[As another exciting year for the video game industry wraps up, Gamasutra's editors choose their diverse top picks for 2011's best games, ranging from a game about infidelity to the triumphant return of an antagonistic A.I.]
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
I'm amazed, frankly, that Rayman Origins even got made. The high res art was clearly a huge undertaking, with massive care paid to its every nook and cranny. The music thematically matches each scene, and the voice acting all fits within the ridiculous world. Everything in the game is alive -- it's absolutely lovely, but I'm not surprised nobody bought it. At $60, it was a tough sell for what nowadays "looks" like a downloadable game. That's why it topped our Top Overlooked Games list.
Of course, Rayman Origins isn't in our overall top 10 for that. The game is just so generous and lush, in all respects. It asks the player to enter a world that we might have imagined in our childhood, and rarely since. And it controls perfectly -- some may tout the inertia-filled controls of the new Super Mario Bros., but I'll take good old fashioned "stick to the ground" pixel perfection any day.
The best thing about the game, though, is the free-for-all that is co-op multiplayer. There are very few co-op sidescrolling games nowadays, and even fewer that support four players. But Rayman Origins does so with ease, letting players slap each other around, toss each other off cliffs, and revive each other in a madcap dash for the end of the stage. This is the game I wanted to exist when I was 10 years old. My hope is that a number of current 10-year-olds will find their way through to playing it. -- Brandon Sheffield, senior editor/EIC Game Developer magazine
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
There's something to be said about a game where you can get lost for 30 hours, aimlessly wander the countryside, and make absolutely no progress on the main campaign. That kind of experience is plenty common in Bethesda's latest open-world role-playing game, which succeeds not in providing a tightly-directed thrill ride, but by letting players guide the game at their own pace.
Nothing forces you to travel to one area over another, or adopt a certain playstyle, or even to follow the game's story. There's plenty of joy to be found simply hunting mammoths, exploring tucked-away ruins, or otherwise just exploring what the province of Skyrim has to offer. With such unrestrained freedom, it almost guarantees that each player will carve out his or her own, unique experience.
Some of this might sound familiar to those who have played other Bethesda titles like Oblivion or Fallout 3, but Skyrim offers a more compelling experience through and through, offering more variety in the game world, a more robust combat system and a more efficient user interface (for console players, at least). It's the small things that make Skyrim stand out from its predecessors, but these changes go a long way toward establishing a consistent and seamless experience.
When so many games take pains to hold the player's hand and provide precise and guided experiences, Skyrim's freeform play comes as a distinct breath of fresh air. -- Tom Curtis, news editor
3. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Developer: Nintendo EAD
There's a sense of wonder that the Legend of Zelda series captures in the hearts of its devotees, lifetime fans who remember their first adventure in the original NES game, or running out into Ocarina of Time 3D's Hyrule Field, or discovering that Nintendo somehow fit a complete and amazing Zelda game into a portable screen with Link's Awakening.
Skyward Sword is full of that wonder and new thrills. Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and his team made something as simple as leaping off any ledge exciting, while also crafting some of the most inventive dungeons of the 25-year-old franchise. You'll see puzzles that ride you across different eras in a mine cart, and traps that send cursed creatures chasing behind you as you scramble to climb a thin line of thread (a scene seemingly inspired by Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story "The Spider's Thread").
The Wii game's fourth dungeon boss is one of the most fun you'll fight in any game. A six-armed automaton swings giant axes and cutlasses at you, pausing after each ground-shattering swing. There's your chance to flick your Wii Remote/whip to grab hold of its joints and unravel the machine's limbs. Sheathing your own sword, you can hoist one of its massive cutlasses onto your shoulder, and make short work of the rest of the boss's legs and arms. Even then, as you dismember this robot that laughs with a child's voice, there is wonder in this dance. -- Eric Caoili, news editor
In 2009, a relatively unknown London studio called Rocksteady did what no others could before: it released a game that actually made me feel like Batman.
Note that when I say this, there is some added weight to the statement. I am a nerd. I think Batman is rad, and even now as an actual adult with an actual job and house of my own, I still have conversations with other adults (some of whom work here) about how great he is. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time pondering the character's motivations, his world, and what inhabiting his body would be like.
I have therefore, as you might imagine, always had a horribly unrealistic vision of what a proper Batman game would be like. And while I won't be as bold as to say that Rocksteady met that vision, I can easily say that its game is way more fun than the jumbled mess I came up with.
This year saw a sequel that took what some might describe as an "open world" approach, putting the Dark Knight in his natural habitat: standing on rooftops and looking introspective. And it's in this open world that Batman: Arkham City truly became magical for me.
I don't know how they did it but somehow, no matter where I was and what I was doing, I always seemed to be in the right place, with something to do. Yes, most open world games have tons of content to keep you going, but somehow everything I did in Arkham City seemed immediately relevant and important (even if it wasn't), and that to me is game design magic. -- Frank Cifaldi, news editor
When I first watched a demo for Portal 2 a few years ago during a closed-door session at E3, I was a little bit worried. What Valve appeared to be doing was over-complicating the finely-tuned idea that was expressed in the original Portal by adding, well, lots of stuff.
That "stuff" included more story, more voice acting and more game mechanics involving gels, lens blocks and light bridges. When viewed out of the context of the entire game, as I did back before the game came out, these new aspects of Portal 2 seemed intimidating, and worse, unnecessary.
But in typical Valve form, once the final product released, all worries were laid to rest. Turns out that Portal 2 has spot-on pacing, and by the end, you feel like a virtuoso, whose instrument of choice is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.
With every tough puzzle that you solve, you feel empowered to soldier forward and take on the next challenge, which usually is even more difficult than the last. The ratio of difficulty to player satisfaction is virtually perfect, and something that Valve's contemporaries might want to closely study.
That's not even to mention Portal 2's excellent story and voice acting, which are extremely effective in urging the player to move forward and solve these puzzles. And the co-op (which also allows for cross-platform play between PC and PS3) is more than a nice bonus, as experiencing this game with a friend tends to be just as hilarious as it is challenging. Portal 2 is bursting with personality, and it begs to be played.
So all that extra "stuff" isn't superfluous -- every new addition has a purpose, and has a meaning. They made Portal 2 better than the original. Leave it to Valve to screw up the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." -- Kris Graft, editor-in-chief
Gamasutra Staff's Honorable Mentions
Kris Graft, editor-in-chief
Anomaly: Warzone Earth (11 bit Studios/PC, iOS) I love it when a game developer looks at a genre that by all accounts is overplayed -- in this case, tower defense -- and does something different and worthwhile. 11 bit's Anomaly: Warzone Earth flips the genre around and makes it fun again.
Trenched (a.k.a. Iron Brigade/Double Fine/Microsoft/Xbox 360) Satisfying customization, interesting characters and weapons that made me grin all factored into why I'm giving a nod to another tower defense game. Plus, I'm a total sucker for giant robots.
The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl/PC) At first, I wasn't sure what to make of all of the piles of poop and the blood and gore of this cartoon-ish, randomly-generated roguelike-like-meets twinstick shooter. Actually, I'm still not sure what to make of it... but in proper context, all that stuff is really great, I swear.
Brandon Sheffield, Senior Editor/EIC, Game Developer Magazine
The King of Fighters XIII (SNK Playmore/Atlus/PS3, Xbox 360)KOF XIII is a return to form for the series. The flow is back, the game's systems cleverly interlock, and the awesome mini in-game achievements system encourages experimentation, and acts as a defacto tutorial. The gameplay is tight, the graphics are lovely, and the movesets are...as balanced as a KOF generally can manage to be. Now, if they can only smooth out that net code...
Monster Tale (Dream Rift/Majesco/DS) Action on the top screen, raising sim on the bottom screen. It's a winning combination for Monster Tale, which is aided by attractive pixel art, a lovely score, and a deep skill tree for the raising sim portion.
Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD (SCE/PS3) Two of the best games from the last generation are given an HD scrub, looking and playing just like you remember them -- through rose-colored glasses. Anyone who missed these games the first time round owe it to themselves to get this collection, post-haste.
Christian Nutt, Features Director
Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft/Nintendo/Wii) The game that single-handedly set out to prove that the JRPG genre wasn't dead, but was just sleeping. While Square Enix struggles to find a path for Final Fantasy, this game quietly sanded off all of the genre's rough edges while providing a lengthy, dramatic quest that reminds you why JRPGs briefly kissed mainstream success in the first place.
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter (CyberConnect2/XSEED Games/DS) A clear passion project of its developers, this charming throwback with a 16-bit spirit was full of heart and beautiful, airy art. Simple gameplay allowed for its personality to shine, but a surprise post-credits second chapter that felt like a free, much-improved sequel showed that the developers didn't forget about design after all.
Sonic Generations (Sonic Team/Sega/PS3, Xbox 360) In a classic franchise usually recognized for what a disaster it's become, Generations did something incredibly unlikely: celebrated the best, redeemed the worst, and invigorated the wayward series. Suddenly the future looks a little bit brighter for Sega's erstwhile mascot.
Simon Carless, EVP, UBM TechWeb Game Network:
Burnout Crash (Criterion/EA/Xbox 360, PS3) A glorious pachinko machine of a game that was roundly overlooked by many, due to its slightly counterintuitive mechanics. (It's not really a racing game and it's not about the crashing, it's about the exploding afterwards.) But get into it and you'll discover a glorious gem of a physics-driven arcade action-puzzler.
The Gunstringer (Twisted Pixel/Microsoft/Xbox 360) Wonderfully wacky, and also one of the most fulfilling Kinect games from a pure control point of view. The knockabout script and borderline filthy scenarios (alligator-man love? really?) make it that rare thing - a motion control game that deserves its place in the best titles of the year.
Jetpack Joyride (Halfbrick/iOS) Beautifully manicured arcade mechanics, clever shifts of control style with power-ups, intelligent procedural level designs.. what else is there to love? Halfbrick is the new PopCap, and the company's obvious love of games comes through loud and clear in their buffed-to-a-sheen titles.
Frank Cifaldi, News Editor
Another World (DotEmu/BulkyPix/iOS) I know most people think the perfect mobile game is one that you can pick up and play in bite-sized chunks before throwing it back in your pocket, but I've never agreed with that. My perfect mobile game is an adventure I can beat in about two days of toilet time, and for my money there aren't many examples of this that shine brighter than Eric Chahi's brilliant Another World.
Groove Coaster (Taito/iOS) It was just over six years ago that I professed my love right here on Gamasutra for iNiS' brilliant DS rhythm game Osu! Tatake! Ouendan (and subsequently Elite Beat Agents, though that didn't exist yet). I don't normally like rhythm games, and I'm not particularly a fan of Japanese pop or visual aesthetics, but something about the finger dancing it provided just clicked with me. I've been ready for a sequel for years, but in the meantime, Taito's brilliant Groove Coaster satiated my fingers' desire to dance, and did so with some great tunes and innovative gameplay mechanics.
Galaga 30th Collection (Namco Bandai/iOS) Let me just throw something out there. I don't know, maybe I'm weird. But I think forcing a digital input game onto a touch screen -- especially a classic arcade game that requires twitchy movements -- never works. Ever. If you want your classic IP to be relevant on touch screen devices, you have to reinvent them from the ground up without losing what made the original worth remembering in the first place, and I don't think there are any better success stories than this awesome little compilation of Galaga and its spinoffs.
Mike Rose, UK News Editor
Pushmo/Pullblox (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo/3DS) One of the most enjoyable puzzle games of the year, focusing on pulling and pushing blocks out of a wall to forge a path to the top of a stack. There's even a level editor for creating your own walls of doom and challenging your friends. By far the best downloadable title for the 3DS yet.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal/Square Enix/PC, Xbox 360, PS3) A stunning reboot for the stealth-based RPG series, with a great storyline and lots of meaningful decisions to make throughout. Side missions are not simply optional filler to boost game time, but instead add depth and background to the main adventure.
Terraria (Re-Logic/PC) Side-scrolling multiplayer adventure that offers a sandbox world for you and a party of friends to explore. With so much content to see, it's possible to play for dozens of hours and still be unaware of entire portions of the game you are yet to encounter.
Eric Caoili, News Editor
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft/3DS) While X-Com fans cried foul over 2K Marin's FPS re-imagining of the beloved strategy franchise, the series' co-creator Julian Gollop went off and modernized the formula (well, its combat portions at least) in this engrossing 3DS launch title.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom/DS) Shu Takumi, the man behind the Ace Attorney series, delivers a clever adventure title that has you possessing inanimate objects to save characters in peril. It also has the most impressive animation you'll see in any portable game in 2011 or any year previous.
Bumpy Road (Simogo/iOS) Despite its charming background illustrations and Yann Tiersen-esque soundtrack, Bumpy Road seems shallow, like a more polished but also more simple City Connection. But as you collect photos that slowly reveal the young romance of your car's elderly drivers, you find yourself falling in love, too.
Tom Curtis, News Editor
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (CD Projekt Red/CD Project/PC) While Skyrim presents an open, undirected role-playing experience, The Witcher 2 takes a different approach, and stands out as a shining example of a narrative driven, fantasy adventure. The game's clever implementation of player choice, its robust combat system, and its beautifully realized world all come together to create one of the best RPGs of the past few years.
Saints Row: The Third (Volition/THQ/PC, PS3, Xbox 360)Saints Row: The Third might not redefine the open-world crime game, and it's probably even a little immature, but when it comes down to it, it's just plain fun. The game constantly throws the player into unexpected, over-the-top, and often hilarious scenarios, and wraps the whole package in an aesthetic that is both blatantly self-aware and undeniably charming.
Infamous 2 (Sucker Punch/SCE/PS3) Sucker Punch's follow-up to its 2009 super-hero adventure sticks pretty close to the series' original formula, but further expanded on the its signature free-flowing combat and parkour gameplay. The game's new powers make zipping around the city more satisfying than ever, and blend seamlessly with the game's agile, shooter-like combat.
Leigh Alexander, Editor-At-Large
Dark Souls (From Software/Namco Bandai/PS3, Xbox 360) The brutal precision game gets its own fluid universe -- everything we loved about the first one, only better. I wish Skyrim combat was more like this.
Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (Konami/Kojima Productions, Bluepoint, Genki, Aspect/PS3, Xbox 360) My all-time favorite franchise gets the HD treatment, and it doesn't just hold up, it excels. It's lovely when the classics can still surprise you.
Pixeljunk Sidescroller (Q Games/SCE/PS3) The aesthetic grace you'd expect from the Pixeljunk team: Innovative palette, excellent music, and flawlessly taut, minimalist shooter play.