This year, with our ramped up our GamesBeat review team, we’ve taken our Game of the Year choices much more seriously than we have in the past. We asked our reviewers to select the semifinalists and then picked the final winners ourselves. But our vote on the best game of 2011 ended in a tie, so we had to hold a tie-breaker round to pick our winner.
And the final tie-breaker vote went — for the second time since 2009 — to the Uncharted franchise.
It was a more democratic and contentious process than we’ve ever had. But it’s the least we could do, considering game companies are spending scores of millions of dollars on games, and consumers are spending billions of dollars on them. This year offered some of the best games we’ve ever seen. We hope you enjoy reading our selections, and please let us know in the comments if you agree or disagree with our choices. Be sure to take our poll at the bottom of the story.
Without further ado, here are our top 10 games of 2011:
1. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release date: Nov. 1
GamesBeat review score: 91
In 2009, we gave Uncharted 2: Among Thieves the honor of game of the year. And in 2011, Uncharted 3 has taken the top title again because of its cinematic story, realistic characters, outstanding graphics and unbelievably action-packed combat scenes. As the treasure-hunting hero Nathan Drake, you have to battle your way through a burning French château as it collapses around you. You have to survive a firefight in a cargo plane as the aircraft’s cargo empties out the open ramp in mid-air. And you must dispatch your enemies as you outrun the flooding of a capsized cruise ship. In every scene, you see the spectacular effects from just the right angle, and you have to time your response right to survive in the nick of time. After you play this game, you close your eyes and see the memorable images — like those damn spiders — that take you back to the immersive experience. This is what makes Uncharted the crown jewel in Sony’s portfolio of great video game franchises.
As our interview with Naughty Dog’s Justin Richmond revealed, the developers focused on creating movie-like set pieces, or action sequences that took our breath away, much like blockbuster movies do. The beginning of the game took us deeper into the character of Nathan Drake and his relationship with fellow thief Victor “Sully” Sullivan, who is both Drake’s corrupter and savior. You feel the emotional tugs as Drake parts from his companion Elena, whose eyes sparkle as she holds back tears. You can feel the hatred as Drake seeks revenge against Katherine Marlowe, a memorable villain who runs an army of thugs in a secret society.
Nobody aspires to create such a high level of emotional engagement in games, particularly in the genre of shooting games. The title has its flaws, but it overcomes them by making you feel like an actor inside an adventure movie where your actions make the difference between life or death. The action is backed up by humor, witty dialogue, and a symmetry in the story that links the beginning and the ending. That is what makes this title appealing to much more than just hardcore shooting fans.
“An airplane losing its cargo in mid-air. A château falling apart in an inferno. A cruise ship sinking from a hole in its side. Only Naughty Dog considers staging gun battles in such places. They are defining moments in a game that really delivers a game-play experience that is like no other.” — Dean Takahashi
2. Portal 2
Platform: PC, Mac, PS 3, Xbox 360
Release date: April 19
GamesBeat review score: unrated
Valve’s Portal 2 was built upon the strong machinations of the massively successful original. To be honest, Portal 2 is rarely more than a series of standalone test chambers, some of which are not particularly clever, or enjoyable. That said, it’s not the mind-bending, space-shifting, goo-riding puzzles that elevate Portal 2 far above the competition, but rather its unrivaled writing and voice acting. GLaDOS, Wheatley, and J. Jonah Jameson deftly propel the voiceless Chell along on her journey with their insane ponderings, diabolical aspirations, and undeniably witty banter. With developers constantly struggling to push their games to some arbitrary 10, 20, or 50-hour playtime predominantly listed on the back of the box, Portal 2 proves that a shorter, concise, and well-made masterpiece is infinitely more valuable than a 100-hour game that wears out its welcome long before the credits roll.
“The last game before Portal 2 that I willingly beat twice in the same day was Resident Evil 2. To fans of either series, that is the highest recommendation I can bestow.” –Sebastian Haley
3. Batman: Arkham City
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Release date: Oct. 18
GamesBeat review score: 89
Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski once promised that Gears of War 2 would be “bigger, better, and more bad-ass” than the original. Whether or not that was accomplished is up for debate, but Rocksteady could have easily applied that PR catchphrase to this year’s Arkham Asylum sequel. Taking to the streets of the makeshift Arkham City, players can experience the crime-fighting and crime-solving aspects of the World’s Greatest Detective like never before. I’m not sure why it took so long for someone to finally get it right, I’m just glad that they did.
The writing and voice acting is sketchy at times, but the brilliant and plentiful Riddler puzzles are easily the most well-thought-out diversions in any game I’ve ever played. At first I scoffed at the addition of a playable Catwoman, expecting nothing more than a half-assed mutation of Batman (you know, like Robin and Nightwing ended up being). But Catwoman ended up stealing the show, in my opinion — her combat moves are downright awesome, while her wall-climbing and whip-swinging traversal make an excellent alternative to the Dark Knight’s.
“Rocksteady has managed to not only create one of the greatest pieces of Batman culture, but has also elevated Catwoman to the upper echelon’s of gaming’s most able-bodied females. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s also hard to imagine where Rocksteady can go from here.” — Sebastian Haley
Platforms: PC, iOS
Release date: Nov. 18 for version 1.0
GamesBeat review score: pending
Minecraft takes players into a blocky, procedurally generated world, complete with mobile monsters (mobs), farm animals, and an underworld called the Nether. It runs on the Java platform on PC and Mac, as well as within a web browser. The game provides an open world with day, night, and weather cycles. Players must dig deep into the skin of the world, gathering resources to craft ever more complex items and contraptions, and can also build high into the clouds, making Minecraft one of the most addictive and innovative games of the last couple of years.
Released as alpha software in May 2009, and as beta in December 2010, the game made waves across the internet as geeks and gamers discovered this sleeper hit, spending $20 per license and making original programmer Markus “Notch” Persson enough money to start a company, Mojang, and bring the game to full 1.0 release just this past November. Minecraft had surpassed 10 million registered users by July, 2011, and over 4 million purchases by November 2011, even before release. It has never been commercially advertised, only passed along by word of mouth. There is an extensive YouTube presence of the game, with Minecraft video creators like Minecraft Dad building what seems to be a lucrative channel on the video service, all based on this game.
“Minecraft combines the joy of building, the thrill of discovery, and the mechanics of video game survival into one fantastically compelling game made all the better by its staunch indie cred.” – Rob LeFebvre
5. Dark Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Release date: Oct. 4
GamesBeat review score: 89
Yes, Minecraft and Dark Souls are tied. These games couldn’t be more different. Dark Souls arrived in style towards the end of the year, offering gamers what is essentially an evolved form of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. With its deep character creation and weapon crafting systems, and virtually load-free open world, the game provided the opportunity for players to engage in a highly immersive and personal journey.
What made Dark Souls stand out this year, to my mind, is the care and attention to detail that From Software put into crafting the game world. Playing the game, I was constantly surprised and astounded by what I saw, making my steady exploration seem like a real adventure, in the truest sense of the word. While Dark Souls offers a level of difficulty not seen in many current-generation games, it is perfectly beatable, given the right amounts of patience and tenacity. There is no denying that you will die, a lot, while playing the game, but the brief moments of joy elicited by success, against seemingly insurmountable odds, are second to none.
“Dark Souls offers a vast and mysterious game world, beautifully crafted and filled with magic and wonder at every turn. It offers a level of challenge that is missing from most games, inviting you to explore and discover its secrets for yourself. The mixture of RPG, action and subtle multiplayer elements is truly sublime, and is a great example of how to incorporate multiplayer features into a largely single player experience.” — Dan Crawley
6. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Developer: Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games
Platform: Windows PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Release date: Nov. 8
GamesBeat review score: 90
Call of Duty games wind up on the top-ten games lists every year. This year’s title has sold an astounding $1 billion worth in just 16 days on the market. It seems like everyone in the world is buying this game. But in our eyes, each title has to earn its accolades every year, and this title reminds us that the Game of the Year isn’t a popularity contest.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 is an intense combat game with an all-too-brief but exciting single-player campaign. You have to constantly shoot enemies until your hands tremble from gripping your controller. It’s like a travelogue where you go to some of the most scenic places in the world and have unbelievably intense firefights in front of them.
Like Uncharted 3, the developers of Call of Duty have mastered the set piece, where your jaw hangs open as one action scene leads to another and another. For instance, you have to battle your way through a Russian nuclear submarine, launch its missiles, escape in a rubber speedboat that takes you through the invading Russian fleet in New York harbor and then get away in the nick of time before all of the missiles you launched rain down on the ships around you.
This time, the war against madmen terrorists has spread to some of the world’s biggest cities: New York, London and Paris. You have to try to spot your enemies as you fire away inside a jewelry shop full of glass displays. You have to survive a duel between helicopter gunships and take out terrorists who are floating in the air in zero gravity as the airplane you’re on splinters apart. As the company advertises, it is epic realism at its finest.
The game also earns its accolades with high-quality multiplayer combat that can keep you engaged for many more hours than you spend on the single-player campaign. The Call of Duty Elite social network, which is finally functioning well, lives up to its billing in offering more engaging content for the Call of Duty fanatic.
“Enough action for 10 war movies.” — Dean Takahashi
7. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Release date: Nov. 11
GamesBeat review score: 89
My love-hate relationship with Skyrim will undoubtedly continue well into 2012. I, like millions of others, have enjoyed countless hours (okay, 132 to be exact) of open-world adventuring, pillaging, and loot-whoring in the largest Elder Scrolls title to date. However, I, like millions of others, have also started to realize that I’m essentially beta-testing an incredibly buggy and, at times, outright broken game for Bethesda.
Even when the game isn’t glitching out, freezing, or coming to an unplayable halt due to shoddy programming, there are more than a few dubious design decisions that effectively tear down the immersion and fantastic atmosphere the developers worked reasonably hard to achieve. However, and I don’t say this intending to discredit my very valid and serious issues with the game, Skyrim still manages to be a worthwhile experience despite its many, many, many faults. After all, I’ve gone 132 hours without quitting, and I’ll probably go another 132 before I get bored.
“Whether it’s story quests, randomly stumbling upon a new dungeon, seeking out dragons, micromanaging everything you’ve collected and crafted, or doing dastardly deeds for the Daedric gods, Skyrim is indescribably massive. And, despite a handful of notable shortcomings, more often than not it is jaw-droppingly beautiful and thoroughly satisfying to play.” — Sebastian Haley
8. Gears of War 3
Developer: Epic Games
Platforms: Xbox 360
Release date: Sept. 20
GamesBeat review score: 88
Wrapping up one of the most heralded trilogies in all of gaming with the perfect finale is no easy task. Design Director Cliff Bleszinski at Epic Games had to mix familiar elements and characters with situations that were entirely new for the Gears of War series. Gears of War 3 is a carefully constructed cocktail of familiar faces in situations and scenarios worthy of what is likely to be the last full-fledged game in the series. Thankfully, the Xbox 360 faithful were not disappointed.
The third game in the series that firmly cemented the Xbox 360 as a mainstay next-generation console is a fitting swan song. It packs all of the non-stop single-player action that fans have come to expect, but leaves behind most of the cheesy “bro moments” that made people’s skin crawl in the first Gears entries. Not only that, but Gears of War 3 includes a moment that will almost certainly tug on your heartstrings (a notion once thought to be impossible for the series). All of that is capped off with a final boss battle that, while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, is still befitting of the franchise and should please fans.
Gears of War 3 also handed players an immense amount of competitive multiplayer options with new game modes as well as a fantastic, perhaps industry-changing, mode known as Horde (first seen in Gears of War 2). For those who have jumped into a Beast mode match with friends, I don’t need to write anything further. For those who haven’t, you owe it to yourself to do so before retiring Gears of War 3.
There’s no argument to be made for Gears of War 3 as the same theatrical experience as Uncharted 3 or as disruptive a multiplayer game as Modern Warfare 3, but there’s no doubt that it deserves a place in the same breath as those titans. Its sheer beauty and incredibly refined control mechanics pair wonderfully with the unflinching action of the COGs (Coalition of Ordered Governments) against the dreaded Locust. This grand finale is not to be missed.
“Gears of War 3 is a wonderful example of how to artfully wrap up a trilogy with great fan service, effortlessly smooth gameplay and an abundance of content that will please both newcomers and long-time devotees.” — Nate Ahearn
9. Saints Row: The Third
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Release date: Nov. 15
GamesBeat review score: 82
Instead of crafting some half-realized semi-realistic world as Rockstar did with Grand Theft Auto IV, Volition built Saints Row 2 to be the game where you can basically do anything you want. It was essentially the spiritual successor to Vice City, and Saints Row: The Third pushes the franchise even further in the “give players what they want, even if they don’t know they want it” direction. This is a game where your primary means of transportation is a futuristic hoverjet that you skydive from whenever you want to rob a clothing store dressed up as a giant furry. Then, when the cops show up, you call your zombie homies on the phone as backup and proceed to defend yourself with a (now-iconic) purple dildo sword.
It’s not perfect, and it seems THQ has stripped out just as much as they’ve added, planning to drip-feed it over the next 40 weeks in hopes of nickel-and-diming their fans. I can’t say I’m particularly happy about that transparently greedy business decision, and it’s just one more reason why THQ will be buried next to Midway and an untold number of E.T. cartridges for the Atari 2600 soon. But what’s left in Saints Row: The Third is still more than enough to provide pure entertainment on a level that other open-world games just can’t — or won’t — offer these days.
“Saints Row: The Third plays like a twisted love letter to video game culture. Volition has created a game in perhaps the purest sense of the word, in which the player is free to explore and have fun, without being forced to replicate any of the mundanities of real life. With some outstanding action sequences, a huge variety of weapons and vehicles, and a craziness that can outdo any other game around, Volition has definitely delivered the goods, despite a few niggles.“ –Dan Crawley
10. Super Mario 3D Land
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: Nov. 13, 2011
GamesBeat review score: 87
At this point in Mario’s lifespan, he has been the subject of one of the most storied franchises of all time. After his introduction in 1986, Mario has been a huge part of popular culture and has become one of the best-selling franchises of all time. He is always a mainstay at the top of everyone’s favorite games list each time he appears in a title, and Super Mario 3D Land had no problem breaking the top ten games of 2011 list.
Super Mario 3D Land could be described as completely classic, yet extremely modern. Nintendo took the classic game play that people fell in love with over the years and added everything great about the newest Mario experiences as seen in the Super Mario Galaxy games. Bringing in elements from the original Mario games like airships, 2D side-scrolling, the Koopalings and pure, simple platforming genius and mixing it with the 3D visual prowess, environments and exploration of the newer Mario titles, Nintendo has concocted a beautiful formula for Mario’s future going forward.
Adding to that, the stereoscopic 3D capabilities that Super Mario 3D Land offers finally steers the 3DS in the right direction by truly incorporating the technology in a way that for the first time doesn’t feel like a gimmick. Having Mario jump out of the screen or seeing bullets charging right at Mario and through the screen is a special experience that players won’t soon forget.
All in all, Super Mario 3D Land is a classic Mario title brought into modern day with its 3D worlds and stereoscopic 3D and absolutely deserves a spot on top ten games of 2011.
“Super Mario 3D Land is yet another chance to take control of one of video game’s most popular characters in a masterful new world that seamlessly combines everything you’ve ever loved about Mario.” — Heath Hooker
(By Sebastian Haley)
2011 closed out with a handful of strong titles, yet two of my most memorable actually came much earlier in the year. Visceral Games’s Dead Space 2 wiped clean not only the few niggling complaints of the first game, but also made me forget entirely that Dante’s Inferno ever even happened. Aside from being the poster child of how not to add multiplayer to your franchise, Dead Space 2 was a superior experience in every way over its predecessor and set a new precedent in the fleeting survival horror genre with its cinematic suspense, masterful atmosphere, and carefully crafted action sequences.
I also greatly admired the unique experience Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (from Capybara Games) offered. It’s not just unique compared to most modern games, indie or otherwise, but it’s especially notable when judged against the sea of utter crap and uninspired clones that overrun the iTunes app store on a daily basis. I hope that the success of the game creates a surge of more compelling titles throughout 2012 looking to accomplish something other than lurking around hoping to scavenge Angry Birds’ scraps.
Poll: What are your favorites? Please take the poll below and offer your comments. We’ve included some of the other popular titles in our voting.