, Uncharted 3, Too the Moon — these and so many others are games that would have probably been strong contenders for this list. Alas, I either never got to them or I’m just getting to them now (as is the case with Bastion, which is a fucking delight).
So with that small caveat out of the way, here are my Top Five Games of 2011.
FIVE: Dead Island
I love so much about this game and what it chooses to be. On the surface, I love that it’s a Diablo-like, with characters classes, skill trees, loot, and a new game plus. But more than that, it was a breath of fresh air in this zombie-crazed new world of media.
Dead Island made zombies scary again. If you were unprepared or caught off guard, even a single walker was still a threat. The penalties for succumbing to an undead horde we mild, but the satisfaction of survival was so, so sweet. I haven’t felt that since STALKER.
It’s also one of the best co-op experiences I’ve had and made me realized that, bashing zombies with friends… yeah… a real-world zombie apocalypse probably would be kinda like Shaun of the Dead. We spent an hour teaching our one friend to use the analog controls by crippling thugs for him to practice on.
FOUR: Saints Row: The Third
Saints Row: The Third is a lot of things, most of them subversive to all the laurels we rest on in game design. It is the anti-Grand Theft Auto and the anti-Duke Nukem Forever.
For starters, Saints Row: The Third begins were most games end. The entire city is open to you, rad vehicles abound, you get a predator drone from the third mission. The game never forces to pass through arbitrary barriers in order to enjoy all it has to offer; similar barriers exist, but they’re relevant to the plot. You can get a VTOL as soon as the STAG paramilitary force enters the scene, for example.
Expectations are consistently lit on fire and thrown out the window. The natural Big Bad is disposed of only a few beats into the plot, the game not only refuses to impose any morality, but makes a world of such amorality, that you can revel in the sandbox in ways that always felt counter-intuitive in GTA. Ludo-narrative dissonance? Not a problem when your narrative allows for literally anything you could imagine.
Sure it’s an easy solution, but one so many developers are scared of, for some reason. Valve has the courage to let you hop around and spin on desks during cutscenes; Volition has the courage you let you murder random civilians with tactical air strikes while shouting in a zombie voice, wearing a steampunk costume over your chrome body, and calling in retro spacemen and ninjas as your backup.
THREE: Batman: Arkham City
Rocksteady’s Batman games should be a stark lesson to any developer who rests on narrative to flesh out their characters instead of game mechanics. You could take away the story, the cutscenes, the lighting, the textures — you could make Batman a stick figure in a city of blocks and it would still feel like the best Batman game ever made.
Sure, all of that other stuff matters and makes Arkham City that much better, that much more authentic, but my point is that Arkham City and its predecessor communicate what it is to be Batman through core mechanics. Terrorizing criminals from the shadows, fighting 50 men in hand-to-hand combat and emerging unscathed, sowing discord and paranoia by using gadgets to prey on your foes’ superstitions, gliding across the Gotham skyline — these are the things that scream, “Batman!”
This is how you do not just superhero games, not just licensed games, but any character-centric game.
For a similar, but older example, see Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.
TWO: Portal 2
True, including one of the greatest games of all time seems like a cop-out, but really it’s just bad luck for any other contender for this spot that Portal 2 came out this year.
Before Portal 2 released, imagining it seemed impossible. Portal was lightning in a bottle. How could Valve release a full retail sequel to that little surprise that was packaged into the Orange Box? There was no accounting for the Portal jokes that became mass nerd memes — that can’t be designed — how could they do that again? And then we heard about the co-op. Surely, Valve had taken to wearing a top hat on its ass and walking through life on its hands.
And then we were all proven delightfully wrong. Because Valve didn’t try to re-capture lighting in a bottle, they didn’t try to make new memes; the put on cultural blinders and made the game exactly as they would have regardless of memes and expectations. They just did what they do: make great games.
And for that we got Wheatley, ever as strong an antagonist as GLaDOS while also being her total opposite. We got Cave Johnson, the tragic tale of Caroline, a fully fleshed-out narrative and world that we never had to relinquish control of Chell to understand….
And we got co-op. That delightful, brain-bending co-op that, on its own, became one of my all-time favorite games.
Thank you for being you, Valve.
Now… let’s talk about Half-Life 3….
ONE: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I was hugely disappointed in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Don’t get me wrong, I still played it to death, but after The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind I found it to be kind of dull. The different races all looked smoothed into sameness, the world was just a giant forest, the story was one of basic good versus evil… and the weirdness was gone.
Anyone who played Morrowind probably remembers, first and foremost, what a weird and alien world it let us explore. Oblivion just felt like Middle Earth. Specifically, one small part of Middle Earth — the woods. The mushroom forests, the ashlands, the Lovecraftian Daedric ruins, the dueling politics of the Great Houses, the tree towers, the buildings made of giant, hollowed crab shells, the moral grey area that was the legally-sanctioned assassin guild called the Morag Tong (as opposed to the decidedly evil, sneaky Dark Brotherhood), the fact that your character was the reincarnation of a dead god….
Skyrim may not be as alien and weird as Morrowind, but it certainly has its moments. And its way more interesting than Oblivion. Go exploring and you can find some truly wondrous sights. I mean, let’s face it — we don’t really need real life anymore now that we have Skyrim.
Honorable Mention: Dead Space 2
I think of the Dead Space series as the anti-Assassin’s Creed. Another new IP that came out of nowhere, but instead of slowly choking it to death with annual sequels, EA is giving it time and space to grow, such that Dead Space 3 could set a trend for every new core Dead Space game being as special, as important, as much a landmark as any core Nintendo game. That’s rare company in this industry.
Meanwhile with Revelations, Assassin’s Creed has been sent to the same table with Madden and Call of Duty. You know where it goes from there?
Biggest Disappointment: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
I know, I know — your shocked.
Ubisoft is going to destroy what was a very promising series with these hastily-cobbled, annual releases. Patrice Desilet is gone, and with him, seemingly, any direction, passion, or artistic commitment that existed behind the Assassin’s Creed name.
Brotherhood suffered from a few glaring technical issues having been cobbled together by Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisofts abroad (read: southeast Asian software grind-houses Ubisoft devoured to outsource and speed up development at a budget price), but it was still a great game that made some solid additions to the AC formula.
Revelations, on the other hand, just reeks of compromise. Byzantium isn’t nearly as well thought-out as Rome (but manages to look identical), glitches and snags abound, grenades feel cheap and out of place, the tower defense game (dear God why?!) is a pale imitation of much better ones you can play for free in your browser, and nothing about it — even the multiplayer, which is fantastic — feels like it couldn’t have been added through DLC.
Originally written for Digital Hippos