This article was written as a contribution for “The First Ever SMPS.Net Games of the Year 2011 Thing” which you should really go and check out for a broad range of well-written lists covering many games, old and new. This article has had a typo corrected, screenshot captions added, and uses some different screenshots than it originally included, as well as a link to new a video of me playing Dark Souls.
A Possible Glimpse of Things to Come
Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn’t quite live up to the original game, but it was a respectable, thoughtful effort. While boss fights fell flat, the hacking, sneaking, and upgrading of abilities made for an enjoyable experience that could be a glimpse of bright, promising future for the franchise and gamers alike.
To say that Monday Night Combat is an intelligent game is an understatement as it mixed personality and gameplay to create a fun, balanced, and unique competitive multi-player game. Using sound to balance an invisibility cloak, or rewarding players for doing a scripted, non-offensive taunt to earn some money instead of tea-bagging are ideas that will hopefully permeate game design in the coming years.
In the Not Too Distant Future
Torchlight 2 is more Torchlight, with cooperative online play, no significant DRM, and no internet connection required. This was this writer’s favorite game on the show floor at the 2011 Penny-Arcade Expo.
As if it were returning from its own odyssey, Guild Wars 2 finally entered closed-beta at the end 2011 and God willing will release some time in 2012. The lack of monthly subscription fees and the inclusion of game systems that build camaraderie amongst everyone on a given server (no ganking, no monster/loot/experience thievery) will create what might very well be the first MMO world that will be worthy of a player’s participation.
Not That Puzzling, Really
Portal 2 offers the best, most compelling cooperative gameplay in recent memory, requiring just as much mental dexterity as physical, and this mode necessarily eclipses a vapid and lazy single-player campaign that by itself would not have been worth Valve’s asking price.
Trine 2 is everything that made Trine great, but with improvements and the addition of online cooperative play. Being able to wing puzzles as any of the characters in beautiful environments still feels as rewarding as it originally did.
Turning the morbid task of solving one’s own murder as a ghost into a delightfully fun game may sound like a tall order, but Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective does that with a solid cast of likable characters in a self-contained, well-written and unique story.
A platforming game would be the last place one might expect to find a well-implemented sneaking simulator but Stealth Bastard does just that, for the amazing asking price of free. Where Super Meat Boy frustrated with its constant demands for impressive, dexterous feats, the methodical pacing and heist-like focus of Stealth Bastard is a welcome change.
The popular hybrid of tower defense and collectible card games, Plants vs. Zombies (Android) still holds up, even when played on a phone.
Having not been lucky enough to experience the original, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) is a welcome reprieve from the declining Final Fantasy Tactics games and holds up better than the original Final Fantasy Tactics too. The complex story with branching plots and various characters that can be recruited or executed depending on alignment make Tactics Ogre a game that begs to be replayed.
In the top-down shooter Space Pirates and Zombies the player is, as advertised, a space pirate building an armada and fighting off an intergalactic zombie epidemic that would make the Master Chief rust his iron britches. New ships are earned by destroying other vessels and collecting their blueprints from the wreckage, and new weapons can be acquired by doing various shady jobs and shifting the balance of power between warring factions. The brilliance is that the player has standing with a given faction only in a given solar system, of which there are hundreds; ideology isn’t important, what loot and money being offered locally is the only concern of a true buccaneer.
Fusion: Genesis doesn’t have much to offer in terms of mechanical depth, but the scope of this other 2011 top-down space-shooter is truly remarkable with PvP action, drop-in and drop-out automatic cooperative play, and space battles reminiscent of MOBA games. Multi-player Armada has taken far, far too long to get to this point, and Fusion: Genesis will be shamefully ignored and hobbled thanks to XBLA exclusivity.
Not so Space Zombies
Atom Zombie Smasher can best be summarized as saying that the player is to zombies as Future John Connor (NOT as portrayed by Christian Bale) is to Terminators; it is equal parts strategy campaign with persistent leveling and territory capturing. Available units on a given map are randomized (chosen from what the player has been awarded), as are the maps themselves, and the primary objective is saving as many civilians from zombie death as possible within a small window of time. Units consist of anything from evacuation helicopters, to Left 4 Dead kill squads of four badasses, to barriers and land-mines. As units level up, so do the zombies, with the outbreaks increasing in severity. If the same old tired base-building RTS is wearing on you, considering giving Atom Zombie Smasher a shot.
No Roman Numerals or Boobie Girls Here
In the twilight of the Nintendo DS, Radiant Historia is probably as good a swansong as somebody could ask for. Instead of just moving players back and forth in time, Radiant Historia starts at one branching point and has the player exploring alternate realities steeped in military conflict and political espionage, with a combat system that encourages moving enemies around and unleashing devastating combos on where they are corralled.
Some people are more than willing to let fear, uncertainty, and doubt rule their lives. Such people are the victims of their own criminal offense of refusing to play Dark Souls. An action RPG, the game approaches combat from a risk-reward perspective, where landing a well-timed swing could end a fight, but missing ends in tragedy. Where not-so-final fantasy games will shove a plot of world-saving down whatever throats can be found, Dark Souls is a surreal game with giant crows that carry people off to distant lands, and nightmarish paintings that capture the player and insert them very literally into the deranged mind of the artist; Dark Souls offers only snippets of explanations that the player may seek out or completely ignore at their own discretion. The subtle narrative goes hand-in-hand with a minimalist online multi-player component that allows for limited interactivity between players in the form of leaving cryptic messages or watching a brief replay of another player’s final, fateful moments before dying to some diabolical trap. Guilds are in-game entities managed by NPCs, with objectives that range from griefing overly confident players to hunting down griefers and visiting upon them the game’s own sense of justice. Cooperative affairs are at best communication-less, one-boss stands that end in a fleeting moment of bliss before the partners are yanked out of the player’s world and the player is hit with the realization that they are again alone to venture further into the unknown darkness.
Oh Shit, a Roman Numeral
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a continuing experience that will probably last well into 2012. With a plethora of unique, well-written quests, passable combat, and a leveling system that has fun, empowering perks, Skyrim is too good to not painstakingly explore. Speaking from personal experience it’s completely plausible to ignore the main quest and hold off on the random dragon encounters because there are over 40 hours worth of tasks of thievery and other unspeakable acts to be performed.
Unlike some other blatant nostalgia predators this year (see Duke Nukem) Mortal Kombat was successful by playing to its strengths of over-the-top fatalities and accessible gameplay while adding something new; the fiction of the universe is nothing special and certainly has its fair share of issues, but the story-mode of Mortal Kombat is probably the best attempt made by a fighting game, overreliance on scantly clad titties be damned.
Even if one isn’t enamored with gangster culture, Saints Row: The Third is a highly competent video game that transcends its source material to create a self-referential comedy experience that most self-respecting gamers shouldn’t miss. Being what amounts to a comic book super-villain had yet to be captured so well.
If one game in 2011 was the complete package, Bastion was it. The narrative was fulfilling, the game-play well-executed, the graphics uniquely styled and gorgeous, and the sound design with both the narration and the soundtrack perfectly punctuate the entire experience. It’s amazing that such a big game came in such a small, touching, thoughtful package; developers large and small have a new bar to meet.
Not Enough Time to Get Past Positive First Impressions: Uncharted 3, Aliens Infestation, Bloodrayne: Betrayal
Notable Occupy: Pile of Shame Entries: Bulletstorm, Disgaea 4
The Most Troubling Observation of the Year
Where Bastion shined as a single-player indie game, multi-player dependent indie games have no future. Monday Night Combat was a fantastic game that came out on PC early in 2011 and was effectively dead in terms of player-population by the first snow thaw. Nuclear Dawn appears to be a similar story. It’s a shame that success moving forward can’t be measured necessarily through the creation of fresh, innovative gameplay, but rather in finding a way to keep a vibrant player-base frequenting the game for an extended period of time.
Closing the Door on 2011
What a fantastic year to be a gamer; here’s hoping that 2012 will be even better for the hobby and everyone who partakes in it!