Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Top 11 Games of 2011 (Because 10 is not enough!)

It's becoming something of a cliche to say that 2011 has been a terrific year for gaming since almost every prior year boasted a terrific roster of both AAA releases and hidden gems that make our love of video games worthwhile. This has been mainly a console year for me, since I did not purchase a 3DS and I have barely touched my existing handhelds, so the majority of the games on my list were played on either the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3. Either way, with the steady stream of quality games and the deluge of "must-have" titles that landed later in the year, having to select only a few games as my favorites was very difficult. I feel this list properly represents the best gaming moments of 2011 for me, but I am cognizant of the fact that some great titles have been left out.

Before I get into my list, a few things need to be mentioned. As with any such list, this is subjectively based on the games that I had the most enjoyment out of in 2011. It's not a list made to please the masses and accordingly there are some of the "usual suspect" games that will not be appearing here. Games like Saint's Row: The Third, Catherine, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Battlefield 3 are not here because I haven't purchased them yet. Gears of War 3, Portal 2 and Dark Souls also fall into this category. Other games I do own, like Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, are not on the list because I haven't played them enough to properly assess, or I didn't enjoy them as much as other games. Such is the peril of having to limit your choice to only a small selection of games.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you my Top Eleven Games of 2011.

11. Bulletstorm

The first-person shooter genre has gone well beyond being saturated and it's refreshing to see a game that provides some unique twists on a now-tired formula. Bulletstorm combines classic FPS mechanics with a "kill with skill" focus in the gameplay. Rather than the traditional "run and gun" approach, you are rewarded for finding the most creative ways to kill your enemies and I had hours of fun combining my skills to pull of some incredibly awesome, and gruesome, kills. Fast, furious and dripping with attitude and sexual innuendo, this is the game that those disappointed by Duke Nukem: Forever should be checking out.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

10. Dragon Age II

While fans of Dragon Age: Origins haven't warmed to the more streamlined approach that the sequel takes, I personally found Dragon Age II to be an engaging and highly enjoyable action RPG experience. The main character Hawke, who rises to fame and power throughout the course of the game, is a more interesting protagonist than in the previous game and I found myself caring more about the outcome than I have with most RPGs of late. The open-world feel and other intricacies may have been dumbed down in order to make the game appeal to a mainstream audience, but the fascinating story and stellar battle mechanics in Dragon Age II more than make up for this.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
9. Shadows of the Damned

You have to admire a game that makes no apologies for it's crassness, so it goes without saying that I had a fantastic time playing Shadows of the Damned. The product of the minds behind Resident Evil and No More Heroes, this is a third person shooter that involves a protagonist descending into the depths of hell in order to rescue his nearly-dead girlfriend. Hell has never looked or sounded this absurd. The solid shooting and fun variety of weapons is complemented by a constant stream of profanity, toilet humor and sexual innuendos. Not every joke hits the mark, but anyone with a sense of humor along these lines will get a kick out of the game. There are few games I enjoyed more this past year, so it's place on this list is well deserved.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
8. Crysis 2

With other first-person shooters already appearing in this list, and other high-profile ones being absent altogether, my selection of Crysis 2 might seem somewhat illogical...unless you have played it. Simply put, this is one of the best looking and smoothest FPS titles I have ever played, with graphics and animation that pushes the limits of the current generation consoles. Crysis 2 isn't all flash, since it boasts a meaty and satisfying 10 to 12 hour campaign and a focus on tactical gunplay. The addition of the "Nanosuit", an augmented suit that grants you certain powers and tactical advantages, adds another layer of intricacy to the beautifully created set piece battles. This is yet another game that went unnoticed in 2011, however it's one that is definitely worth playing if you're looking for something a different and unique.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

7. F.E.A.R. 3 (F3AR)

Being a fan of the first two F.E.A.R. games, my anticipation for the third installment was very high. Despite some shortcomings including a shorter campaign, streamlined level design and overuse of screams and squeals, it delivered on most fronts, provided you are familiar with the story of the first two games. The standard-but-serviceable first-person shooter mechanics are complemented by classic "freak out" moments and panic-inducing moments where the infected run at you with alarming speed. The ability to play co-op with the game's antagonist, who boasts his own special powers, breathes fresh life into the series. F3AR is not the best or brightest of the FPS genre, but it succeeds in what it seeks to accomplish - to provide an unsettling gaming experience.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

6. Rage

A Bethesda game in which you play a survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and you must help people, join factions and kill roaming nasties. Sound familiar? While it may share some aesthetic similarities to the Fallout series, Rage has far more in common with games like Borderlands and Bioshock. The quest-based storyline is littered with interesting objectives and a fair few fetch quests, however the combat and corridor shooting is among the best in class for the genre.  The other central focus of Rage is vehicular combat and this provides some of the most intense and satisfying moments in the game, especially in the area battles, races and the online multiplayer. Rage is a game that many people overlooked but one that I highly recommend trying out.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

5. Dead Island

At first glance, Dead Island seems deceptively like Left 4 Dead transplanted on a tropical island with the guns traded in for wooden planks. In truth, Dead Island is a stellar first-person action/survival game that combines plentiful zombie-killing action with a Borderlands-style questing system. The focus on melee combat and the tendency for the zombies to gang up on you really makes this a tense and frantic experience, one that is unmatched by other games in the genre. The long and satisfying campaign is accented with a strong emphasis on co-operative gameplay, and it goes without saying that Dead Island is best enjoyed with a few friends playing along for the ride.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

4. L.A. Noire

In the months leading up to it's release, I openly stated that I had very little interest in playing L.A. Noire, mainly because I have not been a fan of Rockstar's offerings of late. Come launch day, I took the plunge on impulse and was very glad I did. This is not a 40's-era GTA clone, rather a deeply involved crime saga that boasts an immersive story, rich characters and some impressive facial capture technology that is pivotal in successfully interrogating a suspect or a witness. It's a different kind of game than some expected, one that makes you use your head and powers of deductive reasoning, and many people didn't like it for that reason. However, it hit all the right notes for me.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
3. Assassin's Creed: Revelations

The yearly release of a new Assassin's Creed title may have diluted the appeal of the franchise to some, however the titles have been nothing if not consistent in their quality. Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a wonderful bookend to the current saga, wrapping up the storyline of Ezio Auditore, the protagonist from the previous two games, and connecting it with that of Altair, the central character in the first game. The new setting of sixteenth-century Constantinople provides a fresh environment, while the open-world gameplay that the series is best known for is still intact and as enjoyable as ever. Some may bemoan the lack of innovation between installments, however there is still something comfortable and satisfying about playing an Assassin's Creed game and Revelations is a fitting installment and a satisfying (albeit bittersweet) conclusion.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
2. Dead Space 2 

The first Dead Space is considered by many to be one of the best games of this console generation, and definitely a landmark game in the survival horror genre. The sequel kicks things up a notch by giving you a more diverse (and creepy) setting and fleshed out story for the unfortunate protagonist Isaac Clark. While the first game took place on a deserted spaceship, the sequel gives you an entire space station to navigate, offering some genuinely inventive and creepy locales. However, the limb-severing Necromorph genocide you commit is still king. Dead Space 2 is everything a sequel should be, and even the addition of a superfluous and totally forgettable multiplayer doesn't bringing it down.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

If this list of games could be likened to a baseball team, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the bench-warmer who goes on to hit a grand slam at the World Series. Not being a fan of Bethesda's earlier offerings, I didn't approach Skyrim with the highest of expectations, however it completely blew away all of my preconceptions. Skyrim is a wonderfully realized world filled with an engaging story, interesting characters, challenging enemy battles, plentiful missions and gorgeous scenery. It would be hyperbole to say that it's the best RPG of all time, but it can be said that this is one of the best RPGs of this console generation and easily my favorite game of 2011.

Available On: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC

Looking ahead to 2012, the confirmed titles such as Bioshock: Infinite and Mass Effect 3 are already on my radar, and the rumored titles such as a third Dead Space, another Assassin's Creed, the yearly release of another Call of Duty and a host of other goodies will no doubt lead to plenty of late nights and wallet-emptying excursions to my local game shop. Needless to say, there is plenty to look forward to.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: RAGE (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

Bethesda Game Studios has been one of the critical darlings of the gaming industry, with landmark franchises such as Fallout and The Elder Scrolls under their belt, however I have never been particularly fond of their offerings. Save for the recently released Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, their games have not moved or engrossed me in any meaningful way and I have often considered them to be overrated. Rage treads familiar territory with it's combination of first-person shooter mechanics and RPG questing and exploration, and despite a few noticeable drawbacks, it has enough strengths to appeal to fans of both gameplay styles.

Rage takes place in a world that has been ravaged by an asteroid blast, rendering the terrain a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which pockets of survivors have formed factions in order to survive and control the flow of scarce resources. You play as someone known only as The Ark Survivor who, after emerging from an underground settlement, is rescued from a bandit attack by a friendly settler and then the game begins in earnest. After a few simple fetch quests, you learn that a hostile faction called The Authority is looking for you and they are known for performing a variety of bizarre experiments on other survivors. The plot goes into further detail as the game progresses, however your sense of purpose comes in the missions you do for various people in towns and the surrounding wastelands. The plot goes into further detail with conspiracies and weird science, but the "meat" of the story is really resisting factions fighting back against The Authority. The plot is neither deep or original, but in the context of a game like this, it's serviceable. All told, you should expect about 20 hours from the main single-player campaign and variable mileage in the multiplayer.

Given the focus on questing and helping others out, you might expect Rage to be an RPG in the style of Fallout, however the focus is on first-person corridor shooting and vehicle combat. The core weapons are the usual assortment of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and explosives, however there is some variety in the unique weapons you are given. You have a crossbow that allows for stealth kills, remote controlled RC cars that explode, and my personal favorite, the Wingstick. This boomerang-like blade propeller deals instant death to all but the toughest enemies and is easily one of the best weapons in the game. The combat experience is characterized by waves of enemies and the occasional boss battle, both of which provide only fleeting challenges. Since the wastelands are expansive and patrolled by roaming bandits, vehicles play an important part in your travels and they can be customized with better parts and more powerful weapons. In addition to combat, your vehicles are used for winning races and completing challenges scattered throughout the game. The controls in both the shooting and vehicle handling are as tight and responsive as you would expect, however the game's default sensitivity is extremely high and some tweaking may be required depending on your preferences.

Despite the post-apocalyptic setting and emphasis on questing, Rage has very little in common with the Fallout series. Character customization and levelling up is virtually non-existent and the linear path the game follows inhibits any meaningful exploration. As such, the first-person shooter and vehicular combat hybrid puts Rage more in line with games like Bioshock and Borderlands. Rewards come in the form of money and new missions being unlocked, the former being used to buying new weapons and supplies and the latter progressing the plot. Those who enjoy levelling, customization and assorted perks will probably find Rage to be a shallow experience, especially by Bethesda's standards, however I feel the action and thrilling combat makes up for these shortcomings.

In addition to the single-player experience, there are two multiplayer modes that may feel limited to most FPS fans, however I found them to be enjoyable for the time spent. The better of the two is called Road Rage, which is a vehicle-based and offers a few different modes that include checkpoint-races, demolition races and an area battle that functions as a team deathmatch of sorts. You earn points and level up based your skill and accuracy, and this levelling unlocks perks such as vehicle upgrades and more powerful weapons. The second is called Legends of the Wastelands, a surprisingly fun two player co-op experience that has you playing through missions similar to those found in the single-player campaign. The focus is achieving high scores and completing challenges with a limited arsenal of weapons,which provides some of the more frantic and intense moments in the game. Both multiplayer are fun, however they lack the variety and lasting appeal of other games in the genre, therefore it is doubtful that it will sustain an active online community. Having said that, Bethesda is usually generous with the DLC and the experience may be expanded in the future.

The Xbox 360 version is spread over a whopping three discs, two for the main game and the third being exclusively for the multiplayer. Given the smooth framerate and polished graphics, it is clear that Rage is more than the aging console can handle at times. However, the game looks fantastic, from the detailed wastelands to the unsettling indoor environments, and the framerate never stutters even during the most hectic of battles. Unlike the muddy and murky environments in Fallout, the wastelands you frequent are more along the lines of the arid deserts and rocky terrain of Borderlands. Having said that, Rage is not exactly a best-in-class shooter since other games like Crysis 2 look far better. The sound in Rage is also decent but unexceptional, with a practically muted soundtrack undermining the intense action. However, the sound during battles, from the gunshots to the squishy sounds of enemy limbs being severed, are particularly well done.

As with most of Bethesda's titles, the problems with the game become apparent early on and some are definitely more of a hindrance than others. By far the biggest issue is the broken save system, which makes auto-saving infrequent and manual saving an absolutely necessity, lest you lost significant progress when you die. The manual save does allow you to save wherever you like and pick up from exactly that point, however this is still unacceptable when regular auto-saving is the standard in most other games. The technical demands of the game also incur lengthy load times that will test your patience after a while, and there is even an in-game prompt that recommends installing the game on your hard drive for the "optimum experience". However, I did not deem it worth the aggravation given the amount of space the game takes up and the length of time it would take to install it. The third issue is more of an all-round lack of investment that you will feel in the story. There are few memorable characters, the plot is convoluted and the missions rarely rise above area-clearing and fetch quests. Even the more dramatic story missions fail to make you feel that you're accomplishing something great, and the boss battles are unchallenging and more a test of patience than skill. Having said all of that, these are not issues that entirely killed the experience for me, however they might for you depending on what kind of experience you hope to get out of the game.

When all is said and done, the main indicator of a game's quality is how much fun the player has with it. I certainly did. Rage is a solid action game that combines some of the best elements of the first-person shooter and vehicular combat genres, however it doesn't prove to be a landmark for either due to a lackluster plot and a lack of any emotional investment you'll feel in how events play out. It should be taken as an action game and enjoyed as such, so in that respect, Rage is a great title to have in your collection. Fans of the aforementioned Bioshock and Borderlands will probably enjoy Rage the most, however fans of Bethesda's other games are best advised to rent this game before paying full retail. Regardless, this is my kind of action game and anyone who enjoys shooters and/or vehicle combat games will enjoy the experience it has to offer.

Rating: 8 out of 10