Sure, these are somewhat belated, but at least that’s given me the chance to play a couple more of 2011’s big releases. Read on for some arbitrary discussion of games I played in 2011 – I must warn you that it may not be entirely spoiler-free.
Best Attempt To Revitalise A Genre: Bulletstorm
I’ve never been particularly big on military style shooters, so Bulletstorm was appealing to me on a couple of levels. Firstly, it tossed all pretence of realism out of the window; and secondly, it featured an arsenal of weapons more varied and interesting than the bog standard ‘an assault rifle/a slightly different assault rifle/an SMG/etc etc’. But the game’s real innovation was the skillshot system – rewarding players with points for executing skilful kills, which they can then use to buy more guns and ammo to repeat the cycle with. This changes the nature of the game from a simple struggle for survival into an arcade-style playground, where the goal is to reap the biggest points reward from any given encounter – and to keep things fresh, the game encourages you to experiment with new weapons by offering a sizeable bonus for discovering a new skillshot. You’ll have more fun if you choose to experiment more often, although admittedly by the end of the game it’s easy to fall into using the same few weapons and combos, particularly on harder difficulties where dispatching enemies quickly becomes more important. Bulletstorm probably raised more eyebrows for its crass exterior than its interesting gameplay, which is a shame – there’s a lot of potential here, and anyone who’s becoming a little weary of the current shooter landscape should probably stop and check it out.
Most Underwhelming Conclusion: Gears Of War 3
SPOILER ALERT! I’ve had fun with Gears Of War 3 in both single and multiplayer mode, but considering this is the big finale for the trilogy, I felt it left a lot of questions unanswered. What’s even more frustrating is that Epic dangle these unanswered questions in front of your face – particularly in the final chapter, where there are several exchanges that involve Adam Fenix trying to explain things to his son, Marcus (the game’s protagonist). Marcus, of course, cuts his father short, telling him that they can talk about it later. Without wanting to entirely spoil what happens at the end of the game, let’s just say that they don’t. Of course, I guess this has kinda been done deliberately to keep the possibility of a prequel open – but it still feels kinda lame. It’s not the only problem I had with the game’s story either – too much of the mid-section feels like nothing has actually been achieved by the protagonists, and even the big ‘noble sacrifice’ moment feels a bit pointless and somehow avoidable. I suppose that serves me right for actually giving half a damn about the story in a series like Gears Of War though…
Funniest Game: Portal 2
While Portal 2 should be praised for taking a cerebral approach in a first-person game rather than simply requiring you to shoot a bunch of guys, it also deserves praise for being genuinely hilarious. Stephen Merchant’s performance as the blundering robot Wheatley is a perfect counterpart to the return of the maniacal, homicidal GLaDOS, and they’re not the only entertaining characters you’ll come across along the way. The puzzles can occasionally be baffling but generally feel rewarding once you figure out the necessary twist – there were only a couple of moments which basically amounted to “find the only (concealed) surface where you can place a portal” that frustrated me enough to resort to a guide (thanks, internet). Portal 2 may be a more compact experience than sprawling open world games or the limitless battles of an online shooter, but it’s one that’s absolutely worth playing – even more so if you’ve got a friend to share the fun with, thanks to the new co-op mode.
Most Overwhelming Game: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The overall philosophy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim seems to be to let the player do as they please. Sure, there’s a main quest which has something to do with dragons and the end of the world or some such – I can’t tell you much more about it because I keep getting distracted by an ever-increasing number of side quests and other miscellaneous crap. The huge number of places to visit and people to talk to mean that you’ll rarely go for long without being offered a new objective – even the sheer size of the world itself is overwhelming, often prompting a reaction of “I have to go all the way over THERE?” upon being given a new quest. However, what at first seems like a chore can turn into an adventure in itself – stumbling across undiscovered places, fighting off bandits and the local wildlife, and inevitably getting attacked by a dragon just when you thought you’d got to your destination in one piece. Thankfully Skyrim’s fast travel system means you won’t have to spend all your time on cross-country trekking, which is just as well really – the game’s near-bottomless amount of content is going to keep me busy enough…
The ‘Best Dust Off The Wii Again’ Award – The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Sadly, the an old adage is once again ringing true – the best games on a Nintendo console are usually the first party ones, and this year’s biggest reason to wipe the dust of your increasingly neglected Wii was The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Still, it seems like there’s no better way for a console to bow out than with a new Zelda game that’s just in time for the 25th anniversary of the series, and it’s probably one of the best we’ve seen. By crossing the stylised visuals of The Wind Waker with the more mature take we saw in Twilight Princess, Nintendo have nailed a colourful and expressive aesthetic that really brings the world to life. The game also fully realises the dream of motion-controlled swordplay that was only hinted at in Twilight Princess, thanks to Wii MotionPlus allowing your movements to match those of Link. Despite feeling more confined than previous Zelda games, it’s no less engaging – the relationship between Link and Zelda in the early part of the game is completely endearing, and you’ll always want to press on and discover what new challenges lie ahead. Oh, and it’s the first fully orchestrated game in the series, right down to the classic ‘item get’ and ‘puzzle solved’ jingles. At the end of the day, it’s a new Zelda game – if you hate the series, move along, but for everyone else, a fantastic adventure awaits you.
Best (Indie) Game: Bastion
To be honest, it almost feels unnecessary to talk about Bastion as an ‘indie game’. Sure, it may be the work of a small studio (Supergiant Games), but it absolutely doesn’t feel like it – as an all-round package, this game stands toe-to-toe with the biggest-budget releases of the year. A wonderful, hand-painted aesthetic, a gorgeous acoustic soundtrack, and a surprisingly deep and varied selection of weapons make this game both a joy to behold and a lot of fun to play. But the icing on the game’s aesthetic cake is its narrative device – a husky-voiced narrator follows along with the action in real time, telling the game’s story as it happens. By rights, it should get old, but somehow it works perfectly as a compelling hook to keep you engaged. Bastion is one of those games that has ‘must-play’ oozing from every facet of its being – so just go do it.
The ‘I Don’t Really Know What Award To Give This Game’ Award: Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Now, I’m a big fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, so I’m not exactly going to complain too much about getting more stealthy-climby-stabby goodness on a yearly basis. I enjoyed my time with the single player story of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but looking back, the promised additions ended up being kinda variable in their actual impact. The bomb-crafting was played up as a big thing, and while there are various combinations for you to try out, I mostly just ended up experimenting with them before going back to using the three bombs I found most useful. Similarly, the much-touted new hookblade offered a couple of handy new moves, but mostly amounted to an automatic ‘climb faster’ button (not an unwelcome addition, I’ll admit). I didn’t mind the new Den Defence mini-game – a tower defence style affair where you place assassins and fortifications to stop waves of attacking templars – but thinking about it now, it seems kinda stupid. Why are they sending all their guys down this one narrow street? Surely they could attack from multiple angles? Sure, like many other things in the Assassin’s Creed universe, it’s a gameplay contrivance – but in this case, it feels both kinda dumb from a logical perspective, and a missed opportunity from a game design perspective. On the plus side, it feels like Ubisoft have finally nailed the ‘Assassin’s Tomb’ style sections that I found a bit iffy in the previous two games – one sequence I found genuinely thrilling has you chasing a group of templars down an underground river as they try desperately to pick you off. Overall, the single player mode may provide you with some story-based ‘Revelations’, but don’t expect a true revolution when it comes to the gameplay itself.
The multiplayer is also back, and apart from the fact that the detection meter now goes in reverse (meaning you need to stalk your target for a while to get the highest scoring kills), it’s mostly a case of fixing what wasn’t broken. Which is fine really – while it’s not as revolutionary as when it first appeared last year in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, there are still very few multiplayer experiences like it. There are some new abilities and gametypes to keep things interesting, the seemingly obligatory inclusion of a Call Of Duty style system for unlockables and ‘prestige’ levels, and even a bit of background on Abstergo and the Templars thrown in to keep things interesting. It’s still probably my favourite multiplayer game, and I’m still going to play the hell out of it. Despite all my little gripes with it, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is still one of the games I’ve enjoyed the most this year – but it doesn’t feel like it’s done quite enough to warrant any praise as great as ‘game of the year’. So these rambling paragraphs will have to do, I guess.