Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011 - gameplay.

This, for me, is always the easiest category to call. That's not to say it's a shallow category - clever design, original mechanics, depth of play are all at work, behind the scenes - but it merely boils down to one question: is it fun?

That's not to say that many games missing from this list aren't fun - Skyrim, Deus Ex, Killzone 3, Alice and Shadows of the Damned are all fun and Dead Space 2 is an absolute blast - but you won't find them listed here. Here you will find games that, when you strip away all the window-dressing, all the context for your action, are games that are sublime in their moment-to-moment interactions with the player. Games that are remarkably fun.

In a climate of ever-increasing production values, clever hooks and annoying gimmicks, these are games that simply feel good in the hand. There is a comfort, here - something that is, dare I say, wholesome - that allows the player to effectively ignore the fact that they're playing something, and go a little zen.

As Bart Simpson said, be in the game - but not of the game.

Let's begin.

(and there's a lot of 'em)

You spend half your time in Catherine watching animated cutscenes and negotiating dialogue trees - but the other half is some off-the-wall block-pushing puzzle-platforming shenanigans. As a general rule I don't pursue puzzle games, but Catherine's glossy coat of context and wrist-snapping puzzle play proves strangely thrilling.
"By the time I was nearing the end of the game, the nightmare sequences were both intimidating, fear-inducing monsters of challenge and deeply pleasurable, elegant, meditative exercises. As I wrote this review, I kept hoping I'd come up with a better analogy, but this is the best I've got - everything prior to the end of the game is a montage in which Rocky punches beef carcasses and chugs raw eggs, and the last few stairs are Appollo Creed.

You are Rocky Balboa. You have punched all the cows as drunk all the eggs - and you are ready. You have learned all the tricks and mastered the techniques. When you step into that final ring, yanking, hanging from and pushing blocks has become a second-nature, lightning-fast martial art."

Rage's narrative may have been nonexistent and its much-touted mexatexture tech may have been a bit of a missed step, but it's hard to suggest its first-person shooting offered anything but delicious, comfortable play. Your weapons feel weighty and vital, and just dealing with its clever, bouncing, lethal enemies over the barrel of a gun was a surprisingly old-school pleasure.

Meanwhile, Bulletstorm stepped into the guilty-pleasure shoes left unfilled by Duke Nukem before blowing them off with a four-barreled shotgun. Unlike most first-person shooters, Bulletstorm seems to intentionally break with the cardinal goal of immersion in pursuit of its freakish skillshot system. Whereas, in other first person shooters, your primary goal is simply surviving the onslaught of the enemies hunting you, in Bulletstorm it is to kick the crap out of these guys in the most creative and visually spectacular way possible by leveraging weapons like a grenade-flail launcher, a ground-pounding energy whip and the ability to kick dudes in the face and off a cliff or, say, into a giant cactus.

And yes, it is as fun as that sounds.

Where Catherine's action-puzzling is a lightning-fast, twitchy affair, Portal 2 is less concerned with introducing the early symptoms of arthritis as it is in dancing across your brain pan like a summer rain.

Valve are supernaturally skilled at introducing and layering mechanics at a clip that is constantly, perfectly expanding your toolset. You are often intimidated by the impossible rooms Portal 2 asks you to solve - your lack of understanding teetering uneasily on the brink of frustration before your lenses of thought settle into place and the answer snaps into focus like an old 3D-eye poster. How could I not have seen it before?

Portal 2 offers more 'eureka!' moments than any game this year.

The fact that, in executing the solution you discovered, you jump off hundred-foot towers to shoot into a quantum space hole which will fire you into across an otherwise impassable chasm is just icing on the cake.

Arkham City is a much more elegant cobbling of mechanics than its predecessor. Comfortable, open-world gliding and platforming move way upstage, here, standing proudly just behind the game's centerpiece of kicking the hell out of thirty goons at once.
" one else has ever done combat in the same way as Rocksteady's Batman. It is mechanically unique - which alone should exclude it from success - but it's intensely pleasant, and wonderful to watch.

It's all too rare, that that can be said of a game. It's so different, yet it succeeds. Batman's combat is deeply different - mechanically, emotionally unique - while managing to be exceedingly fun, flashy and rewarding. Rocksteady deserves a standing ovation for that alone."

honorable mentions

I wasn't exactly easy on Uncharted 3 in the review - in fact, I took it to task for spending too much time away from "its cornerstone cover-based shooting" - but that doesn't meanUncharted 3 doesn't have phenomenal cover-based shooting.
"The franchise's shooting has never been so refined and rewarding, with vicious enemies sporting heavy calibers and eagle eyes. Once one is deeply comfortable with all the mechanics Uncharted 3 offers, its shootouts become an incredible action movie simulator with a great deal of depth for those who would seek greater understanding of its systems."
Uncharted 3's combat is breathless, and beautiful. It's so finely-tuned that, if you find yourself not entirely focused on the task of survival, it will kick you right in the nuts and push you overboard. It's viciously fast-paced, with gunshots and grenades coming at you from all angles - but built into it are all these delicious tools to pull off some awesome sequences.

When you're surrounded by goons, all spitting bullets and explosives, your screen splattered in red against a monochrome view, you may be struck by momentary panic. A grenade slaps into the sand next to you, and Drake gasps "oh no no no" before you nail the perfect timing on a toss-back - "present for ya!" and the explosive sails right where you aimed it, into the face of a nearby shield-wielding beast. With that taken care of, you leap from cover, spraying wild lead in one direction while running in the other to take a flying leap at an unawares foe and crack him in the jaw with your mighty Uncharted-dude fist. Grab his ammo. Take cover. Take aim. Make this one count.

Uncharted 3 - thanks in no small part to deeply thoughtful mechanics and fantastically responsive controls - is quite possibly the best action-movie simulator I've ever seen.

Dark Souls does not, at first, impress upon you that it is an action game. Its weapons, with their seemingly bare-bones variety of attacks, doesn't seem to offer enough options for offense. Its restrictive weight system - which will slow you to heavy, plodding gait when decked out in plate - seems to flatly punish you for wanting defense against its nightmare creatures.

So it seems - but it's not asking too much, you'll find. It simply has some rather realistic and well-defined rules. Rules like, for example, a heavy sword takes longer to swing than a tiny one, and it can't, say, cut through a wall, but will instead uselessly clang off the stonework.

It expects you to figure this out right quick. 'Cause if you don't, it'll kill you.

Instead of handing you the ability to kick the crap out of an army, it asks you to first get really, really good at killing just one tiny enemy - who will, if you let it, rip your head off and throw it from a cliff.

"I did it!" you'll proclaim proudly. "He didn't touch me!"

Good, Dark Souls will say in return. Now kill two at once. And that will shut you right up. The game builds on its expectations of you - and soon, your expectations of yourself - until you are consistently, repeatedly achieving what once seemed impossible.
"Dark Souls is a hard teacher. Cruel, even - but never unfair. It will crush and maim and burn you. It will eat you and impale you - and gently suggest you get it right next time - and when you come out the other side, you are not a frightened and abused little knight, trembling at the dark.

You stand proud, your feet planted firmly - a trusted piece of steel gripped tight. You have seen the worst this beautiful and terrible world has to offer, and you have defeated it.

You can defeat anything. You had a great teacher."


There are two games this year which, upon completing them, I had to use the word "fun" about fifteen times in each attempt to explain my position. Dead Island - badly-written, poorly-voiced, graphically sub-par with its infuriating system of auto-saves - is one of them, thanks to its deliriously delicious combat.

Ever since I first shot mecha-Hitler in Wolfenstein 3D almost twenty years ago, I've been waiting for a game that really nailed first-person melee combat. This, my friends, is it. It is so good, it takes what is usually the most boring part of many RPGs and turns it into the part you're constantly looking forward to.
"Here, one shrugs and accepts the amateurish narrative because it is the thing that permits you to wander off into its world and get in awesome fights with zombies - and these fights are awesome.

Lose your head and they are a frantic, panicked affair - desperately swinging your bludgeon at a swarm of grasping, cold and rotting hands that will tear you limb from limb in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Keep your cool and you are a grim reaper of dead souls.

You often see them long before they see you, and can plan your attack. Fools rush in, as they say, and staying alive is about staying in control of the situation. It's about managing the crazy, screaming, dashing Infected and the shambling Walkers. It's about jump-kicking a dude in the face before you turn around and bring your sledgehammer down on the head of a fallen, living corpse, giving you just enough time to turn a few more degrees and bash another killer into the dirt.

Don't stop. Stay in control. There's more coming. Bring that hammer down again.

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."
Dead Island has effectively redefined what I'm prepared to demand of any first-person game, never mind an open-world one. It is the game I'm constantly trying to convince people about - a special, thrilling experience I've discovered nowhere else.

First-person zombie bludgeoning. Who knew?

best gameplay
of 2011

"inFamous 2 may not be perfect, but it is without question the most fun I've had with a video game since... well, I'm actually having trouble thinking of an example."
-from the review-
Six months later, the above statement holds true. I wonder if it's a personal preference thing, but I am unable to conceive of the human being who can't adore the fundamental pleasures of a wonderful platformer - and this is the straight-up funnest platformer I've ever played.

Sucker Punch have been fine-tuning their mechanics since Sly debuted nine years ago, and launching one's self from a power line to slap into a rooftop, rolling to absorb the shock before emerging into a flat run and flying off the building to touch lightly down on a lamp post has never been more sublime.

There is something infinitely wholesome about these mechanics, and their slick, precise execution here. It just feels good to play it.

inFamous 2 brings to mind days long past, when one found themselves absorbed entire not in the spectacle or the story or the stats of a game's systems, but the act of playing. One can be consumed by inFamous 2's gleeful offer to just play. Just run around - this world is your jungle gym - and while you're up there, climbing around, you may as well chuck some balls of concentrated energy at evil-doers.

By combining their ultra-refined, gorgeously responsive platforming with crashy, flashy, impactful electric third-person shooting, Sucker Punch have crafted one of the greatest action experiences in recent memory.

It's a gorgeous, well-written, technologically impressive, artistically pleasing, beautiful-sounding triple-A title - but that's not why I love it so.

It's because inFamous 2 is easily the funnest game of 2011.


  1. I know, but there's never enough time! I've heard only great things about SR3 - things that make it sound like it would be right up my alley - but there's just too many games to care about >.<