Category Archives: Best of 2011

Best of 2011 #1: Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3Yes, really.

A good multiplayer game has the ability to hook me like nothing else, and Battlefield 3 really, really is. In terms of days it’s already my most-played 360 game in terms of days, and even though I’m not nearly done with it, I’ve still clocked more than 86 hours at the time of writing. That’s almost unheard of for me, and the only thing I can think of that come close is the 120 hours spent one wonderful summer on Return to Castle Wolfenstein’s multiplayer. Another class-based multiplayer FPS? Funny, that.

Fair enough if you think the campaign is mediocre at best, because it is. A couple of highlights aside, it’s not even as good as Bad Company 2’s offering; the most uninteresting kind of generic hoo-ah Black Hawk Down nonsense. But I still don’t care; it’s a Battlefield game, and as such it’s kind of a new thing to even have a single-player campaign. Don’t bother if that’s what you want most in a game because you will be disappointed, and you’ll be going into this game for the wrong reasons.

I’m now conscious that I’ve put more criticism into the game at the top of the list than any other here, so allow me to gush a bit.

There are more polished multiplayer games, there are more popular ones, but none is better at the epic feeling of taking part in a real battle than this. Playing the attacking team on Tehran Highway, cresting that first hill in a convoy of tanks, APCs, jeeps and infantry as the defenders try to repel you, missiles launching in the background. Fighting your way up the hill in Seine Crossing towards the M-COM stations, taking it in turns to draw defending fire as your team pushes forward before putting a rocket into the building where the enemy snipers are holed up. Sneaking up behind the tank that’s giving your team some grief to stick some C4 to it. Perfectly judging the drop of a bullet through your ballistic scope to put a bullet into someone’s head from half a kilometre away. The fact that this kind of thing happens on a nightly basis keeps me coming back and will likely continue to.

The beauty of these kinds of lists is that they’re personal, and the position of Battlefield 3 reflects how, no matter how much I value great writing, classic characters and innovative game design, the fundamental reason to play games is to have fun. Plenty of other games did that this year, but none did it better than this.

Best of 2011 #2: Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham CityRocksteady threatened to do it with Arkham Asylum, and now it’s done it. Not top my list, sadly, but show everyone that it was a real developer to watch. The first game was brilliant in how completely it shattered the notion that you can’t make a good Batman game, which makes how utterly Arkham City tops it all the more impressive, proving that Rocksteady is a real talent and not a one-hit wonder.

All the usual cliches about letting you ‘be’ Batman hold true, this time with everything that makes open-world games so appealing to me. As well as piles of things to do and find, the clear love for the subject matter is brilliantly evident. What also struck me is the bravery with such popular material, Rocksteady not at all seeming intimidated when the times comes to kill off characters – yeah, comic book death and all that – and putting what is clearly a lot of effort into villains who casual fans might not even know of. It even managed to reference just about every Batman incarnation, from the 1960s series to The Animated Series and more modern cinematic adaptations, all the while creating its own distinct version of the mythos.

Pulling off the next in the series will be the real test, though. Batman: Gotham City? Whatever it ends up being runs the risk of diluting what Arkham City did so well by the possible inclusion of things like the Batmobile in its attempts to one-up this masterpiece. But if nothing else, Rocksteady has earned a bit of faith in its abilities. I can’t wait.

Best of 2011 #3: Portal 2

Portal 2Valve was robbed by a last-minute goal here. Portal 2 comfortably led the race to be the best game of the year for much of the calendar as we suffered through the paucity of releases, only being pipped when other great developers got their arses in gear and, you know, actually released some games.

Had it gone the distance, though, Portal 2 would have been a worthy game of the year. It expanded a wonderful little idea from The Orange Box into a full-price game without losing any of the charm, and in my book it finally put to bed that old debate about whether games can be funny. It did it intelligently too, not relying on the small pile of overused memes that the original left in its wake – no cake and only a cameo for the Companion Cube – and through a script that’s far too good for a mere game.

My favourite joke? The way it even gets the system-level notifications in on the gag in The Part Where He Kills You. That’s wonderfully self-aware, up there with when Batman: Arkham Asylum made me me think my 360 was red-ringing again and when Eternal Darkness would simulate technical failures for games breaking the fourth wall without simply copying the movie’s methods. Valve did that for drama in Half-Life – no showing you a movie to advance the story there – and now it’s done it with comedy. That company is doing more to advance gaming as a storytelling medium than any other.

Full credit, also, for Valve extending its famous generosity to us console peasants, at least on the PS3. Getting a PC and Mac version thrown in with cross-platform functionality was a brilliantly good idea that showed how forward-thinking Valve is, and also illustrating one major benefit of a more open online suite like PSN. If only there were more Steam for PS3s and fewer Metal Gear Onlines when developers are given such freedom.

Best of 2011 #4: Dark Souls

Because seemingly nobody else can, I’m going to give my opinion on Dark Souls without mentioning the fact that it’s really hard. Apart from that time. And to say that it’s not as hard as some drama queens have made out.

Putting aside this fact-that-must-not-be-named, when this generation is over I’m confident that Dark Souls will be remembered as both one of a handful of Japanese games that didn’t disappoint – along with its spiritual predecessor there – and a truly great sequel that was an improvement on the original game in almost all areas. In fact, the only area where I definitively prefer Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls is in the first game’s setting and atmosphere, but the follow-up is no slouch there either.

I admired Dark Souls’ approach to an open world. Although it lacks the sense of unrestricted freedom of a game like Skyrim, putting barriers between the player and the highest peaks and deepest dungeons in favour of a few branching routes, it walks a nice middle ground of being open-ended and at the same time somewhat directed. Different but not worse. A very Western genre through the prism of Japanese design sensibilities. Rather than mediocre attempts at cover shooters, this is the blueprint for Japanese studios struggling to find the best of both worlds.

Best of 2011 #5: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimImagine the plaudits a Bethesda game could boast if it made one that actually worked. Skyrim suffers from fundamental bugs that have plagued this new/old engine through Oblivion and two Fallout games so far, and yet it’s still managing to clock up incredible numbers of awards along the way. I can only assume that a Bethesda game with actual polish, once the critics recovered from the shock of it, would result in calls for all other developers to give up and go home for the year.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my progress so far in Skyrim, not so much as a narrative experience but a simple experience. Skyrim – the province, not the game – is gorgeous, and a nice change after the unending green of Oblivion and brown of Fallout 3. It’s amazingly atmospheric, from the mist around the mountain peaks to the auroras in the night sky, all of which just makes me wish it would be less bloody buggy.

This might seem like a low placement on the list next to the growing list of GOTY awards that it’s getting elsewhere, and that’s not even because of the questionable QA job. I just found myself seeing the dice rolls happening under the game’s skin more than I’d like and more than I do when playing games from BioWare, the other Western RPG developer that can seemingly do no wrong. I’m so used to seeing the bugs in a Bethesda game that I take it in my stride, but kludgy combat that got in the way of the exploration – the reason why I’m playing this, ultimately – got on my nerves. Next generation, as well as a genuinely new engine from Bethesda, how about letting me stealthily kill someone with a single arrow without having to trudge through 50-odd levels of guards running at me with arrows sticking out of their head?

Skyrim didn’t grab me like it did some, apparently, but I still enjoyed what it had to offer. Although I found other Bethesda games more immediately appealing – I say ‘immediately’ because I’m far from finished with it and may yet warm further to its unique charms – and desperately want some new tech behind these games, this is probably the best of Bethesda’s open-world RPGs. And that’s high praise.

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.