These are actually in no particular order. There were so many games that I really enjoyed this year, that narrowing down to five was hard enough.
Bastion (Xbox 360)
First up is Bastion, which came out of left-field to rock my world. Everything about the game was simply fantastic. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, who chimes in dynamically based on your action, lending a unique storytelling aspect to the game. It also isn’t afraid to let you discover the narrative and world through play, and you’ll slowly begin to piece together what caused the Calamity that wrecked the world and what Caelondia was like before that. The gameplay is suitably solid, with host of weapons to experiment with and upgrade. I personally most enjoyed the flamethrower-esk flamebellow and a secret skill I loving referred to as the pinwheel of death. There are a number of typical gameplay mechanics that have been included into the world itself. For example, instead of a menu setting difficulty is controlled by the Shrine, which lets you call upon the various spiteful Gods. They will buff the enemies in specific ways, but in return you’ll reap greater rewards. Also, any mentioning of Bastion wouldn’t be complete without noting the awesome soundtrack. Covering a wide and eclectic range of styles, it’s the icing on the cake that makes the whole thing that much better. And all that said, this was developer SuperGiantGames first project. I am so eager to see what they have in store for us next.
Dark Souls (Xbox 360)
This punishingly difficult and intricately detailed RPG was a refreshing change of pace from most other adventures being little more than linear gameplay sections connecting cutscenes. Billed as a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls builds on much of the same gameplay, while having a much less clunky title. One of the characteristics I enjoy most about Dark Souls is how nearly every mechanic pulls double duty or requires you to make some meaningful choices about your character. Souls are used both as your experience and currency, and they are also at risk if you die as as you’ll drop all the souls you’re currently carrying. Even the very basics of the combat are filled with this dual mentality. A giant two-handed sword will certain deal more damage to a wider area and knock aside weaker opponents, but it’s also going to swing slower, use up more stamina and clang harmlessly off the walls if you attempt to use in in an enclosed hallway. Likewise, lighter armor allows you to move faster, but won’t help you mitigate some damage nor avoid staggering like heavier plate. With more and more RPGs lumping most of their player agency into story based morality decisions, it’s nice to still have a challenging game with detailed gameplay. And it is a challenge, expect to die a lot in Dark Souls, but with this difficulty comes some very satisfying triumphs.
League of Legends: Dominion (PC)
I have been playing a lot of League of Legends lately, which is somewhat surprising in that I completely missed out on it’s origins in Warcraft 3. I vaguely remember joining one match of All-Stars back in the day and having absolutely no clue what I was doing. So it wasn’t until recently that I’d given the MOBA scene much attention. Instead of trying to defend and destroy the typical towers, in Dominion you’re tasked with capturing and holding various points across the map. And the changes don’t stop there; nearly everything about it has been tweaked to make something that feels very different. Champions start at higher levels and with more gold, and there is a much greater emphasis on getting into team fights right away instead of after 15 minutes of last hitting and harassing in lane. Heck, most matches rarely last longer than 20 minutes, which is roughly half the time of the normal Summoner’s Rift match. The best matches are when they really come down to the wire with both teams trying desperately to take that last points before their score ticks to zero.
Frozen Synapse (PC)
This indie simultaneous turn based strategy game play a little bit like if X-Com and the planning stage of Rainbow Six wrapped in a Tron-like aesthetic. The basic gameplay revolves around setting waypoints and actions for your team of mindless vatform soldiers. As the game’s singleplayer describes them, they can run and shoot like the very best, but try and hand them a book and their just as likely to try eating it. So that’s where you come in to lead them. Where Frozen Synapse really starts to differ is how these actions play out. Both sides will confirm their plans and a several second turn will be computed. When units see each other a weighed series of checks decides who kills who. For example, with all other aspects being equal a units standing still will kill a unit on the move, but where it starts to give way to complexity is when you toss various weapon types and other actions into the mix. Many of the modes are also randomized to generate new maps or force you to adapt with a specific selection of units. It all comes together to make for a very precise and tactical game where guessing your opponents plan is just as important as making your own. The turn based nature also makes it very easy to scale your time with it. You can play a quick match with someone over a few minutes, or run several games over the course of a day with email notifications of when you’re opponent has confirmed their move.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC)
And last, but certainly not least is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. There’s no denying that Bethesada’s epic sandbox RPG is a heavy favorite here, though Bastion appears to be giving it a run for its money. Some of my favorite moments haven’t even been in the game itself, but the conversations on who has done what quest or what cool or funny thing was noticed. Because the game is so open, it’s often commented that we must be playing entirely different games. Someone else might be really interested in the main story and pursuing that, where as I joined the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood before even warning Whiterun about the dragon threat. What’s amazing is that all these routes are equally compelling and interesting for their respective players. Your power fantasy might be to sling fireballs or cleave foes with a mighty ax, where as I prefer to deal death from the shadows and pilfer everything of value that isn’t nailed down. I also absolutely love the little details in the world. I found a burned out house once, and inside was a circle of candles and a charred corpse clutching a scrolls of summon flame atronach. This clever placement of just a few models and assets made for a more memorable moment than the entire story in some other games. The combination of open world freedom, complete character creation and development and an expansive setting filled with experience made Skyrim an instant hit for me. Also there are dragons.
Well that’s it; those are my five favorite games of 2011. Check them out if you dig games that let you decide your approach or if you’re looking for a revamp from the typical gameplay in a genre. 2011 might very well go down as one of the best years for gaming. There were so many other excellent games released this year, but these were the ones that stuck with me the most.