Best of 2011 #6: Minecraft

I came into Minecraft after months of increasingly complex alpha and beta versions, and to say I was baffled is an understatement. By that time there was already a whole subculture surrounding it, hours of staggering creations on YouTube – be sure to check out Rapture and the absolutely mind-blowing Middle-earth – and a dauntingly complex wiki, and this was before we’d even got as far as the adventure updates and crazy ideas like, y’know, adding a point to the whole thing.


At some point this year, though, I made a conscious effort to sit down with the game, a guide to the first steps on the road to the ultimate sandbox open in a browser behind it, and it all just clicked. Its position on the list might suggest that it didn’t click quite as strongly as it did for some, and indeed I’ve done little more than make tall towers and deep catacombs in between exploring some of the great work being done on collaborative servers, but it’s probably the game this year that I found easiest to get lost in, and just play for the joy of creating something.

I’m not sure whether it’s worthy of praise or criticism that the tutorial-free first hour is so open-ended being that it’s only in retrospect, having been told that punching a tree makes wood makes planks makes a crafting table of all things, that it’s possible to see how clever it all is, because a tutorial would ruin the beautiful simplicity. It makes you feel clever when you manage to discover a recipe off your own back, and if you’ve been scared off I encourage you to give it a real try.

2012 will certainly bring updates as well as the 360 version, and how that ends up will be intriguing. I only hope that whoever’s developing it has the guts to leave what the game does best alone without overcomplicating things in pursuit of a less patient audience.


Best of 2011 #7: Tiny Wings

The second iPhone game on this list is probably more typical of the kind of thing that gets all the plaudits in indie circles: a solo developer, gorgeous art, and simply a good idea done extremely well. I adore a bit of score-chasing on the phone, and I found myself losing hours to the hypnotic flow of Tiny Wings, falling into a rhythm that changed with the day’s randomly generated terrain.

Some of the games below this on my list are undoubtedly more substantial, but, looking back, it wouldn’t surprise me if I spent more time with Tiny Wings than the one-playthrough-and-you’re-done action games. It’s beautiful, and as good a time-waster as it is a game of skill, which is more than can be said for that other bafflingly popular iOS game involving birds with questionable flying ability.

I hope the success of iPhone games that are actually built with a touch interface in mind, like this, Infinity Blade and, yes, Angry Birds, will go some way to convincing developers that the middling results when porting ‘proper’ console games aren’t worth the effort when one guy can make a game as effective as this. The iPhone isn’t a 3DS or Vita and never will be, but when its original titles are this good, this addictive, this gorgeous, that’s by no means a criticism.

Best of 2011 #8: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

In what was a quiet year for me, my ambivalence towards Uncharted 3 was one of the few things that got me on my soapbox. In that case, its inclusion in this list is either, like Gears 3, emblematic of the strength of the series, or possibly an indication that, outside of an obscenely packed tail end, the year wasn’t all that great for gaming. While there’s some truth in both answers, and I stand by my assertion that it’s an overrated game, there was enough to enjoy in Uncharted 3 to say that it’s mostly the former.

The fact that I found it disappointing is less a criticism of this game and more unmitigated praise for Uncharted 2, which still is peerless as a piece of cinematic action; if this had topped it, it would have been far more surprising. My complaints aside, it was just as much of an achievement for in-game characterisation and blending gameplay and cinema – even if the ratios were occasionally somewhat off, you had to admire it technically during sequences like the plane crash and its seamless transition to the similarly brave desert sequence – as it was a great action game… when it worked. It didn’t quite reach the astronomical highs of either of its predecessors, but it’s still fresh enough and done with such panache that it makes the lack of creativity in most action games all the more obvious.

What Uncharted 3 has left me with more than anything is anticipation for Naughty Dog’s recently announced new project, The Last of Us. I never much cared for ND’s games until this series, but talk of resources being diverted from Uncharted to the new game has me very, very excited.

Best of 2011 #9: League of Evil

Platform games don’t work on a touch screen, right? Anyone who’s played the numerous shoddy 8-bit and 16-bit conversions will likely concur, as did I until I was lucky enough to cross paths with Ravenous Games’ wonderful little iOS platformer.

I’ll admit now that it’s certainly the least well-known game on this list, looking and playing along the lines of a NES Mega Man, but with bite-sized levels and a time attack element that borders on WarioWare in how quickly some of the levels can be romped through in the pursuit of three stars. It’s a perfect format for playing on a phone and is one of a handful of real-time action games that feels both responsive and actually under control when played with on-screen buttons.

In fairness, it’s unlikely to convince people who are already sniffy about iPhone games, but I had more fun with it than many games that cost several times the asking price. To me, it’s an example of why indie devs are enjoying a resurgence, thanks to things like regular free content and functionality updates, and accessible developers that you just don’t get with the EAs and Capcoms. The fact that it’s seemingly done the impossible in making platforming fun with a touch screen is just icing on the cake.

Best of 2011 #10: Gears of War 3

My enjoyment of the Gears series up to this point is such that Gears 3 is deserving of a position on this list, even if the overriding impression that I was left with was disappointment. That’s unfortunate, because it wasn’t the fault of the game itself – that was as strong as ever – but rather the anticlimax of a finale. In retrospect, both its predecessors ended on notes that swung between frustrating and insultingly simple, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising, but to leave so many unanswered questions was just messy and felt like a lazy setup for inevitable returns to this universe.

Frankly, though, who plays Gears for the story? Its narrative accomplishments can be counted on one hand, and one of those is serving as a mildly distracting vessel for what is still the benchmark in this third-person cover shooting sub-genre. Although I didn’t think that Gears 3 was the series’ high point, mainly thanks to some flirtations with almost Halo-style, more open battlefields that really didn’t work for me, it had a lot of great ideas and a mercifully more diverse graphical style. The latter went a long way towards making the game feel like less of a stereotype than its characters frequently did.

With three of these games in a generation, though, I don’t feel like there’s more to be said with this franchise for a while. It’s the right time to leave it alone until there are some worthwhile new ideas, hence this one’s diminished standing in this list when compared to its predecessors. Still one of the best action series of this generation, then, given a send-off that slightly underwhelms.