I managed to play more games in 2011 than any year before it (38, in total). It’s nice to see just how good the large majority of those games were. As the industry moves forward, the standard of quality is going higher. Publishers seem like they’re getting more used to the idea of releasing games outside of the three-month holiday window even though the year was still back-loaded with a glut of titles. As a result, there are some games I just haven’t had a chance to play yet such as Saints Row: The Third, Battlefield 3, Rayman Origins, among others. Missing from this list is my most-anticipated game of 2011, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. What gives? Well, like I said I have too many games and not enough time but, more importantly, I have the PS3 version of the game and am forced to wait for a few more patches while Bethesda gets that copy back to working order. I’m fine waiting as I have a stack of backlog games including the MGS HD Collection to tide me over.
I am not a fan of racing games. I just don’t get them. The difficulty is a turn-off, the learning curve is daunting, the subject matter doesn’t interest me (aside from the occasional episode of Top Gear), and a litany of other personal preferences keep the genre from breaking into my wheelhouse. Despite a deck stacked against it, Dirt 3 managed to capture me like no other racing game outside of those with Mario and Kart in the title. Dirt 3′s driving controls offer an intangible quality of just “feeling right” which, to some, might seem like a cop-out but there’s really no better reason to explain why I love the game. The rally courses are gorgeous, the number of options from customizing your HUD, AI, racing line, and car tweaks are staggering, and the series’ new gymkhana mode stirs in some Tony Hawk that mixes things up just enough to encourage non-racing fans to give it a spin. All of this is wrapped up in Codemasters’ trademark menus and UI that make the whole experience a joy to spend a lot of time in. Believe me, I spent a lot of time with Dirt 3.
Note: This list is not Tek Lado’s official list but a personal top 10. Hence, the title: “My Top 10 Video Games of the Year” not “Our Top 10″ not “Tek Lado’s Top 10″ not “The World’s Top 10″ not– well, you get the idea. Enjoy!
This was the last game I played on my Nintendo DS. After many years of faithful service, the handheld has been ushered off to greener pastures while the new 3DS takes its place. I loved the original Okami on PS2 and bought the re-release for WIi. While the motion controls worked well enough, the touch screen of the DS feels like the most natural fit for the series’ Celestial Brush mechanic. What’s most amazing about this game is its sense of size and scope. While its name implies it’s merely a side-story, packed into the tiny cartridge is a full-fledged adventure, nearly on-par with its predecessor. The early hours of the game are, perhaps, too closely linked to the original Okami. A strange sense of deja-vu pervades. However, the game manages to step out of its shadow and become it’s own story, complete with a cast of memorable characters, spot-on writing, and the same gameplay that fans fell in love with.
9. L.A. Noire
Despite seemingly having the trademark trappings of other Rockstar games such as an open world, L.A. Noire is not the typical sandbox-style game. The gritty noire-inspired thriller owes more to adventure games than anything in the GTA series. While the story took a few missteps, most notably the sharp character turns of protagonist Cole Phelps, the facial animation combined with the gripping crime drama had me hooked. The acting is superb and a few standout performances manage to overcome the game’s more technical shortcomings. More importantly, given the tumultuous development cycle, bold twists it does with genre conventions, and the high-tech gamble Team Bondi took on all that face motion capture, it’s amazing this game even exists as it does. It’s a rare and important game for what it accomplishes, albeit not always as successfully as I’d like.
8. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Being a Wii owner since it launched, it seems fitting my experience with Nintendo’s console would be bookended by the Legend of Zelda. Unlike Twilight Princess, this game was truly built with the Wii’s motion controls in mind from the very beginning and it shows. While the swordplay and item manipulation still hasn’t 100% sold me on Nintendo’s insistence that motion controls are the future, Skyward Sword comes damn close to making a convincing argument. After feeling a bit burned out by my favorite series following a pair of DS adventures, the Zelda series was starting to show its formula perhaps a bit too much. While the conventions of the series are still here including triplicate dungeons and the requisite items, hearts, etc. what’s new is enough to make this one of the best Zelda adventures in a long time. Despite celebrating its 25th year, the game proves the core design elements of the franchise still carry the same addictive quality as it always has. The proof is in the play-time. After popping in the disc over Christmas break, 21 of the next 48 hours were spent playing the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and if that’s not proof of its hooks I don’t know what it is. The world feels far less dense than previous Zelda titles and the world beneath the clouds feels less cohesive than I would like. But despite these issues, the mechanics propel you forward, eager to see what comes next.
7. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
It’s impossible to imagine the kind of pressure Naughty Dog must have been under following the onslaught of accolades bestowed upon Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the team seems content to pack more of what people loved and upping the ante as much as the aging PS3 hardware will allow. The sheer sense of awe at some of the game’s show-stopping set pieces is enough to put this game on any gamer’s list. The pure, unadalterated bombast is something not many outside of Naughty Dog seem to be equipped to pull off. Make no mistake, I loved this game and found myself moved speechless by some of the visuals, environments, and sheer magnitude of what the developers had on offer. That aside, the game’s first five or so hours felt surprisingly more subdued than its predecessor. Perhaps it was a reaction to one of the criticisms waged against Uncharted 2, but the body count feels considerably lower this time around. While there are plenty of enemy encounters, the shooting has taken a less prominent role this time around in lieu of, what I feel, are less-satisfactory elements including one, two, three, four-too-many chase sequences. Running towards the camera, fleeing something behind you has never been fun in any game yet Uncharted 3 does this repeatedly. Added to that, several sequences don’t feel as finely-tuned as Among Thieves as I found myself (more than once) in situations where I re-spawned into an automatic death situation, unable to avoid enemy gunfire. Those problems aside, the story is the best example of cinematic flair in videogames today from the gargantuan sinking cruise liner to the jaw-dropping dismantling cargo plane.
When fans heard that the team behind Persona 4 were working on the HD debut, it’s not too hard to imagine some where disappointed to hear Catherine was not a quirky RPG but, rather, a block-puzzle game. However, Catherine is much more than a puzzle game. True, a large portion of the experience is spent in a hellish rendition of Q-Bert, but what kept me coming back to Catherine was the game’s story and the way it dealt with relationships in a genuine, mature way. Vincent’s infidelity feels real and the story feels sincere, albeit slightly flavored with otaku geek stylings. It’s a shame to see the story take the goodwill it builds up over the course of the game to turn into something supernatural and less-than-stellar. While it’s not perfect, the goal of Catherine succeeded by combining some pretty addictive puzzle mechanics and having them represent Vincent’s inner-demons. It plays with conventions of the medium in smart and interesting ways and I applaud it for taking the risk.
5. Batman Arkham City
Batman Arkham Asylum was a watershed moment for licensed games. Developer Rocksteady took the world of Batman and did something theretofore unseen- they built a great game that remained faithful to the source material. Arkham City doesn’t dramatically change the formula that worked with Asylum but instead expands the concepts slightly and fine-tunes some of the original mechanics. The combat feels more complex yet paradoxically more approachable, allowing newcomers to button-mash to success and giving veterans the depth they desire. The cast of villains is spot-on, the city is dense, and Batman feels like Batman (perhaps the most important aspect of the game). Equipped with an ever-expanding assortment of tools at his disposal, Batman glides through Arkham City just like you imagined he would. It’s hard to articulate exactly how playing this game makes you feel like Batman or why that’s so amazing but once you know- you know. While I still preferred the Metroid-inspired design of Akrham Asylum, accessing previously-inaccessible areas thanks to new gadgets, the city design works well enough. The Riddler content feels surprisingly less interesting this time around, mostly because the city is absolutely covered with green Riddler question marks. Some restraint would have been nice because, as crazy as it sounds, the trophies were too much of a good thing. While I spent several hours solving every riddle in Asylum, I left most of those in City unsolved due to the sheer amount of them.
4. Tiny Tower
It might seem crazy to have this iPhone game on a Top 10 list let alone have it as high as #4 but hear me out. I spent more time with this game than any other. It wasn’t even close though. I’m talking much more. I’m talking orders of magnitude more than any other game this year. The game mechanics are simple: build floors in your tower, create housing or businesses, assign residents to jobs, make money to build the next floor, repeat. But the lust of matching residents with their dream job and having just another roll of the dice to see if you get that Sushi Bar you wanted is so addictive it’s scary. It’s difficult to explain why, exactly, except to say the lure of what comes next must tap into the gambling addiction centers of the brain. Truth be told, this game feels more like a money-making machine for the developers as the floors must be built in real-time. Meaning, if the construction of the next level is 35 hours, it’s going to take 35 hours of your life. Bux, the in-game currency that can be bought with real-world money, will speed up the process, making the urge to cash out for a quicker experience almost intolerable. For those who resist (which I did, I’m proud to say) will earn a lesson in ultimate patience as they craft the Tiny Tower of their dreams (for free). It was the first game on iOS in which I actually cared and got all of the game’s achievements. Something I can’t say for any other game on this list. I fully admit this is less a game and more a toy but by the sheer fact it provided me with literally months of entertainment, it deserves some recognition. I’m just glad to have the monkey off my back.
3. Shadows of the Damned
The result of the Japanese game development dream team Shinji Mikami and Suda 51, Shadows of the Damned wears its influences on its sleeve. On the gaming side, Shadows is a clear counterpart to games like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space. But in terms of style, the game is a beastly mix of grindhouse, Evil Dead, Tarantino insanity, Desperado, El Dia de Los Muertos, and any other craziness you’ve got on-hand. Garcia Fucking Hotspur (the lead character’s actual name) and his quest to bring his girlfriend back from the clutches of Hell’s ruler is not necessarily the most original in terms of gameplay but remains one of my favorite experiences of the year based on its sheer level of playfulness and style. The characters are great, including Garcia’s skeletal sidekick Johnson, the writing is hilarious (comedy being a true rarity in videogames), the combat feels satisfying, and there are surprises around every corner. I guess that’s sort of the charm of Shadows of the Damned. You never know what to expect. Whether it’s using the sound of the harmonica to avoid a horrible monstrosity chasing you (he swallowed it), your headless girlfriend harkening back to that scene from Evil Dead 2, or the paper-cut sidescrolling missions, Shadows of the Damned is not content to look, sound, or behave like any other game you’ve ever played.
2. Portal 2
The original Portal was a bite-sized addition to the Orange Box and many wondered if the concept could sustain a full-length game. Not only did Valve prove the mechanics work in a larger context, the sequel is a more complex, more satisfying, funnier, deeper, game with better puzzles, added mechanics, and other elements that make it very special. The scope is larger this time around and Chel’s journey to freedom includes the best supporting cast of the year including Wheatley, GladOS, and the disembodied voice of Cave Johnson. The new gels add just enough to the core puzzle mechanics to make your head hurt that much more. There is a sense of artistry in the puzzle design as they’ve managed to design challenges to take just the right amount of time. Not so little as to be a cakewalk and not so hard you back out in frustration. Added to that, the game’s co-op mode adds another player with two more portals in the mix, ensuring your brain is properly scrambled. The marriage of incredible level and puzzle design with pitch-perfect writing is a sight to behold and proves that Valve are masters of their craft.
1. Dead Space 2
No game this year gripped me in its monstrous pincers quite like Dead Space 2. As a huge fan of the original, the sequel toed a delicate line between my heightened expectations and the new directions it was taking. Giving series protagonist Isaac Clarke a voice and adding a multiplayer mode were bold gambles and they paid off alongside the best single-player campaign I played all year. My penchant for survival horror games leaves me predisposed to love this one, perhaps more than most. But genre affinity aside, Dead Space 2 has some of the best pacing, best action, best enemy design, best set piece moments, and most stunning visuals of the year combined with an intelligently-design UI that everybody seems fit to copy. It’s clear that a sense of immersion continued to be one of the developer’s main goals while expanding the fiction by giving Clarke a voice and playing with the notion of his sanity amidst an even more horrifying Necromorph outbreak. The game is not without its issues. For example, I showed up to the game’s final (and totally mental) boss battle with nothing left but a few rounds of ammo, leading to some frustrating moments which is more indicative of its adherence to genre conventions of ammo scarcity than anything else. Added to that, I felt the game was decidedly less scary than the original as the change of setting lost some of Dead Space’s sense of loneliness. Still, the game is scary and a return to a familiar location stands out as one of my favorite surprise moments of the year and was, also, one of the scariest. A true testament to any game, I believe, is the amount of time you spend playing it. As soon as I beat Dead Space 2, I let the credits roll and immediately starting a second play-through on a higher difficulty. Then a third. Then I checked out the multiplayer. Then a few months later, I played it again. Then Halloween came around and, well, that seems like a good time to play Dead Space 2. I kept coming back to moments such as dangling from the cord of a broken tram car, fighting off a horde of monsters. The developers understand the power of agency in a game and appreciate design decisions such as taking control away from the player. You feel vulnerable in that moment, it works to create genuine tension, and the game is loaded with scenes just like that. I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.