While some may have bemoaned the abundance of sequels (particularly those of the trilogy ending variety) and the general dearth of fresh properties, 2011 still remains one of the strongest years for the gaming medium within recent memory. While it didn’t quite mark a new watershed in terms of the kinds of experiences games are capable of delivering, especially when compared to the heady heights of 2007, a year that saw games such as Portal, Mass Effect and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare redefine their respective genres, nevertheless, it can be seen as a year in which the industry found itself in a more assured position, at least in execution, if not creativity. It was a year where developers were able to focus on iterating on the concepts introduced over the course of this generation and, in many cases, build on the foundations they had laid down over previous entries in a particular series, for better and for worse.
Gears of War 3
The most prominent examples of the aforementioned three-quel proliferation that come to mind are Uncharted 3 and Gears of War 3. Out of all the games on this list, Gears 3 was probably the one that caught me most off guard. Much to my surprise, the final product not only had the most confidently crafted campaign of the whole trilogy, but also managed to expand the fiction to a degree that was unmatched in comparison to the prior instalments. Considering the ‘bromance’ heavy overtones of the previous games, the introduction of playable female protagonists could have been little more than a cynical ploy to invest some ‘eye-candy’ and ‘sex appeal’ to the universe but, much to Epic’s credit, their consequent portrayal was probably the unexpected highlight of the story, as they came across as genuinely sympathetic, well rounded characters who, in a rarity for games of its ilk, were actually allowed to dress accordingly as befitted their war torn landscape, with nary a gratuitous booty or cleave shot in sight. But, the real meat of the story lay in Marcus Fenix’s newly rediscovered relationship with his Father who had, up until then, been previously presumed dead. The story is as much to do with acceptance as it is rediscovery as both Gears 3’s Lead Designer, Cliff Bleszinski, and Executive Producer, Rod Fergusson, lost their Fathers at an early age and, as such, the story becomes an intimate form of catharsis that plays out with more subtlety and genuine emotion than anyone would likely have predicted and, in another rarity for games, a real sense of closure. While the writing itself could never match many, if any, of the other games mentioned here, the fact that they finally made me care about Marcus and his allies was enough to secure this game a spot on this list.
However, as well crafted as the Gears campaign was, it could never quite match the lofty heights of developer Naughty Dog’s latest instalment in the Uncharted series. While Gears has always managed to have a more finely tuned ‘combat puzzle’ than that found in Nathan Drake’s adventures, the sheer spectacle on display here dwarfs anything that I’ve ever come across. The sheer scope and ambition found within each separate level of this campaign is so far beyond the highest peaks of Uncharted 2 as to be absolutely staggering (minus one misstep at the mid-game in a rather dour mission based in Syria). While the plot crafted around the individual set pieces doesn’t quite hold together, and Naughty Dog themselves have openly admitted to constructing the levels first and then forcing the story to wrap itself around the locations after the fact, Amy Henning’s writing makes the minute to minute interactions between characters some of the most heartfelt scenes I’ve seen within the medium, let alone the past year, and the dialogue, as ever, snaps with all the wit and verve you’d expect. Unfortunately, the title suffers from an almost claustrophobic adherence to forcing the player down a set path which sits at odd with the freedom and creativity with which the developer plays around with the levels and settings themselves. Attempting to go down a ‘wrong’ path is often met with an invisible wall or control being torn from the player as their character is forced to turn around or wait until the game deems them ready to continue. The actor behind Victor Sullivan, Richard McGonagle, when asked about his experience on set, is often seen enthusing over the fact that, originally, the word used to designate actors was ‘players’ because, in essence, that is what they would do. They would inhabit the part and just ‘play’ until they found the role. It’s a shame that, in constructing such a thrilling roller-coaster ride of a campaign, Naughty Dog never affords you, as a player, the same freedom of expression it extends to its actors.
The Witcher 2
If it’s freedom that you’re looking for, then two games released last year afforded that in abundance, although each in its own different way. While The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, gave players the opportunity to wander where they wished and craft out their own adventures, The Witcher 2, a game from a small PC-centric Polish developer, gave players the chance to fundamentally shape the narrative and affect the game world in some truly profound ways. While Skyrim quickly became the darling of the industry upon its release, and some would argue for good reason, it would be a shame to overlook the ‘other’ Western-style RPG released much earlier in that same year. Both games have some severe issues with regard to their combat but which are easily overlooked in light of their respective achievements. For Skyrim, it’s the dreary repetition that sets in when each encounter, regardless of enemy type, tends to run into the next. For The Witcher 2, the issue lies in attempting to ape the finely tuned and methodical pace of Demon’s Souls, a game which the combat designers freely cite as having been their main inspiration. However, while in the late game The Witcher displays a tremendous level of depth vis-à-vis one’s tactical options in combat, the difficulty of early encounters skews rather towards the extreme end of the spectrum, giving you no real way to deal successfully with multiple opponents yet presenting numerous occasions in which you are forced to do so. Fortunately, it’s the ability of both games to have you lose yourself in their hand-crafted worlds that are the driving factors behind progression and while Skyrim awards you true freedom of exploration, it’s the choices afforded you in The Witcher that stay with me the most. Literally a game of two halves, the narrative journey of The Witcher transforms radically based on allegiances made to the point where almost the entirety of the second and third acts take places in different locales and with vastly different outcomes based on decisions made early on. It’s not just the overarching storyline that shifts so readily under player agency. Side quests are well realised as well as open to change and relationships can blossom and bloom or wither and die depending on what sort of character you decide to play. In terms of human interaction, Skyrim simply can’t compete, despite being able to lay claim to size and scope over The Witcher 2’s focus and drive.
Despite initially presenting itself to the player as an open world game, choice and consequence are actually the most limiting aspects of one of my most memorable games of 2011, LA Noire. The world of late 1940s LA is a meticulously constructed facsimile of the real deal yet, scratch behind the surface, and its limitations become shatteringly apparent with its lifeless denizens who wander aimlessly around the city and your inability to enter any building but those deemed mission-critical. Most cripplingly of all, the way the game’s incentive system runs diametrically opposed to its major mechanics should have been enough to be an almost constant distraction from its finer merits. Despite seemingly presenting a multitude of choice, the manner in which the game derides the player when choosing a wrong answer, whether via a low grade at the end of a mission or the constant minor-key jingle played to announce an incorrectly chosen line of questioning, the game creates an almost Pavlovian response in the player which only cements the idea that, unless you’re playing as the developer intended, you’re not really playing at all. Yet, despite all of this, the wonderfully staged interview scenes and the incredible density of the period atmosphere within which you find yourself entrenched are simply strong enough to carry the game through thick and thin. Team Bondi’s effort is the very definition of an experience which is much more than the sum of its parts. Broken down to its individual constituent elements, from the shooting to the driving, the investigative aspects and the interrogation scenes, this game shouldn’t hold up to scrutiny, and yet, in spite of all of the above, it’s probably the game that gripped me the most last year.
In the case of Bastion, the art, visuals and audio and the change in gameplay mechanics for the final act all conspired to create something that, despite generally having been so abstract and so minimalist within its approach, in many ways, carried a lot more meaning than most games I’ve player this year. It’s a game that keeps you constantly guessing, not just with regard to its narrative, but also in terms of the mechanics and structure of the game itself. With a story penned by Ex-Editor in Chief of Gamespot and seasoned video game reviewer, Greg Kasavin, he turns a knowing eye to established conventions and expectation and is willing to playfully subvert them, sometimes to the player’s expense, but seldom to their detriment. Few games get released each year that are as effortlessly charming, moving and as beautiful to behold as Bastion. With a soundtrack penned by industry newcomer Darren Korb which mixes a tinge of the ethereal with a steam punk take on the Western, bringing to mind Joss Whedon’s acclaimed Firefly series, and one that is likely to be regarded as the best soundtrack of the year, you could do much worse than let yourself fall into the gorgeous world of Caelondia.
Erik Wolpaw, lead writer of Portal 2, once lamented the fact that people seem to be so obsessed with the viability of games as a potential artistic medium, that they are too willing to skip straight to the pure art part, too obsessed with making this industry’s ‘Citizen Kane’ at the expense of crafting our own ‘Caddyshack’. Yet, somehow, in reaching for the latter, he and his team may have inadvertently crafted both. The fact that Portal 2 works as a comedy should come as no great surprise to anyone who played the previous game, but the nuance and depth on display in the way it takes and expands on elements introduced in the first are simply astounding. For a story that essentially revolves around 4 characters (one of whom is silent throughout and another who has been dead for decades, possibly centuries and yet comes to life through transcripts and recordings found within the game), the fact that each and every one comes across as so relatable, with their own failings, hopes and drive, while also managing to be consistently hilarious is a staggering achievement. No other game on this list made me feel such a wild variety of emotion, often within the same scene. The supposed deposition and defeat of Glados in the first half solicited mirth, trepidation and genuine disgust all within the space of a minute or so as her screams of defeat suddenly took on a more feral, animalistic bent, while the ending moved me from incredulity, to joy and sadness within the same space of time. The fact that they managed to achieve all of this while never truly feeling exploitative or manipulative in any way is a testament to the talent at this studio. That one of the very best games of 2011 could have accomplished all of the above, without having ever had your character fire off a single shot or take another life is probably the most reassuring thing of all.
Out of all the games listed here, the one which I probably held in anticipation the most was Batman: Arkham City. Rocksteady Games came out of nowhere to craft one of the greatest licensed based games of all time and, in the process, raised the bar for third person based melee combat for the entire industry. While it may have lacked the complexity and nuance of games like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, the rhythmic flow that served as the lynchpin of the combat system created a unique identity all of its own. The revamped melee system found in the latter Assassin’s Creed games and even the flow of the fisticuffs of Uncharted 3 are a testament to the profound impact it has had. As someone who gleefully mastered this system, I was rather taken aback to find myself not reassured, but, rather perplexed by some of the changes implemented in the sequel. While the foundations upon which the system were expanded are still as strong as ever, the elements built on top seem almost to weigh things down so much at times as to possibly bring the whole thing crashing down on top of itself. Combined with a certain degree of assumptions by the game as to how much of the first title you’ve played, or how willing you are to hunt through tool tips within menus to learn how to use certain items, and things can quickly become overwhelming over the course of the first few hours. However, the devilishly brilliant Metroidvania-esque level design of the original title still remains in full effect and the boss fights, rightly singled out in the original as a point of contention, are undoubtedly highlights here, the Mr. Freeze fight in particular standing out for its ingenious integration of almost every stealth element previously taught to the player. And, while Gears 3 may have had the most closure in its final act, Batman: AC’s end sequence is the bravest and most daring of any game I’ve ever played and makes me look forward to whatever it is Rocksteady may next have in store, Batman-related or not.
Vitor de Magalhaes