Why 14? There were just so many games that I enjoyed in 2011 that the standard 10-item list couldn’t contain them all.
14. Gears of War 3
I like the Gears series in a way that surprises even me sometimes. This installment brings some of the best new elements to Delta Squad’s seemingly never-ending war against the Locust, including refined shooting and cover systems, smarter enemies and a longer, more complex story line. It’s easy to dismiss Gears of War for simply providing more meat for the meatheads (which it definitely does), but I’ve always felt that there’s way more going on here: Gears 3 has a sense of finality and depth that’s hard to find in most games, let alone one about hulking soldiers mowing down hordes of alien foes.
13. L.A. Noire
We certainly did our fair share of complaining about L.A. Noire here at Video Game Hangover but it still stands out as one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year. The investigations and characters at the heart of the game are utterly unique, as is its 1940s Hollywood setting. Try to overlook the frustrating interrogations, strangely empty game world, or oddly-anticlimactic pacing and you’ll find something truly uncommon being attempted here. I can only hope that the inevitable L.A. Noire 2 addresses these foibles and delivers the game that this aspired to be.
12. Alice: Madness Returns
How is it that, in 2011, it’s still distinctive and noteworthy to actually get to experience a video game from a female character’s perspective? While parts of Alice felt disappointingly slight in their characterizations, the game presents a gorgeous and eye-bleedingly detailed world unlike any in gaming and a story about a young girl who is, essentially, fighting against the monsters in her own head. Dark, compelling, and addictively playable, Madness Returns is definitely one of the year’s overlooked gems.
I’ve talked a lot about my waning interest in first person shooters but Bulletstorm was certainly one of the genre’s rare paragons in 2011. The game embraces the absurd with crass humor (another character repeatedly calls you “Dick Tits”) and over-the-top set pieces in way that pokes fun at video gaming tropes and simultaneously makes them feel fresh and reinvigorated. You play as Grayson Chance, the disgraced leader of a 26th Century paramilitary black-ops team seeking revenge on the General that tricked you in to killing a civilian. None of that matters as much as the action and humor at play in Bulletstorm. Crazy weapon upgrades, frenetic shootouts and chases, and the game’s signature “energy leash” make for a fast-paced, fun and memorable gaming experience.
10. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
“From the creator of the Ace Attorney series” would usually be enough to get me to open up my wallet in any circumstance but, as it turns out, Ghost Trick is capable of standing on its own as my favorite Nintendo DS game of the year. As the ghost of Sissel, a recently murdered private investigator, you find that you can hop from item-to-item in the environment, travel through time, communicate with the recently dead, and move small objects. All of this allows you to unravel the conspiracy that led to your own death. Gorgeous animations, eccentric characters and a truly engaging plot are just icing on the cake.
9. Shadows of the Damned
A fast-paced, bloody-as-hell, horror-themed shooter with a twisted sense of humor from the creators of Resident Evil and Killer 7. Has someone been reading my Livejournal? As demon hunter Garcia Hotspur, you break in to the City of the Damned in search of the monster that kidnapped your lingerie-clad girlfriend. Heads explode, rivers run red with blood, and a plethora of poop and dick joke are made. You had me at “hello”.
8. Super Mario 3D Land
It’s the first Mario game to actually hold my interest since SMB3 in 1990, so that alone would definitely make it worth mentioning. It’s also joyously playable, devilishly hard at times, and utilizes the 3DS hardware perfectly.
7. Little Big Planet 2
Build-your-own-level features are wasted on me. I have no desire to create my own video game. I do love a good platformer, though, and LBP2 is (despite some occasionally wonky jumping mechanics) a very good, insanely fun, ridiculously charming platformer. In addition, any game that features a helmet-mounted cupcake cannon (dubbed “The Cakeinator”) is all right in my book.
6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This prequel to the aging Deus Ex series features a world full of secrets, a conspiracy-laden plot, and dozens of characters with questionable motives. It’s also got some of the most compelling stealth gameplay of any 2011 release. Every scenario is rich with options, from navigating a compound of enemies to coercing information from pedestrians on the street. The boss battles were ridiculous and unnecessary but don’t let that deter you from enjoying everything else that Human Revolution does so well.
5. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
This was my first experience with Ocarina and, while it doesn’t usurp Wind Waker as my favorite Zelda title, I can certainly see why it’s held in such high regard by so many LoZ fans. The game is rich with eccentric characters and features some of the most challenging puzzles in the series. Between its inspired use of 3D and the Circle Pad controls, I still think it’s the absolute best reason to own a 3DS.
4. Saints Row: The Third
Saints is another game, like Bulletstorm and Shadows of the Damned before it, that embraces its own absurdity without shame. Volition has created a world that allows you to do so much that it’s easy to forget that the game has a campaign to play through, as well. Nothing is off limits here: Saints makes fun of gaming culture, hip-hop culture, vampire movies, furries, and anything else that makes the mistake of flying into its orbit. It’s silly, juvenile, anti-social and proudly over-the-top…and I love everything about it.
3. Dead Space 2
I like a game that brings the scary, and the Dead Space series certainly brings it in creeping, snarling droves. The solitude, desperation and gore of the first game (as well as the depth of its mythology) were a perfect package; it was inspiring to see that a sequel could expand the scope of a game’s reach without sacrificing everything that makes it effective. Isaac Clarke, the heartbroken engineer at the center of a religious conspiracy gone awry, is emerging as one of the more compelling (if not the most fractured and driven) characters in modern gaming. Play it with the lights out.
2. Portal 2
Portal 2 is easily the laugh-out-loud funniest game I’ve ever played. Beyond that, though, there are so many other things worth admiring here. GLaDOS, Wheatley and Cave Johnson are brilliantly demented characters with unique personalities and motivations, the likes of which just don’t appear in other games. The level design is so clever that each puzzle looks insurmountable but the game never becomes frustrating. The sense of satisfaction that comes from completing a particularly massive challenge is unrivaled by any headshot, explosion or trophy earned that it almost becomes habit-forming. Lest I forget to mention that Portal 2 has the best musical score and the most satisfying finale of any other game this year. It’s brilliant.
1. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
What can I say about my love for the Uncharted games that I haven’t said (over and over and over) already? In a year with some of the most incredible gaming experiences ever, Drake’s Deception easily surges to the front of the pack. It’s gorgeous, it’s epic, it’s meaningful…and it makes me happy just to know that I live in a world where something like it can exist. Uncharted 3 makes me proud to be a gamer.
So…what’s on your list?