Ah, and so another Christmas season has passed. We have entered a new year as the sky exploded with fireworks: 2012! Doesn’t it sound wonderfully futuristic? Like we should be getting flying cars and androids? For the moment, though, we have the two tough winter months January and February to look forward to – with only a few game releases to warm our cold hands. What better time than now to sit in the warmest place you can find in your place, and remember the many great moments in gaming 2011 had to offer.
The following are my picks of 2011, although first I will present the most disappointing games of the year. Allow me to stress very clearly that these are under no circumstances bad games. They merely did not live up to what promise lay within.
The five biggest disappointments of 2011
5. From Dust
From Dust was supposed to be Eric Chahi’s (Another World, Heart of Darkness) glorious return to video gaming. It puts the player in command of a divine being of sorts, who is trying to protect the tribe that summoned him from the myriad dangers that exist in the pre-historic archipelago where From Dust takes place. Unfortunately, the game never managed to make the player feel particularly godlike. It left you to shovel sand aplenty and put little dikes down on rivers, letting the incompetent tribesmen get halfway across before a single grain of sand stops. And then they are washed away by a tidal wave, forcing me to restart. Curse the fools! The game also seemed to contain the message that we as a species have become disconnected from our origin in nature, for better and for worse. It seemed to have an environmentalist message contained within, but it was hampered by the surrounding game. Ultimately, the game simply lacked substance. There were simply too few interesting things for the player to do in the game, as most of the tasks were repetitions ad nauseam. Like many have mentioned before me, it felt like an extended tech demo with an impressive, but twitchy physics system.
4. Crysis 2
The first Crysis is one of the best modern first-person shooters. Unlike many other competitors in its genre, it gave the player the freedom to choose. All combat situations could be approached in the manner the player wished, be it with cunning stealth, brute force or lightning speed. Until the second half, that is, when the game instead turned into a generic sci-fi shooter. I loved the mystery leading up to the final battle against the aliens, though, particularly this part was splendid. Crysis 2 had an opportunity to mend its predecessor’s mistake, and did so for the first half…and then dropped it all on the floor in the second half. After the decent first half came an excruciatingly long section with the player battling the aliens that have invaded New York City and wreaked havoc. The plot was far more bombastic and Michael Bay-ish than the first, which – mostly – featured a more down-to-earth story that didn’t go overboard with technobabble. In the first, everything was unveiled slowly and with good pace. In Crysis 2, stuff just blows up from start to finish. I rarely experienced anything of the “Crysis-spirit” in Crysis 2. Dumb-downed may be too harsh a word, but it definitely seemed like it was made for a different audience.
Guerrilla warfare in America’s suburbs was Homefront’s intriguing premise. If only it had stuck to that, and not tried to emulate Call of Duty’s fetish for spectacular explosions. Don’t get me wrong, I like COD-style campaigns, but when people go beyond simply being inspired to nearly copying those games, it is almost saddening. Homefront could have stood out on the market if it had developed a unique type of gameplay, but came nowhere close to the same sales as an average Call of Duty game. I’ve often wondered why publishers seem insistent on copying solid formulas. Do they really imagine that people want to play a COD-clone when they could just be playing COD? Homefront also expected you to care about the random people you met across America, and this was to be achieved by letting the player view all the great injustices perpetrated by the evil North Koreans. This was done in such an obvious way by letting others comment on what pigs the North Koreans were, instead of letting players form their own opinion. It seemed as if the game didn’t trust me enough to let me think for myself, and thus had to press down opinions over my head.
2. Dead Island
Dead Island was a mess, which I also expressed in my review of the game. The tone changed manically, with the game sometimes being about the joy of smashing undead skulls, and sometimes being about the tragedy of the situation the characters found themselves in. Add in a pinch of racism and stereotypical characters and you’ve yourself a game that doesn’t know which path to choose. Either way would have been fine, but Techland chose both, resulting in incongruity. Add in fidgety combat that was unresponsive at times, a weak main plot, and endless escort and fetch quests, and then you’ve got a thoroughly mediocre game. The fetch quests were miserable, as the survivors clamored for food and drinkables, but somehow there were no consequences if you did not fetch it for them. Dead Island could have been a psychological journey into what happens to human behavior when shit really hits the fan; instead it became a mediocre zombie-slasher.
1. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
I always wish only the best for independent developers, and in particular Polish CD Projekt, who have always focused on the PC-market. A rarity nowadays, a relic from the past, perhaps. Unfortunately, The Witcher 2 could not free itself from the bad influences that have infected RPGs. While it promised choices and freedom, it became a choose-between-these-two-complete-opposites adventure, something that’s not entirely uncommon in the RPG genre, nor is it necessarily bad. In this case, though, it was unfortunate for a game that branded itself as – to some degree at least – being different from the rest of the RPG crowd, in that it offered a different form of story. When such a promise is not fulfilled, disappointment sets in. In addition, the combat was some of the clumsiest I’ve yet encountered. The story itself is solid enough, though its promised “maturity” is mistaken with grimdark. I like grimdark, but it should not automatically be regarded as mature. Geralt of Rivia, the main character, truly felt like he’d gotten a lot older, as he had troubles swinging his sword correctly, and dodging enemy blows when commanded to do so. The Witcher 2 did nail the atmosphere, though, but in the end that just isn’t enough to create a great game.
Before we start with the top five list, I’d like to make an honorable mention.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is a very humorous attempt at showing how often the choices we make in games aren’t always actual choices. Even if we have the choice between two doors, games will often favor one of them. As much as many of us – at least me – yearn for freedom in games, it is often simply not possible to achieve it, at least in its ultimate form. In the end, the player is at the mercy of the storyteller, or in this “game”, the narrator, whose every word you must follow in order to achieve success. Any victory you achieve is hollow, because all you really did was follow orders. It reflects on the state of game design and the difficulties that can arise. It was needed.
The following top five is a list of games that all excelled in one particular aspect.
The five best games of 2011
5. Bastion (excelled at gluing story and gameplay inextricably together)
Many games seem to make a virtue in separating story and gameplay. That way players “can enjoy the game without bothering with the story”. Bastion, on the other hand, makes them inseparable. From the narrator’s first word, practically every action the player – in the role of the Kid – takes is commented by the narrator, which makes the narration feel very fluid and flexible, like it truly morphs according to the player’s behavior. Also, the storytelling is delivered practically unbroken. The narrator just keeps talking while the player is free to crush enemies. There are rarely any stoppages for expository cutscenes, and the few that are present are mercifully short. On a side note, I’ve rarely experienced a soundtrack as unique and distinct as Bastion’s. Just like the narrator, they integrate perfectly with the game itself, rather than standing out as separate parts. In fact, the only real weakness Bastion has, in my opinion, is that the gameplay itself quickly got rather dull, even though you had a wide swathe of weapons at your disposal to spice things up.
Check out Tom’s review of it as well.
4. Frozen Synapse (excelled at boiling the strategy genre down to its barest essentials)
Unlike Shogun 2: Total War, which almost made the disappointments list, a game all about showiness with its fancy visuals, gigantic armies and majestic music, Frozen Synapse was a game solely about tactics. Pure tactics, without any distractions. The fun was to be found in the multiplayer, where each of the two sides got a certain amount of units, and then – in turn-based glory – fought it out on the battlefield. It was all delivered with a simple aesthetic, and a futuristic electronica soundtrack.The focus was no longer on outgunning your opponent, but outsmarting him. The player with the right amount of luck and skill at predicting the opponent’s moves would ultimately emerge as the victor.
3. Atom Zombie Smasher (excelled at letting the game itself tell the story)
The gameplay of Atom Zombie Smasher is dead-simple, really. The player must save as many civilians as possible from the frothy zombie hordes, utilizing various mercenaries to do the task. Only, it’s not that simple in reality. As both I and Tom observed (that guy writes everything around here!), there was underlying theme that emanated through the game. It was a question that asked the player to consider the actions he took when trying to save the civilians, for in saving the attacked territories, the player often has to sacrifice at least a few civilians to save it, and the majority of the people. It requires guts to be able to have command over other people’s lives, and decide who lives and who dies, even if it’s a necessary evil. However, the beauty of the game wasn’t so much that it chose this theme in particular, but rather that it didn’t require a lengthy story to convey it (there is a story, but it’s told through wacky and seemingly unrelated vignettes). Everything was present in the gameplay itself, particularly evident when the scientists show up in the later levels, as they grant more points when they are saved, and are also necessary for the war effort. So naturally the player chooses to save them first, setting aside regard for the other survivors and his own humanity.
2. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (excelled at self-reflection)
We live at the dawn of the digital age – or perhaps we’ve already entered it, historians of the future must be the judges – and technological advancement is increasing at immense speeds. Who can really say where we’ll be in ten years? Or in twenty? Or in fifty? Practically every young person is a member of one or more social networks, and we’re basically wired to the internet all day long. This will have consequences, and the nature of them is still unknown. I’m not trying to spread doom and gloom or anything; I think humanity will be able to use the technology for good. But we must reflect over our own actions, and not simply jump into the whirlpool without question. I think this is what Human Revolution tries to say. Since it’s essentially part of the technological advancement itself, its reflections upon video games’ own influence in that world is a gutsy move. Perhaps best of all, it does not point at any of the options the player has at the end, and say that they’re the best choice. There are no opposites. No good vs. evil. No order vs. chaos. It’s simply many shades of grey, each of which has their own advantages and benefits. The luddites may be close-minded and extremely regressive, but they do have a point in saying that technology has not benefitted everyone, and is perhaps not the wonder that everyone waited for. The tech-kingpins, on the other hand, are right in saying that ultimately technology could possibly be the requisite needed for humanity to take the next in human evolution. And these are just two of the options . In the end, nobody is wrong and nobody is right. I love it.
Check out Brice’s review of it!
Game of the Year: Portal 2 (excelled at refining everything)
And here we finally are. You still hanging in there? Portal 2 deserves the accolades not because it was a particularly original game – the first Portal had already assured that – nor because it because it featured a particularly riveting questions asked in the story, but simply because it did not have any noticeable faults. Although the puzzles were maybe a bit too easy, it did not detract from the pure fun of finally figuring out how to solve a puzzle – or sometimes doing it by sheer chance! The locales had expanded, and so had the story, which was a now a more coherent experience. The story was also a surprisingly emotional experience, particularly the ending. I never thought singing turrets could bring out tears in me, and even though Wheatley was a bit of an arsehole I still pity him…all alone, bar that space-obsessed core, floating forever in space. It feels like Valve took every aspect of the first Portal and made it bigger, without losing the charm. Also, Portal 2 co-op is probably the most fun experience I’ve with multiplayer in a long time. It has everything that makes multiplayer so enjoyable, for me at least, in that it relies not competition for arbitrary scores, but on actual cooperation. Recommend for team-building excercises.
Thank you, dear reader, for getting way down here. Did you read every single word? No? Then read it all over, I command you! So, what were your favorite games of 2011, and why? Post ‘em in the comments below, or head to our forums! Also, what games are you looking forward to in 2012, and why?