2011 Gaming Year in Review – Part 1

Is it really that time of year already? I’ve been so busy over the past couple of months, I hadn’t had time to notice. It’s been one of the most densely packed fall schedules for games that I’ve ever seen, so much so that I’ve almost literally been gaming non-stop since about August. And I’ve still not had enough time to play everything that I would have liked to. Frankly, I’m glad that New Year’s is nearly upon us because it gives me the time to catch up before Mass Effect 3 inevitably takes over my life in 2012. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hit ‘More’ to find out what my top 5 games of the year were, along with some musings over the biggest events of the year and what they could mean for 2012.

So, to absolutely no-one’s surprise, Modern Warfare 3 smashed sales records worldwide, leading to much crowing from Activision about how they earned much more money than anyone else. As great as it is to see games maturing to the level of success that mainstream cinema regularly achieves, it is perhaps disappointing that it’s a series as overly macho and formulaic as Call Of Duty that the general public will imagine whenever they think of video games. Still, it faces some truly mighty competition on the horizon from the recently announced Grand Theft Auto 5. If any series has the ability to knock Call Of Duty from the top spot in gaming, it’s undoubtedly Rockstar’s immensely popular cinematic, violent, and ever more controversial open world epics. I can’t wait to find out if it can.

It’s been an interesting year for Nintendo as well this year, with not only a new portable console launch but the announcement of the successor to the phenomenally successful Wii. I’m still yet to pick up a 3DS, mostly because I think there’s likely to be a hardware revision released by the end of next year. How else can you explain the introduction of the bizarre Circle Pad Pro extension? I’m also unconvinced about Nintendo’s strategy for the Wii U. The Wii was a success because it was immediately accessible and understandable by a market bewildered by the complexities of ‘hardcore’ consoles and because it did something completely new – motion gaming. By simply increasing the graphical capabilities of the hardware and introducing a tablet-style controller, Nintendo isn’t introducing anything new and is once again likely to get overtaken in the graphical arms race when Microsoft and Sony announce their inevitable follow-ups to the PS3 and the 360.

On to a slightly smaller scale, has anyone else noticed that instruction manuals are slowly but surely disappearing from game boxes? Imagine my disappointment when I wanted to check the controls for Arkham City, and found a voucher for a free microwaveable sandwich. As much as I enjoy microwaveable sandwiches, I’d hoped for something a little more… informative. In-game tutorials are fine, but it’s nice to have a paper reference point that’s not been printed off of Gamefaqs. I hope this isn’t a trend I’ll see continuing!

But enough of this, let’s move on to what you all really came here to see: My top 5 games of 2011. Now, bear in mind that what with the busy schedule I haven’t had time to play everything and this list is based upon my personal – let me stress that again – personal preferences for games released this year. So, bearing that in mind, to the list!

5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I loved the original Deus Ex back in the day and was overjoyed to see its return this year, updated for the current generation in breathtaking style. Despite some pretty wonky boss battles, the majority of the game was an absolute joy to play through. The freedom of choice and consequences for those actions were integrated perfectly into the genuinely intriguing storyline, and the wealth of options available to tackle any given situation are uniquely refreshing in the genre. Despite all of this, I only truly fell in love with the game when, after managing to sneak the whole of the way through an early police station infiltration, I was glimpsed by a security camera, alerting all the nearby guards in the area to my presence. I panicked. With nowhere to run to, I dived into the nearest corner, huddled into a crouch and covered myself with cardboard boxes. A policeman snooped round the corner and stopped…inches away from my nose, peering into the gloom of the room. I held my breath… and the policeman went away, mumbling to himself about rats in the station. It was an unscripted moment and I had no idea whether it would work; but that moment-to-moment brilliance is what Deus Ex is all about and remains one of my stand out gaming moments of the year.

4. Batman: Arkham City

Few doubted that Rocksteady would struggle to follow the success of Arkham Asylum, but no-one really realized up until launch exactly how much better Arkham City was going to be. The introduction of a free roaming chunk of Gotham turned the game from a metroid-style batman adventure into a fully-formed Batman simulator, complete with innumerable side quests and challenges to complete whilst trying to uncover the plans of the coldly malicious Hugo Strange. It has probably the best opening of any game released this year and retains all of the strengths of its predecessor whist building upon them in intelligent and thoughtful ways. The only things pushing it down to fourth on this list are the slightly less polished Catwoman sections and the sheer quality of the games above it. Make no mistake though–if you haven’t played this yet, you owe it to yourself to delve into Batman’s world.

3. Portal 2

It was always going to be difficult for Valve to create a sequel to Portal, since one of the original’s strengths was just how surprising, innovative and fully formed it was when it appeared as an extra in The Orange Box. But then again, this is Valve that we’re talking about here. So when Portal 2 arrived with one of the funniest, most impressively realized stories of the year, the gaming public breathed a collective sigh of relief. Portal 2 is effortlessly funny, breathtakingly clever and inventive and genuinely heartbreaking at moments too. Co-op was an inspired addition to the game, allowing Valve to add some fiendishly difficult puzzles whilst giving you something to laugh at with a friend. As always, Valve demonstrated themselves to be masters of the videogame craft.

2. Skyrim

The latest addition to the Elder Scrolls series is a simply breathtaking achievement. From the first moment that you step out into the gloriously detailed, spectacular mountain vista of Skyrim, you’ll never want to leave. Look up to the stars above and you’ll be able to spot individual constellations dotting the night sky, provided the beauty of the Northern Lights don’t obscure them from you. I’ve been playing Skyrim steadily since release, clocked up roughly 50 hours of game time and barely feel as though I’ve scratched the surface of what is, quite possibly, the biggest single player game ever made. There is but one thing preventing this from being the game of the year and that’s the staggering amount of bugs and glitches which still cause major problems for a great many players. It’s a shame–because even taking all of those bugs into consideration, Skyrim is an instant classic which will be held fondly in gamers’ hearts for years to come. For me though, there’s only one game which has had more of an impact upon me and created more lasting memories than any other. And that game is…

1. Dark Souls

My girlfriend absolutely loathes Dark Souls for the sheer amount of time that it’s dragged me away from her since it’s been released. From Software’s, uh, dark follow-up to the PS3’s Demon’s Souls is a singular game quite unlike anything else released this year. The foreboding, gloomy atmosphere helps to create one of the most controller grippingly tense worlds you’ll ever explore, particularly when combined with the innovative online systems and relentlessly unforgiving enemies populating each area. Once Dark Souls has you in its grip, you’ll be helpless to escape. The combat is simply the best approximation of swords and shields dueling ever seen in a game, with every move you make requiring careful consideration and judgement of your enemy. The fascinating world’s story is never spelled out for you, which makes every new discovery suck you in that much deeper in to its intelligent, understated fiction. Yes, it will chew you up and spit you out for breakfast. It will, in all likelihood, have you howling with rage at one point or another. But that’s usually because you weren’t careful enough and so only have yourself to blame. Ultimately, it places responsibility for success firmly at the feet of the player, which is something far too many games have forgotten about this console generation (and which I am glad to see a return of). It is, by the narrowest of margins, my game of the year. Any of the other games on this list could have been in its place, but I guarantee you that completing Dark Souls will leave you with more genuine gamer stories than virtually anything else on the market, the desperate struggle against all the odds and the indescribable thrill of victory.

Whilst it’s obviously been a fantastic year for games, it is one which has me slightly worried about the state of innovation in the industry. Think back over the major releases this year. Now, how many of those games were brand new properties and not returning franchises or sequels. Not many, are there. In fact, off the top of my head the only one I can think of was the sadly underrated Bulletstorm and… actually, I genuinely can’t think of any at the moment and that’s a truly sorry state of affairs. The trend in the gaming industry just now seems to be focused upon remakes, reboots and sequels, particularly for major retail releases where publishers are becoming less and less willing to take gambles on new IPs. For new and innovative experiences such as XBLA’s excellent From Dust and Bastion, digital download services are the place to go, with the app store being a particularly fertile proving ground for raw talent. My main hope for 2012 and beyond is that the originality which has been somewhat absent this year makes a return to mainstream gaming in the hope that we can have a gaming future which is more than simple annual entries in money making franchises.

Check back tomorrow for David’s picks for the highlights and low points of 2011 in gaming.

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