Okay so I’m calling this a “best of” because I have always, historically, called these “best of,” but I make no claims that this year’s list in any way represents “best of” because this year there were multiple games that I have every confidence would have nudged my bottom three off this list but I never played them. This was a bumper year for games I might have liked to play and didn’t; this was a bumper year for games, period. So before I wax lyrical about my personal top five, the games relegated to a hopeless “someday, maybe” backlog that I’m pretty sure didn’t deserve it:
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
I already had my augments and playstyle all picked out for DX; I was going to not kill anyone and make the game 400% harder for a shot at a notoriously buggy achievement that apparently doesn’t proc half the time? Whatever; I was jonesing badly for an action RPG in the second half of 2011, but my GameFly queue withheld this one just a little too long and I moved on to my top two games of the year.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
I didn’t finish Twilight Princess, because it felt to me like a reskinned OoT with more irritating control, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been sneaking longing glances over at Skyward Sword the past few months. The game’s soundtrack alone reaffirmed my love of the estranged Zelda series; it’s nothing short of heroic. Too bad I would have had to fork out $80 for the game and a MotionPlus controller to play it with round about the time I was dropping $60 on one of the best values in entertainment I’ve ever beheld.
Batman: Arkham City (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
I dearly loved Arkham Asylum, a game I didn’t even expect to want to buy, and this year’s Assassin’s Creed offering, Revelations, was sort of meh. And let’s be honest: Batman and Ezio are pretty much the same thing. So why didn’t I get my jumping-off-architecture-nailing-guys-with-gadgetry fix from Arkham City? I have no idea.
Sonic Generations (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
2011 is the landmark year in which SEGA finally wrangled Sonic back on track, doing virtually everything right … and I couldn’t be bothered to support them.
Portal 2 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Yeah, I dunno why I never got around to this. I mean to. Stephen Merchant.
Okay, so, that’s what I didn’t play. Here is what I played and liked:
Honorable Mention: Catherine (PS3, Xbox 360)
I think I was overdue for playing an accostingly Japanese game, and as such I fondly remember my time with Catherine despite its occasionally brutal difficulty and Vincent’s clear retardation. It’s a unique gem among puzzlers, and even though she has nothing to do with anything and is totally in the background the game features a surprisingly mature handling of a transsexual character, which has possibly only stuck with me because apart from their dealing with this one individual everyone else in Catherine is a complete social dipshit.
Honorable Mention: Minecraft (PC)
I thought about putting this in my top 5 again, honestly, since it was technically released this year. But nah; I haven’t been playing much Minecraft and have no further insights beyond how rad is Notch, seriously.
5. Bastion (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
This is totally irrelevant, but Bastion reminded me a lot of Soul Blazer for no really good reason. They have little in common beyond “action RPG”, “everyone’s gone,” and “silent protagonist.” Bastion played with the quintessentially silent game hero trope, though – we got to feel very well acquainted with the Kid through blow-by-blow narration by a man with a voice like a rusting locomotive. A sexy rusting locomotive. It’s a neat device, but it doesn’t sell the game like we were told it would – which is fine, because Bastion is also a consummate action RPG. A diverse arsenal of found, fully upgradeable weapons lets you vary up your combat style as you cut and shoot your way through gorgeous, intricate tiled environments that might’ve come straight from the sprite gods at Vanillaware. And I haven’t even gotten to the best bit, yet: in a year of standout soundtracks, Darren Korb’s score for this cheap little game towers over all. Perhaps best of all it gave me something new to listen to while working on Next Town Over.
4. LA Noire (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Look, I know LA Noire isn’t perfect, okay? And that it quickly became one of those titles that reviewed well and then afterwards everyone started bagging on retrospectively because of, I guess, flaws that didn’t actually stop them from enjoying the game but become apparent upon objective examination? Yeah, it has those, but the thing about those is they didn’t actually stop me from enjoying the game. LA Noire is raggedly paced, a graphic adventure with chases and shooting shoehorned in at often awkward times, and Phelps is an erratic interviewer who’s just as likely to threaten an old lady with a hat pin to the pancreas as delicately suggest “There’s something you’re not telling me” when you indicate you want him to express suspicion. It’s also been posited many times over that LA Noire, rather than being an indication of games growing up and trying new things, is a throwback to the horrible FMV graphic adventure renaissance of the dawn of the CD medium. I tend to regard it, fondly, as the former. Everything does not have to be an open-ended sandbox catch-all with only the most barebones narrative because otherwise you’d feel like you’re on rails and have some kind of a claustrophobic panic attack. Yes, its directed plotline did screw with suspension of disbelief where actually solving crimes was concerned; I’d figured out the overarching homicide plot after a few cases on the desk but I had no way of telling Phelps this and was forced to go through the motions of convicting a bunch of innocent dudes because he’s a terrible deductive thinker and needed to be led around the provided trail of bread crumbs to the real killer’s house, first. But baby steps, okay? We have come a long way from “Graham gives the wand a good shake, but it only fizzles … and dies” and it’s not like the graphic adventure is getting tons of love from the big dogs with the AAA money these days. There is still room for games as a storytelling medium, and LA Noire was a great step in that direction … even if 20 hours of interviewing and crime scene investigation built up to a firefight in the sewers? … I have not sold this game super effectively, but you’ll just have to take my word for it: I loved LA Noire and I grin every time Phelps makes an entrance on Madmen, especially when he’s having it out with that creep from Instaheat.
3. Dungeon Defenders (PC, PS3, Xbox 360, iOS)
Awwwww, Dungeon Defenders! So cute and seemingly so simple, and yet so deep and deftly crafted. Ostensibly this is a tower defense game, and I really shouldn’t have started this sentence with “ostensibly” because it is a tower defense game, but the pacing and the inevitable blaming/shaming/name-calling feels a little like a MOBA, too, and with its emphasis on vast heaps of upgradeable pets and gear it ends up feeling a little like … Well, it feels like Dungeon Defenders. This is my multiplayer game of the year, simply because I have a nostalgic streak for local split-screen experiences; they make me pine for the salad days of PSO with friends or Mario Kart with family. The online multiplayer is pretty great as well, but I’m mostly parroting what other people have told me, there, because I never really spent any significant time with the game that wasn’t local co-op on the couch.
2. Skyrim (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
Skyrim has been the toast and the talk of the internet for months, its virtues extolled everywhere ad infinitum, so I’ll try to curtail my thoughts, which could easily go 2000 words. Skyrim is probably one of the best values in the history of gaming, rivaled only by its forebears Daggerfall and Morrowind and, obviously, MMORPGs if you’re the kind of personality who those don’t get old for. There is easily 200 hours of content in Skyrim, and then endless procedurally generated crap to do if somehow you’re not satiated and then there’s the mod community, but they’re another story. Let’s stick to the stock product. Skyrim is the closest a game has come to my personal “do whatever the fuck you want” ideal. Morrowind was close and so is Minecraft (although their freedom sprawls down different avenues) but both of those experiences lack companion NPCs to dress up and interact with and Skyrim doesn’t. Many of the games’ improvements over previous Elder Scrolls come direct from its cousins, Fallouts 3 and New Vegas, including the availability of followers to adventure with (and marry, if you’re so inclined). Having a put-upon housecarl or a mercenary mage with you makes the experience so much less lonely. The game is buggy to beat hell; there are so many complex systems interacting at any given time that this goes without saying, and in addition to unexpected glitches the interactions of these systems can also create unbelievable spikes in difficulty. At one point the Mages’ College and I had just unwittingly unleashed a swarm of reasonably tough magical anomaly-type enemies on an unsuspecting town and as I arrived to deal with that, not one but two Ancient Dragons decided to simultaneously attack, bringing with them one of Skyrim’s thundering dragon slaying anthems. This fight would have been epic had it been a scripted finale, but the fact that it was random happenstance, the unforeseen interaction of multiple systems, made it as awesome as the weather conspiring in a blizzard or a tornado, except the Jarl never comes pelting out of his longhouse in a panic to lend a hand as best he can punching a tornado to death.
1. Dark Souls (PS3, Xbox 360)
Ha! You were expecting Skyrim here, weren’t you? I kind of was, too; honestly, the two are neck and neck, and if I were to recommend someone buy a game it’d probably be Skyrim, but I have a more complex relationship with Dark Souls. It has a boss in it that killed me eight times. I don’t think anything has ever killed me eight times except maybe Ragnaros or the Yagudo family. I respect Dark Souls, and after I fought my way through its dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I like to think it respects me. Some people balk at the difficulty of these games, but without failure there is no reward. Every game teaches you how to get better at it through failure and rewards you when you progress; the stakes are just usually lower and in fact seem to be getting lower all the time, creeping dangerously close to games with no fail state. If there’s no fail state, how can there be a win state? Without those, how is it even a game? But I digress: Dark Souls’ difficulty is an aesthetic choice as much as it is mechanical: the constant proximity of death, the virtual impossibility of playing specifically with your friends and even the sound design – the sound of a lethal blow, followed by deathly silence and then a desolate, windy rush is mortally, palpably horrifying – all contribute importantly to an unrivaled sense of desolation that I think trumps anything survival horror has to offer. My sister and I have a private slogan for the series, a counterpart to its official “Prepare to Die”: “Do it or don’t.” The obviousness of this makes us giggle; it is an honest distillation of the Souls philosophy. What, did you not expect that dragon to be there and one-shot you while you were still heavy with souls from the boss you just killed? Well tough; pay attention. Oh, you didn’t want to attack the pyromancy trainer? Well then you shouldn’t have, because you’re not rolling back to a previous save state. You didn’t know about the one bizarre and deeply secret means by which you could have saved Solaire, your only ally, from a pointless death? Maybe you should’ve investigated all avenues open to you before rushing on ahead. Yes, the Souls games embody tension and challenge, but too much has been said about that and not enough about the fact that they also happen to be masterpieces of tight level design. Like Demon Souls before it, Dark Souls’ areas are choreographed as much as designed, except this time around the feat is far more impressive since its zones are all seamlessly intertwined. And I don’t mean you walk through an essentially flat field into an adjacent field without a load screen in between; I mean winding and frequently baffling labyrinths coil around one another as vertically as they do horizontally, interconnected in clever and frequently surprising ways by passages obvious and secret. One gets the distinct sense that for all the gameplay is notoriously lacking in a margin for error, the devs were working with even less slop, and the overall impression is one of an intricate and disciplined dance between player and environment.
Around this time last year there was an expectation that ME3 would be out by now; obviously that wasn’t the case and so we still have that to look forward to in ’12, along with Guild Wars 2 and a ton of other stuff I expect to end up in next year’s list. I’ll see you then; knowing me it’ll probably be the next post on the site.
Some forum friends and I did a little comic challenge: in two pages tell either a post-apocalyptic tragic transformation story or a splatterpunk or space opera switching-of-roles/man-vs.-world story.
I didn’t have much time to put into mine but in lieu of a real update, here you go:
Crossposted from the Next Town Over blog. All apologies.
As you may have seen via Twitter, I’ve thrown in with DRAWMORE INC. and their new, annual anthology project, NOBODIES. This was mostly because Jon Cairns was doing it and my life is pretty much a protracted quest to be as cool as he is.
My NOBODIES contribution, SNAKE, is another Western (somehow this has become my thing), so if you didn’t catch this news at NTO already you probably don’t care, anyway, but ah well; the blog needed an update.
The new SCROLL‘s primarily concerned with the 25th anniversary of Dragon Quest, exploring the origin of the JRPG along with a comprehensive stroll through the DQ series. Each retrospective (many of which were contributed by Alex) was illustrated by a different artist. My comics brother-in-arms Jon Cairns did VII, while I did VIII. The other 7 ain’t bad, either, by which I mean I felt like a total slouch by comparison. Pick up a copy to check to check them all out.
Messrs. of E6:
I have seen your operation live twice, now, in Wisconsin, which is amusingly but unsurprisingly part of your Canadian tour circuit. It is always a good time, but your synthesizer man Tait Nucleus? has never been present and now, at this last show, the Colonel’s place was taken by the young Lieutenant Colonel. Internet searchings have turned up very little apart from conjecture and innuendo, pointing toward Tait, at least, getting himself banned from Canada. Is Col. Shipps now also banned from Canada? Will they ever be unbanned so that we Canucks and near-Canucks can see E6 undiminished? Will E6 ever officially explain, or at least cursorily address, what the fuck is, in fact, up?
Ominous title taken from one of the better lines in Dragon Age 2, which I’m now going to micro-review because it didn’t inspire enough vitriol or adoration for me to globber on for 5000 words like I usually do. Actually, though, I think I’m only taking the time to say anything at all because, having now finished the game, I’m sort of baffled at how professional critics gave it all these 10s and equally stunned at the hateful, lowball 2s and 4s from users. My thoughts?
It’s a pretty mediocre game.
The Shepardization of the PC was a good move, the Dragon Age world is once again interesting enough to want to inhabit, and some cool shit goes down, but the game is half the length of DAO and its brisk 30 hours are spent in a handful of environments that are recycled an execrable amount of times. I almost forgave this for a few minutes near the end of my playthrough, when it momentarily looked like the endgame was going to be a phenomenally nuanced ballet of consequence, but that proved illusory, and all my choices were sucked into the game’s conclusive slurry of catch-all boss fights.
DA2 just reeks to me of a horribly rushed development cycle, which, in the depths of my ignorance I want to blame at least partially on EA, and while I realize the Mass Effect team is an entirely separate entity I’m still concerned for the implications this kind of thing could have for BioWare’s flagship series, which I must admit I care about a whole lot more than I do Dragon Age after this fair-to-meh middle game.
Pardon the repost from the NTO blog, but my tiny town of Waterloo, Wisconsin, has its own local newspaper, the Courier, which actually featured Next Town Over and I this week. No revelations therein for web natives or comics enthusiasts, since its author was [probably] trying to keep it accessible for our paper’s small, rural-ish subscription base, but the coverage is still very much appreciated. Hopefully this’ll act as an ice-breaker for me and this community and that one guy will stop glaring at me at the corner diner.
Hell’s Corners: Douchebags Never Die is here and it looks fantastic! If you were an HC fan back in the day and never bought any of the print editions, now’s the time: the 158 page collection is loaded with self-important commentary and extras. You owe it to yourself (and to me, damn you, you cheapsmack) to buy it at IndyPlanet.