Narrowing my choices for Game of the Year down even to the best game on each system, and one game excluded from the rest of the categories and put on its own pedestal, was not an easy task. This was the first year that I made a concentrated effort to actually play everything I could, even if it wasn’t particularly up my alley. This included games like Battlefield 3’s campaign, which did not exceed my estimation of it, but allowed me to take risks on games like Deus Ex that I honestly admit I wasn’t interested in before it released.
My actual game of the year choices, broken down by systems (with the exceptions of handhelds being grouped together because it was kind of slim pickings on all four), are in the above video. But I’m not at all disciplined enough to only list a few games, even though it should probably only be one. So, here’s a supplement where I explain what just narrowly missed the list and why. This is going to be a long list, so strap-in.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Skyrim is one of the games that I really had to wrestle with to decide what place it had on my list. The game is amazing, there’s simply no getting around that. It takes the Bethesda Formula and, rather than turning it on its head, refines the hell out of it. Skyrim is as much an adventure as games can get. What ultimately kept it off the list is that Quality Assurance at Bethesda essentially does not exist or it exists in the same way Darth Vader exists, just because people dress up as him and call themselves Darth Vader does not make them an actual manifestation of a fictional character. While it’s easy to argue that Bethesda games simply wouldn’t have the ambition and scope without ignoring consistent functionality, as an end-user, I find it difficult to reward that kind of thinking. Bethesda designed an amazing game and programmed an awful one.
Saint’s Row: The Third - By far my biggest surprise of the year, if you had told me in January that Saint’s Row 3 would be a Game of the Year contender, I would have laughed in your face. But here we are and Saint’s Row is not simply one of the best games released in 2011, but one of the best open-world games this generation. It is designed foremost as a game, one that appeals to base, testosterone-driven instincts, but a game nonetheless. The writing is as comfortable referencing porn stars as it is referencing the composer behind Cowboy Bebop. The designers used their talent to make the game fun instead of making it “cinematic” and it works. The reason Saint’s Row ultimately did not make my list is that a rough amount of padding in the middle of the game really threw me for a loop. That, combined with some feature-rollback from the previous game (in what seems suspiciously like a DLC cashgrab), some bad co-op netcode, and some occasionally wonky controls brought the game down from “Godly” to “Fantastic.” Unfortunately, “fantastic” isn’t good enough to cross the finish line this year.
Ultimate/Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - I will freely admit that my years’ past addiction to Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was ultimately rooted in ignorance. I did not know how to play that game, or really any fighting game, with anything beyond a style analogous to a fish gasping for air on a sidewalk. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 came shortly after whatever Street Fighter IV-related epiphany I had that made me understand that fighting games had systems with rules and consistency and I was eager to apply that to Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Now that I feel like I have a working knowledge of the game, I enjoy it a lot, to the extent where I’ll whittle away hours playing with friends and eagerly anticipating minimizing skill gaps between us. The game couldn’t make my list, however, because of how poorly developed everything outside the fighting system is. It is a fanservice game with often terrible fanservice, especially anything Frank Tieri has touched. The original game shipped with a barely functional online mode and it wasn’t until Ultimate nine months later that lobby play with more than two people became theoretically palatable. Even in the newest version of the game, there’s a pathetic amount of levels, on-disc costume DLC for every character, and incredibly slow reaction to unanimously-considered “overpowered” characters. Sorry, Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Maybe you should have gotten it right the first time instead of every successive version being slightly more finished.
Radiant Historia - Let me get this out of the way: this game is fucking bullshit. It’s beautiful, inventive, often refreshing bullshit, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. Radiant Historia presents such an attractive package. For example, characters that, while not exceptionally well-written, buck modern JRPG trends and tap directly in to your nostalgia for the SNES-era of RPGs. It has an interesting battle system, a time traveling mechanic that fundamentally affects the gameplay, and a story that is “on” more often than not. The problem is that the game hates you. Need to save? How about respawning enemies that drop on your when you approach the save point? Time to progress in the game? Well, run across this wilderness you just already ran across, but this time in the other direction. I’d love the game if it showed the same care and concern back, but this is a game meant for stronger men than me.
The Witcher 2 - The Witcher 2 is probably the game I feel the worst about leaving off my list. It is beyond a competent venture, it is probably the best actual RPG of the year. In fact, I’d venture to say that, to the right people, it runs circles around Skyrim in more than just the obvious graphical superiority. The Witcher 2 is proof that developers who waste AAA budgets, massive teams, and years of development on games that are half of what this game turned out to be are merely spinning their wheels. Where the game needs to improve, however, are things that probably result from my inability to parse it. Everything works, once you understand it, but getting to “understanding” is a journey in and of itself. The Witcher 2 is, in many ways, oppressive, and that does not always work to its benefit.
Sonic Generations - I am not going to lie and say Sonic had an honest shot of making my Game of the Year list. The game was plainly unfinished and no amount of mental gymnastics could get me to slide it in above far more deserving games. What it is, however, is the best Sonic game in years and absolutely one of the best looking games in years. Had Sega the courage to launch the game in six months and build more content (a single level per game, and often conflating games together, is simply not enough for a nostalgia-driven product), there would be no question about Sonic’s return to being Mario’s contemporary. But, they didn’t, and the game suffered for it. What’s there is fun and the budget price for the PC version is more fair than a lot of Sonic fans would like to admit, but the game could have and should have been better.
Batman: Arkham City - I am a firm believer that, despite Uncharted 2’s quality, the real gem of 2009 was Arkham Asylum. Arkham City is that game and more, but its impact is less than Asylum’s for a number of reasons. I am rarely one of those people that says “It’s just as good, and often better, but that’s not enough.” A game should be measured on its own merits. But the extent to which Arkham City does not feel as groundbreaking is palatable and begins to affect the actual gameplay experience. Halfway through the game, you still feel like you’re not doing anything new and the fact that the game cannot keep things fresh within its own walls begins to make things feel stagnant. Perhaps if the Catwoman sections were not hastily thrown in to the “Punish Used Buyers” zone, they could have been integrated more cleanly in to the main story to shake things up. As it stands, it is a 100% competent Batman game, and one of the best games of the year, but rightly or wrongly, I leave disappointed that it’s not more than that.
Super Mario 3D Land - If I were doing genre awards instead of by system, Super Mario 3D Land would have walked away with the award for Platformers without much second-guessing. It is a focused attempt to marry 2D and 3D Mario gameplay that mostly succeeds. Where the game falters is that the difficulty curve may be most accurately portrayed as a flat line that, eight worlds in, takes a sharp vertical leap up for the next eight worlds. I have no problem with the increase in difficulty, the problem is the lack of it beforehand. The game is a slow burn, an enjoyable one, but ultimately one that spends half of a game on nearly skill-less challenges. Instead of becoming a classic Mario game, right up there with the best 2D ones, it sees fit to spend 50% of its own design on making sure you can handle the other 50%.
Dark Souls - Attempting to explain why I like Dark Souls proves just as difficult as the game itself. To watch me play it would be to entirely misread my feelings about it. The game stops you, mocks you, frustrates you, but it can be impossibly addictive despite all this. What kept it from winning an overall award is primarily that I didn’t have enough time to play it. The game requires massive amounts of uninterrupted sit-down time to make headway and this is becoming rarer and rarer. Throw in poor attempts at hardware optimization (Blighttown) and some broken online functions at launch and the game just narrowly misses PS3 game of the year.
Bulletstorm - I got Bulletstorm not knowing entirely what to make of it. While it initially seemed like a shock-value Duke Nukem wannabe, the actual minute-to-minute gameplay was a fantastically fresh FPS experience in a sea of boring, modern combat corridor shooters. It was beautiful, colorful, varied, and surprisingly funny. The game could have been something big if the developers put in substantial multiplayer, even if they wholly ripped-off another game to do it. That and the refusal to actually close out the story in an attempt to drum up hype for a sequel (that we now know is not planned) really ends things on a sour note. But if Bulletstorm had succeeded, it would have made for a fantastic jumping off point for the evolution of the first-person shooter.
Catherine - One of the things I like to stress about Catherine is that, past weird anime-esque ending and the block puzzles, the game might be the only example of an “adult” (notice the small a) video game that we have this generation. It may have twitching eyebrows, it may have predictable twists, but that’s not the point. If you’ve ever had a pregnancy scare or been unsure of your life or your relationship, Catherine (the video game, not the character) can speak to you if you allow it to. There will be people who will always be steadfastly against the kind of game Catherine is, but few other titles have moved the medium forward like this game has by simply not talking down to its audience.
There are so many other games I could list, but this is long enough as-is. If you pick out any game from the video or even the long list of runners up, then you’ll probably have a good time.