Previously, on NeoGAF...
Continuing where I left off...
From Software, Namco Bandai Games
Why is the game every other publication should put as their own “GOTY”, but won’t, all the way down at number five? Dark Souls is a beautiful and awesome game, but it has some flaws I can’t overlook. The game does everything Demon’s Souls did right, but better. It also does everything it did wrong, but not as a bad. Obviously the star of the show here is the beloved combat system. It is the best “deliberate”, grounded system there is and it puts you in a wider variety of situations than its peer Monster Hunter does. The problem surfaces when you pick up a strong shield and/or projectile magic. Yes, you will die… unless you use magic and shield. And there is the grinding/leveling system which can at times bog down the challenge of at least the first “game” (which counts the most). However, DkS is still a tremendous game, a perfect answer to Demon’s Souls. The harmonious blend of online and offline, with friend and foe? Made more complex with allegiances and more methods to use. Glorious bosses, e.g. King Allant? Meet my friends Ornstein and Smough (now with even better music!). Weary, dangerous areas, e.g. Valley of Defilement? Blighttown, oh god! (I fared better in frame rate than most.) Occasional Traps? Welcome to Sen’s Fortress. NPCs get the same treatment. And of course, so does equipment as there are more unique weapons and spells (as well as an improved Vancian system for magic). Virtually every concept in Demon’s Souls returns with an innovative spin, almost like a wink and nod to fans. Most importantly it doesn’t lose the dreading that comes with advancing and with malicious areas like Tomb of the Giants it hits a new high (invading in there is like playing the killer in a slasher flick). The awe-inspiring, seamlessly linked world rivals The Witcher 2’s in its contribution to immersion, and unlike something like an Elder Scrolls game it doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. DkS, with its minimalist approach, also manages to squeeze out a lot of flavor from a little. Its Greek-like dark fantasy mythology and the politics which puppeteer you gain an exciting enigmatic quality as you slowly uncover it (or not).
Serious Sam 3: BFE
Croteam, Devolver Digital
To be honest I’ve never given Sam the time of day. Now that I have, what I’ve found is one of the best FPSs I’ve ever played. What a breath of fresh air (or a splash of cold water for the shooters of 2011). True to the days before Halo, this game gives you a bunch of weapons to hold and it wants you to use all of them at once. It throws tons and tons of enemies at you at an increasingly mad pace, but this isn’t what makes Serious Sam special (that’s somewhat common by now). It’s that the individual enemy types are well designed and vary greatly down to their movement and methods of attack. Best of all, they all fit together to create a well oiled machine out to get you. You add “Kleer” skeletons to any encounter and it just becomes better. Among those types are enemies that will shoot visible projectiles (collectively making walls of them) that you are meant to dodge/strafe (or hide from, but cover only lasts for moments before crumbling or you are rushed down). For each foe you will find your preferred method of execution and when the game begins to get harder (surprisingly, it eases you in), you will live or die on those methods by switching between them on the fly. You will face waves upon waves of enemies full of this variety all at once from all sides; that is when SS3 reaches a state I can only describe as brilliant pandemonium. This mesh between weapons and enemy types is enough to supersede the need of level design, but the huge arenas (including enemy spawns) and “quieter” moments are well thought-out. Its long, consuming stages are a collection of long, consuming firefights, which left me mentally exhausted at times. When I did two of the later stages back to back I felt a slight case of PTSD coming on. Auto-saving is done correctly so playing without using quick saves is definitely the way to go. On top of all this, it has a natural, unforced scoring system. And damn, I haven’t even touched the two hardest difficulties or the ridiculous “Survival” mode or the co-op (which apparently can go up to 16 players!?). To call this game “old school” would be misguided; it is one of the most forward-thinking shooters I’ve played this generation.
Atlus Persona Team, Atlus
Catherine is a puzzle game that puts a gun to your head and demands you build and climb an endless case of stairs. These long-winded puzzle marathons don’t waste your time with content padding or bite-sized gaming experiences; it dives straight into wanting to kill you and it constantly introduces new patterns and trick blocks all way to the end of the game. There are also vicious bosses to increase the antagonism. Once I learned a few “techniques” and started reacting to patterns as second-nature, the mechanics and pace they work at began to look sublime. It has its “eureka!” moments like any puzzle game, but those are much more satisfying when you are forced to endure a tense, towering challenge instead of many peaceful, weaker ones (thanks to the scoring system, this game is best played without using checkpoints). The only real downer is that the controls are awkward at times, which compares unfavorably to my top game of the year which has perfect controls befitting its high speed. Based on a strong foundation, the multiplayer modes are naturally pretty fun, though it fails to reach its full potential due to a lack of polish and effort. The Vs. mode I like in particular because it combines the thrill of checkmating and “teabagging”. One of the best things about Catherine is that difficulty modes completely rearrange the game, making “Hard mode” a new game (and more so without the game-manipulating “undo”). And let me tell you, it is on a whole other level. Catherine won’t get you laid, but this game will fuck you. Mix in four challenge modes and a “pure” puzzle mini-game in “Rapunzel” and it is nice to see that a JRPG developer didn’t rest on their laurels because of the fancy production values. Speaking of which, the storyline is quite an engrossing (in the way of a soap, I guess), funny tale up until the end (though pretty disconnected from the puzzles). The anime-themed character models and environments look fantastic. The soundtrack is among the best this year, with or without the excellent remixes of classical music.
Related Designs/Ubisoft Blue Byte, Ubisoft
Being the best and latest in its acclaimed series, it is no surprise that Anno 2070 is a damn good game. It helps that it's an exceptional visual splendor; it has no equal among strategy games. It would be one thing to simply reward a player’s effort with a mass of buildings and units at this level of detail, but what Related Designs does so well is make the world more lively and animated than anyone else, even out in the untapped forests and seas. I hesitate to call it a city-builder or a 4X game (I want to say the latter, since city-builders are pretty one-note) and I think this speaks to what makes this game great. It captures the best of both worlds, ultimately making a more intricate (if smaller in scope) approach to exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating (surprisingly accessible too, but not by too much). “Exterminating” is key here, since Anno has never had much going on in the combat department until now. The game is still primarily concerned with economic and diplomatic affairs first and foremost. Stuff like setting up trade and supply sea routes and whatnot, so you can properly build and expand your population and production. Anno 2070 adds a twist to keeping a balance by factoring in the environment. The two main factions are based on this conflict (giving it diplomatic significance), asking the player to either protect or rape his island’s ecosystem. The campaign is little more than a tutorial, but continuous games are where it’s at. On the hard difficulty you are faced with a low-resource, high-pressure situation where your efficiency and RTS prowess are regularly tested, while the easy difficulty plays out more like a relaxing sandbox (which can be fun for its own reasons). At first Anno 2070’s flooded sci-fi world (cool!) might seem like a reskin of the series’ island colonization theme, but as you delve deeper into the game (there is a lot to uncover), you’ll realize it mainly facilitates change by ridding itself the restrictions of realism or at least the reality of pre-industry Europe. Undersea colonies, hell yeah! Anno 2070 also has some of the most interesting multiplayer/online features I’ve seen this year (thanks in part to Ubisoft’s “War on Piracy”). You got MMO-ish “World Events”, the cross-game political system, persistent bonuses, and some flexible co-op options (including the ability to drop and add players freely and splinter saves between players).
Hard Corps: Uprising
Arc System Works, Konami
This fucking game, man… It lives up to its name. I knew I was destined to love it when I saw the Giant Bomb guys rage-quit their “quick look”. It's become my favorite Contra, which is another way of saying it is one of my favorite games of all time. Uprising has more techniques and speed than most players will know what to do with. You got double jumps, air dashes, dodges, follow-up attacks after dodging through an enemy, bullet reflecting, obstacle tackling, wall climbing, and characters like the swordswoman Sayuri (DLC only, ha). It can lead to interesting alternative styles of play, like full sprinting and dodging (basically hurdling) through the game with minimal kills. Even with all those neat tools, this game wouldn’t be what it is worth without the kickass level design/enemy patterns and bosses. It is definitely the former which puts it over the top, having some the best stages the Contra series has ever thrown at us. Just pure run ‘n gun greatness filtered through a Guilty Gear-like approach to the move-set. And yeah, I ended up liking the stupid stealth level, so there’s that. The scoring system is pretty busted on some stages, with countermeasures to milking being too weak, but I don’t feel like the game is lacking something without it. There is the customizing “Rising mode” if to want to bask in the glory of a version of your character with a full access to techniques and crazy power-ups (with scoring issues, it is a short-lived joy). Alternatively, you could play with a build that makes them weaker than their “Arcade mode” counterpart (or something in between). It is mainly useful as a way to make the game seem more appealing to your more scruby friends, for co-op in Contra remains one of the great videogaming pastimes. Its attempt to create anime-themed polygonal graphics can be kind of weak visually from time to time (and audibly it’s weak all the time, Daisuke Ishiwatari’s compositions aside), but it makes up for it with awesome moments. For example when you have a high-speed gun fight on a futuristic highway or surf a missile while being barraged by a nearby flying battleship. And fuck, the entirety of Capital Tower is magnificent. Guess I should get back to work on that “I’ll make them pay…” achievement…
Child of Eden
Q Entertainment, Ubisoft
Better than Rez. I really like its rhythm-based combo/score system. It can be quite striking with its uncommon visuals and music (something something synesthesia buzzword). CoE might be my “11th Game of the Year” or “real 10th Game of the Year” depending on my mood. (I could say something nice about the Kinect, but honestly, don’t play it that way.)
Gears of War 3
Epic Games, Microsoft Studios
It’s a fun multiplayer game in 2011 relatively free of random bullshit polluting the experience (character progression, “deathstreaks”, no dedicated servers, broken spawns, etc). That’s an achievement in itself! Has a lot of ways to play online, making it the perfect game if your friends are up to “dudebro”-ing it up. I had a much better experience here than I did with 2. (I don’t like the campaign. Play Vanquish.)
Valve Corporation, Valve Corporation
It would be unfair not to list this because it is one of those other games which set standards in atmosphere this year and my feelings on it virtually mirror Ghost Trick, just with less enthusiasm. Might have been ranked if I had a good co-op experience with it, but who knows?
Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition
Capcom/Iron Galaxy Studios, Capcom
I consider it more of a port, so I am in no rush to count it. However, it might be the “true best fighting game of 2011” I’ve played, so I thought I’d mention it. It has a lot of spiffy features and polish as far as ports go (and some issues, too).
Super Mario 3D Land
Nintendo EAD Tokyo, Nintendo
I’m very conflicted about this. It probably doesn’t deserve a mention, really (maybe I’m a fanboy). For a decent amount of time it is your typical 3D Mario, maybe even a little below par; the perfect game for kids at least. Something happens after you defeat Bowser for the last time which slowly, but surely makes this game quite fantastic. When that happens it easily becomes the best 3D Mario I’ve played. Its 3D (the gimmick kind) sold me on putting that slider all the way up on 3DS games.
CS1 Team, Sega
I’m purposely snubbing it because of a rule where I am reluctant to recognize annual sequels/expansions back to back so that making the list is fun. An awesome game, though I feel like I am balancing how much I like it compared to others in the series based on “how much fresher going through four unique characters feel” versus “how poorly the game scales as you level up each one and the general drop in difficulty”. I lean toward the former, because at least it resets levels four times. The brutal HEAT actions have never been more entertaining.
I skipped out on playing Tropico 4
, NBA 2K12
, and some direct expansions because I didn’t feel the urge to. The predecessors of both examples were contenders for my personal list for their years. It is kind of a shame I didn’t play Red Orchestra 2
given I was so hyped for it, but it was buggy enough at release for me to avoid and I never got the chance to go back. I haven’t put more than 3 hours in Frozen Synapse
, so I am not going to bother listing it now. Maybe destined to be 2012’s 2011 Game of the Year? I will also have to consider Arcana Heart 3, King of Fighters XIII, and Red Orchestra 2 if I ever get to them.
In review / for the tally:
1. Hard Corps: Uprising
2. Anno 2070
4. Serious Sam 3: BFE
5. Dark Souls
6. Total War: Shogun 2
8. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3
9. The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings
10. Ghost Trick: Ghost Detective
x. Child of Eden
x. Gears of War 3
x. Portal 2
x. Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition
x. Super Mario 3D Land
x. Yakuza 4
If you’ve managed to read all of this, I congratulate you. If the length and showiness really bothered you, I'm sorry for the inconvenience
. Here are some other lists I found interesting: (I may or may not find their choices agreeable)