Archive for January, 2012

Upon the advent of a new year, I, like many others enter a state of contemplation about who they are, what they want from life, and how they came to be where they are. This is something I admittedly do a lot, not just when it comes to hanging up a new calendar, but throughout the year. It was amidst this contemplation that I came to a very stark realization, one that stirred up a myriad of feelings in me:

I am now 26 years old, and since the age of 16, I have been battling depression.

That’s 10 long years. Important years that were crucial in forming the person that I am today. Years that by most are spent building the foundations on which one perceives the world around them, how one applies the meanings they’ve established throughout the years to reality in order to create a better understanding of the world around them.

Whilst I had the opportunity to develop those myself during my formative years, going through that process while feeling ultimately alone and lost was daunting and confusing, those elements which are required for us to better understand ourselves and the world became somewhat polluted by circumstances out of my control, be it something within that existed chemically, or factors external to myself, such as family.

"Im Cafe" by Angela Selders

At this point, you’d be safe to assume that this article is far more personal than anything I’ve ever been willing to post online so far, being so candid with others is something incredibly alien to me, as during those 10 years I’ve built up the habit of internalizing and repressing what I might be going through, appearing relatively stoic and composed to those around me, from close friends to work colleagues, and sadly, even my family. For the sake of privacy of both myself and those I know, I will refrain from citing any specific individuals who may have been the cause of emotional duress in my life. Those who know me personally are mostly aware of the issues I’ve faced over the years, each of them to different extents (as I said, to my own disadvantage, I often don’t share as much as I probably should in real life), so forgive me if I don’t reveal too much, but ultimately, this is a blog about gaming, and of course gamers are people, and people are very complex creatures, sometimes, wonderfully so. One thing that unites all people though — gamers, and those who’ve never touched a controller — is that through our hardest times, we all require something for distraction, to detach us, if only momentarily from a reality that can become unbearably overwhelming. For me, it was games.

Everyone has their vices, it’s a given, and they exist in order for us to be able to indulge in that part of us that defines who we are; to indulge in what you enjoy is affirmation of your existence, that the world still has something to offer you. For a lot of people around my age range in the UK, excessive alcohol consumption is the vice du jour; they work or study throughout the week, and in order to feel that sense of release and expression that’s inhibited in their everyday life, they drink, and let loose. I, unfortunately, have never been able to indulge in such a manner, as I am tee-total. I’ve never even been drunk in my 26 years of being alive on this planet, and not about to start. This isn’t due to any health ailment or religious obligation; I can, and have tried alcohol but found I detest the taste, and although I was brought up Christian, I stopped believing in God in my early teens. I simply don’t like drinking, and what it does to people, and as someone who believes that as an individual who already holds little control over his life due to circumstance beyond any immediate control, losing that last facet of control would be too much to sacrifice. Also, in all honesty, I think if I were to get drunk, part of me fears that I may like it a bit too much, and when suffering from depression, developing an external dependency can be a dangerous thing (more on that later).

I don’t judge those who drink or do drugs, I believe that everyone should have the right to put whatever they want into their body, so long as they’re not bringing harm to anyone else. In a way, it’s a little unfair to call gaming a “vice”, because that word carries certain negative connotations, where in fact it can be a term that’s a relatively innocent label. When people think of the words “gaming” and “depression” in the same sentence, there’s a tendency for institutions (namely, media outlets) to conjure up images of socially difficult, sometimes volatile and broken individuals whose lives have been overrun by a game. Quite famously there are even clinics dedicated to certain games these days, both online and in bricks and mortar form. There is a big difference though, between using games as an aid to help you deal with depression, and using games to reject a reality you’re not currently satisfied with. Overall, I do feel it’s a little unfair to say that game “addiction” exists, to me, an addiction is something that’s built up through chemical dependency, such as nicotine through smoking, or becoming accustomed to the effects alcohol has on the brain. I think you can have a gaming compulsion, in which you rely on games as a form of escapism; yes, their definitions are similar, but I think it’s the neurological differences that separate them.

Now, to how this has had an affect in my life. First of all, a little recent back story: back in April 2011 I was working at a job that I hated. I was relatively well paid but worked ridiculous hours, had very little time for myself, and most importantly, despised what I was doing there. I was undervalued by my superiors, I watched underqualified ass-kissers climb the ladder ahead of me, and for all my attempts to try and reap something good from my job, I simply couldn’t. Eventually, I felt trapped there, and I realized that I’d made a tremendous sacrifice just to be able to exist in that kind of environment, a mistake that would come back to shake my world – I gave up my creativity, a part of me that was once so huge and had defined me for many years, that I carefully cultivated in every way I could had been abandoned, because I didn’t have time for it any more. Before I started working there, I was able to express myself in so many ways; I can play six musical instruments, all of which I taught myself since the age of 16, I can also draw and write, but for some stupid reason, I just stopped doing them. Overall, I was someone who thrived on creating new things, not just for others, but for myself. When that fateful April came around, I started experiencing major problems with anxiety and remorse for what I’d done, and indeed, become. It had even started to affect me physically, I started experiencing extreme stomach pains in which I literally couldn’t keep down any food for over a week.

Eventually I called in sick to work and arranged to see my doctor, after filling in a form which measures your level of anxiety and depression at that given time, on a scale of 1-5 on each option (5 being the highest), I realized that I was at the very extreme on each of these scales, this included terrifying questions like whether I’ve had “thoughts of self-harm?” or “ending your own life?”, and facing this truth, I broke down into tears, feeling foolish for allowing myself to get into such a state, and not attempting to address it beforehand. And thus, for another time in my life, I had entered on the dark and difficult path of depression, one that I now realize has been the hardest I’ve ever faced, and as of right now, while I write this, I’m still on that path, unknowing as to when it’ll eventually come to an end, or where it will take me, but finding solace in the knowledge that one day I will overcome it, and things will be different.

I was given an extended period of leave from work, thanks to the support of my doctor, and during that tine, I wanted to rediscover the things that once gave me such joy that I’d left behind. I had been playing games during my employment, but very, very little of them; as I mentioned, I worked a ridiculous amount of hours, which isn’t forgiving for someone who wants to both maintain a personal life and indulge their hobbies. Fortunately, I wasn’t and still aren’t beholden to anyone else, so apart from maintaining my relationships with friends and family the best I could, I was afforded a lot of freedom, so I made an effort to get back on the gaming wagon.

So back I went, feet first into the wonderful world of gaming, I managed to catch up on all the old titles from my library I hadn’t managed to invest enough time in. Games with unfinished campaigns, unresolved stories, untouched modes, and even ones that hadn’t been unwrapped. Every day it felt like I had something to do, and there was something undeniably wonderful about it. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily productive, but for once in my life I felt like being selfish and offering my time to a fictional reality.

But how was this helping me? Well, even though it didn’t serve as a “cure” to my depression, I noticed that these games became almost a surrogate for a reality that I felt I had ultimately failed, and even been failed by. In these worlds I wasn’t burdened with the feelings that had come to overwhelm me in real life; in taking on the role of these avatars, I walked in the shoes of someone who wasn’t worthless, who had purpose within their prescribed reality, whose narrative was more often than not in a straight line, and offered predictable outcomes. It also offered me a sense of accomplishment, albeit on a microscopic level (I don’t take pride in achievements or trophies like many other gamers do, but I do like the feeling of having brought something to a resolution). In some cases, it was aesthetic factors that made me enjoy visits to these different worlds; during that period, titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Catherine, Portal 2, and – despite its grim subject matter – LA Noire (what can I say? I adore the noir genre and late 1940s design motifs). Each presented worlds that attempted to mimic reality, yet at the same time lacked its counterpart’s chaotic nature, that for some reason had begun to bore and disappoint me.

Later in the year during the hectic Autumn release schedule, I picked up what for me and many others became the ultimate self-contained reality of the year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Skyrim is an RPG set in the expansive lands of its namesake, where you take on the role of the “dragon born”, a being rarely born over the space of centuries whose return spells a new threat on the lands of Skyrim. Upon beginning the game you find that the character whose role you’ve been thrust into is being held captive as a prisoner, and on the way to your execution, events unfold that avert you from your demise, and set you on the path of your true fate: to be the saviour of Skyrim.

What makes Skyrim so great though, is that even though your destiny and goals are set out before you as clear as day, you can roam the lands as you see fit for as long as you want, and the more you scour it, the more you find there is to discover; magnificent landmarks, bandit hideouts, shrines to long lost gods, bizarre inhabitants and dangerous creatures. It’s a beautiful vibrant world in which you can lose yourself, both as the character and the player. I liked it so much it was even my pick for the best game of 2011, along with many others online publications.

I sunk a ridiculous amount of time into Skyrim, and in a very short period too; within two weeks I clocked up over 100 hours in the game, and for the first time in a while, waking up each morning didn’t feel pointless, I could look forward to paying visits to its world and seeing what it has to offer me, it offered unpredictability that I felt I could handle, because for as diverse as this game could be, I found comfort that its framework was still that of a game, and that unlike reality, should failure come my way, it’d be something that I could try to resolve with the load of a save file, and rationalizing my mistakes could be accounted solely on my actions. In my reality, my mistakes sadly get attributed to my emotional state of mind, something that serves to bring upon further feelings of guilt and remorse, and even lessen my already low sense of worth.

A lot of this can be perceived as gaming being a distraction from facing my problems, but this would be unfair. A lot of the underlying issues behind gaming compulsion (or addiction, depending on how you look at it), is that the people who fall foul of it use gaming as a substitute for a reality that doesn’t fulfil their needs, or disappointed them, or indeed that they could no longer handle. As with many who suffer from compulsion or addiction though, there is often some past event, be it recent or from childhood, that has brought them to retreat from the world.

For all the time I spent in these alternate realities, I never denied that the reality I lived in was what I needed to find comfort in, and accept for all it had to offer, chaos and all. Gaming helped me realize that for all the varying forms of reality they had to offer, they all had something in common; they offered purpose, something which I’d lost in my life, and worried that I’d never find again. After I finished Skyrim‘s main quest, I had to deal with the fact that I’d experienced and exhausted most of what its world had to offer me, and in a strange way, this saddened me. It reminded me of my reality, where despite the random nature of our world, people and events had become predictable, and much like that horrible day back in April, I felt like I’d exhausted all of my options, and didn’t really have anything left to do other than repeat menial tasks. It’s a shame, because I grew to love its world and its inhabitants, and it suddenly struck me that this fictional reality has more in common with my own than I cared to acknowledge at first.

Games like Skyrim among many others have also taught me something else during this endeavour, something that surprisingly may not be all that profound, but it’s something very significant that I’d clearly lost sight of in my own life: that for every mistake you feel you’ve made — whether it’s from being short-sighted, immature, arrogant or haphazard — or even failing to recognize a problem before it got out of hand, it’s completely up to you whether you give up or try to somehow deal with these issues.

Ask anyone who’s ever played and finished Demon’s Souls or the recent Dark Souls; two games which are near perfect allegories for the trials and errors we, as humans face as we try to overcome that which holds us back. Both are crushingly hard games, and both use death and error as an effective teaching tool; because of the rules set within these titles, players must progress with both caution and observation of enemies and traps that lay ahead. There are messages along the way which are left by other players who’ve once travelled the same path as you, most are helpful, but some can lead you to danger.

A lot of the time, your journey can be a lonely and difficult one where you feel overwhelmed by the world, but upon admitting you need the help of others, you can summon the help of people willing to offer a hand, and whilst they may not remain in your world, they make the journey a lot easier for the time being. I could go on about how else these games brilliantly mirror the trials of life, and even depression, but I feel the greatest connection in them is how we deal with failure; in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, when you die (or fail), there are consequences, you lose the souls you collect which are the very driving force of these worlds, not only can they be used to purchase better items, but they can be used to develop your character. When you come back after death, you have the opportunity to rectify your mistakes by fighting all those you once faced before in order to reclaim your loss, but should you fail again before you do this, the souls will be lost forever; and much like life, sometimes when an opportunity has been lost, we have to accept that it’s gone for good, but it’s still up to us whether we strive to find further reward and accomplishment in this world. These two games show that for as dark, bleak and overwhelming as the world may be at times, you can still fight, and you can still win, and the harder the fight, the more glorious the reward can be when you win, the hardest part is keeping the will to fight.

I owe a lot to games, for the many wonderful experiences they’ve given me, and now, the important lessons they’ve taught me. As far as my depression goes; I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m making the effort to better myself. I’m seeing my doctor on a regular basis, speaking in-depth with a therapist who’s been instrumental in me uncovering and addressing the problems that’ve affected me so deeply over the years, I’ve taken major steps in improving the quality of my life by applying to return to university in September, and despite how life has this horrible habit of separating you from friends whom you hope can remain close to for as long as possible, I still have some truly exceptional people in my life, who’ve made the effort to listen to me, and try to understand the chaos that rages on within my head, and do whatever they can so they can calm it down, even if that means just letting me know that they still care, and that I’m not completely alone.

To understand, and be understood, is to be free. When we lose our meaning, we have to search for meaning in the things important to us, and within games I found my meaning again, hopefully it has for someone else before me, and with the medium growing and becoming ever more significant and profound with each development, people will some day see it for the remarkable things it can do.

Final note: If you know anyone in your life right now who’s going through depression (or even seems like they’re going through it), please, for their sake, just talk to them. They might wanna talk about it, and they might not, but knowing there’s someone out there who’s remotely willing to acknowledge them, and how they are makes so much difference. Most of the time, you don’t even have to try to offer them solutions, or even say much at all; just having someone willing to listen can mean everything, and make things better for them, even if it’s just for that brief moment.

Depression can be an incredibly lonely and isolating affair, one that can bring a person to think that no one truly cares about them, and as a result, they become reluctant to even reach out for help. To reach out to them without prompt can affirm their place in this world, and in your life. If you happen to be suffering from depression yourself, please, never be too proud to admit that you might not be able to deal with it on your own; I tried this, and it nearly destroyed me. There are so many people out there willing to offer you their help, speak to your doctor, a family member or friend you can trust, or even find people online who’ve been through similar ordeals. As alone as you can begin to feel during those dark times, there is literally always someone out there willing to help, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for it, and know that one day, things will be better; it just takes some patience.


2011: A Year in Gaming

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.

When it comes to racing games, Forza 4 set a new standard. The game features visuals that are honestly too good to be true, every time I play the game I find myself using auto-vista (a mode that allows you to walk around a car and get into it, a new feature Turn10 put into the game) than actually in races! Okay, so that’s not entirely true but Autovista is definitely a fun mode.
The actual racing is fun and engaging at all levels, if you prefer racing in “affordable” cars, you can… but if you want to try your hand at a car that only the super rich can afford, then you can do that too… Turn10 have taken the time to accurately map out the intricate details of 600+ cars (and more to come via DLC) and their very unique personalities. Not every car is the same, nor its sound. where else can you discover that a 2011 Ford Fiesta is better at cornering at top speed than the worlds fastest production car, the Bugatti Veyron?
It’s a game shouldn’t be confined to just “racing-sim-lovers”, this is a game every Xbox 360 owner should buy, rent or borrow, and one of Microsoft’s benchmark titles. A game that deserves to sit on the same shelf as other classic titles. It’s a console-defining racing simulator and honestly, it’s a shame it’s a console-exclusive as everyone should play this shining example of a racing game.

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.