This year, in addition to our rousing end-of-the-year award show, I decided to honor twelve additional excellent experiences from the twelve gaming months of 2011 AD.
So here we go!
Best Tiny Moment: Conversation with Legion, Mass Effect 2
It’s hard to believe, but I didn’t care for Mass Effect when I first played it. After giving it another shot, I realized it deserves a special place in the pantheon of great story-based games. ME2 also comes correct with compelling events and interesting characters — perhaps none more interesting than Legion, Commander Sheperd’s most unlikely companion.
At one point in the game (for me it was after all the craziness of the final mission), Sheperd speaks with Legion about the armor it is wearing. Legion’s response ranks as one of the best tiny moments in recent years. It passes without fanfare, yet left me feeling awestruck with philosophical implications.
Best Demo: Dead Space 2 and Catherine (tie)
It took me about five hours with the first Dead Space to realize that it’s not my kind of game. Tension, headaches, low supplies — these are everyday features of my life in the classroom, so why would I want to expose myself to more of them when I get home? Fortunately, the demo for Dead Space 2 didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty or seduce me into thinking I would have more fun in the world of the sequel. As a result I stayed far, far away.
The same is true about the demo for Catherine. Based on what I’d heard in the weeks leading up to its release, I was intrigued by the possibilities of this game. A Japanese game that’s character-driven and based more on puzzles than mindless combat? Sign me up! Fortunately, none of my money (and very little of my time) were wasted on this dumb abomination, thanks to a demo that let me know exactly what I would be in for. Climbing boxes under the gun of a timer, to avoid a giant castrating fork — suddenly this game isn’t my cup of tea. Thanks for the warning!
Best “Don’t Believe the Hype” Reminder: Two Worlds II and Crysis 2 (tie)
I wasn’t so lucky with Two Worlds II. Had there been a demo, I never would have given the developer any of my hard-earned money. Instead, I relied on the enthusiastic praise dished out by professional review sites, as well as the positive comments from people I trust. (Well, people I used to trust.) I needn’t name names; they know who they are. Clunky gameplay, weak dialogue, absurdly difficult enemies, and awkward camera work combined to make this my most-regretted purchase of the year. Note to self: Unless you have loved an earlier game by the same developer, try before you buy.
I didn’t despise Crysis 2, but I did get swept up in the hype. All the excitement about the CryTek engine finally coming to the console made me forget that I didn’t really care about this game. Fortunately, I went the GameFly route with this one, and I enjoyed the multiplayer, so I don’t actually have it in the L column. But it would have been very easy for me to convince myself that I needed to have it, despite the lack of any kind of evidence in that direction.
Worst Resurrection: You Don’t Know Jack and Rush ‘n’ Attack (tie)
The original You Don’t Know Jack game was a superb addition to my PS1 catalogue. Before the advent of online multiplayer, or even decent co-op gameplay, there was no more communitarian gaming experience in our house than having friends use controllers to answer silly trivia questions. Sure, the jokes were dumb and the presenter was obnoxious at best, but it was a good time and fit the era perfectly. Well guess what? That time has passed. In 2011 YDKJ is a sad relic, a weak attempt to dig up a smelly corpse for the sake of a few bucks. Leave it in the ground where it belongs, people.
Speaking of which, I was really excited to see a new Rush ‘n’ Attack game. I have many fond memories of playing the original, both in the arcade and at home on my NES. Before Shadow Complex, I might have suspected that no 2-D side-scrolling game could stand up to scrutiny twenty-five years later. But my hopes were high when this new version came out, so I had a long way to drop when I experienced the pitiful reality. Feature creep, weak graphics, and dull, repetitive gameplay apparently are much more tiresome now than they were in 1986. Leave it in the past.
Best Resurrection: Ico
I’m glad to hear from Stu and Chinny that I didn’t oversell this one. A masterpiece of understatement, it’s still just as glorious as when it first appeared ten years ago. Plus it has the best final moment of any video game ever made. The HD update brings the mystery of the castle into high relief, without overwhelming the ambience with stupid glossy nonsense. Plus it’s easier to get now, which means gamers who couldn’t afford $40 for the original can now have a go.
The “Not So Bad” Award: Dragon Age II
There’s no question that Dragon Age: Origins achieved great things that the sequel doesn’t match. But based on all the groans and complaining, I expected DA2 to be a total waste of time. In reality, I kinda liked it. The tension between communities in the city, the story of Merrill, and the (somewhat) improved fighting mechanic made this game lots of fun to play.
True, It all takes place in one city, and the final fight scenes are really dumb. On the other hand, doing multiple missions in the same locations has never really bothered me — truth be told, I’m usually more annoyed by having to find my way around a new location every time I need to complete a mission. Are we expecting to have entirely new locales for every part of a game now? Don’t put my name on that petition!
Best Easter Egg: Crushed skeleton in Skyrim
This is a tough one — there were plenty of cool easter eggs this year. Skyrim is, of course, packed full of little things to discover on your own, after (or while) you do all the dozens and dozens of actual missions. This one was my favorite: One day, after taking down a couple of giants, I wandered around their campsite, disgusted as always by the weird vats of cheese, when I noticed a huge boulder. Under it was a skeleton, the head barely poking out in front.
Did the guy die instantly after the giant dropped this huge rock on him? Or did he lie there for hours (or days), starving to death and unable to move? Or was it a female adventurer who picked the wrong time to pick on Mr. Big? Maybe she tripped and the giant thought she was attacking his mammoth. So many possibilities — the only certainty is that there is some kind of story behind this moment.
Best Boss Fight: Wheatley in Portal 2
If anyone doesn’t yet know that your erstwhile Portal 2 companion Wheatley turns evil and becomes drunk with power, sorry! Spoilaarrrrr, as Chinny says. The final fight is no surprise — most of us knew, as soon as we reached the first confrontation with GLADoS, that we would eventually have to do battle with this new homicidal robot.
But the form and fun of that final battle were breathtaking. A genuine panic fills the room, but at no point did I feel overwhelmed by the steps required. The scope is epic (especially when that special thing happens, which would be a very big spoiler, so I won’t say it), and the gameplay is still so much fun by the end that we don’t want to finish up. Most boss fights can’t be described as fun at all, so the smile we wear at the end of the game is a testament to Valve’s ability to do it right.
Most Improved Sequel: Infamous 2 and Gears of War 3 (tie)
I liked Infamous okay — well enough to finish the game, anyway. A nifty little mechanic with the electricity there, and plenty of open-world adventuring to be done. I was seriously not excited for the sequel, however, especially when the first trailers introduced science-fiction monsters into the mix. The first game distinguished itself by making the hero unusual in a world of mundane killers and gang members; I expected monsters to ruin the experience. I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. Infamous 2 takes the best bits of the first game and turns the volume up. The characters — not exactly a strong suit in the original — are intriguing, and the game features the runner-up for the Best Tiny Moment category (when Cole and Zeke share a beer on the roof).
I’ve never been down with Gears of War. The fighting always felt too frenetic, the characters too cardboard, the multiplayer too unfair. And while I still haven’t pursued the singleplayer campaign past Act II, I found the multiplayer modes in GoW3 much improved. I could actually hold my own in the deathmatches, and the horde mode felt vastly superior to previous versions. Best of all, King of the Hill presented a game type which involved something other than just constant bloodshed. Huzzah!
Most Disappointing Sequel: F3AR
Unlike Dead Space, the nightmarish tension of FEAR 2 ticked every box on my go-ahead-and-scare me scorecard. (All the generous ammo lying around had a lot to do with it, as did the enormous mechanical deathbot we get to use halfway through the game.) Alas, despite a long hiatus and some promising previews, the third game in the series left me feeling seriously underwhelmed. Stagnant characters, wonky game mechanics, and bland missions that felt mostly meaningless. Fortunately it picks up toward the end, but it was far from the fitting follow-up we foresaw from FEAR 2.
Worst “Improvement” of a Thing that Never Needed Improving: Cover mechanic, Bodycount
Some video game elements don’t need improving. If it ain’t broke, developers, don’t fix it! To wit: Press the left trigger to look down the sight, press the right trigger to shoot. Who would bother messing with a winning formula like that? Well, evidently the makers of Bodycount thought they needed to find a better way to handle cover mechanics than the tried-and-true method of A to hide, and A to release. “No,” someone apparently said. “Let’s make the player hold down a button for the entire time they want to stay under cover. That way it’s like they’re in the moment, because when you’re actually in a firefight, you have to hold yourself down, so it’s like it’s the same thing! Dude!” Yeah, whatever. Two minutes of this in the demo and I was done. Fail!
Best Retro Moment: The Parking garage trial, Driver: San Francisco
I know I’m alone with my love for Driver: SF, but I love it to bits. Fast action and crashing into oncoming traffic at top speed — what’s not to love? Okay, the story is pants and some of the races are annoying. But overall it’s the most fun I’ve had with a driving game since Need for Speed Carbon.
I’ve been a fan of the Driver series since the very first game on the PSOne, so I was delighted to find myself, in the middle of Driver SF, suddenly doing a mission from that first game! Remember when you had to prove yourself by doing a bunch of wacky techniques (360 turns, slaloms, etc) in a parking garage? Well it’s back, baby!
Also Driver SF has a Back to the Future easter egg too.
Well, that’s it for 2011. Here’s hoping that 2012 brings us even more awesomeness and fun times in the world of gaming. Happy New Year, everyone!