‘Tis the season when everyone likes to look back and decide on the best games of the year. When I sat down to do this myself, I discovered it was a little more difficult than expected. Which games were truly special experiences in 2011? As much as anything, this was the year of the sequel. More specifically, the year of the third game in the series. With releases like Gears of War 3, Uncharted 3, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Resistance 3, Killzone 3, Saints Row 3, and more, most of these games were very similar to their predecessors. Regardless, a few games this year were not only good sequels, they were memorable, impactful releases. Here are my top three games of 2011.
3. Saints Row: The Third
The only “3 game” on my list is Saints Row: The Third. While the other 3s this fall could be classified as other iterations in established franchises, Saints Row really felt like it was just now finding itself. Saints Row 2 featured some ideas and concepts that got the ball rolling, but SR3 feels almost like the first game in a new series inspired by the original two.
But that’s not why SR3 stands out. Think about how many serious games came out this fall. Games full of desperate soldiers, dramatic deaths, tenuous relationships, and taglines like “brothers to the end.” That’s all well and good, but after several months of drama and tension, SR3 felt like some sort of amazing experience intended to end the fall season on a lighter note so that we’re not all depressed during the holidays. SR3 doesn’t take itself seriously in any sense; even serious events in its own story are mocked.
SR3 gave us missions where our characters continually think up horrible plans, go along with these plans, and act surprised when they actually work out. Then it gives us tools to complete these plans like a gun that causes people to be eaten by sharks or a luchadore mask that sets people on fire. Everything in SR3 is centered on generating fun, crazy experiences for the player. The upgrade system, the car modifications, the character customizer, mission choices, and everything else are designed to build into a more and more ridiculous sandbox experience. Thank you, Saints Row: The Third. If this fall’s games were the heavy four-course dinner, you were the light, delicious dessert.
If Saints Row: The Third brought the fun to gaming at the end of the year, Bulletstorm did it at the beginning. Not unlike Saints Row, Bulletstorm had a fairly depressing marketing drive behind it and really sold the game’s writing short. People who avoided the game because of the advertisements really missed out on something special, though. Bulletstorm totally ignored modern first-person shooter storylines and told a crazy tale of crazy people who were stuck in a crazy place. Oh, and you get to do some really crazy stuff.
Rather than encouraging us to use cover and headshots to progress from scripted sequence to sequence, Bulletstorm advanced a new way to play shooters. By essentially performing ridiculous stunts in how to kill people, it rewards you points that you then put forth into performing even crazier stunts. This creates the potential for some of the most insane, hilarious situations seen in a shooter. Clever guns like one that fires drills and another that fires two grenades with a chain between them cause things to happen that are so cartoonishly absurd that you can’t help but grin at the mayhem you’re causing.
What really surprised me about Bulletstorm, though, was the story. Like Saints Row, it’s always aware of how ridiculous it is and it never gets bogged down. The writing is smart and the characters (the main one especially) have surprising depth. Of all things, I never expected to see a genuine character arc in something called “Bulletstorm.” It saddens me that the game didn’t sell very well because it deserves better. If you’re bored this holiday season and sick of modern military shooters set in brown and gray industrial environments, pick up Bulletstorm. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
While I was never a fan of the original Deus Ex (I played it way too late and it aged poorly), I understood why people liked it. It’s the same reason people like Alpha Protocol, despite its shortcomings: the atmosphere, the personalized character, and the freedom of action to name a few. Human Revolution cashed in on all these strengths and reminded us that first person shooters don’t have to be mindless hoorah-fests. Human Revolution is not only my favorite game of 2011; it’s one of my favorite games from this entire console generation.
Atmosphere is probably the most memorable element of Human Revolution. The world combines old renaissance styling with harsh futuristic and utilitarian lines. The clash between old and new, right and wrong, and the murky area in between is reflected in every element of the game, be it player choices, architecture, costume design, dialog, and pretty much everything else. Everything feels very cohesive and builds it up to be even more memorable.
It doesn’t hurt that the gameplay can carry its weight, too. Whether you play as a sneaky spy or a terminator-esque cyborg killing machine, every playstyle feels like it’s the playstyle the game was designed around. No one option feels more brokenly over or underpowered than another. You don’t see that often these days, especially in this style of RPG.
I could keep going, but I’m afraid I’ll start repeating too much of my original review if I do. It’s in the blog archives if you’re interested and maybe haven’t played the game yet. All in all, Human Revolution is the must-play game from 2011. It’s engrossing, addictive, thought-provoking, pretty, and exciting. I know that I’ll be replaying it for years to come.