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.
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…
Schuyler Says: Very rarely do you come across a game with amazing graphics and a fantastic story. Infamous2 covered both of those bases perfectly. The attention to detail puts you right in the action with Cole in New Marais and the story helps bring you further down the rabbit hole that is Infamous 2. While you journey your way from the upscale areas to the slums you have the choice to do vaguely good or vaguely bad, you are equipped to do either. People’s lives are in your hands, quite literally in this game, and your decisions can change your experience from anyone else’s. The ability to have a genuinely unique gaming experience is possible, which is more that what can said about most games.
Schuyler Says: Minecraft may have changed the face of gaming as we know it. How many games do you know of that were released in its alpha state and made a profit long before it had ever gone “live”. None, that’s how many. By putting out this 8-bit masterpiece Mojang has proven that a game’s biggest selling point can be the player’s imagination. Too often we, as players, are led around, being told where to go and what to examine. When we are given the chance to experience a world on our own we can let a game like Minecraft take us away into our own head. A place where other games are weary of letting us go.
Justin Says: In such a heavy hype driven industry, it might have been easy to miss Bastion, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least check out this gem from Supergiant Games. While other games are happy to bash you over the headed with tediously long exposition and cutscenes, Bastion feeds you details about its setting and narrative during play through the use of a gravelly voiced narrator. This alone would have been enough to make folks take note of Bastion, but combined with clever gameplay mechanics, a gorgeous hand-drawn aesthetic and a killer soundtrack makes Bastion a contender for Game of the Year.
Greg Says: Grand strategy games are a hard sell for some players, but Creative Assembly had Sun Tzu on its side. The return to the era of the first Total War game was fitting for this giant leap forward in the series. Managing the growth of your clan’s power in a race to conquer or control the islands of feudal Japan is streamlined, and the flavor of each agent such as geisha, ninja or monk was pitched perfectly for the setting. The real time battles between samurai and ashigaru are exciting, especially when the odds are stacked against your pitiful army. The addition of naval combat made becoming a power on the seas important and the influence of Western technology like guns, ships and cannons balanced by the growth of Christianity in your lands made for an interesting – and even educational – gaming experience. Shogun 2 was the best strategy game of 2011.
Steve Says: If all you know of Deus Ex is Invisible War, you might be excused for overlooking Human Revolution. You’d also be missing out on a very original and captivating prequel to one of the best PC games of all time. The new Deus Ex has all the things we loved from the original game. There are crazy conspiracies, challenging philosophical debates, futuristic technology and a thrilling story. On top of all that, it has some of the most open-ended gameplay you’ll see in an RPG. Players can use the technology-driven powers to become walking murder machines, invisible thieves or expert hackers, each of which presents remarkably satisfying and balanced challenges. It’s a game that asks players how they want to play, and then gives them creative ways to live out their fantasies. What other game includes choices to sneak past a security turret, uss a nearby console to disable it, or simply throw vending machines at it until it stops working?
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Susan Says: It’s easy to take Skyward Sword for granted. After all, it’s just the latest in a long line of Zelda games, and doesn’t really tinker with the familiar formula all that much. But Skyward Sword is effortlessly brilliant, confident in the adventure that it lays at your feet. It’s not grim or realistic. There are no moral quandaries or different paths. There is simply a boy fighting the forces of evil to save a girl he cares about. It’s that most familiar and simple of gaming foundations – the hero rescuing the princess – set amidst an incredible soundtrack, sharp dialog, memorable characters, gorgeous colors, and most of all, clever dungeons.
Justin Says:While not for the faint of heart, Dark Souls secures its spot on this list with detailed mechanics, its chilly open setting and some truly challenging, but rewarding, gameplay. The tagline Prepare to Die is certainly befitting of the experience to come, but if you give it time you’ll slowly learn the necessary strategies for success. Combining the timing of a fighting game with the rich statistics of some of the best RPGs gives Dark Souls‘ gameplay a feeling of something unique in the modern RPG genre. Narrowly rolling under some massive bosses’ lethal attack in order to deliver the killing blow in-turn is that much more gratifying when you know you actually preformed it yourself and not a quick-time event.
And our 2011 choice for Game of the Year is…
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
2011’s Game of the Year!
Steve Says: Like a few of this year’s other nominees, Skyrim eschews the dialogue-driven morality systems that have been dominating RPGs for the past decade. In Skyrim, the way you choose to play the game is every bit as expressive as the choices you make during conversations. Every person I spoke to has had a completely different experience, not just in the direction they’ve travelled but in the way they meet the challenges that come up along the way. You set the priorities and you determine how to achieve those goals. Best of all, each of our characters have naturally grown based solely on what we as players find most interesting. It’s rare that a game that identifies and then expresses a player’s personality so easily, but Skyrim manages to do it better than just about any other game I’ve ever played.
Susan Says: The reasons Skyrim showed up on this list are pretty obvious – it’s a huge, sprawling game that suits many different playstyles while crafting a heroic progression that you’re actually likely to care about. And all of that makes it a great game that should be in your library, but what makes it my game of the year are the dragons. Other creatures in the game are far more deadly (stupid jerk bears), but the dragons of Skyrim are noble, elegant, graceful, and terrifying. Alduin, the talking black dragon at the heart of the game, is a marvelous villain, and the noise that erupts from dragon throats as they bellow their rage is positively bone-rattling. I remember every single dragon I encountered in Skyrim – even the ones that just popped up randomly to give me a hard time (or roast a mud crab). When I think of Skyrim, it won’t be for the characters (whose names I can’t remember anyway), or even most of the questlines. It’ll be for the dragons.
Greg Says: There is no wrong way to play Bethesda’s fifth Elder Scrolls game. The sheer amount of content available – from the various organizations like the Dark Brotherhood and the Companions to the random quests found through exploration of the frozen countryside – is staggering and every gamer I hear discussing their play in Skyrim is completely different from mine. Everything comes together: the world-building is superb, the voice-acting works great and the art style is consistent. Skyrim is how RPGs – and all games really – will be judged for years to come.
Paul Says: Alright, so we’ve all heard ad nauseam as to how great Skyrim is (not to mention that meme about knees and arrows), but the reality is that Skyrim deserves just about all of the praise it’s getting. It’s a fantastic game that brings an insanely detailed and expansive world to the table, but it’s also accessible enough that even someone who has a love/hate relationship with RPGs (like yours truly) will find something that’ll keep bringing you back for just one more quest. Whether it hacking my way through Draugr-filled caves, slicing up an ice-breathing dragon or just wandering around the highly-detailed environment, I’m fascinated by how many fantasy-world shenanigans I’ll run into every time I try to take a simple stroll from one village to the next, and how the setting can change drastically after just a few minutes of walking. After dozens of hours of playing and a handful of quests under my character’s belt, chances are I’m going to be happily blazing a trail through the snowy landscape of Skyrim for quite a while.