The Video Games of 2011

Overall 2011 was a pretty great year for interactive media. I certainly didn’t have time for everything, most notably the eight-hundred ton juggernaut of industry might that was Skyrim, but I’m actually pretty happy with how much I managed to get in there. Alphabetically once again, we’ve got:

Arkham City– This game makes you feel like Batman, and what else could you possibly need? A lovingly designed slice of Gotham to roam around in? A really cool story? The greatest possible number of villains without quite going overboard? Well hey, it’s got all that too. Manages to be bigger and, yes, better than the already fantastic Arkham Asylum, and that’s certainly an accomplishment. The cast is great as well. Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight never disappoint, but the big surprise was Nolan North’s Penguin. This isn’t easy to say but: Better than Danny DeVito.

Dead Space 2– The first Dead Space was more or less the video game equivalent of Alien. Appropriately enough its sequel, like Aliens, is more action packed and takes place on a colony instead of a ship. It’s atmospherically spot-on and manages to maintain a fairly constant sense of dread. When it gets psychological it really shines. The highlight is a VERY effective bit that plays on a pretty base fear involving sensory organs and sharp things.

Ghost Trick– A DS puzzle game from the creator of the Ace Attorney series, featuring a recently deceased poltergeist who has one night to use his ghostly powers to save people’s lives and figure out why he was killed. If you like quirky puzzle games and/or pomeranian puppies you need to play this. The story is fantastic and you won’t see the ending coming. Really, you won’t.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword– A lot of people said this might be the best Zelda ever made. I have no idea why. The combat, when it works, is immensely satisfying, but literally everything else that this series is supposed to deliver- an enticing overworld, well-designed dungeons, brilliant puzzles, a sense of epic fantasy, great boss battles- fell short of every other Zelda I’ve played. Not that it’s bad, just disappointing when so much could have been done. I hear people saying the story, in particular, was told better than ever before, but I cared so much more about what was going on in Wind Waker and Twilight Princess than I did this time. Worst of all my favorite thing about the last console Zelda was how brilliant a companion Midna was. She’s replaced by Fi, a cold, deliberately emotionless, and spectacularly unhelpful crystalline-looking thing. I didn’t really think Link’s relationship with Zelda was anything special either. The villain was alright, but in typical Zelda fashion is upstaged at the last minute by his less interesting master. There’s one fantastic boss fight against a six-armed suit of armor, the time shift mechanic is gloriously fun, and the final dungeon is perhaps the most purely inventive in franchise history, but I can spend much longer singing the praises of previous series efforts. My only real gaming letdown of the year.

Mortal Kombat– Tasteless, idiotic, unrepentantly comic in its over the top violence and undeniably really fun, a Mortal Kombat game has no right to be this good. Weirdly enough, there’s actually a lot of care put into the single player story mode. But you’re here for the fighting and the fatalities, and on that front, yes, it delivers. If you like this kind of thing, this is the best it can ever be.

Portal 2– Utterly inspired. If you want an idea of what games can do as a purely narrative medium, look no further than this perfectly made puzzler that, without a single cutscene, tells a more compelling story than just about any video game ever made. It’s unquestionably a high water mark for writing in an industry sorely lacking in genuinely witty comedy. The voice acting from Stephen Merchant, Ellen McLain, and JK Simmons ties it all together brilliantly, and everything builds to a hugely satisfying ending. And before I forget, yes, it’s also really fun.

To the Moon– A four hour, sixteen bit story that’s basically the opposite of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Instead of erasing memories so people can go on living, you play as a pair of scientists who create memories for people in their last moments so that they can die in peace. An intriguing concept, very well done, with a lot of humor and heart. Available to download for like $12.00.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception– The second Uncharted was a huge leap forward for gaming as a whole, easily the closest a game had ever gotten to replicating the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The worst thing I can say about the third in the series is that it’s about as good. Nothing to be ashamed of, but the innovation from Uncharted 2 was so refreshing that there was really nothing the sequel could do to come out on top technologically. The set pieces are as great as we’ve come to expect, my favorites being the chateau and the cruise ship, but it’s not like they’re noticeably a step up from the train or the collapsing building from the second game. The story, however, really shines, and in a few places manages to come off as the most polished in the series. Chapters 2 and 3, especially, are fantastic, and the game never quite captures that magic again. Ultimately I’d say if Uncharted 2 is Raiders, this one is very much Last Crusade (with the first one being Temple of Doom? Kinda…). Let’s just hope Uncharted 4 doesn’t have fucking aliens in it.

Best of the year was Portal 2, no question. Valve is the most reliable company in the industry right now, and this may very well have been there finest achievement to date.

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