When I think back over the last twelve months of my gaming year, the word that instantly springs to my mind is “change”. I began 2011 the same way I’ve started and ended the last fifteen years; as an exclusively console gamer. But mid way through this particular year something changed. I built my own PC. On a personal level this represented a huge undertaking, something I never thought I’d achieve and certainly not successfully, but here we are in the following January and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back. The biggest changes in my gaming life however aren’t restricted simply to hardware. Steam has changed my perception of cost and value while the accessibility, variety and value of indie gaming is slowly starting to change my tastes and buying habits.
2011 was also the year I fell in love with – then promptly out of love with again – handheld gaming. The launch day 3DS I picked up came and went, a decision I’ve regretted pretty much entirely since. Unfortunately, that’s the price I pay for being a stupid idiot. The sort of idiot who pays too much money for hardware at launch, loses faith during the dry first year then regrets getting rid of the system and buys it again. Sigh. My brief love affair with the 3DS did however allow me to revisit one of my oldest and most cherished franchises, which finds itself amongst four other stand out releases as my Games of 2011.
My five picks in no particular order after the break.
RAGE will mean a great many different things to a great many different people. To some, RAGE was a fine return to form for the illustrious id Software, now in it’s 20th year and releasing a new IP for the first time in over a decade. To others, RAGE represents a failed attempt to branch out from the core foundations on which id is built.
Either way, RAGE is a game blighted by imperfection. At a distance it is a true work of art and an absolutely stunning example of the much trumped megatexture technology piloted here for the first time. But go in for a closer look and RAGE’s world can look ugly and distorted, with bad texture work and static items spoiling the illusion. This is also a game where the open world ambition is made perfectly clear within the opening hours, but is cruelly snatched away later with the realisation that this is essentially a rather linear shooter trapped between just three hub towns.
To criticise RAGE for being something that it isn’t does however seem unfair. Were it not for the post apocalypse setting and constant pre-release comparisons to Fallout, I’m not sure anybody would even notice RAGE’s environmental constraints. RAGE might not be the bold change of direction many might have hoped for, but what we’re left with instead is a reminder of why id Software command the sheer amount of respect that they do in this industry. Make no mistake that when RAGE gets going, it really moves through the gears. The art direction is beautiful and unique even in this most tired and trodden of settings. The audio design will shake anyone with a decent pair of headphones or 5.1/7.1 surround to their underpants. The weapons.. oh, those weapons. Nobody does them better and anyone who has forgotten just how good id’s shotguns are in the intervening years since the last Doom or Quake needs to take RAGE’s sawn off for a blast. Where handguns in other games feel like handguns, RAGE makes even the most mundane weapons feel like firing the cannon’s of an Armada. You just don’t get the same visual or audio feedback from firing weapons in any other game, and the whole drama is made even better here thanks to some of the most responsive and slickest AI animations you’ll see anywhere. Despite some of the pseudo-open world fluff, RAGE is at it’s best when you’re presented with an enclosed dungeon, a camp full of bandits and a shotgun in hand. Ignore the buggy driving sections and the towns and you’re left with a classic id formula.
When all’s said and done, it’s a shame RAGE ends how it does. It would have been a better game without the filler and without the pretence of a more open experience. In a generation defined by the linear first person shooter, it’s a genuine shame that we’ve only experienced one shooter from id. Quite frankly there isn’t a studio in the industry who does this type of game more consistently excellent than Carmack and his team. Some regrettable design choices aside, RAGE is absolutely stellar and easily one of the most pleasurable experiences of my 2011.
Pokemon is probably the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a true cultural phenomenon. I was a teenager when the franchise launched, just starting out at secondary school and probably a little older than the target audience the cutesy characters and anime cartoon would have the outside world believe. Like the rest of my school though I was hooked and carried my trusty Gameboy and deck of trading cards around with me everywhere. It was brilliant.
Nostalgia always dictates to me that Red & Blue are still the best games in the series, but the reality is that years of incremental yet numerous updates and additions has transformed the franchise into a far more complex beast. For the long time absent trainers only just returning to action, Black & White are lessons in both familiarity and the unknown. The overarching Pokemon formula is much the same as it was back in those halcyon days of 1998. As a budding trainer you begin the biggest of adventures in the smallest of backwater towns, establishing early rivals, grinding your way through the tall grass and battling all manner of weird and wonderful creatures in the bid to complete your Pokedex. You’ll travel the world in search of Gym badges and eventually do battle with the regions Elite Four. It’s a tried and tested format, but the components of the experience have evolved significantly since the original games. Black & White are games where you can invest as much in the world as you want according to your own tastes. You can simply collect and duel if that’s all you desire, but there’s an entire separate universe of breeding, personality and pro-battling to explore if you so choose. How much time you dedicate to such matters is entirely on the players shoulders, which is as much a part of the all encompassing, ever accessible beauty of Pokemon as with Red & Blue.
As it turns out I invested a significant portion of my time into Pokemon Black & White. Thinking back, it’s the game I spent the most time with this year outside of my addictions to football management simulations, and by some significant margin at that. The Gotta Catch ‘Em All ideology is every bit as compelling now as at any other time in the last decade, and behind all the friendly accessibility and colourful exterior lies an incredibly deep and complex RPG experience, packed with meta games and sub-systems that will test even the most seasoned Pokemon trainers. Replacing years of history with an entirely new cast of 150 unique monsters was a bold move that proved to be a master stroke, and the reward is a game that feels almost as fresh as the originals did so many years ago.
The Nintendo 3DS is capable of outputting some gorgeous visuals and it’s a system that lends itself well to Nintendo’s particular brand of bright, colourful visual flair. I hope, pray and expect Gamefreak to step up and deliver a true revolution to the series for their first full 3DS release, but for now Black & White are evidence of the franchises commitment to it’s illustrious heritage, it’s still endearing present and it’s increasingly bright future.
There’s very little about Portal 2 that can be said which hasn’t already been covered elsewhere. Is it a masterpiece? Probably not. In my opinion it outstays it’s welcome by the odd hour or two and there were times mid way through the game where I wished the progression and pace were a little quicker. So a masterpiece it isn’t. But it’s not far off.
The thing that always stays with me about Portal 2 is how funny it is. Like, genuinely funny. Stephen Merchant’s casting as Wheatley was utter genius. I’m a fan of Merchant’s anyway so make no apologies for my bias, but his role in Portal 2 brought tears of laughter to my eyes.
Then there’s GLaDOS. Probably one of the best villains in the industry.. even if me and Lewis neglected to mention her in a recent article on that very subject. Ahem. Her comedy is every bit as hilarious and every bit if not more quotable than Wheatley’s. But one thing that maybe doesn’t get said enough about GLaDOS is that she’s also pretty scary. Prone to wild mood swings and irrational turns in behaviour, GLaDOS has a sinister side that hangs over you at almost every turn. Essentially she controls your fate; capable of transforming the world around you at a twitch to suit her goals and totally against your free will. Her influence hangs over you, imposing herself on your every step. You never quite feel comfortable or immune. At least not until a rather amusing potato themed twist half way through the single player campaign.
I always find a good villain should always make you want to watch a movie or play a game again just to see more of them. If I ever replay Portal 2, I will attribute a large portion of that to wanting to see more of GLaDOS.
More simple than that however is that Portal 2 just get’s the basic’s so right, and it’s only when you play a game of Portal 2’s consistent quality that you realise how annoyingly rare that actually is. It’s a devilishly clever puzzler in the guise of a first person shooter. It’s funny, witty and intimidating where it needs to be in equal measure, with a consistently perfect balance to keep you thinking. The visual and audio design is exemplary and the dialogue is industry leading. Thoughtful, challenging, humorous, dark.. an absolute treat.
The wordpress word count tells me I’ve written over 1,660 words so far. I could probably write another 1,660 about how much I love Bulletstorm.
I wont, though. Largely because our virtuous leader has already beaten me to the punch in such fabulous style. And I can’t top an analogy about being fisted by joy, which sounds both delicious and excruciating.
It’s no coincidence that I agree with and refer you all back to Matt’s thoughts on Bulletstorm. It was after all his impressions on the game that sold me on Bulletstorm in the first place. I don’t often walk straight to the store to drop £40 on a new game after reading the words of somebody on the internet. Infact I never do that, and I especially don’t do it after I’ve already played and largely hated the demo for a game. Yet for some reason, be it his charming manner, great hair or wordy and pretentious text, that was exactly what I did on Matt’s recommendation. I’ve thanked him for that at various times this year, and I’m going to do so again now, because my reward for being so careless with my money was to be treated to one of my top five gaming experiences of 2011.
Bulletstorm is just a riot, really. It’s like opening a riot in a can and watching it explode into somebody’s face. I never noticed this myself, but I had it remarked to me by my wife that for the entire duration of my time with Bulletstorm I had a stupid grin permanently etched into my face. Bulletstorm is just fun. Really, really fun. In terms of it’s design and ethos, I’m almost tempted to use the term “old school”, because outside of a few fleeting examples you just don’t find games like Bulletstorm around very often. It’s a pretty crazy experience. I like to imagine the design process for Bulletstorm was just to gather the entire team in the office on a Friday afternoon after a lunch time pub session, loose ties, unbuttoned shirts, sweaty brows and lewd comments about the secretary included, and start scribbling ridiculous idea’s about how to improve Gears of War on a flip chart while shoving their faces with peanuts.
The result would be Bulletstorm. The fart. Or the meaty, boozy, peanuty burp that makes everyone else in the room gag. Except that doesn’t really do Bulletstorm justice. Bulletstorm is actually a really well put together game, so much more than the passing of post-pub gas. It’s got at least two legitimately brilliant twists on the first person shooter formula. It’s really clever and surprisingly witty in it’s dialogue, which not nearly enough people give it credit for inbetween all the swearing and dick jokes. As expertly pointed out by Mr. Sakey, it’s even considerate in it’s characterisation of the games lead female character. And I have to point out Bulletstorm’s technical prowess, too. Particularly on PC, I’m honestly struggling to name many better looking or more solidly performing games I’ve played in this or any other year.
Like Matt, I’m saddened that Bulletstorm wasn’t a roaring success at retail. What a great game.
Dead Island. The wildcard.
It’s funny with Game of the Year lists. I spend all year remembering the games I’ve played so that I can look back on the year at a time like this and make my choices, and then when it comes to actually picking five games I panic and freeze. The first four choices were easy, but the fifth I had a little trouble with.
And so I’ve gone for Dead Island. I almost went for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both good games. Both incredibly flawed games. On one hand, “The Best Zombie Game Ever Made”. A game I’ve only actually played for a few hours and am nowhere near completing. On the other, Deus Ex. A game that reminds me of a first person Metal Gear Solid and wins countless kudos points for that fact, but a game which I had some niggling PC performance issues with and which generally felt a little soulless to me.
I’ve gone for “The Best Zombie Game Ever Made”. Mostly because I think it is “The Best Zombie Game Ever Made” and I like zombies. Dead Island is clumsy and stupid, but it’s also brilliant. It rivals anything Bethesda has ever made in the silly bugs and “jankiness” department and the dialogue is laughably terrible, but it nails the atmosphere and tension of an actual zombie outbreak more than any other game I’ve ever played. Or at least it does according to my interpretation of what a hypothetical zombie outbreak might look like. I’d even go as far as to say it’s rather unique, which in this day and age is a pretty wild statement about a game involving the living dead. But Dead Island treats zombies properly. Not as wasteful commodities, as bullet sponges or as shambling jokes. Dead Island reclaims the zombie as a threat. If you walk around a corner and a zombie lurches at you, you will need to be on your guard and you will need to use whatever bits of broken wood and rowing oar you have available to fight it off. If you get cornered by two or three zombies, you’ve got problems. They’re no longer a laughing matter. And there’s bloody loads of them.
By largely stripping away guns and ammo (at least in the most part), Dead Island leaves you in surprisingly unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. It’s even clever about it, allowing you to be initially fooled by broad daylight and sun soaked beaches. But as the games goes on the threat levels and environments mix up to become something altogether more terrifying; something which I find is aided by playing solo even though co-op increases the games general quality. I found it liberating to play a game where zombies were dealt with in such a way, cursing the likes of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City for it’s cartoon vision of the living dead. About half an hour into Dead Island, I found myself in a dark corridor in the middle of an abandoned and infested hotel. As I stared down into the corridor I could hear, and then see, a zombie charging towards me out of the darkness screaming. My first reaction – my only reaction – was to turn around and bolt it in the opposite direction and out of the nearest door. It was a moment I found physically and mentally stressful. My heart was racing and I had to take a few moments away from the screen. No zombie game has facilitated that sort of reaction from me since I was a child. For that sort of reason, as a zombie enthusiast, Dead Island is worth it’s weight in pounds of undead flesh despite it’s flaky design and B-movie quality.
So what’s missing?
You might consider there to be some notable absences above. I’m sure you’ve all noticed, but there’s been quite a lot of good games released this year, and like a chump I’ve failed spectacularly to keep up.
I have started but am yet to make significant progress in Skyrim, Bastion and Saints Row The Third. I’ve played all three of those games for a combined total of nine or so hours, which particularly in the case of Skyrim and Saints Row The Third is nowhere near enough to make an informed decision on. I mention them here because I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen of them so far, and if my time management was a little better perhaps I might have played enough of them to include them on this list. Bastion is a little different in that I’ve only just started playing it because I’m one of those terrible people who waited for the Steam sale before buying. Bastion deserves my wallet at full price and Bastion deserved to be played earlier in the year. Bastion, I am sorry.
That also leaves the rather thorny issue of Batman: Arkham City, which I spent 10 months of this year expecting to place in my final top five but unfortunately cannot for reasons beyond my control. Everything I played of Arkham City, some 14 hours at that, suggested that it’s a pretty incredible game and one that I would have taken pride in nominating as one of the year’s best. But I’m not in the process of rewarding failure, and after my problems with the PC version of Arkham City that is unfortunately how I regard the game at this point. As you might be able to tell, that shit still hurts. Argh.
As for the others? I want to get around to Uncharted 3 at some point in the new year. I am too scared to play Dark Souls. I have no problem admitting that.
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