It's the end of the year, and you know what that means: awards! Awards for everyone, from everyone! Best graphics, best game featuring Nolan North as a ruggedly handsome scoundrel, worst “arrow in the knee” joke (answer: all of them), etc, etc, etc. Honestly, though, most of the teary eyed, speech-blabbing winners are kind of boring. For example, Portal 2: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Arkham City: An undeniably great, but ultimately safe update to a revered franchise. Skyrim: An undeniably great, but blah blah blah. You get the point. The following, then, are games didn't land with such a huge splash -- perhaps because they weren't so great, or maybe because they're not even new -- but will almost certainly send out ripples for years to come.
As a game, LA Noire did its best impression of the final scene from Titanic set to the tune of a thousand Rebecca Blacks. The difference between “doubt” and “lie” was often a total toss-up, and -- thanks to the game's straightforward structure -- you never really had a chance to learn how to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. It was, quite frankly, an exercise in spittle-soaked, hair-pulling frustration.
But it was also a ridiculously big-budget production that tried to shift its main means of engaging players away from shamelessly 'splodey gun-fu, close-quarters face-punchery, and ordering troops to carry out shamelessly 'splodey gun-fu and/or face-punchery. Instead, it asked us to slow down and think. Granted, that didn't always work out so well, but LA Noire bet the farm on being different. Moreover, the sleuthing sim made its incredible facial tech a key gameplay aspect. Interrogations were all about reading people -- or at least, they were supposed to be. Sure, plenty of mistakes were made, but other developers can learn from them.
LA Noire dared to give our brains a workout -- both thematically and mechanically -- while surrounded by games that leave only our trigger fingers achey and out of breath. And people ate it up. Nearly 4 million units sold don't lie. Gamers enjoy more than just long walks on the beach and short strolls down Generic Terrorist Alley. Sex, guns, and gore obviously sell. But so does intelligence.
Dragon Age II
Dragon Age II was -- by most accounts -- a dragon-sized disappointment. Its battles were as over-long and redundant as Sandal the dwarf's vocabulary. Its character progression was far too simple. Its repeat trips to the Free Marches' most luxurious lifeless caves paled in comparison to DA:O's sprawling field trip through Ferelden. Without a doubt, DAII suffered from a rushed development cycle. The resulting limitations, however, forced BioWare to craft an incredibly interesting game structure.
DAII's plot barely budged in terms of location, but that lack of an epic quest to save all mankind from a series of inconveniently located evils gave the city of Kirkwall a real identity. On top of that, your party members weren't simply lock-step drones that worshipped at your feet as you walked to the ends of the earth. They lived in the city too. They had lives and problems and jobs.
In a landscape littered with globe-trotting fantasy epics, DAII focused on the mundane. Call it an anti-epic, but there's value in that. The game prioritized character relationships and subtly brilliant (not to mention incredibly daring) themes like religion, sexuality, and terrorism over jaw-dropping sights and superficial sounds. Every other fantasy RPG will tell you that size matters -- possibly more than anything else. Dragon Age II might just make them reconsider.
Duke Nukem Forever
Before you summon the full fury of the Internet to strike me down right where I stand, know that I'm not praising DNF for its quality. Hell, I'm not praising it at all. The game was a Frankenstein's monster made up of equal parts old-enough-to-be-fossilized game mechanics and despicable humor, sown together by a thick thread of overt sexism.
The resulting discussion surrounding it, however, showed just how far gaming's come since Duke's last testosterone-fueled trip through male power fantasyland. Critics and gamers alike dragged The King under a guillotine for rusty mechanics, archaic level design, and “jokes” that regularly crossed the line between edgy and hateful.
The game's profitability in spite of all that, however, shows just how far gaming still has to go.
Yes, I know Minecraft's technically been available since 2009, but it led the charge on so many of 2011's biggest steps forward that I had to include it. (Also, it didn't officially leave beta until last month, so take that, calendars.)
Foremost, Minecraft gave the indie movement a recognizable face, helping it grow to the point where, say, Terraria could go toe-to-combat-boot with Modern Warfare 3 for a top spot on Steam. Further, it validated an open development model by involving players every step of the way. With games now growing increasingly reliant upon post-release patches and DLC, Minecraft's mindset is the next logical step. Is it right for all games? Of course not. But it's a very appetizing proposition, especially given the newfound popularity of things like Kickstarter funding.
Overall, this has been an absolutely incredible year for indie games, and Minecraft deserves a big, pixelated pat on the back for lending a hand.
From Dust was a great idea wrapped in a mediocre game. But that's not why it's here. Somewhat incredibly, it managed to be nearly everything that's currently wrong with PC gaming all at once. It kicked off its freefall dive into a canyon populated exclusively by cacti and woodchippers with one of Ubisoft's trademark month-long delays. Why? No real reason was given -- but obviously, it was an attempted middle finger to pirates. Unfortunately, waving said finger in pirates' faces only made them angry, causing them to bite back with more piracy.
Next up, dishonesty. Ubisoft initially promised that From Dust would kick the publisher's reviled “always on” DRM to the curb. Then it didn't, and Ubisoft tried to hide its red hands by deleting all evidence of its previous promise. Eventually, however, it was forced to patch out the draconian menace due to overwhelming outrage.
Even then, though, From Dust's PC port was horrendous. Among other things, it was locked at 30 FPS, lacked anti-aliasing, and was generally unstable. Ultimately, Steam was forced to offer refunds. Other developers, of course, employ each of those practices separately, but From Dust made the freaking planets align. Which is just another strike against it, honestly. Maybe I liked my planets all disorganized and un-apocalypse-causing.
League of Legends
Yes, yes, LoL's been around since the days when it was still clever to turn Internet acronyms for laughter into videogame names. And no, I don't have a Minecraft-style loophole for this one. You caught me. In penance, I'll put my lie-spewing hands in a waffle iron. I won't turn it on, of course. Why, that'd be silly.
Anyway, 2011's almost certain to go down in history as the year free-to-play went from foreign novelty to ultra-successful business model, and few games have benefitted more than LoL. Further, unlike potential flashes in the pan like DC Universe and every other MMO ever, LoL's a bonafide long-term success story. The game's been free-to-play since day one, and it hasn't stumbled since.
LoL's also a big name in the eSports scene, which has grown tremendously in the past year. Along with national-sport-sized hits like StarCraft II, Riot's massive MOBA has helped propel pro gaming to new heights, offering multi-million dollar prize pools each season.
Bulletstorm/Saints Row 3
Two words: dumb fun. Both of these games blasted and, er, dildo-smashed their way through all the slow-building, yawn-inducing epics and “srs bsns” multiplayer modes to remind us that, yes, games can be over-the-top, gleefully profane, and -- most importantly -- fun. Screw saving the world. I just want to remote-control a robot dinosaur with laser vision and go surfing on fighter jets.