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 lard pirates dawt cawm  §  Spoony's Top Ten Games of 2011 / by Spoony Spoonicus
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2011 again brought us a lot of solid releases. It's just a shame that we had to wait until the fourth week of November to play most of them. Seriously, almost every quality release this year was pushed back again and again until 75% of them all fell into November 22 or thereabouts. It's not like we wanted anything fun to play over the summer, guys!

With that complaint out of the way, let's dig into my ten thirteen favorites.

Oh, and I've taken the liberty of playing every single game released on all formats in 2011 just to spare you the trouble of telling me I missed one. No need to thank me.

10. Saints Row: The Third

Another surprise hit for me, largely because I think GTA is one of the most overrated, boring shlockfests of a series out there. However, Saints Row makes so many improvements to the formula that it's impossible not to enjoy even if you usually hate open-world games. The action is over-the-top, the humor is genuinely funny, there are tons of options to upgrade your character and expand the gameplay and the controls and physics are tight and have surprisingly few bugs. Hell, even the side-missions are fun - from riding flaming dune buggies and crashing into stuff to insurance fraud (bouncing yourself off cars for money) to enormous shootouts with gangs and cops alike, it's all just a blast to play. Definite props to Volition.

9. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

After a long absence from the gaming scene, due in no small part to the lukewarm reception of Invisible War and Eidos being bought out by Square Enix, hope for a worthy successor to the Deus Ex line became slimmer and slimmer. Fortunately, however, this game breaks the mold in two ways - not only is a worthwhile followup to the first game, incorporating its stealth elements, choice-based gameplay and intricate character customization system to great effect, it's also a very well-written prequel that segues into the other two games quite well. Even better yet, it manages to incorporate cover-based shooting and regenerating health in a way that doesn't make me cringe, largely because you can't just hide behind a box and regenerate all your health in two seconds flat - if you take a hit, you're going to be feeling it for at least a minute or two.

Overall, it does get a bit drawn-out and repetitive, and it feels very rushed in some respects (especially near the end), but it definitely captures the feel of Deus Ex, and that is no bad thing.

8. Portal 2

A followup to the Orange Box's sleeper hit, Portal 2 continues where the first game picked off, offering new puzzles, tons of new mechanics, and of course, some of the damn funniest dialog ever put into a video game (in no small part due to the contribution of Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, formerly of Old Man Murray fame). The real draw is the two player co-op, though, which adds an entirely new degree of challenge and depth to the gameplay. I hear there's even a level editor in the works for the future, so we'll have plenty of replay value then as well. But for now, a solid choice for #8 on my list.

7. Catherine

Atlus takes a break from ultra-hard console RPGs for a bit to bring us something different - an ultra-hard action puzzle game. The concept is simple enough - push and pull blocks to climb your way up to the top of a tower and escape the level - but it quickly becomes a very challenging experience once you start encountering ice blocks, black holes, spike blocks, enemy sheep that try to knock you off the stage, and, of course, giant boss characters trying to murder you every step of the way. Fortunately, the game is pretty generous with lives and giving you pointers on how to traverse the tougher obstacles, so it never becomes hellishly frustrating - it'll annoy you, sure, but only just enough that you want to keep playing until you've conquered the stage.

Definite props for the storytelling in the game as well. Yes, it incorporates all of the M-rated usuals - bloody violence, profanity, nudity and even sex - but all of it is handled with maturity and respect. Every bit of it is there for a reason, with none of it simply being thrown in for shock value or a crass joke. I do believe a few others in the industry could take a lesson from that (cough EPICGAMES cough EA cough cough BIOWARE).

6. Batman: Arkham City

I don't think there's any doubt that Batman: Arkham Asylum was a game that perfectly captured the feel of Batman with its combination of detective work, stealth sections and, of course, a combat system that allows you to elegantly take on groups of twenty or more enemies and look damn awesome doing it. Its outstanding visuals. voicework and writing certainly didn't hurt either. Arkham City only builds upon that same formula, giving you a much larger game environment to explore, lots of new gadgets and combat moves to play with, and refined mechanics that make everything great about the original even more fun to play. Not much else to say, it's just pure fun in the dark and twisted world of Batman.

5. Super Mario 3D Land

While the previous 3D Mario games were all excellent in their own right, they just lacked the, erm, "Mario" element. Super Mario 3D Land finally addresses this bizarre gap and creates a 3D Mario game that feels like a Mario game, bringing back breakable bricks, question blocks, hidden secrets and yes, even airship levels, boss battles and flagpole-jumping. It's also among the first games for the system that actually puts the 3D gimmick to good use, allowing for much easier distance judgment in the platforming. Simple to learn, yet well-designed and genuinely fun, it's the new Mario title we've been waiting for.

4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Another series I've always felt was massively overrated - sure, the worlds are enormous and feature an incredible amount of background lore and attention to detail, but the stories and characters were always unbelievably bland and the gameplay was extremely simple and uninvolving. Well, I'm glad to report that Skyrim finally acknowledges the series' glaring flaws. Combat is now intense, brutal and strategic, pitting you against everything from bandits and wolves to towering giants, mammoths and dragons. The story is well-written with several memorable characters and even multiple story paths to take, giving the game some extra replay value. But most of all, you actually feel like you're interacting with a living, breathing game world - you can gather materials to craft weapons and armor, you can take on all sorts of interesting side-quests (including the requisite Vampire and Werewolf plot threads), you can go exploring in any of the dozens of dungeons (all of which are interesting in their scenery and design)... hell, you can even just do mundane jobs like chopping firewood and mining ore if that's really your thing. For the first time, an Elder Scrolls game feels truly vast and substantive, and I salute Bethesda for it.

3. Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3

There was a fair bit of outrage at Ultimate Marvel VS Capcom 3's announcement - MvC3 had only been out for a few months, after all, and now they had the gall to release an improved version before the year was out?! But as more details broke, we began to grow more and more convinced that this $40 upgrade would definitely be worth the asking price. With twelve new characters, a massive rebalancing to the rest of the cast, new game modes*, new stages, new mechanics (including some tweaks to the aerial juggle that allow you to subtract a Super Meter from your opponent or add one to your own supply) and a ton of new DLC costumes (and all existing DLC from the original version carrying over to this one), people's complaints quickly vanished. Rightfully so, as UMvC3 is one of the most intense and enjoyable fighting game experiences I've ever had. I've had a ton of fun pitting Phoenix Wright, Strider and Rocket Raccoon against all comers for days now.

PS: Get Mega Man and Captain Commando back in there as DLC! As for the Marvel side... I don't know, Rogue and Daredevil? Yeah, that sounds good.

*Sadly, Heroes and Heralds mode was not included on the disc due to time constraints. It was added in a patch in December, though.

2. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Zelda returns to consoles with a vengeance after two mediocre DS outings, and the result is excellent. Keeping the core dungeon-crawling and puzzle solving that made the series great, it also makes effective use of the Wii Motion Plus for combat, adding a new degree of strategy and timing to battles with even mundane enemies. Perhaps even more fun, though, is the new item upgrade system, which allows for some creative new upgrades to the usual Zelda inventory (like a spray of bullets from each firing of the Slingshot). Hell, even the plot is pretty damn good, with a sense of cohesion and urgency that has you constantly wanting to skip the sidequests to see what the big bad and Zelda are up to now. Who says this franchise never innovates? Not I, good sirs. Not I.

1. Tactics Ogre

Another PS1 gem getting the update for the Playstation Portable, Tactics Ogre is perhaps the finest turn-based strategy RPG I've ever had the pleasure of playing. The story is well written with its numerous characters and morally ambiguous choices and even incorporates multiple story paths and endings, which gives it some considerable replay value. Battles are large-scale and intense, often incorporating twenty or more units at a time on one single screen. The game is also extremely challenging, requiring a fair bit of grinding between story stages just to get you on par with your foes - if you're even a level or two behind, you're probably going to get wrecked. Thankfully, leveling is expedited by having classes level up as a group - if you raise your Warrior to level thirteen, any new Warriors you recruit will also be level thirteen, for example. However, this also means that new classes you unlock will begin at Level 1, and you'll have to spend a lot of time and effort getting them up to speed with the rest of your party.

Aside from a few annoying aspects, Tactics Ogre is a game well worthy of your time, and serves as a great example of what Quest was capable of before they got stuck creating mediocre Final Fantasy Tactics Advance games for the rest of time. A fine sending-off for the old PSP.
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