2011 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 10, 9 and 8
Did you miss us? Because wow, we sure missed you. It's been a few months, but we're back with another top-ten list for the year that was 2011. Just as we did in 2009 and 2010, all five of us met one day in late December and spent hours debating what we felt to be this year's best and most important games.
However, this was our first year where everyone was hundreds of miles apart from each other. With Doug and Tyler in Japan, Spencer in Seattle, Aaron in Portland and Nick in Austin, the logistics were a much bigger hurdle this time around. But thanks to the magic of Skype and an inexplicable need we all share to see our games make the cut, we've pulled it out again.
A couple things to keep in mind: We are only evaluating games that came out in the year 2011. That gets a little murky when you look at things like the PlayStation 3 enhanced release of Mass Effect 2 and Minecraft officially leaving beta, so we decided that once a game is evaluated in one year, that's it. Barring anything short of a comprehensive remake, it probably shouldn't be considered a game that was released in 2011.
Next week we'll bring you each writer's list of personal favorites, but for now, let's get started!
#10 - Jamestown
June 2011 | Developer: Final Form Games | Windows, OS X, Linux
2011 was not a year in which I expected a top-scrolling shoot-em-up title, much less a finely-hewn one packed with fun and whimsy.
But then along came Jamestown.
Three-man indie outlet Final Form Games took the tale of Roanoke colony and gave it a sizable steampunk (Enlightement-punk, perhaps?) twist. The resulting story, set on Mars, is chock-full of charming pixel-art, lovely music, and engaging, classically-inspired bullet hell gameplay to accompany the alternate-historical figures. A recent expansion, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, adds three new ships, bringing the total to seven playable vessels with diverse and enjoyable playstyles.
Perhaps the highlight of Jamestown, however, is its four-player local co-op mode. With extra controllers, plus mouse and keyboard, friends can tackle the insipid Spanish (and their vile Martian allies) together - activated abilities can shield your allies, and power-ups can bring them back from a death much sooner, making Jamestown one of the most teamwork-friendly shoot-em-ups ever.
In making Jamestown, Final Form crafted a game that at once hearkens to arcade classics (Capcom's 1942 series and Seibu-Kaihatsu's Raiden Fighters both leap to mind) while standing on its own merit. The title hits Steam sales frequently: bullet hell fans, history majors, and anyone who has friends would do well to give it a try. — Spencer Tordoff
#9 - Dead Space 2
January 2011 | Developer: Visceral Games | Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
As a young teenager growing up in the quiet safety of the suburbs, I rebelled against the sterile world around me the only way I knew how: by digesting the most controversial media I could get my hands on. I read subversive books and comics (think The Catcher in the Rye or Johnny the Homicidal Maniac), I listened to music my parents despised (Nine Inch Nails, System of a Down) and I played controversial video games. Not just Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat; I mean truly unsettling stuff, like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. In short, I was trying really hard to be edgy, whatever that actually means.
Years have passed, and while I've long since abandoned the books and music of my formative years, I still love a good, disturbing video game. And while the survival-horror genre as we know it is long dead, a new player in the horror genre has risen to the challenge, blending a (for lack of a better word) visceral combat system with tense exploration and — somehow — a compelling and nontraditional narrative arc.
That's Dead Space 2: the second coming of the horror game, blending traditional elements of suspense and terror with modern-day game mechanics and a rich, engrossing setting not possible on older hardware.
The original Dead Space hinted at a game like this, but the experience fell short in a number of crucial ways. Dead Space 2 fixes every problem I experienced playing the original, such as arbitrarily boxed-off play choice mechanics and a story with a few too many repetitive action sequences, and keeps things fresh with an astounding variety of action sequences buoyed along by a great character progression system and a dark, unsettling, and compelling story.
The horror genre may be all but dormant at this point, but with games like Dead Space 2 stepping in to fill the void, there's never been a better time to scare yourself witless. — Nick Cummings
#8 - InFamous 2
June 2011 | Developer: Sucker Punch Productions | PlayStation 3
If asked, I'd be the first member of our staff to call out InFamous for what it was: underwhelming. While Sucker Punch tried its best to create a new franchise, something opposite of Sly Cooper's lightheartedness, what was released was another tired, open-world acrobatic platformer with absolutely no charm. But here we are in 2011, where the sequel to such a low pedigree is taking a spot in our 10 best games for the year.
InFamous 2 fixed everything that was wrong with its predecessor so naturally that I checked the credits wondering if Sony didn't pawn the franchise off to a new developer. It's a testament to the studio, which this year became a wholly owned part of Sony Computer Entertainment, to learn from its mistakes and push its team to realize the fun of InFamous' core concept: Who would a normal guy become if he had superpowers? Uncle Ben would have had a lot to talk to Cole MacGrath about.
What makes this sequel so great is it doesn't feel iterative. While I definitely killed bad guys, tested my moral fiber and collected lots of blast shards (again), the Cole MacGrath I played was a likable person -- if you follow a good karma path, anyway. He's a smart ass, but he cares about his friends. I found myself relating to this bro-dude, someone who was a glorified cardboard standee in the first game. Eric Ladin, the voice actor who replaced Jason Cottle, did a damn fine job of filling out the mannerisms and traits of a character that had been so very bland. Even the facial expression technology was an amazing feat compared to the first. At times the game fooled me into thinking it was an animated feature film with its fluid movements and beautiful color palette.
A lot of what made InFamous 2 such a fantastic title was its confidence in switching things up. A new voice actor, a new locale and a new look for Cole, before Internet fandom killed that idea. But the rest of these massive changes lived on, and New Marais was the perfect alternative to the greys and browns of Empire City. The New Orleans stand-in is a neon-drenched paradise of debauchery and southern charm. A lot of people talk about how open world games try to seem "alive" and well-lived, but very few reach a level of detail as Sucker Punch did with its humid coastal sandbox.
InFamous 2 took a lot of risks in changing so much, but every decision was the right one. In an industry where iteration is fact, I can't recommend InFamous 2 more for how humble its developers are to admit where they failed and focus their resources on actually making a better game -- not just saying it is. 2011 had many sequels, but InFamous 2 was one of the best. — Aaron Thayer