Championing interactive goodness and fun
12. Battlefield 3
+ Best Multiplayer
+ Best Audio Design
Its single player was bobbins, its co-op worse still but, and I was heckled for this after posting my single-player review, nobody really gives a damn. While EA’s marketing team are cretins for using its tech-demo of a single player to sell the game, DICE more than made up for that on the multiplayer front.
So it’s undoubtedly conceded a little to that other shooter set in Terrorist Land but it hasn’t gone far enough to rid it off its own revered idiosyncrasies. It’s a still a game anchored in teamwork, where every tosser in a jet or marshmallow munching mug with a sniper rifle perched on the periphery is doing more harm than good but then… those jets are so utterly joyous to pilot and the adrenaline blast from scoring a headshot from half a kilometer away or going on a rampage in a helicopter is crazy addictive. Get good at this game and it’s on your own merit and that’s a very powerful feeling.
The sound design was a little bit good too; a giddy delight blasted forth from even a semi-decent surround system.
11. 7 Little Words (Blue Ox Technologies)
7 Little Words is a game that I still play now, months after I took the plunge into the inky abyss of this glorious 21st century rendition of the vintage Wordsearch. On a particularly boring bus journey, during a lecture, in bed at 4am; at any point where life couldn’t be any less interesting, 7 Little Words is primed and ready to while away the hours/days/weeks/months.
It is my ultimate word-puzzle game because while it easily flumoxes, it never leaves me wanting to bash my head against a wall made of rusty daggers. There’s always an alternative to crying and resorting to Google and as a consequence it’s almost impossible to put down. If you can’t work out one word you can about-turn and start one of hundreds of other puzzles or have a shot at solving a different word and thus, by process of elimination, eventually return triumphantly to solve your original enigma.
Its outward simplicity belies its inner smarts and it has managed to snag the unwavering attention of absolutely everybody I’ve shoved it toward with hyperbolic claims of “BEST XXX EVER”.
10. Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo)
+ Best Handheld Game
Super Mario 3D Land proved the shot in the arm the 3DS needed. Who’d have thought?
The richness of its ideas – and how generous Nintendo are with the newfangled quirks and mechanics – is the key to Super Mario Land’s brilliance. The big N aren’t afraid to serve the player with exciting tools from the get go and they keep the changes arriving in a torrent throughout the course of the game. Its use of 3D is novel – the third dimension more than just a surface gimmick here – and it caters perfectly to a new generation of handheld gamers accustomed to the quick thrills of Angry Birds or Canabalt without selling the Mario legacy short.
It is the ultimate go-between and unequivocal proof that traditional handheld games consoles needn’t crawl into the corner and curl up into a ball of self-pity.
9. Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games)
+ Honorable Mention: Best Audio Design
Was it terrifying? No. There’s only so many times a transmogrified Mr. Tickle can jump out from one of those not-even-remotely-concealed air vents and make you jump. But that’s okay. Dead Space 2 may not have packed the scares – at least not after that fraught opening ten minutes – but it was a bloody brilliant third person shooter set in a foreboding and moderately eerie space-city. I can’t get enough of Isaac Clarke’s ludicrous arsenal of eviscerating mining “tools” and the enemy design this time round was top notch. The space Velociraptors were a wonderful addition, perfectly complemented by that quasi-sniper rifle thing that proved so capable of blasting their prying heads open as they peeked around a corner. Oh, and that level in the pre-school? Boy, was that a screamer.
8. Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games)
Atom Zombie Smasher is a game that doesn’t shy away from the nasty side of the apocalypse. It’s a game about doing your best and then accepting that, for the most part, that’s simply not enough. There are no second attempts, there is no revert to checkpoint option, no time to ponder the morality of dropping an artillery shell on a preschool. The apocalypse sure is messy!
The victory screen is a red herring because whatever happens in Atom Zombie Smasher you can’t truly save the world from the gaping jaws of annihilation, not in the way that videogames traditionally let you. Here, you can only lessen the defeat. People will die, you’ll fail to save much of humanity and inflict levels of collateral damage on a sickeningly large scale. Huge chunks of the world will be lost to the beast of the apocalypse but it can’t be helped and Atom Zombie Smasher won’t slap you on the wrist for dropping an orbital nuke on a cluster of frightened 14 year olds. The apocalypse isn’t pretty but Atom Zombie Smasher knows this and it’s all the better for embracing that.
Its blow-by-blow account of the doomsday was refreshing and its two-tiered strategy gameplay voraciously compelling. I still play it now.
7. Uncharted 3 (Naughty Dog)
+ Best Visual Design
+ Honorable Mention: Best Original Score
Yeah so it didn’t quite live up to Drake’s second outing and, yes, the combat is still a but iffy and yeah there’s still too much of the shooty shooty stuff and, again, the times where the cast fade away and in their stead we’re left with Drake and a bunch of no-gooders, well they’re kind of a slog too… BUT. But but but but but but but. Drake and co. are marvellous company, the adventuring is second to none, the world Naughty Dog has fashioned is exotic and thrilling and brought to life superbly through its audiovisual mastery (there’s an excitement to be had in just waiting to see where they’ll chaperone Drake to next), the production values are through the fucking roof (those London vistas, that wonderful score) and the set pieces… Lordy. Those eye-popping, jaw-dropping, staggering set pieces. Never ones to rest on their laurels, some of the more explosive moments in Drake’s Deception simply have to be witnessed to be believed.
Naughty Dog tripped themselves when they made Among Thieves, it was probably too good. But even if they couldn’t quite match that, Drake’s Deception is still a doozie.
6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal)
My lasting memory of Human Revolution isn’t one of cyber-punks loitering in the murky bowels of a rain-drenched, perennially nighttime city or of stealthy assassinations or Adam Jenson’s dubious Batman impersonation. No, I recall the tale of The Shanghai Fridge Murderer. But that’s my tale, and you’ll have dozens of your own if you’ve played Human Revolution. See, that’s the beauty of it.
Eidos Montreal gave the player just the right amount of control to ensure Deus Ex’s dank, future dystopia felt lax enough that you were able to make a personal mark on it while never losing sight of its rather intriguing plot. Moody, enigmatic and enthralling, Human Revolution more than earned the Deus Ex moniker.
5. Bastion (Supergiant Games)
+ Best Original Score
The high point of another strong year for Xbox Live Arcade and one of the highlights of the gaming year fullstop. Full marks to Darren Korb for his “trip-hop acoustic” score that managed to again and again steal centre stage from a brilliant storyteller and such eye-pleasing art.
“Through shrewd yet spartan narration it works tirelessly to transform the ordinary into the surprising and it succeeds at this time and time again. Its world is one in which every tree, every statue and every charred, unfortunate corpse has a tale the narrator is aching to recount and to Supergiant’s credit you’ll want to listen to each and every one.”
“Ultimately it is the rich fiction that filters through into everything that combines to make Bastion tick; its many cogs merging to form a game of some artistry and one shot through with such pizzazz that you’ll pine for its elegiac world long after you leave it.”
I’m a bit of a fan.
4. Skyrim (Bethesda)
Bigger rarely means better in this industry but Bethesda practically has a freehold on the term. Skyrim was huge and, as tends to be the case with Bethesda’s sprawling RPGs, a filthy time sponge. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what the devil was going on in its story because, despite pumping a good 80 hours into the beast, I was following the narrative for all of about two of those. That’s not what Bethesda games are about though.
Skyrim is a game about exploration, carving your own trail and paving your own story through the realm. It’s totally water-cooler gaming but that’s often the most powerful kind. I shared countless stories with others in a little Skyrim clique; The Tale of the Giant’s Den or that time a bear fought a dragon (it didn’t win, obviously) or that time I fought two dragons at once under a moonlight sky (I did win) or the time an orphan proclaimed me a hero for killing the closest thing he had to a mother.
I spent hours and hours selling pointless trinkets and other assorted bullshit to fences in the Thieves Guild and, when the rational segment of my brain began screaming ‘WHY?’, I couldn’t answer. Why was I scouring every nook and cranny of every stinking dank cave for gold coins when I had some 100,00 of the damn things? Why did I insist on walking everywhere when I could fast travel? Why did I always agree to help people that couldn’t give a soaring shit whether or not I drowned in a pool of my own internal fluids, so long as I did so after I played mailman for them. Nobody is your friend in Skyrim but everyone wants a favour. It is the ultimate abusive relationship. Save our world but don’t you dare steal that carrot.
And yet I’ll play it for hours, quietly resisting that nagging tune: WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY YOU ARE YOU WASTING YOUR ONE AND ONLY LIFE ON THIS YOU FUCKING MORON? Perhaps a psychologist would have a better name for it, but I like to call it The Besthesda Effect. It’s perfectly natural.
3. Bulletstorm (People Can Fly)
Back in April I opened my Bulletstorm review with some classy hyperbole: ‘Bulletstorm has just about rescued single player first person shooters from the clutches of tedium.’ Strong claim but nine months on I disagree with only one aspect of it: “just about”. In another year brimming with me-too first person shooters, Bulletstorm stands out not because it’s a damn sight more colourful (and has a damn sight more colourful language) than most of the competition, but because it actually adds something meaningful to a blueprint that has been gathering dust of late.
Without the leash Bulletstorm would have been another competent first person shooter; a beefy first person Gears of War with a comedy-cast but not a whole lot else to set it apart from the splurge of paradigm shooters trudging about in 2011. With the leash, however, Bulletstorm is the most exciting first person shooter to come about since Portal. YAY MORE HYPERBOLE. I mean it though. The leash transformed the entire game into a frenzied score attack session that had you going to great lengths to murder people in ever more ludicrous ways. Kicking a numpty into a cactus was easy enough, but using an explosive hot dog stand to maim a boss proved rather tricky. That was the fun of it though, and pulling off the more eccentric executions was acutely satisfying. You just can’t say that for many shooters anymore.
It takes the achievement-orientated traits of the current generation and converts that into its greatest asset. The seemingly endless list of murder-methods was woefully addictive and ticking them all off gave you a damn fine reason to experiment with the many zany weapon combinations and that wonderful sliding kick.
Ribald and puerile on the outside, game design ingenuity within.
2. Portal 2 (Valve)
+ Honorable Mention: Best Audio Design
I can’t abide the idiom but Portal 2 was indisputably an embarrassment of riches. Its roster of characters – Wheatley, GLaDOS, Cave Johnson – exuded a level of charm and charisma foreign to the majority of videogames and its tale of hoodwinking robots and the history of Aperture Science was riveting from start to end.
Perhaps best of all, Valve weren’t too quick to let its sequel slip back into the eb and flow of Portal. When it eventually did find familiar ground the formula was refreshed with new tricks and quirks which surprised and delighted time and time again. These weren’t gimmicks but meaningful additions to an already mesmerizing take on the most tired of genres and the new features had a gloriously childlike playfulness to them – the go-faster and bouncy-castle goo perhaps the best of the bunch.
And then, of course, there was the co-op campaign.
Portal was a game that required no sequel. Its self-contained narrative stood alone and Valve had the smarts to pack it all in before the mechanics grew weary. It was a stellar piece of work. Portal 2 doesn’t quite reach the same giddy heights but it did make all my naysaying thoughts seem ridiculous in hindsight.
1. Saints Row The Third (Volition, Inc)
Saints Row The Third is honed and geared entirely towards a generation of ADD sufferers. Barely a moment slips by where Volition aren’t doling out new weapons or toys and these only get more and more eccentric as the game progresses. Saints 3 kicks-off with a bank robbery gone-wrong, follows that up with a slew of firefights on a plummeting passenger-plane before ramping up the ante again and again throughout the course of a lengthy campaign.
The raft of activities sat alongside that campaign proved better still. The best, the Professor Genki activities, are a neat little riff on SEGA’s criminally overlooked The Club and have you darting through a series of guarded rooms, racking up high scores based on stylishly murdering mascots. It’s a brilliant little diversion and Volition obviously know that – the first proper piece of DLC promises a whole lot more of it.
Its eclectic cast were curiously likeable for a ragtag band of murdering reprobates and the biggest compliment I can pay it is a comparison to the marvellous Crackdown. Both games take something as paradigmatic as travelling and turn that into one of their strongest features. When the most fundamental aspect of videogaming is also perhaps the best part of your game you’ve done something very, very right.
It’s ludicrous but never pointlessly so, with everything so precisely orchestrated that you don’t even notice it, but the amount of work Volition must have dedicated to ensuring every aspect of Saints Row The Third was an absolute joy was surely huge. It’s playful, generous, rarely – if ever – aggravating and bloody good fun.
In a year rampant with games leaning ever more toward being the serious business, Saints Row The Third was the perfect retreat. And it finally ditched those GTA-clone shackles too. Hoozah!
Other Honorable Mentions: Rayman Origins (Best Visual Design), Shadows of the Damned (Best Original Score).