2011 was a very eventful year for gaming; first of all there was a bevy of sequels released on all platforms, well established franchises returning for another outing; some with significant changes, be it mechanical or graphical, some, working off the back of a well established formula. Various major gaming websites have already posted their winners for game of the year, and the numerous categories that precede them, and I’m sure very soon we’ll be seeing the accolades in renewed marketing campaigns and on the front of their respective game cases, and such awards can lead to a huge spike in sales. However, none of these awards can compare to what I have to say on the matter, so if you’re willing to indulge my delusions of grandeur, here are my awards for this year in gaming.
(Note: with the increasing amount of titles being released multi-platform, I’m keeping platform awards specific to exclusives.)
Best PC game: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
The Witcher 2 is a game that dared to be different. Developed and published by CD Projekt Red – the largest game publisher in Poland – the follow-up to the critically acclaimed, but little played first game from the developer, gave gamers the world over a damn good reason to start playing PC games again, and gave PC gamers something they could be proud of.
The Witcher 2 is an action RPG that adopted the sensibilities of old school RPGs by creating a vast lore for its world and inhabitants, along with a fantasy setting that would make even the biggest Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings fan salivate, but it mixed this with a wide variety of modern innovations; from its beautiful graphics engine, insane attention to detail, and a morality system that developers such as BioWare would do well to take note of. The Witcher 2 is set in a world of moral ambiguity, where choices aren’t simply black or white/good or bad, but are rife with shades of grey, and these decisions can impact the later stages of the game greatly, even so much as affecting the outcome of the game’s third act entirely. The game was an astonishing feat, CD Projekt Red created a triple ‘A’ title on a non-triple ‘A’ budget, and continue to support the title with free updates. Luckily, Xbox 360 owners will get to experience the game next year, and it’s a title no gamer should miss out on.
Best PS3 game: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
The PS3 had the good fortune to be graced with a wide variety of console exclusive titles, all of which were great in their own right, and worthy of the time of anyone who owns the system. However, none could equate to the scope or scale Uncharted 3 had to offer. In a way, Uncharted 3 could’ve been developer Naughty Dog’s “difficult third album”; after 2009′s Uncharted 2‘s critical success and numerous ‘game of the year’ awards, the accomplished developers practically set the bar on for action games, and how developers as a whole shouldn’t limit themselves on ambition. Naughty Dog proved with Uncharted 3, that their ambitions reached even higher than their player’s expectations.
To start with, the game was absolutely stunning, it’s hard to believe that this was a game made for hardware that’s nearly six years old; it had a polish and sheen to it that’s usually reserved for technologically accomplished PC titles, with amazingly well modelled and fully realized characters, and beautiful and ever dynamic vistas, it’s a game that’s virtually impossible not to be impressed by. There are moments within that’ll leave you truly on the edge of your seat, coupled with a compelling and satisfying campaign, it also came packaged with an immensely fun multiplayer mode which in no way felt like excess fat, Uncharted 3 set a new standard again for the genre.
Best Xbox 360 game: Forza Motorsport 4
Note: Okay, confession time; whilst I have played various games on my Xbox 360 this year – both physical and XBLA releases – I haven’t played any exclusive titles. So rather than taking a cue from the selections of other sites, I’m going to allow my good friend, Charles Brown to offer his choice for his favourite Xbox 360 exclusive this year.
Best Handheld Title: Super Mario 3D Land
When the Nintendo 3DS was launched back in March, I, like many others decided to take the plunge and become an early adopter of the system, enthralled by the prospect of witnessing fully fledged 3D technology without the burden of those stupid stereoscopic glasses. As someone who considers himself a cinephile, I admittedly hated the trend of more and more films becoming available in 3D, and currently rejoicing in its downfall. “Why?”, because like many before me have said, 3D is a gimmick, it’s an excuse to bump up ticket prices and scupper piracy that worked for a brief moment, but with consumption habits changing, the film industry is slowly becoming irrelevant, and it only has itself to blame.
I do however believe, that 3D technology has potential when applied to gaming, it just depends on how it’s used, and how relevant it is. It has to make the player ask themself “Would this be better in 3D?” And in comes Nintendo. It’s no secret by now that Nintendo are masters of innovation; they’ve pioneered ideas in gaming that some of us can’t even dream of. When the 3DS was first release, for all its flare and features, and for every time I showed someone the 3D in action and they gave that same dumbfounded reaction mixed with an ear to ear smile, in my head I was always thinking “It’s great, but it’s a shame there are no great games for it”.
Later in the year, all that changed with the release of Super Mario 3D Land. It was the first fully fledged Mario title for a handheld in a long time, and when it was first announced, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto claimed that it would change 3D from a gimmick to a necessity, and when Shigeru Miyamoto makes a claim like that, you better believe he’s a man of his word.
Super Mario 3D Land made owning a Nintendo 3DS worth it, whether you were an early adopter like me, or someone who bought it after the price drop. It’s a Mario game, through and through; it’s loaded with content, has beautiful, vibrant worlds, it brought back the long absent tanooki suit, there’s a challenge for players of all ages, and most importantly, it’s pure, unadulterated joy. Say what you will about Nintendo recycling their franchises, but there’s good reason for this; they can take something old and make it fresh, and in some cases, ahead of anything else at the time.
Best Downloadable Title/Indie game: Trine 2
There was a time when people heard the term ‘indie game’, they thought of titles that were graphical throwbacks of the 8 and 16-bit era, and as a gamer who’s a product of that time, it offers a sense of nostalgia that the aesthetic of big titles can’t offer. However, we’ve come a long way in the past couple of years, Trine 2 showed gamers that it’s quite possible to combine the innovations of modern graphical prowess along with classic gameplay stylings. Trine 2 is reminiscent of Blizzard’s The Lost Vikings, swapping between three characters on the fly, and making use of their abilities in order to overcome obstacles, enemies and puzzles, all whilst navigating the gorgeous 2.5D landscapes. Players also had to make use of the world’s realistic physics in order to progress; water flows realistically, and objects and debris can fall with the heft and momentum as their real-life counterparts.
Indie titles are growing ever more popular and ambitious by the year, and 2011 was no exception. Indie developers are becoming a force to be reckoned with, by even the biggest developers, and if games like Trine 2 are anything to go by, the future of indie developers like Frozenbyte are very bright indeed.
Most Improved Sequel: Portal 2
When Portal came along in 2007 as a title included in Valve’s ‘The Orange Box’ compilation, it became an unexpected hit of leviathan proportions, its simple yet brilliant concept astounded players the world over, by offering puzzles that at a cursory glance seemed next to impossible, yet when looked at by “thinking with portals” and manipulating space and time, the solution became elegant, yet simple, but also made you feel like a genius for solving them.
Creating a sequel to one of the most original and critically acclaimed games of all time looked to be a harder task than any puzzle Portal have to offer, but this is Valve we’re talking about here, and Valve make really, really, really good games, they’re the Pixar of the games industry, so pretty much everyone who’s ever played a Valve game had every bit of confidence that they could pull it off. And holy Hell, did they pull it off.
Despite being a sequel, Portal 2 felt every bit as fresh and unique as its predecessor. To say that it was “more of the same” would be an injustice to the title; we learned more of the enigmatic world the game was based in, the origin of the misanthropic matriarch, and antagonist, GLaDOS, the rise and fall of Aperture Science (all told posthumously through pre-recorded messages from its CEO, Cave Johnson, voiced by the fantastic J.K. Simmons) and it introduced us the best game character of 2011, Wheatley, brought to life by the insecure ramblings of Stephen Merchant.
But what did Portal 2 do, apart from expand on story? Well, it took the somewhat simple mechanic of placing portals to solve puzzles above and beyond our imagination, and this was largely due to the game’s co-op play. I think many who’ve played Portal 2 will agree that its co-op play was nothing short of a revolution; it required two minds to work in near-perfect harmony in order to reach a solution, and showed that even though you may have more portals to work with, it doesn’t make things any easier. Cooperation was an absolute must, and when the interplay of two minds came together in order to succeed, it offered a sense of gratification I’ve rarely felt with other games. Not only that, but it made gamers realize that to create these puzzles, Valve must have some truly magnificent minds working for them, and we’re all the better for it.
Literally everyone should play a Portal game at some point in their life, they’re a work of art and a great example to those uninitiated to gaming what the medium is capable of.
Best Multiplayer: Battlefield 3
Battlefield 3 was announced back in February 2011, and from then on, more and more was revealed about the game via a series of teaser trailers from the campaign level ‘Fault Line’. Whilst the modern gamer is no stranger to the military shooter, thanks to franchises like Call of Duty, there was something special about Battlefield 3 that grew apparent with every reveal; even though the game was a technical and visual tour de force, it had a sense of substance and reality that had been lost in the shooter genre over the past few years.
Anyone who’s ever played a Battlefield game will tell you that developers DiCE are masters when it comes to creating a multiplayer experience, and Battlefield 3 was no exception. In the run up to the release of the game, DiCE made sure to tout the Frostbite 2 engine that was used to make the game. What made this engine so unique, apart from its ability to create models and environments uncannily realistic and render gorgeous dynamic lighting effects, is that it allowed for realistic destruction, and this wasn’t a simple gimmick. Should you be in a situation where a squad of enemies are holed up in a building, an RPG can decimate their once safe haven, and leave them at the mercy of your team. This was one of the many elements that made Battlefield 3 one of the most intense and unique multiplayer experiences of the year.
DiCE made the now uncommon decision of making PC their lead platform for the game, utilizing the best of today’s modern hardware, and gave those who invested in a decent gaming rig a visual and technical treat, boasting maps that allowed up to 64 players to fight it out. Battlefield 3 set itself apart from other contenders in the genre by including vehicle warfare, where players can take command of anything from Jeeps, tanks, helicopters, fighter jets and everything in between, making it a diverse experience every time you played; this coupled with the game’s balanced and intuitive class system made for an experience few others could match. The game isn’t easy though, by any stretch of the imagination. You need to play to win the objective, whether it’s gaining territory in Conquest mode, or arming an MCOM station with C4 in Rush mode, it all requires team work, and those who go it alone are more often than not doomed to failure. Playing with a team that works together will always lead to sweet victory, in a game that perfectly illustrates that there truly is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.
Most Underappreciated Game: Rayman Origins
After a long hiatus from his 2D platforming roots, Rayman finally returned to us this year with the aptly titled Rayman Origins. Released as a physical title for Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii (not as some would expect as a downloadable title), it was released in November, during the notoriously hectic Autumn release calendar, so it’s easy to understand why this game fell under the radar. The fact that this game was ignored was quite frankly, criminal; anyone who’s ever picked up a wired controller with no analog sticks owes it to themselves to play this game.
Built on UbiSoft‘s new UbiArt engine, this entirely 2D world is like a cartoon come to life; characters jump, run and punch their way through levels, all gloriously animated and characterized at a glorious 60 frames per second. Every environment, object and character has been lovingly hand-drawn, all breathing life into a franchise, which up until now had been relegated to being represented by raving Rabbids, which would’ve been a shame, as in the tradition of games of the 8 and 16-bit era, Rayman has turned out to be a character that doesn’t need to be voiced in order to be appealing.
The game oozes with charm, and no two levels feel alike, further adopting the tradition of classic platforming, the game allows local co-op for up to four players. Whether excluding online play was a nod to its lineage or not is another question, but playing with a friend does elicit that sense of joy and camaraderie that came from playing a video game with a school friend or some kid from your neighbourhood. As was the standard with games back then, Rayman Origins has little in the way of story yet doesn’t suffer because of it, and has one of the best music scores this year (no, seriously). More people need to play this game, so UbiSoft can continue making games like it, rather than milking a certain assassin based franchises dry. If you see it on sale this January, pick it up, you will not regret it.
Overall Game of the Year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Yeah, I know, shocking, right? Well, there’s a good reason why Skyrim is picking up ‘Game of the Year’ awards left right and centre, and there’s a good reason why I’m no exception to this: Skyrim is a masterpiece.
The follow up to Bethesda’s critical and commercial hit The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you play the role of the dragonborn (or ‘dovahkiin’ as they’re known in the language of dragons), one of whom is born every few centuries. You assume this role as your chosen race, gender or even species, and upon learning your origin, you learn your purpose in the world of Skyrim, to defeat the long dormant dragons. What happens next, is up to you.
To call Skyrim ‘vast’ would be an understatement; its world spans as far as the eye can see, and every square-foot is drenched in beauty and attention to detail. But what is beauty without substance? Bethesda have proven time and time again that they can create a world that players can invest in, and Skyrim is testament to this, in fact, it’s set a new standard for open world exploration. A couple of hours into Skyrim and players can find themselves with a severe case of wanderlust, scouring the lands for new locations, new enemies, items, weapons, friends and so much more. It’s the seemingly random nature of the world which makes it ever more believable and engrossing, you never know when you’ll stumble upon some random NPC in the middle of nowhere who can trigger off a chain of events that lead you ever deeper down the rabbit hole.
The more time you spend in Skyrim, the more you feel your character truly has a place in the world, gaining notoriety for being benevolent or even wicked, changing the lives indefinitely for its inhabitants, and even becoming a major catalyst for a land wrought in conflict. As you grow, so does the world. Even when you’re not doing anything in particular, you can simply be in awe of everything the world has to offer, whether this is exploring ancient dwarven constructs, being caught up in a snowstorm as a dragon circles above you, simply acknowledging your existence in these lands, or even witnessing the beauty of aurora borealis in the night sky.
You can sink literally hundreds of hours into Skyrim, be in the middle of nowhere, yet never feel lost. Even though the game isn’t immune to some of Bethesda’s notorious bugs, and it may have spawned one of the more annoying internet memes this year, Skyrim’s impact on 2011′s gaming landscape is undeniable. It also made publishers and developers realize that including a multiplayer mode in a game isn’t always a necessity to increase longevity, that rich singleplayer campaigns can offer up so much more than the often repetitive endeavours of an online game, and that given time, attention and love, you can create an experience that will be forever cemented in the player’s mind.
This year, Skyrim won the hearts of millions of gamers, it was a tremendous and well deserved success, and a game that lead designer, Todd Howard and all at Bethesda should be incredibly proud of. If you still haven’t played Skyrim, believe all the hype; it embodies the unique and wonderful experiences only we, as gamers get to enjoy, and little else comes close.