2011...the best bits...games

For most of the latter half of the year I was certain that I knew my two favorite games of the year, but a late arrival landed and screwed up my neatly arranged thoughts, so as with my round-up of movies there are three very different games atop my thoughts this year, and again, I can't really pick them apart, as I like them for very different reasons...

First up comes Portal 2. This pick is a beautiful collision of top quality storytelling, and brilliantly intuitive game-play. When Valve described what they were adding to the original I was more than a little skeptical. Multiplayer? New mechanics? All those gels and light bridges seems superfluous given the simple genius of the first game. Even when we got treated to a first hand demo by Gabe Newell when he visited the studio in Oslo, I was still more than a little cautious. Shame on me for doubting Valve (although I don't think I was alone in that!). What we got of course was a wonderfully paced puzzler with more character than almost anything that has gone before it. They took the central strengths of the first game and somehow found a way to make them not simply great, but magnificent...and what's more they did it with equal part game-play and storytelling. Not only did they improve the puzzling (and anyone who complains about it being easier than the first game I would wager didn't venture into multi-player, where the puzzling truly shines), but they managed to take the same premise and inject even more character...oh, and anything is better with a liberal sprinkling of JK Simmons...      

Then we have the end of year Behemoth that is Skyrim. Now, I was actually prepared to dislike this latest offering from Bethesda. I have struggled to like any of the Elder Scrolls games since Daggerfall, and was unimpressed by their adaptation of Fallout, so I wasn't expecting much from this installment. However, once I found myself wandering the lands of Skyrim I was hooked...completely and utterly hooked. Not since Final Fantasy VII have I put so much time into a single player game. I have struggled to put my finger on exactly why I like it so much, given it isn't that different from Obilvion or Morrowind. Maybe it is the Nordic setting appealing to my love for that part of the world, and the great voice acting that fits with that setting. Maybe it was because I didn't like Oblivion and was about due a game I could lose myself in on a console. Not quite sure, but when I play a game as much as I did Skyrim, then I can't deny it. 

Lastly we have the wonderful indie hit, Bastion. Sure, it might only be six-ish hours long, (which didn't stop the original Portal from being on many 'Game of the Year' lists) and it might not innovate at all (but turning in a solid Diablo style performance with aplomb), but where it shines is in setting, style and storytelling. Yes, the narration is it's 'thing', and it honestly does add a whole level of immersion that you wouldn't think was possible by just adding a voice track, but the whole thing is just so lovingly crafted that it all comes together perfectly, and draws you into a world you only get glimpses at. For me that was part of the charm, too much exposition can kill the imagination as much as too little. Bastion does a great job of giving you just enough insight into what this world might have been like, without ever burying you in it. It's also brilliantly refined around the edges as it were, and things that many won't even notice just add to the quality level. What might have been a simple menu system in other games is turned into an interactive base-camp in Bastion where you literally choose the order you build your access to power-ups, stores and difficulty settings. For me, much of the enjoyment of the game was simply in how much thought had gone into every little part of the game...and having the best soundtrack of the year didn't hurt either. Games like this are why we have indie development platforms and should be cast as shining examples of how to execute on a vision. Of course it helps if your vision is as wonderfully imaginative as this one...I swear that narrator was in my head for days after finishing the game!

If I absolutely, on penalty of death, only had one vote for game of the year it would probably go to Bastion...

Honorable mentions this year go out to the new Arkham City, the return of Deus-Ex (which would have been on the above list if it were not for a poor final chapter), the surreal Superbrothers: Sword and Sorcery EP on the iPad (and Aquaria, World of Goo and Machinarium appearing on iOS for those who don't play PC games and don't know what they are missing).

Although it was still a decent game, and clearly ambitious, I was most disappointed by LA Noire, while it had some great moments, the performance capture was just a little short of what I had hoped for. As with Heavy Rain the year before, I still enjoyed it but had hoped for so much more from it.

2011 also added some fine additions to the MMO genre, and I enjoyed time in Rift and DC Universe. Indie efforts Earthrise and Perpetuum were a little disappointing and again demonstrated the difficulty in launching an MMO into crowded waters (and whose struggles were also disappointing because I would love more non-fantasy additions to the genre)...and I still spent a good deal of time in Everquest 2, EVE and now free to play Fallen Earth. Of course the end of the year brings with it the truly massive Star Wars: The Old Republic and how it performs in 2012 will almost certainly have a lasting impact on the genre.

I also still log time in both Bloodline Champions and Starcraft 2, with a little League of Legends on the side. Even though I am truly bad at the competitive games, for some reason I still enjoy taking part and improving little by little. My rankings are up, and bit by bit I learn a little more from every game.   

It's been a great year for gaming...  

...2012 has a lot to live up to...

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