Bill has already introduced the concept, so I won’t tread over that ground again. Instead, here are my 2011 experiences, wrapped up in a pretty Christmas bow for you! Oh, and within this present are numerous spoilers. I spare no secrets.
Of the games that were released in 2011, I played, in roughly this order:
Dead Space 2
Dragon Age 2
Gears of War 3
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Games I still intend to play:
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Best Game: Portal 2
Favorite Game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Best Male Voice Actor: Nolan North, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (Are you surprised?)
Second-Best Male Voice Actor: Brian Bloom, Dragon Age 2
Best Female Voice Actor: Ellen MacLain, Portal 2
Second-Best Female Voice Actor: Eve Myles, Dragon Age 2
Most Ludicrously Terrifying and Exhilarating Scene: Sinking Cruise-ship, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Most Time Wasted Looking At Unmarked Bottles and Matchbooks: Me, L.A. Noire
Strangest Addition To An Old Franchise: Molemen with Punk Hair, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Best New Weapon: Massive animatronic T‑rex with lasers, Bulletstorm
Prettiest Game: I swore I wasn’t going to spam it, but Uncharted 3 is gorgeous
Scariest New Enemy Type: Goddamn Chargers, Dead Space 2
Most Tragic Moment: Knight-Commander Meredith leaps a hundred feet into the air, Dragon Age 2
Second Most Tragic Moment: Dom dies, Gears of War 3
Least Realistic Character: Bertrand, Infamous 2
Dead Space 2: Kill Me Again, You Filthy Animal
Should You Play It: If you like horror movies, games that feel “finished” and visually whole, dark games, or a lingering sense of dread in dark hallways, then absolutely.
Dragon Age 2: Victory in Scope, Failure in Endurance
Like any recent BioWare title, I’ve played through this game at least three times, aiming at distinct and unique characters with each run. I had several issues with Dragon Age 2, including the lack of variety in combat encounters, particularly in villains, and the way that the entire third act was such an incredible let-down and of such diminished quality to the other two that it stuck out, thumb-like and sore. And yet, on my first play-through, I encountered a number of incredible, difficult scenes in which I truly didn’t know how to respond, or was surprised by the extra scenes included that served just to enhance the illusion that my character and Anders had a relationship. I always felt like my character existed in a real place, among a real community. The game’s scope was excellent, and the aim and spirit of the game was right on. It’s very possible that, as I’ve played, I best see the game they wanted to make and not the game they released, but there are some real gems in Dragon Age 2.
Should You Play It: Probably, but you should really steel yourself for disappointment in Act 3.
Portal 2: They Do All Their Science From Scratch
After every solved puzzle in Portal 2, I experienced a simultaneous pride in my own deductive abilities and respect for the brilliant folks behind this beautiful game. Those feelings then grew submerged by laughter at the next salvo of dialogue, and then, sometimes, to a very real empathy for the ridiculous, and yet very real, characters. Portal 2 does what only it does the very best. This is inarguable, and laudable.
Should You Play It: Very yes.
Killzone 3: Poor Zone 3
The plot and the characters are trash, and Killzone 3, especially, got me thinking about how virtually every first-person shooter I have played in recent memory had no trouble offering interesting settings and even cohesive and artful aesthetic polish to a game, but including decent writing or voice-acting is utterly beyond them. FPS is so often the realm of the visual and the spatial; the audio, and the imagination, are atrophied. All this to say that Killzone 3 looks beautiful, and plays like silk; it manages to feel like war more than any Modern Warfare or Call of Duty has. But the individual experiences of personal terror in a massive battlefield never aggregate, or if they do, it coalesces into a piece of narrative that is trite and boring.
Should You Play It: If you like pretty shooters that shoot good, you should play it. If you’re a snob like me, but without the love for pretty shooters, then stay away from it.
Bastion: Narrate My Dreams, Mr. Cunningham
Bastion was an utter surprise. From the first moments, when The Kid awoke to a strange new world under the watchful narration of a gruff voice, to the final decision The Kid must make at the precipice of the unknown, choosing between a new world for the outcast or retroactively saving the lives of thousands, albeit to uncertain effect since there is no guarantee that the same tragedy won’t happen again, Bastion is magical, thoughtful, and simultaneously mature and accessible. Bastion achieves something unique as it tackles very adult themes while maintaining the soft veneer of a children’s book. Bill has written extensively about the interesting mish-mash in Bastion that ultimately accentuates the component parts, and I agree with his assessment. At the least, Bastion is a really interesting game, but chances are you’ll find considerably more than just outstanding game play and visuals.
Should You Play It: Yeah, you really should. And it’s so cheap!
L.A. Noire: Let The Plot Thicken For 2–3 Hours, Then Bake At 400
I played through all of L.A. Noire while visiting Bill, actually, over the course of about four days. I received the full pay-load of the game with little to no interruption (just Bill coming home from work, really), and didn’t even spend time on the “side-quests” or other tasks that occasionally cropped up on my mini-map. Frankly, I was confident that they had no role in the narrative I was experiencing… they were never more important than solving the crime I was on, and the game never pressured me to pursue. The second I realized that I barely even had to drive, but could just let my partner take the wheel, chat a few lines at me, and then teleport the rest of the way to my destination, I cheered and never drove a car (when I wasn’t pursuing a criminal) the rest of the game. I enjoyed the game immensely at first; I still think it’s worth noting that they definitely included some amazing cases in the game. The porting of a police procedural show into a game is worth celebrating. Beyond that, the partner characters were interesting beyond their role in the plot (which was sometimes minimal), and the protagonist was fresh in that he was a complex, occasionally inconsistent character. But then it was like they pressed a fast-forward button on the story of Phelps, because there were sudden advancements that had no real lead-up. I became confused as to which story they were telling here… the cases? Phelps’ story? Sheldon’s? It failed to come together with strength, and I came away feeling like I had the broad outline of an interesting story, but many critical details and scenes were missing. L.A. Noire was almost great, but there were baffling amounts of what should have been the final product missing.
Should You Play It: Perhaps. It’s worth playing through a case or two at the Homicide desk, at least; they’re immensely enjoyable. Just don’t finish it, and try not to fire a gun in the mean-time.
From Dust: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Sound Of Screams
I’m still not sure how I feel about this game. It is, at the very least, a fascinating vision of a world where forces consistently collide and shape land-masses and natural disasters. The lore of the game seems a little thin, but that’s okay because the style that it builds is ultimately enjoyable. However, while playing the game, I always felt a little bit like an interloper. The controls were a little hard to manage, and performing the tasks the game expects of you certainly isn’t a quick or elegant experience. There’s an odd secondary objective in all of the levels that exists mostly just to lengthen play-time. The game doesn’t feel beautiful, and that might just be to its credit; like the materials you’re working with, the interface and controls are rough and haphazard. Still, most of the time I just wanted to sit back and watch things happen. The best moments in my play-through was on the early levels, when I was creating new deltas where they shouldn’t have been, and less on later stages when a whole mess of situations constantly threatened the tribal village under my care.
Should You Play It: If you’re into simulation experiences, go for it. It’s certainly a fascinating engine, and worth checking out for the price. There’s also one level where you create a massive rock wall to keep out constant tidal waves that I can only describe as majestic.
Catherine: A Tale Of Two Biddies
Should You Play It: If you’re a glutton for punishment, or you’d like yet another example of how to make a less-than-unified game experience.
Bulletstorm: The Only Thing My Guns Can’t Do Is Help Me Grow As A Person
I really wanted to hate Bulletstorm. Really, really hard. It’s macho-man, bro culture exterior repulsed me, as did the popular story about how a certain designer demanded that the single female character’s breasts be emphasized to a sickening degree, but luckily another (female) designer urged that her small chest was more than fine, increasing her role as tough gal as it decreased her role as sex symbol. I went in ready to be disgusted, but curious about the lauded skill-shot system and how it would play out in the campaign (since the “Echoes” mode held almost no interest to me; accruing points, even via creative murder, tends to be about as interesting as watching water bead on a window. Less interesting, perhaps). I was very, very surprised when I found myself delighted by the interesting locales and pace of the revenge/redemption tale, and even more surprised when I found it even slightly emotionally compelling. Though the dialogue is far from golden, and the characters far from fascinating, the main character’s regret is understandable and interesting. It was better than I expected when the gruff dude I was playing expressed sorrow over his boorish, suicidal behavior at the beginning of the tale, and eventually learned to care again. Timeless tale it was not, but it was, at the least, much better than any of the advertising had led me to believe. Oh yeah, and the weapons are wild, hilarious, and fun.
Should You Play It: Only if you really like FPS games, you don’t really care about what happens in a game so long as something is blowing up and one-liners are being thrown about, or you really want to be surprised by a game.
Crysis 2: Crysis-core
On the bright side, Crysis 2 is gorgeous, features a pretty cool nano-suit with a smart upgrade system and different modes (armor, stealth and mobility) that really changes the way a player approaches and thinks about fire-fights, which is admirable, fun, and makes you feel like a one-man predator (that preys on whole armies) in a way that’s quite unique. However, the game is slightly repetitive, the balance of action and pace always feels a bit off, and the plot, which should have been interesting, utterly fails to amuse. It even has aliens that, in a feat I can’t quite explain, are incredibly boring from their first introduction, and eventually become so commonplace and annoying that, mid-way through the game, you wish you could just fight human soldiers to the exclusion of everything else. I couldn’t finish it; I just lost interest.
Should You Play It: Some of the ideas it has are worth investigating. The options built into the nano-suit do change the way you approach situations, so it’s a unique experience in that, and until it gets boring it offers a simultaneous experience of immense power and fragility.
Gears of War 3: There Are Still Chainsaw Bayonets
It’s more Gears of War, but the plot and dialogue isn’t offensively bad. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and there are a few truly cool moments in the game that caught me off guard with their quality. Horde remains fun, if you can find friends to play it with.
Should You Play It: It’s pretty much the best third-person shooter. If it appeals to you, then yes.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: Charted The Path To My Heart
I love the Uncharted series. Each iteration has great writing, enjoyable characters, fun set-pieces and game play that alternates between solid shooting mechanics that fit the genre and puzzle solving in tombs that is occasionally truly clever. Like a good date, Uncharted 3 always takes you to the nicest places and doesn’t linger too long at any of them, maintaining a fantastic pace. Uncharted 3 tells its story with flair and grace, and offers the closest thing you’ll find to an Indiana Jones movie in game form. It doesn’t do anything all that new or stretch the boundaries of how games can be art or offer new experiences, but it does everything with polish and charm. Uncharted 3 is refined, and every minute offers something to laugh, smile, or gasp at. Best of all, the terrible boss-fight at the end of Uncharted 2 is replaced by an awesome knife-fight with a well-dressed villain on a piece of rock collapsing into a huge sink-hole. It’s exactly as awesome as it should be.
Should You Play It: Absolutely. I cannot recommend Uncharted 3 enough.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Viva La Revolucion
Human Revolution is incredible, with two exceptions: boss fights, and the ending. I’m in the middle of an article about how Human Revolution investigates trans-humanism through its protagonist, so I don’t want to go too much into it, but suffice to say that the game offers a fantastic and complex vision of the world of the future, and is a joy to play both for the joy of tackling diverse problems with a multitude of solutions and for the joy of being Adam Jensen. Lucky, then, that only three boss fights plague the game (Pro-Tip: All three have a weakness to frag mines), and you can start a new game right after making it through the multiple-choice ending.
Should You Play It: Please do. It’s worth your time. I finished it four times over a two-week period, and it never stopped being great fun.
F.E.A.R. 3: Spookily Terrible
I had a few fun experiences with F.E.A.R. and a dark room full of friends, so I thought that F.E.A.R. 3 would be a great deal of fun. It wasn’t. Instead, it was a poor shooter with an incomprehensible plot, a single, uninteresting character, and long segments of zombie-style foes that were the opposite of fun. Every time the game toes toward becoming intriguing, it steps away as though intriguing were made out of fire. And it is never, every scary. Not once.
Should You Play It: Just don’t.
Infamous 2: Change Of Heart Not Supported
Better than its predecessor, Infamous 2 still fails to offer a convincing character that manages to encircle both paths the player might take, an understandable difficulty since the poles are self-sacrificing hero and irredeemable, homicidal jerk. The game’s narrative as expressed through the ubiquitous cut-scenes is strong between these two poles, and fails to be convincing in either case. Worse, it regularly fails to make your choices all that important except in one significant instance, where it limits the freedom of the player. Let me explain: Infamous 2 committed its worst sin in the end-game, when I was presented with a decision that was actually pretty complex and interesting. Should I activate a device that will kill me and every potential super-hero on the planet in the shaky hope of destroying a plague ravaging the “common” folk, or should I destroy it, essentially taking the safe route by saving the potentially special individuals of the world, even if it means that most of the population dies? I decided that my Cole would break form and save himself, since it was also the route that guaranteed human survival… but then the game wouldn’t let me. I stared at my screen in confusion for about a minute before realizing that, to make that decision, I would need to lower my karma, probably by running around town and murdering large swaths of innocent civilians in what was apparently an attempt for Cole to develop the resolve to condemn most of humanity to a terrible plague. Then I actually yelled at my screen, informing the game that it just ruined itself for me. The ending (that I didn’t want to choose, but did) continued in that vein, invoking the normal tropes and boss-fight moments, but it was not at all compelling. It’s almost unfortunate, then, that Infamous 2 is so fun to play.
Should You Play It: It does a good job of making you feel like a super-hero or super-villain, but it fails to be emotionally convincing or interesting.
The Binding of Isaac: I’d Describe It As Delicious, But Ew
I had seen a number of my friends playing Binding of Isaac via Steam, and investigated because of the name. I bought it because of the price. Binding is a strange, strange game that I enjoy, but can’t play for long. The player takes control of Isaac, the son of a very religious mother who receives a message from God that she must kill little Isaac, and Isaac escapes to the basement, a terrible and massive dungeon filled with children who descended and died before him. Isaac is naked, and his only weapon is his tears. It’s a fascinating set-up, and the foes and décor are compelling, to say the least. The monsters populating the basement are all particularly fleshy, misshapen and wrong… there are heads without bodies, and bodies without heads, flies aplenty, and eventually walking vaginae that spew blood at Isaac, causing damage presumably both physical and mental, and the bosses are horribly mutated creatures until, in the tale’s terminus, Isaac must fight his mother, who manifests as a huge, fat leg and other body parts pressed against doors so that only grotesque details appear to wreak havoc on poor little Isaac. Binding is unique, and is built around the sort of punishing ethos common to games of old. It’s interesting, and, I’m sure, unpalatable to certain tastes, but I look forward to coming back to it for further short periods of play.
Should You Play It: It’s worth a look, if just to see everything that I describe above. It’s cheap, too.
Skyrim: Thar Be Dragons
I haven’t gotten too far into Skyrim yet, but I’m pleasantly surprised by it. I played a fair bit of Oblivion, but mostly out of a curious sense of duty. For a multitude of reasons, Skyrim is much more palatable to me. The individuals who populate the world feel just a little more authentic, and have barely crossed the line into “vaguely real” territory for me thanks to better rendering of faces and improved voice-acting and writing. The skill progression system in Oblivion always seemed obtuse to me (to maximize one’s level, one would actually avoid leveling until one had jumped enough, or brewed enough potions, to squeeze just enough ability progress into the experience without making the rest of the world tougher. This has the side effect of growing trepidation as the bar that symbolized your progress to the next level rose, culminating in, eventually, eschewing everything your character was talented at so that you didn’t waste all that extra effort by accidentally figuring out how to whack heads with maces with a teensy bit more finesse), but Skyrim’s leveling system is elegant and made me excited about every new level, as any decision I made on that level would cascade back onto a slew of powers or actions I had been using, suddenly filling them with new life. I look forward to stepping back into Skyrim when I have the time and money to pick it up for myself.
Should You Play It: Perhaps. It is a little addictive.
Arkham City: Silent Knight, Wholly Knight
I haven’t had the time to finish Arkham City yet, but I have played most of it, and it improves on the already great formula tested in Arkham Asylum. The boss fights are quality experiences (especially a brilliant encounter with Mr. Freeze that essentially reinvigorated my belief in the boss fight; it still has life, if done properly!), and soaring about the city is just as fun as it should be. Arkham City is nothing less than a Batman simulator, and the player is always invested with a great many options regarding how to approach the challenges presented. Batman still sometimes runs out of interesting things to say, though.
Should You Play It: Do you want to be Batman?
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: Some Things Don’t Change
Unfortunately, I also haven’t had time to finish Skyward Sword yet, either, but so far I am having a great deal of fun. The only thing I’m afraid of right now is that there will be too few dungeons to satisfy my need for more dungeons. This is exactly what I wanted when I first picked up a Wii controller; Skyward Sword delivers on the potential. I cannot stress how cool it is to swing Link’s sword about. Upon raising my nunchuck to ready Link’s shield, I would occasionally find myself taking a defensive posture, my eyes poking above its rounded white top. Seriously. All my issues with the odd, effeminate villain disappear the moment I swing that sword. Unsurprisingly, the dungeons in Skyward Sword remain true to form, offering new abilities and testing grounds for those new abilities and bosses who require your new ability to defeat. It’s like coming home.
Should You Play It: Do you want to look like an idiot as you sword-fight with your Wii-mote?
As always, I welcome comments and conversation! I hope you had as good or better gaming experiences in 2011, and may your gaming in 2012 be surprising and full of kick-ass quick-time events!