Video Game Feature: The 10 Best Video Games of 2011

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CHICAGO – We may already be planning our 2012 gaming experience (and watch for a piece next week on HC’s most-anticipated games), but there’s still time (before “Mass Effect 3” takes over our lives) to look back at the year that was and ask the key questions — Was 2011 a good year for gamers? What were the highlights? Let us guide the way with our ten favorite games of last year (and ten runner-ups).

First, a very, very brief commentary on the year in video games overall — meh. There were a few spectacular titles in 2011, but the overall feeling I get, when looking back over the past twelve months of video game reviews, is that this past year doesn’t compare to the one before. It almost feels like the form was treading water. Part of that comes from the fact that my top six games (and eight out of the top ten overall and an AMAZING 17 out of 20, if you include the runner-ups) were sequels. Now, a lot of them were great sequels, all of the top six improved on the game in the franchise before it, but where are the new, breakthrough ideas? We all know what to expect (or at least hope for) from games like “Arkham City,” “Skyrim,” and “Drake’s Deception.” Wouldn’t it have been nice to have something come completely out of left field in 2011? A total shock to the gaming system? Let’s hope we get a few of those in 2012.

Runner-ups: “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” “Gears of War 3,” “Infamous 2,” “Killzone 3,” “Little Big Planet 2,” “NBA 2K12,” “Professor Layton and the Last Specter,” “Rage,” “Resistance 3,” and “Super Mario 3D Land.”.

10. “Dead Island”
Company: Deep Silver
Release Date: September 6th, 2011
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Dead Island
Dead Island
Photo credit: Deep Silver

I have a soft, mushy, bloody spot in my heart for zombie games, but I’ll admit that the genre (much like it is in film) is over-saturated. Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised to get such a giddy kick out of this clever, increasingly-fun game, a title with some notable flaws that become much easier to ignore when the developers offer so much adrenalin-pumping, brain-smashing, visceral entertainment. Game critics like to pick things apart and I wish some elements of “Dead Island” had been more refined, but that wasn’t really on my mind while I was finding new items with which to crunch against undead skulls. Like so many games, much of the genius here was in the concept — a resort island overrun by brain-eating maniacs, not unlike what you saw in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” Imagine a Sandals resort in which the staff and tourists are closer to George A. Romero creations than what you’d see on one of those posters at a travel agent’s office. There are pacing issues and some of the RPG/customization elements don’t work, but that all falls away in favor of the most important judgment when it comes to a zombie game — this one is FUN. It calls to you and begs you to keep playing in the middle of the night. I wish I could say the same about more games in 2011.

9. “Crysis 2”
Company: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 22nd, 2011
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Crysis 2
Crysis 2
Photo credit: EA

I thought for sure that “Crysis 2” would take off as the next-big multiplayer game, but it never gained any traction on consoles (at least not according to online play figures released by Microsoft). I think most of the hardcore players stuck with PC, which I get, but it allowed this title to fall too far under the radar for many people who I am convinced could have a blast with this beautiful, well-designed, enjoyable shooter. If you did miss it, you missed one of the most visually striking games of 2011 for any platform. Much of the game focuses on a combat armor known as the Nanosuit, an incredibly powerful weapon and gameplay system that’s also intuitive, especially in the revolutionary multiplayer, in which it adds a layer of strategy previously unseen in shooters. The suit turns what could have been a generic shooter into more of a strategic experience. It’s an amazingly varied gameplay dynamic that allows the title to be different for everyone. Should you take cover, toss grenades, and unleash Hell? Or mark your targets and stealthily take out enemies in cloaked form? Or just run? The decisions rarely feel predetermined, adding to that sensation that only the best games share, which is that you, the player, are actually authoring the experience.

8. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3”
Company: Activision
Release Date: November 8th, 2011
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Photo credit: Activision

One of the most divisive games of the year is also the most-played. Honestly, the number of message board complaints about the “CoD” franchise is remarkable given the online play stats and sales statistics for this series. It reminds me of the old theory about Howard Stern presented in his movie “Private Parts” — that those listeners who didn’t like him actually listened more often than normal listeners just to hear what he’d do next. At LEAST half of the people proclaiming “MW3” as a massive disappointment are probably still playing it right now as you read this. Is it flawed? Sure. The campaign, while being significantly better than some in this series, gets a bit repetitive and the multi-player maps are a bit disappointing in that they don’t feel like much more than DLC from the last chapter… but what AMAZING DLC. And the additions of “Kill Confirmed” along with smoother upgrades and gameplay and a promising new concept in Elite all make for one of the most addictive titles of the year. Yes, it would be nice to see this franchise take some risks with the next installment, but can you really blame them for not doing so when they’re making so much money? Do you remember New Coke? Why fix what so many people love? Especially when even the people who hate it seem to love doing so?

7. “L.A. Noire”
Company: Rockstar
Release Date: May 17th, 2011
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire
Photo credit: Rockstar

It may not have been the slam-dunk we were hoping for, but there was no more ambitious game and no better original IP than Rockstar’s daring attempt at merging noir storytelling with modern gameplay. The developers of “L.A. Noire” were trying nothing less than revolutionizing what we should expect from a puzzle-solving game. What if there was a game that valued intuition over marksmanship? What if there was a game where storytelling was more important than action? With cut scenes that aren’t merely there so the game can load the next gameplay level, the best acting in the history of video games, and a deep, complex world that feels vitally alive, it’s easy to see why one would compare the title to films like “L.A. Confidential” or “The Black Dahlia.” This is the “Heavy Rain” of 2011 (although not quite as successful creatively as that increasingly-impressive, already-classic title). Any complaint I could levy at “L.A. Noire” falls away at the pure, unadulterated ambition of the title. It may not be the best game of 2011, but it would a better gaming world if it was the most influential.

6. “Battlefield 3”
Company: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 25th, 2011
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Battlefield 3
Battlefield 3
Photo credit: EA

While I haven’t been out there in the sh*t as much as I would like, the accomplishments of the development team of the multiplayer portion of this incredible game can’t go unrecognized. It’s chaos. Running, explosions, buildings breaking, planes crashing, more running — in the moment, the multiplayer of “Battlefield 3” is such an adrenalin rush that it can be difficult to truly assess it critically. You’re too busy trying to not to get killed again. You have to step back and consider the elements that have gone into this adrenalin rush — map design, engine response, upgrade system, player customization, etc. — and realize that this should be the model for future shooting games. It is flawless multiplayer. In fact, if the single-player campaign was anything more than totally annoying, it might top this list. Weak storytelling, horrendous enemy A.I., poor level design — it’s a tragic experience. But the multiplayer is SO good. Maybe next time they’ll get both halves right.

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