You may have glimpsed this list as part of our Personal Perspectives: The Top Ten of 2011 feature, but I thought I'd repost it here for posterity's sake. Also, I intend to use this blog business a little more frequently in the coming year, and I figured posting something I've already written would be a decent way (okay, maybe just a passable way) to ease back into things.
I had a great time writing this list, and really enjoyed taking a slightly different approach than is customary for end-of-the-year lists. Hope you enjoy it too!
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 ten 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 have 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 really 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 bring 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 either propel 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 on screen, but it's his dialogue that really won me over. Not many of his lines approached the quote-ability of Portal 2, but with judicious use of capital letters and some well-timed screen-shaking, I was 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 ragdoll 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 of 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)
Okay, so Dark Souls is hard. The environments are deadly and the enemies moreso. 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. Okay, 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 shootouts 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 in order 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 a 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, it's that it makes me feel like an ordinary man.