2011 was not gaming’s greatest year. Between the lazy, big budget sequels that missed the point and the relative lack of original and thought-provoking games, this will not be looked on fondly. However, there were some titles which piqued our interest. Let’s take a look back on the games we played in 2011 and what we thought about them!
Cities in Motion
This won’t top anyone’s best-of lists, and in fact, you may not have even heard of it, but this public transport simulator was my most-played game of the year (currently 90 hours to Skyrim’s 60). The player takes control of a public transport company in a variety of European cities, designing bus and tram routes, constructing metro systems, and trying to keep traffic at bay. It’s a game with a very specific audience, but if you’re in that audience, you will absolutely get lost in it.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
One of the more daring games of the year, it’s an unapologetically old-school PC game in an era of designed-for-the-consoles. Strong writing and characterization combined with a fun but nearly nonsensical plot, but who cares about that? It’s super-powered James Bond, which was exactly what I needed this summer.
Dragon Age 2
Any Bioware game is going to have high expectations attached to it, and this game, a sequel to a “dark fantasy” RPG with a rabid fanbase, was going to be no exception. Bioware failed. The game is mostly incompetent, and when it’s not it’s strangely lifeless. The gameplay is generally atrocious, and worse, unimaginative. The writing, something Bioware is rightly lauded for, comes across as half-assed. I like interesting failures, but this is just a failure.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
One of the most puzzling games of the year. What is it, exactly? An open-world RPG? A narrative game with a strong focus on quest completion? A blacksmithing simulator? Really, Skyrim is whatever you want it to be, which is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s beautiful, compelling, engaging…maddening, boring, and lazy. In effect, it’s a videogame simulator. I don’t think this type of game will be made in 20 years.
I had high expectations surrounding this game, the follow-up to Shu Takumi’s Ace Attorney series, and they were met, and more. The art design, direction, writing, characterization, and gameplay are perfectly married, and the narrative and gameplay are directly linked and feed off of each other in the way that only videogames can. The action the player takes, and the path of the narrative, are strictly delinated, but the sense that you as the player are making all this happen never falters. Some of the puzzles can be a bit esoteric, but that’s a small complaint. The best game of the year.
In a better and more just world, the release of this game would have been treated to lavish coverage. Instead, it was dumped onto the market in a back-alley deal with no publicity and no fanfare. A very old-fashioned game, it’s extremely well-written with engaging characters and a fantastic plot. The gameplay isn’t anything that will set the world on fire and the puzzles, by the standards of this very specific genre, are kind of shockingly easy, but I treasured every moment of it. I just hope it doesn’t take Jensen another twelve years to write a game.
When the best thing you can say about a game is “it has writing that can measure up to workmanlike film noir” you know you’re being charitable. LA Noire is one of those games that really makes me remember how defensive many gamers still are about the medium. It’s technical achievements are truly remarkable–I think that will be the game’s legacy–but as a game and as a piece of narrative fiction (for the two are completely separate, let’s face it) it fails almost completely. One of the worst and yet most interesting games of the year.
Following up on Portal would be a tough act for anyone, and it took Valve a while to get this game out. It’s really a super-sized Portal, with new mechanics, new characters, and an explicit narrative. This makes the game weaker than the original, slightly less enjoyable… and still one of the better games of the year. It’s like Ghostbusters II–pretty good, but an example of the adage that you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.
You Don’t Know Jack
In a lot of ways 2011 explored game genres and styles that fell out of favor years ago, and You Don’t Know Jack might be the perfect encapsulation of that trend. It’s the newest entry in a trivia game series last popular during the Clinton administration whose hook is a sarcastic emcee named Cookie and in which players are encouraged to “screw” each other while answering questions in categories like “Who’s the Dummy” and “Nocturnal Admissions with Cookie Masterson” (it’s that kind of game.) The new version is virtually unchanged from the prior incarnations of the late 1990s, and it’s still a ton of fun. Let’s just hope that full-motion video CD-ROM games stay dead.
Less a videogame than a pile of Batman-related activities, Arkham City is a lot of fun to play. It’s well-acted and competently-written, its objectives are varied and fun–it’s just a solid good time. A lot of the game does not hold up to analysis after the fact, and it’s not going to go down in history as one of the most memorable games of all time–but it doesn’t need to be. From time to time you just want to suit up and pretend to be a superhero. Arkham City lets you do just that.
I’m still having trouble figuring Catherine out. It’s got a fine storyline that treads themes that videogames don’t normally cover, excellent graphics, well-drawn anime sequences, and some difficult puzzle solving. If you like interactive movies and sliding block puzzles, this game is good at being both. However, the block puzzles are a little too difficult–I ended up giving up about two levels before the end just because I couldn’t do it–and it’s a game you watch more than play. Still, it stands out from the other games that came out this year, and I’d say it’s worth a go.
Unlike many games which treat their players as if they have sub-average intelligence, Dark Souls is the rare game that realizes that you’ve been playing videogames for 20-25 years and adjusts itself accordingly. The game features no map, no real tutorials other than some brief mentions of what a few buttons do, no real explanations of half of its mechanics. You’ve got to figure all of that out on your own. And you’ve got to do that while fighting through combat so difficult that, if you’re not paying attention the whole time, even minor enemies can outright slaughter you. But it’s given me some of the greatest pleasures this year. Realizing how the map is interconnected–finally figuring out how to beat an enemy who has given you trouble for hours–getting a rare treasure–everything you manage to accomplish is such a challenge that it’s an extremely rewarding game.
Dead Space 2
Sure, Dead Space 2 had some scary moments and some wonderful setpieces, but it’s so much of a lesser game than its predecessor. Dead Space 2 makes some extremely poor decisions–making the game more about its plot, voicing the main character, changing the environment from a detailed setting to a series of corridors. Still, its opening hours are some of the most intense I’ve played through this year.
Dragon Age 2
Dragon Age 2 was a major disappointment. It could have gone the high road–told an interesting story, given a deep examination of a single protagonist’s role in a political turmoil, given the player a series of meaningful moral choices–and instead it came off as an adolescent tits-and-blood fantasy where nothing you did really mattered and ended up having the audacity to reveal itself to be a simple prologue in the end. Its understanding of Reward meant that I played the game for several weeks, doing more or less every quest available to me, but I can’t help but regret that I didn’t get to play the sophisticated, intelligent game that was lost in the shuffle in Mike Laidlaw’s attempt to get a good metascore.
It’s nice to see Eric Chahi working again! Chahi is best known for Out Of This World and several other “cinematic platformers” such as Heart of Darkness and Flashback. Unfortunately, From Dust is a Populus-esque puzzle game based on terraforming. On the one hand, the game has some interesting concepts, and it’s really pretty to look at–on the other hand, while I admire his willingness to experiment, Chahi is not playing to his strengths. Still–worth a download.
I’ve been down on story in games lately–I’m getting to the point where an excessive focus on story ends up souring my opinion on my game. Ghost Trick demonstrates that this might simply be because most videogame stories are terrible. Ghost Trick’s plot is VERY carefully wrought–what starts off as a simple mystery ends up getting more and more convoluted by the chapter, until the end when every single element falls into place. We’re left with a genuinely touching and involving story that’s helped by the game’s excellent character work. I enjoyed the game’s puzzles, but I know many people found them difficult. Feel free to use a walkthrough if you need to–the story is worth it.
I’m of two minds about this game. It’s really great to see Jane Jensen designing an honest-to-Goodness adventure game, the kind I used to love to play in middle school. Most of the puzzles are logical and integrated into the story, and it’s got an interesting mystery plot. However, the final major area is extremely tedious–I used a walkthrough–and the last couple chapters of the game feel very rushed in a “we ran out of money” sense. It’s a shame–adventure gaming used to be so popular, and now it’s just a tiny niche.
I guess LA Noire features realistically-rendered people in a well-researched recreation of 1940s Los Angeles. It’s just the entire game feels so soulless. The game makes some extremely poor decisions, especially towards the end. It’s one of those games that gets tired of its own existence hours before the story wants to give up, and so you’ve got all of these slapped-together cutscenes and these rushed action sequences. LA Noire fails because it’s one of those 10-hour movies that justifies its running time by clinging onto some mediocre gameplay.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Many people will tell you that Skyward Sword is one of the best games of 2011. That it’s a beautiful game that controls accurately and has emotional depth. These people are wrong. Skyward Sword is an awful, clumsy, ugly mess. As far as I’m concerned, Skyward Sword is the worst game I played this year.
Lost in Shadow
Lost in Shadow should have been a lot better than it was. Its central gimmick–instead of jumping on platforms, you jump on the shadows those platforms cast–is fairly interesting, but there’s a lot more they could have done with it, and after a while it just feels kind of tedious and sloggy. Its aesthetic is also directly ripped off from ICO, which just made me wish I was playing that instead.
Okami was a beautiful game with an interesting central mechanic. It was definitely an unabashed ripoff of the Zelda series, but its charm carried it a lot. Somehow, Okamiden is a lot less charming. It’s one of those games which holds your hand through its entirety, telling you exactly what to do to solve each puzzle. I don’t feel like I actually played any of it.
Pokemon came out when I was a sophomore in high school and uninterested games of that type. This entire Pokemon culture, the memes and imagery, has developed completely outside of my notice. Playing Pokemon Black, I felt like I was missing something–the game never really clicked for me. I’m not sure if this is just not my type of game–I don’t like monster collection mechanics–or if it’s something you just had to be there for since the beginning.
Portal was a scruffy game that kinda blindsided everyone–no one expected it to be as good as it was. Portal 2, while a fine, funny, beautiful, challenging game, somehow loses something in the expansion. It’s like when an indie releases its major label debut. Yeah, the budget is higher, it’s more polished and expansive, but somehow the same heart just isn’t quite there. Part of Portal’s charm is its eerie sense of mystery. In fleshing out the world of Aperture Science, Portal 2 ends up somehow feeling smaller.
Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages is made by the same studio that made Zeno Clash, a game with brilliant ideas and art direction that was hampered mostly because the studio is tiny and doesn’t have a high budget. I bought Rock of Ages largely to give the studio a few bucks, but I’m glad I did. It’s one of those really weird games that doesn’t play like anything else, and it’s absolutely hilarious. Not only are the between-level cutscenes funny, the actual gameplay–rolling a rock downhill in order to smash your opponent’s fortress–is done so absurdly that it’s worth a play. It gets a little too hard around the halfway point, which is why I stopped, but it’s cheap, so pick it up.
I got into Tiny Tower while I was laid up on crutches. It’s a maddeningly simple game, and yet for whatever reason it hit a specific addiction center in my brain. I obsessively built up my tower, checking it every couple of minutes in order to add more stores or stock products. I can’t say it’s fun, partially because it’s so simple, but I sunk a lot of time into it. I’d say it did what it intended to do.
You Don’t Know Jack
You Don’t Know Jack is always a great time when you want to hang out and play a trivia game with your friends. Eric and I had a lot of fun with this one, and there were more than a few questions that we had to pause the game during because we were laughing so hard. It’s nothing more than a simple quiz show game, but it’s a very well-done one.
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