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. 

The End of LA Noire

Warning: The following blog contains SPOILERS for LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption, the first episode of Mad Men, and The Departed.


It feels like it took me most of the summer, but I finally finished LA Noire. As a whole, I really enjoyed the game--it took some risks, and in some areas, it paid off. But the ending? Man, that was totally unsatisfying. And I feel like the best way to show why, is to start from the final scene and go backwards. Let the nerd rant begin!

Who cares?
The final scene takes place at Cole Phelps' funeral. The eulogy is delivered by a crooked cop and the stage is filled with crooked government officials--all of which Cole had hoped to bust. It's a scene very similar to the modern noire movie The Departed. The viewer is left feeling sad, tricked, vengeful and angry for the main character, but also a tiny bit happy, because in a small way, he did some good.  It's a tone that reminds you how fragile life is, and that in the real world, it takes more than one man to topple a corrupt system. At least, that's how you feel at the end of The Departed. Why? Because the makers of the film were able to build a connection between you and the main character, in two hours or less.

You do not feel that way about Cole Phelps at the end of LA Noire. There is no connection, which is amazing since you spend not just two, but more than 12 hours actually controlling the man. Unfortunately staring at the back of a guy's head for hours on end is a poor substitute for character development. Let me be clear, I'm not upset that Cole dies at the end; happy endings aren't exactly a noire staple. These type of stories usually deal in pessimism, nihilism, cynicism and several other pejorative "isms". What bothers me is the incompleteness of the entire package. I couldn't shake the feeling that some important scenes got cut from the game, at least I hope they did. If not, that means the developers just outright forgot to include them.

Wait...what?
Don Draper, the main character in the AMC drama Mad Men, is a scumbag. That's not really a spoiler. I've only watched the first two seasons, but I've seen him sleep with enough women that aren't his wife to know that he's got a problem. I don't like infidelity, it's terrible, and I hate that men are stupid and cheat, but I still enjoy Mad Men--a show where just about every male with a speaking role is cheating on his significant other. The reason I can get past it is because the show does a great job of showing you why Don Draper cheats, beyond the whole sleazy scumbag thing. Sometimes it's because of the cultural and social issues of the time (people didn't talk about how they felt). Sometimes it seems as if he's attempting to salve old, never-mended wounds. And then there are times where it seems he cheats because, despite his age, he doesn't really know who he is. None of those are good justifications for infidelity, but they are justifications. If we squint our eyes and tilt our heads, we can kind of see where he's coming from.

Not so with Cole Phelps. His affair with Elsa is a major plot development, a catalyst that sets a number of gears in motion for the end game, and yet it's totally underdeveloped. It just doesn't mesh with who he is. You spend the first two thirds of the game playing as a straight shooter, a borderline extreme rule follower. Cole seems morally unflappable. He mentions his wife and kids a couple of times (though you never see them), and he even seems to take issue with always having to go after the husbands in a string of female homicides. Midway through the game Cole goes to Elsa's apartment, paces in front of the door, and then knocks and enters. That's it. That's the affair. I wasn't sure what to make of that scene when it happened. I remember thinking, "Did he just cheat on his wife? Surely this is for a case right? It's going to seem like he's up to no good, but eventually we'll find out he was just working with her to bust the bad guys. Yeah, Cole wouldn't do that."

The developers sold the boy scout image too hard. When Cole gets caught and demoted, I was confused. The first and only time we see his wife, she's throwing his stuff out on the street, and he starts to tell her that she doesn't understand. I didn't either. At this point I was still holding on to the straight shooter image. I thought, "Here we go, he's going to say it's all a mix up. Elsa was a witness and her life was in danger or something." Wrong again!

At that point every one of Cole's colleagues hated him for his cheating ways, and as a player, I did too. An extended flirtatious scene with Elsa (beyond the time that Cole goes to watch her sing), a tense scene with his wife prior to the affair, or even one of the traumatic war flashbacks thrown in at the end of the game could have humanized Cole a bit. Cole's affair is so abrupt that you get the feeling that something was cut, that maybe they did include a scene that would have explained it more, or developed his character a bit before, but it got cut for some reason. The abrupt switch might have worked in a short movie, but not here, not after you've spent hours playing an infallible super cop that plays by the rules, busts bad guys, and reprimands anyone that shows even the slightest bit of moral laziness.

I would have been willing to follow Cole and go along with the infidelity plot twist if I had any idea why it happened. I know before the first episode of Mad Men is over that Don Draper is a troubled man. He's troubled, but still likeable, I still want to root for him. Cole Phelps isn't written that way, and he should have been--it would have made his death much more poignant. Also, it's hard not to compare the writing in this game to Mad Men because they take place around the same time, and much of the supporting cast in the show--including the actor that plays Cole Phelps--make appearances in the game.

What a way to go
You know what else would have made his death more poignant? If he didn't go out like a loser. For reasons unknown, the sewers Cole finds himself in at the end of the game are flooding. This isn't some kind of simple storm-induced overflow. This is a manhole shattering, dam-busting surge of water. Where did it come from? It felt so incredibly contrived. If they were going to kill Cole, they should have done it with a shot to the back by one of the many corrupt cops he was trying to stop. They wanted him to die doing something selfless, I know, but man, what a dumb way to go.

Following our "this was done better somewhere else" format, let's take a look at Red Dead Redemption, another Rock Star game. It was a shame to see John Marston die, and that was because we knew how happy he was. If John would have died before reuniting with his family, it wouldn't have been as sad. Instead he spends the whole game talking about his family, and then he returns to them, a free man. You play a handful of slow missions that show John working around his farm and attempting to mend his rocky relationship with his son. Then, in a cruel twist, John is gunned down by the men that put him in the initial predicament. He's not mauled by a bear or swept off a cliff in a rockslide, he's shot dead, and as the player, you're there squeezing his trigger finger as he dies. It's a tough pill to swallow, and when you take control of his son and find that secret mission that lets you track and kill the man responsible for John's murder, it's mostly satisfying.

Close, so close
What's frustrating in LA Noire is that you can see what the developers were trying to do, and you can see where they messed up. Cole is a troubled man; a war "hero" that doesn't deserve the accolades. He made some huge mistakes and got rewarded for them, and now he's trying to live up to the heroic image he accidentally created. You don't get a sense that this bothers Cole until the very end of the game. The vague flashbacks show you some of the things he did that obviously scarred him, but the important ones are all stacked at the end of the game, after he has an affair. Had we seen some of that stuff early on, we might have understood why he fumbled the ball and screwed up his marriage.

The final nail in the coffin is the late game switch to Jack Kelso, a private investigator that served with Cole in the war. Cole and Jack weren't friends, but as Jack says at Cole's funeral, they weren't enemies either. Jack is far better developed as a character than Cole. We see him get into some trouble early in the game, and we know that he had issues with Cole's leadership abilities in the war. We also see that he's a morally upright man that does his best to do what's right, even when there doesn't really seem to be a "right" option.

Playing as Jack is great because you feel like you can really get behind him--you understand his motivations. When he finally meets up with Cole and the two agree to work together, it's Jack that starts to clear things up. He gives Cole a talk about bravery and courage that shines a light on the source of their friction, and Cole's personal struggle. It's at this point that I finally started feeling for Cole. I was still a little mad about how sloppily his character was developed up until that point, but at least I understood him more. This would have been an excellent point to turn control back over to Cole. You should have finished the last few missions with him, not with Jack. We should have played as Cole. We should have seen him break the rules he lived and worked by in order to save Elsa and stop the bad guy. The game sets you up for that--as Cole you help keep crooked cops off Jack's tail on his way to the sewers--but then takes it away.

In the final sequence, after the car chase, Jack and Cole meet up at the sewers to get to the bad guy. The two split up and instead of following Cole, the game drops you in Jack's shoes and puts you through a series of bland firefights with non-descript thugs that have no reason to be there. The Call of Duty-like mission is bad enough, why do you have to play it as Jack? He served his purpose--he showed us who Cole was. You should have played as Cole during that last bit. He should have been the one to gun down all those guys to get to Elsa. It would have made the final scene, where Jack talks him down from killing the guy that took Elsa, hit so much harder. That was their last opportunity to save the game and deliver on the noire tone ending they were obviously trying to create, and they screwed it up.

So I've now officially spent way too much time complaining about the end of LA Noire. As a gamer, a writer and a storyteller, I was pretty disappointed with how it ended up. Overall, I really enjoyed the game, especially early on. There's nothing else quite like it. The narrative structure and pacing is a mess, but the gameplay is a lot of fun. As a video game enthusiast, I'm happy I played it, even if I am a little let down by the story. Have you finished LA Noire? Have you read this far down? What did you think?