Sunday, December 25, 2011

Luke's Top Ten Video Games of 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, break out your formal finery because I am here to heartily welcome you to Obligatory Online Faux Awards Season (OOFAS)! The shiftless team here at Fruitless Pursuits are dangerously dedicated to bombarding you with our ill-educated, frustrating, and sometimes controversial opinions on the bestest pop entertainment of 2011. Many of us will be posting our own Top Ten (or thereabouts) lists, and that will culminate at the end of the month with the inaugural Fruitless Pursuits Awards where we will be picking the very best of the best as a site.

Well, I am going to kick things off with my biggest and most important list - my Top Ten Video Games of 2011. I played A LOT of stuff, much of which I enjoyed so this was a really tough one to whittle down. I have put far too much time and thought into this, so you are both a bounder and a vagabond if you do not join me after the jump to read my iron-clad judgements of the year!

Firstly a disclaimer. Here are a few games I didn't play, so you won't see any of these in my list: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 (although I bought it - I just haven't played it yet), Deus Ex, Rage, Crysis 2, Bastion. I will probably pick up most of these stragglers in the next month or two.

And now... my Top Ten Video Games of 2011!

10. DC Universe Online
A massively multiplayer online role-playing game set in the expansive DC universe sounds like a fantastic idea. And it is. For a little while. Unfortunately the multiplayer interaction is prohibitively difficult on the Playstation and, as a solo quester, I eventually found myself with little to do. But I can't deny the joy I had creating my own outlandish heroes and villains and beating the shit out of comic history's finest. I played a patriotic American called Screaming Eagle, who had huge feathered eagle wings and gunned down apes on a beach with a machine-gun. It doesn't get much better than that.

It's free-to-play now and I'm sure that there's been plenty of refinements and improvements in the expanded content. I'd love to dip my thigh-high boot of violent justice back in there, but did I mention this game requires a 15gb + download and install straight out of the box!? My overstuffed old model Playstation just isn't going to accommodate that. Still, it was fun while it lasted.

9. Bulletstorm
I was so pleasantly surprised by the surprisingly unpleasant Bulletstorm, a puerile, dick-joke laced sci-fi shooter that is completely over-the-top with its story, characters, mechanics and visuals. You'll be grappling enemies with a space whip, smashing them into spiked plants and fences, and shooting them square in the date for bonus points. You also get to slide along the floor like a maniac while shooting wildly. There are so many douchey things that you can do, and you'll enjoy every one of them.

But the best part about this game is that is never gets predictable. It is constantly hurling all manner of surprises (and debris) in your direction, like your stint controlling the mechanical Godzilla monster in the miniature city, or your exhilarating escape from the giant wheel. It never had the hype or recognition of shooters like Gears of War 3, but I have to admit that Bulletstorm was my favourite. 

8. Dragon Age 2
There are so many things to criticize in this rushed city-bound rpg with its depressingly repetitive game-play and environments. A shadow of its expansive predecessor it rubbed a lot of former fans the wrong way and I don't think you'll see it appear on too many lists. I share all those frustrations too, and yet there are enough things I love to outweigh the bad.

The strength is of course the characters, and your blossoming (or deteriorating) relationships with your companions. Bioware are experts at making you care about the choices you make and how they affect those around you, and I felt completely invested in my story and that I owned it. I was particularly invested in buxom pirate wench Isabela who distressingly manipulated my emotions and ran out on me on more than one occasion. When I rebounded and slept with naive elf Merrill, only to have to sheepishly dump her afterwards, I felt so genuinely awful that it's hard to believe these characters are just polygons on a screen. I'd still jump with joy for a Dragon Age 3, so I'd be a dirty damn liar to omit this from my list. 

7. InFamous 2
Is it incredibly similar to InFamous 1? In many ways, yes, but this series is so much electricity-spewing superhero fun that I was more than happy to re-immerse myself in this world. It's a great example of a game that gives you a large and varied toolbox of abilities and then creates a fantastic playground for you to explore and unleash them in.

It plays like someone mashed up GTA with the good parts of Spider-Man and the Force Unleashed. Traversing the huge city is a joy, and it never gets dull thanks to a lot of hard to reach collectibles - a mechanic that Batman probably owes some credit to.

6. Saints Row 3
Saints Row knows that when you get into an open world game you are going to be a douche, so it works hard to set up as many opportunities as possible to let you act like one.I can use civillians as shields, I can hurl them in front of oncoming vehicles, I can attach spikes to the wheels of my car, I can drive with a tiger, bludgeon enemies with a dildo, or take off all my clothes for some comical streaking challenges. This games understands me. It knows everything I want to do!

But what I enjoy most of all is the level of customization. I always feel far more loyal to a game if it allows me to shape my world. I spent my first hours in-game just buying clothes, getting tattoos and pimping out my (stolen) car. There's a point early on where you and your NPC passenger start singing along to a song on the radio while bullets and explosions rain down upon you. It's such a pure and beautiful moment and instantly sold me on the reckless fun I was about to have!

5. Dark Souls
An apologetically difficult rpg that demands precision and perfection, and ruthlessly punishes you for any mistake. It's a nerve-wrecking, even frustrating, experience, but the scope of the world and the crazy design of the dauntingly powerful (and plentiful) boss battles is enough to keep you trying and trying again. It's a rare and unique experience that defies the hand-holding of the modern blockbuster and instils you with palpable dread.

I've really barely scratched the surface, but it always makes me tingle with nervous anticipation when I think about the arduous, soul-crushing journey ahead. I keep watching youtube clips of ridiculously difficult future boss battles and it totally makes me piss.

4. Portal 2
Portal 2 is a complete package where a great story, hilariously-written and memorable characters, breathtaking visuals, and the most mindbendingly innovative mechanics of all time, combine to create one of the best gaming experiences of the year. The opening is fantastic. The ending is fantastic. The middle is fantastic It also features one of the most enjoyable co-op modes I've ever played. So why isn't it number one on a lot of these lists?

The one failing of Portal 2 is that everyone in the game is hilarious except you. You're a silent observer, and I think that gamers got more joy out of becoming Batman, or a murderous viking, rather than being relegated to a lab rat in a maze. If Portal could inject more of the player and their choices into the mix, then it could very well be a perfect game.

Still, it's full of surprises and gave me many wonderous moments where I found myself saying, "Wait... you want me to do WHAT?!" There's some occasional head-scratching, but it always ends with a genuine sense of accomplishment.

3. Batman Arkham City
A near-perfect Batman simulator which bursts open the claustrophobic confines of the first game and greatly expands upon it, allowing you to lord over a twisted and wondrous city. There's a deep and often unexpected rogue's gallery to take care of, but the best part is always the Batman himself, and the power you feel traversing from rooftop to rooftop or attacking and blocking amidst a multitude of thugs.

If you can forgive the filler (like, the painfully slow and predictable ice platform sequences) then the main storyline is solid, the side missions are varied and well integrated, and there's plenty of stuff to explore and collect. I also love it when the story completely goes off the rails too - in the last game we were treated to the nightmare Scarecrow sequences and this time we get the Blood of the Demon world and a surprise tea party.

And did I mention Catwoman? I dig this incarnation of the character and considering she's got her own move-set and method of travel, I hope we get to play even more of her in future DLC.

2. Skyrim
No, it's not number one, but it's oh so close. A near perfect game where you take on the persona of a dragon-pounding, blood-soaked viking and have an entire world at your magic-laced fingertips. The massive scope of Skyrim and your freedom to explore the content in any order and at your own pace, creates an incredibly personal custom experience that you'll be compelled to keep coming back to. I loved Batman, but that was a ten hour experience that dragged its feet a times - compare to Skyrim which remains as compelling 100+ hours into the game.

I've become a bard, an assassin, a werewolf, a thief, married the cute red-haired assistant from the Hag's Cure, murdered my elf nemesis, and filled my Riften home with many, many delicious cheese wheels. I've force-pushed my unsuspecting companion off a mighty cliff and laughed until I felt sick, and then a little guilty. In any other year this would easily be number one for me - my only real gripe is the dialogue interface, which is one of those things that rival Bioware gets right.

Speaking of Bioware...

1. The Old Republic
Yeah, I'm a huge Star Wars fan, and I'm a huge MMORPG fan, and I've been practically living in the Old Republic universe for the last week. I'm Radler Sleazebaggano, a level 38 bounty hunter, with a retro Slave-One inspired ship, a hearty crew, a jetpack and a wrist-mounted flame-thrower and, to be honest you guys, it is all I've ever wanted!

The Old Republic brilliantly combines addictive World of Warcraft mechanics with engrossing Mass Effect style conversations and storytelling. Every line of dialogue is recorded and you shape your character's personality in ways that have never been touched upon in this kind of game. I've watched my bounty hunter organically evolve from a naive, do-gooder, trying to right the wrongs of the galaxy, to hardened, uncaring killer. I stopped trying to impress the hot but over sympathetic Mako, and started rolling with the ruthless, opportunistic devil-man Gaunt. We've brought leaders of Hutt clans to their non-existent knees, ignoring their chubby pleas and collecting big by blasting them to chunks.

And for the first time in a MMORPG I'm enjoying the PVP content and actually holding my own in the arena battles. If you think that the Jedi are overpowered, then you haven't had the joy of unleashing surprise rockets, electricity or flames at them when they attempt to bail you up at close quarters. The bounty hunter is a box of tricks that would make Batman proud. And all the classes I've played so far are equally enjoyable. I have a Sith Inquisitor, a Jedi Knight and a Trooper all waiting in the wings. 

I would be a lying criminal asshole if I didn't give the number one spot to Old Republic, as this is the game I am going to spend a ridiculous amount of time with over the next year or so. I even bought an MMO mouse with 12 keys that I hammer with my thumb. Now that's dedication!

Honorable Mentions
And as this was such a great year for games, I have to give some quick honourable mentions to the almost-made-its:

Little Big Planet 2 - Brilliant, innovative game on every level. I just haven't spent the required time on it yet to put it up there. Exploring the game creation component is on my list as a holiday activity.

Uncharted 3 - I love the Uncharted series and this has some jaw-dropping set-pieces, but as great as it was it just didn't stick with me. More a movie than a game at times, I felt like I was watching Nathan Drake, but not involved in his decision making.

Gears of War 3 - a satisfying and intense third chapter but again, was just not as personal or involving as other games. I'm beginning to get a little weary of the scripted cinematics. Haven't tried multi-player yet though, and that might change everything. And like, I said, Bulletstorm was better!

LA Noire - I respect the innovation here, but it doesn't hold up over time. Once you've done a handful of missions it all gets a bit repetitive and I just couldn't force myself back into it once I'd left it for a while.

Now argue it out in the barren comments section, and be sure to look out for our other contributors lists in the very near future!

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