It’s been such a great year for video games I could make a convincing year-end top-five list featuring only games I came nowhere near finishing. The games I did play in 2011 astounded. This year’s tops five are all worthy of being Game of the Year, but decorum dictates a favorite must be picked.
Epic Games’ “Gears of War 3” (rated M, $60 for Xbox 360) [full review] stands apart from this year’s other releases because it accomplishes an unheard-of trifecta. Its 10-hour single-player or cooperative campaign is the series’ longest, strongest entry. The refined Horde mode and newly introduced Beast game type were 2011’s deepest, most satisfying co-op experience. The competitive multiplayer modes are largely familiar to “Gears” veterans, but they emerged polished and well-tuned at launch, thanks to a massive, long-running online beta test that rewarded die-hard fans with unlockable items for the retail game.
Provided you have an active Xbox Live subscription, “Gears 3” offers hours of entertainment for literally every type of gamer. It is, of course, still a “Gears of War” game, so if you’re not a fan of the series and don’t think you’ll be converted, check out the following runners-up, listed in order of preference.
“Deus Ex: Human Revolution” (rated M, $40 for PC, $60 for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) [full review] : Eidos Montreal’s sci-fi detective story is very much an old-school gamer’s game. “Deus Ex” can be extremely unforgiving at times, but, despite some dated gameplay conventions, it’s easy to fall in love with the way the game gives players multiple solutions to every problem while never holding your hand and saying, “Do it this way.” The game’s brainy narrative culminates in a fantastic, intellectually engaging third act that maturely explores mankind’s relationship with science and technology. A single-player stunner.
“The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” (rated M, $60 for PC, Xbox 360 or PS3) [full review]: Bethesda Softworks’ massive, open-world swords-and-sorcery role-playing game was the year’s most engrossing, deepest single-player experience. The level of craft that went into its villages, dungeons, houses and castles is nuanced and astounding. My only knock on the game is that after 80 hours of world, it doesn’t seem to have changed much.
“Bulletstorm” (rated M, $20 for PC, $30 for Xbox 360 or PS3) [full review]: People Can Fly’s unconventional first-person shooter encourages players to “kill with skill.” The practical effect of this is that the game rewards you for creating spectacular, large-scale carnage. The frequent foul language and over-the-top dude-bro story no doubt turned off a lot of players, but “Bulletstorm” ridicules macho buddy entertainment as much as it celebrates it. Anarchy mode, which requires players to fight off waves of computer controlled enemies while reaching a score threshold to advance, was this year’s best new multiplayer mode until “Gears of War 3” introduced Beast mode in mid-September.
“Portal 2” (rated E10+, $30 for PC, $40 for Xbox 360 or PS3) [full review]: Valve Software’s charming, frequently hilarious puzzle game took a huge risk when it tasked players with teaming up to tackle an entirely separate co-op campaign. Yet “Portal 2’s” two-player, physics-based puzzles ended up being just as satisfying as the single-player game’s tightly wound story of Aperture Science, GLaDOS and Wheatley. Like its predecessor, “Portal 2” made you feel smart for sussing out solutions, only this time, you got to share that sense of accomplishment with a friend.
A special note on “Catherine”: Atlus Games’ unusual blend of “Q*Bert”-style block-jumping, puzzle-solving and supernatural soap opera occupies the 10th spot on my list deservedly, but I picked it because it’s the strongest representative from a quartet of unusual games from Japan that came out in spring/early summer. “Catherine,” “Shadows of the Damned” [review], “Child of Eden” [review] and “El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron” [review] hit retail right around the time I’d finally had it with games in which a gruff, burly dude shoots stuff. The quartet was a tremendous midyear palate cleanser,
Five I didn’t spend enough time with: “The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings,” “Minecraft,” “Saints Row the Third,” “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” and “Dark Souls” [review of first 20 hours] sit atop my pile of shame. “The Witcher 2,” in particular, has sunk its teeth into me at the moment.
Maybe next year: BioWare’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game “Star Wars: The Old Republic” is barely a 2011 game, having come out in late December. Because of the hundreds of hours of content in its constantly evolving universe, I’m cheating and calling it a 2012 game for year-end purposes. After around 20 hours as a jedi sentinel, I’m enjoying myself immensely.