For gaming, 2011 was a year like many that preceded it: from January to October not a lot happened, and in November a bunch of publishers thought it was a good idea to have their games compete with Modern Blopfare and Field of Battles. At least Epic and Microsoft had the sense to get Gears of Beefcake 3 shipped in September so people would care about it for two months.
Ah, but that’s not the whole story, is it…
For many of us at Tap-Repeatedly another year came and went and the only thing that changed was the enormity of our Games We Mean To Play … Eventually piles. This suffering is felt in particular by those of us who indulge in the rituals that are Steam Sales. It feels as though I bought hardly any PC games at all in 2011, yet the number of not-installed games in my Steam list grew exponentially. Again. This sick habit of buying games because we must have them at a discounted price, and then proceeding to not play them, has even spilled over to my console games. Red Dead Redemption and Brütal Legend stayed in their shrink wrap the whole year through, again. Uncharted 2 (yes, 2) was unwrapped, but for only one quick multi-player session. I absolutely needed to have those games at something like $24.99, or $29.99, so desperately apparently, because I needed them to take up space in my drawer and nestle warmly under the hum of my PlayStation as I retreaded the ground of the Capital Wasteland three years later.
For a year where I finally finished a Halo game (two actually!), played Alan Wake a dozen months late, and put another 100 hours into two Fallout games I’d already long completed, it’s difficult to focus just on the releases of the calendar year, all while dealing with so many self-made distractions. In the end, then, I’ll recall 2011 as an assortment of games past and more present of the time. I still managed to get through enough to decide upon a list exclusive to the year proper.
Before talking about my 5 favourites though, I’d like to make a few honorable mentions: For starters, Dragon Age II, although I don’t know why it was called II rather than something like Kirkwall, and despite its flaws and the masses of hatred it’s accrued, I enjoyed playing it and thought there were some great features which other developers should note (particularly NPC companions who have lives (even if it’s an illusion (of course it’s an illusion, really, how picky are you though?!)) and don’t just stand in the same spot in your camp/boat/spaceship/house for the duration of their existence).
I’d like to thank Gears of War 3 for letting me play as someone other than Marcus “Debbie Fucking Downer” Fenix for half an hour. Cole Train and Baird need their own spin-off/sequels where Marcus is retired or dead or not talking to anyone, because man, despite how much fun I had trudging through the Gears trilogy it could have used a lot more laughter.
I also must mention my second favourite platformer of the year, Outland. This one came out in the second quarter on Xbox (and shortly after the PSN disaster on PlayStation) and didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. It’s certainly worth checking out, and shines a bit of modern light on classic platforming gameplay.
If you’re looking for a combination of mad button-mashing and still quite a bit of depth you’d do well to try Bastion, an odd and lovely little game which has received quite a bit of affection, including some on our own year-end staff lists. Armand had wonderful things to say about it over at Bits N Bytes.
Now without further delay, my most memorable, favourite, whatever-you-want-to-call-them games of 2011:
#5 – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls series is unique in the amount of perceived forgiveness it receives from the gaming community. Every game in the series dating back to Arena has had its share of incredible bugs, far too grand in scope to discuss in a reasonable amount of words. The series receives much backlash for this and often hurled at it are questions like ‘why grant TES such leniency and not other games, whatever the genre?’ The answer is both plain yet difficult: when you give more to players than any other developer has ever attempted or achieved, you will be granted more in return.
Back-of-the-box hyperbole aside, Bethesda truly creates a world for you to play in and discover. You exist within its confines, which in each case is an epic high fantasy, and aside from that law you are free to conduct yourself as you see fit. There is always a loose path in the first few hours, but after that no two journeys will be alike.
Skyrim is Bethesda’s finest hour of world-creation yet.
#4 – Lost in Shadow
Released at the beginning of January last year (in North America at least – it was out 3 months prior in the rest of the world), Lost in Shadow was an innocuous blip on the radar. Heavily inspired by Ico’s aesthetic, it emphasizes the bond between player and world, and the emotional effectiveness that a stark and seemingly emotionless world can have on said player.
Lost in Shadow should rarely frustrate, or even greatly challenge, the average gamer, with mostly simple yet elegant puzzles; this is an abstract adventure for those seeking something unusual and at the same time comfortingly familiar.
#3 – Bulletstorm
It’s satisfying to see that, were we to agree upon a universal favourite of 2011 at Tap-Repeatedly, it might just be Bulletstorm. The game that took us by pleasant surprise. In a year where almost every current-generation triple-A shooter franchise released a game with “3” in its title, it was People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm we all agreed knocked our socks off. Not Killzone 3, Resistance 3, Gears of War 3, Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, or Uncharted 3. Phew. Nope, it was Bulletstorm. Hell, it’s even the best Serious Sam game that came out in 2011. Sorry, Serious Sam 3: Ballad for Equestrians.
Bulletstorm was a beacon of crude light amongst the sea of sequel repetitiveness that was 2011. It reminded me that shooters can still impress with originality, sacrifice no amount of fun for that originality, and also that a genuinely good game can survive heaps of negative pre-release press. This looked like it was going to be a ridiculously raunchy, attention-seeking, juvenile game. It turned out to be a ridiculously raunchy, attention-deserving game for adults of mature and refined taste.
The jabs at the increasingly contrived shooter genre were fun, but ultimately it’s Bulletstorm’s own quality gameplay and creativity that earn it its accolades.
Dick tits, indeed.
#2 – Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is hands down the most unlikely “video game” of the year. Angry Birds proved early that iDevices were the handheld equivalent of crack; Infinity Blade proved that their graphics capability was incredibly powerful; it took Sword & Sworcery to prove that iOS and other mobile platforms do have the potential to house unique and inventive games, ones directed at “hardcore gamers” (I think they’re from Real America), meant to be experienced on a phone or tablet.
This bizarre little ditty exists through the joining of minds of Toronto musician Jim Guthrie and fellow Torontonians, small developer/publisher Capybara, or known here as the Superbrothers. The premise is a point-and-touch adventure game made in a mock 8-bit graphical style. The product is not as simple however; actually it’s a mind-bogglingly weird and humorous trek through a peculiar, seemingly ancient land. What carries the experience is Guthrie’s music. I don’t know how close he was to the development of the game, nor how much one influenced the other. I do know that my brain’s senses tell me this game contains the most essential pairing of visual and audio I have ever experienced in the medium. (The game being the “EP,” Guthrie’s 27-track album is the LP – The Ballad of the Space Babies, for those interested.)
I don’t throw around the word “transcendent” lightly, but here is an utterly transcendent experience, and a groundbreaking one for iPhone/iPad gaming. If you have one of these devices you need to see Sword & Sworcery for yourself. And make sure you’ve got a good pair of headphones.
#1 – Gemini Rue
Once the dust in my mind completely settles upon 2011 it will know one thing: it was the year where a little old adventure game came and stole my heart. I’m certain that I’ll be playing Skyrim for years, thinking about Lost in Shadow for years, laughing about Bulletstorm for years, and telling people about Sword & Sworcery for years, but when I look back on 2011, the game that made my year will still be Gemini Rue (née Boryokudan).
Never frustrating, clever gameplay backed by a gripping narrative and unforgettable climax is enough to cement this new-yet-old- school adventure as my definitive game of 2011.
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