2011 Retrospective: The Favourites

Arcadian Winners 2011

Shaun: And we’re back! Like a text-based podcast you left paused for a week. So, we already touched upon some of these when looking back over our predictions for 2011, but let’s have a proper look at our favourites from the past year.

AJ: Game highlights came in the form of pleasant surprises rather than fervently anticipated titles for me. Games like Dungeon Defenders, From Dust and Mindjack that I really didn’t expect to enjoy at all were really rather brilliant – some in immediately rewarding ways.

Shaun: The unexpected surprises, for me, were From Dust – a game that proved demos are still worth bothering with, no matter how busy you think you are. It was a short-lived experience but a quite simply wonderful and engrossing one.

Don’t Take It Personally Babe impressed me with its narrative, although I promptly spoiled it for myself by revisiting the game and discovering how little depth of gameplay there was behind the curtain of storytelling.

And I’m not sure if I can legitimately describe Skyrim as a surprise, but I’m impressed thus far with how much better the average standard of writing is than in the bland (but wonderful!) Oblivion. Remember Oblivion’s paint troll quest? Me too. Remember any other quests? Nope, me either.

Skyrim

If you don't take regular breaks whilst playing Skyrim, this will happen to you.

Spann: Skyrim marked Bethesda finally getting it right: it was the first Elder Scrolls game that I have enjoyed playing instead of simply turning on God mode and exploring. The game has more character in a single side quest than many games can manage across a few hours, and the inclusion of perks makes levelling your character far more rewarding. I’m currently using a heavily armoured battlemage type, but I’m already scanning the skill trees for what to give a sneaky thief character. It’s also still adorably unable to deal with the situations it creates, and I love it dearly for that.

Walker: There were two high-profile games scheduled for 2011 I was looking forward to: Skyrim and Arkham City.

I’ve held out on getting Skyrim, because either it’s going to be another disappointment like Oblivion, or it’ll actually be good and I won’t do anything but play it. Nevertheless, I remained unaccountably excited about it, and so far I like the word of mouth.

Arkham City kind of crept up on me. I always figured I’d get it at some point, but when I was plugging away at Asylum’s combat challenges I found myself thinking: “Man, I’d sure like some more of this” and bought the game pretty soon after release. It’s maybe a little disappointing it didn’t take the franchise to another level, but then again it never looked like it was going to, and that wasn’t what I was looking for. All in all I was well pleased with it.

Dylan: I love Skyrim. And Rayman. And the new post-patch uber-Dead Island.

I am more gaming-rich now than I have been since the great Left 4 Dead / Street Fighter 4 / Dishwasher: Dead Samurai triple-whammy of 2009/10.

Dead Island

When travelling abroad, always pack your electro-sword.

Spann: Dead Island came out of nowhere and ended up being rather enjoyable; yes, it had its faults but so do I and my girlfriend loves me. As I said in the AR triple header at the time it was unashamedly a game: mechanically it was fine but when you slapped real world logic onto it it didn’t make a lick of sense. That’s not always a bad thing when the mechanics let you stab a zombie right in the fucking eyes.

Shaun: I’ve got to throw some props to a couple of well-known titles. Crysis 2 was a fine blockbuster experience that I enjoyed a great deal, even if with time it diminishes in my affections. I mean, they got rid of those wide, expansive levels, that lush and unique jungle environment, the enemies that actually stood out among the legions of videogame bipedal bores… but they made the game more focused and tight, the gunplay more entertaining, and the nanosuit into a real force to be reckoned with. On balance I think I prefer its predecessor, but I regret nothing.

Dawn of War 2: Retribution was similarly not as good as what came before, but still proved a lot of fun. I also liked finally being able to play an Eldar campaign. The Eldar are the best of all the 40k armies, okay? They may be a bunch of elfin girly-men but they once owned the entire galaxy and, through partying too damn hard, they accidentally created the chaos god of weird fucking. Because of that they cruise around the cosmos in planet-sized spaceships. No one does grand like the Eldar. Er, sorry. Think I had a teen meganerd relapse there.

DOW2: Retribution

I'm sorry, was that *your* super-heavy tank?

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was also a predictable pleasure for me, a game that I felt delivered on a lot of its promise. If it fell short anywhere it was in its thematic ambition – but that’s a curse prequels often feel the sting of. I hope we see more from the series, and that Eidos Montreal not only get to set a larger portion of the game in their city, but also manage to, well, get a little more wild-eyed with their cyberpunk prophecies.

AJ: Another theme was surprisingly poor product from a developer leading the way for superb. I was curious about Call of Juarez: The Cartel only because I have been following the series but it was Techland’s A Team working on Dead Island that brought the goods. Likewise Volition failed to make good on Red Faction: Guerilla, effectively putting the franchise into a coma with Armageddon and the ill-advised SyFy film tie-in, but Saints Row: The Third is a delirious master piece, a game that knows it is a game and makes sure that you have fun the whole time.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel

Dude on the right? Calling the Dial-A-Bible hotline.

Shaun: They made a Red Faction film? Jebus, man. Volition’s business plan must be written by a precocious teenager.

Actually, that would explain a lot.

So, uh, Portal 2: need I say more? I can’t think of a game that has made me laugh more, where I cared as much for its characters, that felt so well-paced, or that provided as much local co-op fun as Portal 2. Notice that only the latter concerns the gameplay. Portal 2 introduced only a few minor innovations in its single-player puzzling that were enough to occasionally vex, but rarely confound. To those who were disappointed by the difficulty of the puzzling on offer, I can only suggest acquiring some of the co-op DLC. It will break your drunk little mind.

Spann: It’s interesting you mentioned Portal 2, Shaun – I don’t think Valve got the spanking they deserved for the ridiculously expensive DLC in the multiplayer. A fiver to unlock a skin that’s already on the disc is a complete dick move, so far as I’m concerned, even if it doesn’t make a difference to the gameplay, and Valve should know better in my opinion.

The single player, however, was ace. The way the Aperture Lab twisted and evolved (or devolved, as the case may be) as you journeyed through it was incredibly striking – certainly some of the most impressive set dressing I’ve seen. Most games have barely improved since the days of Resident Evil in terms of background, and as usual Valve brought the goods when it comes to doing the little things right.

Portal 2

Not pictured: flinging your friends into acid. Accidentally. Repeatedly.

Shaun: 2011 was the year in which I finally tried a Kinect, and you know what? Child of Eden is pretty awesome. I like pointing at flowers and whales, okay?

Spann: The Kinect actually gave birth to my favourite moment of Christmas last year; that being screaming “Xbox Live! GO GOLD!” at it, then watching my friend scrabble to stop a room full of people dumping an extra Live subscription on him.

Fucking hilarious, although I don’t think my friend played with it much after the festive season.

Walker: On the indie front I got Mount & Blade: With Fire and Sword and Space Pirates and Zombies.

I love Mount & Blade, and WFaS provided a new setting for the action with a few changes to mechanics; most notably it adds firearms. I’m actually not at all sure weapons as lethal as guns fit the game very well: more than once I’ve lost battles where I had a clear advantage when somebody downs me with a lucky shot right at the beginning and my idiot band–useless without supervision–proceeds to get slaughtered, which leads to constant rebuilding and fighting same sieges over and over again. I think I’ll stick with Warband.

Shaun: I’ve greatly enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Space Pirates And Zombies. I sincerely hope that the top-down space adventure game genre continues to be supported by enthusiastic indie developers and enthusiastic fans of top-down space adventure games.

SPAZ

A vacuum has never felt so crowded.

Walker: SPAZ is pretty fun, and I have to give them props for changing things up a couple of times along the way, but it is rather grindy, and unfortunately I don’t actually enjoy fighting the zombies very much.

Minecraft was officially released the other week, but seeing how I’ve been playing the Beta since last year I’m not sure I’d count it.

Spann: Oh, Minecraft. Minecraft Minecraft Minecraft.

I’ve barely played it really, and when I do all I ever want to do is stick it on peaceful mode and wander about – I don’t think it’s quite as deep as I hoped for – if anyone can show me the exact mid point between Minecraft and, say, Dwarf Fortress (Or as I call it, ASCII Hell Game), feel free to pipe up.

Shaun: I’ve been waiting for Walker to mention Goblin Camp, but he hasn’t, so here you go: Goblin Camp. It’s also ASCII-riffic but a lot simpler than Dwarf Fortress. I think it’s still in iterative alpha – I’ve not yet tried it myself.

Any more on the indie front? Blight of the Immortals was a lot of fun for a time, as was Jupiter’s Folly. I wonder what Iron Helmet will do next?

To The Moon

Spann: To The Moon. That game is fucking incredible and I challenge you to play it without blubbing at least once. In truth it’s barely a game, more an interactive story, but the writing is a demonstration of what can be done with a quite limited toolset (RPG Maker is good, but it’s hardly the new idTech engine) if you put the time and effort in. I’d love to say more about the game but I really do risk spoilerising it – all I can do is implore you to play it.

Dylan: I’ve recommended it a thousand times to a thousand people, but a wonderful ‘RPG meets x genre’ is Sequence, also on XBLIG and Steam. It’s a tactical puzzle rhythm RPG game and it makes me laugh with its humour.

[Tune in Monday for the final installment in our 2011 round-up. OR DIE TRYING.]