Monday, February 6, 2012

Top 5 Video Games of 2011

Video Games: Thomas Dunn continues a look back at 2011's best, with the top 5 Games of last year.

2011 has been something of an odd year for armchair sportsmen, a signal of the growing stagnation in the market. Traditional release dates were met all over; Rockstar released a late-spring blockbuster, Rocksteady swooped down in the autumn to earn its crown, and Activision ensured that another COD rehash entered the arena at the eleventh hour to make us forget all the good that had come before. That said, within this growing routine lay a number of innovative titles – most of them sequels, no less – that as a result largely fail to offer any succor to either side of the ongoing debate with regard to originality in gaming. Sequels, it seems, can pioneer the market as well as condemn it. 

And so another year rolls on. As said, there were a number of fantastic titles this year, not least for the Nintendo 3DS, which, after the shakiest of starts, found its feet with a few top-notch N64 remakes, as well as two all-new Mario titles. Likewise, the die-hard indie corner in PC gaming continues to quietly thrive with the OCD-friendly offerings of both Minecraft and Terraria. However, the top five titles of the year proved that engrossing, intelligent gameplay can still dominate the mainstream market. Even if Bobby Kotick would like you to think otherwise, gyuck!  Here they are...

5. LA Noire

Coming in fifth on the list for 2011 is Team Bondi’s first, and last, title, LA Noire, an open-world homage to the Film Noir of the fifties (largely by way of Mad Men actors. If you’ve got it, flaunt it...) that has since been marred by stories of Bondi’s total incompetency. Regardless of how much input Rockstar had in salvaging the title, what came out in stores was a compelling tragedy with great mo-cap acting and a stirring score. Following the rise and fall of war vet and cop Cole Phelps, the game traces his journey through the ranks of the LAPD, combating the morphine trade, arson, a city-wide conspiracy, and ultimately his own past. Like all Rockstar games, it works largely as a recreation of a specific zeitgeist rather than offering anything original, but similarly it does so seemingly effortlessly. Ironically, the game’s largest fault is perhaps its open-world take; an immaculate recreation of a dead LA, it feels like a mausoleum, and has about as much life as one. If the game had instead followed the linear path it so obviously tried to hide, it might have scored higher on the list. As it is, a great visual novel that pushes the cause Heavy Rain lay down back in 2009. 

4. Portal 2

Tales of Half Life 2: Episode 3’s return are grossly exaggerated. Leaving matters on a cliff-hanger some five years ago (wow, time flies!), Valve instead continued to develop the concept of the (possibly?) in-universe title, Portal, once a two-hour tech demo with humour, now a fully-fledged title with its own agenda. Portal 2 continues where the original game left off, but develops everything, creating something wholly unique to itself even with its recurrent references to the world of Half – Life. In order to keep the portal-jumping mechanic fresh, puzzles are now equipped with a range of materials that manipulate the physical world almost as much as the portals themselves, with later levels turning into Rube Goldberg machines in your capable hands. The story of Aperture Science, largely sidelined in the original game, now comes to the fore, with Ellen McLain’s acerbic psychopath GlaDOS having her digital history entwined with that of deceased CEO Cave Johnson, played with aplomb by J.K Simmons. Stephen Merchant’s Wheatley runs the risk of turning everything into another fucking Gervais comedy, but hey, it’s a small price to pay. Especially when you (spoiler).

3. Dark Souls

Who knew that dying could become an art? Or, if not that, a wholly rewarding learning experience? Frustrating to the point of screaming, yes, but also beneficial in the long term? If you don’t agree, you won’t get very far with FROM Software’s punishing follow-up to last year’s sleeper hit Demons’ Souls, an action RPG set across a gargantuan, plague-ridden world of monsters and psychopaths. Taking the by-gone formula of dungeon crawling and marrying it with a highly charged risk / reward mechanic, FROM software continue to offer a gaming experience that cannot be found anywhere else on the market – a war of attrition against the game world that rewards glory only once it has been thoroughly earned. With a highly unique online mode that blurs the traditional line between single and multi-play into obscurity, Dark Souls is a game for gamers. A technical masterpiece that is nevertheless an acquired taste.

2. Skyrim

I realized fairly late on into Bethesda’s previous Elder Scrolls title, Oblivion, that you could literally just sprint your whole way through the game to victory. Initially conjuring up snatches of Kanye West’s ‘Power’ whilst darting through Daedric corridors, the novelty soon wore off and I realized that this game-breaking mechanic revealed how easily Oblivion could slip into a dull, repetitive slog if you didn’t “invest” in its clunky world. Not so with the follow-up, Skyrim, a richer, more rewarding experience that finally chooses to modernize its play-style rather than waver between 2011 and 1983, as well as returning to a (lighter) tale of political intrigue ala Morrowind (Oblivion was many things. Well written wasn’t one of them). The sense of supposed freedom the game offers, as with all Bethesda titles, comes about largely as a result of you choosing to believe in it – in some ways this is a fairly shallow game. However, Skyrim meets you more than half way on this agreement, and as such offers a highly enjoyable adventure that, surprise surprise, is also relatively bug free! Gamebryo can still fuck off though.

1.Arkham City

The winner for 2011 was clear within an hour of playing it. Following on from Rocksteady’s surprise hit, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Arkham City takes the freeflow combat of the original title and drops it into an open-world environment of dangerous thugs, in a sectioned-off zone of Gotham City, on a winter’s night. As you swoop down upon your prey and beat the living shit out of them, it quickly becomes apparent that, hey, you’re the goddamn Batman. And it’s pretty great. Paul Dini returns to script a sinister tale across Gotham that, whilst having perhaps a few too many eggs in the basket, nevertheless allows Rocksteady to deliver a well-paced, varied foray into Batman’s world and rogues gallery, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill returning to provide the definitive voices for both Batman and the Joker. The sense of sheer escapism this game offers is what all should seek for its deceptively complex combat system always offering something more, just when you think you may have it mastered. For those who enjoyed the stealth components of AA, the open-world environment leads into enough highly guarded safe-houses to sate your desires of shadowy vigilantism. Ripping out the Catwoman content and making it DLC at the final hour, a safety-valve against piracy (or, more pertinently, the pre-owned market), left something of a bad taste on a game that is otherwise stellar. But when this and the game’s somewhat rushed climax (again) are the only real qualms, things ain’t lookin’ so bad.

As in all arenas, Batman wins out, typically. With next year offering both Max Payne 3 and Grand Theft Auto 5 as particular highlights, his time in the spotlight may quickly be snatched by another Rockstar classic before the end of 2012.


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