2011 has been one of the biggest and most memorable years for the video game industry that I can remember. An amazing library of games has come out in the past 11 months, and we were treated a massive fourth quarter that likely took a huge toll on your wallet. As 2012 draws ever-closer and with thanksgiving just passing by, I think it’s time we reflect on the best titles of the year. So here it is, the top 10 games of 2011:
10. Mass Effect 2
I’ll be completely honest; I’m cheating here. Those of you paying attention should know that Mass Effect 2 actually came out in 2010. I’m copping out by using the PS3 port that came out in January as a brand new release because even as a game I’d already played on the more responsive PC, ME2 is one of the most impressive space-sagas I’ve experienced in any medium.
The galaxy you explore as Commander Shepard is as deep and fully realized as those in Star Wars, Star Trek or any other galactic fantasy out there but what really makes Mass Effect 2 an amazing video game is a great story, real choices with actual narrative impact and satisfying, tight combat mechanics.
It’s a good enough package that a year later it would otherwise tie for 2nd place on my list of 2011’s best games, but I can’t quite overlook that it already came out in 2010, so I’ve compromised and put it at #10.
Like I say in my review, id Software kind of flew back to the surface of the game industry with Rage after a long period of coasting along on their previous titles.
Rage is by no means a brand new take on the FPS genre or the post-apocalyptic story, but it makes up for a lack of originality by refining the mechanics its predecessors created and tossing in a few novel tweaks.
It’s certainly not going on par with id’s pedigree of games and might be quickly forgotten in years to come, but you won’t be thinking of that the first time you ricochet your wingstick off two muties and it comes right back. Let’s see your ultimate frisbee friends do that.
8. LA Noire
I’ve talked about LA Noire‘s issues in the past, but that’s not to be taken as a complete slam against the game. While there are some pretty heavy marks against it LA Noire is still, at its most basic, a technical marvel. Take away all the interactivity and narrative in the game and you’ve still got a painstakingly faithful recreation of Los Angeles in the 1940’s, not to mention the revolutionary facial capture tech that was used for the interrogation mechanics. And of course, even with the narrative dissonance that eventually took me out of the storyline, LA Noire still has that Rockstar influence going for it: great writing, vibrant characters and a fantastic open world to play in make LA Noire a very pretty love-letter to the film noir, even though it might have been better suited for the big screen itself.
7. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
By placing Modern Warfare 3 at #7, I’ve cleverly made my list go against both the millions of fanboys who say it’s the greatest thing ever and the millions who hate it for being the industry monster that has gobbled up the entire industry’s profits, which leaves the four people in the world who don’t have an opinion on the game and still want to read a ‘top ten games of 2011’ list (Which puts me right on par with my usual number of readers. Hi guys!).
Say what you will about the elephant in the room, but Modern Warfare is a franchise that puts gameplay over everything else, which means as dumbed-down and infantile as it may be you will have fun playing it, no matter how intellectual or against-the-mainstream you might think you are. And why fight it? There’s a reason Michael Bay has made 3 movies about giant robots punching each other in the face. Modern Warfare 3 is the finale in a trilogy of games that is just plain ol’ balls-to-the-wall fun, and they’ve refined the multiplayer to make online play deeper and more varied than ever before.
6. Portal 2
This Spring, Valve returned to the darling franchise of industry with a bigger and broader sequel that manages to rekindle the magic of the original Portal. A while ago I talked about how Portal completely embraces interactivity to tell a story, and then later about how Portal 2 handles that on a larger scale, but what’s important to note is that Portal 2 was one of the most amusing games this year.
Admittedly Aperture Science was more interesting as a cheeky mystery before Portal 2 answered all our questions, and the sequel sacrificed the story’s tightness for length, but in giving us the whole tale we were able to delve way deeper into the origins and development of one of the best settings in video game history. It also provided a more extensive labyrinth of test chambers to solve, some new tools to play with, and a one-of-a-kind co-op campaign, not to mention a much-needed reunion with our old friend GLaDOS. Of course the real hero of this game, once again, is Valve’s writing team, which provided us with more laughs than most of this year’s comedy films.
5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Full disclosure: I never played the original Deus Ex. I was drawn to Human Revolution, honestly, because it looked like Metal Gear Blade Runner. And pretty much that’s what you get, complete with all of the faults that would go with it. HR suffers from the same narrative hiccups that the Metal Gear series always has – the writing is kind of awful. That’s a shame because, again like Metal Gear, the actual story they’re trying to tell is fantastic. Concerning the moral and spiritual dilemma of human enhancement, Human Revolution is rife with really pertinent subject matter.
Unfortunately they almost fumble it with awful dialogue and a pretty dismal conspiracy twist, but what saves the story is the environment you interact with. Traveling across the near-future dystopian Earth as Adam Jensen, you explore a world undergoing a major struggle in reaction to the recent implication of ‘Human Augmentation’. The effects of technical advancement have had very real consequences on the global population and you’re placed in the middle of it as half-man, half-machine, complete with all kinds of cool, innovative gadgets a la (a less clumsy) Inspector Gadget. The actual gameplay is pretty wonderful as well, offering a robust system of stealth mechanics and all kinds of ways to approach an objective. There is no ‘right’ way to play the game, which is what makes it so gratifying.
4. Dark Souls
Again, I’ve given more attention to Dark Souls in a proper review so I’m not going to focus too much on the details. Suffice it to say that Dark Souls is definitely not for everyone. The difficulty curve is nearly impenetrable and if you’re not ready for it, the game is a suffering nightmare. What that provides for those who can take it, however, is a sense of accomplishment that you will not find anywhere else in video games. Souls is an RPG through and through, and it affords a deep and varied skill set for you to master, if you have the patience.
It also features level design so well designed and executed it comes second only to The Legend of Zelda games. Combine that with an open world rich with history, lore and atmosphere hiding in every nook and cranny and it is one of the most enticing settings you’ll ever get to explore. Name another game you’ve played where you’re dying to see what treasure lies in the next room, but you’re terrified to die and lose your progress. That is an example of the risk/reward conflict that makes Dark Souls great. The game is punishing, maddening, and one of the most memorable experiences of 2011.
3. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
The Uncharted series has become the flagship for the PlayStation, being the most recognizable of its exclusive titles and making Nathan Drake one of the console’s biggest mascots. It goes without saying that Uncharted 3 was one of the year’s most anticipated titles and for the most part, it holds up to all of its expectations. At its third chapter, I fear the franchise is starting to show its age; the combat feels just a little bit stale, with the new repetitive melee system doing little to refresh the 3rd-person gunplay, and the platforming starting to feel a lot less like a necessary traversal tool, and more like jumping through hoops between waves of enemies.
That being said, Drake’s Deception is unquestionably the best story of the trilogy, focusing far more on Nate’s motivations and the consequences his actions force onto his loved ones. There are fewer set-pieces in this game, but when they come up it’s a welcome break in the gameplay and they’re just as visually impressive as ever. Like the previous games in the series, Uncharted 3 is one of the best-paced games out there, and this time has a lot more going to keep you invested.
2. Batman: Arkham City
It should come as no surprise that the Dark Knight himself is on this list. This is the Grizzly Bomb, after all. But honestly that wouldn’t even matter. Take away the whole DC brand and what you’re left with is a totally unique hand-hand combat system, incredibly fun stealth mechanics, a living, breathing open world full of things to do and a rich, strongly written story. It’s enough to make it a great game. It only gets better when you build that system around one of the greatest fictional characters of all time.
Arkham City, like Asylum before it, is the video game embodiment of the Batman animated series, arguably one of the best versions of the Batman story there is, and that quality pours out of the game in torrents. Voice acting, visual style, writing, game design – it all reflects the spirit of Batman in top form. In fact, it treats the characters with so much care it’s actually kind of astounding. The interaction between Bats and some of the rogues’ gallery in the game (which is HUGE) is some of the most interesting I remember from any video game or Batman story. In short, this isn’t just one of my favourite games, it’s one of my favourite Batmans.
1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
If you’ve had the misfortune of interacting with me personally in the past month, this is not a surprise to you. Every fourth word out of my mouth since November 11th has been in Dragon tongue. I’ve been yelling “Fus Ro Dah” at squirrels in my backyard every morning for a week (No progress so far).
The impact Skyrim has had on the general public says it all: Go to a website. Any one, it doesn’t matter. They’re talking about Skyrim. How many people laughing at Skyrim memes do you think had heard of The Elder Scrolls I-IV? This is a game that has spilled over into the cultural consciousness, and it’s because it’s the biggest game of the year. T
he size and scope of Skyrim is mind-boggling. It’s almost impossible to talk about your play through with anyone else without spoiling anything because chances are you’ve barely been experiencing the same game. The other day I discussed exploration methods with a friend. Not within a dungeon, or to find secrets, mind you. I’m talking about general progression through the game world. Think about that for a second – we were tackling the same over-arching story from completely different angles, and creating entirely unique stories by doing so. It’s why I can be the Nordic Assassin who brought independence to his home and my friend can be the Argonian mage who traveled to a foreign land and restored peace to the world of Tamriel, both within the same narrative framework. That is exactly what a video game is designed to do – offer the player the tools to generate their own personal experiences. Skyrim handles this unlike any other title this year, and that’s why it’s the best game of 2011.
Feel free to disagree and offer your top 10 games of the year. Comment below!