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Gamasutra's Best Of 2011

Another year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact.

andre.jpg Another year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact. 

This mega-article, which comprises all of the text we've already spilled on these topics, contains contributions from Gamasutra's staff and contributors, including Kris Graft, Leigh Alexander, Brandon Sheffield, Simon Carless, Frank Cifaldi, Tom Curtis, Mike Rose, Eric Caoili, Chris Morris, and IndieGames.com's Tim W.

In the following article you will find everything from the biggest surprises, trends, and controversies to our outlook for the most exciting games of 2012 -- and much more besides. And if you have an eye for history (or just want to check our track record) you can revisit Gamasutra's Best of 2010, 2009's 'Top 5s' compilation, plus 2008's similar compendium and 2007's chart rundown.

Top 5 Major Industry Events

The dynamic video game industry never disappoints when it comes to major news events, and in 2011, choosing just five of the most meaningful events was as difficult as it's ever been.

That's because this year was filled with many instances worthy of note. There was drama, destruction, risk, death, disappointment, flashes of brilliance, moments of surprise and, above all, victory.

Whereas last year's major events did a fine job of bringing about questions, this year was able to provide at least some answers. Now we know where Nintendo is placing its hopes for its home console business, and that $250 is too much for a 3DS. Now we know that game companies can't take security for granted. And we also know that we won't be carded for an M-rated game anytime soon.

5. Steve Jobs's Death

For someone only ostensibly part of what we might define as the "video game industry," Apple's Steve Jobs had an enormous impact on the sector. It was his iPhone hardware that opened up new kinds of gameplay, the App Store and iTunes that gave game makers a new platform for wide distribution, and the iPad that opened up a tablet market that welcomes video games with open arms.

Steve Jobs passed away on October 5 this year after a fight with pancreatic cancer. It was his design genius that allowed Apple products to touch so many people and so many industries, including the gaming industry (one that he was an active part of earlier in his life).

It's true that there are intelligent capable people he left behind at Apple, and Jobs' death doesn't mean that the company can't still have considerable impact on the games industry. But we'll never know just how much further Jobs could've taken his vision, and how that might have influenced gaming.

4. Wii U Unveiled

As the only pure-play video game company in the big three, Nintendo's hardware unveilings are always big news. The way the company attacks the medium from unique angles has a special way of keeping us on the edge of our seats.

At E3 in June, the company put rumors to rest and gave a name to its next home console: "Wii U". Nintendo's next home console will be high-definition capable and backwards compatible, but most strikingly, the controller boasts a 6.2" touchscreen in between more traditional sticks and buttons.

As with the debut of the phenomenally successful Nintendo Wii, the Wii U's unveiling was cause for excitement, as well as questions. Would Nintendo finally be able to make both the mainstream and the core gamer happy? Will the games utilize the new control scheme in new, fun ways? Or will it just be a gimmick?

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata made a big statement when he told E3 attendees, "The new platform will provide you with deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has realized before and it will offer wider appeal to gamers, wider even then for Wii... It will let everyone see games in a different way."

3. 3DS' Rapid Price Drop

Months before launch, Nintendo appeared supremely confident that its next handheld gaming machine, the 3DS, would be a hit. There was little indication that it wouldn't be, as the device had generally received positive reviews from the press, and the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D effect wowed others who got a pre-release hands-on with the DS successor.

The March launch price of the machine reflected Nintendo's confidence: $250, or the same price as the Wii when it launched in 2006.

Nintendo's new handheld wouldn't hold that price for long. Sales were dropping rapidly and the company had to make the drastic decision to cut the price of the device. Four months after the U.S. 3DS launch, and five months after Japan's, Nintendo announced it would reduce the price of the handheld to $169.99 in the U.S., with similar price cuts worldwide.

If the 3DS' price cut is not the fastest and heftiest post-launch sales drop in video game history, it certainly is a top contender.

Nintendo eased the rage of early buyers by deeming them "Ambassadors," and giving them 20 free downloadable games playable on 3DS. The price drop took effect in August, and gave the handheld much-need traction. Now, with some strong holiday software titles, Nintendo says the 3DS is on track to beat first-year sales of the smash-hit DS, another Nintendo handheld that had a slow start.

2. PlayStation Network Breached

It's not uncommon for a network to have to go offline for a short period of time, due to technical difficulties. When Sony said in late April that PlayStation Network would be down for "a day or two," there wasn't much reason not to believe the company. This of course is Sony -- surely it has the resources to get the network up and running again, promptly.

But that wasn't the case. Rather than an outage that lasted just "a day or two," what appeared to be a technical snafu turned out to be a security breach of monumental proportions, as Sony announced that an "external intrusion" by unknown cyber assailants had compromised personal information of about 77 million registered PSN accounts, plus nearly 25 million Sony Online Entertainment accounts.

Sony had only partially restored major online functions to its network by mid-May, and it wasn't until six weeks later, in early June, that a full restoration would take place in the Americas and PAL territories, plus parts of Asia. Japan and the rest of Asia were fully restored in late May.

The event showed that even the world's largest companies aren't safe from hacking and other kinds of cyber attacks. Sony went on to add to its staff a "chief information security officer," and promised that security is now a "full-time commitment."

1. Video Games Are Protected Speech

Easily the biggest news for the video game industry was the validation by the highest court in the land that video games are protected speech.

The long-awaited, landmark ruling in June this year set a precedent for the government's role in the regulation of the video game industry, and helped place the video game industry on equal ground with other forms of media in terms of government regulation.

Games could continue to be self-regulated by the industry, and not treated by the government as pornography or some kind of addictive substance that's harmful to youth. Rather, the people who make games could enjoy the same creative freedoms as authors, playwrights and film directors.

The ruling tells politicians to think twice about penning unconstitutional laws, and using taxpayer money to initiate more moral crusades against the video game industry. Now we know that, according to Supreme Court of the United States of America, "Video games qualify for First Amendment protection."

Other notable industry events of 2011 included:

Sony unveils NGP/ PS Vita
Japan's devastating earthquake
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's big sales
Duke Nukem Forever actually launches
EA acquires PopCap
Adobe halts Flash player development for mobile browsers
Zynga files for major IPO


trend.jpg Top 5 Major Industry Trends

The games industry has a constant ebb and flow -- last year's rising trends might be this year's declining trends. For 2011, Gamasutra's Top 5 Major Industry Trends are all about the rise.

Whether it's technology that's gaining traction, unit sales that are defying gravity, or independent developers who are finding new ways to get the money to pursue their passion, 2011 was marked by growth, evolution and ingenuity.

5. HTML5 Buzz

More than any previous year, 2011 saw plenty of chatter over the potential of HTML5. While some companies pit HTML5 versus Flash in what they perceived as a zero sum game, others argued that competing technologies could coexist.

Game development on an open format web standard such as HTML5 is an enticing idea: Developers would only have to build their game once, and it would be inherently cross-platform, it's relatively easy to learn, and it's an alternative to Adobe-owned Flash.

But there are concerns -- even though game companies are jumping on board, HTML5 is still not finalized, and notable players in the games industry like Unity have said that the technology just isn't quite up to snuff yet for games.

Nevertheless, game companies this year have been acquiring game studios with HTML5 expertise, and the format got a vote of confidence from Adobe this year when the Flash owner said it would cease development of Flash for mobile browsers in favor of HTML5 for mobiles. Next year, expect the buzz and the debate to give way to more concrete answers to the future of HTML5.

4. Xbox 360's Sales Strength

Historically, hardware sales are supposed to be falling after five years on the market, not growing. And that's assuming your console can even last that long on the market. (Alas, poor Dreamcast.)

But Microsoft's Xbox 360 has endured and expanded its base in the U.S. during 2011. Not only that, but the Xbox 360 has managed to increase its reach while avoiding a proper price cut for years. A $200 model has been the baseline since September 2008, and except for retailer deals, it hasn't budged.

Consider this: the Xbox 360 actually increased its average selling price from $280 in June of this year to $306 in September. Simultaneously it handily outsold the rival PS3 whose average selling price had dropped to $271 on the back of a much-ballyhooed price cut.

It would be easy to ascribe record Xbox 360 sales as a direct result of Kinect, but the reality is more complex. The stickiness of Xbox Live and a stable of exclusive super-sellers like Gears of War and Halo have all contributed to Microsoft's increasing fortunes.

The PlayStation 3 has been a solid seller in 2011 too, but the Xbox 360 is a year older and is still managing to rack up strong numbers every month. It's not often, if ever, that the games industry sees a game console that achieves five years of successive growth in the U.S. -- and if this year's sales trend continues, you can make that six years.

3. A Maturing Social Games Space

Social games are beginning to show a certain level of maturity as the young space continues to evolve. While many social network games are still engineered to appeal peoples' compulsive nature, rather than their desire to do something fun, there are signs that this is changing.

There are more and more experienced game designers who are moving from the traditional game development space over to social games, bringing their expertise in "finding the fun" over to social, balancing out the metrics-focused bean-counters.

Publishers such as EA are aggressively targeting the core gamer via social networks, and independent startups, several founded this year, are also trying to woo the more traditional gamer and expand the audience.

This year, Facebook also announced major updates that could improve the overall social gaming experience for all players. And as the number of social games swells, developers are starting to realize they need to launch a quality game right off the bat, or else they're essentially doomed in this competitive marketplace.

We also noted last year the evolution of social gaming. But in 2011, the changes again can't be ignored. Now we see that social games are going everywhere, including mobile, and console games are also adopting social aspects. Major publishers who were once only reliant on packaged goods -- namely EA -- are now eyes-deep in social gaming. Zynga is headed for an IPO. Google+ is ramping up its games outreach. Upstarts abound. There will continue to be growing pains, but more than ever, we're seeing companies truly adapt to full games-as-a-service models via social networks.

2. Kickstarter And Crowdfunding

This year, as more video game developers looked to independence, they needed some funds. Instead of turning to a game publisher or a venture capitalist, many turned to crowdfunding.

The most prominent hub for crowdfunding was Kickstarter, where game developers such as Robert Boyd (Cthulhu Saves the World), Eric Zimmerman (Metagame), Young Horses (Octodad) and David Board (Lifeless Planet) have all reached the funding targets needed to continue their work on video games.

Those weren't the only game developers who got a boost from Kickstarter. In April this year Kickstarter said that over the course of two years, games had received over $1 million of funding through the service -- more than the respective funding of dance, fashion and comics projects. As more independents look for new ways of gathering funds, expect the crowdfunding trend to continue into 2012.

1. Lots of Layoffs, Lots Of Upstarts

As the games industry continued to shift, the people within it were displaced throughout the course of 2011. Major publishers closed well-known studios, and independent, mid-tier development houses ran out of steam, scattering their staff across the industry.

But even though it's typcially sad and disappointing when a company shuts down, people who lose their jobs in this industry often do not stay idle for long. This year, a lot of laid-off game developers struck out on their own and founded new independent game development studios.

For instance, Disney shut down UK-based Split Second developer Black Rock in September, giving birth to at least three new companies from former staff: West Pier Studio, Roundcube Entertainment and ShortRound Games. Zoo Tycoon house Blue Fang shut down, and its leaders formed Beach Cooler Games. When Activision shuttered Project Gotham developer Bizarre Creations, ex-staff went on to form multiple studios.

Layoffs plagued the industry this year, sweeping across companies including Disney, Activision, THQ, RockYou, Silicon Knights, CCP, Ignition, Team Bondi and others. The people who make the games, however, continue to prove their passion and resilience, and stay in an industry that they know can be difficult, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of the market, all for the sake of fulfilling their desire to make great games.


la_noire.jpg Top 5 Controversies

Controversies that drum up debate and discussion are valuable contributors to industry conversation. A fruitful year for video games and the folks that make them gets even more interesting when you include crossroads for major industry firms, community challenges for a powerful niche, and misfortune for the studio that made one of the year's most-buzzed games.

Here are some of the issues that drummed up the most spirited debates in the business this year.

5. The Real Zynga?

As the Facebook gaming space's biggest giant prepares to launch a long-anticipated IPO, it's come under enormous pressure. The model of designing and monetizing games on Facebook has been controversial enough in some sectors of the games business, but close scrutiny has come with the territory.

A pair of high-profile expose articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek illustrated employees under siege, anxious about high standards, the challenge of keeping user numbers up and an excessive focus on investment return and metrics versus a creative internal culture.

If such tidings don't seem bad enough, the business outlook for the company is frequently under fire; one analyst found the success of CastleVille hasn't been significant enough to offset the decline in the company's other games, while another analyst rated the pre-IPO stock as "Underperform" based on Zynga's slowing growth. Often-taciturn Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick (whose company till now has largely avoided the Facebook boom) went as far as to suggest Zynga has "disclosure issues" and "sketchy" metrics.

With the company under the microscope more than ever, discussions and close attention are bound to pursue it as it begins trading, and as industry-watchers aim to peg it as a bellwether for the health of games on Facebook -- for good or for ill.

4. Tough Lessons For CCP

Few public apologies are as humble and candid as that of CCP CEO Hilmar Petursson following the launch of some features that outraged fans. EVE Online's fanbase -- widely reputed for its passion and loyalty -- reacted quite poorly to leaked internal documents back in June. Highly-priced vanity items, some as much as $60, threatened game balance and the community's sense of fairness.

Players believed the "Incarna" updates allowed the purchase of in-game advantages that would otherwise equate to many hours of playtime. Further, CCP was seen to have botched communications, initially suggesting that the negative reaction -- which included in-game protests -- was an expected part of a transition the company had determined to pursue.

But the company later changed its tune, in an important milestone many working in community management could watch and learn from. Amid a round of significant layoffs at CCP, Petersson apologized for the "estrangement" many fans had experienced and claimed complete responsibility.

3. Line In The Sand

The game industry has struggled throughout its history with the task of its own defense, facing misjudgment from circles that often sight-unseen determined their content to be some kind of social negative. After years spent advocating for gaming content as healthy for well-adjusted people, a certain social shift seems underway whereby gamers finally seem willing and ready to ask for more from the games they play.

More specifically, content that some judge as racist or sexist is increasingly met with nothing short of absolute outcry, and a failure to show progressive attitudes or sensitivity to minority groups has been roundly punished by audiences this year where they see it.

One NPC in Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought ire as it was viewed by some as a racist caricature, while entire internet community discussions hinged on whether the liberal use of the word 'bitch' in Arkham City was acceptable, or implied sexism. These often-heated discussions about how mature and sensitive people should expect their games to be seem to be a sign that the audience is maturing.

2. Team Bondi Under Fire

With Rockstar-published L.A. Noire, Aussie developer Team Bondi had one of 2011's most discussed and acclaimed titles. And yet it was practically cursed from there, amid a checkered saga that ended with the studio's closure in October.

Wind of trouble at the company, which invested heavily in technology that was used to develop L.A. Noire's innovative facial capture system, first surfaced with complaints that over 100 developers had gone unincluded from the game's final credits. Working conditions were reported to have been highly stressful as well, with much rumor reportage pointing to personality conflicts with studio leader Brendan McNamara.

Further, it came to light that staff were owed $1.4 million in unpaid wages and bonuses, with McNamara himself claiming over $100,000 in pay outstanding, even as he battled allegations of mismanagement. The company entered administration and is set to fully close -- while McNamara ended up selling his next game to veteran film producer George Miller.

1. Sony's Mishandling of the PSN Hack

When cyber attackers rocked PlayStation 3 users in what was reported as one of the largest-scale online security breaches of all time, it took too long for the company to come clean about what exactly was going on and how it planned to fix things.

For too long users wondered what kind of attack had taken place, what the perpetrators' motives might be, and what kind of data would be at risk, and fans were outraged when they received an email notifying them of the potential risks days later. Although the company did its best to step up responsibly, further reports of exploits didn't do much to quell anxiety and discussion over whether the company should be better protecting its users and the online service in which those users had invested.

Although the massive hack brought PSN to the forefront of news and tech reporting and was undoubtedly one of the year's major events, the storm of discussion that followed over whether the company could have handled it better, spoken up sooner, apologized with more attention to humility or been quicker about delivering compensatory rewards to users put Sony in the hot seat for the better part of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Diablo III business model, Scrolls patent debate between Mojang and Bethesda.


bioshockinfinite.jpg Top 5 Most Anticipated Games Of 2012

In an industry as fiercely competitive and rapidly changing as ours, it's important to keep looking ahead toward the future to see where the trends are going. And, yes, while trends seem to be leaning toward the mobile and free-to-play sides these days, those games are so rarely announced in advance that we're hard-pressed to even name any that aren't already available.

Luckily, there are still plenty of promising games on the way to consoles and PCs, and we have a pretty good idea of which games to expect in those spaces next year. The following five titles are the ones we're most looking forward to: both as industry watchers and as fans.

5. Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver, Take-Two/Rockstar)

Grizzled film noire lead wannabe Max Payne returns in a third outing, and it's about time: believe it or not, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne came out over eight years ago. Kids who were 13 when it came out can buy a beer now.

More interesting to us, however, is the prospect of a new game from Rockstar Vancouver. The studio hasn't released a new game since 2006's Bully (though they did upgrade and port the game in subsequent years), and we're itching to see how this promising studio has honed its craft over these last six years or so.

4. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games, SCE)

Sony Computer Entertainment's Sound Shapes is looking to be the system defining show-off game for its upcoming Vita portable. It's brand new, it's unique, and it utilizes the unique features that make the Vita what it is.

It's difficult to describe the premise of Sound Shapes, though calling it a "puzzle game" is a good place to start. Players control an abstract shape navigating a retro-futuristic minimalist landscape that incorporates music and sonically evolves as you go, much like Rez.

The game is played with swipe and touch controls seamlessly integrated on both the front and rear touchpads of the Vita, making it a game that just wouldn't be the same on any other system. If the Vita's going to catch up with the 3DS, it's going to need quite a few games like these.

3. BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, Take-Two/2K Games)

The original Bioshock is one of those rare games that still holds up as a talking point over four years later. When we talk about art, storytelling, and choices in games, we still refer to BioShock, whether we think those aspects of the game hold up or not.

While BioShock 2 was a fine game, BioShock Infinite returns the franchise to its creators at Irrational Games. Like the original, Infinite's art direction -- which combines the Utopian vision of a 19th century Worlds' Fair with endlessly stretching skies -- has captured our imaginations and has us itching for more.

2. The Last Guardian (Team Ico, SCE)

It might seem strange to call a game we know almost nothing about our second most anticipated game of the year (assuming it even comes out next year), but the output by Fumito Ueda and the team at Team Ico so far -- namely Ico and Shadow of the Colossus -- are so gorgeous and revered by people of good taste that the studio's next game just has to be a masterpiece.

The Last Guardian may go down as the most-delayed title in Sony Computer Entertainment history. Indeed, the game made the cut on our list last year, too, and would have probably been on our list for 2010 if we had made one. Team Ico has not shipped a game since 2005's Shadow of the Colossus.

Unfortunately, rumor has it that the project is in trouble, and departures by producer Yoshifusa Hayama and creative director Fumito Ueda are doing nothing to dissolve those rumors.

Ueda is committed to finishing the game as a contractor, but the damage is done: The Last Guardian will be the swan song of one of the most respected development studios in our history.

1. Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North, Take-Two/Rockstar)

Try as we might to steer our choices away from obvious sequels, the entire industry is watching and waiting for Grand Theft Auto V. No one does open world games like the studio that brought the genre into existence, Rockstar North, and the Houser brothers themselves still stand among the best writers in the industry.

There's no guarantee that the game will come out in 2012, but at the very least we're hoping to see more of the game next year.

According to a statement by Rockstar founder Sam Houser, the game "is another radical reinvention of the Grand Theft Auto universe." Obviously we can't confirm that just yet, but we can confirm that what we've seen looks incredible, especially in the lighting department.

Other notable 2012 titles: Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, Hitman: Absolution, Halo 4, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Rhythm Heaven Fever, Xenoblade Chronicles (U.S.), the sequel to that one game that you liked and the surprisingly fun social/mobile game that no one knows about yet.


dredmorbig.jpg Top 10 Indie Games

We don't need to tell you that the gaming industry is currently experiencing an 'indie boom' -- the evidence has been piling up throughout 2011, with numerous developers at AAA studios leaving their jobs behind to work on exactly the kind of games they want to make.

You only have to look at the Independent Games Festival record number of entries to know indies mean business this year. This time around, nearly 570 games were entered into the competition, marking an increase of more than 45 percent compared to the previous year.

We say this every year, but we genuinely mean it -- having to choose just ten titles from the incredible batch of indie titles this year was not only next-to-impossible, but also excruciatingly heart-breaking, as we had to knock favorite after favorite off until there were only ten remaining.

But never fear, as a good number of those titles that we close, but just missed out on a top spot, have been compiled below the main list as honorable mentions.

Here are our picks for the top ten indie games of this year:

10. Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

atom zombie smasher.jpg

Will Blendo Games ever release a bad game? The studio's clean sheet was kept intact this year, as Atom Zombie Shooter showed us exactly how zombie games are supposed to be done -- top-down, filled with purple squares, and with gameplay that is, for the most part, completely out of our hands. There's a zombie outbreak in Neuvos Aires, and you've been put in charge of commanding the army, saving the population, and destroying as many of the undead as possible, real-time strategy style.

For each mission, you're presented with a section of city, and a selection of units. Each unit must be placed strategically on the map for maximum zombie-killing exposure, and then it's time to hit 'play' and watch the hordes swarm in from every direction. Some units can be given orders, while others are simply left to think for themselves, as your helicopter flies in and tries to rescue as many survivors as possible before they are turned into the walking dead. The entire time you're playing Atom Zombie Shooter, you're fighting a hopeless losing battle which will inevitably end in your country being over-run -- the question is, how many people can you save before that happens?

9. Dig-N-Rig (DigiPen) [Windows, freeware]

Dig-N-Rig.jpg

From the school that birthed the students who created Portal comes Dig-N-Rig, an amazing little DigiPen student project game that puts you in control of a mining robot named Diggit 6400. Diggit's task is to dig all the way to the center of the earth, mining and collecting minerals along the way so that better equipment can be purchased from the lab back on the surface. To achieve its objective, a series of scoopers and conveyor belts must be built to transport the minerals back to your base of operations, where there are then processed and turned into rare elements for research and upgrade purposes.

If your robot is ever destroyed while en route to the core, fear not: it'll cost you a small amount of minerals to construct a new bot as a replacement. There are fourteen layers of earth to dig, and anyone who wishes to mine the moon can do so as well. Dig-N-Rig is a brilliant game that deserves more attention from the public, especially seeing how many people are playing sandbox and construction games in recent months.

8. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony (Final Form Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

Jamestown.jpg

Just when you thought that the shmup scene had run out of ideas and there wasn't really anything that exciting when it came to vertically scrolling shooters anymore, Jamestown came out of nowhere and exploded into a gorgeous display of retro pixels and fast-paced gameplay. Jamestown is a homage to shmups gone by, with plenty of oomph to grab the attention of both veteran blasters and those new to the shmup front. With a tongue-in-cheek storyline and plenty of levels to play through, this is easily one of the best shooters to appear in years.

There are multiple modes to play through, and various ships with different abilities, allowing each player to find the control scheme that gels with them the best. Jamestown might be great for all players, but it's far from a pushover, and only the fastest fingers will manage to see it through to the end, beating all of the available challenges. Once you've exhausted all the single player options, there's up to four player co-op too -- alas, it's local play only, but if you can get three friends around your computer with Xbox controllers, you're laughing.

7. Bastion (Supergiant Games) [Windows/Xbox Live, paid]

Bastion.jpeg

Whether you've given Bastion a play or not, you'll no doubt be aware of the main character 'The Kid', thanks to the smooth, spine-chillingly cool narrator who chronicles the player's every move. The city of Caelondia has fallen apart, and only The Kid can fight off the Calamity and put it all back together again. Using the Bastion as his central hub, and an old wise man called Rucks as his guide, The Kid must find the Cores that power the world, and bring them all back together again.

While the narrator's voice is one of the outstanding features of the game, bringing incredible life to the simpliest of situations, that's not all there is to love about Bastion. The world is stunning, and builds itself around The Kid as he explores. The story is genuinely enthralling, and you'll no doubt want to see it through to the end. The gameplay straddles the line between hack 'n' slash and run 'n' gun remarkably. This is a very complete package that deserves to be played.

6. Dungeons of Dredmor (Gaslamp Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

dredmor.jpg

Take the classic roguelike formula, spice it up with a dash of wit and parody, and out pops Dungeons of Dredmor, baked to perfection. This comic-like dungeon crawler features all the elements you'd expect from a roguelike, from randomly generated dungeons to monsters and traps galore, and asks you to make your way deeper and deeper into the ground, looting chests and enemy corpses at every turn. The action is turn-based, with both the player and the various blobs, vampire bats and skeletons getting a good old swipe every time you click.

Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike veteran's dream, with an interface that allows for multiple weapons, potions and armors to be carried and worn, and UI windows that can be positioned away from the main action, and glanced at whenever needed. While Dungeons of Dredmor is a magnificent feat in itself, its even more impressive when you consider that it is only the first release from Canada-based Gaslamp Games.


5. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Superbrothers, Capybara Games) [iOS, paid]

sword-sworcery.jpg

Did 2011 see any video game more stylish, more beautiful, more atmospheric than Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iPad and iPhone? We think not.

The game follows the Scythian warrior, who is on a quest to discover a mysterious power hidden in the Caucasus Mountains. Sword & Sworcery focuses on intriguing exploration and tricky puzzles, with short sword battles from time-to-time.

As the player explores, there are items to be found and characters to converse with, although the game prefers to tell its story through visuals and gorgeous music most of the time, with such immersive, captivating presentation.

It's incredibly easy to find yourself lost in the world of Sword & Sworcery, simply happy to wander around with a vague underlying goal and taking in the majesty that it provides. Hopefully 2012 will see this most unforgettable of experiences making its way to other mobile platforms too.

4. Frozen Synapse (Mode 7) [Windows/Mac/Linux (iPad soon), paid]

frozen-synapse.jpg

If you follow indie games, or even dabble a little every once in a while, you'll no doubt be aware of simultaneous turn-based strategy shooter Frozen Synapse, with its neon blue visuals and satisfyingly tactical gameplay. Players take to randomly-generated scenarios to do battle, giving soldiers moving and firing orders, and then hitting 'go' and waiting for their opponent to do the same. Once both players are ready, the action unfolds, and lives are most likely lost.

Described by many as 'Chess meets Counter Strike', Frozen Synapse takes real skill and understanding to better your opponent, as you attempt to guess where they are going to move on their next go, and counter their plans accordingly. The asynchronous play means matches can go on for days as each player makes their move in their spare time, or two really focused opponents can spend an evening trying to get the upperhand on each other again and again. Easily one of the most unique and challenging experiences of the year.

3. Terraria ( Re-Logic) [Windows, paid]

terraria.jpg

With the success of Minecraft spurring on multiple block-building clones in 2011, and even inspiring the next upcoming game from a big AAA studio, it was only a matter of time before one of these clones got it right. Terraria took Mojang's hit title, compressed it onto a single, 2D plane, threw in Castlevania-like elements, and came away with something that was completely its own experience. Players band together online, create small houses to store their gear and keep out the enemy, then dig deep in search of treasure and wealth.

The beauty of Terraria is that you can play for dozens of hours, and still not have seen whole main elements of the game. While the underground houses plenty of secrets to be found, from materials for making stronger weapons and armor, to streams of lava and enemies that will surround and destroy you, the overground is also teeming with life, as mucus blobs attack in the day, and hordes of goblins invade your humble abode at night. Grab some friends, and you can easily play Terraria for weeks on end.

2. The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

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When Edmund McMillen of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame sat down to work on a small-scale game over his summer holiday, who could have guessed that it would evolve into something so addictive and replayable, and would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The Binding of Isaac is a semi-roguelike that follows a young boy who flees to the basement, avoiding his murderous mother, with very thin and vague religious connotations.

Players guide Isaac through randomly-generated rooms, killing enemies, gaining power-ups and battling hideous bosses, before coming up against his mother. There are dozens of upgrades to find, and even after tens of hours of play, you'll still be finding items and secrets you've never seen before. Get killed, and it's right back to the start for you -- there is no concept of 'lives' here, as the roguelike status suggests. The Binding of Isaac oozes that 'one more go' mentality, and has been delighting hardcore roguelike players and more casual gamers alike.

1. SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries) [Windows/Mac/Linux/iPad, paid]

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SpaceChem is "the leading chemical synthesizer for frontier colonies," and you are a reactor engineer -- a cog in the company's rather volatile goings-on. Your job is to build reactors that can take atoms and molecules, and turn them into someone of value for customers, using 'waldos' and a great deal of bonding. As molecules loop around in your reactors, you'll need to make sure no unauthorized collisions occur, and that the stock is being called up and transported to the next reactor in a timely manner.

SpaceChem is also one of the most challenging, ingenious and downright rewarding gaming experiences of 2011. No prior understanding of chemistry or chemical reactions is needed -- in fact, the game bends the truth when it comes to molecule bonding every now and again -- and you will no doubt come away from each session with a few more brain cells than you had before play. With wonderfully unique gameplay that not only provides fun, but also makes you feel clever at the same time, SpaceChem is unlike anything else you can play this year.

Honorable mentions:
Minecraft (Mojang) - note: already appeared in last year's top 10 while in alpha form
Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger)
Explodemon (Curve Studios)
English Country Tune (Increpare)
Blackwell Deception (Wadjet Eye Games)
Scoregasm (Charlie's Games)
Viriax (Locomalito)
Really Big Sky (Boss Baddie)
Soul Brother (Superflat Games)
Capsized (Alientrap Games)
Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (Vlambeer)
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Shadow Planet Productions)
Nitronic Rush (DigiPen)
BloodyCheckers (BigCorporation)


witcher-2.jpg Top 5 PC Games

In 2011, the definition of a "PC game" became increasingly hard to quantify. Indies are flourishing in the space more than ever, and a number of popular PC games are making their way to consoles or even mobile devices. With so many options out there, it became harder to define the quintessential "PC" experience.

While PC gaming, by its loosest definition, includes any game that can be played on a PC, this year Gamasutra chose to only highlight games that are available exclusively on the platform. That means no iOS ports, no console ports, just a single PC release as of 2011.

If there's anything that defines the year's best offerings on PC, it's breadth. All of the titles on our list are worlds apart from each other, ranging from small indie projects to full scale, big budget MMOs. In the end, that variety is part of the beauty of such an open and unrestricted platform.

Absent from this list is Electronic Arts and BioWare's highly-anticipated MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is set to officially debut on December 20th. We don't think its possible to evaluate a large-scale MMO in just a few days, so unfortunately The Old Republic will have to sit this one out.

Here are our picks for the top 5 PC exclusives of 2011:

5. Rift, Trion Worlds

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With so many online games adopting the free-to-play model, it's become exceedingly rare to see a traditional, subscription-based MMO. Trion Worlds' Rift, however, is one of those exceptions, and it has managed to find success by sticking to its guns and offering an ambitious, full-scale MMO that justifies its traditional pricing structure.

Outside of its business model, Rift stands out from the MMO crowd with a game world that's constantly changing, allowing the balance of power between monsters and players to shift at many moment. When the game's titular rifts open to introduce an army of monsters into one of the game's zones, players are given the option to team up as a public group to conquer the threat as a team.

This dynamic variation of a traditional MMO framework introduces an exiting layer of unpredictability to the game, and does a great job at encouraging players to play together -- which, after all, is the basic idea behind an MMO.

4. Atom Zombie Smasher, Blendo Games

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Blendo Games' Atom Zombie Smasher proves that real-time strategy doesn't need to rely on lighting-fast reflexes or perfect dexterity. Rather, it's a game that encourages thoughtful strategy and impeccable timing to save the population of Neuvos Aires from the out of control zombie outbreak.

In the game, players take a bird's eye view over city districts, and send out helicopters, plant turrets and otherwise take measures to save and protect citizens from the undead horde (represented by abstract, yet still terrifying, purple dots). It's a unique approach to tower defense that constantly has you scrambling to rescue as many people as possible before the city is inevitably overwhelmed.

It's simple, it's abstract, but that's part of its beauty. Atom Zombie Smasher strips away the complex layers of real-time strategy to create a game that really reminds you what makes the genre so great in the first place.

3. The Binding of Isaac, Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl

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Difficulty can be a dangerous element of game design. If your game's too hard, players will get scared away; if it's too easy, it won't hold their attention. The Binding of Isaac, a collaboration between Super Meat Boy's Edmund McMillen and indie dev Florian Himsl, strays on the high end of the difficulty scale, but still finds that perfect balance where you feel compelled to give things another try.

The game follows a traditional roguelike structure, where you fight your way through a labyrinthian series of dungeons, where death is permanent. That's right; die once, and you have to start from the very beginning. With such consequences hanging over your head, each encounter carries much more weight.

Of course, as a roguelike, The Binding of Isaac features randomized maps, which means that even though you might suffer might die over and over, you'll never quite know what to expect on subsequent attempts.

2. Minecraft Version 1.0, Mojang

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Sure, Minecraft has been playable for some time now, but in 2011 we saw the game's official debut, and Notch and the team at Mojang have transformed the game considerably over the last year. The game has grown from a construction and survival-based playground into a shockingly deep suite of creative tools featuring new tools, monsters, and even single-player features like quest systems and a definitive end-game.

With all of these new additions, the game has continued to spawn an increasingly impressive array of in-game creations -- players have even found a way to play Minecraft within Minecraft! The game is a real exercise in creative expression, and few other games even come close to the freedom Minecraft allows its players.

With all of the exciting growth the game has seen leading up to its launch, we can't wait to see what happens with Minecraft now that it'sseen its official launch.

1. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt RED

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There are a number of reasons why The Witcher 2 earned our top spot for 2011. Its well-realized world, ambiguous moral choices, complex combat system, and lengthy campaign are just a few factors that put this ambitious action role-playing game above the competition.

Perhaps the most interesting element of The Witcher 2 is its bold approach to player choice. At key points throughout the game, players are forces to make sweeping decisions that will affect hours and hours of game content, leaving some areas completely unexplored. Considering the amount of work that went into creating the world of the Witcher, it's impressive that CD Projeckt RED had the guts to withhold so much content from players on their first playthroughs.

In another exciting, if risky move, The Witcher 2 puts a lot of trust in the hands of its players, leaving it up to them to explore and master the game's combat and myriad other systems. While it's no doubt challenging at the onset, there's something special in learning to interweave traps, magic, potions, and swordplay to overcome the game's greatest challenges. Of course, since the game's release, CD Prokect RED has added new tutorials and eased the game's steep learning curve, making it even easier to jump into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia.

Honorable Mentions:
Anno 2070, Related Designs
Frozen Synapse, Mode 7 Games
Terraria, Re-Logic
Trackmania 2 Canyon, Nadeo
Trine 2, Frozenbyte


rm.jpg Top 5 Overlooked Games

Every year, a few games slip through the cracks. Well, more than a few, let's be honest - but a few of them really didn't deserve it.

Whether they didn't meet sales expectations, came out at the wrong time, or the critics didn't particularly care for them (or both), these games got the short shrift in spite of some major positive factors.

While there are assuredly more games out there from 2011 that deserve a second look, this is my list of games I very much hope will eventually reach the audience they deserve. (Note that this list is different from the top cult games, which will come later in the week.)

5. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (Nintendo 3DS - Ubisoft Sofia)

Tom Clancy fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't a shooter. Strategy game fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't extremely hardcore. But X-COM creator Julian Gollop has created something lovely in Shadow Wars. The game successfully takes the thrill of a video game gunfight and molds it into a strategic, turn-based battle.

Any turn-based fan would find something to love here, even if the story is trite, and visual uninspiring. The core of the game, which encourages cooperation and clever tactics in your virtual squad, while also allowing for RPG-like skill progression is solid enough that several of us at Gamasutra called this game our favorite of the 3DS U.S. launch. But therein lied the problem -- the game came out too early, before U.S. consumers were sold on the idea of a new Nintendo handheld.

The game wound up performing below sales and critical expectations, but its clever tactics scenarios, hours of unlockable gameplay, and good old fashioned PC-style tactics make it worth a shot for any fan of the genre.

4. BloodyCheckers (Microsoft XBLIG - Killroyfx)

BloodyCheckers is a first-person dungeon (well, castle) crawler, with creepy ambient music, harsh mechanics, and a complicated, cavernous environment. And in order to gain experience, money, and keys to different parts of the castle, players must fight against portraits of dead castle residents -- in checkers of course. As you're playing, your lobby can fill up with real opponents to play against over the network. Place traps along the checkerboard to gain money, lob axes and spears at your enemies, and when you defeat them, smash your glasses against the screen.

In a way, BloodyCheckers is a posterchild for everything that's good and bad about the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace. On the plus side, XBLIG allows people to create games that -- frankly -- are coming very far out from left field, and release them on console. On the negative, in spite of the positive press the game has gotten, very few people still know about it, since the XBLIG discovery experience is so poor.

Developer Killroyfx continues to update the game with free content, adding new twists and turns to this already full game experience that only costs 80 Microsoft points. There's no reason this game shouldn't be a success.

3. Bejeweled 3 (Multiplatform - Popcap)

You may think this an odd choice, but hear me out. Sure Bejeweled 3 is a big game, with a big budget. And people bought it, to be sure. But I think this game deserves another look from critics and fans. Many, if not most reviews of the game said it was nothing more than "just" another decent version of Bejeweled. But there is so much love in this game, and you can feel the history of the PC game industry pulsing through its veins. Listen to some of the music, for example. Listen to the crazy Mortal Kombat-style voices.

This video shows not only the odd voice choices but how very hardcore the game can be in terms of pace of play, and tactics. Meanwhile, the effects and explosions should please the most hardcore of fans. All this is wrapped up in a "casual" package that anyone's mom or dad could play with ease. Several new modes take the "match three" concept and put them in interesting new scenarios, all of which makes for a game that is much more than the sum of its parts. The game is just so generous -- it keeps giving to those who want to look. As an example, demoscener, Secret Exit programmer, and Stair Dismount creator Jetro Lauha told me he extracted the music from Bejeweled 3, only to find that it was saved as an 0.8 MB .mo3 file - a throwback to the demoscene days, which extracts to 80 MB of 160kbps mp3s.

(Note: Bejeweled 3 on PC came out in December 2010, after our lists last year were finished. The grand majority of Bejeweled 3 versions came out in 2011.)

2. Monster Tale (Nintendo DS - Dreamrift, Majesco)

For me, Monster Tale was my biggest surprise of 2011. I just bought it because it had nice pixel art, truth be told -- but once I actually played the thing, I realized it was extremely clever. It's an action-based platformer/brawler on the top screen, and a monster companion raising sim on the bottom. It's truly the first game in which I've really cared about what was happening on both the top and bottom screens at the same time, especially without being frustrated. As you raise your monster, it evolves into new forms, which can help you in battle, and complete certain puzzles for you.

Monster Tale has its issues, but the deep skill tree for your monster friend, the combo-heavy combat, and the charming visuals pull you through. Plus there's that lovely score from Ian Stocker. Here's hoping Dreamrift can refine this system even further in a future title. This one slipped under most people's radars, but is certainly worth a look.

1. Rayman Origins (Multiplatform - Ubisoft Montpellier)

Rayman Origins is a game I never thought would exist. It's a huge, robust, gorgeous high res 2D platformer, with as much love put into the animation as any Disney classic. Playing the game co-op had two grown men literally giggling, constantly, between cries of "jesus christ!" regarding how one amazing technique or another was being used. The game is pure 2D joy, and looks and plays the way we remember the 16 bit era in our childhood minds. It's simply gorgeous, and so full of a creator's love.

That designer Michel Ancel managed to push this through development is a testament to his importance in the company, and Ubisoft's willingness to make a game for the art of it. With its budget, and insane amount of content and assets, there's no way it would be anything but a $60 retail title. But that was also the title's undoing. In an era where every 2D game is downloadable, the game couldn't manage to move more than 50,000 units in its first month on the NPD charts. But this gorgeous tribute to 2D games is likely the last we're getting of this level of polish, so is absolutely worth your time.

Honorable Mentions:
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective - a lovely adventure game with fantastic animation from Capcom.
The following XBLIGs: Escape Goat, Dead Pixels, DLC Quest, Four Winds Fantasy, Sins of the Flesh, and all the interesting/ambitious games even I didn't find.


woodland.jpg Top 5 Social Games

Over the last year, social network games have grown considerably in both scope and quality. Social gaming is only a few years old, but it has already expanded to encompass millions of players, and the games in the space are beginning to show much more depth than titles from even just one year ago.

In addition, social games have seen some considerable diversification this year, with developers exploring new genres and gameplay styles that make good use of the connected platform.

And, of course, it's been a big year for Facebook game giant Zynga, which made its long-awaited IPO just last week. Throughout the year, the company has been gearing up for its public debut, and in doing go has released a number of major titles including CastleVille and Adventure World, many of which currently rank among the top games on Facebook, according to AppData.

2011 has also been a great year for the social gaming startup. We've seen numerous companies make their debut this year with games that offer new and interesting approaches to presenting games on a social platform.

In the following list, Gamasutra presents its picks for the best social games of 2011:

5. Empires & Allies, Zynga

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Zynga's Empires & Allies takes the framework featured in previous Zynga titles like CityVille or FarmVille, and expands them in several meaningful ways to create an experience that, while still familiar, adds some exciting changes to the city-management formula.

Much like the Zynga games that came before it, Empires & Allies has players managing and developing their own plot of land, this time outfitting it with army barracks, naval ports, and airfields to do battle with AI and player-controlled adversaries. The game allows players to progress through an ongoing single-player campaign, providing even more incentive to strengthen your virtual army.

The game's rock-paper-scissors approach to combat works well within the game's light strategic framework, and bolsters the traditional base building systems with some fast-paced, strategic diversions. By both refining old mechanics and introducing new ones, Empires & Allies easily ranks among Zynga's best offerings to date.

4. The Sims Social, Playfish/EA

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The Sims is easily one of the most well-established franchises in gaming, and Playfish's The Sims Social does a great job reimagining the series for social platforms.

The game streamlines many of the features found in other Sims titles, giving players control of just one Sim and presenting more simplified options for home construction and management. By trimming some of these features back, the game has an increased focus on the interaction between individual Sims (which makes sense, given the game's title!).

Player-to-player interaction in The Sims Social goes well beyond sending gifts and the like. Rather, players form in-game relationships with their friends' avatars, allowing them to become arch-enemies, friends, or even lovers. The game strongly encourages players to interact with others, and does a great job of capturing the social element of social gaming.

3. Adventure World, Zynga

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Zynga's Adventure World is noted departure from the company's traditional city-management games, and presents a progression-based framework with accessible single-player appeal and a unique blend of social mechanics.

The main draw in Adventure World is its focus on exploration and puzzle solving. In the game players work their way through a series of ruins by manipulating ancient mechanisms and fighting off the aggressive local fauna. The game ties in social elements by having players call in their friends for help in certain areas, granting them the tools they need to progress.

The game's slightly more cerebral take on social gaming is a nice breath of fresh air, and its departure from the Zynga's previous titles makes up hopeful that the studio will take even more creative risks when designing its future games.

2. Triple Town, SpryFox

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While Triple Town first made its debut on the Amazon Kindle, the game has since made its way onto social network as one of the most unique and addictive titles on the platform.

While technically a city-building title on the surface, Triple Town has much more in common with a match-three puzzle game. Players match up bushes, trees, houses, and a number of other items to create increasingly valuable structures on their small and developing village. When the 6 x 6 grid fills up, it's game over -- but you'll more than likely just want to try again to beat your high score.

In a space rife with familiar genres and gameplay tropes, Triple Town intelligently fits within the framework of social gaming and proves that there are still genres the social developers have yet to explore.

1. Woodland Heroes, Row Sham Bow

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Row Sham Bow made its social game debut this year with Woodland Heroes, a game that stands out among its competition thanks to its accessible, yet deceptively engaging strategy formula.

At its core, Woodland Heroes is very much like the classic board game Battleship. Players arrange their war machines on pre-defined grids, and battle it out with a series of AI-controlled opponents. Along the way, they will gather new weapons, conquer territories, and progress through a far-reaching single-player campaign.

Woodland Heroes succeeds particularly well at creating an experience that players of any skill level can jump into, while simultaneously presenting just enough depth to hold the interest of a seasoned, traditional fan of the medium. It's a terribly fine line to walk, yet the game does an excellent job of appealing to both crowds.

Honorable Mentions
Battle Pirates, Kixeye
Gardens of Time, Playdom
Zombie Lane, Digital Chocolate


elshaddai.jpg Top 5 Cult Games

What makes a cult game? I might define “cult” as a title that gains a dedicated audience in spite of low adoption outside a rabid few. Or a game that succeeds in spite of obvious flaws. Then again, perhaps it’s simply an experience you remember for months after it’s finished, even if you’re not quite sure why.

For many of us at Gamasutra, and certainly for me, cult games are the highlights of the year. Finding these diamonds in the rough is a bright spot in a world of brown, and we applaud the developers of all these games for their efforts. These games are, for one reason or another, more than the sum of their parts.

5. The King of Fighters XIII (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - SNK Playmore, Atlus)

While I would love to simply call KOF XIII one of the proper best games of the year, the series just doesn’t get nearly the recognition or audience that Street Fighter does. But this is the best KOF in many years, and series fans know it.

After the faltering KOF XII, XIII feels again like a proper alternative and complement to Street Fighter.

It’s faster, but not too fast (ala Melty Blood), it flows better, and is more complex than ever before.

KOF has always had a different “feel” to it, and that feeling is back, as are the layered fighting systems. But this time, they’re so fluid that you can stumble upon (and thus learn) them by accident, if you’ve got a little skill, which has big payoffs for both newer and veteran players. Plus it looks pretty fantastic, bizarre racial profiling backgrounds aside.

4. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iOS - Capy Games)

What can be said about this game that hasn’t been said before? Sword & Sworcery is one of those rare games that was lauded by players and press alike, even in art and music circles. The gorgeously stylized visuals and perfectly paired music arguably made it more of an interactive art experience than a proper “game,” and the team at Capy was rewarded for that.

Sworcery has gained a dedicated following, which extends to the company itself, as it works on new properties. That is, perhaps, the very definition of a “cult hit.”

3. Dead Island (Multiplatform - Techland, Deep Silver)

It’s hard to imagine where Dead Island would be without its innovative and emotionally arresting trailer. The game was given a significant boost, which resulted in many more eyes on the property than you’d expect from a mid-budget title -- the game shipped over 3 million copies so far.

The game itself is often described as “schlocky fun,” which fits under the “cult” umbrella nicely. The game tries to branch in so many directions that is a jack of all trades and master of none, mixing equal parts Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Oblivion. But the meeting of all these ideas gives it a grindhouse-y feel even in its flaws, and the co-op brings the game’s systems to life, adding up to make the FPS (or is it first-person melee?) cult surprise of 2011.

2. Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Grasshopper Manufacture, EA)

As I said in my recent interview with Grasshopper Manufacture’s Goichi Suda, I don’t really know why Shadows of the Damned didn’t sell better than it did. It’s got an odd premise, with a nearly illiterate hero (especially amusing when he’s reading in-game fairytales) and a wimpering demon gun chasing after a girl who is constantly dissected, murdered, and blown up.

The demon realm in SotD feels like a living city, but one like you’ve never seen before. The push and pull of the game’s light/dark mechanic can make for very tense moments. The story is irreverent and ridiculous. This game screams cult, but could have been so much more, if only it had found the right audience.

1. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Ignition Entertainment)

I’ll admit that I don’t enjoy playing El Shaddai. It’s a totally competent third person brawler, but even the best of those just isn’t my sort of game. But the visuals, my god! Video games have a unique position in entertainment – they can take you inside of fantastical worlds that couldn’t possibly exist, and allow you to live in them. El Shaddai, then, is a perfect example of what video games can and should do.

Moving from oil-slick mountains to living ukio-e prints to sparse neon technodromes, the game takes you into the impossible and out the other side. It is a visual feast the like of which may never be made again, at least not with this budget. So why did I say I don’t enjoy playing it? Because this game has so much care put into its presentation that I did play it. The presentation carried me through. If that’s not cult, I don’t know what is!

Honorable mentions:
Yakuza 4 (Sega) – hostess clubs!
From Dust (Ubisoft Montpellier) – you can make a skull mountain cry waterfalls.
Corpse Party (Team GrisGris, XSEED) – 2D macabre adventure.
Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse, EA) – The madness, it returns!


minecraft.jpg Top 5 Developers

It's always tough to pick the best developers of the year. Everyone in this industry works very hard to create the best possible games that they can, and with the industry spiraling off in so many directions, it's difficult to figure out precisely who deserves the recognition most.

How do you compare an indie to a major studio? How do you contrast a Facebook game against a triple-A console title? Where does developer end and publisher begin in the social/mobile space? The list below represents Gamasutra's attempt to take a look at the work being done throughout the industry and highlight some of the best of it -- defined by what makes each developer's contribution notable.

5. From Software

"Japan is dead" is a cliche that has been continuously repeated for the length of this generation. To believe it, you have to ignore some huge hits, and most of Nintendo's output, of course. All the same, even the most diehard fans of the region's games have to recognize that the country's developers simply doesn't dominate the charts like they used to, nor innovate in design like we all know they can.

That said, this year, one developer created a game that was reactive to contemporary trends, addictive and artful, and commercially dominant -- but yet completely uncompromising and absolutely unsatisfied to be anything but itself. That game is Dark Souls, and its developer is From Software.

From is not the kind of studio that you'd have expected to see on a list like this a few years ago. Its cult-hit games (Armored Core, Otogi series) always had a special something, but not enough of that something to make a mark.

2009's bleak and tough Demon's Souls, though, did -- and its sequel is so much more than its predecessor: a vast, connected world, a consistent vision, an unrepentant challenge, and a real understanding of a gameplay loop that keeps players tense and driven for success. The game thumbs its nose at the notion of constant checkpoints and Disneyland rides, and is all the better for it.

And the reward for this? A number 6 debut on the October 2011 NPD chart. It's a richly deserved Cinderella story for a developer that's been honing its craft since the PlayStation 1 launched.

4. Double Fine

Ever since the financial crisis hit in 2008, layoffs and studio closures have become the norm for the industry. The middle is being scraped out of the console game market. For the most part, high-budget triple-A games dominate the charts, while very small studios and indies catch the money and time of gamers who want something different. The $60 "good but not outstanding" game is disappearing.

Early this year, Tim Schafer told Gamasutra, "Brutal Legend sold like 1.4 million, last time I asked, and I was like, 'That's more than any game I'd ever made, up to that point.' And I should be going like, 'Woo!' but instead it's like, 'Well, it didn't sell 5', and that's the problem with those big games."
But instead of closing his studio after Brutal Legend failed to make the splash its budget required, he retooled it -- breaking it into four small teams and rapidly prototyping great ideas -- then signing, developing, and releasing them.

The first games started appearing last year, but this year, the slate is even more impressive -- Stacking, Once Upon a Monster, and Trenched / Iron Brigade couldn't be more different, but are all great. Better yet, talent is bubbling up in the studio and leading projects, while the company diversifies its portfolio of genres and supported platforms.

3. Ubisoft Montpellier

There's something to be said for heritage. While Ubisoft's massive Montreal studio creates many of the games that have come to define the company in recent years -- notably, the studio is the heart of development for the Assassin's Creed series -- it's not the true soul of the company, founded in France in the 1980s during the first personal computer boom.

What's lovely to see is that this spirit still lives in the best games the company released this year. The studio nurtured the wildly inventive From Dust, which gave Another World creator Eric Chahi a forum to explore left-field gameplay innovations and make a surprising success, while Rayman Origins let one of the company's most talented developers, Michel Ancel, bring his creation back to its roots and completely reinvigorate it.

And, oh yeah -- its Adventures of Tintin game is the best licensed game you didn't play this year. Seriously.

2. Rocksteady Studios

No difficult second album for Rocksteady, which proved that it could execute at the highest levels of console game design and polish with Batman: Arkham City. Arkham Asylum was a game that bespoke lots of care and thought. It was clear when playing it just how much the developers had considered precisely what they should achieve with it and then executed that plan effectively.

With the sequel, the developer expanded on the formula it established -- executing, again, on all fronts, but this time with the weight of expectation. It's a technically ambitious title, too, with an open world powered effectively by the Unreal Engine. While there were problems with the game's attitude toward female characters, that was an unfortunate smirch on a game that -- as far as core development goes -- is hard to argue with at all.

1. Mojang

How did this happen? Starting with the vision of a single developer, Markus "Notch" Persson, a company was born with a mission: break all of the rules and become the most talked-about surprise success story in the industry.

Minecraft was developed and distributed in ways that the traditional industry would have flat out said was impossible. It's a simple PC game sold via just the creator's website. It was released to players as a buggy alpha with promises of improvements to come -- and they bought it anyway. It's only got one full-time developer on it (Notch recently passed the torch to Jens Bergensten so he could move onto his next project.) It requires a patient friend or an external wiki to be at all comprehensible.

Yet it's a massive success.

The game hit beta in late 2010. Less than a year later, Mojang hosted a convention in Las Vegas for its legions of fans, 1.0ed the game, and even moved into publishing with last week's release of Cobalt.

Next up: its second game, Notch's next project, and more publishing. Is Minecraft a fluke or is Mojang onto something? It's completely unclear, but its success story, which flies in the face of what the industry says is possible, is both inspiring and, well, amusing.

Runners Up

Row Sham Bow - Recognized for jumping ship from EA's Tiburon studio after years of making Madden and yet somehow delivering one of the best social games yet published: Woodland Heroes.

Chair Entertainment - Infinity Blade II continued the company's quest to define what hardcore games on mobile look like. Still far ahead of the pack when it comes to executing mobile technology, design, and engagement for gamers.

Bethesda Softworks - Skyrim dominated both sales charts and mindshare this fall, showing that the company can continuously refine on a formula and capture gamers' attentions like few others.

Kixeye - The war for core gamers on Facebook has yet to really heat up, but Kixeye has put a definitive stake in the ground with games like Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates.

Eidos Montreal - For bursting out of the gate, as a new studio, with a creatively vibrant re-envisioning of a beloved but extremely complex and nuanced IP, Deus Ex.


disappointments.jpg Top 5 Disappointments

2011 was a great year for gaming. There's really no debating that.

After years of being a political pinata, it finally received indisputable First Amendment protections. It had one of the strongest title lineups in recent memory. And new types of interactive entertainment started to show signs of maturity.

But into every life -- or year, in this case -- a little rain must fall. Here are five things we really wish had been handled better (or differently) this year:

Duke Nukem Forever

Yup, we know: It's a miracle this game ever made it onto store shelves. Its Rasputin-like characteristics are legendary in this industry. And we give all the credit in the world to Gearbox for striking a deal that gave fans the game they've been anticipating for more than 12 years. We just wish it had been, you know, a little more fun.

There's an undeniable retro thrill to Duke Nukem Forever for a while (and some players happily clung to that), but unless you were in the cult of Duke, you soon realized that retro gave way to outdated graphics and play mechanics, and those jokes that were so funny in Duke Nukem 3D were just sophomoric now.

This wasn't Gearbox's fault -- and it's hard to even blame 3D Realms -- but the game that everyone knew could never live up to the hype was still more disappointing than most people expected. We just hope that the next installment in the series, which will be all Gearbox, does a better job of blending old school and new.

Sony's handling of PSN hacking

The hacking was bad. The PSN downtime was annoying. But Sony's fumbling on the public handling of April's hacking incident was jaw-dropping. Denials, delays and a defensive nature by the company didn't earn it any friends. And CEO Sir Howard Stringer's prolonged silence on the matter was even worse.

Rather than being open with its users, the company went into a by-the-book defensive mode that's outdated in this age, and taught every publisher that got hacked in the inevitable copycat attacks how not to handle the situation.

Even Sony's formal apology seemed stilted and little more than part of the script. And consumers saw right through it. It wasn't until SCEA president Jack Tretton took the stage at E3 and gave a heartfelt and non-scripted apology that it felt like the company was finally eager to make amends.

Activision vs. EA squabbling

The sniping between Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts wasn't quite as nasty this year as it was in 2010, but it was still an unnecessary distraction. The two are rivals -- and there's always going to be some trash talking, but too many times, that discourse has threatened to overshadow the games, which is insulting to the people who work so hard on them.

Sure, at times, it's a guilty pleasure to observe these two going at it -- like watching a WWE match. But after a while, both parties tend to take it too far and it gets uncomfortable. We will say this, though: It sure would be a hell of a lot of fun to see EA's corporate communications chief Jeff Brown cut a promo with The Rock.

CivWorld

This, in theory, should have been the Facebook game that destroyed productivity worldwide. After all, there is no greater time sink in the gaming world than Civilization.

Instead, the game, developed by Take-Two's Firaxis studio and headed up by Civilization creator Sid Meier himself, turned out to be overly complicated, not especially interesting and, most curiously, kind of boring. Instead of muttering "Just. One. More. Turn," players wandered away and never looked back. CivWorld announced a series of "big improvements" in October, but it did nothing to draw people back.

But Take-Two isn't finished with the social space. Chairman and CEO Strauss Zelnick said in a recent earnings call, "Stay tuned, we have a lot more to say about social gaming in the coming months."

New IPOs

Whether you blame the recession, the company's financials or the European currency crisis, the back half of 2011 wasn't a good time to go public. Both Zynga and Nexon had very disappointing bows as they began trading. Zynga (well, the portion that's publicly owned) lost 10 percent of its value in just two days on Wall Street. And Nexon lost ground as well.

Neither company will suffer much from the stock performance (especially Zynga, which raised the money it wanted to without ceding any real control of the company), but for investors hoping to find inroads into new, expanding gaming and technology markets, the flat performance of both stocks was a letdown.


Jetpack.jpg Top 5 Mobile Games

There's no getting around it -- mobile games have become an alarmingly important part of this industry. The space has grown to encompass millions upon millions of players, and arguably threatens to eat into the long-established handheld console market.

With the space growing so rapidly, it's no surprise that mobile games have evolved considerably over the last 12 months. The games we're seeing today are far more diverse, and often more robust than their predecessors, and this rapid progress suggests that the space will continue to evolve for quite some time.

For instance, games like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP proved that even mobile games can be moody and atmospheric showcases, while titles like Jetpack Joyride demonstrated the value of designing around a single, easily-understood mechanic.

In addition, this year also marked the rapid propagation of the freemium business model in the mobile space. Games like NimbleBit's Tiny Tower and even CrowdStar's recently-released Social Girl have proven that the free-to-play approach is perfectly viable even on mobile platforms.

With all these exciting new developments, we can't wait to see what mobile games will look like in the coming year. For now, however, here are our top mobile games for 2011:

5. Monsters Ate My Condo, (Adult Swim, iOS)

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Match-three puzzle games are all too common on mobile devices, but Adult Swim's Monsters Ate My Condo is so frenetic that it stands far in front of its competition. In the game, players manage a continually growing condominium complex flanked by a pair of giant (and silly looking) monsters. To keep the game going, players need to prevent these monsters from destroying the tower; to do so, they must feed these monsters tower floors of the appropriate color to appease their destructive urges. In-between keeping the monsters at bay, players have to match floors of the appropriate color to clear out the tower and build up their score.

The game does a great job balancing fast-paced action and careful strategy, and it is this multi-layered design that makes the game so fun to play. In addition, the game has a charming cartoon aesthetic that makes the whole experience feel whimsical and lively from beginning to end.

4. Tiny Wings (Andreas Illiger, iOS)

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Simplicity of often the heart of a good mobile game, and no title proved that as much this year as Andras Illiger's Tiny Wings. The game borrows some basic design elements from auto-running platformers like Canabalt or Robot Unicorn Attack, but mixes things up with a fluid and deceptively deep traversal mechanic.

As a small, almost-flightless bird, players swoop along the game's rolling landscapes to launch themselves into the air, hopefully maintaining a nice rhythm to cover fly as far as possible before nightfall. The game is at its best when everything clicks, and you're soaring over the clouds at breakneck speed -- there's almost nothing more satisfying. Yes, it's crushing when you slam yourself into the face of a hill and lose your valuable momentum, but that just makes you want to give it one more try.

Making the game even more interesting is its combo-driven objective system, which gives players a change to accomplish pre-designated goals to increase their combo multiplier for subsequent runs. These optional objectives offer some nice variety, and present some surprisingly tough challenges for even the most skilled Tiny Wings veterans.

3. Groove Coaster (Taito, iOS)

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While console based rhythm games are in a lull right now, Groove Coaster proves that elsewhere, the genre is still very much alive. The game's fun electronic tunes are great to tap along to, and its colorful, almost minimalist visuals give the game a real sense of style.

Much like Taito's own Space Invaders Infinity Gene, Groove Coaster takes a lot of artistic cues from classic arcade games -- from sprites to sound bites -- and repackages them to give the whole experience a decidedly retro feel, even if the music itself is anything but. The game's lengthy tracklist spans a healthy range of genres, and nearly every track fits in great with the game's tap-based mechanic.

Sure, it might not be the most complex rhythm game out there, but what Groove Coaster has going for it is its slick sense of style. The arresting visuals and its accessible gameplay make Groove Coaster one of the most appealing mobile music games we've seen yet.

2. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery: EP (Capybara Games, iOS)

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Few mobile games this year took as many creative risks as Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. The title is a point and click adventure game on the surface, but what makes it stand out is its unwavering dedication to its atmosphere and aesthetic. The fantastic score and beautifully crafted pixel art work together to create of the most unique and cohesive artistic styles seen in games all year.

The game also makes great use of the mobile platform, cleverly adapting the classic adventure game framework to a touch-based interface. In fact, even the game's story and tone feel reminiscent of other classic games, giving the whole experience a nostalgic bent. When looked at in its entirety, Sword & Sworcery is both a stylistic homage to games gone by, and a vanguard for new experiences in the mobile space.

1. Jetpack Joyride (Halfbrick Studios, iOS)

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Halfbrick established itself as a major player in the mobile realm with its 2010 hit Fruit Ninja, and the company has further proven its chops with its newest title, Jetpack Joyride. The game is a masterful rendition of the one-button platfromer, offering tight arcade mechanics, constant gameplay variation, and loads of bonus content to unlock.

More than anything, Jetpack Joyride stands out this year by establishing a simple, refined gameplay mechanic that still manages to offer a surprising amount of depth and variety. The game's power-ups, for instance, still use just one input, but provide a whole new way to navigate the game's never-ending corridors. Even the procedurally-generated obstacles throw out some surprises once in a while, ensuring that players are always kept on their toes.

Much like Tiny Wings, Jetpack Joyride has its own internal missions system, which helps mix up the gameplay on a minute-by-minute basis. These missions give the player a constantly-changing set of goals, adding some variety to the game's intelligently simple design.

Honorable Mentions

Another World, (BulkyPix, iOS)
Bumpy Road (Simogo, iOS)
Galaga 30th (Namco Bandai, iOS)
Tiny Tower (NimbleBit, iOS/Android)
Scribblenauts Remix (5th Cell, iOS)


3ds.jpg Top 5 Surprises

To be frank, sometimes it gets a little predictable covering the games business. Our readership sometimes bemoans the static state of gaming news, but the fact is quite a bit of it is stuff you can see coming a mile away. Very successful two-installment brand is getting a third title? Wow, really? Companies undertake strategic initiatives geared at staying abreast of current trends? Shocking!

We do, however, work in an exciting business in a constant state of flux. And every year, there are developments in news that are unexpected and pleasantly surprising. Here, we present some of the most notable surprises of 2011.

5. Amazon's Kindle Fire

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That the most prominent online retailer has been interested in games -- adding its own downloadables and used game program, for example -- makes a lot of sense. But any hardware leap is interesting, particularly in the crowded mobile and tablet space. When Amazon unveiled its new Kindle Fire, it was a strong statement of the total pervasiveness of app stores. Not only that, but it helped seal the concept that games were a crucial part of digital business for retailers in any space.

In advance of the new touch tablet's launch, companies like Electronic Arts, PopCap and Zynga were boldly in support of the device, along with thousands of other gaming apps including Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Cut The Rope amenable to the modified Android OS that the Kindle Fire runs.

4. 3DS Bounces Back

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The launch of Nintendo's souped-up 3D-ready saw some early troubles: Believed at launch to be priced too high, growth was slow, and an early price cut was uncharacteristic for Nintendo hardware. The release of a cradle that added an extra analog stick looked to many like some kind of mea culpa, quietly: the general consensus was that the hardware released too early, was not ideally designed, was overly high-priced.

Midsummer saw a stunning gash in the system's price -- $249.99 to $169.99. The price cut came at the expense of profitability, leading to a first-ever annual loss for Nintendo.

That alone was new territory for a company that has a history of surprising the market with product strategies that may seem opaque and little-understood at first, yet have historically borne fruit. But from there it seems many didn't expect just how strong the effect of the company's compensatory measures would be. By the Christmas season, the 3DS was seeing record sales in Japan, with just one week seeing more than half a million units. The surging 3DS ultimately overshadowed the much-anticipated launch of Sony's shiny new, far better-equipped Vita handheld in the country.

3. Team Bondi Collapses

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Few games sees as much anticipation as L.A. Noire, from early recognition at New York's prominent Tribeca Film Festival to much publicity for its cutting-edge MotionScan facial recognition technology. With the backing of the gilded Rockstar juggernaut and a boatload of critical acclaim at launch, no one would ever have assumed that Australian developer Team Bondi would be set for anything other than some bonuses and vacation time, especially as the game shipped some 4 million units on consoles as of June.

Yet the revelation that all wasn't well rapidly bubbled up. First there were rumblings of a poor relationship between Rockstar and Team Bondi, with the controversial studio head Brendan MacNamara rumored to be at the root amid mismanagement allegations. Team Bondi developers expressed distress at being excluded from the credit, and after a period of arbitration came the news that the developer would close. It reportedly owes employees some $1.4 million in unpaid wages and bonuses -- talk about bittersweet success.

2. PopCap Acquired By EA

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As the most successful casual gaming company, PopCap's has only seen its independent success compound over the years. Rumors of the company as acquisition target have swirled numerous times over the years, but PopCap has always been in an enviable position: It owns its own IP and was ahead of the digital publishing, casual and social gaming curves, and many thought the company had no need to sell itself to anyone.

Electronic Arts has made no secret in recent years of its aims to play as strongly as it can in the social, digital and casual spaces; the publishing giant has a massive physical footprint, but mainly chose to adapt to new business transitions through acquisitions. Anyone would have expected the company to want PopCap, especially amid rumors that pegged a potential buy at up to $1 billion.

PopCap took a deal with EA ultimately worth $750 million with a $550 million potential earnout. It wasn't the money that appealed most strongly to the publisher; we were told the company most valued EA’s massive infrastructure and focus on generating new cross-platform digital IP. “We’ve essentially created an environment where they get a lot more bang for their buck,” explained EA CEO John Riccitiello.

1. Zynga's Muted IPO

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The rest of the game industry could say whatever it wanted about the metrics-driven design of the social gaming space, but for the past few years Zynga has virtually printed money on its meteoric rise to dominance over the Facebook platform. The company’s long-awaited IPO was expected to act as a watershed moment for the market, a milestone for the mainstreaming of social games as a muscular industry.

But even before Zynga became ZNGA, analysts like Sterne Agee and Cowen & Company were less then excited, rating the stock “Underperform” and “Neutral”, respectively. The company was valued at $7 billion and priced its initial offering at $10 per share -- but has since malingered below that line. As of press time it’s worth $9.50 per share, but it’s seen valuations as low as the $8 range over the holiday period.

News reports cast uncertainty on Zynga’s management and operational future the company’scommunications skills haven’t yet been able to dispel, while visible over-valuation cases like Groupon seem to have made many investors wary of voting with their money behind a trendy digital business.

For months it seemed the company had a road paved to easy street, but the generally-muted IPO has surprised many with an important message of care in a hot new space.


gotysmall.jpg Top 10 Games Of The Year

The process of selecting Gamasutra's top 10 games of 2011 required a healthy dose of debate among our editors, perhaps even more so than in previous years.

That's simply because there were so many good games released this year. If you step back and look at 2011 objectively, it's hard to deny the high level of quality.

What's impressive is not just the amount of quality games, but the diversity of this year's worthwhile experiences. Social and mobile gaming took a big leap in just the last year, and it's now certain that those platforms still have much to offer, as veterans of the industry try their hands at new markets.

And despite that continuing rise of social and mobile gaming, this year, console game developers did more than enough to prove their continuing relevance, pushing the definition of a "triple-A" experience.

Looking at the great games that didn't make the top ten just drove home the fact that nice visuals, satisfying gameplay and coherent stories are becoming increasingly commonplace. There are plenty of games that didn't make the cut that are wonderful examples of interactive entertainment, and possess all things that are associated with "quality."

But to truly stand out and leave a lasting mark on players who've seen everything, a game also needs personality and heart. To us, the following 10 games, including the one that earned our coveted Game of the Year, captured the purest essence of video gaming during 2011.

10. Battlefield 3

Developer: DICE
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

For war shooter veterans, there was quite the battle of the titans to focus on towards the end of 2011, as Battlefield 3 took Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 head on. But while the latter clearly came out on top in terms of sales thanks to its legions of fans, Battlefield 3 proved itself to be a worthy competitor, providing one of the deepest team-based multiplayer shooter experiences ever released.

Not only does Battlefield 3 look stunning (begging many gamers to update their PC graphics drivers in the process), it is also meticulously designed and balanced to ensure that every victory and every loss is completely down to how well players worked together as a team. This is a game in which you can score not a single kill and die over a dozen times during a 20 minute period, and yet still come out as the round's top player due to your teamwork skills and objective-capturing.

Battlefield 3 also features one of the most in-depth ranking systems in any game to date. Players can go dozens of hours using a single class and a single gun, and you'll still be unlocking upgrades and achievements throughout -- or you can have a dabble with a variety of weapons and classes and see great results too. The browser-based Battlelog system is great for skimming after a few games, even if it does make launching the game a bit awkward.

Okay, so the single player campaign isn't up to snuff, and reviewers marked it down rightly so, but if you're buying this game for single player content, you're doing it wrong. Battlefield 3 is quite easily the best multiplayer shooter since Counter Strike: Source. -- Mike Rose, UK Editor

9. Catherine

Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Publisher: Atlus (Deep Silver in Europe)
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360

In what was to me the year of the as-expected high-polish AAA sequel, a bizarre game about infidelity, the unconscious and the morality of freedom versus responsibility was pretty much exactly what I wanted. Catherine wasn't a consensus kind of game. The Q*Bert-style block puzzles could get too difficult (even the Japanese wanted a patch), and the long dialogue sequences didn't offer much in the way of interactivity as the modern era favors it.

But no one can talk about Catherine without talking about what it means to them. Some found Vincent, the tormented bachelor caught between a long-term girlfriend and a hot young affair, implausible; others saw their own relationship history, saw themselves. Even for those who found the choices prohibitively binary, or for those who were put off by the late-stage fantasy spin the story takes, it was a game that made everyone talk and think about what commitment and adulthood means to them.

We are a generation often (perhaps fairly) accused of an intense yen for escapism. That Catherine exists amid the year's predictable slate of battlefields and sword-swingers -- and that it sold well, despite being difficult to explain and so intensely Japanese -- says interesting things about our curiosity for new kinds of content, our appetite for new definitions of adulthood in games, and the potential for video games to illustrate poignant conflicts beyond what we've imagined so far. -- Leigh Alexander, editor-at-large

8. Orcs Must Die

Developer: Robot Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Platforms: PC (Steam), XBLA

I expected to load this up just to see what it was like, but wound up playing for hours in the first session. Orcs Must Die's blend of third person action and tower defense is instantly engaging, offering a pleasant mix of action and predictable randomness that, when combined with rankings and in-game currency gained from playing well, adds up to make players go for "one more try."

Building traps in the actual game world is a tense race against time, but the payoff is fantastic when scads of orcs go flying into a waiting pit. Though other games like Dungeon Defenders and SoulCaster have attempted the action/tower defense hybrid, it's Orcs Must Die's cleaner AI, better animation, and more inventive arenas that give it the edge.

Though I wish there were more trap combos possible, Orcs Must Die is perfect for a score attack competition. The only unfortunate thing is that nobody on the Gamasutra staff can get anywhere close to my rank. Yeah, I said it. -- Brandon Sheffield, senior editor/EIC Game Developer magazine

7. L.A. Noire

Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Take-Two (Rockstar label)
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

What a weird wake of ambivalence this game left; a pall of unanswered questions, of split decisions, studio troubles and rumors. L.A. Noire was something of an unfortunate casualty of its own grand vision -- so clear was its intention that all the ways it didn't quite meet those goals stood out all the more.

Maybe the strange dissonance between gameplay and story, the strange lifelessness of its stunningly-built, preciously-detailed 1940s L.A., whether on purpose or otherwise, reinforced the film-noir vibe, the spiritual deadness that is part of detective Cole Phelps' character. Players who struggled to read facial cues and choose responses that would be correct were often frustrated by Phelps' overreactions -- but that fervent zealotry was part of the man's story, part of his tragedy.

What was interesting is that through its high ambition, and through a few lightning flashes of unprecedented brilliance, L.A. Noire seemed to poke at the scrim that's kept video games a walled garden all along. Those of us well acclimated to the language of games could find all of the game's disassociated points, but new and infrequent gamers seemed to take to it much more naturally, without overthinking, drawn into an interactive detective drama. Suspension of disbelief came much more naturally to my friends, and it taught me a lot about how I think about games. -- Leigh Alexander, editor-at-large

6. Super Mario 3D Land

Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS

With Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo has a lot to prove. Its flagship series, in this case, didn't just have to be a success -- it also had to showcase the 3DS' glasses-free 3D. Fortunately, it does a great job of showing how the effect can enhance and support gameplay when the designers really consider it.

While the Mario series first stepped into 3D in 1996, in recent years it's had a 2D renaissance. This game blends these two styles so perfectly that it almost seems like 3D Land could have been the first 3D evolution of the series. Like a 2D game, it features brief, challenging levels: each has one great design idea, and you move on to the next. This game is a testament to simplicity -- there's nothing here that doesn't need to be, just bite-sized chunks of clever gameplay.

Nintendo may have revolutionized portable gaming, but this is the first time it's been able to successfully bring its mascot to a handheld in a way that fits perfectly with the platform -- not just in the design and the rhythm of the gameplay, but also in playing to the platform's specific strengths, too. And by perfecting a new formula, it opens up a new creative offshoot for the series, distinct from both side-scrolling New Super Mario Bros.-style games and more elaborate Super Mario Galaxy-style home console titles. -- Christian Nutt, features director


5. Rayman Origins

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360/Wii

I'm amazed, frankly, that Rayman Origins even got made. The high res art was clearly a huge undertaking, with massive care paid to its every nook and cranny.

The music thematically matches each scene, and the voice acting all fits within the ridiculous world. Everything in the game is alive -- it's absolutely lovely, but I'm not surprised nobody bought it. At $60, it was a tough sell for what nowadays "looks" like a downloadable game. That's why it topped our Top Overlooked Games list.

Of course, Rayman Origins isn't in our overall top 10 for that. The game is just so generous and lush, in all respects. It asks the player to enter a world that we might have imagined in our childhood, and rarely since. And it controls perfectly -- some may tout the inertia-filled controls of the new Super Mario Bros., but I'll take good old fashioned "stick to the ground" pixel perfection any day.

The best thing about the game, though, is the free-for-all that is co-op multiplayer. There are very few co-op sidescrolling games nowadays, and even fewer that support four players. But Rayman Origins does so with ease, letting players slap each other around, toss each other off cliffs, and revive each other in a madcap dash for the end of the stage. This is the game I wanted to exist when I was 10 years old. My hope is that a number of current 10-year-olds will find their way through to playing it. -- Brandon Sheffield, senior editor/EIC Game Developer magazine

4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

There's something to be said about a game where you can get lost for 30 hours, aimlessly wander the countryside, and make absolutely no progress on the main campaign. That kind of experience is plenty common in Bethesda's latest open-world role-playing game, which succeeds not in providing a tightly-directed thrill ride, but by letting players guide the game at their own pace.

Nothing forces you to travel to one area over another, or adopt a certain playstyle, or even to follow the game's story. There's plenty of joy to be found simply hunting mammoths, exploring tucked-away ruins, or otherwise just exploring what the province of Skyrim has to offer. With such unrestrained freedom, it almost guarantees that each player will carve out his or her own, unique experience.

Some of this might sound familiar to those who have played other Bethesda titles like Oblivion or Fallout 3, but Skyrim offers a more compelling experience through and through, offering more variety in the game world, a more robust combat system and a more efficient user interface (for console players, at least). It's the small things that make Skyrim stand out from its predecessors, but these changes go a long way toward establishing a consistent and seamless experience.

When so many games take pains to hold the player's hand and provide precise and guided experiences, Skyrim's freeform play comes as a distinct breath of fresh air. -- Tom Curtis, news editor

3. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Developer: Nintendo EAD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Wii

There's a sense of wonder that the Legend of Zelda series captures in the hearts of its devotees, lifetime fans who remember their first adventure in the original NES game, or running out into Ocarina of Time 3D's Hyrule Field, or discovering that Nintendo somehow fit a complete and amazing Zelda game into a portable screen with Link's Awakening.

Skyward Sword is full of that wonder and new thrills. Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and his team made something as simple as leaping off any ledge exciting, while also crafting some of the most inventive dungeons of the 25-year-old franchise. You'll see puzzles that ride you across different eras in a mine cart, and traps that send cursed creatures chasing behind you as you scramble to climb a thin line of thread (a scene seemingly inspired by Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story "The Spider's Thread").

The Wii game's fourth dungeon boss is one of the most fun you'll fight in any game. A six-armed automaton swings giant axes and cutlasses at you, pausing after each ground-shattering swing. There's your chance to flick your Wii Remote/whip to grab hold of its joints and unravel the machine's limbs. Sheathing your own sword, you can hoist one of its massive cutlasses onto your shoulder, and make short work of the rest of the boss's legs and arms. Even then, as you dismember this robot that laughs with a child's voice, there is wonder in this dance. -- Eric Caoili, news editor

2. Batman: Arkham City

Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: WBIE
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

In 2009, a relatively unknown London studio called Rocksteady did what no others could before: it released a game that actually made me feel like Batman.

Note that when I say this, there is some added weight to the statement. I am a nerd. I think Batman is rad, and even now as an actual adult with an actual job and house of my own, I still have conversations with other adults (some of whom work here) about how great he is. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time pondering the character's motivations, his world, and what inhabiting his body would be like.

I have therefore, as you might imagine, always had a horribly unrealistic vision of what a proper Batman game would be like. And while I won't be as bold as to say that Rocksteady met that vision, I can easily say that its game is way more fun than the jumbled mess I came up with.

This year saw a sequel that took what some might describe as an "open world" approach, putting the Dark Knight in his natural habitat: standing on rooftops and looking introspective. And it's in this open world that Batman: Arkham City truly became magical for me.

I don't know how they did it but somehow, no matter where I was and what I was doing, I always seemed to be in the right place, with something to do. Yes, most open world games have tons of content to keep you going, but somehow everything I did in Arkham City seemed immediately relevant and important (even if it wasn't), and that to me is game design magic. -- Frank Cifaldi, news editor

1. Portal 2

Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Valve Software
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360

When I first watched a demo for Portal 2 a few years ago during a closed-door session at E3, I was a little bit worried. What Valve appeared to be doing was over-complicating this finely-tuned idea that was expressed in the original Portal by adding, well, lots of stuff.

That "stuff" included more story, more voice acting and more game mechanics involving gels, lens blocks and light bridges. When viewed out of the context of the entire game, as I did back before the game came out, these new aspects of Portal 2 seemed intimidating, and worse, unnecessary.

But in typical Valve form, once the final product released, all worries were laid to rest. Turns out that Portal 2 has spot-on pacing, and by the end, you feel like a virtuoso, whose instrument of choice is the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device.

Every tough puzzle that you solve, you feel empowered to soldier forward and take on the next challenge, which usually is even more difficult. The ratio of difficulty to player satisfaction is virtually perfect, and something that Valve's contemporaries might want to closely study.

That's not even to mention Portal 2's excellent story and voice acting, which are extremely effective in urging the player to move forward and solve these puzzles. And the co-op (which also allows for cross-platform play between PC and PS3) is more than a nice bonus, as playing this game with a friend tends to be just as hilarious as it is challenging. This game is bursting with personality, and it begs to be played.

So all that extra "stuff" isn't just superfluous -- every new addition has a purpose, and has a meaning. They made Portal 2 better than the original. Leave it to Valve to screw up the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." -- Kris Graft, editor-in-chief


Gamasutra Staff's Honorable Mentions

Kris Graft, editor-in-chief

Anomaly: Warzone Earth (11 bit Studios/PC, iOS) I love it when a game developer looks at a genre that by all accounts is overplayed -- in this case, tower defense -- and does something different and worthwhile. 11 bit's Anomaly: Warzone Earth flips the genre around and makes it fun again.

Trenched (a.k.a. Iron Brigade/Double Fine/Microsoft/Xbox 360) Satisfying customization, interesting characters and weapons that made me grin all factored in into why I'm giving a nod to another tower defense game. Plus, I'm a total sucker for giant robots.

The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen, Florian Himsl/PC) At first, I wasn't sure what to make of all of the piles of poop and the blood and gore of this cartoon-ish, randomly-generated roguelike-like-meets twinstick shooter. Actually, I'm still not sure what to make of it... but in proper context, all that stuff is really great, I swear.

Brandon Sheffield, Senior Editor/EIC, Game Developer Magazine

The King of Fighters XIII (SNK Playmore/Atlus/PS3, Xbox 360) KOF XIII is a return to form for the series. The flow is back, the game's systems cleverly interlock, and the awesome mini in-game achievements system encourages experimentation, and acts as a defacto tutorial. The gameplay is tight, the graphics are lovely, and the movesets are...as balanced as a KOF generally can manage to be. Now, if they can only smooth out that net code...

Monster Tale (Dream Rift/Majesco/DS) Action on the top screen, raising sim on the bottom screen. It's a winning combination for Monster Tale, which is aided by attractive pixel art, a lovely score, and a deep skill tree for the raising sim portion.

Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD (SCE/PS3) Two of the best games from the last generation are given an HD scrub, looking and playing just like you remember them -- through rose-colored glasses. Anyone who missed these games the first time round owe it to themselves to get this collection, post-haste.

Christian Nutt, Features Director

Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft/Nintendo/Wii) The game that single-handedly set out to prove that the JRPG genre wasn't dead, but was just sleeping. While Square Enix struggles to find a path for Final Fantasy, this game quietly sanded off all of the genre's rough edges while providing a lengthy, dramatic quest that reminds you why JRPGs briefly kissed mainstream success in the first place.

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter (CyberConnect2/XSEED Games/DS) A clear passion project of its developers, this charming throwback with a 16-bit spirit was full of heart and beautiful, airy art. Simple gameplay allowed for its personality to shine, but a surprise post-credits second chapter that felt like a free, much-improved sequel showed that the developers didn't forget about design after all.

Sonic Generations (Sonic Team/Sega/PS3, Xbox 360) In a classic franchise usually recognized for what a disaster it's become, Generations did something incredibly unlikely: celebrated the best, redeemed the worst, and invigorated the wayward series. Suddenly the future looks a little bit brighter for Sega's erstwhile mascot.

Simon Carless, EVP, UBM TechWeb Game Network:

Burnout Crash (Criterion/EA/Xbox 360, PS3) A glorious pachinko machine of a game that was roundly overlooked by many, due to its slightly counterintuitive mechanics. (It's not really a racing game and it's not about the crashing, it's about the exploding afterwards.) But get into it and you'll discover a glorious gem of a physics-driven arcade action-puzzler.

The Gunstringer (Twisted Pixel/Microsoft/Xbox 360) Wonderfully wacky, and also one of the most fulfilling Kinect games from a pure control point of view. The knockabout script and borderline filthy scenarios (alligator-man love? really?) make it that rare thing - a motion control game that deserves its place in the best titles of the year.

Jetpack Joyride (Halfbrick/iOS) Beautifully manicured arcade mechanics, clever shifts of control style with power-ups, intelligent procedural level designs.. what else is there to love? Halfbrick is the new PopCap, and the company's obvious love of games comes through loud and clear in their buffed-to-a-sheen titles.

Frank Cifaldi, News Editor

Another World (DotEmu/BulkyPix/iOS) I know most people think the perfect mobile game is one that you can pick up and play in bite-sized chunks before throwing it back in your pocket, but I've never agreed with that. My perfect mobile game is an adventure I can beat in about two days of toilet time, and for my money there aren't many examples of this that shine brighter than Eric Chahi's brilliant Another World.

Groove Coaster (Taito/iOS) It was just over six years ago that I professed my love right here on Gamasutra for iNiS' brilliant DS rhythm game Osu! Tatake! Ouendan (and subsequently Elite Beat Agents, though that didn't exist yet). I don't normally like rhythm games, and I'm not particularly a fan of Japanese pop or visual aesthetics, but something about the finger dancing it provided just clicked with me. I've been ready for a sequel for years, but in the meantime, Taito's brilliant Groove Coaster satiated my fingers' desire to dance, and did so with some great tunes and innovative gameplay mechanics.

Galaga 30th Collection (Namco Bandai/iOS) Let me just throw something out there. I don't know, maybe I'm weird. But I think forcing a digital input game onto a touch screen -- especially a classic arcade game that requires twitchy movements -- never works. Ever. If you want your classic IP to be relevant on touch screen devices, you have to reinvent them from the ground up without losing what made the original worth remembering in the first place, and I don't think there are any better success stories than this awesome little compilation of Galaga and its spinoffs.

Mike Rose, UK News Editor

Pushmo/Pullblox (Intelligent Systems/Nintendo/3DS) One of the most enjoyable puzzle games of the year, focusing on pulling and pushing blocks out of a wall to forge a path to the top of a stack. There's even a level editor for creating your own walls of doom and challenging your friends. By far the best downloadable title for the 3DS yet.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal/Square Enix/PC, Xbox 360, PS3) A stunning reboot for the stealth-based RPG series, with a great storyline and lots of meaningful decisions to make throughout. Side missions are not simply optional filler to boost game time, but instead add depth and background to the main adventure.

Terraria (Re-Logic/PC) Side-scrolling multiplayer adventure that offers a sandbox world for you and a party of friends to explore. With so much content to see, it's possible to play for dozens of hours and still be unaware of entire portions of the game you are yet to encounter.

Eric Caoili, News Editor

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (Ubisoft Sofia/Ubisoft/3DS) While X-Com fans cried foul over 2K Marin's FPS re-imagining of the beloved strategy franchise, the series' co-creator Julian Gollop went off and modernized the formula (well, its combat portions at least) in this engrossing 3DS launch title.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom/DS) Shu Takumi, the man behind the Ace Attorney series, delivers a clever adventure title that has you possessing inanimate objects to save characters in peril. It also has the most impressive animation you'll see in any portable game in 2011 or any year previous.

Bumpy Road (Simogo/iOS) Despite its charming background illustrations and Yann Tiersen-esque soundtrack, Bumpy Road seems shallow, like a more polished but also more simple City Connection. But as you collect photos that slowly reveal the young romance of your car's elderly drivers, you find yourself falling in love, too.

Tom Curtis, News Editor

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (CD Projekt Red/CD Project/PC) While Skyrim presents an open, undirected role-playing experience, The Witcher 2 takes a different approach, and stands out as a shining example of a narrative driven, fantasy adventure. The game's clever implementation of player choice, its robust combat system, and its beautifully realized world all come together to create one of the best RPGs of the past few years.

Saints Row: The Third (Volition/THQ/PC, PS3, Xbox 360) Saints Row: The Third might not redefine the open-world crime game, and it's probably even a little immature, but when it comes down to it, it's just plain fun. The game constantly throws the player into unexpected, over-the-top, and often hilarious scenarios, and wraps the whole package in an aesthetic that is both blatantly self-aware and undeniably charming.

Infamous 2 (Sucker Punch/SCE/PS3) Sucker Punch's follow-up to its 2009 super-hero adventure sticks pretty close to the series' original formula, but further expanded on the its signature free-flowing combat and parkour gameplay. The game's new powers make zipping around the city more satisfying than ever, and blend seamlessly with the game's agile, shooter-like combat.

Leigh Alexander, Editor-At-Large

Dark Souls (From Software/Namco Bandai/PS3, Xbox 360) The brutal precision game gets its own fluid universe -- everything we loved about the first one, only better. I wish Skyrim combat was more like this.

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (Konami/Kojima Productions, Bluepoint, Genki, Aspect/PS3, Xbox 360) My all-time favorite franchise gets the HD treatment, and it doesn't just hold up, it excels. It's lovely when the classics can still surprise you.

Pixeljunk Sidescroller (Q Games/SCE/PS3) The aesthetic grace you'd expect from the Pixeljunk team: Innovative palette, excellent music, and flawlessly taut, minimalist shooter play.

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