Wednesday, December 21

High Horse Audit 2011: The Top 5 Games of the Year

Note: This post contains spoilers for Bastion. To see the complete list of games that I've played this year, click here

I've heard a few discussions about 2011 being the best year for gamers since 2007. While I agree that it's been a fantastic year for anyone who dabbles in the playing of videogames, I don't think that we've seen anything quite like the combo of BioShock, The Orange Box, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4 that devastated my social life four years ago. That being said, there were some fantastic games, and whittling this list down to five has been a challenge. 

This year, the indie gaming scene jumped into the spotlight. While I may not have been as dedicated to playing and reviewing these alternatives as some of my contemporaries, I nonetheless discovered that there were quite a few indie offerings that were as polished an experience as that found in your average AAA blockbuster. While I believe there'll always be a place for the heavy hitters in the industry, this year I've learned to ignore smaller projects at my own peril. 

So, without further delay, I present the five best games that I played in 2011.

5. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony
As much a lesson as it is a game, Jamestown taught me how to play and love shoot 'em ups. By forcing me to work through already-completed levels on higher difficulties so that I could progress, I learned everything from ship (and thus, weapon) selection, through to timing the use of "Vaunts". I also loved the distinctive, pixelated art style and the unparalleled sense of achievement that came with defeating the final boss. There may not have been much of a story, but Final Form Games got me to engage with a genre that I haven't really touched since the arcade release of the original Metal Slug.  


Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony coverage:

4. Super Mario 3D Land
There were times this year where I prided myself on being a contrarian: I didn't have much love for Uncharted 3 or Batman: Arkham City when just about every other writer couldn't get enough of those predictable, though polished titles. I was dead certain that I was going to find fault with Mario's latest adventure, but I was glad to be proven wrong. It may be formulaic, but it's also perfectly suited to gaming on the go. It also serves as a competent showcase for the 3DS' unique visual capabilities. I had a great deal of fun with this iteration, and am still making my way through the progressively devious special levels. I'm under-selling this actually, it's the best platformer that I've played in years. This was a great surprise, in spite of its familiarity. 

 What's old is new again

Super Mario 3D Land coverage:

3. Bastion
The first time I finished Bastion, I cried. I lost my beloved pet Pecker when the Ura invaded the titular sanctuary, and I was presented with my avian companion's shell before I decided the fate of my companions at the game's conclusion. Rucks - the game's narrator and quest giver - tried to console me, but there was no bringing that bird back. This critter didn't have a name, and I didn't really interact with it in any meaningful way, but I felt as though I had failed when the credits rolled. I couldn't protect one of the few well-meaning lifeforms of post-Calamity Caelondia... and it hurt like hell. That's just one of the things I loved about Supergiant Games' first effort. I could go on about the soundtrack (which I still have on rotation), the innovative use of a narrator, the whimsical art style, or the solid Action RPG mechanics,  but you've heard that all before; and not just from me. 

Bastion coverage:

2. Gears of War 3
I'm pretty sure that I've not written about any game (in beta or final form) more than Gears of War 3. I've been a devotee of this series since the first instalment, and have come to love the hulking, foul-mouthed members of Delta squad like family. Distant family maybe, but still, family all the same. The last chapter of their battle against the Locust and Lambent hordes squeezed every last drop out of the Unreal 3 engine, and sets the bar for visuals on the Xbox 360. The third person cover shooting is as tight and enjoyable as ever, and I still go back to the campaign on occasion in the hope of picking up a few more cheevos. The multiplayer is still an addiction for me; though that learning curve for the cut-throat competitive modes can be pretty steep. Even if I only leave it alone for a week, my first few matches are usually characterised by low scores and a great deal of coarse language. I still love it though, and I'll continue to go back for more kills, deaths, and eviscerated torsos. 

 The first rule of Fight Club is...

Gears of War 3 coverage:
1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If there's been one game that I've been wanting to go back to, ever since I published my review it's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It took all of my favourite elements from some of the best games released in the last ten years, and fused them into one compelling experience that captured my imagination. I spent hours in Detroit and Hengsha looking for every hidden alleyway, weapons cache and praxis point. I would gleefully reload save after save until even the shortest sequence of play went exactly as I wanted it to. I would agonize over every upgrade and wonder at what could have been. I would complete every side quest, and even test different outcomes to see what suited my interpretation of Adam Jensen the best.

The freedom that I was afforded in my approach to most situations was what had me coming back for a second playthrough. That freedom was also backed by stealth mechanics that actually worked, satisfying gunplay and some memorable chemistry between the lead characters. There may have been a few quirks: awkward NPC movement, some regrettable voice acting and some painful boss fights; but upon reflection, I loved the game because of these quirks, not in spite of them.

Let's not forget about the art direction and cyberpunk narrative that are at the core of this experience either. There are some genuinely-surprising (and thoroughly-predictable) twists in the main story arc, and the ambiguous morality system serves only to add to the intrigue. The issue of augmentation, and the political forces behind it gave off an X-Men-like vibe; and I found myself absorbed in this tale from beginning to end. 

Plus, you have retractable blades in your elbows... if that isn't enough for this to be considered "Game of the Year", then I guess I should just stop writing about them. Deus Ex: Human Revolution simply demands your attention, and it would be remiss for you (or I) to ignore its call. Now excuse me while I get back to my Hard, no alarms, non-lethal playthrough!

See that in the mirror? A winner is you!

Deus Ex: Human Revolution coverage:

What was your favourite game(s) released this year? Do you agree with any of my picks?

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