How much do you like the number three? 2011 was a weird year for video games because, well, usually we’d have new consoles by now. The Xbox 360 turned six in November. The first Xbox was only four when it was replaced by the 360. This unnatural long life meant that a lot of franchises that started this generation are putting out the final parts of trilogies that just wouldn’t have happened in generations before. In fact, only one game on my list isn’t a sequel, and I think that speaks more to the state of the industry than my taste. Maybe not.
Look, the number ten spot is always the wild card. I could have put lots of things here. Maybe you were looking for a little L.A. Noire? Or how about some Renegade Ops, since it’s basically the Fast Five of last year’s games? Maybe some Dead Space 2? Too bad, because while lots of games are ostensibly better than the so-called reinvention of the Pokemon franchise, the fact of the matter is I spent a solid three weeks putting together the ultimate team. And while I may not have caught them all, I still had a pretty good time. I was also a senior in college at the time.
I’m a bit surprised how much I ended up enjoying the bro-tacious conclusion to the Gears of War trilogy. The story to this series has never really hooked me, especially since it always seemed like a good chunk of the plot existed outside of the actual game. Here, to borrow a phrase from the Bad Boys series, shit gets real. The Cole Train shows some depth, Dom’s depression plays out as over-the-top melodramatic as it could, and Marcus drives the story to an ending that actually ends most of the plotlines. Combine that with arguably the most complete multiplayer suite in gaming, and you’ve got quite the justification for $60.
One of my favorite video game journalists became a developer a few years ago, then broke out with a five other people and started a small studio, perhaps ironically called Supergiant Games. Their first game, Bastion, is a triumph. It’s a game that does everything it sets out to do, some of which had never been done before. I haven’t reviewed the game yet, so let me just say that if you want a unique approach to interactive storytelling combined with extra-tight RPG action, Bastion is worthy of your consideration.
A lot of criticism was aimed at Uncharted 3 after its release. Some complained about the floaty influence of auto-aim in the singleplayer mode. Some complained about a few of the shooting sections’ level layout. But mostly, people complained that the game didn’t blow them away like Uncharted 2 did. Yeah, but that’s because Among Thieves was a landmark game. Drake’s Deception does its best to meet that mark, and gets pretty close. There are some sequences in this game that are so cinematic and intense that I couldn’t compare any other game franchise to it. It’s hard to even think of a movie. No matter how you slice it, Uncharted 3 is absolutely fantastic.
In part, Arkham City is helped out by the fact that Batman is easily my favorite super hero, and that I will take any opportunity to step into his shoes and bring justice to Gotham. 2011 was the year I watched all of Justice League and even played a bunch of DC Universe Online, but nothing scratched my Batman itch as well as this game. And, yes, it probably isn’t as good as Arkham Asylum was, but that’s the Uncharted problem all over again. The fact of the matter is, swooping around the city is real fun and no game is better at letting you pummel groups of thugs. It’s all a power trip, but I’m happy to be along for the ride.
It seems that 2011 was the year I got into RPG franchises that I previously found impenetrable, but we’ll get more into that later. What I will say is that The Witcher 2 is a stunning game that tells a great story. In so many games, choice is so simplified; it’s really refreshing that the world of The Witcher is so messed up and the ramifications of your decisions so hard to predict. At one point, you choose to follow one of two people, both of whom are hard to sympathize with, and that determines the entirety of the second and third acts. It’s a whole other game! Awesome. Way to go, you Polish guys.
This is the crazy conclusion games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Saints Row 2 where building to. The pretense and bullshit that weighs down all the other self-serious open world games is completely thrown out in favor of making a sandbox for players that is fun every second you’re in it. Lazer guns, VTOLs, permanently auto-tuned pimps, Burt Reynolds, zombies, wrestling, it’s all in Saints Row: The Third. Seriously, if you thought Grand Theft Auto IV was too serious and long, or if you, I don’t know, like having fun, you should probably play this.
If you had to make a sequel to Portal, how would you do it? If you had asked me a while ago, I would have replied, no, I wouldn’t do it; it’s impossible, there’s no way it could be good. And yet, here we are. Valve pulled it off, again. Portal 2 is longer, funnier and more rewarding than the original game. It’s pitch perfect, right up to it’s incredible final act. Comedy is so hard to do in games, but this one really nails it. Of course, it’s propelled by some amazing performances, but so was L.A. Noire and I don’t see that game on this list. They even managed to tack on multiplayer which totally worked and was surprisingly fun.
I never liked a Bethesda game. Not one. Couldn’t get into them. Skyrim changed that. It changed that by doing the same thing Bethesda has always done, just better. A lot better. Exploring the seemingly endless expanse of Skyrim is one of the joys only this medium can bring into a person’s life. It’s not even that any one thing specifically was improved. There’s an intangible quality to Skyrim that helps it transcend its status as a hardcore RPG into a mainstream hit. I mean, as I write this, I’m listening to Alex play the game with his friends. That’s crazy! This game is supposed to be as nerdy as it gets!
So, you could make the case that SW:TOR came out so late in the year it shouldn’t count. But then I think those same people would argue it’s a 2011 game when the best of 2012 lists came around. So I’m counting it this year, because, you know what? This is basically my dream game. Take the addictive, never-ending gameplay of World of Warcraft, set it in the Star Wars universe and give it a Bioware story. Sure, the combat and questing might not be groundbreaking for MMOs, but the story definitely is. This is an amazing, one-of-a-kind production that deserves to put an end to WoW‘s reign. By new year’s eve, I bet I had played this as much as any other game in 2011.