Day One: Kevin, Caro, Marko, and Brendan.
Day Two: Chris, Tom, and Shaun.
Back before I worked at GameSpot, I used to post a blog in my profile every year celebrating my top 10 games. I called my personal awards The Cubbies, in honor of my longtime Internet handle, "fiddlecub."
Now that I work at GS, I get to be part of the long and emotionally challenging discussions about the official Best Of awards. The discussions involved the entire editorial team at GameSpot, including our international editors, as well as the GameSpot Live team, a group of experienced and tasteful individuals in their own right. And so now you know what we collectively decided upon--but not necessarily our individual favorites. Each year, most of the editorial staff write blog entries detailing the games they most enjoyed. So this year, I asked some of them to send their lists to me so we could share them with you.
And so here is my own list. Bear in mind that this list doesn't necessarily represent the games I think are the best, but rather, the ones that were my favorites. And there is a distinction. Last year, I would never have called Deadly Premonition one of the best games of the year, but it sure as hell was one of my favorites; ditto for Ninja Blade the year before.
But enough gibber-jabber. May I present the 2011 Cubby Awards.
10. To the Moon
I'm an old softie, but it's rare that a game makes me weep. Crisis Core and The Longest Journey are among the few that have moved me to tears--and now we can add To the Moon to the list. Interactive fiction is becoming more common in our medium, and Freebird Games' gem is one of the finest examples. Two scientists embark on a journey through an old man's memories in a story told in reverse. Autism, childhood bonds, and the nature of human connection are just a few of the themes the game explores. And I bet even the coldest of hearts might warm when the game reaches its tear-jerking climax, if not before.
Tone is an important element of a game, even though it's one you rarely hear discussed. What makes Bastion special to me is that it has a voice--and I don't mean just the evocative rasp of the narrator, though that's part of it. Bastion is a sly mixture of fantasy and Old West, and the Kid is the lone gunman. If To the Moon was about connection, then Bastion was, for me, about disconnection. A lonely, voiceless protagonist's story is told by a gruff side player, accompanied by guitar riffs that recall dusty trails and cattle ranches. He explores a world so unknown, it fills in around him as he progresses. I never felt like I embodied The Kid; I felt like I controlled him from a distance. It was fun to play, but for me, Bastion was more than fun: it was a study in how a game's tone can affect your state of mind. And in this case, I felt as lonely as the Kid must have felt.
8. Crysis 2
For all the muttering of PC gamers who felt the original Crysis was the second coming and hated what Crysis 2 stood for, I adored Crysis 2 for exactly what it was. This sequel isn't just like Crysis, but it isn't just like any other shooter either. You have some corridor shootouts here and there, but it isn't Call of Duty by any means. You have some open-a-rea action, but it isn't Far Cry 2 in that regard. And awesome things happen around you, but you aren't yanked out of the game and into a cutscene every time. (Like, say, in most modern shooters.) The level design was varied and interesting, and the game built to a climax gradually, rather than bombarding you with one set piece moment after another. At a time when shooters are just constant explosions and follow-the-leader mission design, Crysis 2 allowed itself room to breathe.
7. Anno 2070
The subject of global warming is a divisive one. If you need proof, then peruse the comments on my review of Anno 2070, or the comments on reviews elsewhere. It's too bad that this great strategic city builder must serve as a lightning rod for a few people unwilling to acknowledge its excellence, because it's as engrossing as any such game I've ever played. I've always liked this series, but this entry feels special. I admit part of my joy came from the futuristic setting. Many of the sound effects and musical cues are reminiscent of Assassin's Creed--and as you may know, Assassin's Creed is my favorite modern-day game franchise. And so I had an immediate response to the production elements that reminded me of AC's sci-fi trappings. But ultimately, I didn't love Anno 2070 for such shallow reasons. Rather, it was the ultra-addictive combination of thoughtful city building, time-sensitive missions, and persistent rewards that made me crave more, more, and more hours in front of my computer monitor.
It pains me that North Americans must jump through so many hoops if they want to play this game right now. And that's because reports that Xenoblade Chronicles raises the bar for Japanese role-playing games are not exaggerated. It is wonderfully paced, always moving ahead briskly and gradually introducing new concepts to keep the combat from ever being predictable. The setting--the corpses of two world-size beasts locked in an ancient struggle--is one of the most original in recent memory. And the characters, while representing standard archetypes, are human beings you can care about, in part because the English voice acting is natural, not stilted in the way English acting so often is in such games. A real gem.
Catherine won't click for everyone, but it sure clicked for me. A few folks in the office don't understand its star, Vincent. Vincent is an everyman, characterized not by his actions, but by his inaction. And the consequences of his wishy-washy attitude are disastrous, both in his waking life and in his nightmares. The fiendishly difficult puzzles are surely a nightmare for some; I know I struggled with many a late-game conundrum. But what an insane, fun, and captivating game, filled with bleating sheep, jealous girlfriends, and sexy text messages. Not to mention, crazy boss fights unlike anything you've ever seen.
4. Portal 2
If there is one game this year I could point to as approaching perfection, it might be Portal 2. Here is a game that features wonderful gameplay and a compelling story, both of which burst with more wit and character than a dozen other games combined. Portal 2 proves that developers don't have to choose between awesome gameplay and an awesome story--you can deliver both in one package, and do so in a way that combines them seamlessly, so that one element doesn't trod over the other. So many quotable lines. So many ingenious puzzles. And that ending. Holy crap, that ending. Portal 2 is the Sixth Sense of video games. Play it again, and you'll catch all the foreshadowing and appreciate it from a whole new angle.
Short note to BioWare: this is how it's done. Nothing against the incredible studio responsible for Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but The Witcher 2 shows how branching story paths can affect the virtual world around you. It also shows that you can offer a game with varied outcomes and still make it absolutely gorgeous to look at. (Dragon Age developers, again, take note.) It's a shame the third act sort of limps to a halt, because the dozens of hours leading up to it are incredible. One of my favorite moments this year was slashing away on a battlefield washed in a golden glow, under the protection of a sorceress who had taken wing. How amazing: a beautiful RPG featuring mature characters, a substantial story, and fun combat mechanics, without making you feel that one aspect suffered because more attention was given to another.
Fun fact: I had a very, very hard time getting into Oblivion. And yet Skyrim had me hooked almost immediately, and before I knew it, I was fending off wolves, clearing tombs of ancient evils, and spraying lightning from my hands, yet rarely paying much attention to the main story. Yet when I did follow the main story, I found myself caring about what was happening, just as I found myself caring about the fates of the various organizations I joined and the towns I stumbled upon in my travels. Every unexplored cave and every dragon's roost urged me to push onward to discover new secrets and new quest lines. I became a cannibal; I talked to a dog telepathically; I entered other planes of existence; I insulted a jarl; and I murdered a jester when given the chance, simply because I hated his voice, and then stole his clothing. Then I read about lizard people in love, absorbed the soul of a dragon, slowed down time while I drove an axe through pirates, and then gazed at the northern lights that rippled across the night sky.
I was there. And that's the great thing about Skyrim. I really was there.
1. Dark Souls
My coworker Lark Anderson often reminds me that Dark Souls tells the kind of story that only a game can tell. And he's right. Dark Souls isn't filled with countless quest givers that spout endless paragraphs of exposition in a desperate attempt to make you care about the world. Instead, the world simply exists, and its history gradually comes to light as you unveil the game's mysteries. And the discoveries come at a cost. They are not offered to you by a shimmering maiden carrying secrets on a gilded tray. Instead, they are buried, half-digested, in a slobbering dragon's gurgling belly. With Dark Souls' brilliant combat system as your primary asset, you slash and curse and gnash your teeth until victory arrives and you can gloat to anyone within earshot about your virtual trophy.
Dark Souls took Demon's Souls excellence and then exponentially enhanced it. Skyrim inspires plenty of awe for its huge and attractive world. Dark Souls' Lordran is not as vast, but it's no less impressive for it. The way each region fits with others is ridiculously ingenious. You may not initially realize that an opulent chapel swarming with dangerous beasts rests atop the shrine that serves as your primary home. And then you gain access to an elevator--and discover how intricately these places fit together, and how unlocking a single new access point is almost as rewarding as clearing out dozens of dungeons in a standard role-playing game.
But what makes Dark Souls my personal favorite game of 2011--by far--is how it invaded my mind. I would wake in the morning, and the attack patterns and enemy arrangements would be etched into my brain. As I walked to work, the trip through Darkroot Forest would play in my head, and the swinging blades in Sen's Fortress would practically appear before my eyes. Dark Souls isn't just a game for me. It's a state of being. No game has ever inspired this kind of raw psychological response, and in a year, and in five years, and in 10, the state of being known as "Dark Souls" will be as tangible to me as any other emotion and any other memory. It was that powerful.
Hello, and welcome to Caro's Favorite Games of 2011!
Before we get to the main event, there are a few special achievement awards to be handed out.
This year, the Out of Body Experience Award, which recognizes a new game mechanic that at first sounds silly but turns out to be awesome, goes to Driver: San Francisco. The game's shift mechanic helped make it one of the most innovative and exciting arcade racers of the past few years. It's so great that I'll even forgive the characters for sometimes referring to San Francisco as "San Fran."
The winner of 2011's Lunatic Award for special achievement in storytelling is To the Moon. More of a story than a game, To the Moon uses an endearing visual style reminiscent of RPGs of the 16-bit era to pull you in to its examination of a man's life. Deftly weaving humor with heartbreak, To the Moon is one of the most affecting interactive experiences of the year.
Now, a note on the following list. This is not my declaration of the 10 best games of 2011. These are the 10 games that, when I look back on 2011, I'll remember the most vividly and the most fondly. Without further adieu, here are my 10 favorite games of 2011.
Shadow Wars is the first and only game with the words "Ghost Recon" in the title that I've really gotten into. I found the turn-based strategy of the game easy to grasp immediately but deep enough to remain challenging and absorbing for the long haul, and the various abilities of your squad make it fun to play armchair tactician. (My favorite squad member is Banshee, who can sneak up on enemies unseen and kill them with a single knife attack.) This was the launch title that kept me from being disappointed in my purchase during the faltering early months of the 3DS, and it still frequently makes my morning commute fly by.
Outland fantastically melds the color-shifting mechanic of games like Ikaruga with 2D platforming to create an experience that feels new. With controls that make movement a joy, a striking visual style, exhilarating boss battles, and deliciously tricky multiplayer challenges, Outland's journey through spirit realms is one I won't soon forget.
I admit, it's a sense of connection to the game's detailed, spot-on '80s style as much as it is anything about the gameplay that earned Toy Soldiers: Cold War a place on this list. Yes, the gameplay is a terrific blend of action and strategy, but the game resonated with me on a deeper level by playing off the fears that I and many other young people had growing up under a Reagan presidency, in a time and place in which the words "star wars" often referred not to adventures in a galaxy far, far away, but to the notion of satellites blasting Russian-launched missiles out of the sky. As I said in this blog entry about the game, "its 80s cold war setting is more than just an amusing superficial concept. It's a smart and affectionate acknowledgment of the anxieties many kids had in the early 1980s, and a celebration of the ways in which imagination (and totally awesome toys) can help us confront such fears."
In its first few hours, Skyward Sword made me feel invested in the connection between Link and Zelda, so once her inevitable disappearance occurred, I was already committed to seeing the quest through. And despite all of this game's flaws, I'm glad I did see it through. The controls often failed me, but when they worked, watching an enemy carefully and striking in such a way as to get past his defenses was thrilling in a way that combat in a Zelda game never has been before. The game also often brings the soaring sense of adventure crashing down by requiring you to complete tedious tasks that seem to exist only to extend the length of the adventure. But these sections were worth enduring for all the ways in which the varied dungeons, the huge bosses, and the ultimately quite touching story so often made me feel like a hero of legend on a quest to fulfill a great destiny. Lovely melodies and a beautiful visual style were vital elements of this adventure that challenged my wits and stirred my heart.
I feel like the Saints Row series spent its first two games trying to establish its own identity, to stand out as something other than a Grand Theft Auto knock-off. The franchise made definite strides in the right direction with Saints Row 2, but it's with The Third that Saints Row utterly comes into its own. It's an open-world game, and there's no shortage of opportunities to create your own brand of mayhem with the many spectacular weapons that are placed at your disposal, but it's the outrageous story missions that really put The Third in a class by itself.
I thought the level design in New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii was uninspired. As a result, those games seemed like failed attempts to recapture what made the early 2D Mario games so great. Now enters Super Mario 3D Land, a game that I think fuses elements from Mario's 2D classics and from his later adventures in such a consistently imaginative and exciting way as to be a fantastic homage to the Mario platforming legacy and an outstanding game in its own right.
Utterly bursting with personality and excitement, Ghost Trick is a refreshing variation on the traditional point-and-click adventure. As a ghost who is investigating the circumstances of his own murder, you must use your newfound ability to go back in time and manipulate objects in the world to undo the deaths of others who can bring you closer to the truth about your own demise. It sounds grim, but it's actually delightful. The personalities of characters like Missile, the lovable Pomeranian pup, and Lynne, the frequently murdered young detective, stay spunky despite the seriousness of their situation. And the incredibly expressive animations make Ghost Trick a constant joy to behold.
3. Portal 2
Chell's quest in Portal 2 struck a personal chord with me. As I wrote in this blog entry, "Portal 2 is a metaphor for life. Life presents us with one challenge after another after another, and often, there are voices--perhaps from outside, or perhaps from inside ourselves--telling us that we're incapable and worthless. But we're not. Of course we're not. There's no need to heed those voices. If anything, we should laugh at them, as we persevere on our path." Portal 2's story of self-reliance, with its rich subtext of parent issues, is so smart, so hilarious, and so seamlessly integrated into the experience of playing the game that it's hard for me to imagine a player not feeling a sense of connection to Chell's plight. And the fact that she, like fellow Valve hero Gordon Freeman, says not a word ensures that nothing stands in the way of that connection. The brilliant puzzles pull off a remarkable balancing act, staying challenging enough to make you have to stop and think about them (and to make you feel very clever indeed for working out their solutions) without ever crossing over into the realm of the logically obtuse.
In my opinion, this is one of the all-time great action adventures. An incredibly rich world to explore. Wonderful use of a host of Batman villains. Exhilarating airborne movement abilities. Accessible, hard-hitting combat that rewards skill. A slew of satisfying puzzles to solve. What more do you want in a Batman experience?
1. L.A. Noire
Not the most fun game I played all year, and certainly not the least flawed, but unquestionably the game I love and admire the most. L.A. Noire is one of the most daring mainstream releases of the year, venturing out into new territory by fusing typical open-world driving and shooting mechanics with crime scene investigations and interrogations. The game lets you fail and live with those failures. And it casts you as a calculating, often unlikable character. (Though not developed by Rockstar, I consider it the third entry in a thematic trilogy of games about troubled men seeking redemption and the elusiveness of the American dream, alongside Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption.)
Its painstakingly researched and re-created version of post-war Los Angeles just drips with style and atmosphere, casting a spell I had no interest in resisting. Its ensemble cast, which includes so many standout characters--Roy Earle, Herschel Biggs, and my favorite new character of the year, the forthright Jack Kelso, among them--represents the greatest achievement in video game acting this year, in my opinion. Its increasingly tangled, increasingly tense web of crime pays off in an uncompromising ending that reinforces the game's themes of corruption as a seemingly inherent part of the political and financial institutions that keep society running. But that doesn't mean that people shouldn't stand against that corruption, and at the end of a long and troubled road, Cole Phelps finds a kind of redemption.
When I sat down to list my 10 favorite games of 2011, the first five games were extremely easy choices. In fact, I was confident of my top five a few weeks back; it was the rest of the list that had me thinking. I played a lot of games this year, both good and bad, and trying to single out my sixth through 10th favorite games was no easy feat. Then there were games I wanted to consider but couldn't because I didn't play enough of them to form an honest opinion. In the end, these are the 10 games that left the greatest impression on me, and the ones I most enjoyed playing.
For me, one of the bigger surprises for 2011 was NBA Jam: On Fire Edition. Not because it was released, but because of how much content it offered in a digital title. It was everything I wanted EA's first NBA Jam to be: great single-player, really fun multiplayer, and tons of unlockables. I really enjoyed how so many people would disconnect from me online because I was winning. True story: I was playing at work but wasn't paying attention, and when a match started, my opposition started with a comfortable 10-point lead. Not only did I manage to come back in the 3rd quarter, but by the final minute, I had a 16-point lead and was on track for the victory. Of course, the guy disconnected. Rather than getting upset over his reaction, I sent him a message saying "no hard feelings"--my version of passive aggressive trolling.
9. To the Moon
I think there is always at least one game a year that comes out of nowhere to surprise you. Last year, it was Enslaved that really got my attention thanks to the positive word of mouth everyone was giving it. This year, I had a similar reaction to To the Moon. Fellow editor Kevin VanOrd convinced me and many others to play the game. He sent us links to the music, posted his review, and really put it out there that this game should be played. I'm really lucky to be around people who have such varied tastes in games and am glad I picked this one up. It's not really a game in the same sense as so many other titles, but the storytelling, fantastic music, and heartfelt ending make it an experience everyone with 12 dollars in their pocket should have.
8. Mario Kart 7
I think the reason I enjoy racing games has to stem from the fact that my father was a mechanic; it's just in my blood. Mario Kart isn't a racing sim, and it's a completely different experience from Dirt 3 and Forza 4 (two racing games I also really enjoyed this year), yet it earned a spot on my list by being so incredibly entertaining. I enjoy being able to play a few races during my bus ride home and downloading the ghost times of other people and knowing that they are racing mine. I am confident I will still be playing Mario Kart 7 for years to come.
7. Killzone 3
Shooter fans had a lot to choose from in 2011, and chances are that Killzone 3 has been forgotten by many of them by now. But for fans of the series, like myself, this game was a blast to play. The story wasn't particularly fantastic, but it was serviceable. Looking past the narrative, you can't deny the high quality of the varied levels, the fantastic arsenal of weapons, and the smashing multiplayer. Those reasons made the game hard to put down, and kept me coming back for more. I typically don't go back to a single-player campaign after finishing it, but when friends came over, I wanted to show off how good this game looked and was willing and eager to show them multiple levels in the process. I look forward to seeing what Guerrilla does next and desperately hope they bring the series to the PlayStation Vita.
6. NBA 2K12
I have a copy of Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball lying by my bed at home. I am probably about halfway through its 800 pages, and one day I'll get around to finishing it. I love reading about sports history, and getting to play as some of the best players and teams from the NBA's history is cool. 2K Sports did an incredible job with every aspect, from authentic presentation to ensuring that the players looked as they would have during that specific time frame. I can see them building upon this mode next year and giving us even more insight into the players that helped shape the league. But even when you're not looking at the historical aspect of the sport, the improvements made in My Player and the overall presentation give me more reason to see my virtual self become an NBA great.
Some of my favorite games of 2011 were those that surprised me most, and I count Rayman Origins among them. I was lucky enough to preview the game in October, back when so few people were tracking it. During the four hours I spent capturing footage, I quickly came to the conclusion that this was a game I wanted to play and tell others about. It's by no means an easy game; I've thrown the controller more than I'd like to admit. But the colorful characters, great levels, and stunning music make the challenge bearable. This is a game that I think people will still be talking about in a few years' time and will use as a reference point for excellence in level design.
I had a lot of feelings rush through me while playing Human Revolution. The trailers made me think this was going to be Blade Runner for the 21st century. Then when I started playing, I hated it. It wasn't because of the frustratingly difficult bosses, but because I wasted an entire Friday night trying to complete the quests inside the Detroit Police Station. I kept setting off alarms and getting killed regardless of how stealthy I tried to be. I was ready to give up. But after I managed to reach the safety of the roof, I wanted to see the story through. I don't know if I had Stockholm Syndrome, but there was something so satisfying about Human Revolution that even after all my cursing, I wanted to see what occurred next. I loved visiting the game's many locations, and I when I finally reached the conclusion, I spent a good five minutes contemplating how my Jensen should end the story--and then wondering if I had made the right decision as the credits rolled.
Before playing Saints Row: The Third, my only experience with the series was a brief one-hour session with its predecessor, which didn't appeal to me. When it comes to sandbox action games, I am a Grand Theft Auto fan, and Saints Row was, in many ways, the complete opposite of GTA. But once I accepted Saints Row: The Third's craziness, I was hooked. I rushed through the game in a weekend trying to complete as many side quests as I could. The urge to complete "just one more mission" made gaming sessions last hours longer than they probably should have. And when I changed my character from a girl to a guy, he retained the same Russian voice. And reflecting upon that always brings a smile to my face.
I enjoyed Arkham City for its great gameplay as well as because of my fondness for the Dark Knight. How amazing that RockSteady managed to improve upon the wonderful Arkham Asylum with such an excellent sequel. In my circle of friends, the thought of a sequel to Arkham Asylum felt unnecessary; we felt the game could stand on its own, especially because Asylum had so many "wow" moments throughout. But with Arkham City, we got everything that made the first game so incredible and so much more. Also, the ending for City stands out because it comes seemingly out of nowhere, and learning that you can experience a second conclusion made me eager to see where the series might go next.
1. Portal 2
Hovering above my desk is a '70s-inspired movie poster for Portal 2. I bought it only days after my first day at GameSpot back in July; perhaps it was a sign that Portal 2 would become my favorite game of the year. The first Portal is one of my favorite games because it was both challenging and rewarding; the puzzles were hard but never impossible. When Portal 2 was announced, I worried that it wouldn't improve upon what made the first game so memorable. Thankfully, Portal 2 not only impressed me, but it defied my expectations. The puzzles were never too difficult but offered enough of a test that I was forced to stop and think before I made my next move. There are moments in the game that I am confident people will be talking about in years to come. When a game resonates with people long after it has been released, you know it's something special.
This one might be higher if I'd had more time with it, but from what I've played so far, it's the 3D Mario game I always wanted instead of Super Mario 64. It's the most literal translation to 3D of the old-school 2D games, from the effects of the fire flower and tanooki suit to the need to actually pay attention to where you're jumping because you can fall into oblivion just about anywhere.
A fine return to form for the least respected fighting franchise out there. NetherRealm really nailed everything it could with this game. All the ancillary modes and activities are expertly handled, and the game itself manages to feel like the Mortal Kombat II everybody loves (it was the height of the series, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 be damned), with just enough extra gameplay wrinkles to keep it from feeling embarrassingly dated.
I'm not sure anything in gaming this year felt as good as watching the slowdown on the Xbox 360 as my tiny little mech vomited forth about 10,000 gigantic missiles and proceeded to guide that cloud of explosive death around a map of hapless enemies. Bangai-O HD isn't all gold, but the best moments are better than just about any other game out there.
Tetsuya Mizuguchi revisits the Rez template with HD visuals, music that skews closer to J-pop than techno, and motion controls. I picked up and loved the Xbox 360 version and then bought it again on the PlayStation 3 to check it out with 3D and Move support. Along with the Team Ico HD collection, Child of Eden is what sold me on 3D for games. It makes an already gorgeous game that much more stunning.
I like a good 2D shmup, and Jamestown provided that in an endearingly off-kilter wrapper, combining Colonial America with the exploration of Mars and an alien-British alliance that must be struck down in the name of freedom. It's a steep challenge to boot. If you've got a Mad Catz fight stick, I suggest plugging that into the PC for an arcade-worthy experience.
5. Portal 2
Valve knows what it's doing. Clever design, storytelling, and humor made this a joy to play, even if I thought the Retro Aperture section dragged something fierce.
Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and Capcom somehow managed to make the 3D follow-up not a crushing disappointment. With Ultimate, the character roster is back up to par, and the deck-building dynamic of creating a team with complementary skill sets is well preserved. Playing online is still something of a mess, but Capcom deserves a ton of credit for pulling this off as well as it did. Plus, Modok!
Beyond being a nice aesthetic riff on Zelda, this randomly generated dungeon-crawling action game underscores the human need for meaning. Our first instinct when presented with a twist of fate is to ascribe meaning and intent to it, to look for some kind of pattern or greater theme. When all you need is a key to open a treasure room and defeated enemies keep dropping bombs and coins instead, you will swear there is an intelligent designer behind every inch of that dungeon, and you will know that designer loathes you. It's interesting that thoughts like that are being provoked by a game with such a clearly anti-religious bent. It makes me wonder if it's possible for anyone to design a truly atheistic game, because no matter how random and meaningless life in that game is made out to be, it will always be the product of outside intelligence.
Finally, a Suda-51 game with good gameplay! I love the guy's sensibilities, but games like Killer 7 and Flower, Sun, and Rain just didn't want to be played. Even No More Heroes had issues, but Shadows satisfies my crazy tooth and works as a third-person shooter at the same time. Also, the soundtrack from Akira Yamaoka is completely engrossing; this was the first horror-themed game that ever had me scared, and it was due to the creepy music and tension of following a "sushi lamp" through a dark room for a seeming eternity, wondering when the inevitable ambush would be sprung.
For years, games have been primarily about shooting dudes in the face. Catherine showed that it's not only possible to make a game about a deteriorating relationship, but that it's possible to do it in a way that entertains and invites introspection at the same time. No other game this year challenged me as much in as many different ways. Every aspiring game developer should play this game and consider what it does that Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Uncharted do not.
Day 2: Chris, Tom, and Shaun.
The end of the year here at GameSpot always involves some careful measuring. As we debate the best this year had to offer, we must consider games in their entirety, weighing and balancing each part in order to catalog, compare, and choose the nominees and winners across a broad range of categories. My favorite part of this process is always when my compatriots diverge from calculation and describe the moments that made a given game special for them. Seeing their eyes light up as they recount the experiences that delighted them over the past year is always a treat, and it reminds me why I (and countless others) have so much love for video games. And so my top 10 list does not document what I reckon to be the best games of the year, but rather chronicles my favorite gaming experiences from this year.
10. Surprised with emotions (Gears of War 3)
I've played Gears. I like Gears a lot. But if you'd told me that Gears of War 3 would make me feel strongly about the Gears characters, I would have been skeptical. I regarded Delta Squad as gruffly charismatic in their way, but outside of some nicely scored trailers, I never thought of them as sympathetic characters. But then Cole Train walked into a grocery store and caught a glimpse of his past life. Then Dom got behind the wheel of a tanker. Then Marcus was left in a world that his brother-in-arms and his father both chose to leave. For all the groan-worthy quips and action movie cliches, Gears of War 3 delivered moments of genuine pathos that surpassed any shooter storytelling in recent memory.
How many times have you gone back to that game/movie/ TV show/book/8-track/zoetrope you enjoyed as a younger person and thought, "Man, time has not been kind to this thing that I once esteemed"? Well, thanks to the wizards at 343 Industries and Grezzo, the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia aren't just a figure of speech anymore. The extensive visual overhauls granted to these two classic games did a fantastic job of preserving the original aesthetics while bringing the presentation values into the modern era. Sure, some gameplay joints were a little creaky, but playing through these loving remakes of two of my favorite games ever was an awesome experience that honored and revitalized my fond memories. (Honorable mention: Beyond Good & Evil HD--a wonderful game given a great visual treatment, but alas, the poorly rigged camera controls!)
8. A new hope (Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP)
2011 will forever live in history as the year Chris Watters got himself an iPhone, a landmark that is utterly insignificant to people who aren't my family, close friends, or Twitter followers (no, @CTWatters is not above shameless self-promotion). After playing just an absurd amount of Boggle, I reached for unfamiliar fare, enjoying both Continuum 2 and Jetpack Joyride. These relatively casual endeavors delighted me for a time, but when I first played Sword & Sworcery, I was entranced. The art style, the music, the characters--this game had atmosphere in a way I'd never expected. And it wasn't just the novelty of seeing it on a mobile device, it was the thrill of realizing that I hadn't played anything quite like this at all. If this is possible, what could the future hold? It's an oft-repeated observation, but there's nothing like having a game open your eyes to the joyful uncertainty of new possibilities.
7. Watch me soar (Capsized)
We've all seen astronauts, right? Lumbering around in those unwieldy suits like so many Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men? It's hard to imagine them making good action heroes, but then there's Capsized. Crash-landed on a verdant alien planet teeming with lovely flora and deadly fauna, you must navigate each level with only a few tools at your disposal. You can jump. You have a jetpack. You have an elastic grapnel hook. And you have a gun that shoots a jet of force that will propel either you, the thing next to you, or both. From this modest suite of locomotive mechanics blossoms a versatile and liberating capacity for movement. Swinging, slingshotting, and rocketing around levels is a joy, whether they be claustrophobic or spacious. Capsized may drop you into an alien habitat, but before too long you are moving through it with the grace of a native.
"Oh good. My slow clap processor made it into this thing." - GLaDOS
"You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much?" - Cave Johnson
"Finally, a nemesis worthy of my vast intellect. Holmes versus Moriarty. Aristotle versus MASHY SPIKE PLATE!" - Wheatley
"The square root of rope is string." - Fact Core
The personalities in Portal 2 have quickly passed into the pantheon of video game writing, so I'll just leave those few quotes up there to offer a few chuckles. The other character highlight for me this year was Missile, an adorable little Pomeranian who starts off as a cute pet and becomes a character of significant importance. He looks charming as he bounces along onscreen, but it's his dialogue that won me over. Not many of his lines approached the quote-ability of Portal 2, but the judicious use of capital letters and some well-timed screen-shaking had me utterly enamored by this pup's buoyant devotion to saving his master.
(Honorable mention: Forty Five, SOCOM 4. This Korean Spec Ops soldier is more charismatic, expressive, and hard-nosed than her male counterparts, offering a great example of how to lend authenticity to the portrayal of female soldiers.)
5. Now that's what I call action (Resistance 3)
Some video game arsenals are good; the guns are fun to shoot and there's some decent variety. Some are great; the guns have real impact and make you feel powerful. And some inspire GameSpot editors to create a new video feature (The Gun Show) and a new Special Achievement category for their Best of 2011 awards (Best Arsenal); that's Resistance 3. But the diverse and deadly guns are only the half of it. It's also the lack of regenerating health, which forces you to move when your instincts are to stay put. It's the tenacious enemies, who come at you in aggressive waves and force you to aim sharply. It's the prevalence of ammunition, which is great enough that you rarely run out but not so great that you can rely on your few favorite weapons. In the best parts of Resistance 3's campaign, these elements combine to create an exhilarating strain of action that is unmatched in the current shooterscape.
4. Fun with magnets (Red Faction: Armageddon)
For all the hilarious lines in Portal 2 and wacky situations in Saints Row: The Third, it was Red Faction: Armageddon that made me laugh out loud the most this year. Specifically, it was the magnet gun. By firing an attractor and then a magnet, you could take advantage of the robust destructibility and amusing rag-doll physics to wreak all sorts of merry havoc. I liked sending the side of a building across the room to blindside an enemy that was intently shooting me. And bringing the ceiling down on an enemy's head. And bouncing enemies off the ceiling. Or dragging enemies from the ceiling down to splatter on the floor in front of me (and if they don't die, punching them to death on the one-hop.) Enemies into other enemies, buildings into other buildings, explosives tanks into bridges I clearly need to traverse--all of this mayhem delighted me to no end, and I'm laughing right now just writing about it.
3. Survival instinct (Dark Souls)
OK, so Dark Souls is hard. The environments are deadly and the enemies more so. Progress is difficult to win and easily lost. Gaining small victories in the face of ever-looming death is certainly satisfying, but Dark Souls didn't really invade my mind until I realized it was teaching me how to survive. Sure, every game does this to some extent, but I reached a point hours into Dark Souls when it occurred to me that my successful evasions and desperate escapes were fueled by instinct. I wasn't actively thinking, "Careful! There are lizards here. OK, I'll be safe if I head over this way." I was thinking, "OH CRAP THE CURSE LIZARDS AAAHHHH THEY ARE BEHIND ME NONONO!!" while I was somehow avoiding, outmaneuvering, and slaying them. Realizing that I could inhabit Dark Souls on a significantly deeper level than I could most games was more than a little startling, but immensely cool.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for class-based multiplayer. Virtual battlefields where players have different roles and abilities are more diverse and exciting, and I love being a part of them. From Killzone 3's snowy shoot-outs to Battlefield 3's dusty destructibility, these two games consumed a significant portion of my personal gaming time this year. I mostly went medic in Killzone 3, zapping people with my little health gun and standing back up to murder my enemies when they had written me off as down for the count. For Battlefield 3, I mixed it up to make the most of the engineer's anti-vehicle capabilities and support's endless streams o' bullets (being a pest with mortars is pretty fun too). Knowing that I could jump into these competitive multiplayer matches and play a variety of different roles kept these games fresh for me and gave me something to strive for. And the fact that they both looked stellar certainly didn't hurt.
1. Part of your world (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)
I harvested a plant down by the river, which I knew to be nirnroot from its pale leaves. I reforged a legendary amulet that scores of men died to protect. I read protracted theological debates in a quiet room. I killed a frost-spewing dragon. I mined gold, smelted ore, crafted necklaces, sold them to a merchant, and went furniture shopping. I slew a cave full of trolls. I tried to cross a river and fell down a small waterfall. I possess a powerful gift unseen for decades. I play hide and seek with kids. This juxtaposition of epic deeds and everyday endeavors is what draws me into Skyrim and grabs hold of me. The staggering abundance of people, places, and things creates the sense that there is a world here, an ecosystem of which I am a part. A unique part, yes, but not so special as to be above cooking a hearty stew or gathering some flowers in my travels. Skyrim deftly incorporates the exceptional and the mundane in one expansive world, and perhaps its most impressive accomplishment isn't that it makes me feel like a hero, but that it makes me feel like an ordinary man.
No ado: I'm going right to the main event. Here are my favorite games of 2011.
I love being surprised. It's hard to conjure inexplicable events in everyday life, so I often have to resort to playing games to get my "What was that!?" fix. Isaac relishes in these small delights. Randomly generated dungeons ensure that every time you set forth is different from the last. The enemies you fight, the weapons you earn, the story you see--everything is different! And all of those surprises are well and good, but they wouldn't amount to a hill of beans if the playing aspect were lousy. Thankfully, Isaac is anything but. It's challenging in all the right ways, so as long as I move deftly and aim smartly, I can survive. It's an incredible experience. And you want to know what the most shocking thing is? The whole shebang is only $5. Jaw, meet floor.
This is the only game on my list that I didn't particularly enjoy playing. Don't get me wrong: the combat is sharp, and I loved the visuals, but I grew bored before I reached the end. So why is this on my favorite games list? Because of the soundtrack. I procured a copy of the music from PAX this year, and it has been in frequent rotation in my catalog since then. Simply put, it's one of my favorite soundtracks in the many years I've been playing games. Yes, Build That Wall would be the single if radio stations clamored for video game music, but it's a shiny gem surrounded by a sea of sparkly jewels. Combine the enthralling music with the biting lines of the narrator, and this is an experience that has left a serious impact on me.
8. Mario Kart 7
I have to be up front about this so you know where I'm coming from: Super Mario Kart is my favorite game of all time. And though MK7 doesn't reach the same levels of shell-throwing, banana-peel-dropping bliss, it's mighty fine in its own right. The most noteworthy aspect for me is that driving is now more important than item usage. The thing that drew me to the franchise at first was how fun it was to drive the kart; the items were just ancillary tools to keep me occupied while I was in first. A lot of the chaos has been stripped away in the seventh Kart, and I just loved peeling around corners at top speed without having to worry about the dang blasted snaking. Plus, it once again brings the most important gaming questions to light: Why is Koopa Troopa flinging shells? And are those shells empty?
I love seeing the word "mature" slapped onto any game with boobs or blood. And by "love" I mean "loathe." Catherine is mature in that it presents difficult life situations and gives you the choice in how you move forward. It's smartly written, with strong characters and believable (for the most part) scenarios, so it was easy to lose myself in Vincent's plight, even though we have very different moral values. Still, as great as the story is (and it's fantastic), I can't ignore the excellent puzzles surrounding them. Transforming Q*Bert for a new generation (and I don't even like Q*Bert), the puzzles were tense, fast-paced, and challenging enough to make me concoct previously unheard curses. And I loved every minute of it.
I was giddy about this game months before it was released because of the art style. Have you seen it? It's absolutely stunning, using abstract design to make every level look completely unique. And the melding of story with the artistic design is one of the most effective ways I've seen to convey exposition without taking away a player's control. But here's the thing that shocked me: the combat is great. No kidding. Though it mostly uses one button, it uses this delectable rhythmic system that feels as though Rez's Tetsuya Mizuguchi were behind the scenes. This is one of the most interesting games of the year and one that has stayed with me long after I put the controller down.
5. To the Moon
Remember a few years ago when David Jaffe talked about making a video game that would cause players to cry? At the time, I loved the idea but secretly thought it was crazy. I've cared about characters and stories before, but I've never been so moved that tears flowed from my eyes. Well, that's no longer the case. To the Moon broke the dam, and I am still in awe at how it accomplished that. It was smartly written, with incisive dialogue and smooth story progression, and it made excellent use of its music to really worm its way into my heart. And just try to talk about the stargazing scene without choking up. Go on, I dare you.
I'm a sucker for Goichi Suda games, I admit it, but I also understand that his games don't always play that well. No More Heroes and Killer 7 got by with their flashy style and crazy stories, not because the nuts and bolts of the action were particularly well done. Imagine my surprise when I played Shadows and not only was it as quirky and irreverent as I expected, but the gameplay was an utter delight. And a large part of the reason for this is the excellent sound design from Akira Yamaoka. The main hook in Shadows is the creeping danger of the darkness. When you were consumed by the black hole in Shadows, you could feel it. The distorted music and nail-on-chalkboard sounds created a suffocating effect that... Ah! Sorry, I blacked out for a second. This game is creepy, and those nightmare sounds still haunt my dreams.
3. Portal 2
It's hard to pluck one aspect of Portal 2 that can start this blurb. Everything that Portal 2 attempts, it pulls off with flying colors. Story? Excellent! Co-op? Imaginative! Puzzles? Dastardly! Soundtrack? Delightful! Artistic design? Authentic! Seriously, there are very few games that have the scale of Portal 2 and pull off everything exceptionally well. This is a brilliant game, utterly and completely brilliant, that absolutely enthralled me for a solid month. Once I finished with it the first time, I could only play more Valve games to satisfy my gaming urges. I played through Portal 2 again, then Portal, then Portal 2 co-op, then Half Life 2. And I still wasn't content! This is a monumental achievement that I'll play again and again through the years.
I freely admit that I'm a graphics whore. But I don't give a lick for all the technical doodads that come with new hardware. It's artistic design that pulls me in, and nothing looks better than Alice. The attention to detail is staggering. When she runs with her vorpal blade dangling by her side, she looks like the deranged girl she's slowly becoming. It's art with a purpose, not just a bunch of pretty pictures thrown together. It's a world that's beautiful yet unnerving, and I really didn't want to leave once I had finished.
Wow! This felt like a gift made just for me. I complain about hand-holding and excessive tutorials, stringent direction and suffocating progression. And Terraria gets rid of all that! You forge your own way through the game. You earn everything you acquire, and nothing is handed to you. When you discover a new land, you feel like a badass adventurer because you figured out how to get there. This is a fantastic game that understands that your imagination is the only thing holding you back from untold accomplishments.
I'm a sucker for Metroidvania games, but when you add in a beautiful art design and a novel gameplay mechanic like polarity switching, suddenly I go from being a sucker to being in love. In fact, I'm normally kind of a baby when it comes to challenging boss fights, but Outland had me going all the way through to the moment I terrified my girlfriend with shouts of joy upon beating the final boss.
9. L.A. Noire
Rockstar games are always a lightning rod for nit-picking and nay-saying, but as a fan of open-world settings, I tend to enjoy their stuff quite a bit. L.A. Noire's re-creation of 1940s Los Angeles was an incredible thing, to the point where I enjoyed just driving around the city and soaking up the sights. And while the interrogation system was pretty flawed, that didn't stop me from enjoying the adventure game elements of the game's detective work.
I really enjoyed the 10 minutes of this game I got to play before my girlfriend--normally not much of a gamer--ripped the controller out of my hand and proceeded to play through the rest of the game as I sat and watched, offering suggestions on how to solve its various puzzles. And while it may seem odd to put a game on here that I watched more than I played, its charming and whimsical sense of humor and ability to encourage couch teamwork was more than entertaining enough to earn a place on this list. Also, it had DLC called "The Lost Hobo King." How could I not put that on here?
If you know my tastes at all, you know that I'm a huge fan of engrossing atmosphere in games. Deus Ex, with its unique color palette and buzzing sci-fi synth music, was one of my favorite examples of atmosphere all year long. And it certainly helps that I really enjoyed the story and gameplay as well, I suppose. Especially the part where you throw refrigerators at people.
This one's kind of a bittersweet entry for me. I recently played some Terraria for the first time since this summer and really disliked the ramped up difficulty level of the most recent patch. But for those 30-odd hours I played the game earlier this year, I couldn't get enough of its free-form adventuring. The visual language of 2D sprites was more appealing to me than Minecraft's worlds, and the allure of building up toward big boss fights kept me plugging along when I'd run out of ideas for things to build.
I had several reasons to ignore Ghost Trick: the only portable games I play anymore tend to be on iPhone, and I've never played a single Phoenix Wright game either. But I took a chance on Ghost Trick after Carolyn's review, and it was one of the best decisions I've made all year. Its puzzles feel fresh and unique, it has got a terrific sense of humor, and dear God that soundtrack! Oh, and did I mention Missile? You could put Missile in any game and it would be a contender for my top 10 list.
4. To the Moon
I'll go ahead and get this out of the way right now: To the Moon is the closest I've ever come to crying while playing a video game. But to dismiss this as some sappy story would be a profound mistake, because To the Moon's strength lies in its emotional complexity. Its story of a dying man's memories of his late wife alternates between genuinely hilarious and charming during certain points, and bittersweet and downright heartbreaking at others. The whole thing is a powerful testament to the storytelling potential of video games, and you really ought to play it if you have four or five hours to spare.
Funny story: I didn't play Arkham Asylum until earlier this year. But I knew that with Arkham City coming out in the fall, I had to fill that shameful gap in my backlog posthaste. So I did, and went into Arkham Asylum ready to continue Batman's fight against the Joker. Pretty good decision, right? Arkham City has one of the best combat systems of any action adventure game I've played in the past 10 years, and the new open-world setting lets you feel like a predator stalking your foes from the rooftops. It's just a stunning overall package that could easily be my number one game of the year at any other time besides 2011.
I'm about 65 hours into Skyrim right now, and I've barely put a dent in the main story arc. I've just been getting lost in the landscape, taking on any side quests that come my way, and wandering through the world as much as I possibly can. Skyrim is just that kind of game, one that makes you want to take your time and soak up every last sight as much as possible. There's so much to explore and see and kill and craft that you need to take your time with it. And I think that's one of the things Skyrim does better than Oblivion. There are more stories and secrets to be found out there in the world, and you really don't want to pass any of them over.
1. Portal 2
Entertainment doesn't get any more pure than Portal 2. It's a game that makes you smile one of those big, stupid grins whether you're playing it or thinking about it six months later. That's the sort of game Portal 2 is. Pure bliss.