2011 Year in Review

Last time I did a year end retrospective, it posted two months after the end of the year.  I won’t make the same mistake twice in a row.  Here now are the highs and lows from my 2011 in games.  Note, as always, that this is not a “best games of 2011” list, nor did all of the games actually come out this year.  These are simply the best (and “worst”) titles I played within the last twelve months.

The Tops

Async Corp

I actually posted my review of Async Corp. months after the initial draft was first written. and in the intervening months, I hadn’t actually played the game that much.  When I sat down to clean up the review and prepare it for posting, I insisted on sitting down with the game again, to see if it held up to the lofty words put forth in the first draft.  Suffice to say it passed the litmus test.  Async is the very definition of “pick up and play”.  You can return to it at any time without missing a beat, and the experience feels fresh no matter how long you are away from it.  Most importantly, it is not a game that you can play for “just a couple of minutes”.  It demands more attention from you, in a way that a good portable game should.  If every iOS game behaved like Async Corp., my iPod would be attached to my hip.

Portal 2

Portal 2 was easily the most pleasant surprise of the year. Valve addressed every single issue I had with the original Portal, and finally created an excellent, full fledged gaming experience out of the original concept.  The memes are gone, the puzzles are solid, the length is perfect, and most importantly, GLaDOS no longer annoys me.  Valve hit it out of the park, and my faith in them is restored three times over.  I will still debate against Portal 1, but will also go to bat for its sequel any day of the week.  Some people felt that Portal 2 still felt short of justifying itself as a full priced game, but if not for Gamefly, I would have bought it for $60 without blinking.  There aren’t many games I can say that about these days.

Fallout: New Vegas

Back when I played Fallout 3, I technically finished the game, but it felt more like I was calling it quits.  When I hit the level cap, I became unstoppable, and I still had about a quarter of the map left unexplored.   There was no challenge, and thus nothing felt interesting. Rather than be a completionist, I decided to go straight to the ending, leaving the remainder of the content for a second playthrough. I never got to that second playthrough, and that’s when I realized that Fallout 3 didn’t quite hit the mark.

Thankfully, it didn’t matter, because Fallout: New Vegas saved the day.  This right here is the true successor to Fallout 2.  It shows us what has happened to the American west in the years after Fallout 2, wherein the NCR is expanding its influence, and new factions are rising to fill in the voids left by the Enclave and the (alive, but struggling) Brotherhood of Steel.  It feels like home, and not just because of the setting.  The dialogue, characters, art direction, and all the new features make it feel like New Vegas really is a 3d representation of the same place that Fallout 1 and 2 occupied.

In addition, the story takes on a tone that is decidedly different than any previous entry. Your protagonist is not a Chosen One, but a nameless courier who gets screwed by The Man.  Your main quest is to get answers (and maybe some revenge), but the overall effect of the story and setting is to make you realize that you’re just a working stiff, and that the Mojave Wasteland is not a safe place for a lone person.  Technically, you can make a beeline to the main quest, but the game all but forces you to take a long, indirect path to the city of New Vegas.  This causes you to meet all the people and factions which make up the Wasteland, and you get a sense of the state of the area as a whole.  For the vast majority of the time, the story focuses on the lives and histories of everyone but the courier. As this review from Kill.Screen suggests, Fallout: New Vegas is the story is really the story of the Mojave; the courier, like everyone else, is just one of its many people.

The impact of this narrative focus is huge.  I have played New Vegas for months now.  I’m close to the level cap, but I don’t want to stop.  I enjoy being in this world, and I want to see all of it.  It finds ways to surprise me no matter how many hours I pour into it.  I never want it to end.

New Vegas suffers from many of the problems which plague all open world games, but I assert that it is one of the most interesting and fully realized open worlds of this console generation.  Every single game of this ilk needs to pay attention to how well New Vegas moves the focus from the protagonist to the world itself, because I believe it is the future of open world design.

The Disappointments

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

I don’t want to invoke The King’s Camelopard with El Shaddai.  Unlike the famous incident from Huck Finn, El Shaddai is exactly what its sensational concept claimed it would be.  The execution is simply atrocious.  And yet there is something in the way in which it is atrocious that makes it almost (but not quite) feel like the creators were trying to pull a fast one on us. Furthermore, the game does all it can from the very start to fuck with the player in ways that felt more hostile than playful.  The Camelopard comparison does not fit, but I do think that a hearty chunk of the praise thrown at this game is from people who are either dying to appear artsy, or are trying to save face after the final product didn’t match up with all the gushing they did during the preview phase.

I’m trying to write a longer piece on how El Shaddai fails, but here’s the synopsis.  It takes  Devil May Cry  1’s combat system and ruins it by modifying enemy behaviors and damage scaling in a way which is unnatural for an action game.  Visually, only the 2d environments are truly gorgeous.  The 3d levels are mostly abstract voids filled with basic shapes and (sometimes) lots of color.  The story  – already based on an obscure religious tome – deliberately withholds all sorts of information from the player in an effort to become even more sparse and confusing.

Also, there’s a 2d mission which serves no purpose other than to let four archangels comment on how nice they look in a giant stained glass painting.

I wish El Shaddai had turned out better, and I do think we need more risky, experimental games, but there’s a difference between an earnest failure and a failure caused by people fucking around.  In the case of the former, I always find something in the game to admire, and ultimately I’ll go to bat for it.  In the case of the latter, I’d rather see it fail, as a warning to anyone who would think of passing off their self-indulgent vanity project as something worth our serious consideration. You don’t get to use experimental art as a cover for your circle jerks.

Shadows of the Dammed

Let’s pretend that Suda51 has his own subgenre of “Suda51 games”, roughly analogous to a subculture like, say, steampunk.  Just like Steampunk, Suda51 games might have had some meaning behind them at one point.  But just like modern Steampunk has devolved into anything with goggles and corsets, modern Suda51 games are becoming known for nothing more than guitars, fashion and schlongs.  Shadows of the Dammed is filled with all of Suda’s trademark visual cues – it may have a different tone and subject matter than No More Heroes, but they both contain protagonists with styled hair, a stylized jacket, a craving for sex and a weapon which acts as an instant dick joke.  The game also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the inner workings of its setting (the underworld) without ever showing you all that much of it.  Of course, this is entirely due to the fact that the exposition exists solely as a vehicle for more crude jokes.

Worst of all, the game is a bore to play, even though it plays exactly like Resident Evil 4.  That’s right folks; Shadows of the Dammed screws up the design of the greatest action game in a generation, mostly due to the nature of its enemies.  There aren’t often that many on screen at a time, and the standard ghoul has a serious physical handicap which prevents it from every hurting you.  They have this preferred move in which they run up and jump kick you, only it never connects.  Ever.  I lost count of how many times I left a fight with minor damage because enemy attacks whiffed as I stood completely still. If collaborator Shinji Mikami was any more involved than being an executive producer for this game, then I’m not sure how he dropped the ball like this.

Throughout the years, I have never been entirely sold on Suda51, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Killer 7 and Flower, Sun and Rain.  Shadows of the Dammed trades their sloppy but fascinating experiences for surface level flair and polish atop an empty shell of an action game.  Without a doubt, the biggest WTF of the year.

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