Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE BEST OF 2011 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- Oh, to be young again. I know, I say that at the ripe old age of 29, but in the world of videogames, that's practically ancient. Here I am, a guy who grew up in a long-ago age of 8-bit sidescrollers and fancy pixel-based graphics, and it's a new era of motion-control, open-world gameplay, downloadable games, and online competition. Whatever happened to the days when games were about the simple act of avoiding falling into bottomless pits? Who am I kidding though ... I'm jealous of the kids who have all the time in the world to play and master the new generation of kickass games. These days, I tend to avoid playing games sometimes, if only because I get frustrated when I get really into one and then don't have time to just immerse myself in it for days on end. Over my short-but-sweet Christmas break, I finally had a couple of days to devote to some quality alone-time with my PS3 and XBOX 360, and man, I felt like a kid in a candy store, getting lost in games like The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City. The way things are now, these big-budget, blockbuster games clearly are massive undertakings to create, and so the market often seems devoid of big, new games - and then, suddenly, flooded with 'em. And that's how it was this year - with only a trickle of must-play games in the front-end of 2011, suddenly, the holiday season saw an onslaught of marquee releases. Who can play 'em all? And when will the game companies learn to spread things out a bit? Spread the love, guys. In any case, this ended up being an absolutely huge year for games, in more ways than one.

Most importantly, this was just a great year for gaming in terms of quality releases. The amount of triple-A titles that came out is pretty staggering - Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Uncharted 3 ... and those are just the tip of the iceberg. There were also a ton of cool, innovative downloadable games this year as well. Whatever other issues or challenges the industry faces, it always, always comes down to the games, and so regardless of anything else, it was a great year to be a gamer.

That said, there's no question - the gaming industry is at a crossroads, and things are going to get interesting. For Sony and Microsoft, it's going to be business as usual for another year or two - until the next console cycle comes along. But for now, the XBOX 360 and PS3 have plenty of life left in them. XBOX continues to sell well, and Sony is catching up - thanks to a stacked lineup of exclusive, first-party games and a reduced price point for the console. Now, both Sony and MS are facing challenges with their attempts to launch motion-gaming and make it a major part of their console ecosystem. Kinect is doing better than Move, but Microsoft clearly has more at stake here. They've positioned Kinect as a major part of their XBOX strategy going-forward, and are heavily invested in its success. Sony less so with Move, where it's being positioned as a fun but non-essential peripheral. But in both instances, there's so far been a lack of killer apps, or games that have convinced the core gamer to embrace motion control. With Wii, that wasn't necessary - plenty of families and kids enjoyed the Wii on its own merits, and it sold like hotcakes because of it. But the XBOX and PS3 historically cater to a different audience, an audience that tends to be more interested in games like Skyrim than Just Dance. But I will say this: I bought a Kinect as an impulse-buy recently, and the thing is pretty darn cool. No, I'd never pick a random Kinect party game over an Uncharted, but still ... it is what it is. I don't know that Kinect needs to have hardcore action games to be worthwhile, but to rack up big sales with the XBOX crowd, it might. In any case, MS's focus on the Kinect may actually have seriously hurt it in 2011, as a lack of exclusive core games caused XBOX to lose some valuable ground to the PS3. It's something that could come back to bite MS in 2012. We'll see.

Sony has its own challenges though. The big one in early 2012 will be the launch of the portable successor to the PSP, the Playstation Vita. The Vita looks amazing - a portable system packing the power of a PS3. But the question is - is that something we want or need in today's market? I know for me, I love my DS and PSP, but ultimately, for big, complex games, I'd rather play them at home and on a big TV. The Vita has a definite cool-factor, but if I only have so many opportunities to play it on the go, then is it essentially like buying a second PS3? Plus, there's the Apple factor, and that might be the biggest one of all. Apple has not-so-quietly become a major presence in the world of gaming in the last year or two. The iPhone is the #1 platform by which people play games on the go these days, and the iPad is becoming sort of a powerhouse in its own right. When you've got exclusive franchises like Infinity Blade on your platform, then yes, you are a legitimate force in gaming. And that's a huge problem for Sony, and also for Nintendo. It's ironic, too, because Apple is sort of doing the reverse of what Sony did with the PS2 and PS3. With those consoles, Sony sold people on the gaming, but used them as trojan horses to get people invested in DVD and blu-ray. And it worked like gangbusters. Now, Apple is doing something similar - selling people on the iPhone and iPad for all sorts of things not having to do with gaming, but then sneakily becoming a major player in games because of the gaming capabilities of those devices. Personally, a touch screen is never going to be my ideal way to play a game. But plenty of people are happy to get their gaming fix - particularly their portable gaming fix - from an iPhone or iPad. It will be interesting to see the impact of this on the Vita. Sony is coming out of the gates with a stellar lineup of launch titles - but will that be enough?

Already, the impact of Apple has been felt in a big way by Nintendo, especially since there's a lot of crossover between the two company's more casual gaming demos. The launch of the 3DS this year was supposed to be a no-brainer win for Nintendo. For years now, they've dominated the portable market with the DS and been virtually unchallenged, selling millions and millions of units worldwide. But the times, they are a-changin'. The failure to launch of the 3DS can be blamed on a lot of things - a lack of killer launch titles, too high of a pricepoint, initially - but still, the Apple factor is undeniable. For longtime gamers, this is troubling. Nintendo has given us years of great games and consoles - no one wants to see them fail. Apple, conversely, has not really embraced the core gamer, except for the fact that they've secured some big, exclusive titles like Infinity Blade. But Apple doesn't go to E3 (and on a personal sidenote: I did once again get to go to E3 this year, and it was awesome!), Apple doesn't have a first-party game development studio, Apple doesn't design its devices to be optimized for gaming (no buttons!), and Apple doesn't set up pricing structures that really make sense for the gaming business. At some point, Apple will have to decide: do they go all-in, or do they remain a disruptive but ultimately peripheral player?

Either way, Nintendo is in some trouble. The Wii's sales are slowing down drastically, and Nintendo's support for the console has been weak. There's been one great game for the Wii in recent months - Zelda: Skyward Sword - and that, frankly, isn't enough. Nintendo already seems to have turned its focus to its next console, the Wii U. But that is still a long ways away - what happens between now and then? Inevitably, Wii users will migrate over to the PS3 and XBOX 360, which is not good for Nintendo's longterm prospects. In the past, Nintendo could count on strong portable sales to offset slow periods for its home consoles, but now, that's not necessarilly true. The 3DS, even with some big titles finally seeing the light of day, still has an uphill battle ahead of it.

So are games as we know them all-but-dead? Will triple-A, big budget console games become an endangered species, supplanted by $5 iPhone games and free-to-play Facebook games? Good lord, let's hope not. But the good news is, games like Arkham City and Uncharted are still out there to remind us what great games are capable of, and to show us that it's still worth it to march forward and not look back. I want the games of 2012 to look and play like, well, what I dreamed the games of 2012 might look and play like circa 1992. I want the future to be filled with even more mind-blowing graphics, even more innovative gameplay, and more games that live up to the full potential of the medium. Back to basics is good, sometimes. But I only need so many wordgames, retro arcade games, and HD remakes. Gaming has always been about the new, the boundary-pushing, the future. I say let's keep it that way.


Note: As I hinted at above, it's impossible for me to play everything, and there are dozens of games I wish I'd gotten the chance to play this past year. So the list below is by no means definitive - just my personal picks for the year's best games.

1.) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

- Skyrim is powered by gorgeous graphics, cutting-edge technology, and an expansive open-world. But in many ways, it feels like a throwback to the old days, when games were less story-driven and more about simply getting lost in a huge fantasy world. It took me a little while to warm up to the game. At first, I got bogged down in the controls, the combat mechanics, and the camera - but as I played more, those things became less important. Because Skyrim has a lot of little issues, bugs, and quirks - but the sum is much greater than the parts. At the end of the day, Skyrim is simply awesome because everything comes together to the point where you just feel like you're a warrior on an epic quest in a giant and far-away kingdom filled with caves, castles, villages, and monsters - and that's a great feeling. Few other games have managed this level of total immersion.

2.) Batman: Arkham City

- Batman: Arkham Asylum was awesome, but it just needed that extra little layer of polish to become truly great. Enter Arkham City, which elevates the franchise to true triple-A status, creating an amazing, immersive world for you to play around in. In this game, you simply are Batman. And that, my friends, is pretty freakin' badass. The gameplay is tighter, the world is bigger, the graphics sharper. And the storytelling is about as good as it gets. With a superlative voice cast (does it get any better than Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as The Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn?), the story of Arkham city is legitimately one of the best-told Batman stories in recent memory, in any medium. That's a testament to where we're at now with this franchise and with games in general.

3.) Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

- Uncharted might just be the best franchise in gaming of this generation, and Uncharted 3 seals the deal. Nobody does blockbuster, set-piece action in gaming like Naughty Dog, the geniuses behind the Uncharted games. And no game series better matches great original characters - like the already-iconic Nathan Drake - with phenomenal gameplay that makes you feel like you're controlling the best Summer adventure movie that's not actually a movie, but something better. Uncharted 3 is another masterpiece from Sony and Naughty Dog.

4.) Tie: Bastion / Rayman Origins

- I had a hard time choosing between these two titles, because both wowed me with a blend of classic gameplay and eye-popping, hand-drawn visuals. Of the two, Bastion is the more original - an isometric adventure that matches a Zelda-like adventure with a mysterious and surprisingly somber tone. A haunting, unseen voice narrates your every move, and it's a unique addition to the gameplay. It makes it feel like you're playing through a fairy-tale, and there's a sense of urgency as you try to urge the hero on to a happy ending. A super-innovative and beautifully-crafted downloadable game on XBOX. Meanwhile, Rayman Origins is a cartoon come to life. It's incredibly vibrant, and the gameplay flows like a dream. This is just a classic take on the old-school 2D platformer that's a must-play for those who still appreciate the genre.

5.) L.A. Noire

- Finally, Rockstar's open-world detective title L.A. Noire is a little rough-around-the-edges at times, but I give it huge points for innovation and uniqueness. For one thing, the graphics are incredible - particularly with regards to the facial muscle-capturing techniques used, to sculpt characters who have the most realistic and naturalistic faces and expressions I've ever seen in a game. Secondly, the game just does a great job of immersing you in a classic film noir storyline. Even when the gameplay is a bit slow or awkward, the overall world created here is amazingly rendered and realized.

And there you have it, my games of the year. I know that there are a ton of great games I didn't talk about here, so be sure to let me know your personal picks. Happy gaming.

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