Thursday, January 26, 2012

Totally Unauthorized 2011 Video Game Year in Review

There's no questioning 2011 was an incredible year for gaming. There was something for you no matter what you were into. Hardcore puzzler? Racing aficionado? Maybe you enjoy RPGs or multiplayer shooters. Heck, there was even a new Zelda game. When reviewing everything I'd played this year, I noticed that many of those well known, well renowned games that had drawn a large amount of hype or critical acclaim.

Rather than sprinkle them all throughout the year, I thought it would be fitting to make one large recap post taking a look back at the year in gaming. Of course, I couldn't help but name my own personal GOTY at the end. The only major GOTY contender I wasn't able to sink a major amount of time into was Skyward Sword (due to my not owing a Wii). However, I did play the first couple hours of it and came away feeling like it could easily be one of the best games of the year. Some of what I have here are GOTY candidates and some are not. Regardless, here's my say:
Dead Space 2

Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in your eye.

EA had a big task in following up one of the most acclaimed horror shooters of its generation. The original Dead Space has become endeared by fans for its unique atmosphere and focus on survival, but everything about the sequel just feels bigger, better, and more badass. Instead of being trapped aboard a lonely mining ship, you're given the liberty to explore an entire sprawling space station. The necromorphs are sicker and more twisted than last time, with plenty of awesome new ways to fight them.

And there's also more attention paid to the story, as Issac Clarke wrestles his inner demons while trying to stay one step ahead of the morally conflicted station director Tiedemann. The frightening atmosphere that fans loved in the first game was curtailed significantly here, but what Dead Space 2 sacrifices in fear factor it more than made up for with improvements across the board.

Portal 2 
Okay. Look. We both said a lot of things that you're going to regret. But I think we can put our differences behind us. For science. You monster.

In what was already a fantastic year for puzzle games, Portal 2 easily stands as a game of the year candidate. When Valve introduced the original Portal, the concept of shooting portals into walls to get around bowled gamers over. This time, the focus is on expanding the narrative, adding to the quirky cast of characters, and installing additional wrinkles with brand new puzzle elements.

You're no longer confined to just shooting portals; now you redirect lasers to activate switches, create tunnel-like bridges, and there are also a few different varieties of gel that allow you to sprint, bounce, and portal your way to new heights. The puzzles are much more intricate and difficult this time around.

Character-wise, Glados is back, along with her hilarious attempts to degrade you. But there are some newcomers; Wheatley is a reactor core with a British accent who is a bit intellectually bereft. You'll also meet Aperture founder Cave Johnson, a take on 1950s military/scientific researcher who seems to care more about results than the safety of his test subjects. But no matter how you view it, Portal 2 is easily one of the brightest of 2011. On this there will be no stalemate.

L.A. Noire
Dealing with corruption is like chasing shadows. You never know whether the guy you're talking to is on the pad, or whether it's your partner, or maybe even the watch commander. So who do you trust, Cole? I made up my mind a long time ago. 

I've always been in a odd position when it comes to Rockstar Games. I don't like the GTA series, and Red Dead Redemption bored me, but I loved this game. L.A. Noire challenges you to enter the mind of the suspect and use your own gray matter to crack open the case. Ever read a good mystery novel? L.A. Noire is chock full of them. The main appeal of the game for me was in trying to predict how each case was going to play out and to recognize what evidence adds up and what doesn't.

The facial recognition system is awesome. Some of the interrogations with the murder suspects are among the most intense moments I have experienced in gaming. If there's a negative point, it might be that the story isn't that great near the end. This game may have disappointed some who wanted nothing but pew pew pew. But the characterization, film noir atmosphere, and innovation should be ample evidence to prove that L.A. Noire is worth a shot.

Alice: Madness Returns

The train is coming with its shiny cars. With comfy seats and wheels of stars. So hush my little ones, have no fear. The man in the moon is the engineer.

From the demented mind of American McGee, comes the demented tale of a girl named Alice. The big hype over this game revolved around the unique art style. Creative and distinctive level designs were not only a treat to the eye, but gave you incentive to keep playing to see what was next. Where else can you go to wander through Japanese villages while fighting samurai wasps with a giant croquet mallet?

The story focuses on an mentally scarred Alice, who is struggling with her emotions in the wake of a gruesome fire that took out her entire family. The production values are nice, but it becomes clear Spicy Horse isn't that experienced when it comes to developing major console games. There are a few issues in the gameplay. The God of War style hack and slash gameplay is fun at first, but quickly grows old.

I got tired of the fights against the ruins. I didn't like how they kept drawing out the battle by concealing their weak points. Many of the checkpoints are awkwardly inserted, and toward the end I felt like they were just throwing slide sections in there just to pad the length of the game. The platforming is fun enough, but the quadruple jump they give you takes most of the challenge out of it. So you're left with a game that is easy on the eyes, but comes nowhere close to living up to its potential.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
These people, they're like ghosts, always hiding in the shadows, always hiding behind lies and proxies.

When I think of cinematic gaming, I think of the opening to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. You're plunged into a secret web of corporate spies and espionage, all centering on the ground breaking research of a dazzling scientist known as Dr. Megan Reed. It is a future where humans are being fitted with robotic augments to turn them into superhumans. There isn't a detail left to chance in Edios's futuristic techno-digital world. It's beautifully defined, straight down the steampunk newscasters broadcasting in the bottom corner of David Sarif"s computer monitors.

Hell, I wanted to grab a bag of popcorn while watching it.

You control of Adam Jensen, security director for Sarif industries, who is tasked with locating a kidnapped team of scientists. You're accompanied by a strong yet compassionate fighter pilot, a douchey but dependable IT specialist, working for a boss you trust about as far as you can throw. The gameplay is based heavily on stealth, and you die quickly if the enemies catch a whiff of you.

Though it is possible to play as a shooter, the mechanics don't support that very well. I had more fun trying to sneak around and silently pick off guards one by one. And when you aren't busy fighting the opposition, you can debate them. There are a few sections where you are presented with a text options and you attempt to talk a character into helping you or giving information. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has already gained much love, and in my opinion deserves even more.

Dark Souls
Take care out there. None of us want to see you go hollow...
When it comes to mood, atmosphere, and downright badassery, few can top Dark Souls. The penultimate dungeon crawling series returns, and once again captures the epic feel and jaw gnashing difficulty of its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls. The major upgrades this time around include expanding the game world and streamlining the weapon upgrade system.

The environments are some of the most lushly imagined and beautifully rendered I've seen. Mystic forests, silent tombs, and demonic palaces spread out before you, and you'll also find some of the greatest boss designs ever. They're so totally mind blowing that I just can't ruin them for you if you haven't played. And it possesses one of the most simple but effective combat systems to date.
There are tons of hidden secrets too, if that's your bag. My main caveat is that the difficulty was a bit much for me. Demon's Souls was my 2009 game of the year, and I ran through it without too many problems. This in no way prepared me for Dark Souls. I made a good run through the game, but ran into a brick wall with the end bosses. It's not really a legitimate complaint, but it's not something I feel like selecting as my personal game of the year. Still, it's hard to find a world more enchanting, combat more heart pounding, or an experience more fulfilling.

Batman: Arkham City
So you know my name? Good, because I know everything about you. I know your darkest secret, your ultimate weakness; I know that you are Bruce Wayne.

Most developers would probably be satisfied if they could point to a game like Arkham Asylum as their crowning achievement. Leave it to Rocksteady to go and improve on an already fantastic formula. From the get-go, it feels like something is unique about this game. The plotline sees Bruce Wayne headed to Hugo Strange's penitentiary, Arkham City, but as an inmate, not as the Caped Crusader.

I thought it started slowly, mostly due to the fact that it felt virtually identical to Arkham Asylum in the beginning. Many sequels attempt to expand upon their core gameplay or streamline it, but Arkham City does neither. Rather, it expands the game world, adds in sidequests, and takes its time building up a sense of tension within the story. Major plot points are slowly unveiled. It also doesn't hurt to be able to pick from one of the most memorable vaults of villains ever conceived. Little seen masterminds Hugo Strange, Ra's Al-Ghul and The Penguin are given center stage here, and the quests to hunt them down are exhilarating.

To spice things up, there are also sections where you switch off to Catwoman and get a chance to play around with slightly different physics. It's a brilliant mechanic that I hope games will take notice of. By combining stealth, refined beat 'em up gameplay, and dark twists in the storyline, Arkham City easily stands as one of the year's flagship titles.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

There's a clocktower in Hereford where the names of the dead are inscribed. We try to honor their deeds, even as their faces fade from our memory. Those memories are all that's left, when the bastards have taken everything else.
For years I never understood the hysteria over Call of Duty. Then I realized there are different types of games meant for different people, and perhaps I'm one of those not meant to totally get it. Still, I at least check these games out to see what the fuss is over. The Modern Warfare 3 storyline concludes the trilogy, and the campaign mode is besmirched by two common flaws: it's short, and what little you get is packed with filler. 

Although there's plenty of action, the story doesn't really begin to pick up until about 2/3 of the way through the game. Seeing as it only took me 6 1/2 to beat the campaign, take that as you will. In terms of multiplayer, you pretty much know what to expect. Although there is a new mode called Kill Confirmed, which requires you to pick up dogtags in order for your kills to be counted on the scoreboard. I suppose that makes it a bit more objectivey. 

The only part of the game I somewhat liked was the new horde mode, very similar to the co-op modes in Uncharted and Gears of War. I also liked some of the two player spec ops missions; I enjoy having to work as a team to complete a mission. But it all boils down to the fact that I just can't get into this twitch arcade multiplayer no matter how I try. So the legions of COD fanboys can go on being rabid over this game, and I can go on not caring.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
 All men dream - but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity... But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

Coming into the year, Uncharted 3 was one of my most anticipated games. Its predecessor was one of those rare games that virtually achieved perfection in both its singleplayer and multiplayer modes. Uncharted 3 takes us to the desolate, arid desert sands, while expanding on Drake's relationship with Sully. The desert setting is really nice, and the core gameplay is still as solid as ever, but Uncharted 3 seems to put too much focus into adding pointless bells and whistles to the multiplayer when that focus could have been better invested elsewhere.

The buddy system was massively hyped, but it's basically just a glorified way to spawn on a teammate. And I barely ever use the class slots. For what it's worth, the multiplayer does feel more fleshed out this time around. The medal kickback system allows you to cash in medals for some nice weapons and upgrades, and I enjoy some of the new game modes. I had fun with Free for All and Three Team Deathmatch, and there are more maps in the co-op and even a new game mode as well.

The singleplayer, however, is not as good as it should be. There are glaring plot holes, and the villains are paper thin. In addition, there are a few sequences that almost feel like they were ripped straight from Uncharted 2. I did like some of the directions they tried to go with the story. At several points, Drake's friends feel he is going too far and pushing too hard in the pursuit of treasure. But most of the key plot points don't feel fully fleshed out and leaves the player wanting more. Drake's actual deception is touched on so briefly that I couldn't even remember what it was by the time the game was over. As it is, Uncharted 3 is a captivating experience but does show some chinks in the armor.

Totally Unauthorized's 2011 Game of the Year:

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Dovahkinn. You have tasted the Voice of the Greybeards, and passed through unscathed. High Hrothgar is open to you. 
No trendy pick here. No other game this year offered a more expansive world or different styles of gameplay, and no other title came close in terms of quality content available. It begins with a dragon sighting that breaks up the execution of rebel leader Ulfric Stormcloak, and it will lead to a battle to determine the future of Skyrim itself. Along the way you will come to know what it means to be dragonborn.

The possibilities are endless. You can be a thief and silently cut down your foes, take on the role of warlock and bolster your spellcasting and alchemy skills, or become a barbarian and straight up go Rambo on everyone. If you've got a taste for blood and dark contracts, you may fancy becoming an assassin for the Dark Brotherhood. Or maybe you say to heck with all of it and just join the bard's college.

There are so many well written storylines waiting to be unearthed, and each will have you guesting at what twist will come next. I've dumped most of my time into the Thieves Guild, hot on the trail of a shadowy traitor and restore the Guild to its former glory. It doesn't hurt that my character has gotten filthy rich in the process. Come to think of it, that actually ties in perfectly to the reason this is game of the year. Thanks to the depth of the world and the variety of possible playstyles, Bethesda has done more than virtually anyone else to give you the greatest bang for your buck.

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