The best games of 2011
We assembled our top-10 list in the usual way. All of the regular contributors to The A.V. Club’s game section made a bunch of ballots with numbers on them. We added the numbers up. We talked over the list and tweaked it. We cheated with a couple of ties, because we can.
This year, each writer also made a not-top-10 selection. Don’t think of these as the “Tied for 11th place” games. (That pseudo-scientific ranking business ends with the main list.) Rather, this eclectic mix is more like the “Staff Picks” shelf at a video store, back when such things still existed—games that, for one reason or another, we believe are also deserving of recognition as we close out the year.
10. (tie) Batman: Arkham City
It would have been easy for Rocksteady Studios to rest on its laurels and produce a merely passable sequel to Batman: Arkham Asylum. The sales were practically guaranteed based on the success of the original and the addition of Catwoman as a playable character. Instead, Arkham City surpasses the original. The sprawling streets of Gotham offer exciting action, satisfying stories, and striking visuals. Plus, there’s the iconic voice acting of Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill in his last hurrah as the Joker. For comics fans who’ve dreamed of being the Caped Crusader, this is about as close as they’re likely to get.
10. (tie) Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s beautiful, honeycombed detective fantasy may not work like ours, but that doesn’t make it less fun to play in. Adam Jensen can walk into a mob-run Shanghai bar and tase random strangers with little to no consequence. He lives in a world where corporate leaders think security specialists should have swords in their arms. As a playground, though, for both bizarre decision-making and existential navel-gazing, it is a joy enhanced by its myriad flaws. Rubbing up against Deus Ex’s constraints is the point of the game, in practice and philosophy: It’s a game about breaking rules.
10. (tie) Rayman Origins
With his disembodied limbs and white-gloved hands, Rayman, the Rodney Dangerfield of video games, had gotten so little respect in recent years that he’d even been overshadowed by his own bucktoothed bit players—those over-caffeinated rabbits from the Raving Rabbids series. In the end, it’s the humble Rayman and creator Michel Ancel who are enjoying the last laugh. One of the year’s quietest, most artful games is not just one hell of a challenging platformer. After the bigger, noisier offerings this fall, it’s also the perfect year-end palate-cleanser.
9. Dark Souls
Much has been made of Dark Souls’ difficulty—and rightfully so. While most games hold players’ hands, this role-playing throwback drives a spike through the player’s palm. This prettier, more elegant follow-up to 2009’s Demon’s Souls is a literal dungeon crawl—one that forces would-be adventurers to venture cautiously, fight deliberately, and explore methodically. Dark Souls sounds like work because it is. But like the brutal role-playing games of yore, Dark Souls bestows a profound sense of accomplishment upon the dedicated.
While unloading shotgun blasts to the bellies of demons in Suda 51’s Shadows Of The Damned, players might wonder if they’re playing a game or a parody of a game. Shadows stars a hotheaded hero named Garcia Hotspur, who wields a talking gun named Johnson. (Sample Hotspur quote: “Great. More demon pubes.”) The action is always interesting, yet never enough to distract you from the game’s essential strangeness. Shadows is hard to pin down, and its refusal to define itself by any familiar gaming template makes it one of the year’s most maddening must-play experiences.
Motion-controlled swordplay is Skyward Sword’s main event according to Nintendo, but the way you interact with Skyward is just one facet in this jewel of a game. Its world is relatively small compared to its bloated predecessor Twilight Princess, but it’s also deep and giving in its imagination and care. Link is more than a green-suited puppet who mimics the motions of your Wiimote. He’s your green-suited avatar in a wondrous realm where people ride giant birds and pilot ships that convert desert to ocean. After 13 years, Nintendo has finally made a three-dimensional Zelda as powerful as its two-dimensional entries.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is the best game you’ll ever read. Some dub Phoenix Wright creator Shu Takumi’s games “visual novels” because they’re so verbose, but there’s more to his adventure games than thumbing through dialogue. Ghost Trick’s plot is peppered with locked-room puzzles that play on spectral protagonists’ ability to haunt the scenery, navigating the detritus of everyday life like a poltergeist lost in a maze. Still, it’s stellar writing—accentuated by handsome animation—that makes Ghost Trick’s characters feel so lively.
Bastion’s creators originally conceived it as a game about cartography, where the central hook was creating a world as you explored it. It was a mechanical idea, the sort of clockwork that acts as a foundation for most games. The Bastion they ultimately made, though, was about mapping not just a place, but also a nation’s history and the lives of its last remaining citizens. The Kid’s journey through Caelondia is as much about homesickness, reconciliation, and optimism as it is about fluid combat. That the game allows you to define the shape of that optimism makes it all the more exceptional.
Your kindergarten teacher was right: Life isn’t fair. Neither is The Binding Of Isaac. Every time you play the game, its Legend Of Zelda-like dungeons are generated anew, which means that it never plays the same way twice. It also means that you might get screwed. But dealing with bum luck is the essential draw of Isaac. In a world where everything is randomized, self-determination is the only determination you’ve got. That makes for a lonely journey but gives the player full ownership of every success, which is a special thrill.
The bizarreness of Catherine is refreshing. Part dating sim, players spend chunks of the game controlling a whiny guy boozing, texting, and chatting up people at his local bar. The low-key nature of that component heightens the impact of the game’s centerpiece: a tower-climbing puzzle that plays like having an anxiety attack. This is no rational test of your spatial awareness but rather a terrifying attempt to survive as the floor falls out from under you, belligerent sheep shove you, and monstrous embodiments of your fears threaten to devour you. If it sounds like a nightmare, that’s because it’s supposed to be.
2. Portal 2
Most big-budget games are not very funny. Most of them don’t know how to tell a story and let the player chew gum at the same time. Most of them don’t like to set up puzzles without also offering little hints or tutorials or giant blinking arrows. Portal 2 ain’t most games. It’s a hilarious sci-fi tale and a series of space-bending physics puzzles, woven seamlessly into one vibrant experience. And there’s a catchy tune at the end, to boot. This is what happens when thoughtful people make games for other thoughtful people. More, please.
We’re sorry if Skyrim broke on you. Bethesda’s ambitious open-world RPG is a complex machine, prone to blown o-rings and the occasional catastrophic failure. But when the engine turns and the game manages, somewhat impossibly, to lift off, the result is awe-inspiring. Skyrim’s Nordic take on Tolkien is vast and involving—the kind of sword-and-sorcery diversion that people fall into like a drug coma. And that’s why the game’s bugs are so irritating and divisive. Nobody likes being awakened from the perfect dream.
Anthony John Agnello
El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron
El Shaddai’s greatest accomplishment is that it is as batshit nuts as the biblical apocrypha that inspired it. The Dead Sea Scrolls tend to come in a single flavor of polytheistic, violent crazy, though, whereas a multifarious weird is at work in Takeyasu Sawaki’s game. The game’s visual restlessness sends it shuffling among Saturday morning cartoons, Tron, and Carnival within a few hours, yet it still feels consistent and whole. It’d be one thing if the game were all style, but its rock-paper-scissor brawling—which has you wrenching divine weapons from zealots—centers El Shaddai with a substantial core. The story it’s trying to tell is impregnable, but who cares? El Shaddai moves in mysterious ways.
Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition
Eric Chahi’s Another World (also called Out Of This World) was a marvel upon release in 1991, but the 20th anniversary remaster for iOS devices reveals that the game’s success wasn’t solely based on once-cutting-edge writing and animation. A precursor to now-familiar story-based action games, Another World has a better sidekick character than most modern titles can muster. It’s short but sweet, like a good roller coaster. Flashbacks to inspirational moments in gaming history are always valuable, but it is rare that the play still shines in the way Another World does.
Fortune Street looks and feels like a low-stakes Monopoly-type game, done up with the all-too-common cartoonish Wii look. But the game is much more complicated than what’s on the surface, rewarding frantic strategy and the ease at which you screw over opponents, even the nice ones, for personal financial gain. It takes a few minutes to grasp the rules, but once you realize there are infinite ways to win and a ton of fun to be had becoming a real-estate magnate, Fortune Street can become an obsession.
Fight Night Champion
The corrupt promoter? The prison stint? The jabber-jawed current champ who seems unstoppable? All of boxing’s hoariest clichés are present and accounted for here. What’s surprising is how much juice such timeworn tropes still have in them. Over the course of 21 mostly white-knuckle bouts, gamers guide the coulda-been-somebody Andre Bishop through his rise, fall, and subsequent rise. Given that boxing itself has diminished relevance as a sport, Fight Night Champion stands tall not only as a terrific video game, but also as a swan song for a bygone era.
GoatUp is a demon in ruminant’s clothing. Jeff Minter’s trippy iOS platformer seems like a goof, but beneath the game’s simplistic surface lurks complex bonus mechanics, rules that take unexpected left turns and a precarious end-game that’ll force you to turn your horns downward and climb, cautiously back to where you started. See you on the leaderboards.
Every year has brought a new flood of Japanese RPG titles to the Nintendo DS, and Radiant Historia was the best of 2011. The game gets the balance just right. Its combat system is highly tactical, but not as brutal as some of Atlus’ hardcore titles. The characters are lovable and deep, and the plot is enriched by the game’s core mechanic: The protagonist has the ability to travel back in time to correct mistakes. The result is a game that has dozens of tragic endings, which makes getting to the “true” finale all the more satisfying.
You Don’t Know Jack
People worry about Arrested Development returning to form after seven years off the air. Seven years? That’s nothing. You Don’t Know Jack regained its stride after sitting in mothballs for a decade. The free-associating trivia quiz—the ultimate party game for pop-culture-loving eggheads—even manages to improve on its predecessors. The buzz-in system now allows everyone to play every question, and abrasive host Cookie Masterson (voiced by Tom Gottlieb) presides over inspired new special rounds like “Cookie’s Fortune Cookie Fortunes With Cookie ‘Fortune Cookie’ Masterson.”
L.A. Noire offered an open world that was suspiciously barren, it starred an eminently hateable hero, and it drove Team Bondi out of business just after the Australian developer crossed the finish line. For all its flaws, the most anticipated game of 2011 was also a fantastically realized work that set new benchmarks for voice acting and facial animation. Playing a gumshoe in a video game will never be the same.