It's that time of the year again, Bearders, and I couldn't be more excited! This has become my favorite yearly tradition, and is always a great source of debate and discussion. If you're interested, you can take a look at my lists from 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 to get you primed for this year's main event, my Top 11 Games of 2011! You've probably noticed that instead of just editorial content, and the podcast (which will be out on Friday!), we have some amazing video content to supplement our pick. The above video covers my Top 5 games, but if you're wanting to see my true Top 11 of 2011 editorial, we'll get started after the break!
To get this editorial started, just know that there were many games this year that I hadn't had a chance to play through, including Crysis 2, Bastion, Assassins Creed: Revelations, Uncharted 3, and Batman: Arkham City. I do have the upmost confidence in the picks I do have, though, so without further ado, let's get this shindig started!
Usually, difficult games and I never really get along: I enjoy my content somewhat casual, as I don't have a ton of time to actually play through games to their full extent. Furthermore, if a game starts increasing in difficulty at any point, or at an unannounced random interval, I usually lose interest fairly quickly. I don't know what Dark Souls (and before it, Demon's Souls) does, whether I get into a 'mindframe', or just know what to expect, but the punishing difficulty isn't so much a turnoff with this title, it's actually a badge of honor. I know to be cautious, I know to be terrified that my life could end at any misstep, and I think that Dark Souls is a better game for it: It takes me out of my comfort zone, and that's incredibly refreshing.
Yes, I know, techincally this is a remake, and techincally I could've experienced this incredible game over a decade ago, but to shoo away the best Japanese strategy RPG I've ever played on a technicality would be worse than anything, I think. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is a behemoth of a game, with content around every turn, and a game that begs to be explored. The story is well-constructed, the writing is suprisingly crisp, the animations are a thing of beauty, and the isometric sprite work is so endearing, I think I want to marry it. The game has seemlingly unlimited options, and whether I want to build an army of super fighters, a well-balanced team that's ready for anything, or a sneaky brigade of thieves and assassins, I always feel in control of the battlefield. Don't mistake the open-ended nature of party construction for ease-of-battle, though: The game can become punishing in a hurry if you're not mindful of your surroundings. It's a game that you can turn on for ten minutes, and still be playing six hours later, and alongside Crisis Core, I consider it a main reason to own a PSP. Well worth the money, but more importantly, well worth your time.
Let's get this straight from the beginning: I think that Radiant Historia is a flawed gem, but a gem nonetheless. More games need to mess around with time-sequencing in the style of Chrono Trigger, but after playing Radiant Historia, I can see why developers shy away: That shit is tricky. The way Radiant Historia deals with these obstacles, though, is fairly simply, but infinitely brilliant: Branching 'timestamps' allow you to backtrack to earlier moments in the game (usually significant plot points), and allows you to change the outcome by taking different actions, or choosing different dialogue options. When you do this, the branching timestamp branches again, leading to different items, characters, or events. Continue this trend ad-naseum, and you'll start to see the twisted web of narrative that Radiant History successfully tackles. When the game came out, I called it 'The best SNES RPG you never played', and I stand by that statement wholeheartidly.
Shogun 2: Total War encompasses everything I love about real-time and turn-based strategy titles, and is proof positive that PC gaming is where it's at for this type of experience. Start a small village, and as the ruler of your faction, showcase your skills in diplomacy, resource management, and combat. Send ninja across enemy lines to poison food sources, sign faulty allegiances only to backstab your once-friends in the back at key opportunities, lob flaming arrows from the coastline at intruders trying to sneak into your bays, and send a multi-hundred man squad down to the main walls of your enemy's stronghold, sacrificing everything for ultimate supremacy. Or, you know, you could always be really good at dancing and painting, that seems to buy alot of power in Feudal Japan. Every decision you make has a consequence, but every decision you make also shapes the fate of the decisions your enemys and allies make, too. Shogun 2: Total War is damn close to a perfect game of strategy, and a return-to-form for the Total War series.
Yes, this game came out December 20th, 2011. Yes, this game's UI is a dead-ringer for World of Warcraft. Yes, Bioware spend a crazy amount of money, and EA's saddlebacking on this project as their main source of revenue over the next 10 years for the PC market. That being said, just know that Star Wars: The Old Republic is everything it was promised to be. If you liked the first and second Knights of the Old Republic games, then you'll feel right at home in the confines of TOR. The feeling of having your own personal Star Wars journey, while the world is existing around you 24/7, is pretty liberating, and gives me a feeling I've only had twice before: The launch day of EA's long-defunct Earth and Beyond, and the launch day of World of Warcraft. Now, just because I brought up Earth and Beyond, doesn't mean I think ill-omens will happen with TOR, quite the contrary: Earth and Beyond came out way before its time, and I think the feature set of TOR will change the way people think of the MMO genre. Don't do yourself the disservice and write off Old Republic simply because it's an MMO, as what it sets out to do, it accomplishes with great finesse. This is Bioware's A-Team, and that's all you really need to know, isn't it?
If we want to talk about writing, narration, and overall quality of content, Portal 2's probably my top pick this year. However, there's one elephant in the room, and one that gets me quite a bit of guff when I bring it up: Portal, to me, has always been a puzzle franchise. Now, I enjoy puzzle games here and there, and to simply call Portal 2 a puzzler with voice acting would be selling the game tremendously short, but the greatest strength and the most crippling weakness for Portal 2 are exactly the same thing: The game can only be solved one way. Now, that's brilliant in Valve's part, because it forces you to think a certain way, thereby manipulating your thought-process, and setting you up for stronger narrative beats, but when you don't get your 'A-ha!' moment for a solid hour into a puzzle, you lose alot of your momentum. That's not a fault of the game necessarily, as it's more a fault with the player, but regardless, a fault is had, and its at the forefront of the player's (AND the game's) mind. However, it is fantastic of Valve to not appeal to the lowest common denominator...ack, there I go again! Portal 2 equals out in my mind as one of the best games this generation, but for every positive, there's a negative, and in may ways, Portal 2 is poetic in the way it keeps that balance, for better or for worse.
The Witcher 2: Assassin Of Kings, is the game Dragon Age 2 wishes it was: Engrossing, spellbinding, beautiful, and full of heart. I'm of the belief that Witcher 2 is a saving grace of the oldschool PC role playing game, a testament to the era of Infinity Engine titles like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment. The writing is unbelievably detailed, the characters are very much a part of the world they inhabit, and the story takes itself incredibly seriously, but knows when to cut loose when it needs to. It's a title that is open to the player, as no matter which style of gameplay is more suited for you, you'll have a solid, great experience. Yes, there's a bit of Eastern, um, 'charm' to the proceedings, as you'll find minor bugs and odd syncing issues throughout your gameplay sessions. The full package, though, is so wonderfully executed, it's very easy to overlook the tiny issues. Like I said in my video above, the choices you make range from sweeping, to intimiate, and I can assure you, a few of the choices you make will stick with you long after the credits roll. Witcher 2 is a title I'll be playing once a year for the forseeable future, and is a testament to good fundamentals, confident storytelling, and game developers that have a craving for producing the best content they can imagine.
This is the suprise of the year for me, bar-none. Saints Row wasn't even on my radar until a few weeks before the game released, and the advertisments focusing on dildo humor simply made me roll my eyes. In fact, the humor was so off-putting at first, I almost didn't play the game out of spite, but I'm so glad I did, as I was blown away (hur hur hur penis jokes). Take everything you love about open-world games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, throw out the annoying parts, crank up the absurdity, sprinkle in a little bit of incredible game design decisions, and you have Saints Row: The Third. At the beginning of the game, you break into a military base and raid a heavily fortified warehouse, simply because you 'need a few extra guns'. Of course, you'll get the guns, plus IED radio controlled missles, battle tanks, and nearly indestructable riotshields, all in the first 20 minutes of playing. This trend continues, as the amount of vehicles, weapons, and bizarre 'contraptions' you receive in-game is hilariously imbalanced. Trust me, by the end of the game, you and your crew of Saints will be so indestructable, you could make a sandwich while storming FBI headquarters. It's the same type of absurd that Just Cause 2 was, just amped up, and ten-times more genuine. Also, please, please wear the anime backpack during your skydives. I beg you. That kitty needs to see the world from on high.
I'm a guy that's not very open about his love for Nintendo, and honestly, a majority of the time I'm upset with them. They make such great characters, and own such great franchises, yet the actual videogame industry is a somewhat foreign prospect to them, even though they end up grossing eighty bazillion dollars at the end of every year. Hardcore gamers are usually left by the wayside, and we get tiny bits of elation when we read that a port of a 10 year old game is being released on Nintendo's newly announced whatever. That doesn't stop Nintendo from making unbelievable games, though. Mario Kart 7 is once again, a game I really didn't have any interst in, until I noticed some co-workers playing through their 100cc Cups. The graphics looked smooth, the framerate was smoother, and the track selection was a 'Best Of' from Mario Kart's celebrated past. Since I hadn't played a Mario Kart title since Mario Kart 64, I decided to jump onboard. The functionality of the 3DS is the true showstopper here, as the StreetPass and Online play is a sight to behold, and proof that Nintendo IS listening to the hardcore gamer, at least in regards to accessibilty and features. Walking by a co-worker, and automatically getting their best laptimes in ghost form, sent to my cartridge, and notifying me via the 3DS's main menu, is voodoo magic. The game plays incredibly well, the weight of the karts feels perfect, the tracks are tuned to the new 3D and hanglider features, and you always feel like having 'just one more race' before bed. Don't fall for it, though. You'll pull an all-nighter. Again.
Truth be told, I don't know where to begin talking about Skyrim. It's the ultimate water-cooler game, as if you've heard any of the Beardcasts since the release of this monster, you're well aware that the entire Nitrobeard crew is truly engrossed in Bethesda's epic. An entire world is handed to you, and it's your job to choose how you'd like to decipher it. Every choice you make, whether it's through dialogue, fighting style, the order in which you do quests, or even which NPCs you start conversations with, can come back to haunt you in the longrun. In my video, I say that a true role-playing game is a game in which you're making amends for your actions, and you're rewarded and punished based on them, and that's highlighted as the reason to play Skyrim. It delivers something that no other game this year can truly provide, and does so with relative ease: The perception of infinite possibilities. We all have the same world map, the NPCs all say the same thing, yet if you've ever had a conversation about Skyrim with a friend, it would almost sound like you were experiencing two entirely different games. Bethesda's been after a 'perfect storm' of graphics, functionality, and immersion for years, and I think with Skyrim, they've finally achieved it. The only thing I can really fault Skyrim for, is that it may give us too much of a good thing. That, and the fact that PS3 users are getting a slightly hindered experience. I think the most telling thing, though, is that alot of PS3 Skryim owners I've talked to are still having a wonderful time, and while they get frustrated at the bugs, can still see the innovation underneath the surface. It's truly a testament to Skyrim when you can honestly say that a seemingly broken version is still a Game of the Year contender, and makes my mouth water for the future on PC, where not only does the game run nearly perfectly, but the mod community is about to run wild. I can't wait for the DLC for this one. Woah, wait, did I just say that?
Many of you know that the first Deus Ex is my favorite game of all-time. I think I should bring that up, because it does two things for Human Revolution: First, it puts the game high on my radar even before it releases, and can seemingly shift my opinion prematurely. More importantly though, and my second point, is that I'm going to subconciously compare Human Revolution to the original, almost unfairly. Anytime the game would shift out-of-sync with the original, I had to tell myself not to get frustrated. Anytime the game would hit a perfect beat from the original, I'd have to tell myself to not fall for their pandering. I was extremely timid while playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, as I wanted to stay one step ahead of Eidos Montreal.
Then it happened.
I turned on the television after a night of playing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and started seeing coverage of Occupy Wall Street. The moment I saw the riot squads, the protesters with signs and video cameras, the drum circles, the men in suits walking by mobs of unemployed, citing 'no comment' as their state of the union address, it clicked. We're living in Deus Ex: Human Revolution's world right now. It's a time of conspiracy, it's a time of deception, and it's a time of social liberation. We've integrated technology into politics, and the world's on a brink of massive change.
Many people don't share my love of mixing hobby and beliefs: I love testing my beliefs everyday, as it keeps me sharp, and I don't feel as if my beliefs are weak because of laziness, or a sense of comfort. Deus Ex: Human Revolution's narrative talks of 'playing God' with physical augmentation, the controlling of civilizations through information (or lack thereof), and keeping a tight lid on the balance of power, between religion, financial institutions, and personal morality. Sure, the writing in the game is a bit preachy, and the ideas presented are only talked about in the context of Adam Jensen, the game's lead character, someone who we're supposed to relate with. I think the truly stratling realization, though, is that I personally do relate with Adam Jensen. His circumstances are different than mine (for instance, he never had a choice as to whether or not to get artificial limbs attached to his body, the same way I never asked to inheret part of America's debt because of decades of poor Government spending), but we're in the same place, mentally. We never asked for this.
You've probably noticed I haven't touched on the game's mechanics, graphics, or soundtrack, as after all, this is a Game of the Year list, and I did pick Deus Ex: Human Revolution as my game of the year, not 'social thesis of the year'. That's because, to me, when I think back on what I loved about Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it wont be 'the graphics' or 'the cool cyberpunk setting', it'll be the message the game provides us through the gameplay: Fight for your beliefs, and know that your instincts are true. Don't define yourself based on agendas, and train yourself to look through problems in order to find the most reasonable, logical solution. Everytime you make a choice as to whether to unlock a door, hack a door, blow down a door with your shotgun, or talk your way into the room, you're defining your world in Deus Ex. The fact that I'm so involved with the narrative is proof positive that the game's mechanics are solid enough, they flow into the background, letting you focus on exactly how you want to handle every situation. The areas are designed to reward multiple solutions, and the variety of weapons will be accessible for any type of player. The game plays great, and looks stunning, but that's only part of the equation: The way you play the game is the narrative, and it's also encompassed in the overall message Eidos Montreal set out to tell. It's storytelling through interaction, and it's THE defining factor on what establishes videogames as a seperate entity than film, literature, or music.
No game has broken the fourth wall this well since Bioshock, and in that regard, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a perfect sequel to the original Deus Ex. Invisible War, while it copied the gameplay mechanics, and tried for a heavy-handed socio-political story, fell flat with gamers, because there was simply too many things happening at once, all of them misdirected. This isn't so with Human Revolution, as everything is put together so well, that the one glaring flaw in the game (the boss fights) sticks out like a massive sore thumb. Do the boss fights bring down the total package? It depends on what you're referring to. Strictly from a game design standpoint, the boss fights are atrocious, and unnecessary, but as an interactive narrative piece, the boss fights actually find meaning: Mistakes can be made through your journey, yet you can come away stronger with the knowledge of your likes and dislikes.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is deserving of my Game of the Year, simply because it did more for me than be a good videogame: It was a good refresher course on cognitive dissonance. It's a prime example of videogame storytelling, as the more you read into what's going on, the more you're rewarded. Some readers may find that a few of my points could be 'reaching', but the beauty of Human Revolution, is that 'reaching' is sort of the point. A great study piece, not only for the gaming industry, but for the current events happening in the world. I'll always come back to Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the same way I've gone back to my favorite books, or favorite films. I read Flowers For Algernon every few years, remembering how I'd take care of my mother as she was bed-ridden, not fully understanding why she was sick, but knowing that my caring for her made her and I stronger. I watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind every few years, remembering how I felt after my first big breakup, and that in order for me to have found the love of my life, I needed to become stronger as a singular person. I'll play Deus Ex: Human Revolution every few years and remember that the world was on the brink of change, I was having trouble finding my core values, and was nervous about if I could be a good father or not, and provide for my family in seemingly dark times.
Well, Adam Jensen, we may have never asked for the things out of our control, but in a weird way, it makes the world a little brighter, doesn't it?