Top 7 Pleasant Surprises of 2011


  • Jensen unsheathes in Deus Ex Human Revolution
  • He is the Bat!
  • Top 7 Pleasant Surprises of 2011

Making an Ass of U.... and Me.
The past twelve months were replete with excellent games. I’ve said it before and I will again, for good measure: A Golden Age it was. But we’ve already compiled that list.

Similarly 2011 enjoyed its share of stinkers. Take any $60billion dollar industry and you’re bound to stumble across them. I started on this list, but it’s a singularly depressing task, folks. I’m only one man!

And dammit, it’s Christmas. A time of joy, of hope, of Superbabies!

That last one may not be the most pertinent, but bearing in mind the themes of joyful revelation and hope for the industry’s future, I present to you the titles which truly shocked and awed. From unheard of titles to anticipated sequels, each of these games laughed in the very face of presumption.

These may not all represent the pinnacle of interactive entertainment. But they serve as a comforting reminder why professionals, and not Joe Public, are hired to develop our most beloved of hobbies.

Mostly because they actually know what they’re doing!

7. Bulletstorm (Epic Games)

Unlike its better known, muscle bound, testosterone fuelled, chainsaw wielding cousin, Bulletstorm was, in a very literal way, a by the numbers shooter.

Said numbers were acquired via Skill-shots, a system which differentiated Bulletstorm in a too-crowded genre and changed the way we approached FPS.

Quite unexpected for a game that encouraged players to pre-order by calling them D*ckt*ts!

Focusing more on the joy of inventive killing than the progression of checkpoints, Bulletstorm encouraged players to volley, boot, shoot, impale, implode and basically violate foes in whichever way they deemed appropriate. It is to Epic’s credit that the sub-par presentation, anaemic story and juvenile dialogue were so easily disregarded. Players consumed it, replaying missions, scrounging for new and inventive Skill-shots.

Bulletstorm was a project focused solely on gameplay. And it was the better for it.

6. Bastion (Supergiant Games)

The XBLA isometric platformer is no rare breed. Downloadable titles requiring a ten bill drop characteristically take this form. So it speaks of Bastion’s quality that seems so fresh and significant.

With running commentary from southern gent Rucks, Bastion’s narrative and lore amasses, alike the very landscape, as The Kid treks from bastion to bulwark, from rooftop to rampart.

A fantasy/western hybrid, Bastion concerns itself with the reconstitution of a realm literally split at the seams. And while the silent protagonist speaks volumes with an array of weaponry, the combination of atmospheric art direction, superb narration and varied, relentlessly changing locales sees Supergiant’s debut as a Bastion of excellence in a sea of mediocrity.

Ingeniously simple. Elegantly compelling. More of these, please.

5. Catherine (Atlus)

is flippin’ bonkers. This came as a surprise to absolutely no-one. When Atlus were given the reins to a story heavy puzzler regarding the dichotomy of indecision, the perils of desire, the symbolism of the subconscious and, you know, crotch-fangs, no-one was expecting coherence.

Nor did they expect excellence. Yet Catherine oozes it!

The adventure skirts two discrete worlds. One of dream, where fiendish bosses and impossible towers must be conquered by simplistic, if constantly challenging block puzzles.
Think Tetris.
But with anthropomorphised Sheep.
Now add JAPAN and multiplied by INSANITY!

The waking world is disarmingly sedate by contrast, chronicling the very relatable efforts of waster Vincent as he struggles with the twin horrors of responsibility... and women!

With storytelling both traditional and oblique, Catherine is of intelligent design and despite its surface lunacy, it resonates on a deeper, emotive level.

Startlingly, staggeringly, unbelievably, this tale of nymphos, demonic babies and alcoholic sheep is perhaps 2011’s most mature endeavour.

4. Trenched (Double Fine)

Troubled by the lukewarm reception for Brutal Legend, Double Fine trained their sights on the DL market. Lowered expectation aside, Trenched pinched elements from the supremely popular Tower Defence template and mechanics from the ever-flagging Mech Combat platform and welded them tight.

The (painfully brief) result was a hybrid which trampled both.

Schafer’s charm is present in the “Let’s have at them! What ho, eh chaps?” WWI quirks. However it’s the combination of easily customized mechs, or Trenches, and an array of unique emplacements which sees players gleefully return for repeated mayhem once the 4 hour campaign has concluded.

With 15 unique battlefields, countless varied enemy waves and the freedom to play tactically (relying on emplacements and utility over firepower) or like a lunatic (grenade launchers, mortars, EMPs, machine turrets, magnet bombs FTW) Trenched offers a matchless blend of strategic thrills and rewarding kills.

Ultimately, the ease of use is its deciding asset. Were it a chore to drive, the playgrounds, the customization, the sheer number of options would be for naught. But its core mechanic is its blissfully simple.

And as a result, endlessly enjoyable.

3. Batman: Arkham City (Rocksteady)

The best game on this list, and pound for pound, the whole wide world, expectations were already stratospheric for Rocksteady’s anticipated follow up.

And rightly so: Memories fog and fade. But not mine! And let me remind you, Arkham Asylum knocked your socks off in 2009. That’s why you have new socks!

But who could imagine Rocksteady would come back, after two short years, with THIS!

A confident blend of Metal Gear Solid inspired Stealth, Portal-esque puzzles, God of War beating combat and the freedom to glide through a bustling prison system dispensing white knuckle justice at your leisure, Batman: Arkham City boggled its share of minds.

Recall! Running into the Quarter 4 deluge of releases, it was taken as a given that the mighty Skyrim would garner the overwhelming majority of critical approval.

Arkham City’s most surprising triumph then? That this small UK development house still has everyone gushing over Batman’s return, even after the launch of Bethesda’s Juggernaut.

2. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (CD Projekt RED)

Following up on their 2007 cult success, CD Projekt RED earned some mainstream critical kudos for their adult (in every sense of the word) RPG.

Where the original found a mature fantasy niche, Assassins of Kings expands on this, ingeniously, by treating each player as a grown up. A novel approach...

Ignoring its strategic, meticulously deliberate combat, it is the Witcher 2’s living, breathing and more than a little unsavoury world that draws us in. Frothing with aggressive, whining, foul-mouthed and entirely believably characters, this is a mature, affecting world, rife with grown-up stuff like politics, crime, murder, racism and monster hunting.

But most commendably, rather than serving up pseudo-intellectual yet blatantly binary ethical dilemmas (I’m looking at you Bioshock, you pretentious over-hyped philistine) Witcher Geralt is affronted not only by snarling beasts and murderous a-holes but by a torrent of moral ambiguity.

Choice is a constant in Assassins of Kings. And like a fully fledged human grown up, more often than not you simply have to grip it, rip it and pray you’ve made the right choice. You probably won’t.

But on the bright side, you’ll be too bogged down in delightfully twisted consequence to regret it.

1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal)

Without doubt 2011’s Bombshell!

Deus Ex is a hard franchise to tackle. After eleven long years, it struggles to remain relevant. Yet though most pointedly ignore the lacklustre Invisible War, they also choose to deify the original. Not only did Eidos Montreal have their work cut out for them, most of us feared they lacked the vision and skill to revitalize the franchise.

Now, a few months on, Deus Ex is one of the hottest brands on the planet.
Humble pie; thy taste is sweet!

It would be unfair to attribute this success to any one component. Instead Human Revolution is a synergy of uniformly excellent components which complement each other, crafting a futuristic, yet hauntingly close to the bone tale of conspiracy, progress and fear.

Gravelly protagonist Adam Jensen’s gradually revealed wit and charm shine through, despite the plethora of open ended ethical quandaries. And when not bogged down in the rigors of pheromone tweaked conversation, Jensen sleuths, shoots, climbs, hacks, augments and robo-kung-fus his way halfway across the world.

You’ll face down cyber-triads, shadowy conglomerates, nigh invulnerable mercenaries, supercomputer intelligences and even ghosts from Adam’s past. And you’ll be scared. Because Adam is not invincible, he is not infallible, and for all his inhuman augmentation, he’s just as flawed and selfish as those he doggedly tracks.

But, mercifully, he’s not the kind of cyborg you’d catch backing down!

The sense you’re in over your head is prevalent, yet it never deters players from delving deeper into this golden steam-punk renaissance.

RPG. Shooter. Stealther. Puzzler. Beyond all these Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a story.
And it more than astounded us.

In fact, at this stage, we should probably get new socks...

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