Monday, May 7, 2012

Zrbo's Favorite Big Games of 2011

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

When Skyrim was released last year on 11/11/11 I somehow didn't realize how much it would take over my gaming life. Though I had sunk 100+ hours into its predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I somehow didn't foresee that I would get just as sucked into this game space.

What Skyrim and The Elder Scrolls series in general does so well is provide a richly detailed world to explore. One can lose themselves for hours just exploring the various countrysides and landscapes. While Oblivion had a more generic Tolkein fantasy aesthetic going for it, with it's green forests, rolling hills, and meandering streams, Skyrim takes its cues from a more Nordic influence. Taking place in the far North of its world, Skyrim offers tall rugged mountains, pine forests covered in snow, people clad in animal skins, the northern ocean shore being essentially an ice shelf. Sharing a similar cold, brutal aesthetic with the currently popular Game of Thrones universe, it seems this is currently the new popular look for fantasy.

Skyrim's world offers a great place to just explore at your whim. Around every corner there's always a new cave, waterfall, stone keep, or village waiting to be discovered. The Elder Scrolls games provide me with a feeling of being a kid like no other game I know. As a kid I used to run around the hills behind my house with some friends. These hills provided not only a great view of the ocean, but loads of interesting geography. There were the hills themselves with wandering cows and a line of trees at the top that seemed so far away, while down in the ravine was the creepy forest that turned into a muddy bog. There was even a secret path through there where someone had layed down a few boards over the muddy water. One time we found a little encampment back in the hills, maybe some homeless people, who knows.

Playing Skyrim reminds me of all these experiences, of just being a kid and exploring the world around me. In an interview game designer Cliff Bleszinksi of Gears of War fame said that Skryim "renewed his sense of nostalgia associated with being in the woods and never knowing what was around the corner. They tie back to his childhood... the most primal of feelings." I couldn't agree more.

Portal 2

The sequel to 2007's amazing, award winning Portal, this sequel had a lot to live up to. The first game was essentially a bonus that came bundled with Half Life 2, but ended up becoming just as big a success. Lasting just over two hours, short enough to be played in one afternoon, Portal provided a physics puzzler combined with a satirical take on lab testing as the player awoke in an elaborate testing facility being guided by the murderous HAL-like "GlaDOS" (Generic Lifelike Disc Operating System). The game was a huge success, helped in part by it's meme-worthy phrase "The cake is a lie" and the amazing end-credits song "Still Alive" sung by GlaDOS herself.

Like I said, Portal 2 had big expectations to live up to, and it mostly succeeded. Now a full fledged game spanning 10 or more hours, Portal 2 not only expands on the depth of its puzzles, but also greatly expands the world of its testing facility by introducing the player to the CEO of the facility Cave Johnson (voiced by J.K. Simmons) and the quirky A.I. pal Wheatley (voiced by Stephen Merchant) as you are guided through the underbelly of the facility.

It largely works, though sometimes the game guides you through the puzzles more than it should. The addition of two-player co-op, with some really ingenious puzzles, is really well done. But the game doesn't quite have the same magic as its predecessor. I think I'll let Justin McElroy (now of The Verge) explain it:

"Portal 2 is outstanding, really, a top-to-bottom success from one of our best developers, and 90 percent of me is completely delighted I got to take the journey. But in the process of falling in love with Portal 2, I lost something kind of magical about Portal 1.

The first Portal wasn't just a great game, it was one that knew when to make its exit, knew how to leave me pining for a future so great that no reality could match up.

It was, in short, a crush."


Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I really wanted to like this game. It did some things well. It captures the feeling of a cyberpunk/Blade Runner future with its neon-hued aesthetics, the core gameplay was fine, and I still think the soundtrack is amazing.

At the end of the day though, it just didn't grab me, and I think I know why. The game began by envisioning a near-future where cybernetics have started to become commonplace. This leads to the interesting ethical dilemma between the haves and the have-nots. If Joe Shmoe can get a cybernetic arm and double his job output, then how is the non-cyber Jane Shmoe supposed to compete? The game raises this neat philisophical dilemma... and then just doesn't do much with it. It's just window dressing. I kept waiting for the game to get back to that question, but it never really did. Oh, and the ending was eerily similar to that of Metal Gear Solid 4.

Gears of War 3 
The gameplay was great, the best of the series. What I didn't like was that with the addition of four players (up from two) the fights devolved into a shooting gallery. The first two games limited you to main character Marcus Fenix (voiced by John DiMaggio, AKA Bender from Futurama) and his buddy Dom. This allowed great gameplay sequences where one player layed down cover while the other moved in and flanked the enemy. Each battle felt like real teamwork. Expanding the cast to four characters watered down the strategy and most fights just became a shooting gallery.

Then there's the ending which not only includes the biggest damn Maguffin of all time, but also ruthlessly denies the player ANY explanation for all the questions they've been wondering. Let me just tell you what happens *spoilers - not like it really matters*: You ignite the magical Maguffin bomb that will kill all the bad guys but leave all the good guys alive (huh?) and then the character who's going to finally explain all those questions you have has a scene that goes like this: "Let me tell you the secret, the secret is... eerk" *drops dead*. Thanks for nothing Cliff Bleszinksi.

Year as a whole:
I spent a good deal of the year going through backlog or playing through games a second time. I also spent a lot of time playing smaller indie games, like Terraria, Bastion, and games from the Pixeljunk series. The best game I played this year by far was Demon's Souls, which came out in 2009, but one that I showered with praise.

This year I'm most hyped for Halo 4, Borderlands 2, and perhaps most of all Bioshock: Infinite (with perhaps the coolest looking demo I've ever seen).