First, a short note of introduction - my name is Matt Pierce and I wrote the Rage article from two weeks back. Brian liked what I wrote and asked if I'd like to contribute more so we're trying it on to see how it goes.
He'll probably come to regret it when I submit all of my articles in crayon.
I feel compelled to point out, though, that I'm really in no position to declare myself a "video game journalist." I love playing games, sure, and I'm interested in the industry as a topic - but I definitely don't make it a point to play games as soon as they come out or to play all new releases to completion just so that I can construct a coherent review.
The point being that I don't feel I could possibly look at the long list of games I didn't play this year and tell you which ones were the real stand-outs. Not honestly, at least.
Jimmie Johnson's Anything With an Engine: GOTY 2011 because as long as I'm picking blind I may as well pick stupid too.
When done well, GOTY lists aren't just an acknowledgement of the things we all know to be popular. At their best they give readers a list of good games that - assuming you don’t have the kind of game-playing time that a game reviewer has - you may have missed throughout the last year.
So in that spirit -and since I really don't have a wide enough experience to rank them - here’s an unordered list of games I enjoyed in the last year and why.
Rage (PC, PS3, 360)
The only other article I’ve written for Nitrobeard is a giant meandering love letter for Rage, so I don’t really want to rehash it in its entirety. The short, short version, however, is that it’s a super-solid and straightforward shooter with a healthy variety of environments, missions, and enemy types. There’s a certain shallowness to the story that sells it short, but if you’d missed out on it previously then maybe it’s a good time to pick it up since it’s discounted everywhere.
Mass Effect 2 (PS3)
This is another one I won’t dwell on - and it only barely makes sense on this list. ME2 came out in 2010 on the X-Box 360 and PC, but PS3 owners had to wait until January 2011. If you weren’t really looking at the Mass Effect series because owning a PS3 was locking you out of it then definitely jump on this bandwagon.
The cover-based third-person shooting part of it is well done and exciting, while the resource/party management RPG elements are also well executed. In general it’s an incredibly solid entry in a solid series that X-Box and PC gamers have been enjoying for a few years now.
Also there’s human-on-alien nookie - wooooo
The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword (Wii)
This one’s no surprise, and you probably already know what’s what with the most anticipated Wii game of 2011. There’s a slow start to get through here, but once you do there's nothing but an incredibly well-made single player experience waiting behind it. There's a giant cast of interesting characters to talk to as well as a massive amount of optional side-quests.
When you eventually get bored with the main quest grind you can lose yourself for a few hours checking out the neighboring islands or talking to the townsfolk - and the whole affair just exudes charm the entire time.
Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection (3DS)
This is another questionable entry as it’s a port of the 2008 Wii game by the same name - but that was a small enough release that I’m willing to bet that most people let it pass on by.
The premise is simple - take a solid pinball physics engine, build a set of some of the better classic Williams tables, and present that in 3D - and while the depth perception could’ve been handled better you end up with a great piece of gaming nostalgia representing a form of entertainment that’s become harder and harder to come by since arcades bit the dust. (I'm sure there must be some closer, but the nearest pinball machine I can think of off the top of my head is more than a 2 hours' drive away in Hershey Park.)
There are a couple of tables missing that were in the Wii version (notably the all-analog Jive Time), as well as a noticeable drop in framerate, but you really couldn’t ask for a better pick-up-and-play portable game than pinball.
Forza Motorsport 4 (360)
There’s one really serious and valid knock against Forza Motorsport 4 - it’s little more than a point release update for Forza Motorsport 3. It has almost all the same flaws and failings, not to mention having mostly the same cars and tracks.
But that being said, there’s only one very narrow group of gamers to whom I wouldn’t recommend FM4: people who bought FM3 and didn’t like it. If you don’t own FM3 then FM4 is all totally new to you. If you did like FM3 then you’ll definitely like a game that’s 99% the same (you just might not find it to be good value for the money). While Turn 10 haven’t fixed many of the issues from FM3, they also haven’t broken any of it - so it’s still the phenomenal piece of work that put Polyphony Digital on notice.
For your money you get a ton of cars, a ton of tracks, and a ton of events. Just skip the really awkward career mode and go straight for the event selection menu that lets you decide what you want to race and when.
The only serious complaint I have with it is that it’s perhaps a little too easy. The game is essentially throwing cars at me - and at a rate far faster than I can actually use them.
All that being said - if you own both consoles and no racing games, I'd still say to go for Gran Turismo 5.
I've put 18,000 miles into it and I'm still playing - so either it's great or I'm crazy. Or both.
Saints Row: The Third (PC, PS3, 360)
Let me take a moment here to talk to the few of you who haven’t already picked this up - maybe you’re like me in that you don’t typically like GTA-like games, or that you never played any of the other Saints Row games, or that you don’t typically like directionless open-world environments. This game is totally worth it anyway.
The writing is fantastic, and the characters are absolutely phenomenal. You’ll love the running gags and the general weirdness of the game world and - unlike Grand Theft Auto - Saints Row is willing totally to commit to being satire.
The result, insanely enough, is a rich cast of characters who seem somewhat real. Real people are sarcastic. Real people make jokes and rag on their friends. The game feels more lifelike and more realistic because the characters feel more like real people.
But once the game is a playable joke, that gives the developers license to go completely and totally overboard and - without spoiling any story beats - one of the great ways it manifests is in the weapon and vehicle selection. Sure, you could drive down the street in your big gangster sedan and hop out and fire on your enemies with a shotgun - or you could fly over on your VTOL jet and blow them away with your wire-frame arm-cannon.
Pictured: Option B. Also my character is a robot latina who wears fishnets.
Pilotwings Resort (3DS)
Sure, the downside to this game is that it’s largely a tech demo for the 3DS intended to show off the 3D screen. But the upside is that in true Pilotwings tradition the game is centered around the experience of flying and exploration. It’s not intense, and it’s not a grind. Instead it’s a peaceful and relaxing experience for those times you want to unwind - but it still manages to be a game with goals, progression, and a difficulty curve.
There are a lot of titles repeated from GOTY list to GOTY list, so these things tend to get repetitive. In order to reduce a little of that, here’s a few of the most obvious ones.
- Portal 2 (PC, PS3, 360) - it’s fantastic, funny, and it’ll get your mind moving. If you haven’t picked it up, you really must.
- Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) - It’s classic Mario - solid platforming, great level design, and wonderful variety make this a must-have for every 3DS collection.
- Mario Kart 7 (3DS) - Pretty much the same as above. Take all the great mechanics from Mario Kart, put in new tracks improved online play - the result is another must-have.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (3DS) - It’s 13 years old and widely considered one of the best games of all time. This port does nothing to subtract from that, and even manages to round out a couple of the original’s rough edges (like the extremely limited N64 texture memory)
Keep in mind of course that I’m only recommending games I actually played - so while I’m sure that Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim are really stellar I simply haven’t played them.
When I first sat down to write this article, I was thinking of calling it “A year of great games - none of which I’ve played.” It seems that every year when I look at another GOTY list the really heavy hitters are the ones in which I have no interest. I guess I just have somewhat odd and narrow tastes.
But now that I think on it a little longer, it’s been a year full of great games for me too. Just because the games I enjoyed the most aren’t going to receive universal critical acclaim doesn’t mean that I should enjoy them any less, or that they might not be fun for you too. Most games I listed above aren't going to win any big GOTY awards, and a handful of them won't even be nominated, but to me they're all great.
In the end this year - through Rage, Mass Effect 2, Portal 2, and Saints Row: The Third - encouraged me to try games I might not normally play. I had my share of misses this year, but if I hadn’t been willing to step outside my comfort zone I would’ve missed out on some of the most fun I’ve had all year.