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Controller Freak

Chad Sapieha leads you deep into the world of games, covering gaming trends

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast fantasy role-playing game with one of the most immersive virtual worlds ever created. We think it's the best game of 2011 (Bethesda Softworks)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast fantasy role-playing game with one of the most immersive virtual worlds ever created. We think it's the best game of 2011 (Bethesda Softworks)

The top 25 video games of 2011 Add to ...

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)

Portal 2

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)

Minecraft

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)

L.A. Noire

This Australian-made game about a cop investigating crimes in 1940s-era Los Angeles features facial animations so realistic that players rely on them to surmise whether suspects are lying during interrogation. This bar-raising performance capture technology combines with fast-paced action to create an interactive detective tale like no other. (Rockstar Games; PS3, X360, PC)

The Binding of Isaac

This indie hit about a boy attempting to escape the murderous hands of his cult-addled mom offers homage to classic Zelda and Robotron games while delivering wry commentary on the evils of religious zealotry. The game is designed to be finished in a single sitting – assuming you don’t die (it’s devilishly hard) – but randomly generated dungeons filled with endless secrets provide good reason to play over and over again. (Edmund McMillen; PC)

Super Mario 3D Land

Hands-down the most enjoyable game yet released for Nintendo 3DS, this excellent platformer combines the best of old-school Super Mario Bros. (intuitive play, short and sweet worlds) with Super Mario Galaxy’s ingenious three-dimensional level design. It’s pretty much a must-buy if you plan on picking up Nintendo’s stereoscopic handheld. (Nintendo; Nintendo 3DS)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Many were skeptical when they learned the legendary Warren Spector wouldn’t lead development of this prequel to his beloved sci-fi role-playing game. Those concerns are swept away in Human Revolution’s opening chapters, which clearly embrace the series’ philosophy of open and emergent play. A terrific story that intelligently tackles the thorny subject of transhumanism provides narrative depth to match. (Eidos Montreal; PS3, X360)

The Gunstringer

No one can accuse Twisted Pixel of playing it safe. This inspired bit of Kinect-enabled whimsy sees players using their hands to manipulate a cowboy’s skeleton in a western-themed puppet show that takes place on stage in front of a live-action audience. It’s funny to watch, a blast to play, and acts as elegant proof that motion controlled games can be more than sports compilations and dance simulations. (Twisted Pixel Games; X360)

Infinity Blade II

The original Infinity Blade, a sword-slashing fighter, showed serious gamers that touch-screen devices were capable of hosting serious games. This sequel makes the original seem like little more than a tech demo. It offers more environments to explore, delivers a richer story that provides some much-needed insight into the series’ protagonist, shows off prettier Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics, and deepens the finger swiping combat. From presentation to interface, it exploits Apple’s hardware like no other game. (Epic Games; iOS)

Dragon Age 2

Other RPGs focus on providing immense worlds and incredible action. This one is all about rich dialogue and sophisticated character development. A role-playing game in the truest sense, it provides players a malleable immigrant protagonist who can be molded into an altruistic protector, a conniving egoist, or some complex mixture of the two. Its characters, their plights, and their delights will stay with you long after the credits roll. (BioWare; PS3, X360, PC)

LittleBigPlanet 2

This sequel to Sony’s original game-making game was an outstanding play when it debuted in January, then became even better with the addition of PlayStation Move levels and functionality this fall. Whether you want to learn the rudiments of game design, partake in an enormous community that has created and shared millions of user-generated levels, or just enjoy a charming and witty story, it's an enviable treat for PlayStation 3 loyalists. (MediaMolecule; PS3)

Mario Kart 7

If you want to share a 3DS experience with your kids, this is the game to get. The seventh entry in Nintendo’s popular kart racer retains its all-ages appeal while adding a few new elements, such as propellers for underwater driving and wings to help you get a little more distance off higher jumps. Wonderfully imaginative tracks – we get to drive over musical keyboards and on undulating rainbows – are the sugar on top. (Nintendo; Nintendo 3DS)

Child of Eden

This one has players using their hands to control pulses of energy that target and wipe out digital malignancies affecting the emergence of an artificial intelligence in the far future. Its about as bizarre as it sounds, but stellar kaleidoscopic visuals, an impossibly upbeat electronic score, and terrific motion controls combine to spawn one of the most immersive motion gaming experiences yet created. Just remember to play with the volume pumped and the lights turned off to maximize the effect. (Ubisoft; PS3, X360)

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings

Among the most visually sophisticated games ever made, the cities and forests in this Polish-made RPG are simply jaw dropping – assuming you play on a PC with enough rendering power to do them justice. Its complex, twisty, and decidedly mature story is just as impressive, and provides players an exceptional amount of control over the direction and outcome of certain plot threads. Just make sure you’re ready for a challenge; the sophisticated – but satisfying – combat system isn’t for rookies. (CD Projekt RED; PC)

Dead Space 2

Lots of games go for creepiness, but if you want good old-fashioned Aliens-style terror, look no further than the second entry in EA’s excellent sci-fi horror series. It piles on one shocking moment after another, turns up the disturbing factor with alien-possessed babies, then covers everything with a thick layer of psychological suspense that makes players question their every action. (Electronic Arts; PS3, X360, PC)

Professor Layton and the Last Specter

The fourth game in Level-5’s series of portable puzzlers pushes our professor back in time a few years to explore how he met his amiable assistant, Luke. Its conundrums are as varied and challenging as ever, and its perplexing story of a British town under attack by a strange creature keeps us guessing to the end. It's the best DS release of the year. (Level-5; Nintendo DS)

Forza Motorsport 4

An enormous garage of gorgeous cars, scores of authentic and fictional courses, and surprisingly effective Kinect integration helped lift the fourth entry in Turn-10’s Xbox-exclusive racing franchise to the top of the podium. It could have done with bolder innovation – it merely evolves rather than revolutionizes the genre – but there’s little denying what’s here is about as good as it gets in the world of console racing simulation. (Turn-10; X360)

Bastion

The star of this game is its raconteur, a smooth-voiced narrator who provides informative and amusing play-by-play commentary on everything we see, from our hero’s handiwork in combat to his accidental plunges over ledges. It’s a novel and instantly engaging form of interactive storytelling that we can expect to see emulated in coming years. The flowing action, hand-painted settings, and award-winning acoustic score merely sweeten the deal. (Supergiant Games; X360, PC)

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The few brief days I’ve spent playing this brand new MMORPG set in a galaxy far, far away were enough to make it a last minute addition to this list. It carries us along a story that's more structured and engaging than we've come to expect of games in this genre. Its attractively simple design, meanwhile, should appeal not just to MMORPG fans, but also Star Wars acolytes in general. The Force is strong with this one. (BioWare; PC)

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