2011 saw one epic video game saga come to a brutal and bloody conclusion even as another reached new heights atop beautifully rendered mountains.
A small Canadian studio’s deeply original iOS adventure effectively put an end to the “Are games art?” debate while an Australian developer advanced the technical side of the medium with extraordinary new performance capture technology.
Our creativity was unleashed as we built our own worlds, our minds were expanded via cunning spatial-temporal puzzles, and our reflexes were put to the test in harrowing military battles.
It was, in short, a great year for games. Here are some of the best.
Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls V
Few video game worlds have ever been as convincing or as easy to lose oneself in as the snowy, Nordic lands of Skyrim. This fantasy RPG entangles us in tales of dragons and plots of political intrigue while simultaneously providing players the freedom to scuttle off and climb mountains and spelunk caves at will. Open-world adventuring has rarely been so epic. (Bethesda Softworks; PS3, X360, PC)
Batman: Arkham City
This dark, moody game is a graphic novel come to interactive life. Its beautifully choreographed action sequences feel as though they’ve been ripped from the pages of a DC comic, and our brooding, reliably resolute hero is everything one could reasonably hope for in a video game adaptation of the Dark Knight. (Rocksteady Studios; PS3, X360, PC)
When properly and efficiently solved, the clever teleportation-themed puzzles in this test-subject-in-a-maze game confer upon players the satisfying illusion of genius. A genuinely smart and funny script brought to life by talents like Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons elevates the experience to something sublime. (Valve Corp.; PS3, X360, PC)
Gears of War 3
There’s something irresistible about Gears of War’s excessively aggressive jarheads. Perhaps it’s because – and this is especially evident in the franchise’s surprisingly moving concluding chapter – when you cut through all the blood and bullets, you find men willing to lay down their lives for their families, their friends, and the hope for a better life. That, and they look awesome wielding chainsaw rifles. (Epic Games; X360)
This low-fi but highly addictive indie hit has players using minerals mined from procedurally generated worlds to build anything they can think of. The game’s community, now more than four million strong, has compulsively created and shared castles, cities, spaceships, planets, and more. It’s an unmatched phenomenon of player imagination. (Mojang; PC, iOS, Android)
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Neither the messy departure of the series’ founders nor the emergence of competent competitors has put a dent in this juggernaut franchise, the latest iteration of which delivers a thrilling Third World War campaign combined with a deep and long-lasting multiplayer experience. It remains the most gratifying and complete military-themed first-person shooter around. (Infinity Ward; PS3, X360, PC, Wii)
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
It begins slowly, but once this puzzle-filled adventure from Nintendo visionary Shigeru Miyamoto gets going it does its quarter-century-old pedigree proud. The downright ingenious challenges found in its dungeons make for some of the most pure and joyful moments of interactive entertainment in any game this year. (Nintendo; Wii)
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
Boldly experimental yet cleverly reverent, this Canadian-made game resists description. Its RPG-ish story takes cues from sources as diverse as The Legend of Zelda and Twin Peaks, its pacing is weirdly affected by the cycle of the real moon, and everything is rendered in the most striking 8-bit graphics I’ve ever seen. It’s an artistic oddity of the most delightful sort. (Capybara Games; iOS)
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
If ever there were a video game for fans of adventure films, this would be it. Proudly cinematic in both narrative and appearance, the third entry in one of PlayStation 3’s greatest success stories feels like a 12-hour Indiana Jones movie set in modern times. The twist, of course, is that we’re in control of its roguish, tomb-raiding hero. (Naughty Dog; PS3)