This job has two competing requirements. First, in order to be suitable for this type of work, you really have to love games. I mean, love games a lot. The second requirement is that you have to be able to maintain some professional objectivity about this thing that you’re so personally invested in. It’s a bit of a paradox, really, where you have to rely on each impulse to check the other. It can lead to some schizophrenic moments here and there, but hopefully your own instincts and the feedback of your peers and readers, can help you find the right balance between coming across as a fawning fanboy for whom Grand Theft Auto will always be the greatest thing ever and coming across as a bitter old crank who still can’t understand why anyone still cares about Zelda.
Fortunately, none of those contradictions apply to today’s list. This isn’t a list of the year’s best games, or even a list of the game’s that I think you will particularly enjoy (although I hope you will). No, this is just a list of my favorite games of 2011. The only criteria are those I made up for myself based on what I liked most about 2011’s catalog.
5. Alice: Madness Returns (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Sure, I may not have thought much of the actual gameplay, but Alice: Madness Returns is one of those games that got into my head and wouldn’t leave. I usually don’t have much tolerance for the dark-for-darkness’-sake mood of these types of games – dismembered baby dolls and corrupted youth are more annoying than unsettling – but something about the overall presentation and art direction of Alice grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. The brilliant locations and inventive character design made Alice’s world seem new again. From the tranquil Zen islands filled with Japanese vases to the dim, spectral underwater chase scenes, to the gladiatorial battles on top of a gigantic tea table, this game was above all else just an interesting place to be. Then, just when I think I know where it’s going, it surprised me with a floating castle made of cards, which is easily the most memorable scene I’ve played in any game in 2011.
4. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
This game made me realize just how much slack I gave to Invisible War. But where that game was a relatively shallow exploitation of the franchise, Human Revolution is a full-on revival of the series. Everything that makes Deus Ex feel like Deus Ex is here. You’ve got the dystopian future, the ambiguity about our own humanity, and loads of open-ended gameplay driven by some truly kick-ass super powers. As big a deal as we make about the moral choices allowed by most games’ stories, Human Revolution puts the moral decisions up front as part of the gameplay. Here you’re expressing who you are not just by your choices during conversations, but by your very actions at every moment. Some gamers might rely on stealth and intelligence to get through the game with as little bloodshed as possible. Others will want to grab the biggest weapons and the toughest buffs in order to cut a bloody swath through the game’s convoluted story. Having the kind of choice is what Deus Ex should be about.
3. Shogun 2: Total War (PC)
I love lots of videogame series, but there are very few where I would consider myself a true fanboy. Total War is at the top of that list thanks to its combination of thoughtful grand strategy and thrilling tactics. See, Total War is the best of both worlds. It has the broad, abstract management appeal of a game like Civilization while also retaining the ground-level tactical challenge of a game like Combat Mission. Here, you’re not only managing taxes and research and populations to produce a few units of samurai and archers, but you’re also going to be the one to put those units into formation and lead them on the battlefield. Each of the game’s two levels are satisfying and challenging enough to be standalone experiences, but Creative Assembly have merged them into one of the greatest experiences a strategy gamer can have.
Wait. Two PC exclusives? This has been a good year. I’m professionally obliged to have a passing interest in every game genre, but my personal interest in most MMOs rarely extends past the level cap. My problem has always been that the story, when it even exists, and progression systems make my character’s identity non-existent. The Old Republic is the first MMO I’ve played where I feel like the game actually gives a damn about the choices I’m making. Sure, the characters feel a little too generic during the first several levels, but the overall story context is so strong that I really feel like I’m the hero and not just one of a hundred Jedi all waiting in line for the same monster to spawn. BioWare’s always been great about adding real consequences to its RPGs, and The Old Republic is no exception.
1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, Xbox 360, PS3)
Remember what I said about Deus Ex? That it encouraged you to play the way you want to play? Well, Skyrim is that times a million. Not only does it give you the chance to define your character’s abilities through the way you would naturally play, but it also puts the burden for discovering and directing the story almost entirely on the player. The freedom in this game is overwhelming at times, and reminds me just how much other games just lead us around by the nose, spoon feeding us pre-chewed content that we can never really participate in. What happens in Skyrim is almost always entirely up to you, which creates a tremendously satisfying sense of power and choice. The flipside, naturally, is that players can get lost in the enormity of the world and their own responsibilities in it. If you can invest part of your personality in the game and begin to bend the world around you to suit your purposes, you’ll emerge with an epic story that’s entirely your own. You could be the good-hearted soldier who’s just trying to bring peace to the kingdom, or the opportunist mercenary who uses the turmoil to promote his or her own selfish interests, or merely a traveling explorer who is content to see the sights and leave the politics aside.
So, what were your five favorite games of the year? Remember, there are no wrong answers here. Be sure to let us know in the comments field below.