Announcing the 2011 Game of the Year Awards from First Hour!
These aren't your normal awards, we cover everything from older game of the year to worst first hour. We also don't sum up votes on categories or anything either, we simply present each writer's thoughts on their pick, so if you don't like something, you know exactly who to blame! Of course, we do all this just for fun (spare time!) and buy all of our own games (real money!), so most of us don't even touch some of the big releases of the year. Woe to the unpaid game critic!
Let's start with the big award first:
GAME OF THE YEAR
There's a giddy thrill in silently taking out members of a patrol team while their bewildered comrades panic. But sometimes, you just want to drop right into plain sight to bust faces and show off your gadgets. Arkham City lets you have your cake and eat it too, and then you run off the rooftop and glide on over to the next cake. The organic stage design, scattered Riddler puzzles, and art deco underworld style are all icing.
I've been waiting for a proper sequel to Chrono Trigger for 15 years, and it finally arrived in the form of Radiant Historia. Simply the best new game I played all year, featuring an engrossing storyline, excellent battle system, and heavy time traveling that manages to enhance both the plot and gameplay. Radiant Historia is an absolute gem of a Japanese RPG, and the best in the genre I've played since Suikoden II. Consider this the swan song of the Nintendo DS, and the best, original portable RPG ever.
It's been a long time coming, and the only game I have ever anticipated more than this is Diablo 3. Well, Skyrim delivered, and did not disappoint in virtually any way other than some graphical bugs.
My reward for completing at least twenty-five videogames from my growing backlog in 2011, and it turned out to be the greatest reward of the year. L.A. Noire fresh take on the point-and-click genre, where talking, listening, and observing was more important than shooting or driving. Granted, there was shooting and driving to do, and it was good, but also completely skippable, giving the game's murky and sinful story and beguiling characters room to shine. Despite all the murder and seedy happenings, Los Angeles is a prepossessing city to explore, large and evolving, and Cole Phelps is one of the more memorable protagonists of the year. His troubled past and troubling present actions make him yet one more mystery to unravel in a game brimming with truly horrific cases that can go, depending on your choices, any which way.
I have not finished Skyward Sword yet, but so far, it has not disappointed. It looks beautiful and the motion controls truly make the experience uniquely immersive.
GAME OF THE (OTHER) YEAR
Released in 2010 while I was on my honeymoon; I know, woe is me. I only ended up whining to my wife a limited number of times about, oh, how I could be using V.A.T.S. on Super Mutants instead of waiting in line for Space Mountain, which, naturally, broke down for thirty minutes, with Disney techs ruining all the magic by turning on the lights so they could do repairs. Given the length of Bethesda's Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas took awhile to complete via a first playthrough. Yeah, it's fairly broken and littered with nasty glitches, but the writing is fantastic and there is a vault-size wealth of things to do at any given moment.
Thanks to the recent OSX port, I now know the die-and-retry twitch perfection that is Super Meat Boy. The hyper-difficult platformer niche tends to fall on dirty tricks and uninspired corridors of spiky death to hook in masochists, but this indie blockbuster's excellent micro stage design and ultra-responsive controls actually energize the player with every slop-splattering death.
Yeah, the original. This year is Castlevania's 25th anniversary, and popping this sucker in the Nintendo is still a joy. Though dated in many, many ways, it's still awesome how this series has stood the test of time. It's challenging, and man, will that music stick in your head. Not to mention that it's just fun.
This is the second year in a row one of the writers here is bestowing Batman: Arkham Asylum with the Best Game of the (Other) Year Award, and it is well deserved. Can I go ahead and call Arkham Asylum perfect? Like, not just 10/10 perfect but perfect perfect? And this is coming from someone who isn't a comics fan at all and regards the highlight of Batman's career to be The Animated Series. The only thing that ticks me off is that Arkham City came out late in the year so I've only just started playing it, otherwise I might be rewarding Rocksteady and Batman the double whammy in awards.
CONSOLE GAME OF THE YEAR
I like lots of award categories because I like to spread out my gaming love. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is certainly deserving of some gaming love. This is a classic Zelda adventure finally given a proper 21st century update. Link now has speed and style, along with near-precise control from the Wii Motion Plus. The graphics are gorgeous, even for the Wii five years after release, what else can we ask for? No, I won't say voice acting.
I will probably get a lot of "no"s from this, but I hadn't been this enamored in a game of this style in a long time. While some say Darksiders simply rips off Legend of Zelda and Devil May Cry, I LIKE that. Those are two awesome games, and they meld deliciously.
PORTABLE GAME OF THE YEAR
Last Specter for the Nintendo DS went back in time, letting us Layton fans see how the enigmatic professor and young Luke became friends, as well as puzzle partners. The formula did not change from the previous three games, but that's okay—if it's not broke, keep playing with it. A mix of cinematic story, brain-twisting puzzles, and engaging minigames. This one involves a strange specter destroying a town, night after night, and it's up to Layton, Luke, and newcomer Emmy to figure out why. A solid pastoral, with the usual array of characters and plot twists. In fact, my wife got seriously hooked with this game, and it's the first game in a long while that she's played from beginning to end; also, it made her cry. Have to also mention that Professor Layton and the Last Specter comes bundled with London Life, an Animal Crossing-like mini-RPG that oozes charm and many hours of miscellaneous fun. Portable game of the year indeed!
I love the Ace Attorney series, but it pleases me to no end that the development team is finally trying new things. Their first experiment is Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and it's a weird, mysterious success. The gameplay is... odd, and the story is bizarre, but everything is coated in Fun. Is this game for everyone? Absolutely not, but it was a joy for me to play.
PC GAME OF THE YEAR
This would have been my Game of the Year if it hadn't been for Radiant Historia, so I thought it was important to single out Portal 2 for its entertaining, high quality gaming. It's superbly funny, well acted, features brain-bending puzzles, and has an awesome climax. Portal 2 is a brilliant game and an excellent sequel to my 2007 Game of the Year.
MOBILE GAME OF THE YEAR
Bought my first Android phone this year, so I played a LOT of mobile games (or whatever you want to call them, I consider them in a different class than "portable" games on the DS and PSP). The best was a racecar simulation called Grand Prix Story, by the same team that brought you Game Dev Story last year. Imagine building a dream team of drivers and engineers, putting together the perfect car, entering a race "on fire", and actually seeing your driver blow the competition away. I adore this game and will pay lots of money for more titles like it.
FIGHTER GAME OF THE YEAR
Delightfully fun, almost limitlessly creative and with a tad bit of madness, Marvel vs. Capcom returned in a big way and quickly re-planted itself in the scene as a strong competitive fighter with a good balance of crazy.
RHYTHM GAME OF THE YEAR
It's a fantastic game on its own right but was unfortunately seemingly bogged down by mandatory motion support and big publisher requirements. As a result, Child of Eden felt too much like its predecessor (Rez) in mechanics and wasn't able to fully flourish into the masterpiece it wanted to be.
FIRST HOUR OF THE YEAR
This was a difficult decision for me, as I played a lot of great first hours, but the award has to go to Bastion, the indie darling of the year. Bastion lays everything out right away: lovely graphics, superb narration, and extremely solid gameplay. I love titles that make it obvious from the first few minutes that you're playing a really good game, and I also love ones that give you a real feeling of accomplishment after just 60 minutes, Bastion does both.
Few games have ever made me chuckle quite like first chunk of Portal 2. Stephen Merchant's nervous, accommodating personality sphere Wheatley is a shoe-in for best vocal performance of the year, and the brilliant early pacing between puzzle contemplation and story exposition tempted me to blast through the game in one sitting.
I've written about nine different videogames for The First Hour over the span of 2011, some with more successful openings than others. The one I had the most fun with was Minecraft, a game that was finally deemed a game at the end of this year, leaving beta and becoming a real thing. Free access for a few weeks was granted to those that participated in a summer Humble Indie Bundle, and I was always curious about the blocks-laden experience and whether it was just a construction set or an actual adventure. Turns out...both, but still a great time. My first hour with the game taught me the essentials for surviving the long nights, and I'm a better Minecrafter for it.
WORST HOUR OF THE YEAR
Nintendo's glasses-free 3D is a pretty cool effect. I rarely turn it off unless battery life is a concern. But there is definitely an adjustment period, and it was almost unbearable for me. My first fifteen minutes of Pilotwings Resort brought on one of those monumental headaches that aren't soon forgotten. I never had the problem again after a few days with the system, but my first hour with the 3DS earns my Worst Hour award by virtue of inflicting real, physical pain.
Oh, the magic of differing opinions. Paul picks Fallout: New Vegas as his Game of the (Other) Year, and I can barely stomach a full hour of the game. Bored by an excessive amount of walking and the almost complete lack of action, I could never get into the rhythm of the wasteland. Sad thing is, I own this game and it's just collecting dust under my desk right now.
The only good Harry Potter game is a LEGO Harry Potter game, and my time with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One for the Nintendo DS confirms this greatly.
FALSE HOUR OF THE YEAR
I was genuinely excited for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the newest in a franchise that locked in my love for RPG shooters, the kind that let you play however you like to play. For me, that would be as a sneaky sneaker, a guy hiding in the shadows and popping out to only momentarily take down an evil dude. Alas, the game seemed to truly punish stealthy players, and only got more punishing after the first hour (wherein Adam bought the farm five times) where boss battles were designed to only work with players that shot guns, threw grenades, and cursed loudly. It's just a dang shame.
In the opening sixty minutes of Uncharted 3, I shot maybe six bullets. But that's okay: it was time well spent with interesting new cast members and insights into Drake's troubled childhood. From then on, however, the game was a relentless bloodbath through a marathon of impossibly perilous man-made disasters, with mere moments exploring the potential of each character. Perhaps "Drake's Deception" refers to the sober, personal setup giving way to reflex-driven action porn.
I had a genuine amount of fun with the first hour of Fable II, but the hit of euphoria it injected barely lasted another hour. By the end of the slog that is Fable II, I was more than ready to move on to another game, any game. I think I should have known better what to expect from a Peter Molyneux game, but I did enjoy the first Fable when I played it... six years ago.
MOST HOURS OF THE YEAR
With an entire country to conquer, Skyrim keeps players engrossed for more hours than it has any right to. Players can become engaged in almost any number of various missions of their liking, and it does an excellent job of keeping things fresh through the wonders of exploration.
Nintendo wasn't lying when it said Skyward Sword was a long-ass game (perhaps not their exact words). I sank forty five hours into the newest Zelda before completing the quest. More importantly, those hours were dense with combat, puzzles, and exploration, with hardly any of the bloated dungeon design that plagued Twilight Princess or the lengthy fetch quests that brought Wind Waker's pace to a screeching halt. All those hours of arm flapping are quite a commitment, but Skyward Sword is worth it.
Let's go with Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, which I finally considered “beaten” in 2011 despite the long list of downloadable and post-game quests. Hey, I finished off the main baddie, and that was no easy task. My in-game stats card says that I've logged 134 hours, 47 minutes, and 55 seconds in total. Yowza. Granted, I definitely slowed down over the last few months, not going after every single miscellaneous quest available, only trying to get my inn full of all the special guests. However, closing in on the title of Most Hours is definitely The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is around the 70 hours mark, and I've not even ridden a horse yet. Games...they eat up time, that's for sure.
Warband is a huge, fantastic time sink for me. I have over 300 hours on this bastard, at least. Probably more. Online play is loads of fun.
GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR
The game has its flaws, but I loved playing Dragon Age II. Chalk it up to a very fast combat system (especially for those playing rogues), the bold frame story, and the brilliant charisma of our hero, Hawke. Year after year, I seem to have a thing for fast-paced hack-and-slashes, nothing has changed in 2011.
On paper, everything about Harmony of Despair irks me. 99% of its content is lifted from previous games (some character and enemy sprites are nearly twenty years old). Character maximization is driven by luck and repetition. The paid DLC structure is heinous. But I'm a sucker for Castlevania; I happily sank thirty hours into Castlevania HD and could have put in thirty more if it weren't released on PlayStation Network during the annual October-November Games Of The Year avalanche.
Only have an hour but want some competition? Play some 5v5 action in League of Legends, an multiplayer online battle arena (moba) game. A fresh new node control game mode was just released this year with games averaging only around 20 minutes for those in need of a quick fix but even less time to spare.
BEST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR
In May 2011, the Nintendo 3DS was poised for release into the wild, and folks everywhere were claiming the Nintendo DS as dead as a doorknob. I wasn't ready to let go yet, and thankfully, Monster Tale, a charming, Metroidvania romp involving an innocent girl and her monster pet, made me glad to still be grasping the original portable console. It wasn't perfect, with too much backtracking and really no reason to replay save for trying out a different monster evolution, but it was solid platforming fun, and a challenge to boot. Excellent use of the two screens as well.
Wii Play Motion breaks through the cheap minigame collection stigma that its predecessor helped establish and presents several compelling arguments that the Wii Remote just didn't get its fair shake from players, developers, or even Nintendo. If you have a Wii Remote Plus or a Motion+ attachment already, see if you can score this one from the used game section (or shell out the full $50 for the Wii Remote Plus bundle, the only way you can purchase Wii Play Motion new).
I like shmups quite a bit, especially when surrounded by good friends, but I don't actively seek them out. Jamestown came highly recommended by a friend, so I gave it a try, and a few hours later I had beaten the game on three different difficulties, conquered a number of difficult challenges, and downloaded the soundtrack for its awesome level complete song. Not only is it a very good game, Jamestown popped out of nowhere to warm my heart. Now it just needs online multiplayer!
Space Channel 5 Part 2 is (in my opinion) easily one of the best game experiences of all time, and the surprising rerelease of the game on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Windows was a fantastic move on Sega's part. Even if only for the fact that I can bug more people into playing it now.
WORST SURPRISE OF THE YEAR
I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but I think the beginning of Infamous 2 squandered some serious narrative potential that the first game's ending set up.
The Nintendo 3DS and its early stages of infancy. We were supposed to get the next evolution of the portable system, and then...we didn't. We got a gimmicky device that had no battery life, no must-have games upon release, and a wonky few months of stumbling through a retail void unsuccessfully. Games were priced too high to complete with smartphones, and there just didn't seem to be any reason to get the system, especially if you already had a working Nintendo DS. I bought my 3DS on day one, and for that I was later rewarded with free games after Nintendo had to drop the price to stay relevant. It's first few months of life were not amazing, and it only seems like within the last two months of the year did the system pick up with new Mario games (Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land), patched software to allow people to take 3D videos, and an eShop full of interesting applications and downloadable titles.
PSN was hacked and down for ages while trying to assess damages and fix the problem. Xbox Live raised its prices and introduced a user-unfriendly UI with ads bombarding you from all directions. Even Steam joined in the mix by having a forum database compromise. Origin's TOS is a disaster, Nintendo's online support is still fleeting at best. Sad faces all around.
BEST SECRET OF THE YEAR
Radiant Historia quietly launched in February to great reviews but was largely forgotten weeks later as the JRPG-stuffed Nintendo DS reached its obsolescence. The game lingered in my mind, however, as a clear Game of the Year candidate. In the end, it didn't quite take top honors, but Radiant Historia is on my shortlist of all-time best RPGs, rubbing elbows with its time-traveling precursor.
Without warning, Bastion exploded. Usually, XBLA titles come and go, only popping back up during a week of sales, but this hack-n-slash arcade title really delivered the goods. Beautifully hand-drawn artwork, a fantastic story narrated by an ever-watching observer, and solid controls for dangerously fast combat scenarios are only part of what made Bastion so good. The game seemed to come out from nowhere, and then found itself everywhere, launching on Steam and within Google Chrome (yes, a browser) shortly after. Well, the secret's out of the bag; Bastion is remarkable, and you need to play it sooner than later.
SHAME OF THE YEAR
Not only because Duke Nukem Forever was pretty lackluster but because its development pushed Borderlands 2 back by nearly a year. What a waste.
Countless crashes, glitches, and even ability-breaking patches have plagued Skyrim since release as Bethseda continues to apparently build games too complex for their engines. As with many of their games, the community is taking the lead in not only content but performance. A recent mod has given users significant performance improvements by merely recompiling the game with compiler performance flags checked (in other words, Bethseda didn't press the button that said "free performance for everyone" when they've released each version of the game thus far). Rage's release was simply disastrous and unplayable on Radeon graphics cards until months after release. Many players were even welcomed with an entire game of blue textures after one driver release that supposedly "fixed" all current Rage issues.
Spectral Force 3 is one I didn't look anything up about, and when I picked it up at my recently opened local Gamestop (I now have one 5 minutes away), I saw that it kinda looked like Fire Emblem, so I elected to play it. It's not. It's a disappointment on all sides for me. The anime scenes are mediocre, voice acting is horrendous, the characters are obvious and bland, and the gameplay is slow and obnoxious. While turn-based strategy isn't a speedy genre, the fact that instead of saying "attack!" and then that unit is done, you have to keep hitting attack 5 times. Why not just make it a single, more powerful attack? I don't know, but the screwed the pooch on this one.
Over the year, I've been working on picking up some PlayStation 2 games for my collection before stores everywhere stop selling them. Trust me, it's only a matter of time. I've gotten some winners, some losers, and some games that fall into a category below losers. Monster Rancher EVO is one of them. It's a weird mix of generic RPG tropes and circus scheduling, with a first hour full of bad dialogue, clunky graphics, and confusing menu tutorials. My wife and I tried to make some cool monsters from random music CDs, but even that was a tiresome affair. If any of you are interested in raising monsters, this is not the place to start.
I really don't mind that Kyotokei ripped off Ikaruga. The lines between copycat and homage and competitor are blurry at best in an industry where iterative improvements within and between product lines is the overwhelming norm. But did Kyotokei need to pull the title screen art right out of my nightmares? For that, it is sentenced to Shame of the Year.
A Japanese RPG developed in Canada, Black Sigil is a really, really bad game. So bad, in fact, I forced myself to beat the game just so I could tear it apart in a review, which I did. Black Sigil does everything wrong, and it's a shame this is supposed to be some kind of tribute to the 16-bit era of JRPGs.
While it was supposed to be out already, I have no problem with a delay, especially since we're now only three months from release. I want the best game ever, and BioWare wants to give it to me. Bring on Mass Effect 3.
A single trailer, now nearly two years old, is all that publicly exists of prickly Tomonobu Itagaki's new game (and it's not expected until 2013), but I've got faith in Devil's Third. The slick interplay of hand-to-hand, sword, and firearms combat is something legitimately unique in today's gaming landscape, where shooters and melee action games are distinctly segregated and difficult to combine. Think what you will about his indoor-sunglasses rockstar persona, but if anyone can make this type of game work, it's the ambitious and perfectionist former head of Team Ninja.
That's the game that will get me gaming again hardcore. I'm certain of it.