Every year, there seems to be ever more games to play than the year before. And, unlike the music (an industry in ruins), movies (are there any new ideas in Hollywood?) and comics (a medium always struggling to survive), there are always so many more games that are flat-out brilliant. Too many for this list, alas. What we wouldn’t give to wax rhapsodic about Dark Souls, or The Binding of Isaac, or Ghost Trick, or Blocks that Matter, or Terraria, or…
Best Validation of the iPad as a Gaming Platform: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Until I played Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, the best and most satisfying use I got out of my iPad was running a Yule Log app on Christmas Day. It was the first tablet game that actually felt like a real game, with a point beyond microtransactions and endless bird tossing. It had a real aesthetic and an art style with a novel take on 8-bit pixel art. It had an intuitive swipe control scheme (and amusingly idiosyncratic tutorial). It had the strange Twitter integration that allowed you tweet bizarre non sequiturs to your followers. And above all, it had the music, that beautiful music that shifted and swayed according to your movements and actions. And, for now, those things have made Sword & Sworcery the high-water mark for tablet gaming.
- Stu Horvath
Best Gore-Splattered Resurrection: Mortal Kombat
While everyone was waiting with bated breath for Duke Nukem’s return, Mortal Kombat came in under the radar and stole the show. NetherRealm Studios got smart, stripped the game down to its essentials and brought it back to the ’90s with 2D game play in a 3D world. The game features some of the best fighters from the franchise’s eight games and boasts some impressive visuals. Fatalities are back and more detailed and gory than ever – I can’t remember ever seeing guts and brains wiggling when someone was cut in half. Then there are the X-ray moves that give players an in-depth view at the destruction that is going on in their opponent’s body. The special edition came with an arcade controller that is the best home arcade controller we’ve encountered – it’s as if they ripped a control set right out of an old MK upright (oh, wait, they pretty much did). If you love fighters and don’t own MK yet, put down the cartoon tag team game for a little and pick up this gore-splattered resurrection!
- Ken Lucas
Best Sad Goodbye (In a Totally Manly, Tear-Free Way): Gears of War 3
What Gears of War fan ever thought they would see Marcus Fenix cry? But after three games, he was a man broken by war, death and overwhelming stress and, at the end of Gears of War 3, we saw a side of our favorite COG hero, something rarely seen in videogames: a man crying. At first, I was not impressed. I mean, the leader of the COG doesn’t cry! Dom killed himself for the greater good and Marcus’ response was, “Keep moving.” But after careful thought, I realized that this needed to happen. Over three games, Marcus has had the shit end of the stick and when he finally removes the blood-stained armor and safeties his lancer…Tears For Fears once said, “Shout, shout, let it all out,” but for Marcus there will be no more shouting, just a good cry. Cry. Let it all out.
If my best friend killed himself and my dad disintegrated into a pile of ash to save the world, I want a little me time too. Sniff.
- Dave Trainer
Best Trip: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
When I was young, I never cared much for the musicals based on Bible stories. Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat always seemed much too hippy. I grew up Irish Catholic and there was rarely anything hippy going on at church. There certainly weren’t any open-minded girls in loose-fitting clothing running around talking about how groovy God can be. Church was serious business and I was an altar boy until my 18th birthday.
However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room within the Righteousness of God to turn on, tune in and drop out. For that, I present you with Ignition Games’ psychedelic platformer El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. With a story based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, this could best be called Bible fan fiction. You play the part of Enoch, son of Noah, the one chosen to bring back seven fallen angels who are trying to destroy the mortals with “free will” in a flood.
In a year chock full of sequels, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron‘s unique vision makes it stand out as one of the great games of 2011.
- Chuck Moran
Best Exploding Baby Monster: Dead Space 2
Audiologists have labored over the centuries toward harnessing and utilizing the brown note, that perfect frequency of vibrating air that renders you incontinent. The sound of cannons currently used by riot police around the world comes close to this holy grail of fecal ferocity, but it took the release of Dead Space 2 for scientists to confront the fact that the brown note isn’t simply a note, but rather an elongated experience of frequency. I speak, of course, of DS2’s sound design which, much like that of the first game, is enough to make even the most PTSD-stricken of Iraq war veterans loose a bit of brown.
But seriously, so much sound design in this industry is immersive in only a Newtonian sense, treating sound strictly as the product of cause and effect (the footsteps of that enemy behind you, that grenade pin hitting the ground, etc.). Spend five minutes revisiting the empty, blanketed ruin of the Ishimura, however, and you’ll understand just how unimaginative this linear approach really is, and just how much credit DS2 deserves.
- Dan Imperiale
Best Detective Work: Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham Asylum was a near-perfect game and its sequel was easily one of 2011’s best games. It put me solidly in the shoes of the world’s greatest detective as I zip-lined and roundhouse-kicked my way through the ruined remains of Gotham. Having the opportunity to once again match wits with classic villains like the Riddler and the Joker was immense fun and even more in-depth than in the previous installment.
The new open-world/sandbox environment was what made the game so immersive for me – the environment was rich and was beautifully textured to show the demolished shell of Gotham. Having the Caped Crusader track down smaller, ancillary baddies made the game feel more like a true Batman story and brought a much-needed diversion from the “boss fight then hunt for Riddler trophies for a while” formula of the previous game.
Whereas the use of “detective mode” in the first installment was often headache-inducing, I found the new uses (tracking ringing telephones, following blood samples and performing AR missions) exciting and much less distracting. Lastly, and most importantly, the story and the voice acting was superb. I fondly remember watching Batman: The Animated Series and was happy to hear the Batman and Joker banter I loved so much. The story, believe it or not, was touching and a little sad. Though not what you would expect from a Batman video game, I relished it. Batman: Arkham City is a game that anyone can get into and I highly recommend donning the cape and cowl in 2012 if you haven’t already.
- Erik Weinbrecht
Best Foregone Conclusion: Portal 2
You know, we probably should’ve expected that Portal 2 would end the way it did. GLaDOS became so popular since the release of the original Portal and Wheatley was so eager to help Chell, I knew their roles would reverse themselves. Further, I knew that most of the third act of Portal 2 would be built around changing our perception so that we no longer thought of Ellen McLain as the voice of a soulless, evil automaton, but as Caroline, faithful servant of Aperture’s batshit insane founder Cave Johnson…hooked up to a potato. And with all the talk of moon dust coming from a near-death Johnson, the ending itself was unsurprising. But it made for the most fun I had all year with a controller in my hand. I still haven’t tackled Portal 2‘s multiplayer mode, but I’m going to go back and play the single player campaign one more time during Christmas break for the same reason I watch The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II at this time of year – because the story was that good, and my wife isn’t around during the day.
- Don Becker
Best Surprise Indie Darling: Bastion
One of the most universally loved and well-reviewed games this year did not come from some huge soulless gaming company with thousands of employees quartered all over the world and pockets deep enough to hire out industry darlings. Nope, it was made by a handful of gamers that showed their passion with an incredibly crafted and novel indie game. Bastion may seem like a throwback to the games of yesteryear, but it is anything but a rehash. From the controls, to the score, to the voice acting, Bastion is so well executed that it fully deserves all the praise that has been heaped at its feet.
- George Collazo
The Philip K. Dick Award for Best Game about Cyborgs: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Gameplay, interactive freedom and even the narrative of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though all ably designed, pale in comparison to the game’s sense of setting. A completely plausible near future, this is a world on the brink of a great change fueled by cybernetics and it tackles the philosophical implications of that change so completely and with such nuance that it still astounds me. More so, the game examines the morality of fusing man and machine with an impressive neutrality: while there are plenty of bad people in Human Revolution, there are no inherently bad ideas.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about human augmentation the same way Nineteen Eighty-Four is about censorship and surveillance or Foucault’s Pendulum is about the futility of conspiracy theories. In many ways, all three are of a kind – and I can think of no higher praise to give.
- Stu Horvath
Game of the Year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
(For best results when reading, play “Dragonborn” by Jeremy Soule in the background.)
Of late, I have taken to playing the overture to The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim at the beginning of my day. I turn the volume up as loud as my stereo can muster and it fills my reserve tank of energy with visions of dragons and high adventure and cabbage.
Meanwhile, Charles Moran has decided to learn to cook and started by making recipes based on those he found in the game. In the High Desert, Gus Mastrapa has tapped into his inner homicidal maniac.
Over the last few years, there have been a handful of games that have captured the attention of nearly everyone I know. Games like Fable 2 and Red Dead Redemption became a staple of daily life and a source of constant conversation, but Skyrim has become something more, a kind of experience engine that generates unique situations in every session, for every mood.
I have stood at the top of a mountain to stare at the shimmering aurora in the sky above. I have been lost in a blizzard. I have explored more ruins that I can count. I have seen friends fall and I have murdered in cold blood. I have died, hundreds of times. I have been moved, enraged, frustrated, scared, saddened, overjoyed, thrilled…and I have but scratched the surface.
That is what makes a game of the year.
- Stu Horvath