Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011 - biggest surprise.

I'm not talking about industry surprises.  Sony's TV that allows you to do split-screen without actually splitting the screen?  That's a surprise.  The lackluster software lineup on the 3DS?  Shocking!  But no, I'm talking about surprising games.

Every year has titles that end up flipping our expectations on their heads, for weal or woe.  These are titles that we had a certain faith in, one way or another - and ended up being proven entirely wrong about.


...for having exemplary gameplay in what looked like
a by-the-numbers schlocky shooter.

...for struggling in the one area Uncharted has always
excelled - writing, and gameplay pacing.

honorable mentions

Nobody expected Duke Nukem Forever to really go toe-to-toe with Call of Duty, Halo, Killzone or BioShock - but we weren't expecting this.

It makes perfect sense that it's so awful, of course.  This game's development cycle was dangerously close getting a driver's license, and you can see where that time went - they just kept picking up mechanics from the past ten years of shooters and throwing them into the mix, without stopping to consider if the product of this steaming chanpuru is actually any fun.  Forever is an ugly mess of parts pillaged from better games, roughly sewn together by a substance-abusing surgeon and given an defibrillating shock of life from Gearbox Software. In terms of structure, mechanics, design and graphics it is basically irredeemable.

We didn't expect it to be great - but we didn't expect it to be so completely terrible.  Thank goodness it can be funny, from time to time.

Anyone who played American McGee's Alice eleven years ago was thrilled to learn that we would be returning to this twisted interpretation of Wonderland - but we knew that the game's spectacular art direction and dark narrative came at the price of capable platforming and combat.

American McGee's Alice was a lot of things, but it was rarely actually fun - and I certainly wasn't expecting Madness Returns to be any better.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered simple, fun, natural-feeling platforming and slick, streamlined, savage combat.

Madness Returns may not be a total-package game, but - excruciatingly slow pacing aside - it's a much less guilty pleasure than the original title.

This wouldn't even be on the list if it wasn't produced and published by Rockstar Games - undisputed masters of the open-world genre.

Yes, it was developed by (the now-shuttered) Team Bondi, but we expect only the best from Rockstar, particularly when it comes to sandbox games - imagine our shock when we discovered a sandbox that we're not actually permitted to play in.  Mediocre shooting, tedious brawling, infuriatingly arbitrary interrogations and fun driving that penalizes you for actually putting beautiful 1940s cars through their paces makes L.A. Noire the worst sandbox game I've played since The Incredible Hulk - a grand, ambitious, gorgeous bore.

How could you, Rockstar?  Ugh.  It's like I can still taste it.


Sucker Punch famously said that they intended the leap in quality from inFamous to inFamous 2 to match the difference between Uncharted and Uncharted 2.  Who imagined they would exceed it?

This studio has always had a very firm grasp of gameplay - particularly platforming - and while their story presentation and cutscenes were perfectly acceptable back on the PS2, inFamous's story presentation was half-decent (animated comic art) or abysmal (in-engine cutscenes).

With inFamous 2, Sucker Punch took their cues from Naughty Dog and delivered some of the best voice work and story presentation of the year.  Between the game's graphical overhaul, a new emphasis on character, natural-feeling performances and cutscene animation that matches Uncharted's gold standard,  inFamous 2 absolutely shattered my understanding of what Sucker Punch is capable of - and redefined what I expect from them in the future.

Look out, Sony Santa Monica.

biggest surprise
of 2011

Let's ignore, for a moment, that Dead Island is a pretty-great title from the folks who brought us the totally-mediocre Call of Juarez franchise.  That's unexpected, but forget about it.

Let's not discuss how the actual game Dead Island has nearly nothing in common with the incredible trailer that kicked off its hype train - delivering on almost none of what was promised within.

No, Dead Island is the biggest surprise of 2011 because - counter to everything I expected from developer Techland, contrary to everything I knew about first-person games - it is a first-person title with absolutely sublime melee combat.

Prior to Dead Island, I would have told you it wasn't possible.  Well, maybe I wouldn't have gone that far - maybe I simply would have said that no one, ever, had made a first-person melee system that was actually, significantly fun.

Techland has - and I'll never shrug and accept less again.

Once, I tried to explain the combat to some of Blue's friends.

"There's like, four zombies coming at you, right?  You could just kick them and make them back off a little, but if you jump and kick, you're smacking them at a higher angle.  This will put a zombie right into the ground.

While the first one's down, turn to the next one - kick it in the chest to stagger it, and thwip - cut off its head.

Turn to the one you jump-kicked.  It's getting back up.  Kick it in the ass and put it back down.

Turn to the next one.  Jump-kick it into the dirt.  Face the last one coming up on you - maybe it got too close, and you find yourself flailing for a second.  Shing - off goes its arm - swak - off with his head.

The first one his getting up again.  Target its head, press kick, and you'll crush its skull.  The last one is trying to come to its feet.  Kick it in the ass, and it splays back into the dirt.  Bring your weapon down.

That's combat in Dead Island."

Blue's friend turned to him.  "Is he just super-excited or is that actually..."

"No, that's actually a pretty perfect description of what it's like," Blue assured him.

"It is - when your cool is kept - elegant, practiced, and deliciously savage. When a pack of six zombies rush you and you walk away without a scratch, a bloody mess in your wake, it's one of the most satisfying, rewarding feelings I've had with a Dualshock."
-from the review-
Dead Island, through its superlative combat, has damaged my ability to enjoy other titles that attempt what this game has utterly mastered.  I'm sorry, Skyrim, but never again will I accept first-person melee combat that's anything less than excellent.   Techland has shown how unfortunate first-person melee has always been in other games, and redefined what I am prepared to accept in the future.  They have added a significant tool to the perspective's repertoire - a feat unmatched since DICE's contribution to first-person platforming in 2008.

It is nothing short of a revelation, and easily the biggest - and most welcome - surprise of the year.


  1. Awesome lead-in pic! Cloudy with a Chance... is seriously under-rated. I have to disagree with Duke Nukem and inFamous 2. I thoroughly expected one to be awful and the other to be fantastic. The biggest surprise for me of 2011 was 2008's Saints Row 2. I knew it was going to be a blatant GTA clone, but I never would have guessed how much fun it is.

  2. I expected Duke Nukem to be fun, but not all-around great - and was shocked to find it wasn't even fun. As for inFamous 2, I was certain it would be entirely fun, with decent art direction - and didn't expect much elsewhere.

    I'm thrilled to see Sucker Punch making such strides.