Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Best of 2011 (so far).

I reserve the right to change my mind about anything in this post, come the year-end Best of roundup.

2011 is officially half-over, and the fist six months have continued the trend in recent years of seeing high-quality, high-profile titles releasing shortly after or well away from the Holiday rush. If you've been holding off buying this game or that one - locked in an internal war of indecision - I'm here to help.

Here's what's worth knowing about the PS3 games that are worth knowing about from January to June of 2011. Now, I'm afraid I can only advise you on the games I've played - and in order to do so fairly, I'm going to limit myself to the games I've played and finished this year. Sorry, Mass Effect 2 - I just didn't care enough to see you through to the end (so far).

Here are the games up for consideration.

I know, twelve games doesn't seem that much. I've spent a great deal of time this year going through my backlog. I've actually managed to review an even twenty at this point - so I'm well on my way to kicking the crap out of 2010's high water mark of twenty three reviews.

Good lord. That's one review every 9.2 days. Anyway - on to the games! First up - what sucked?

* * *

We expected a middling turn from Duke, but the meeting of Team Bondi (The Getaway) and Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption) should have been nothing less than a blazing light of awesome, from which we mere mortals should avert our eyes lest they be seared from our skulls.

What we got was an incredibly gorgeous game with wonderful performances by top actors in which nothing actually felt natural and little felt real. With great characters, a wonderful story, mediocre action gameplay and arbitrary, frustrating adventure game elements, L.A. Noire is the world's smallest violin - very beautiful, very unique and a pain in the ass to actually play.

first runner-up : Duke Nukem Forever
second runner-up : Dragon Age II

* * *

Alice: Madness Returns has a pretty robust list of areas which lack, but one thing it's never short on is visual creativity. The twisted wonderland you explore is simply spectacular, but even the "real" world Alice stumbles through to get there is rich with detail and loving craftsmanship. Your enemies are the weirdest this side of Shin Megami Tensei, and Alice herself is an explosion of style. The game's wonderful visual eye stretches from little biting bolts with wings to the menu system - it's never anything less than a thrill for your rods and cones.

first runner-up : Dead Space 2
second runner-up : Dragon Age II
third runner-up : inFamous 2

* * *

This was the tightest race on the list. inFamous 2 is in last place when it comes to quantity of voice work - Dragon Age II and L.A. Noire both have fantastic performances from nearly their entire (huge) casts, and a monumental amount of writing that is often very sharp. The player is hard-pressed not to become involved in the narratives, but it's also very clear that there's something last-gen going on, there.

In other games this year, it's obvious that (during a conversation) Actor A is sitting in a studio by themselves, responding to dialogue that Actor B recorded separately (likely not even hearing Actor B's work). This often results in conversations that feel very unreal - there's no back-and-forth reaction to each performer's tone, inflection, et cetera.

inFamous 2 sidesteps that pitfall by adhering to the Uncharted 2 school of voice work - actors together, on a sound stage, blocking out their scenes as if for a play. There's an easy, natural delivery to the cutscenes in inFamous 2 that the other contenders lack - and while the game may not have the quantity of its competitors, it excels in human, relateable quality.

first runner-up : Dragon Age II
second runner-up : L.A. Noire
third runner-up : Portal 2

* * *

A good half-dozen games thus far have had absolutely top-notch presentation in 2011. Killzone 3's mastery of technology is unparallelled and L.A. Noire may have felt a bit sparse, but it always looked incredible. Likewise, inFamous 2 is nothing less than a massive leap over Sucker Punch's last turn at bat - one of the few games where I actually just stop and stare because the sky is so gorgeous.

Dead Space 2 pulls ahead of the pack mostly because it's a lot easier to spoon-feed gamers a series of spectacles in a linear experience - the camera often turning just so to elicit a gentle gasp. With excellent tech, exemplary art direction, a keen eye for dramatic use of light, a wonderfully well-realized fiction, total lack of loading screens, strong voice work and Dead Space's trademarked "holographic" HUD, no game this year has offered the total package to the degree of Dead Space 2. It's nothing less than a roller-coaster from beginning to end.

first runner-up : inFamous 2
second runner-up : L.A. Noire
third runner-up : Killzone 3
fourth runner-up : Portal 2

* * *

Quite a few titles thus far have had wonderful, comfortable, involving and balanced mechanics - but none have approached inFamous 2 for the ability to thoroughly absorb the player in the business of simply playing. When you slip into this game hours dissolve, time disappears and you find yourself flying from rooftops, blasting across a cityscape and flinging lightning with gleeful abandon.

It is, at its core, just a platformer with third-person shooting - but that doesn't even begin to describe the experience. It is nothing less than the best platformer on the current gen. Combine that with great, unusual-yet-comfortable shooting and this is a no-contest category. No game this year is as fun to just play as inFamous 2.

first runner-up : Portal 2
second runner-up : Dead Space 2
third runner-up : Bulletstorm

* * *

Best writing : Portal 2, for being the funniest game in years, with sparkling dialogue that reveals deeper meaning on repeat playthroughs.

Best game that reminded me of playing with toys as a child : Stacking, for reminding me of what it felt like to play with toys as a child.

Best graphics tech : Killzone 3, for looking fabulous.

Best dick jokes (tie) : Bulletstorm and Shadows of the Damned. Runner-up : Duke Nukem Forever., there were a lot of dick-joke games this year, eh?

Best music : inFamous 2, for its incredible dual-nature soundtrack. Runner-up : Portal 2, for its incredible sound-effects-mix soundtrack.

* * *

Portal 2 leaves the player with almost nothing to complain about. As a triple-A puzzle game, it is totally unique. As a video game comedy, it is (almost) in a league of its own. As a Valve-developed title, it has been playtested to the ends of the Earth to ensure it is only ever as challenging as is required to grant maximum satisfaction on the part of the player. Like the next two games, it is only ever a pleasure to play - and it boasts one of the single best final hours of gaming I've ever enjoyed.

A supernaturally well-crafted experience with a similarly special co-op campaign, if you missed Portal 2, you have done yourself a huge disservice.

Dead Space 2 is a total-package game. It is triple-A all the way, with amazing music, art direction, voice work, graphics and even menus that exist organically within the game world. Like our other contenders here, it is most of all thoughtfully constructed - nearly always bent to the aim of freaking the hell out of the player.

It's also perfectly well-tuned in terms of gameplay and mechanics. A joy to play, a thrill to experience and one of the most satisfying ending cutscenes in years, Dead Space 2 is a must-play, must-own game.

What it all comes down to is that inFamous 2 is easily the most fun I've had with any game this year. That's it. It's just an incredibly enjoyable game, when it comes to play.

The rest? Well, the rest is a list of things I love. It certainly doesn't hurt that the presentation is an astounding leap over what Sucker Punch put forward with inFamous in 2008. I love the music, I love Cole's animations, I love the simple, satisfying melee and I love the endings - particularly the evil rout, which is an emotional and visual spectacular the likes of which I cannot recall.

I could go on and on about all the ways this game turns me on, but the most efficient rout is to simply say that inFamous 2 is far and away the best game of 2011.

So far.

1 comment:

  1. Hm. I just noticed that the three best games so far are all sequels. A shame so much of L.A. Noire was so sucky.