The process of selecting Gamasutra's top 10 games of 2011 required a healthy dose of debate among our editors, perhaps even more so than in previous years.
That's simply because there were so many good games released this year. If you step back and look at 2011 objectively, it's hard to deny the high level of quality.
What's impressive is not just the amount of quality games, but the diversity of this year's worthwhile experiences. Social and mobile gaming took a big leap in just the last year, and it's now certain that those platforms still have much to offer, as veterans of the industry try their hands at new markets.
And despite that continuing rise of social and mobile gaming, this year, console game developers did more than enough to prove their continuing relevance, pushing the definition of a "triple-A" experience.
Looking at the great games that didn't make the top ten just drove home the fact that nice visuals, satisfying gameplay and coherent stories are becoming increasingly commonplace. There are plenty of games that didn't make the cut that are wonderful examples of interactive entertainment, and possess all things that are associated with "quality."
But to truly stand out and leave a lasting mark on players who've seen everything, a game also needs personality and heart. To us, the following 10 games, including the one that earned our coveted Game of the Year, captured the purest essence of video gaming during 2011.
10. Battlefield 3
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
For war shooter veterans, there was quite the battle of the titans to focus on towards the end of 2011, as Battlefield 3 took Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 head on. But while the latter clearly came out on top in terms of sales thanks to its legions of fans, Battlefield 3 proved itself to be a worthy competitor, providing one of the deepest team-based multiplayer shooter experiences ever released.
Not only does Battlefield 3 look stunning (begging many gamers to update their PC graphics drivers in the process), it is also meticulously designed and balanced to ensure that every victory and every loss is completely down to how well players worked together as a team. This is a game in which you can score not a single kill and die over a dozen times during a 20 minute period, and yet still come out as the round's top player due to your teamwork skills and objective-capturing.
Battlefield 3 also features one of the most in-depth ranking systems in any game to date. Players can go dozens of hours using a single class and a single gun, and you'll still be unlocking upgrades and achievements throughout -- or you can have a dabble with a variety of weapons and classes and see great results too. The browser-based Battlelog system is great for skimming after a few games, even if it does make launching the game a bit awkward.
Okay, so the single player campaign isn't up to snuff, and reviewers marked it down rightly so, but if you're buying this game for single player content, you're doing it wrong. Battlefield 3 is quite easily the best multiplayer shooter since Counter Strike: Source. -- Mike Rose, UK Editor
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Publisher: Atlus (Deep Silver in Europe)
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360
In what was to me the year of the as-expected high-polish AAA sequel, a bizarre game about infidelity, the unconscious and the morality of freedom versus responsibility was pretty much exactly what I wanted. Catherine wasn't a consensus kind of game. The Q*Bert-style block puzzles could get too difficult (even the Japanese wanted a patch), and the long dialogue sequences didn't offer much in the way of interactivity as the modern era favors it.
But no one can talk about Catherine without talking about what it means to them. Some found Vincent, the tormented bachelor caught between a long-term girlfriend and a hot young affair, implausible; others saw their own relationship history, saw themselves. Even for those who found the choices prohibitively binary, or for those who were put off by the late-stage fantasy spin the story takes, it was a game that made everyone talk and think about what commitment and adulthood means to them.
We are a generation often (perhaps fairly) accused of an intense yen for escapism. That Catherine exists amid the year's predictable slate of battlefields and sword-swingers -- and that it sold well, despite being difficult to explain and so intensely Japanese -- says interesting things about our curiosity for new kinds of content, our appetite for new definitions of adulthood in games, and the potential for video games to illustrate poignant conflicts beyond what we've imagined so far. -- Leigh Alexander, editor-at-large
8. Orcs Must Die
Developer: Robot Entertainment
Platforms: PC (Steam), XBLA
I expected to load this up just to see what it was like, but wound up playing for hours in the first session. Orcs Must Die's blend of third person action and tower defense is instantly engaging, offering a pleasant mix of action and predictable randomness that, when combined with rankings and in-game currency gained from playing well, adds up to make players go for "one more try."
Building traps in the actual game world is a tense race against time, but the payoff is fantastic when scads of orcs go flying into a waiting pit. Though other games like Dungeon Defenders and SoulCaster have attempted the action/tower defense hybrid, it's Orcs Must Die's cleaner AI, better animation, and more inventive arenas that give it the edge.
Though I wish there were more trap combos possible, Orcs Must Die is perfect for a score attack competition. The only unfortunate thing is that nobody on the Gamasutra staff can get anywhere close to my rank. Yeah, I said it. -- Brandon Sheffield, senior editor/EIC Game Developer magazine
7. L.A. Noire
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Take-Two (Rockstar label)
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
What a weird wake of ambivalence this game left; a pall of unanswered questions, of split decisions, studio troubles and rumors. L.A. Noire was something of an unfortunate casualty of its own grand vision -- so clear was its intention that all the ways it didn't quite meet those goals stood out all the more.
Maybe the strange dissonance between gameplay and story, the strange lifelessness of its stunningly-built, preciously-detailed 1940s L.A., whether on purpose or otherwise, reinforced the film-noir vibe, the spiritual deadness that is part of detective Cole Phelps' character. Players who struggled to read facial cues and choose responses that would be correct were often frustrated by Phelps' overreactions -- but that fervent zealotry was part of the man's story, part of his tragedy.
What was interesting is that through its high ambition, and through a few lightning flashes of unprecedented brilliance, L.A. Noire seemed to poke at the scrim that's kept video games a walled garden all along. Those of us well acclimated to the language of games could find all of the game's disassociated points, but new and infrequent gamers seemed to take to it much more naturally, without overthinking, drawn into an interactive detective drama. Suspension of disbelief came much more naturally to my friends, and it taught me a lot about how I think about games. -- Leigh Alexander, editor-at-large
6. Super Mario 3D Land
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
With Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo has a lot to prove. Its flagship series, in this case, didn't just have to be a success -- it also had to showcase the 3DS' glasses-free 3D. Fortunately, it does a great job of showing how the effect can enhance and support gameplay when the designers really consider it.
While the Mario series first stepped into 3D in 1996, in recent years it's had a 2D renaissance. This game blends these two styles so perfectly that it almost seems like 3D Land could have been the first 3D evolution of the series. Like a 2D game, it features brief, challenging levels: each has one great design idea, and you move on to the next. This game is a testament to simplicity -- there's nothing here that doesn't need to be, just bite-sized chunks of clever gameplay.
Nintendo may have revolutionized portable gaming, but this is the first time it's been able to successfully bring its mascot to a handheld in a way that fits perfectly with the platform -- not just in the design and the rhythm of the gameplay, but also in playing to the platform's specific strengths, too. And by perfecting a new formula, it opens up a new creative offshoot for the series, distinct from both side-scrolling New Super Mario Bros.-style games and more elaborate Super Mario Galaxy-style home console titles. -- Christian Nutt, features director