Selecting a list of nominees for Game of the Year is a long process, full of passionate arguments, friendly challenges, and even the occasional screaming match. This year, strangely, things went more smoothly than usual. Maybe it was the massive rush of great games that were still fresh in our memory from November and December. Maybe it was the unexpected number of truly great and unique games that we experienced in 2011. Or maybe it was that we were all so hopped up on holiday cheer that we were feeling charitable towards each other. Whatever the case, coming up with a list of the top games from 2011 was dead easy. The problems came when we had to start paring the list down to a manageable size and had to say goodbye to beloved personal favorites to make way for titles that we knew were more deserving of a spot on the list.
We persevered. We're professionals, dammit.
Now it's time to let you in on a little secret. In compiling these lists, an argument for a game's inclusion as a nominee will occasionally be put forth along these lines: "Well, it doesn't deserve to win, but it should still be nominated." It's a way of recognizing a game's inherent awesomeness, or the awesomeness of some significant portion of the game, while still acknowledging that it can in no way compete with the games that are clearly in the running for the actual Game of the Year award. With that in mind, we began to notice a clear separation on our list for games we wanted to recognize for their excellence, but that didn't quite rise to challenge the small handful of games that most of us were likely to vote for once it came time to pick a winner.
Accordingly, we're offering up a list of seven honorable mentions, games that we think are fantastically fun and significant, but weren't likely to be championed by most of us once decision time came. That left us with a list of eight nominees that all of us agreed would be worthy to be called the best of 2011. After much discussion and voting, we were left with seven commendable nominees and one very deserving winner.
Read on to see which titles we thought represented the best that gaming had to offer in 2011.
Greg Says: When the dust settles from the whirlwind of excellent games released this year, Dragon Age 2 will get the credit it deserves for its excellent story-telling. From the opening moment of Varric speaking to the Inquisitor, I knew BioWare's bold sequel was important for how it approached game narrative. The cast of characters surrounding Hawke were brilliantly executed, and it was refreshing to have a main character's family portrayed in way that didn't feel forced. The unreliable narrator and great characters aside, the refinements to combat and the interactions between classes were satisfyingly complex and the inventory and skill UI to be one of the best designed of the genre this year. Dragon Age 2's dramatization of the Champion of Kirkwall's story will be remembered for a long time.
Susan Says: A game doesn't have to be perfect to be one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year, as the messy Dead Island illustrates oh so very well. It's awkward and buggy, but its quest-based zombie slaying still delivers a rockingly good time as it encourages you to drop the typical headshot tactics in favor of crafting new weapons and using the environment to your advantage. Dead Island is a fun zombie-killing romp, but should you choose to look deeper, you'll find questions about class, race, and how much humanity you're willing to sacrifice in order to guarantee your own survival. Dead Island is best enjoyed when played with friends (or by taking advantage of the elegantly simple in-game matchmaking), but it's strong as a solo experience, too - something that can't be said of many other multiplayer outings released this year.
Batman Arkham City
Steve Says: Topping the phenomenal, unexpected success of Batman: Arkham Asylum wasn't going to be easy, but the team at Rocksteady proved they were more than up to the challenge with Batman: Arkham City. Moving Batman from the grounds of Arkham to the streets and skyscrapers of Gotham gave players a chance to see the Caped Crusader in his true element. Perching on rooftops, swooping down streets, and fighting in darkened alleys is what the Dark Knight is all about and Arkham City nailed it. The fantastic powers, the fluid combat system, the abundance of glass-jawed henchmen, also added to the heroic character of the game. Throw in a healthy sampling of Batman's rogue's gallery, and Arkham City is easily one of the best super hero games ever and easily one of the best games of 2011. Now bring on Superman!
Paul Says: Some predicted that a follow-up to Valve's ground-breaking first person puzzler would be a little tricky to pull off, but Portal 2 delivered another clever and crafty platformer that stood apart from all the other games this year. It's just as crafty and clever as the first, and features one of the best stories to come out of the game industry this year. It was a blast matching wits against everyone's favorite rogue AI GLaDOS once again, listening to Aperture Science' founder Cave Johnson's rants and getting the hang of the new puzzle mechanics like the 'Repulsion Gels' and 'Aerial Faith' plates. Plus, I haven't quite had the kind of humorous experience playing co-op then working through the 'Cooperative Testing Initiative' with a friend and finding myself smacking my forehead for thinking way too hard about the correct solution (or for 'accidentally' dropping them into a pool of acid).
Justin Says: Somewhat having gone the way of space flight simulator games and all the coolest dinosaurs, it was surprising to see such a refined and awesome entry in the tactical strategy genre from Frozen Synapse this year. Wrapped in Tron inspired visuals, you'll order your squad of soldiers around randomly generated environments while you try to outthink your opponent. It's firmly rooted and familiar to old genre mainstays like X-Com, but Frozen Synapse makes some changes to mold the experience into something faster and more precise. You can also quickly play a match over a few minutes or keep several running over the course of the day with email notifications, and there are enough randomized elements to ensure no rote strategy is used every time.
Greg Says: Gritty is the word often bandied about to describe the setting created by Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski and dramatized by CD Projekt Red in The Witcher 2, but such a word doesn't cover it. Beyond Triss' boobs and blatant racism (against dwarves), many of the people Geralt meets in his travels possess a truly bleak existence but still, they fight to live, no matter what. The White Wolf himself is not a cookie-cutter protagonist, often stooping to nefarious solutions to his problems. The action combat requires an exhilarating combination of preparation, caution and skill and, once the brutal opening curve was fixed in a patch, accurately rewards the player for using the right potion or the perfect sign to slay the monsters he was destined to kill. The branching storyline offered just the right amount of freedom to draw players into clearing Geralt's name, and The Witcher 2 was enough of a success to ensure that it won't be the last we see of this "gritty" franchise.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Steve Says:BioWare did a funny thing this year. It released a hugely ambitious and hotly anticipated massively-multiplayer game on December 20. Now reviewing an MMO is a long-term proposition in itself, so determining the game's eligibility for 2011's Game of the Year required too much speculation for us to feel we could responsibly include it in this year's list of nominees. It's not that it's not a great game; it is, and more than a few of us here in the office are in a guild together and loving every minute of it. But, given that an MMO lives or dies on the basis of long-term appeal, and given that we simply can't have fairly appraised that by the time these nominees were selected, it is not on our list of nominees for 2011's Game of the Year. We do, however, love what we've experienced so far, and felt it would be unfair to post this list without referencing what we hope will be remembered as one of the genre's better efforts. Should we still hold that opinion at the end of 2012, you can expect to see Star Wars: The Old Republic recognized again this time next year.
Next up, our nominees that didn't earn the top title, but are still fantastic...