It's that time of the year again where gamers all around do their best to list their favorite games and I'm no exception. Continuing my annual tradition it's time for the Mind's Eye award show, granted we don't have musical numbers or guest stars, but at least it can't be worse than the VGAs. For those new to the awards, a panel made up of me, myself and I have put together a list of our favorite games this year. Ten games will be going home with an award: 6 bronze, 3 silver and one lucky game is going away with the gold. As always, the show is heavily rigged and only games that the awards committee has played will be eligible. If you would like to dispute this, please send a generous bribe along with the game of your choice and we'll get to it sometime in the next hundred years.
The Bronze Winners are:
10. Payday: The Heist - It's not often when a multiplayer can pull my friends and I away from our Left 4 Dead fix, but Payday managed to do it. While the game does lack quantity, it makes up for it with frantic action and some interesting levels.
9. Bulletstorm - Of the arcade-like shooters that came out this year, Bulletstorm is my favorite. The skillshot system along with the unique weapon design won me over and I admit that I also laughed a few times from the writing.
8. Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together- This is how you do a remake right: keep the best elements but update it to bring it up to modern standards. Tactics Ogre also gets the nod for being the only game I really played on my PsP this year.
7. Bastion- Bastion joins this list along with other freshmen attempts from new studios. The twist on storytelling, art design and music does a lot to elevate Bastion over the crowd.
6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution- The challenge of giving the player multiple choices with character growth while keeping the game accessible has been a problem for designers and Deus Ex managed to achieve that balance. As a side note, Deus Ex is also one of the few games I've played where being stealthy didn't feel like an afterthought. Eidos Montreal definitely deserves praise for not only delivering a great game, but reviving a brand.
With that said however, Deus Ex could have ranked higher on the list, if not for the boss fights which did a lot to drag the game down. Some people would probably be able to overlook that but I can't. I blame it on my new found love of the cooking show Chopped. On the show the winner is judged based on all three courses they've made and the judges will not overlook one bad meal. Even though Deus Ex was a great game, I can't just ignore the parts of the game that didn't mesh will.
5. Dark Souls- Dark Souls had a lot riding on it, as a sequel to my second favorite game of 09 I was looking forward to it. While the first half of the game was enjoyable and the new open world system works, that can't be said for the last quarter of the game where it becomes a frustrating poorly design grind.
To me, Dark Souls ends after beating Anor Londo as the remaining areas seem to suck the joy from playing the game. While the latest patch has helped elevate some of the overarching issues with the game, it couldn't fix annoying design. With all that said though, Dark Souls on a bad day is still a great experience and you won't find anything else like it this year. Like Deus Ex, Dark Souls was going to rank higher up on my list, but after thinking about it more when I can't stand to play a quarter of your game, that's not a good sign.
On to the Silver Winners:
4. Anno 2070: Great city builders are few and far between these days so it went without saying that I snatched up Anno 2070. While the game builds off of previous entries in the series, the new meta-game system does wonders for replay ability and is a mechanic that deserved to be in the genre for a long time.
3. Dungeons of Dredmor: Another surprisingly solid game from a first time studio. Dungeons of Dredmor is one of the more successful attempts at creating a hardcore challenging rogue-like that can still appeal to newcomers. The game's writing is one of the funniest I've seen all year and acts as a one-two punch along with the skill system of pulling gamers in. Insanely priced at $5 at launch (and even cheaper with sales) gives an atomic bomb sized bang for your buck.
2. Batman: Arkham City- The #2 and #1 games were close this year. Arkham City was an amazing sequel to one of my favorite games of the last decade. Expanding upon the elements that worked and giving so much fan service to Batman fans. The combat and stealth sections are as entertaining as ever, with side quests that fit incredibly well into the game. Batman also takes the award for favorite boss fight this year, going to the stealth battle. In the end it came down to an amazing second game in a series vs. something that is brand new, and I had to go with the original title.
Before we get to the winner, it's time for a brief intermission to announce some other awards.
The 11 Place award: Portal 2- Portal 2 was originally going to be on the top ten, but remembering that Tactics Ogre came out this year bumped it off.
The “I wished that I had a chance to buy it before the end of the year" awards : Zelda Skyward Sword, Rayman Origins, Children of Eden, Shadows of the Damned and Mortal Kombat- Some games had to slip through the cracks and these games unfortunately did.
The " Maybe if I spent time with the game it could have gotten an award" award : Total War: Shogun 2- Shogun 2 reminds me of Gratuitous Space Battles as a game that I thought I would love, but just could not muster the mental energy to sit down and spend all my time learning it.
The "Not a snowball's chance in hell that it would get an award from me" award: Skyrim- I have a sordid history with Bethesda's games: I was mildly into Morrowwind, hated Oblivion and I did not enjoy Fallout 3 and New Vegas, so the chance that I would actually pick up Skyrim at full price is 0%. I don't care how much word of mouth praise I hear about it, I'll wait for a gift or $5 sale.
Most disappointing game of the year award: The Witcher 2- I have played many games in my time and I can usually find something in a game that keeps me playing, even for a little while. However, it's been a long time since a game has turned me off so strongly like The Witcher 2. As I thought about why the game did not pull me in, I realized that the answer was in my first published article.
In my article on skill abstraction I talked about games that had little abstraction and were focused on player skill (action games) and those focused on character's skill (RPGs). From there, I went on about designers trying to appeal to both groups of gamers.
In that article I posed a simple question: Is the Witcher 2 an action game with RPG elements, or a RPG with action elements? Looking at the Witcher 2 from both genres, I can see where the failings for me were. As an action game, the Witcher 2's combat is very clunky, especially when you put it side by side with other action games. Constantly having to stop and switch to the quick menu to select a bomb or sign breaks up the flow of combat. Multi-person combat is troublesome without adequate ways of defending or dealing with enemies.
If you look at Batman: Arkham City, there are multiple gadgets and special moves for the player to use, and they never have to stop combat to select them. The flow in Batman's combat system is one of the high points, and where the Witcher 2 is lacking.
Now from the RPG side, there are problems. There aren't any meaningful choices in the leveling system. You have three trees: sword, signs, and alchemy. The issue that I have is that no matter what choice you make you're still going to use all three of those skills and not by choice. This makes the decision for the player to select a tree a false choice and makes Geralt seem like a broken character that the skill trees are suppose to fix, instead of supplementing a fully realized set of choices. I don't like it when games have RPG leveling that effectively adds vital skills that should have been implemented from the start, such as Geralt's counterattack ability.
By trying to create a game that is equal parts RPG and equal parts action, the designers have created a game that does not appeal to me at all. This is such a disappointment as I really wanted to like The Witcher 2.
With that rant out of my system, it's time for my #1 game this year.
1. The Binding of Isaac- The Binding of Isaac may not be the deepest game, or the most expensive to come out. However, of all the games that came out this year, I spent the most time with it and Dungeons of Dredmor. Two $5 games hooked me more than all the big named games that came out in 2011, and that says something.
The reason Isaac edges out Dredmor is with the game design. Dredmor is a classic Rogue-like through and through, with a layer of accessibility. Isaac is an old school action game through a Rogue-like filter. The randomized item unlocks alter the player's play-style and forces them to adapt to the changes. According to a blog post by designer Edmund Mcmillen before the game was released, he wasn't sure on the inclusion of achievements. Yet, The Binding of Isaac turned out to be one of the best implementations of an achievement system I've seen in sometime. By rewarding the player with more items to possibly appear, it makes the game become deeper the more time you spent with it. As opposed to other rogue-likes, where each play-through is a closed off experience and nothing is gained in game.
And that's 2011 in a nutshell for me. Barring any zombie attacks, alien invasions, asteroids or computer overlords, we should have another interesting year in the game industry.