Last year marked a sterling effort from the video game industry, a wild turn around from a somewhat flatlined 2010. With that, it’s proven necessary to expand the traditional best of list to 10, mostly because of strong retail and downloadable efforts that deserve the full attention of anyone who plays. Onto number 10:
10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)
Say what you will about the series and its slow decline into a massive pile of storytelling idiocy, but Activision’s well isn’t close to drying out just yet. If anything, it’s still filling, and that’s with stern competition. With a campaign that leads the player along through stunning action sequences and multiplayer that just keeps expanding, the core experience -complete with an enormously satisfying stop-and-pop mechanism- keeps COD at the top of most played lists. There’s a reason for that, and it’s because that engine still finds a way to remain captivating with each subsequent release.
9. Dead Space 2 (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)
Dead Space has become a true franchise for EA, pushing out into other media and even mobile affairs that serve to expand this interesting, involving world. Dead Space 2 probably didn’t need multiplayer (it’s not mechanically meant for it), but the solo experience is one of sheer terror that holds under increasing action. The blend works even if it shouldn’t, taking engineer Isaac on a trip through universe-expanding levels, intricate level design (that remains fully aware of the original’s faults), and tightly wound combat that is a blending of slight clumsiness and satisfying precision. It’s character in the the form of a traditional control scheme.
8. Gatling Gears (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)
There’s not an industry person on the planet who would consider another dual analog shooter a necessity, but 2011 brought two of them so freakin’ good, they somehow ended up here. EA’s polished and premiere indie affair came together within its Greed Corp. universe. The world is crumbling around the particle-happy action, while weighted audio adds punch and scale to a title that’s only meant to be miniaturized. Leveling up means new weapons, more power, and even glitzier action. There’s never a moment where Gatling Gears dies out or loses its pacing. It’s sort of a culmination of everything learned so far from a genre that has probably overstayed its welcome.
7. Mortal Kombat (PS3/Xbox 360)
Midway blew it. They took the Mortal Kombat foundation and ripped it out for something resembling a martial arts fiasco, including all of the complexities that came with it. Warner? They got it right. Not only is the universe reborn with a narrative that follows the original series, the gameplay is nothing short of ferocious. Hits knock fighters back with force, punches send blood traveling in arcs that are physically impossible, and finishing moves are gloriously goofy. There’s even enough depth here to turn this into a tournament fighter, something that could rarely be said for previous entries. It’s a startling fighting game achievement marred only by the idiocy of the online pass.
6. Portal 2 (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)
Stephen Merchant, you win. What does he win? Everything. His portrayal of a slightly cynical, clearly British, and fast talking AI is 2011’s shining moment, and that’s with competition from Ellen McLain as GLaDOS. They sell this puzzler from Valve, brilliant even without the voice work. With a co-op campaign that requires new levels of cooperation and a single player campaign that is equally dizzying in its challenge, Portal 2 never loses its sense of magic or surprise. What was once sort of a one-off concept dropped into the Orange Box has turned into one of the industry’s smartest, wittiest crowning jewel.
5. Renegade Ops (PS3/Xbox 360)
Coming out of nowhere, much like dual analog-shooting counterpart Gatling Gears, Sega’s blistering and beautiful destruct-a-thon is pure kinetic spectacle. A pseudo, unofficial remake of Konami’s Jackal, players man a vehicle with individualized special abilities and smash it through structures waiting to be devastated. This downloadable gem sends debris scattering and flames rising as speed becomes a necessity. There’s an urgency, if somewhat falsified by a needless time limit, that drives Renegade Ops. Multiplayer lets players split paths on these expansive stages filled with macho-ness and a Metal Slug-like attitude towards keeping the action flowing.
4. Batman: Arkham City
Is it Arkham City’s flowing combat system that makes it work? Well, that’s part of it. Maybe it’s the voice acting? Mark Hamill is as amazing as ever, and so is the entirety of the cast really. Those visuals though, they must be why it’s listed right? A little bit, sure. Still, Arkham City works because it builds an entire city… and actually does something with it. There’s a seemingly endless menagerie of events, places to explore, things to unlock, and people to punch in the face… so yeah, the combat has a lot to do with it too. There’s some path finding quirks and Warner’s stupidity in locking Catwoman behind a pay wall will not soon be forgotten, but it doesn’t take away from developer Rocksteady’s achievement.
3. Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)
Epic lives up to their studio’s name with a franchise closing narrative that finally puts Gears in line with its cinematic equivalents. For all of its macho attitude and chainsaws, Gears 3 proved this series has a heart and the ability to decapitate Brumaks. Even after you finish the fight (wait a minute…), there’s the addictive Horde mode to take over the reigns. Whereas imitators have yet to stop coming down the pipe, Gears 3 finds a way to turn the mode into something worth coming back to even after surviving an encounter with one of its many bosses. Then, it’s time to turn the tables in Beast mode or saturate the online versus populace. Gears 3 is like a gift that keeps on giving.
2. Trenched/Iron Brigade (PS3/Xbox 360)
No, it’s not a tie. Legal issues forced a name swap for Double Fine’s mech tower defense effort, and thankfully, let the title find a worldwide audience. Iron Brigade is the closest thing to Chromehounds out there, Sega’s early fictional online war allowing for deep, enriching customization. Double Fine’s effort has players defending objectives against electrified foes that feel wholly original. The trenches are clunky, oil spewing, environment destroying WW1-inspired machines with plenty of weaponized attachments and deployable turrets. Even if the waves remain the same, no two runs feel the alike because the weapons keep adding up and the possibilities keep changing. There’s so much to do, see, and find, Iron Brigade has yet to wear out its welcome months later. The same may hold up years later too.
1. Super Mario 3D Land
Debatable as it may be, Mario never found his real groove in 3D. Mario 64 had to include the ability to punch simply because of the design challenges posed in the 2D/3D transition. Well, Mario 3D Land is the first to prove it can be done right by closing off the level designs, focusing on their challenge, and bringing them to life with necessary console abilities. Mario dons his Tanooki suit once again, shoots out fireballs, and smashes Goombas with the greatest of ease. It’s all backed by some of the greatest Mario ragtime themes to date, bridging a gap between the nostalgic Mario and the fresh-faced newcomer. That’s no small feat.