Monday, January 9, 2012

The Best Beast of 2011: Origins

While I think there's some fun to be had in ranking a year's best games, the practice does feels both too definitive (these are really the best?) and amorphous (how do you even begin evaluating "best" anyway?). So in a total cop out, I'm just going to write about some games I really, really enjoyed that I played in the last year.  And they'll be delivered roughly in chronological order.

A couple caveats: 1) I'm only considering games I played and finished in 2011. I suppose this precludes the persistent games that can't be finished, but I didn't play any of those in 2011 that I hadn't played in years previous as well (e.g. TF2, L4D2). If there was something of that ilk, I'm sure I'd just consider "finished" to mean "I played a lot of this, to the point of solid understanding." 2) I'm counting games I played in 2011, not necessarily those that were released in 2011. Granted, most of these are still recent, but some were technically released in 2009 or 2010 and I just didn't get to them until 2011. There are ten games in total, five here and five more in the near future.

Without further ado:

Best Protagonists for Hugs - ilomilo



Seriously, just look at those guys. Just listen to that music. It's almost impossible to imagine something more heartwarming and adorable. In a continual parade of games seeking to be more gruesome, dark, gritty, visceral, insert-"over-the-top"-adjective-here, it's wonderful to play something that's trying to be, well, cute. But ilomilo does so without becoming saccharine or mawkish. The story is actually a bit sad if you really think about it. And despite its cute exterior, the puzzles become truly fiendish later in the game. If you're curious, the demo can be downloaded here.



Best Gravelly Russians - Metro 2033

It's important to note that being dark and gritty isn't necessarily a bad thing. I was actually turned onto Metro 2033 almost a year ago exactly, when it started showing up in a number of year-end conversations. A convenient Steam sale later and Metro 2033 became one of my favourite FPSs in quite some time. As I noted here, it manifests an almost "Natural Law" design aesthetic that a number of Eastern European developers seem to possess (see S.T.A.L.K.E.R., The Void, etc.). It's not that the game is crushingly difficult in a Super Meat Boy way. Rather the game world's rules are enacted almost without any regard for the player and if you want to survive, well, it's on you to do so. In an era where at times I worry some games are walking dangerously close to instilling serious learned helplessness in the audience, games like Metro 2033 are absolutely refreshing. I hope that in this year's sequel, Metro: Last Light, 4A and THQ don't lose sight of what so many people loved about Metro 2033. At $20, the game is a steal. Oh, and make sure to play it with subtitles and Russian dialog.

Best Funny Robots - Portal 2

Lots of good words have been etched about Portal 2, with it ending up on many erudite's folks year-end lists/conversations. Rather than replicate their sentiments (yeah, everything about Portal 2 is pretty bloody great), there's one observation I'd like to make: the way humour manifests in the two different modes of the game. As someone who's helped make a couple funny games and might just like to make more some day, Portal 2 proves an interesting case. In the single-player, the comedy is delivered through the game's authored content. The writing is as sharp, if not sharper, than Portal and both Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons are brilliant additions to the cast (not to mention the ubiquitous Nolan North's cameos).

But what's interesting is the way humour tends to manifest itself in the co-op portion of the game. Pretty much across the board, I felt the writing in the co-op was weaker. The "playing the partners against each other angle" became one-note pretty quickly. Additionally, I'd be talking to my partner while the jokes were playing out, so we'd either have to stop talking or miss the lines. However, I'd say the co-op is still as funny, if not funnier than the single player simply because of all the situations you and your partner can end up in. Accidentally switching the wrong portal and sending them tumbling to their death never failed to produce a laugh. Waiting just a few extra seconds to drop that portal, while their head is smashed again the ceiling again and again by a jump pad. Accidentally (or purposefully) hitting the switch that crushes them, rather than moves their path. And that's not even to mention the havoc one can wreak with the laser cubes. The humour in co-op comes largely from the players' interaction with the content, rather than the content itself.

Dan Cook of Spry Fox wrote a bit about authored vs. procedural humour in games, and I added my two cents on there. It's an interesting conversation and definitely something I'd like to think/talk more about in the future. If you some reason you don't own Portal 2, I have a couple Steam coupons that make the game only $15. They expire at the end of January, so if you want one, contact me soon!

Best Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop - Bastion

Like Portal 2, there's been a lot of year-end talk about Bastion. And frankly, it's all well-deserved. The game is gorgeous, plays great and sounds even better than that. The look, story and sound of Bastion are fantastic, but in some ways, it's the gameplay that I actually appreciate the most. Having made a couple actions RPGs, I promise you, striking the right balance between meaningful choices and depth is not easy. The Diablo/Torchlight style of action RPG is the number crunching, spreadsheet-y way to do it, but I'm very interested in other ways of providing meaningful ARPG decisions without turning it into columns of figures and procedurally generated loot. Bastion beautifully demonstrates how to do that. Greg, Amir and everyone else wholly deserve all the recognition they are receiving. I want more small games that are still rich and interesting and if they're even half the game Bastion was, I'll be happy. You can get Bastion on Steam, XBLA or even in your Chrome browser.

Best Indigo Trading & Carpet Weaving - Dawn of Discovery (Anno 1404)

The oldest game on this list, Dawn of Discovery (known as Anno 1404 in Europe) technically came out in the summer of 2009, but I didn't play it until the middle of last year. And I cannot believe I waited that long. A real-time town building simulation, Dawn of Discovery is everything I loved about old city building sims like Caeser. Mine this, harvest that, grow this and trade it here; you can set up freaking automated trade routes to take your wine here and pick up indigo there. It's a particular game for a particular type of person, but if you're that type of person, dear god, it's so, so good. And the game is also absolutely gorgeous. The sequel Anno 2070 was released just a few months ago and I've got it on the docket for after I finish a few more games. I strongly suspect it will show up on a similar list to this a year from now. Due to some nonsense with Ubisoft patching (or rather, not patching) the game, it is not currently available on Steam. But one can still get it on Direct2Drive and other sites.

That's it for the first half, the next shall follow before too long. Until then, what games did you play last year that shined with special brilliance?

3 Comments:

Blogger Gaming in Public said...

Here are my votes:

Best Hybrid Indie Game: Rock of Ages
I have always been a fan of tower defense but Rock of Ages takes it to a new level. It's just as fun building a defense as it is crushing it with a flaming rock on fire.

Best Shootem'up Indie Game: Jamestown
This game has very few levels but is executed so well. If you happen to play this four player the action gets even better!

WTF Indie Game: Binding of Issac
A story that could only come from one of the minds behind super meat boy. The world is bursting with the most disgusting and horrific stories in indie games to date. I feel so sorry for that little guy each and every ending never seems to work out for him!

Best Indie RPG: Dungeons of Dreadmor
As funny as it is the system is really deep and engaging. If you love Rogue games then Dungeons of Dreadmor is fantastic for anyone.

Also I have to agree with Ilomilo they are so addorable. How can you resist them?

January 10, 2012 at 12:38 PM  
Blogger abunnell said...

Dungeons of Dredmor +1

Also, I got hooked on League of Legends this past year. A fantastic game with a terrible "community." But that hasn't kept me from logging one hundred hours on it, something I have only done two other times: FF7 and Persona 4.

Overall my favorite game of the year was definitely Dark Souls. The combat in that game is so good that it makes almost every other RPG pale in comparison. It nearly made Skyrim unplayable for me, with all of its combat pausing and menu surfing to eat 100 potatoes.

A close second for favorite game of the year was Terraria. Setting up a server with your friends is so much fun.

Wow, it's been a good year for games.

January 11, 2012 at 4:07 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Gaming in Public I really, really enjoyed Rock of Ages. It seems like it didn't hit as many people as it should have, but I way enjoyed it.

@abunnell I'm intentionally holding off on Dark Souls because I know when it get it, it will be very consuming. But oh, I'm very stoked to get to it. And scared. But mostly stoked.

January 11, 2012 at 10:59 PM  

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