D+PAD’s Games of 2011
With 2012 looming large, it’s time to take a look back at the last twelve months and identify the games that really stood out. This is always a difficult job, but the task facing us in 2011 was particularly daunting – nearly every genre, every platform and every preference has been extremely well serviced, with store shelves and download clients straining under the weight of quality releases. It has also been a year in which swathes of developers consolidated all their current-gen experience to create some of the deepest and most visually stunning games ever seen.
For our Games of 2011…erm…Awards, the D+PAD team have each picked their two favourite games of the year – the games are listed in no particular order, but all shone in one way or another…and all are worthy of your attention.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
If one game represented value for money for the single-player this year it was the latest entry in the Elder Scrolls series. Both a sequel and advancement over Oblivion, Skyrim presented gamers with a lush fantasy world filled with danger, intrigue and choice. Perhaps you fulfilled your destiny as the Dragonborn of Legend and defeated the World Eater Alduin, or maybe you rose to power as a remorseless scourge upon the land and took up arms for the Dark Brotherhood. Or maybe you never managed to pull yourself away from the vast selection of side quests afforded by the townsfolk, because as we all know, running errands beats saving the world from a soul-sucking dragon lord any day.
The chatty townsfolk, ferocious enemies, rolling tundra and outstanding soundtrack all came together to create an atmosphere that turned the land of Skyrim into a living world, and that’s before you’ve considered the random threat of dragon attacks. The attention to detail given by Bethesda was nothing short of staggering, with a variety of skills (which level up the more you use them), armour, spells, unique dragon shouts and even a selection of books detailing the history of Tamriel all serving to bolster the experience. This is exactly how first-person adventuring should be done and with the promise of exciting and substantial downloadable content on the horizon it’s likely that we’ll be returning to Skyrim for a good while yet.
Crysis 2 (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
As a sequel to the original PC melting behemoth, Crysis 2 delivered on all fronts. Granted, the island paradise filled with Korean soldiers was gone, but Crytek’s crumbling rendition of New York held as much artistry and chaotic atmosphere as any true fan could have wanted. First-person shooters tend to lack stealth sections that are open and fun, but Crysis 2 made the cloaking device central to the game play, providing a satisfying vocal effect to boot. The star of the show was very much the Nanosuit; an all-over covering that would imbue even a broken body with incredible – but not limitless – powers.
Taking too much damage would spell doom for our silent hero, but the suit ensured that he would always have the edge, even when hunted by packs of unrelenting Ceph. Of course, we can’t talk about Crysis without mentioning the sumptuous visuals. Running on the CryEngine 3, the game stood out as one of the best looking titles to grace home consoles, and with the original Crysis recently made available via Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, those who missed out can finally dive in and see where it all began.
Dark Souls (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
To date, I’ve ploughed about 45 hours into From Software’s Dark Souls; at this point in virtually any other game I would likely be an all conquering, near-indestructible killing machine stalking a world that had long since been conquered. That, however, is not the case here – though my character is infinitely stronger than when he first stepped out of a dank prison-cell at the game’s opening and though my competency as a player has grown, every step forward is still accompanied with a palpable sense of dread and a horrible foreboding that death will come at any second.
It should be painfully frustrating, but instead Dark Souls is exquisitely, sweetly, frighteningly immersive. From Software have crafted a game world that, in my mind, is second to none – it lives in your psyche long after a play session has ended, constantly daring you back, tempting you with dreams of empowerment that it often fulfils only to snatch them briskly away. To play Dark Souls is to have your emotions toyed with, as feelings of fear, victory, awe, desperation, hope and hopelessness ping-pong around your head like some kind of twisted pinball-machine – making for an experience that is nothing short of unforgettable. Choosing my Game of the Year has never been so easy.
Battlefield 3 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
As far as first-person shooter packages go, Battlefield 3 is irresistible, with a solid single player campaign and (more importantly) a scintillating multiplayer experience that I have little doubt I will still be playing this time next year. The series has never looked or sounded better, but Dice haven’t stopped at just giving the series a presentational overhaul – there’s a mode of play for nearly any and every taste, and a staggering number of weapons and other gadgetry to unlock, all of which service the game’s biggest strength: the wonderfully dynamic and immensely tactical single player.
Much has been made of EA’s desire to make Battlefield 3 a true Call of Duty killer, but this really does the game a great disservice; this is the latest instalment of a trailblazing series that has long had a clear sense of its own identity and very unique gameplay. It’s success then should not be measured in how well it’s sales stack up against Activision’s juggernaut, but on the experience it offers – and in this respect Battlefield is a work of astonishingly engaging magnificence.
Portal 2 (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Released back in April it’s easy to overlook Portal 2 when it comes to making game of the year decisions, but make no mistake Valve’s long-awaited sequel to the 2007 surprise hit is worth a place at the top of every list going in 2011. Expanding the scope of the original, whilst building on the backstory of GLaDoS, Chel and Aperture Science, Portal 2 was incredibly ambitious, which makes its triumph even more impressive. It managed to simultaneously retain the charm and smarts of the first game, but keep the scenarios and puzzles fresh enough for the duration of its much extended campaign.
Portal 2 also managed to maintain the razor sharp writing of the first, the brilliant casting of Stephen Merchant as Wheatley allowing Valve to expand the gentle humour of the first game to a much broader scope without losing any of its edge. What ultimately sets Portal 2 aside though was how effortless it felt, how meticulously created every room was, and how efficient the storytelling was. It remains a prime example of one of the world’s best game developers at the absolute peak of their creative power.
Dead Space 2 (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Visceral games’ follow up to their breakout sci-fi survivor horror title starts with a bang and never looks back. Eschewing some of the initial build up of dread from the first game Dead Space 2 emerges as much more of an action game, a natural progression of the story of Isaac Clarke as he once again battles against the rising necromorph invasions, this time amongst the Sprawl, a vast man-made metropolis located on one of Titan’s moons.
As well as upping the scale and polish of the first game Dead Space 2 is unusual as it goes to great pains to detail the effects that the events of the first game had on its protagonist. Suffering hallucinations and breakdowns the game does a good job of investing your journey with an emotional weight amongst all the death and destruction. The gameplay itself was neatly refined and expanded upon whilst retaining the look and feel that made the first game so successful. With some expertly crafted set-pieces, some genuinely creepy scares and a memorably unique and interesting final boss battle Dead Space 2 stands as a worthy sequel and an intense and exciting gaming experience in its own right.
Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS)
Though our typical vision of Super Mario involves him saving princesses, this year he faced his most formidable quest yet – saving the ailing Nintendo 3DS console, after a lacklustre launch left the Japanese giants with their first company loss in 30 years. Yet weeks after the release of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, the glasses-free 3D handheld is finally starting to look like a sales success and it’s all down to that moustachioed plumber.
With clever gameplay decisions that mean that 3D Land plays as a cross between the 2D retro revival of New Super Mario Bros (narrow design, lack of hub worlds) and the critically revered complexity of the Super Mario Galaxy series, here we have the perfect combination of the Super Mario series’ invention and accessibility. As one of the few games that also fully takes advantage of the 3D effect (with certain puzzles involving invisible blocks that can only been spotted alongside their sturdier 3D models), Super Mario 3D Land is my pick for the handheld game of the year and yes, that includes any mobile apps that you could care to mention, Kairosoft be damned.
Pullblox (Nintendo 3DS)
My favourite downloaded game of the year is not available in the App Store, Xbox Live, the Android Market or the PSN. Instead, it can be found alongside overpriced GameBoy games and something called 1950’s Valet Parking. It is Pullblox and it is absolutely majestic.
A block puzzler like none you have ever played before, Intelligent System, the team behind the legendary Advance Wars series, task players with pulling blocks to create the vertical passage of devilishly complex structures. Though games start out pretty easy (or at least for the first 100 puzzles – there are around 250 on offer), the introduction of side pulls and colour co-ordinating pipes can mean that one deceptively simple puzzle could last up to an hour. Thankfully, the game is never unfair in its design so expect plenty of Portal 2-style ‘Eureka’ moments, as long as you haven’t slammed your 3DS against the wall in the minutes previously.
The icing on an extremely tasty downloadable cake (these metaphors can be tricky) is the ability to design your own levels and scan QR codes to download those of others. Already I’ve reached the peaks of Super Mario and Mega Man’s respective heads and despite trawling through forums to add to my scanning collection, I’ve yet to encounter a single blocky digital penis.
That fact alone says all you need to know about the respect Pullblox and demands and ultimately receives.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo Wii)
Made with one eye on legacy, one eye on the future, Skyward Sword was the Zelda game that people had been nervously hoping for ever since words like “reinvention” started to be thrown around, back when the title was first announced. Skyward Sword was one of the year’s most unforgettable games for many reasons. As moving as it was witty, its story weaved together childhood romance and apocalyptic danger, while the environments were a reminder that (with the exception of this year’s Skyrim and Dark Souls) nobody weaves together a game-world as convincingly, as richly, as Zelda’s designers.
Possibly the last major Nintendo-published game for Wii, Skyward Sword was poignantly also the game to finally convince that motion controls could genuinely elevate ‘traditional’ game experiences. 2012 promises to be a fascinating year for Nintendo, the benchmark laid down by Skyward Sword a vertigo-inducing one to aim for.
Child of Eden (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
A beguiling mix of on-rails shooter, rhythm-action and music visualisation, Child Of Eden was everything one hoped a current-generation Rez sequel could be. Replacing Rez’s emphasis on hard geometry with lush foliage and various forms of organic life, Child Of Eden was one of the few games in 2011 in which every core design component – the colours, the beats, the subtly intricate shooting mechanism – were working in perfect harmony. It may look, sound and feel astonishing, but as a core videogame it worked beautifully, and this was Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s greatest achievement. With a soundtrack that veered from states of bliss to industrial clatter, a challenging bonus game that channelled Rez even more directly, and a plentiful array of collectables, Child Of Eden also – despite its superficial short game length – showcased a great depth. Sensory disorder has never been so fun.
Do you agree with our selections? Are any of your favourites missing? Feel free to let us know below.
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