Twenty-eleven was not a banner year for games. Sure, the fourth quarter was once again overfilled with AAA titles that brought in billions of dollars of revenue (and review scores centered squarely at the top end of the scoring chart), but many of those titles weren't exactly mindblowing in their awesomeness. The games weren't bad, mind you—it's just hard to shake the feeling that 2011's fourth quarter was more about treading water and maintaining the status quo than actually innovating and bringing anything new to the table.

Of course, that was sort of the mantra of 2011 as a whole. New IPs were relatively few and far between as big name sequels to established franchises fought for market share. Gamers seemed okay with this—which is why things like Assassin's Creed: Revelations sold significantly more copies than titles like Rayman: Origins. Gamers talk a good deal about wanting "new" titles, but when it comes time to vote with their wallets, it seems like sequels continue to rule the roost.

Despite this feeling of malaise that has covered the industry for the past 12 months, 2011 did have some good titles. I completed 45 games in 2011—and it would have been more had I not had a spring and summer fling with Final Fantasy XI. That's a lot of games—but not enough to have played all the major releases of the past year. I've still got to catch up with the aforementioned Rayman and Saints Row: The Third, but aside from that I'm comfortable with highlighting the ten best games of the past year. I suspect Rayman might have made the list, but it got lost in the holiday shuffle for me as I tried to get through Skyward Sword (a mistake). So, without further ado, here are my top games of 2011.

Dead Space 2 Screenshot

Dead Space 2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Isaac Clarke's back to kill more Necromorphs in Electronic Arts' follow up to Dead Space, which is generally a good thing. Some new weapons and gear, a new locale, and more story details make up the sequel's positives, which finds our favorite engineer stuck in a deserted space colony where he fights a horde of bloodthirsty aliens and his own personal demons. Honestly, I expected Dead Space 2 to place higher on my list, but it's hard to get around some of the game's more glaring flaws. Isaac, a classic silent protagonist in the original game, now speaks—and we see his face too. That's not a deal breaker for everyone, but I'm willing to bet that a lazy final level (featuring an unkillable enemy) and a final boss that can be very difficult with the wrong weapons loadout will certainly annoy everyone. Despite those flaws, Dead Space 2 is just creepy enough to sneak onto the list. Whether that's a testament to its overall quality or a statement on the nature of its competition is something you can decide.

Hunted: The Demon's Forge Screenshot

Hunted: The Demon's Forge (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

I can all but guarantee that inXile's fantasy homage to Gears of War 3 is a title you won't see on five other Best of 2011 lists—which is a shame, because Hunted: The Demon's Forge is actually an entertaining third person action title.

The game's mechanics are a mixture of the hack-and-slash action role-playing game (RPG) with the cover-based mechanics of Epic's Gears franchise, and surprisingly enough, it all works well. Players can switch between two characters—brawling human Caddoc or Elven archer E'lara at various points in the narrative, meaning the combat experience has some variety to it. The environments are fairly standard high fantasy settings and the graphics are serviceable, but the writing and characters are especially good. It's nice to see a game featuring a male and female main character that's completely free of romantic subtext and sexual innuendo. Caddoc treats E'lara like a capable partner, not a potential conquest.

The game isn't perfect (there are some bugs to uncover…), but it's an interesting spin on the Gears of War formula and well worth a look for anyone who likes action RPGs. Too bad we're unlikely to ever see a sequel…

Bulletstorm Screenshot

Bulletstorm (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Speaking of games that will probably never see a sequel, we come to Epic and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm. Cut from similar cloth as Gears, Bulletstorm replaced the pop-and-drop shooting mechanics with a laser lasso that could rope in enemies and fling them around—allowing for combo-heavy takedowns that award creativity as much as savagery—and a smart alecky and profane tone to replace all the pathos and melodrama of Marcus Fenix's series. The results were wholly satisfying.

While not for everyone, Bulletstorm is so gleefully over the top and stupid that I couldn't not love it. In a gaming landscape filled with somber space marines and the like, alcoholic mercenary Grayson Hunt is a delightful breath of fresh air. There's no arguing that the game is juvenile and silly, but it's also a great reminder that not all games have to be art. Sometimes it's okay to just kick back and laugh at guys making wildly vulgar and inappropriate jokes while shooting mutant monsters in the junk.

On the one hand, I'm glad people are finally starting to discover (and enjoy) Bulletstorm. On the other, it sucks that it happened so far after the fact that we'll probably never get to see Grayson Hunt in another game. Oh well, at least we'll always have Bulletstorm.

Shadows of the Damned Screenshot

Shadows of the Damned (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Japanese game developer Suda 51 is a bit of an acquired taste—either you love his wild, weird, and quirky games for what they are, or you can't get past the inherent flaws and find them a mess. I'm more the former than the latter, which is why I liked Shadows of the Damned more than the majority of games I played in 2011.

Playing demon hunter Garcia Hotspur is a hoot, particularly for horror fans. Garcia and his talking skull partner Johnson have to head into Hell to save Hotspur's girlfriend after she's kidnapped by a demon lord. What follows is a bizarre mix of Resident Evil, R-Type, and a buddy comedy flick wherein Garcia and Johnson solve puzzles, kill demons, and crack jokes along the way.

The gameplay is not without some minor issues (the "big Johnson" level is a disaster, for example) but the writing, characters, and Suda 51 weirdness make Shadows of the Damned one of the most bizarrely entertaining titles I've played in ages.

Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection Screenshot

Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection (PlayStation 3)

I'm sort of conflicted on the whole HD remake thing. On one hand, I like the idea of being able to revisit classic games on my new TV without it looking like my PS2 threw up on the screen after a night of binge drinking. On the other, shelling out $40 for games I already own is a bit problematic.

In the case of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I put aside financial concerns for the joy of getting reacquainted with two of the greatest games of the previous console generation. I'm as torn as ever on whether or not games are really art, but Ico and Colossus are certaintly compelling arguments that they are.

These new HD versions are essentially the same classic games, only with improved graphics to take advantage of the giant leap forward in TV technology of the past decade. In this regard, the package is a success—the games look great, but not so great that they lose their original charm. That being said, it's the games themselves that are really worth talking about. Ico and Colossus are as timeless as ever—and I suspect that we'd all still adore them even without the high-def makeovers. These two games are about more than gameplay—there's an atmosphere, an ambiance—a mood that permeates both experiences that is ultimately unforgettable. It's so powerful that it convinces the player to overlook the minor niggling issues of each game. Are games art? Who knows—but I do know that this collection was one of the best things I purchased this year.

Batman: Arkham City Screenshot

Batman: Arkham City (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Arkham Asylum still gets my vote for the greatest comic book game of all-time, but Arkham City is no slouch either. Developer Rocksteady brings the Caped Crusader back for another adventure that's sure to satisfy comic fans even though the story falls apart toward the end.

While I prefer Asylum's more enclosed environments to Arkham City's gigantic sandbox, the setting isn't nearly as important to the experience as is being Batman. Controlling the Dark Knight is more satisfying than ever thanks to a refined combat system (that truly is quite heavenly in its intuitiveness) and the ability to grapple hook your way around the sprawling metropolis of Gotham. Yes, it's more of the same (with some minor refinements), but Arkham Asylum was so great that I can't imagine many folks being disappointed with another helping of that gameplay. It truly is a shame that the endgame is so underwhelming—with a better story and a more compelling final boss, this one could have been a contender.

Gears of War 3 Screenshot

Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)

The final chapter in Marcus Fenix's fight against the Locust is every bit as melodramatic as you'd expect, with so much testosterone flying across the screen that I thought my television might start growing stubble before the end credits rolled. Gears 3 is a fitting swansong to the series that manages to answer most of the major questions and resolve dangling plot threads (except the one about why the Locust Queen looks human…) of Cliffy B.'s video game soap opera.

The gameplay is satisfying (albeit easier than any of the other games in the series), but the real selling point is spending time with Marcus, Cole, Baird, and Dom again—which makes it sort of annoying that Epic decided to saddle us with Jace Stratton for huge chunks of the game. That complaint aside, Gears 3 is pretty much everything fans expected from one of the 360's flagship series. It's not likely to turn up on anyone's list of great moments in gaming narrative design, and it certainly doesn't even attempt to bring anything new to the table, but it delivers exactly what fans expected—a compelling conclusion to a story we've been following for the better part of a decade. Now bring on a Gears of War movie already…

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Screenshot

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (PlayStation 3)

Nathan Drake's third outing isn't quite as good as the magnificent second game, but Drake's Deception isn't exactly Return of the Jedi when compared to Among Thieves' The Empire Strikes Back, either.

Instead, Naughty Dog brings us another action-packed cinematic title that works diligently to blur the line between film and game. The story twists and turns, revealing the backstory of how Nate and Sully met while interjecting gigantic set-pieces between the narrative interludes. Yes, the game stretches the willing suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion and yes, the Uncharted formula is starting to look a little frayed around the edges, but when Uncharted 3 works, it really works. Set-pieces in the latter half of the game are sublime in their staging and execution and a chase on horseback stands as perhaps the greatest single video game moment of 2011.

Little problems abound in Uncharted 3—the story gets weird at the end, enemies are bullet sponges, the aiming can feel a little wonky, and so on—but I love these characters so much that I'm willing to forgive the flaws in favor of the greater good. Naughty Dog is going to have to think long and hard about where this franchise is headed moving forward—lest it become even more Tomb Raider-esque—but that's a problem for another day. For now, let's just bask in the glory that is Uncharted 3.

Catherine Screenshot

Catherine (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

In a sea of sequels and new games borrowing elements from other franchises, Catherine stands alone as one of the truly unique gaming experiences of the past twelve months. Leave it to Atlus to shake things up with a puzzle game/dating sim/surrealist nightmare game experience that was utterly unlike anything else on the market this year—or in recent memory.

With a heady mixture of social simulation game and box moving puzzles (and people with sheep heads—can't forget about that…), Catherine isn't likely to appeal to everyone. Story interludes find Vincent—a character who's the clear winner of this year's Gaming's Biggest Douchebag award—juggling a relationship with two women: Catherine and Katherine. When he goes to sleep at night, he's whisked away to a weird nightmare world where he must move boxes to clear paths up a wall and out of a hellish pit. Fail to do so and he dies in his sleep. As Vincent progresses, he begins to unravel the mystery of what is happening to him and all the men around him—and it's really something you have to see to believe.

Catherine is really a reminder of how wacky and fun Japanese games can be. The puzzle levels are fiendishly challenging (I wimped out and played on Easy) and the story is so bizarre that you'll want to continue just to find out what's going on. When a game is not only this original, but this well done, you have to stop and give it some props. Catherine could have easily been my game of the year.

Dead Island Screenshot

Dead Island (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

While not as blazingly original as Catherine, Dead Island ultimately earns my top honor of 2011 for providing the most satisfying zombie-killing experience I've had in ages. Think Dead Rising with most of the annoying bits removed and you're on the right track.

When the zombie apocalypse breaks out on the island of Banoi, it's up to you to help your fellow survivors escape to civilization while unraveling the mystery of what caused the outbreak in the first place. What ensues is a tense journey across a zombie-infested island where death lurks around every corner. It's arguably the closest a game has come to mimicking the feel of films by men like Lucio Fulci and George Romero.

It's unfortunate that Dead Island had such a disastrous launch featuring some genuinely horrifying glitches and bugs—because those negative first impressions hurt the game overall. However, those coming in now will experience a much more stable and satisfying game—one that features a pulpy but engaging story, immensely satisfying weaponry, and the sheer joy of lopping off four zombie heads with one swing of an electrified machete. Dead Island doesn't reinvent the wheel of zombie games—but it does refine the formula in a way that makes it a really satisfying experience for folks who love intense survival horror experiences. Because of that, it's the best thing I played last year and my Game of the Year for 2011.


Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken

Mike Bracken is a 43-year-old writer and bohemian living in Florida with a mountain of movies, books, and video games.

A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.

Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.

In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.
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20 Comments on "Bracken’s Best Games of 2011"

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Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago

Matt,

I had the same experience — got through the first part, thought “that wasn’t so terrible” and then proceeded to get stuck. I don’t think it took me 20 tries, but it was probably more than 10.

Definitely a momentum killer in the game. The good thing is, once you’re past it, you don’t have to worry about it again.

Matt
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Matt
4 years 6 months ago

Mike, just reached the Big Johnson level last night. It’s terrible. After getting through the first section, I wasn’t too worried. Now, after being trapped in the third section for twenty lives or so, I hate it. For a level that requires pinpoint accuracy from the player, the giants move way too fast. Oh well, gotta persevere.

paynemeister
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paynemeister
4 years 6 months ago

Thanks Mike.
Damn I rue the day I sold my Megadrive (Genesis to you guys). I even found myself having a weird urge to play Robocop Vs Terminator, and that wasn’t even that good! I even regret selling my Gamecube, Metroid Prime was such a great game.
Never again.
Gareth

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago

Thanks Gareth — you summed that up much more succinctly than I could have.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago
I’m really more in line with Gareth’s thoughts on the topic, honestly. What happens when I want to relive a game experience though? I’ve learned this the hard way — I sold all of my SNES stuff when I got a PlayStation. The logic at the time was “why would I ever want to play these 16-bit games again? We’re in the 32-bit era!” Funny thing, though — a few years into the 32-bit era, I had an overwhelming urge to play things like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III and Super Castlevania. You couldn’t just walk out and buy… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
4 years 6 months ago
[quote=Jay]He Mike! See I never played any Yakuza so I’ll just start with #4. I once studied in the USA for half a year, in Montana, and there was this guy in our dorm, and they just had like fucking STACKS of games and DVD’s and shit. We (outsiders/Europeans) just though he was crazy. Nice guy, but also a bit weird to have all these stacks of DVD’s and games. (And porn haha) Of course, this was before the big economic crisis. And I wasn’t into gaming at that time yet. But still: like what would this guy now think… Read more »
Jay
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Jay
4 years 6 months ago
He Mike! See I never played any Yakuza so I’ll just start with #4. And you like to collect gamnes huh? Well, I was just having a discussion with my girlfriend about her always buying all her books. Instead, she could also, which was my argument, just go to the library. I live in the city centre of Utrecht (Google that haha!) only 5 min. from a nice and big library. Hell I even made a reservation for Rayman: Origins this week. I can play that game for free (40€ yearly membership). Uncharted 3 also coming up there. She also… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago
Thanks for stopping by! I do tend to buy a lot of used games these days — particularly since the whole Online pass thing doesn’t affect me since I care so little about multiplayer. I scored quite a few deals over the holidays on stuff, so buying used is good with me. I never trade games in, though — I’m a collector, through and through. I take a weird glee in looking at all the games I own on shelves and knowing I can play stuff pretty much whenever I want. I’m envious of folks who can keep trading or… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
4 years 6 months ago
Mike! Normally I follow Brad on his writings but your list was on so I thought: why not drop a line? Mike, you have problems with 60$ games? I have a great solution: don’t buy them! Just buy second hand! Or, think! I just picked up Batman AC for 28 USD via Amazon Thanksgiving lightening deal! My girlfriend from Honolulu flew to me, me being in the Netherlands, this Christmass and brought it with her. Portal-2: 20 bucks! Not that it will change anything, since the majority of the people will always have only 3 braincells and do what the… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago

We got stuck with this $60 price point when developers assured us that this gen’s games would be so amazing we’d gladly pay an extra $10 for them and be thankful for the opportunity.

As I’ve said numerous times, I still haven’t seen a game I think warrants paying $10 more than I did for last gen’s games. I think gamers just willingly accept a lot of things, particularly those who can afford $60 games. I hate paying $60 for them, personally — which is why I stopped and suffer through GameFly’s largely horrible service instead.

Flo
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Flo
4 years 6 months ago
the 60 dollar price (or 60 euro here in germany, which is even worse) for new games is another good reason why new ips might be having a hard time. how did we get there? i know not a single gamer who can afford buying games at that price on a regular basis. i myself am usually 3-6 months behind with games that interest me, and as we all know, no publisher cares about the sales figures after the first few weeks. i understand and share your idealism, and while my interests are all in favor of originality, me and… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago

Matt,

I’m gonna be writing about Skyward Sword as soon as I finish it, but I’ll say that the motion controls have basically killed it for me. I have a lot of issues with Zelda as a franchise, but the move to motion controls trumps all of them. They aggravate me to no end.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago

Chi,

Hope you find something cool about both of them. Nice that they’re so cheap that trying them out doesn’t feel like a major gamble.

Chi Kong Lui
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Chi Kong Lui
4 years 6 months ago

I bought both Hunted and Bulletstorm on the cheap based on your recommendations.

Cliff
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Cliff
4 years 6 months ago

[quote=Matt]Just picked up both Rayman Origins and Shadows of the Damned a couple of weeks ago…[/quote]
I picked up those exact two games a few weeks ago too! They are both awesome games.

Great top ten list and now I definitely have to check out Dead Island. thanks for the article!

Matt
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Matt
4 years 6 months ago

Mike,

I’ll let you know how that level works out for me. I just got through the first demon boss, I think. On another note, I’m curious on your Zelda thoughts. How do you feel about Skyward Sword compared to Twilight Princess? Personally, I thought Twilight (on Gamecube) was great, whereas many people I know stoppped playing when they reached that game’s Water Temple. And yet those same people love Skyward Sword! I don’t understand it, Skyward does not appeal to me at all. I think the forced motion controls killed the series for me.

Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago
Matt, I’ll definitely be playing Rayman — hopefully before the end of the month. I wish I’d gotten to it before the end of the year, but the 4th quarter just crushed me with games. I should have called it a day on Skyrim or Skyward Sword at the 20 hour mark and used those hours to get through some other stuff, honestly. The Big Johnson level is the worst part of Shadows of the Damned. It’s a frustrating level that lasts longer than it should. It’s not impossible, and once it’s over you never have to worry about it… Read more »
Matt
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Matt
4 years 6 months ago
Just picked up both Rayman Origins and Shadows of the Damned a couple of weeks ago. TOTALLY WORTH IT. Mike, you should check out Rayman at some point, I feel it’s the game that I always wanted Super Mario Bros Wii to be. I’m also having a blast with Shadows of the Damned, and the constant dick jokes are entertaining to me, at the immature age of 31. I’m a bit worried about this Big Johnson level you were mentioning though. It sucks that bad? I guess there’s always something in Suda’s games that doesn’t work. I want to speak… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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Mike Bracken
4 years 6 months ago
You’re probably right on the vote with your wallet thing. I just find it disheartening to wade through pages and pages of stuff online from gamers decrying the lack of original titles, but then watching sequels top the charts. I’m not advocating sequels go away (this list proves some of my own favorite games of this year were follow-ups), I just wish some of there were more original experiences around. I’m an idealist…I can’t help it. :p In regards to Dead Island, I’m a big horror guy — so that certainly piqued my interest right out of the gate. I… Read more »
Flo
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Flo
4 years 6 months ago
concerning the “vote with their wallets” thing, i think there’s just a divide between gamers who like to speak their minds in the internet and the majority of people who actually spend money on games, who are uninformed kids/teenagers and their even less informed parents; they will buy what they know. that’s in addtion to all the informed gamers who just like their franchises and might buy new ips in addtion to them. at least, that’s the way i like to see it. the developers know it, too. you can always count on some revenue on name alone. concerning the… Read more »
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