Wednesday, July 6

The High Horse Audit 2011, Part 1: The Best 5 Games of 2011 (so far)

It's that time of the year again. Another financial year has come to an end, and gamers are left to ponder what has been a heavily-populated release calendar. For my part, I'm happy to advise you of what I believe to be the best five games I've played so far this year. As with last year's strenuous auditing, it's important that you're aware of the following limitations:
  • I'm one man, so I can only play and afford so many games. That being said, I've spent a ridiculous amount of money and time on games so far this year; so there's a lot of titles up for consideration.
  • Given the afformentioned time constraints, please be aware that I have not spent an adequate amount of time - if any at all - with the following big releases: L.A Noire, Red Faction: Armageddon, F.3.A.R (which I am absolutely loving despite its rough appearance), Mortal Kombat, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Shadows of the Damned and Portal 2.
  • I will only comment on games that I have completed, or come very close to completing.
  • Only games released between 1 January 2011 and 30 June 2011 will be discussed
With those conditions in mind, allow me to reflect on the best that 2011 has had to offer.

5. Stacking (PSN/XBLA - Played on Playstation 3)
I still haven't been able to reconcile whether I liked Stacking solely on the basis of its whimsical design or if the non-existent purchase price - on account of being a Playstation Plus member - had something to with it. Regardless, Charlie Blackmore's quest to reunite his loveable family of chimney-sweeping Russian dolls was an absolute delight to play through. Navigating through each of the villainous Baron's domains - each dripping with silent movie era charm - players must possess larger characters and utilize their unique abilities to solve rarely-taxing puzzles. There's something about solving a conundrum with vomit that is not only memorable, but satisfying (in some twisted way) as well. There were puzzles that did not involve bodily functions as well, but most are resolved through simplistic, logical actions. The game may have been short and meticulously-directed, but as a result no part of the experience felt unnecessary. I'll remember Stacking most favourably for its high quality presentation. The visuals, a mix of art deco, almost steampunk design and a piano-centric, fanciful score. Short, expensive, but well worth a download.  

Stacking Coverage:

4. Crysis 2 (PS3/360/PC - Played on PS3)
Start spreading the news: Crysis 2 is well worth your time. The narrative may not have meant anything to anyone but series' veterans, but seriously, why would you care when you can cloak? Story doesn't really matter that much to me either when you jump around the ruins of New York City as a super-powered agent of forces you won't fully understand; at least not with the explanation the game gives you anyway. The absence of an engaging tale also failed to concern me when I could combat foes of impressive size and design. The different varieties of Ceph ensure that players will need to employ different tactics for each combat situation if they want to progress; you may be able to dispatch a group of grunts without acknowledging your surroundings, but good luck to the brave (read: stupid) man who engages a pinger in an open battlefield. Crysis 2 affords players the tools and ability to make the most of their surroundings. You can even use giant metallic donuts to combat your foes: everything is a weapon. The game also features several sequences of destruction that should be seen by any FPS enthusiast; landmarks torn asunder by an alien threat in consistently-spectacular fashion. Not to say that CELL operatives - your human opponents - can't offer up a spectacular explosion. What better way to end a fight against a helicopter gunship then to have it plunge into the building you're firing from? Crysis 2 also features the most memorable score in recent memory and a solid multiplayer offering that is a valid alternative for those tiring of the Call of Duty formula. A fantastic package to be sure!

Crysis 2 coverage:

3. Mass Effect 2 (PS3)
Writing this list has been - to an extent - an exercise in eating my own words. Nowhere has this statement  been more true than with my second attempt at playing through Mass Effect 2. As some would be aware, I didn't exactly take to Bioware's space opera sequel the first time around on the Xbox 360. I even gave it the closest thing to a lambasting that I've seen anyone give Mass Effect 2; critics couldn't speak highly enough of Shepard's second adventure and I could not understand why. This time around however, everything seemed better; if not more bearable. I also employed a different class and approached the game's missions in a slightly different sequence to that from my first attempt. The first six hours still dragged and the vehicle segments were still more awkward than a lunch date with an ex, but persistence paid off. After a very slow, almost painstaking start to proceedings, players are treated to an expansive world full of rich, (usually) well-developed characters. The are some - *cough* Jack *cough* - that are still quite grating and Zaeed and Kasumi feel like superficial additions at best, but you'll care about the rest of the crew of the Normandy; that much I can guarantee. The combat can feel a little awkward, but some of the biotic powers are awesome to behold; particularly when they reach their full potential. Not many games feature firefights with enemies literally floating in mid air as you and your comrades pepper the surrounds with bullets and explosive fire. Further to that, few other titles offer the potential for so many central characters to die in the final act; without careful consideration, you can have a real bloodbath on your hands. There is a real sense of weight and consequence to the choices that you make in Mass Effect 2. The consequences of specific actions and dialogue options may seem a little obvious - even ham fisted - but the choices are still there to be made. If you haven't done so after releases on multiple platforms across two years, do yourself a favour and experience this brilliant sci-fi RPG.

 Throw in some spaceships and you've got Mass Effect 2 right here!

Mass Effect 2 coverage:

2. inFamous 2 (PS3)
inFamous 2 may be the year so far's best game, but it comes in the second best package. The Hero Edition did include a cool messenger bag (which I actually use), a statue and a mini-comic - and let's not forget about the woefully-implemented exclusive DLC - but it didn't include a ticket to the beta trial of what will be one of the best competitive multiplayer experiences of the year. I know you get access to the Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception beta with purchase of this title, and it may surprise and offer an experience on par with Epic's powerhouse; but I doubt it will. I'll be in it for the campaign more than anything else, I suspect. Back to the issue at hand, inFamous 2 offers the most prolific boss fights in sandbox action game history whether they have you hanging from a helicopter, shooting from a trailer or on foot and up close and personal with your usually-monstorus opponets. The scale of some of the enemies you will encounter is unmatched: monsters that are taller than apartment complexes and office towers, their attacks fearsome without feeling cheap. On top of some brilliant "Man Vs Godzilla," moments, inFamous 2 also benefits from improved mission design, some new powers that make movement more fluid and -to be frank - joyous, and fan service for those who played the first game. There may have been some narrative missteps and some weak characterisation, but ultimately inFamous 2 is a game that you need to play.

 Second prize sure comes with some perks

inFamous 2 coverage:

 1. Bulletstorm: Epic Edition (X360/PS3/PC - Played on Xbox 360)
Now before anyone starts quoting my review for inFamous 2 (what? it could happen), you need to consider what the Bulletstorm: Epic Edition package offered in its entirety. Not only did you get a quality, foul-mouthed first person shooter in Bulletstorm, you also got access to the Gears of War 3 Beta before anyone else (and for longer than anyone else I might add). On its own merits, Bulletstorm is an insanely-enjoyable game, with gunplay revolving around skillshots that ranged from the relatively-mundane "Headshot", all the way through to the ridiculous "Fireworks" which tasks players with hitting suspended enemies - thown into the air with a charged thumper -  with a charged flare gun shot.  On top of the skillshot metagame, there were also several memorable set pieces and boss fights for players to make their way through with the help of some creative weaponry, alternate fire modes and spins on genre staples: such as the sniper rifle which allowed players to plot the course of bullets and even detonate them if the shot was charged. All of this chaos was articulated in a single campaign of respectable length which was skillfully paced; never mind that the narrative never really went anywhere meaningful. While it didn't offer much in the way of replay value, Bulletstorm was easily one of the most enjoyable, funny and visually-impressive titles released in 2011.

Bulletstorm coverage:
As for the Gears of War 3 Beta, it offered enough ammunition for multiple posts and more play time than most full releases that I've played this year. The promise of some cosmetic unlockables and a preview of the new combat mechanics had me hooked. Sure there may be some balance issues, but this substantial trial is sure to make the time between now and the intended release in September drag on for what will seem like forever and a day.

 Cosmetic unlockables: Is there anything more glorious?

Gears of War 3 Beta coverage:
 Do you agree with any of my picks? What are your favourite 5 games of the year so far?

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