Rina’s Top 10 Video Games of 2011

It’s that time! I’ve played as many of 2011’s games that I wanted to as was reasonable, and have put the best in a list! There’s still a few games I didn’t get to, like Skyward Sword or Uncharted 3, but I’m only one person. Get off my back!

Let’s go!

#10 – Mortal Kombat (WB Games)
Developed by: NetherRealm Studios

If you told me a year ago that a Mortal Kombat game would make my top 10, I’d have called you a liar and maybe a terrorist. I would have gone to far with it. I always kind of hated Mortal Kombat.

But this game. This f***ing game! Sitting down with it, I figured out what MK brings to the table, being a fighting game that provides a easy entry point for the average player. As much as Marvel Vs Capcom 3 panders to my specific interests, I can’t help but respect what this game does right.

More so than anything the game’s serious effort into creating an actual story-based single player mode, in a world where all other fighters pretty much gave up. The story is simple, but entertaining, seamless, and lengthy. Even if it wasn’t the series I’d most loved to have seen it done in, I gotta give Mortal Kombat it’s props.

#9 – Sonic Generations (Sega)
Developed by: Sonic Team/ Dimps Corporation/ Devil’s Details

The climb back to relevance continues! While the Sonic series still has a way to go before it’d ever be considered on par with Mario or Rayman in terms of quality, last year’s Sonic Colors was a big leap, and Generations keeps the trend up.

It’s hard for a Sonic fan like myself to look at this title, with it’s metric ass-load of fan-service, objectively, it’s certainly a fun game with a lot of great moments.

Both gameplay styles work great. The “classic” gameplay feels pretty spot on to the Genesis games, and the “Modern” gameplay is the best it’s ever been. Playing this game’s version of levels from the Sonic Adventure games highlights just how far they’ve come.

The story is actually a little on the light side. I don’t want Sonic ’06 levels of “plot”, if you want to call it that, but the premise of this game is pretty cool, and the cut-scenes that are there are a lot of fun.

Super Sonic stages still always suck.

#8 – Gears of War 3 (Microsoft Studios)
Developed by: Epic Games

Gears is still pretty good, it turns out. Not a revelation, as it turns out, but worth mention. The caper to the trilogy is a damn fine collection of everything that the series has done right, refined to it’s best.

The campaign is an improvement on the previous installments, with the player count upped to the much needed four. The set pieces all play really well, and the story, which I’ve never given much thought in Gears, has it’s merits. As dumb and “bro-y” as it’s always been, it feels like they really lead you into this weird trap where the final chapter takes this sad, pathetic turn, with all it’s musclebound dudes just drowning in despair and tragedy. It’s honestly fascinating.

The Horde Mode is expanded on awesomely, both in-game, with it’s deeper tower defense mechanics, and out of game, with the more persistent player tracking and rewards. I guess it also has traditional multi-player, but I’ve never understood people who want to play Gears like that.

#7 – Pokémon Black/White (Nintendo/ The Pokémon Company)
Developed by: Game Freak, Inc.

I almost forgot this was a 2011 release, as it came out pretty early. I also forgot how damned impressed I was with it. It’s the best thePokémon series has been in a decade or so.

It’s all very subtle, but Black and White really shows that they’re learning how to improve the formula. Limiting you to just the new monsters keeps the sense of discovery highly enjoyable. The multiple story threads do a lot to keep you focused on your next task at all times, so you’re never lost in what the next objective is. The annoying traversal aspects of the series, like HM obstacles or cave exploring, are made joyously minimal. The game reacts to your early choices to keep anyone from being screwed at the first gym, as was often a problem. It’s just a smartly made game.

Like most modern Pokémon games, there’s also a million little options that seem totally superfluous, but the core game was just polished to such a shine that the clutter falls away.

#6 – Batman: Arkham City (WB Games/ Square Enix)
Developed by: Rocksteady Studios Ltd

HeyguysguesswhatBatman.

Arkham Asylum was crazy good, so the squeal blowing it out and just going whole-hog in it’s Batman-ness seems like a great idea. And while that’s often great, it’s also it’d biggest problem.

The combat, the exploration, the collecting, the… Bat… maning. All that stuff is greatly improved on. From a gameplay perspective, it’s a step up from the original. It’s crazy fun.

The game’s desire to include everything it can think off hurts the story a bit though. There’s like, 5 millions Batman villains in this game, and like 2 of them have anything to do with the plot. As an open world game where you get to be Batman and fight guys, that works fine. But as a singular story, it gets real jumbled in the third act, and the whole thing doesn’t tie together great, especially compared to the really tight script of the first game.

Gripes aside, it stills lets me dive-bomb dudes from 20 stories up and punch him right in the head. It’s a great game that falls just short of being a GREAT game.

#5 – Catherine (Atlus Co., Ltd.)
Developed by: Atlus Co., Ltd.

Catherine is pretty weird. It’s a weird game. Well… maybe not. Maybe it’s just weird for a game.

I’m a die-hard fan of Persona 4, so whatever those guys did next, I was gonna play. Also, I’m pretty interested in the idea of game expanding to include more genres than just the “shoot all the guys” genre.

Catherine, as a video game, is a game where you push blocks around to climb to the top of a tower. That’s about it. Admittedly, as a game, it won’t blow anyone away. But the sum of Catherine’s parts add up to something that no other game really offers.

A relatively small scale story about a bout of infidelity and the spiral of guilt and personal soul-searching that follows, Catherine deals with themes most video games wouldn’t touch with a 50 foot pole. Sex, marriage, pregnancy, adulthood, and plenty more are bandied about by the cast as they sit around drinking their sorrows away. Also, there’s trivia about alcohol.

It’s still a crazy anime game about a sheep-man pushing blocks, so these themes are exactly handled with deft realism or anything, but the fact remains that the game’s willingness to tackle them through it’s incredibly flawed protagonist is challenging and engaging. The game goes out of it’s way to make you slightly uncomfortable with everything going on, and stands as a fascinating case study for a very different kind of experience you can have with video games.

#4 – Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom)
Developed by: Capcom

Speaking of weird Japanese games, it’sGhost Trick!

The creator of Phoenix Wright returns with a whole new style game, but one that stills feels very much in the same wheelhouse. A murder mystery adventure game in which you play a ghost trying to save other victims and solve his own death, Ghost Trick is equal parts Phoenix Wright, Ghost Writer, and The Incredible Machine.

Using Rube Goldberg-y set-ups to affect the environment, Ghost Trick is another game that skews the normal bounds of narratives to be found in video games. Not as radically as Catherine, but it’s refreshing none-the-less.

The game’s specific 2D visual style, bizarre bunch of characters, and almost to crazy but maybe just crazy enough multi-twist ending all make for a great experience like no other.

#3 – Bastion (WB Games)
Developed by: Supergiant Games

I get a little sad thinking about Bastion. It’s a very melancholy, occasionally heart-wrenching experience.

What initially seems to be a gimmick of a gravely voiced narrator commenting on the story’s progression, as well as the player’s choices and success in the gameplay itself, slowly opens itself up as the game progresses. Discovering the narrator is an actual character, the vague back story that lead to the strange floating wasteland starts to come into focus. Never playing all the cards, the game keeps it’s tragedy laden story close to the vest, making small revelations into bombshells, made all the more impactful from the first-person narrative.

The game’s combat also happens to be solid as a rock. A pile of drastically different weapons, all with distinct upgrade paths, and customizable difficulty settings make for a super engaging system of personalizing the game to your liking.

The music deserves special mention. It really kicks the whole atmosphere over the top into the range of GOTY. It’s really exciting at it’s most carefree, and damned haunting at it’s other extreme.

#2 – Saints Row: The Third (THQ)
Developed by: Volition Incorporated

Oh god. Oh sweet, wonderful god. It’s like I was waiting for this game my whole life.

Saints Row: The Third is the video game-yist video game that ever video game-d. It’s insane. As it’s previous installments were, The Third is based on the same structure of a GTAgame. Run with a gang, jack cars, do crimes, etc etc. But it takes this formula to a level we have never quite seen. It’s just so damn happy to be a video game, and wants to share that joy.

After what’s maybe one of the strongest opening 1-2 hours I’ve ever seen in a game, throwing you headlong into an insane bank heist followed immediately by a psychotic aerial free-fall, you find yourself in the city of Steelport, attempting to build your criminal empire back up to snuff while seeking revenge on the local gangs that wronged you.

Now, it starts weird. The Saints gang has become so famous and commercialized they rob banks wearing masks that look like themselves, and stop to sign autographs in the middle of it. But that little bit of satire is the base of the iceberg. The more you play, the more things SR3 throws at you that makes you question what exactly you were playing. Between the luchador wrestling, cyberspace biking, and Japanese game shows, it’s quickly apparent that nothing it too odd for Saints Row to roll it up and somehow fit it into it’s milieu of madness.

On paper, Saints Row: The third does not sound like it has an amazing story. It sounds like a bunch of crazy things put in a blender, which is true in a sense. But when I dissected it, I couldn’t help but be really impressed with what it did. SR3 designs everything you do in the game to be fun, and to be in the spirit of how most people play sandbox games (like a crazy person). The seemingly random assortment of narrative elements turn out to just be the perfect justification for these gameplay elements, filling in the cracks of the game’s cement in just the right way. It’s a game that’s fun for the sake of fun, and the story compliments that design philosophy perfectly.

As opposed to it’s closest competitor, Grand Theft Auto 4, which I feel has a story that’s often at odds with the game it’s wrapped around, Saints Row takes a different route, opting to not be as deep, but to have a much more solid sense of self. It never questions itself, even at it’s most lunatic, and I feel like it respects the player because of that, in a weird way.

It’s a weird game you guys.

#1 – Portal 2 (EA/Valve)
Developed by: Valve

When the first Portal was released as part of the compilation “Orange Box” a few years ago, it caught the community by storm, and rightly so. It’s two tent-poles of a totally fresh feeling style of gameplay, with it’s trippy teleporting first person puzzles, and it’s fantastic story, which was both hilarious and an incredibly interesting meta take on video games. It’s one of my personal favorite gaming experiences of all time.

So needless to say, it’s sequel had a lot to live up to. Being a full retail disc as opposed to a smaller downloadable title upped the risk factor even more. While I’m somewhat hesitant to say Portal 2 is better than it’s predecessor, I’m almost happier to say it makes a lateral more. It knows it can’t recapture the same lightning, and doesn’t try.

The first game’s story hinged largely on it’s twist around the halfway point. It’s eery, sterile test rooms gave way to the dirty, terrified “backstage”, as the robotic instructor GLaDOS is revealed to be both A) alive, and B) pretty intent on killing you. GLaDOS returns in full force, but gains a whole new, intriguing character arc. She’s familiar, but doesn’t hit all the same beats again.

But along with GLaDOS, the previously 2 person (and that’s stretching it) cast grows just enough, with excellent results. The moronic AI sphere Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant), steals the show for much of the game, delivering much of the best comedy, but then surprisingly having the best arc out of any of the characters. Much like GLaDOS, Wheatly transcends outside the normal stock character type. Secondly, for a section of the game, we’re treated to the recorded messages of Aperture Science founder Cave Johnson (voiced by the amazing J.K. Simmons), whose progressively more insane ramblings set the tone for that sections patchwork level designs.

It’s a very character driven story, with the conflicting personalities (including Johnson’s, even though he’s dead) smashing against each other, with out poor hero Chell stuck in the middle.

The second pillar, the puzzles, also take on new elements to stay fresh. Interestingly, the more mind-bending puzzles are moved to the new co-op mode. Trying to make sense out of some of those contraptions with two people is a whole new challenge to tackle. The single player is a little simpler overall, but acts as a great ride through all the new mechanics (bouncy gel, lasers, hard light bridges) in a cool new context. As opposed to the hard turn in scenery and gameplay from the first, Portal 2 moves through several major set changes, each with their own challenges and contexts. It moves at a great pace, and never stays on one idea for too long.

Is Portal 2 better than 1? I don’t know. I don’t want to know, really. But it does what many sequels fail to do, (particularly in video games) and expands on all it’s best elements in ways that create a familiar, but new engaging experience. And while Saints Row 3 had one of the best openings I’ve ever seen, it bears mentioning that Portal 2 has one of the better endings ever put to disc.

(All images found on Giantbomb.com)

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