My Top Ten Games of 2011

2011 was a fantastic year for video games. This year we saw a lot of sequels, which some would call stagnation. I call it maturation. The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are nearing the end of their life cycles, and the franchises that started when those consoles were new came to a close. Many of the games we saw this year had numbers attached, in fact only two of the games on this list can be considered "new", but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think the games of 2011 did a lot for the industry and the medium. Through thoughtful iteration, the 2011 games showed us new ways to tell stories, new ways to make old mechanics fresh, and new designs that will bring in new players. Here are the top 10 games I played this year. 

 

10. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

 

There's not much to say on this one. If you've played either of the previous two Assassin's Creed games, you know how this one plays. It's more of the same, yes, but I still enjoyed my time with Assassin's Creed this year. The final chapter in Ezio's story was a good send off, and I think some of the incremental improvements in this year's game were excellent, particularly in terms of story delivery and mission design.  I'm ready, and excited, to see the series go in a new direction.

9. LA Noire

Looking back at LA Noire, it's easy to see the faults. The story falls short in many places, and there are all kinds of head scratching narrative and gameplay quirks. But when I think back to my first four or five hours with the game, I remember how amazing it was--the facial animation, the acting, the adventure game style gameplay, the staggering attention to detail, the faithful rendition of 1940s LA--the wow factor is hard to deny. Since the studio behind the game shut down not long after the game was released, it doesn't look like we'll ever see more LA Noire, which makes this experience all the more unique.

8. Bastion

Bastion is a tough game to stop playing. Whether it's the story, doled out piece by piece through brilliant narration,  the unique levels, perfectly created for in and out play sessions, or the cool weapons, which come fast and frequent, there's always something new just around the corner. The lush art style, twangy music and neat story development are backed up by solid action gameplay. Bastion was made by a very small team, and its high quality is a testament to the hard work, dedication and passion of those people.

7. Infamous 2

Like Batman and Assassin's Creed, Infamous 2 is one of those games that makes the simple act of traversal fun. There's something about the super powered locomotion in this game that never gets old. I enjoyed the first Infamous, but it felt too rough around the edges. I also hated the main character, Cole. Whether you played him good or evil, he was still an unlikable douche. That changed in Infamous 2, along with a number of other things. Story segments got a huge upgrade, with better animation, emotion and camera work, and the characters were more likable, and often kind of funny. Who would have thought that liking the main character would make him more fun to play as? Duh. There were still some rough edges in Infamous 2, but they weren't as prominent this time. I have high hopes for a sequel if they ever do one. After the improvements made in this game, I'll be first in line to play the next.

6. Batman: Arkham City

As superheroes go, I've always found Batman insane. He has to be right? Someone killed his parents, and instead of therapy (which he certainly could have afforded), he lets the trauma bubble inside him until he becomes an adult, and then funnels it into an unhealthy obsession with justice. Also, he wears a bat costume. I've always seen his struggle against the crime lords of Gotham as a crazy man against crazier people, not a hero against villains. Arkham City reinforces this a bit, painting a picture of a Batman that has way too many gadgets, too many bad guys to beat, and is deadlier than any sane man not employed by the US Special Forces should be. I found the tone of the game inconsistent, constantly flitting between the realism of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movie and the over-the-top zaniness of the comic book world. The story was still fun though, and it had an excellent ending--somehow, despite my knowledge of the Batman rogues gallery, I didn't see it coming. The gameplay is top notch, by the way. The combat alone makes this game worthy of a spot in my top 10. The longer you play it, the better it gets. It's accessible and deep at the same time, rewarding those that want to button mash, and those that want to be precise.  It looks awesome too, with smooth transitions and bone shattering hits.

5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I didn't think I'd like this game as much as I did. The doofy gruff voice acting and Matrix-like appearance of the main character was a big turn off for me. But I pressed on anyway, and I'm glad I did. The cyber-punk world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution is dense and thought provoking. The choices you're given in how you develop your character are great, as is the grimy Blade Runner-esque visual style, but what really struck me was the "nowness" of the story. The themes running through the game--the haves vs. the have nots, playing god through science, the double sided coin of danger and revolutionary discovery technology is constantly flipping--they all felt relevant. There was a lot of social commentary going on, some of it subtle, some of it obvious. Still, it sucked me in. It might be set 30 or 40 years in the future, but something about the game felt very 2011, if that makes any sense. I went in to Deus Ex expecting some kind of futuristic adventure, where my decisions impacted the main character and those around him, just like most games. I didn't expect to be blindsided by very real themes, struggles and decisions extrapolated from the problems currently (or soon to be) plaguing our culture and society.

4. Gears of War 3

Gears 3 came out one week before my son was born. On my final weekend before becoming a dad, I blasted through the game and its various modes. It was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as far as the story goes, and it was a satisfying end to my video game playing...for a while. It's weird to think that the whole shooting dudes from behind cover thing wasn't really a thing until the first Gears of War several years ago. So many games have cribbed that mechanic in such a short time. While Gears 3 isn't nearly as influential or revolutionary as the first game, it's still a ton of fun to play. The developers at Epic have polished their cover-based shooting game design to perfection. You do one thing through the entirety of Gears of War 3--shoot dudes--and it remains fun the whole time. I came back to Gears 3 on Christmas with my brother. We have a tradition of beating every Gears game on Insane. We didn't make it all the way through in the time we had, but we covered a lot of ground, and had a great time.

3. Uncharted 3

The Uncharted games are all about the set pieces, and the third installment does not disappoint. Sure, the story falters in some key areas, and that's kind of a bummer, but the set pieces man! On Christmas Eve I went to see Mission Impossible 4, and mid-way through the movie it really hit me how much playing Uncharted 3 is like playing an action movie. The game puts you in some amazing situations and always makes sure you're in control. Even if you're just holding up on the stick to escape a sinking ship, or chase a bad guy through a middle eastern city, you're still there, taking part in the action. Where other games take control away to show your character doing something cool, Uncharted 3 keeps you in it. In ever pulse-pounding, adrenaline fueled moment, you're behind the wheel, and that's awesome. To me, the plane crash sequence and the desert wandering sequence that follows it, are two of the best scripted moments in video games this year. This is a game to get a Playstation 3 for. If you already have one, this is a game you show your non-gaming friends, and then watch their jaws drop.

2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I'm about 20 hours into Skyrim, and I've only scratched the surface. I think when that fact sinks in--for me it was around the 10 hour mark--is when most people realize how amazing this game is. Yes, this game has a massive amount of content, and that in itself is incredible. Twenty hours is enough time to play most games on this list twice. But what's truly remarkable about Skyrim is the quality of all that content. There is so much going on, and so many different systems at work that it really feels like you're a part of a world. The character customization is so deep that it feels like your specific Skyrim experience is unique. Sometimes I forget that millions of other people out there are playing the same quests, because I feel like the ones I'm pursuing play out in ways unique to my character, which is partly true.  I can't wait to play them again as a different race/class/gender/species. I had some fun with the last Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, but it didn't hook me like Skyrim. The improvements made to this new game are vast. The combat and magic, the storytelling, the atmosphere, it's all better. Skyrim is a rich universe on a disc, and it's a joy to discover.

1. Portal 2

Portal 2 is a game that makes me proud to be known as a video game nerd. It sits on the perfection shelf next to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Super Mario Bros. 3. I love everything about it. Starting with the writing, which is sharp, witty and genuinely funny--thanks in part to the phenomenal voice acting (Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is my character of the year, in any medium). It's rare that a game makes me laugh out loud. I remember calling my wife in the room several times saying, "Come here, listen to how clever this is!" In true Valve (the developer) fashion, the story unfolds through excellent dialog and atmosphere. They are masters of showing.

And that's just the story, mere window dressing to the mind bending puzzles. I've heard that Valve focus tests the mess out of their games, and it shows in Portal 2. Every puzzle is just right in terms of difficulty. Just hard enough to make you feel like a genius for solving them, but never hard enough to make you quit in frustration. The cooperative two player puzzles are even better. Finally, if you're as big a nerd as me, playing through the game a second time with the developer commentary on (something more games should do) is a real treat. You get to see how much thought went in to every design decision. Every action teaches you something about the gameplay, the world, the story and/or the characters. Nothing is wasted.

Portal 2 is  my game of the year because it's so well-rounded. It does everything right, and it satisfies every facet of my personality. As a writer, a storyteller, an artist, a gamer and a geek, I love Portal 2. It's more than just a video game, it is an example of what the medium can do, a champion for our expensive electronic hobby, an amazing experience. 

Course Correcting Assassin's Creed

I think most fans of Assassin’s Creed were rightfully nervous when Ubisoft announced just months after the stellar second installment in 2009 that the series would become a yearly franchise. We waited two years between the first and second game, and the improvements were vast, how could they do the same in a year? 2010’s AC: Brotherhood turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In just 12 months Ubisoft managed to flesh out the gameplay, refine some existing features, and add a unique, and genuinely fun multiplayer component.

After such a successful turnaround on Brotherhood, I was more than happy to purchase Revelations, the 2011 game, on day one. It’s definitely a great game, and if you like Assassin’s Creed, you’ll enjoy it, but it doesn’t move the series forward much. What it does do is offer further refinement of the core mechanics, and some glimpses at interesting gameplay and story possibilities for the franchise. Also if you liked the multiplayer, it’s even better here.

With Revelations, the AC franchise has reached a fork in the road. One direction leads to further innovation and exciting new gameplay elements. The other direction leads to the death of the franchise through stagnation and over saturation. Here’s what I think Ubisoft should do more of to stay on the right path, and what they should do less of to avoid the bargain bin.

More Customization

It’s fun to buy different armor, weapons and clothing for Ezio, but I’d like to see them take the customization a step further. You start Revelations with an overwhelming number of moves. You’ve got access to every item from the previous games, plus a slew of new bombs and a handful of new hook blade abilities. Revelations does a poor job of introducing you to the old gadgets, instead focusing on the new stuff. But I didn’t really need the new stuff. I didn’t use bombs much because I still had knives, and a gun, and a crossbow, and poison darts and Assassin’s to call. That’s a lot of stuff! I would love to see my play style rewarded and the inventory simplified through a Deus Ex-like leveling system. Instead of giving me everything, let me choose what I want. Then let me level up the things I like. Instead of just buying a bigger pouch for knives, make it a perk on a knife skill tree. Revelations gives you a zillion different options, but when the stuff introduced in AC 2 still works so well, there’s little incentive to branch out. I think a RPG-like leveling system, complete with perks and cool unlocks, would do just that.

More Linear Level Excursions

Brotherhood and Revelations featured some excellent one-off levels that had a clear linear path. The change of scenery and gameplay focus—you can’t just free run any old way to your objective—is refreshing and fun. You can tell the designers enjoy these levels too, as the interior linear levels in Revelations feature some of the series’ best technical and artistic design. I’d like to see more of these levels in future games. Maybe turn the main city into a hub, and have up to half of the missions take place elsewhere. That makes room for more environmental and platforming puzzles, which adds variety to the core gameplay loop.

More Consequential Platforming

The addition of the hook blade makes platforming in Revelations more participatory, and that’s a good thing. Sure, it still looks cool to see Ezio parkour all over ancient buildings, but after four games of sitting and holding up, it was getting old. The hook blade requires a button press in most platforming situations. Now chase sequences actually require timing and skill. I’d love to see them take this a step further. Add a slide or roll maneuver, or just find more ways to use the hook blade while free running to build momentum. I’d like to see games as whole break away from the whole autopilot thing. I want to play my games. Revelations lets you play more than any Assassins’ Creed game before it.

Less Tower Defense

You may have heard that Revelations features a tower defense minigame. It's not aggressively bad, but it's not fun either. Because it serves as a punishment for letting your notoriety get too high, it's not something you look forward to. Also, it totally breaks the fiction of the series. The past three games build the war between the assassins and templars as a secret war, happening in plain site. Huge armies of both factions battling in the middle of the street over a random tower is the opposite of secretive.

Less Convolution

I like the AC series because it fills that conspiracy theory hole that Lost left in my life. I like the mystery of the animus and first civilization, and the crazy secret war between two factions, but I think Ubisoft needs to reign it in a bit. I hope the next game contains some concrete answers that push the story and game world forward. This is a lucrative franchise for Ubisoft, so I doubt it will end with next year’s game. If they want to stay relevant, they can’t continue to rely on the same conflict. I suggest they start with a face to the Templar name. Each game has stretched the Templar name further, using it as a vague and generic term for bad guy. Give us a true villain, a bad guy leader, in the next game. Put Desmond up against something or someone other than “them”.

Less Face Changes

Revelations opens with a quick recap from the first two games. In it you see Desmond, wearing his white hoody. Then the game starts and you see Desmond in a black hoody…but the changes don’t stop at his clothing. For some reason, after three games, the developers decided to change Desmond’s character model. It’s immediately noticeable and off putting because they open with the old model in the recap. The new Desmond looks all puffy and swollen and dumb. They should change him back. The other character's faces have changed with age, and their changes look appropriate. There's no reason for Desmond looking like he got hit with an ugly stick. This one is nitpicky, I know, but it drove me crazy nonetheless. If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.

Revelations hints at some cool changes for the series, but it also hints at some potential missteps. The story in this new game offers little forward movement, choosing instead to focus on the back story of its main characters. It’s kind of a bummer that the cliffhanger in Brotherhood isn’t addressed, but at least the character development for Altair, Ezio and Desmond is top notch. The writing and gameplay works together to paint Ezio as a master assassin and mentor, and it’s neat to see how much he’s matured since the first game. I recommend watching AC: Embers, the cool animated short, when you finish Revelations if you want to check in on Ezio one last time. As for Altair and Desmond, we finally get to see why the former was so revered (because the first game certainly didn’t make him out to be an amazing guy) and why the latter is so special.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Revelations, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in to get the rest of the single player achievements—which has become a bit of a tradition for me with AC games. The turnaround since the last game was fast, but as Stephen Totilo pointed out in his excellent review, no one has done a game like Assassin’s Creed since the last Assassin’s Creed. I don’t know about you, but I’m happy to come back every season for more. Let’s hope next year’s is even better.