It’s that time of year again: Time to look back at all the games that were released in 2011 and sort out the best of the best. Which games won over gamers and stood out from the pack?
This year saw the release of two major new consoles: the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PS Vita. Yet only one title from either hardware would be considered worthy of a Top 10 list. However, showing just how much smartphones are changing the gaming landscape, Apple’s iPhone and iPad saw a truly amazing title released that was, hands down, one of the best games of 2011. The bulk of the year’s best, though, were games that appeared on home consoles and the PC. And, more interestingly, most were developed by Western game studios, not Japanese ones. There were a couple of Japanese-created titles — notably From Software’s “Dark Souls” and Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” — that stood out in 2011, but big-budget Western-developed games now increasingly dominate.
Here’s a look at some of the memorable titles of 2011.
(PS3, Xbox 360)
Developed by Tokyo-based From Software, “Dark Souls” is one of the most difficult games released this year. “Dark Souls” is a broody, role-playing game that sends players into a brutal realm populated with sword-swinging skeletons, towering giants, and other foes all with one singular, terrifying purpose: to kill you. The game’s difficulty pushes it toward masochism, but those who invest the time and effort say they found the title worth the effort.
‘Deus Ex: Human Revolution’
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC, Mac)
Set in 2027, the game is located in a world of biotech, human augmentation and terrorism. You play the part of Adam Jensen, a security expert for a cybernetic firm, who is attacked by mercenaries. Jensen receives human augmentations and attempts to find out who’s behind the attack. Meanwhile, the people populating the gameworld are either for or against human augmentation. “Human Revolution” gives players tremendous freedom in how they play through levels (such as sneaking or shooting their way through) or even how they interact with other characters (talking or punching). But who can argue with the ability to punch through walls?
‘Batman: Arkham City’
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
In the sequel to the brilliant 2009 game, “Batman: Arkham Asylum”, you are once again the crime-fighting Dark Knight. In “Arkham City”, part of Gotham is sectioned off into an urban prison. After protesting the prison, Bruce Wayne is arrested and imprisoned. Things change when a Batsuit is delivered and the Caped Crusader begins cleaning up. Besides being a great game, “Arkham City” is also noted for being the last time Mark Hamill (yes, that Mark Hamill) will voice the Joker.
‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
It’s no accident that this is the game that’s at the top of countless Top 10 lists. “Skyrim” takes players to a fantasy world overrun by dragons. As the “Dragonborn”, it is up to you to hunt the dragons, as well as go on quests. The world of “Skyrim” is stunning and intoxicating, and it’s hardly a surprise that gamers are getting lost in it, spending time simply walking around, climbing mountains and soaking up the scenery. Not only is this one of the best games of 2011, it is also one of the best-value ones. Some players have spent nearly 200 hours playing and exploring “Skyrim”.
‘The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’
One of the year’s most beautiful games, “Skyward Sword” is the “Zelda” title that many fans have been waiting for. Unlike other “Zelda” games, this one uses motion controls for gameplay, and not only features an epic yarn, but truly evocative cinematic cutscenes with expressive characters for what fans are already calling a truly memorable experience — if not the best.
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, “L.A. Noire” is a detective story in the vein of 1940s noir movies and hardboiled pulp novels. “L.A. Noire” follows Cole Phelps, a decorated war vet and cop, as he explores the L.A. underworld. As Phelps, players enter graphic, and often disturbing, crime scenes and search for clues. Then, you must question witnesses and shakedown suspects, attempting to discern who’s telling the truth and who is lying. It all makes for one of the most original games of 2011.
(PS3, Xbox 360, PC)
The portal gun is back! The puzzle-based first-person shooter once again outfits players with a gun, aka the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, that shoots “portals” in surfaces, allowing players to traverse across time and space. Not only is the gameplay still fresh and fun, but “Portal 2″ packs some of the funniest dialogue of 2011.
‘Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP’
For gamers, the iPhone and iPad are not serious gaming platforms. They are for simple diversions: stupid puzzle games or flying virtual birds at green pigs a la “Angry Birds.” That was, at least, until “Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP” was released. One of the most beautiful looking and sounding games of the year, it is a fantasy adventure that looks like an old Atari game and features music by renowned Canadian composer Jim Guthrie: Perfect for an iPhone/iPad game meant to be played with headphones.
‘Super Mario 3D Land’
New “Mario” games are always a big event. “Super Mario 3D Land” from Kyoto-based Nintendo is no exception. This time, the game was designed to show off the Nintendo 3DS console’s 3-D and gyroscope abilities — and that it does. The best part is that it does it with beautiful “Mario” art and game design. This isn’t the best “Mario”, but it’s one of the best handheld game titles of the year.
‘Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’
The “Uncharted” series, from Santa Monica, California-based developer Naughty Dog, are gaming’s “Indiana Jones.” No wonder Sony roped in Harrison Ford to promote the latest entry, “Uncharted 3″, in Japan. In it, treasure-hunter Nathan Drake travels to a host of exotic locales, such as Rub’ al Khali, one of the globe’s largest sand deserts. As with the previous “Uncharted,” the game features exciting gameplay that mixes shooting and traversing as well as fantastic voice acting, beautiful graphics and smart writing. That’s previously charted territory, but something players don’t mind revisiting.
Now that 2012 is under way, players have a fresh year of gaming to look forward to. Will upcoming titles such as sci-fi saga “Mass Effect 3″ from Canadian studio BioWare or sprawling epic “Dragon’s Dogma” from Osaka-based Capcom make the cut? Check back in 12 months.
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.