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.
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.
In it, Patton Oswalt breezes past something that’s been aggravating me for quite awhile, now, on the way to his spittle-flinging, conclusive cry to pop-cultural arms: the weird dilettantism that’s sprung up around geek “culture” with the hyper-accessibility of everything, and the scramble to capitalize on this with processed & prepackaged “nerd” fodder. I’m talking about MC Frontalot, Big Bang Theory, and World of Warcraft: superficial distillations of the sorts of things that “nerds” traditionally immersed themselves in with zero barrier of entry.
My irritation with this has been brewing for awhile as I’m increasingly surrounded by people who play WoW to level 10 and run out to Hot Topic to buy themselves a Green Linen Shirt to wear to the gym, folks sitting me down to watch a Blu-Ray of Watchmen who’ve never read a comic book, and self-described “gamers” that just bought their first console and isn’t Kinect cool.
I catch a lot of hell for my irritation with this stuff going mainstream; it gets written off as a kind of douchey hipsterism no different than someone, say, freaking out because the Manic Street Preachers were playing on the radio at the grocery store. Well it isn‘t any different: I heard the Manic Street Preachers playing on the radio at the grocery store awhile back and I was irritated with that, too. Why? Because I sort of doubt whoever added The Everlasting to whatever 400 Shopping Greats XM channel the store had on listened to the lyrics when they decided its aural tranquility qualified it for the shopping experience:
The gap that grows between our lives
The gap our parents never had
Stop those thoughts control your mind
Replace the things that you despise
“Oh, you’re old,” I hear you say
It doesn’t mean that I don’t care
I don’t believe in it anymore
Pathetic acts for a worthless cause
I bet they didn’t know the socialist Manics were invited to play at Castro’s place, either, but I do; because I care.
Let’s talk World of Warcraft. I like WoW. I’ve freely admitted I find the game perilously addictive and publicly marveled at the accessible-but-deep (if you take the time to excavate) piece of software Blizzard’s crafted, but I wouldn’t call myself a WoW fan, really, and I’d never run out and buy a Green Linen Shirt. I’m a casual player, at best, which is why I’ve historically gotten rankled when even more casual casuals than I seem hellbent on defining themselves as WoW fans and shell out ridiculous sums of money to prove it with easily-found merchandise to rot on their shelves without setting foot in half the actual game content or taking the time to learn how to gear for their goddamn role. Simultaneously, I enjoy hearing/reading about WoW when its devotees talk (looking at you, arc): their passion for the game’s intricacies is admirable, interesting. They care, and by extension I care about their insights into the game and learn a little something about them via their commitment, to boot. Meanwhile, Green Linen Shirt guy is all too happy to espouse his views on the game, too, as a means of defining himself … as a smattering of surficial garbage I could pick up cursorily scanning a wiki, which I guess would then qualify me to declare myself a fan, an authority, a nerd … right?
“Nerd” culture, like goth culture or hipster counter-culture or Scientology, has just become another cruise control for identity. Be more than the sum of the crap you buy, the shows you fucking watch and the movies you can quote, people. Quit your dabbling and dilettanting and do your own thing.
Honorable Mention – Costume Quest: What a fun, festive little game this was, well-priced and smartly, sweetly funny. I’ve got both feet firmly in the camp that favors Double Fine’s new focus on small, manageable morsels.
Dishonorable Mention – Final Fantasies XIII and XIV: Aaaaaauuuuuugh ranting about these two, disparate clustercusses would be too tangential, but come on.
5. Dragon Quest IX: 2010 has the distinction of having been the year I finally let go of my curmudgeonly hatred of handhelds. For now. Equipped with a new DSi XL (big and bright for old people!), I tore into the ninth Dragon Quest with a voraciousness I haven’t hit a DQ with since the NES. I love job systems, I love quests, I love customizeable characters, and I love shitloads of tough optional content, and this game really makes up for the somewhat deficient DQVIII. This wasn’t just one of the best games this year; it was the best Dragon Quest in ages and I will fight anyone who says different.
4. Fable III: Let’s get this out of the way: Fable games are flawed, in many ways outright broken, and almost always fall woefully short of the promised experience. So here’s what you do: you ignore the outrageous amounts of hype that inevitably surround them, and you don’t listen to anything Peter Molyneaux says (ever), and then you buy and play them on launch day and take the time to do the usually 30 hoursish worth of sidequests and widget grinds before finishing the 12 hour plot. If you do this, they’ll make your lists, too, because they’re charming, legitimately funny, gorgeous, and deeply interactive.
3. Minecraft: The ugly, ultimate sandbox that exploded in 2010 claimed me for weeks and my boyfriend forever. My sister has an anecdote where someone sees her playing Minecraft and asks how much she paid for it; Cate said “$12″ and this individual replied with a visibly disgusted “It’s not worth $12.” What a dumbass, though it’s true Minecraft has to be played to be understood, let alone believed.
2. Red Dead Redemption: I enjoy the style and structure of Grand Theft Auto‘s gameplay but I’ve gotten sick of tooling around modern cities, I think. A game that was essentially GTA reskinned as a Western was perfect for me, and it held up decently as a shooter, besides: we need more third person shooters, industry. I put a lot of hours on RDR, much of them in multiplayer, and many of those in free roam hopping missions with my persistent partner-in-crime Cate, forever trying to level high enough to get a better horse. The story mode sequence where you survive the raft ride into Mexico and then are riding through alien terrain with that song playing? So surreal; one of games’ most memorable moments in recent years. Also, man, the ending, am I right?
1. Mass Effect 2: I initially almost forgot about this game when thinking of this list; it came out so long ago it didn’t initially register as having been released this year (it came out the end of January). I was not a massive Mass Effect fan (I thought it was pretty dry and more than a little mechanically clunky), but the sequel would easily make a list of my favorite games of all time. Playing through it pretty much nonstop over a couple of days probably added to the immersion, but this game was really everything I want in an RPG anymore. Decently-realized, interactive characters with a streamlined system for managing them, an amount of input in the direction of the story, great soundtrack, and the best ensemble cast-inclusive ending since Final Fantasy VI. The conclusion to this trilogy is one of the only games I’m looking forward to in 2011, and I have every confidence it’ll make next year’s list.
So somewhat unexpectedly, the holidays have come to Darkfall, with Christmas trees, fireworks, and the usual cosmetic equippables. This went almost altogether unnoticed by vets, unless they were griping on it being a clear waste of developer effort at a time when they think X, Y, and Z ought to be overhauled. This same patch also rebalanced some aspects of gameplay that, as a newb, I’m too far removed from to comment on intelligently, but regardless, big ups to Aventurine for even token efforts to keep new players entertained.
Darkfall‘s huge and its environments varied, but if you’re staring down its dauntingly long skill grind before becoming PvP viable you’re probably not seeing much besides your race’s starting cities and lots and lots and lots more goblins/kobolds/trolls/zombies.
So the way I see it the holiday decor/effects are something else for newbs to stare at; a bit of a glimmer to vary up a pretty grey character growth period, and another step in the right direction for Darkfall, which desperately needs to become more newcomer friendly. I don’t mean it needs to become more casual friendly — its grit and difficulty are what keep the adrenaline flowing and the experience unique even while killing that 200th troll for your title.
Aventurine definitely seems to be working harder at it: the grind is still steep but it’s nothing like it used to be; I actually feel like I will one day be PvP-ready, now, whereas I quit before partially out of hopelessness at how much time I’d have to invest to pull it off. They’ve also added more mobs, more quests, and more goodies.
But, with some glowing exceptions, the community is still pretty hostile to new players on the aggregate. Newb zones are still griefed pretty hard, the honor of folks’ moms and dogs is still called into routine question, and anyone with a thin skin is sent running back to a more mainstream MMORPG in pretty short order. Which I don’t get, frankly: the new players of today are the loot pinatas of tomorrow, aren’t they?
As friends, coworkers and acquaintances vanished back into World of Warcraft never to be heard from again, I stuck to my guns and didn’t shell out for Cataclysm. This was partially out of boredom with WoW (I’d only just deactivated at the end of the last Arena season, realizing it was all that was really holding my interest), partially out of not wanting to shell out $40 for an expansion that I adamantly believe should have been $20, and mostly out of not wanting to let WoW vacuum up any of more of my time. I grapple with addiction to multiplayer games in ways that aren’t issues with single player experiences.
So, reactivating Darkfall and suggesting my sister join me (she’s also boycotting the Cataclysm launch, for her own reasons) on a trial account was a terrible idea. In the past 3 days I’ve played like 18 hours. With apparent improvements to the speed of skillgains I finally got Lesser Magic over the hump, people, allowing me to learn Greater Magic, my skill in which is rapidly closing on 50, which will allow me to learn the Witchcraft, Fire and Air schools of magic I’ve always dreamed of.
The Clan I’d joined booted me for inactivity while I was away, so for the time being I’m going it alone with my sister, who’s faced with starting DF’s daunting skill grind totally afresh and, as far as I can tell, is loving it. We’ve already been ganked by an old friend of mine, by which I mean an inveterate newbie killer who nailed me countless times back in the day. The more things change.
And Darkfall has changed. In addition to my Darkfall travelogue 2009 prophecies coming more or less true for NA-1, the game now has a web-accessible offline skilling mode which was supposed to help narrow the gap between new and established players but as near as I can tell is only going to make it worse because of its prohibitive in-game currency cost. It’s also got quite a bit more PvE content, most of which I can’t report on because it’s largely huge things in farflung lands that I, respectively, can’t handle and have never seen.
Maybe once Cata’s no longer the toast of the interwebs (or $40) I’ll see you there. Meanwhile, while you and your 11 millionish best pals won’t shut up about how cool it is to be a wolfman, I’ma slip off into the shadows to play a forgotten game and the wolfman (well, -woman) I’ve been for years. If Darkfall‘s taught me anything it’s that it’s a lot safer in the shadows.