It’s the New Year so it’s time again to look at last year. 2011 was a good year for games. It wasn’t a particularly outstanding year but it did provide enough solid gaming to keep us entertained. What’s interesting about this list is that there is only one new IP throughout; the rest are all sequels (or prequels). Maybe the big reason why this hasn’t been a stellar year is because innovation is stifled by game companies sheltering themselves with familiar names to stay on the safe side. Even then, some franchises like Elder Scrolls offered up experiences that weren’t just about HD graphics but gave us games so large in scope that they seemed unimaginable five years ago. While the industry still waits for the next big thing, there were still plenty of great games (and a few instant classics) worth playing. If you haven’t played the following games in 2011, there’s nothing like starting the New Year right with these ten titles.
Please note that the titles are not in any particular order except for alphabetical. If you’re having any problems with the alphabet, think of the song or try this handy link courtesy of Wikipedia. There is no ranking for the games so please no annoyed e-mails about why a game is ranked below something else. Blame the publisher for having their game start with ‘S’.
Bastion – WB Interactive (Xbox 360/PC)
While it hasn’t been as strong this year, the field of downloadable games is a formidable opponent for one’s wallets. There are tons of cheap, yet forgettable time wasters; there are always a few gems every year that feel as large and packed as their retail counterparts. Bastion is a great RPG that rivals many in the genre. It may not bear Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest in its title, but Bastion holds its own and has been selling well despite only being available through a console on Xbox Live (thank goodness it didn’t appear exclusively on WiiWare). Bastion has everything going for it; solid gameplay, intriguing leveling and projection system, and an amazing narrative. Even for people who shy away from the RPG genre or downloadable titles should definitely give this one a look. Then they need to worry about all the hours they’ll lose while playing this game.
Batman: Arkham City – WB Interactive (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
The Batman universe is a very interesting one. Forget about Batman; the villains have more depth than most fictional characters. Batman: Arkham Cityis as close as we have to a Batman meets Grand Theft Auto game but it’s the interplay with and between the villains is what makes this game so interesting and draws us in. The dynamics of Batman’s relationships with the various baddies are one thing but how all these lowlifes interact with each other is something that cannot be properly explained in a paragraph and must be experienced for one’s self. Good or bad, these people intertwine so well that it makes the whole narrative feel organic. It also helps that the gameplay is great and can feel at times like a dark Super Mario 64 as Batman soars through the air and like the very best of Final Fight as he cleans up the streets of Gotham. Batman: Arkham City is everything we want from a Batman video game. We can only hope that all the future movies are just as good.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Square Enix (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
Marrying the shooter genre to anything else almost seems sacrilegious. The whole point of shooting games is to shoot things and not worry about much else. Some developers have tried to re-invent the shooter or create the next evolution in the genre to varying results (which has led to more Brinks than Bioshocks). Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the few smart FPS games around. It’s not so much about shooting stuff but how you are going to do it. Actions have consequences so while it may be fun to go in with guns-a-blazing, it may lead to your imminent demise. It blends RPG elements into the game so seamlessly that it’s hard to think this could be some sort of mix between Dragon Quest and Half-Life (which is saying something since the publisher is Square Enix). For a smart FPS/semi-RPG hybrid that offers tight gameplay for many hours, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the best.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Bethesda (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
If there’s one complaint about this game, it’s that it started a bunch of stupid arrow to the knee jokes. After that, there’s little to complain about. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the best-ever executions of an RPG game. The game is so large in scope that it doesn’t feel like the game is trying to make you do anything. Even with other sandbox-type games like Grand Theft Auto, doing small things out of the way feels like just wasting time before getting to the real goals. However, with Skyrim, you feel like whatever you do is part of the natural progression of the game. It feels like an MMORPG without the MMO part. The game is quite the adventure; the journey of one’s character arc feels so complete and well-developed that the game no longer feels like something a development team concocted at their studios but something that you yourself built from the ground up. Skyrim should have a medical warning on the box because the game is so engrossing, you could lose days to weeks of your life playing it.
Gears of War 3 – Microsoft (Xbox 360)
Sure it looks like a million shades of brown but the Gears of War series has always been a blast to play. This latest (and supposedly final…snicker, snicker) instalment of the series offered improved gameplay (especially in the multiplayer) and showed that there can a balance can be met between run-and-gun shooters and stealthy shooters. It’s a lot of fun whichever option you choose. Even modes like the arcade mode are great to play even though it’s an option that you wouldn’t expect to get with the title; which is fine because these things are welcome added bonuses. The series really grew into its own with the second title but it really became a franchise to behold with this third game. Whether it’s going solo or taking on/teaming with friends, Gears of War 3 is one of, if not the best shooter of the year.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – Nintendo (Wii)
Every time a Zelda game is released, some cynics make the same argument that the Zelda series hasn’t evolved much since the Super Nintendo. While it’s hard to argue against that theory, it doesn’t matter much as Nintendo usually makes each romp through Hyrule feel special even though many gameplay elements are repeated. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword does try to do things a bit differently although it too doesn’t stray too much from the formula. Unlike many Zelda games of recent memory, combat is more important here as the WiiMotion Plus makes battles feel meaningful unlike something that stands in the way of solving puzzles and progressing through dungeons. It also doesn’t hurt that the puzzles in this game are some of the most clever in the series as well. It’s the longest game in the Zelda series to complete; it is also the most fulfilling.
LittleBigPlanet 2 – SCEA (PS3)
On its own, LittleBigPlanet 2 is not the best platformer this year (it probably isn’t even in the top five in the genre) but it offers so much gameplay that this could be the only game that you would own and be happy that you only have one video game. Aside from the traditional platforming that it gives to the player, it provides for many other gameplay types like shooters and racing. Even if you get sick of what the game offers, you can make your own stuff and create masterpieces of your own. The game editor is so in-depth but so easy to use that anyone can make fun games to play. If you don’t believe that statement, check out the almost limitless selection of what’s available to download online from people around the world. There’s no game that offers as much content in one package as LittleBigPlanet 2. If, for the next game in the franchise, they ever getting around to tightening up the main game’s control mechanics and make the soundtrack less indie-sounding, Sony could finally do what Sega never could; take the platforming crown away from Nintendo and their happy-go-lucky plumber.
Portal 2 – Valve (PS3/Xbox 360/PC)
When the original Portal was released, many were surprised by the solid gameplay that this puzzler had to offer. Sometimes, when hidden gems turn into massive successes, it makes the sequel have an unenviable task of trying to live up to past glory. Portal 2 not only manages to do very well for itself but, despite it being very similar to the original in many ways, it feels very fresh and awe-inspiring. Unlike the original that was added-in as part of a compilation set, Portal 2 is a full-fledged game that will keep you occupied longer than most titles in Valve’s line-up. Throw in a new co-operative option and it feels like a whole new dimension has been added. Puzzles seem impossible at first at times but then we all feel like idiots for not getting them sooner. Portal 2 might be the perfect combination for people who like platforming, adventure, and puzzle games.
Rayman: Origins – Ubisoft (PS3/Wii/Xbox 360)
Unfortunately for Rayman, the series has been a bit of a joke since Rayman Raving Rabbids came out on the Wii when the system first launched a few years back. Ever since then, people have been asking (begging) for a real Rayman game to come out. Ubisoft sort of gave gamers the cold shoulder when they did make a Rayman-type game bit with the Rabbids instead of their chief mascot a few years back (and it was actually good). Still, people wanted a real Rayman and Ubisoft finally delivered to these demands this year. Rayman Origins does for the series what New Super Mario Bros. Wii did for Mario; it brought a time-honoured series back to its 2D roots with spectacular gameplay. Unlike Mario, Rayman Origins is one of the toughest 2D platformers of this generation, which makes for a pleasant challenge that isn’t normally seen in today’s games. The hand-drawn art-style is something to behold and makes it stand out against all the other retro-style games trying to cash in on the 2D renaissance.
Super Mario 3D Land – Nintendo (3DS)
It’s not quite a traditional 2D Mario and it’s not Super Mario 64/Super Mario Galaxy, but Super Mario 3D Land still finds its mark as one of the best Mario games ever created. Many of the levels are memorable and strike a chord with players; something the series hasn’t seen in a long while. While there are some slight issues with the 3D camera that makes some jumps difficult (and is made even worse when the 3D is turned off), the game plays extremely beautifully. Nintendo actually out performs Media Molecule (the team behind LittleBigPlanet 2) by creating some of the most inventive platforming levels in gaming history. The Zelda-inspired level is one of the greatest in the series making those who play it wish that there could be a whole game based on that type of design. Chasing after Bowser and saving the Princess should have become a mundane exercise by now but Super Mario 3D Land makes it feel amazingly fresh.