Top Games of 2011: Matt Bailey's Choices

By Matt Bailey

Top Games of 2011

2010, like 2009, was a great year for gaming, but 2011 has been a fantastic year for gaming, from all quarters, big and small. It has, generally, been a time for sequels of big budget titles, including Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, Gears of War 3 and Battlefield 3, and yet all of them were excellent games in their own right. Valve followed up cult hit Portal, Media Molecule followed up PS3 classic LittleBigPlanet, and we got another dose of Bethesda's RPG series in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Deus Ex returned and RAGE was finally finished. When it came to originality, though, the indie games have won out there with the likes of Bastion, Terraria, Frozen Synapse and many, many more. There have been some expected successes, and some surprises, and the continued success (and eventual 'proper' release of) Minecraft.

Potatoes play an important role in Portal 2

Potatoes play an important role in Portal 2

Portal 2 (PC/Mac/PS3/Xbox 360)

Portal didn't need a sequel. The intriguing, humorous and challenging first-person puzzler of 2007 was perfectly fine as a standalone game; it wasn't designed to create a new "franchise" or build a back-story for something else. Portal was a wonderful bit of original creation that was hard to dislike. But Valve don't create little bits of story to tack on to a game to give it some "narrative" and tick a box. They craft interesting worlds, and Portal's provided plenty of intrigue. So after we all got over the initial shock and horror of the sequel's announcement, Portal 2 became a highly anticipated game.

Arriving just in time for the double bank holiday weekend we had here in the UK (and unfortunately coinciding with the PSN hacking downtime), Portal 2 delivered on our expectations and exceeded them. Not only did we get more of the intriguing physics-based puzzles and that mad, dark humour, but we got a single player campaign full of twists, turns, and some of the best dialogue and storytelling since Half-Life 2. We got the fantastic Wheatley, voiced by Stephen Merchant, and a bunch of new tricks to add to the portals, including gels and springboards. While the game avoided multiplayer, it did introduce co-operative play, changing the way you use the portal gun. The main campaign is a deliberately solo affair (and it wouldn't work any other way), so instead Valve gave us two new robot characters to play as, and a set of new challenges in the crumbling Enrichment Centre.

It may be a sequel, but it still felt wholly original and exciting. I believe that Portal 2 is not only one of the Top Games of 2011, but one of the best games of all time, and rightly deserves the 10/10 Andy Daniel awarded it in our review at the time.
Review (PC) - 10/10

This is Detroit in 2027. Looks lovely.

This is Detroit in 2027. Looks lovely.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the last game I played on my launch model PS3 before it died. In fact, I was in the middle of watching the third of four possible endings when the machine's power cut out, failing to come back to life again. It was a fitting game for the machine to end it's life, as Human Revolution questions our approach to technological progression with its sci-fi thriller story set in 2027.

Like the original, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game all about choice, but while there are some moral decisions to make which will shape the story, the real choice comes in how you play the game. You can choose to fight or talk your way out of situations, you can hack into places or steal keycards from guards, you can sneak around the back or go in guns blazing. The brilliance of Human Revolution is that you can often try each approach, and you don't even need to keep taking the same option for each mission. You can use stealth in one, and by a gun-totting nutter in the next. Of course, being somewhat RPG there are limitations to this because you'll have chosen extra abilities ("augmentations" via technology enhancements) that will probably suit a preferred play style, but a lot of them can be used in multiple styles.

While the boss fights were a let down - and we since discovered they were actually out-sourced away from the main developers at Eidos Montreal - they didn't undermine an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable game with an intriguing story. And one that certainly lived up to the legacy of the original which still remains one of the best games of all time.
Review (PS3) - 9/10

As a side note, I certainly don't hold the death of my old PS3 against the game; it convinced me to pick up one of the newer slimline models, whose far quieter fan has made watching Blu-ray movies far more enjoyable.

id Tech 5 is an impressive new engine

id Tech 5 is an impressive new engine

RAGE (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)

You probably didn't expect my choice of RAGE in my Top 3. After all, this means I've excluded the likes of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, all of which are absolutely fantastic games, and probably from an objective point of view they are actually better games than RAGE. But they are all games I feel I've barely scratched the surface of, and have yet to capture the same attention from me that id Software's latest shooter managed in late 2011. And none of them are so far have proven to be quite so much unrelenting fun.

It's also nice to choose a game that isn't a sequel, although I do seem to have gone with one which isn't particularly original either. It's a first-person shooter, and one with quite a lot of brown in it too. But it's also not a military shooter in any way - you're a World War II soldier, a modern way special ops troop, or a space marine in the future. You're a guy who has emerged from cryogenic freezing to an Earth that has been devastated by a meteor impact, and you just happen to be fairly handy with a gun. You're not the guy who is there to save the planet, to write a wrong, or rescue loved ones. You just want to live, and there's people who are willing to pay to put things right in the lives they have made for themselves in the wastelands of what used to be the US of A.

It was curiously pitched as more of an open world game, and while you do have some freedom of mission choice, it's more in the timing of when you do main tasks and side quests, rather than altering the overall path of the story. It's ultimately linear, and while the open air sections are a big departure from the corridor-based combat that id Software are known for, the game does tend to boil down to more corridor-based fights. But they are some of the more enjoyable corridor fights you'll come across with enemies who won't stand still, like to take risks, and enjoy giving you a surprise. The weaponry is exciting and satisfying, and there's no silly two-gun limit here either. You can also do proper quick saving, and there's no point in which you spend your time waiting behind someone so they can do all the exciting bits and trigger some scripted event. The action just flows, and thanks to the new id Tech 5, it impresses visually too.

It's not perfect, and it's not the revolution many hoped for, but it's one of the most enjoyable first person shooters I've played, and in that genre only Bulletstorm has come close to providing as much fun in 2011.
Review (PC) - 9/10

Close contenders

There are quite a few games that also deserve a mention:

  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    In recent years I have finally got into RPGs, but I'm still more inclined to the sci-fi leanings of Deus Ex and Mass Effect - or even the post-apocalyptic rumblings of Fallout - than the fantasy-driven Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls. But Skyrim's vast, open and beautiful environment has tempted me, and so far I'm enjoying the ability to explore and take on missions as I come across them on the landscape. But at only 5 hours in I've barely scratched the surface. So while it is most certainly one of the best game of this year, I didn't feel it had done enough for me (so far) to make it into my Top 3. A very close contender, indeed.
  • Batman: Arkham City (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    Another game I'm barely scratching the surface of, but one which is already proving to be immensely enjoyable. It has the same visceral Batman - one who likes to punch his way out of a situation - as Arkham Asylum, but with an even great sense of freedom and plenty to explore. Look for a review of this in the near future.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
    Many people had already given up on the Wii by the time this came along, but some - including our own Andy Daniel - have picked up Nintendo's console again just to give this a go. Those doing so won't be disappointed, with another exciting adventure awaiting, and finally something that takes full adventure of the MotionPlus attachment.
  • F1 2011
    (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    While F1 2010 made it into my Top 3, I've held back on the newer addition not because it's any worse - it is indeed quite a bit better - but because it doesn't have the same impact that the first F1 game in a long time had on me. But I've still put plenty of hours into this one, continuing to enjoy it beyond writing up the review. The changes to the handling - including the new Pirelli tyres - the introduction of the safety car, the implementation of KERS and DRS, and expended multiplayer support make it an excellent purchase for fans of both racing games and the sport itself.
    Review (PS3) - 9/10
  • Magicka (PC)
    Not really a close contender, but it is a lot of fun and deserves a mention. It was also rather broken at launch, leading many to give up on it initially. But when it worked, the four player co-op is hilarious, with friendly fire resulting in a lot of dead wizards. It combined Diablo style point-and-clickery action and looting, with the ability to form a vast array of magic combinations, and then stripped out all the RPG stuff. Since release it's continuing to pick up an audience thanks to Steam sales and DLC releases, and it's been Paradox Interactive's long overdue break into the mainstream. Review (PC) - 8.10
  • Battlefield 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    I have yet to touch the single player part of this, but then that's not what I buy a Battlefield game for. It's all about the multplayer, with 63 other players on the PC version. The new Frostbite 2.0 engine is a technical marvel, and looks stunning on a high-end computer, but the game also feels fresh and engaging despite being yet another military shooter. It's a pity it tries a little too much to be Modern Warfare instead of focusing on what it does best - let you drive tanks and make holes in all the walls.
  • Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) and Mario Kart 7 (3DS)
    The 3DS launch lacked killer titles, and in particular it lacked Mario games. This Christmas this has been solved by not one, but two fantastic Mario games. Mario Kart 7 is essentially more of the same, but that's a good thing - it makes great use of 3D, the online functionality works well, and is has some great new ideas too, including hang gliders. Super Mario 3D Land is sort of a mixture of Mario Galaxy's visual style and the classic Super Mario Land games from the original Game Boy - short burst of levels packed with fun ideas, and another excellent showcase of 3D and the 3DS itself.
  • LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3)
    Another game we didn't think needed a sequel was LittleBigPlanet. After all, the heart of the game is a level editor, so you never need to buy any more content, right? Well, it turns out you can make lots of improvements after you've had plenty of feedback from fans. They improved the tools not just to make them work better, but to allow them to do so much more - this time around you're no longer restricted to making platformers, or making clever use of objects to achieve other things. You really can make puzzle games and top down racers without using exploits. And there's a great new campaign too.
  • Dirt 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    After the somewhat short, but still highly enjoyable, Dirt 2, Codemasters went back to give us more of what we all wanted; big stages with rarely a car in sight. Rallying. There's still lots of other things in there, and Gymkhana was an interesting new addition, but my favourite feature felt like it was there in full this time around. In addition, Codemasters added to the usual racing/rallying-based multiplayer modes with some FPS-inspired ideas, such as flag capturing and an infection mode, all based on flinging cars around Battersea Power Station.
  • Bulletstorm (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    Another first-person shooter that put a focus on fun over reality. Bulletstorm looks immature, but actually it knows it's being silly and revels in it. It makes you think creatively about each kill you make, a strange but satisfying kind of novelty.
  • L.A. Noire (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
    At this point I've chosen far too many games as my "close contenders", but thankfully Rich has already explained why this is a Top Game of 2011.

Indie Choice: Frozen Synapse (PC)

For me, it was pretty much a dead tie between Frozen Synapse, Bastion and Minecraft. Each provide fresh ideas and captive gameplay, but I've chosen to write up about the first one because Rich has already done a great job talking about Bastion in his Best of 2011, and we've talked about Minecraft to death in the last couple of years, including our Best of 2010 articles. Besides, Mode7's Frozen Synapse has captured more of my time than the other two this year thanks to the ability to just pick it up fro 30 minutes, have a few games, and return another day.

Frozen Synapse is a turn-based top-down tactical game with a wonderful blueprint visual style. All games take place between two players, whether that's you and the computer, or you and a human foe. Preferably a friend who you can taunt via Mumble or the like, because after successfully outwitting them, it's good to make sure they know this. Each unit's moves are carefully planned over the course of a turn - you define the path they will take, whether they are looking out for enemies, where they should aim, etc. You can spend quite a long time planning the perfect assault, and predict your opponents' own moves, and then simulate the outcome. Of course, good players aren't predictable, so things may pan out different than planned, but being able to react to that is the key to success.

It's not a perfect game - most of the time you'll be playing on randomly generated maps and sometimes they favour one side over the other, but usually this is insignificant in the face of good tactical play. Games are generally short, unless you're the type of person who takes 20 minutes over each turn - well, if you are, then you can benefit from the fact that this a great example of 'cloud gaming'. All actions take place on a server and when you're playing other humans you don't need to be online at the same time; you can take your turn submit it (and see the outcome if they're already taken theirs), and then return later after you've received an e-mail notification. Games can take days or minutes depending on when you're both available. This is the brilliance of Frozen Synapse, and better still it's available on Mac OS X and Linux too, so you don't even need to have a Windows PC to hand to take your turn - it'll be even better when it eventually reaches mobile platforms like iOS and Android.

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