I've always (unjustly) assumed that the communities surrounding popular multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games such as League of Legends are about as receptive to outsiders as groups frequented by characters portrayed by Edward Norton and Edward Furlong. Defending lanes of ever-progressing AI drones, smashing turrets, and new-player griefing seemed to be the common threads. But why the hell are they called MOBAs anyway? Isn’t everything that is both online and competitive considered a multiplayer online battle arena?

Degrees of specificity in game genre nomenclature notwithstanding, developer Ronimo Games has hybridized the console-unfamiliar concept of the MOBA with the 90s-style 2D action game that resembles Metal Slug with a Saturday-morning cartoon motif. Think of it as team-based, multiplayer Mega Man. In fact, Capcom would be well-served to take notice, rather than murdering the Blue Bomber and all of eighty of his robot buddies.

MOBA-style games are apparently about pulling your weight for the good of your team (lest you be called something racially insensitive). Awesomenauts is more than smart about fostering teamwork – and Ronimo didn't concede to plop it out into the digital distribution ether, either. Instead, our late-twentyish, early thirtyish collective man-child brains have been treated with something familiar to teach us something foreign. The lone wolf seeking the best kill-to-death ratio at the expense of his teammates is destined to hate this game.

It is obvious that Awesomenauts respects balance (though it doesn’t quite always achieve it without incident), but it also simultaneously allows customizable loadouts that give the player freedom to add his own personal touch (or stroke his propensity to min/max everything he comes in contact with). They probably do all these things in League of Legends, but League of Legends isn’t a goddamn fake cartoon.

Outside of fighting games, competitive multiplayer games that exist on two-dimensional planes have been largely irrelevant (or non-existent). As with anything competitive, there's a certain grammar required to completely understand underlying principles.

So thank you, Awesomenauts, for teaching me how to play as part of a superhero squad and not piss off my internet friends.

 

Flap Jaw Space: The DigitalChumps Podcast finally hit Episode 50 last week (well, it was really our 57th recording, but 50 official episodes). Up until Episode 48, the bulk of Flap Jaw Space followed a fairly standard podcast model of three hosts (and an occasional bonus character) discussing all of the games we had played since the previous podcast. Flap Jaw Space also used to feature special segments like "Steve Plays a Game He Should Have Already Played," "Retroactive ShitStorm," "How Much Do You Realize," and "Burn this Mother Fu**er Down," but eventually all of that eroded into a catch-all of profanity, countless stories that were tangentially (if that) related to gaming, and a verbal deluge of ideas and/or critical theories that almost made sense.  We still plan on doing all of that, but to add some focus and relevance to the 2012 gaming landscape Chris Stone developed a better organized and perpetually interesting vector for discourse dubbed the Flap Jaw Space Power Rankings (formerly The G.O.T.Y. Ladder).

Basically, every episode is now the Game of the Year episode. Some might say that Game of the Year podcasts are only special because they happen once a year, and that doing that every two weeks would ruin its charm. To them I say look at other inconceivable triumphs of the human spirit, like Chrono Trigger, when Captain Crunch went Oops! All Berries*, or the formation of the 1992 Olympic Basketball Dream Team.** What I'm trying to say is relax, we have a plan in place.

Every 2012 game that we have played is eligible for the flux of ten games known as Flap Jaw Space Power Rankings. For its first iteration the sheer lack of potential candidates resulted in certifiable crap like Amy as well anything Steve Schardein liked defaulting into the ranking order. Over time, as the quality of titles has increased, so has the potential for chaos and melee in the verbal sparring space. With new and (sometimes!) better games coming out every week, the idea is for the Flap Jaw Space Power Rankings to foster arguments concerning which games definitely belong and which games certainly  or kind of maybe don't in an effort to derive the ten best games of the year. It's all completely subjective and mostly just for fun, but it's also a neat way to internalize the impact left by some of our favorite games, and whether or not it stands up against titles released months down the road.

In any case from Episode 50 on the Flap Jaw Space Power Rankings will have a companion story posted for every episode at DigitalChumps. Basically its intent is to function as a recap of two hours worth of discussion in case you zoned out while we were trying to explain the difference between Tommy Tallarico and Timecube.com

So, without further delay:

THE FLAP JAW SPACE POWER RANKINGS 

Going in to Episode 50:

1 - Journey, as played on PlayStation Network by Chris and Eric

2 - Twisted Metal, as played on PlayStation 3 by Eric

3 - Mass Effect 3, as played on Xbox 360 by Eric

4 - Syndicate, as played on Xbox360 by Chris and Eric

5 - Gothom City Impostors, as played on PlayStation Network by Eric

6 - NFL Blitz, as played on Xbox Live Arcade by Chris

7 - Ghost Trick, as played on an iPhone 4S by Chris and generally accepted by Eric

8 - Super Stardust Delta, as played on PlayStation Vita by Eric

9 - Ziggurat as played on an iPhone 4S by Chris and Eric

10 - Quell, as played on an HTC EVO by Steve

Up for Nomination: World Gone Sour, Fez, FIFA Soccer (Vita), Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, Trials Evolution, Tribes Ascend, Xenoblade Chronicles, Escape Plan, The Pinball Arcade

Going out of Episode 50:

1 - Journey, as played on PlayStation Network by Chris, Eric and (somewhat begrudgingly) Steve

2 - Fez, as played on Xbox Live Arcade by Chris and Eric

3 - Xenoblade Chronicles, as played on Wii by Eric

4 – Mass Effect 3, as played on Xbox 360 by Chris and Eric

5 – Twisted Metal, as played on PlayStation 3 by Eric

6 - Syndicate, as played on Xbox 360 by Chris and Eric

7 – Trials Evolution, as played on Xbox Live Arcade by Chris

8 – Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, as played on PlayStation Vita by Chris and Steve

9 - NFL Blitz, as played on Xbox Live Arcade by Chris

10 – Ghost Trick, as played on an iPhone 4s by Chris and generally accepted by Eric

Recap: The greatest disruption took place when Chris, in an unprecedented power move, wiped Gothom City Impostors off the list and replaced it with Trials Evolution. Typically new entries are ranked where appropriate and the last in line falls off the list, though no rule indicates this as the only course of action. We had been looking to remove Gothom City Impostors for a while and Eric, who seemed puzzled that it was there, chose not to stand and fight for its existence in the Power Rankings.

Ziggurat was also instantly deleted from the list when it was revealed, via listener email from Graeme, that it was created by Action Button Dot Net’s Tim Rogers. Eric finds Roger’s writing style to be infuriating and thus wiped Ziggurat out of principle.

With both Chris and Steve getting a Vita since Episode 49, it was a bit surprising to see Super Stardust Delta fall off, though it was essentially replaced with Mutant Blobs Attack, another and apparently better Vita game.

Xenoblade Chronicles’ inclusion of the list was a topic of hot debate. It's sole nominee, Eric, had it as his Game of the Year in 2011 (via an imported copy), but wound up reviewing it and squeezing out an additional 70 hours in 2012, which Chris decided qualified it for inclusion in our 2012 list. Also, it's awesome.

Fez coming in and placing as high as it did should surprise no one, though in the time since this podcast Eric and Chris have cooled on it a bit, while Steve just started playing.

Quell? Does anyone miss Quell?

* The core reasoning here is obvious, but also note that Oops! All Berries stealthy solved the fundamental and quite universal issue with Captain Crunch; it didn't rip your mouth to shreds

** This was a positive experience for everyone on the planet except Isiah Thomas and (possibly) Christian Laettner. 

“Free to play” games don’t usually strike my interest. That particular business model, which prices the base game at little to no cost and then offers upgrades or time savers for additional fare, has been embraced by almost every modern MMORPG along with the more recent DOTA-style competitive experiences. The rationale seems sound when applied to customization; cosmetic accessories are mostly inconsequential to gameplay and don't serve to diminish the experience of another. The free to play model starts to slide into a moral grey area when it offers quick access to items that would otherwise require hours grinding. That particular method could be employed purely to exploit players by creating unrealistic goals only possible through needless tedium, but good games often err on the side of catering this method to the casual or lazy and, thus, gaining acceptability.

Run Roo Run!, 5th Cell's first ground-up iOS offering, is where I'd like to draw the line. I bought Run Roo Run! based on 5th Cell's stellar work on the iOS version of Scribblenauts, along with a general interest in creative director Jeremiah Slaczka's approach to game design (gained via a handful of interviews and features at Gametrailers). Run Roo Run! is an adorable one button, single screen platformer. Roo runs automatically, and you tap anywhere on the screen to make her jump over a myriad obstacles. The game's breadth content, a total of 420 levels spread across twenty segmented worlds, is staggering. The first fifteen stages in each world are relatively simple and serve to introduce players to a new mechanic while the last six, which are completely unnecessary for progression, are incredibly difficult and make full use of every skill learned up to that point.

If you hit a wall, there are two options for assistance. First is a gadget that slows down time, making precise jumps over moving obstacles much easier, and there other is an unabashed level skip. You begin Run Roo Run! with two of each of these and, to the best of my abilities (through world 10 presently), I have found no way to earn more in the game. Instead, after you fail a couple times, a corner of the screen with a shopping cart icon makes a noise and flashes. Tapping that takes you to another screen where you're encouraged to buy timers in quantities of ten or sixty for .99 and $4.99, respectively. If you're really having a tough time, you can also opt to purchase ten or one hundred full level skips for $1.99 or $9.99, respectively. Run Roo Run!, on its own, is only a .99 cent game.

Worse, Roo seems to be constantly pushing the player to engage either of these options. Gold medals can only be earned by completing a level in one shot. Skipping a level with the bus pass defaults the player to a silver medal (which is probably fair). This only seems nefarious when one considers the only obstacle in separating a one-shot gold run from the lower tiers of medals is a reset button; when you fail, the level will either reset itself, keeping the timer going, or you can opt to push a button and start fresh. When one takes into account the frequency at which the game prompts you to buy help, the brevity of levels (most are only two seconds), and the annoyance at having to push a button at every failure, well, it sure as hell seems like 5th Cell put careful hooks in place to transform Run Roo Run! into a money generating machine.

That's 5th Cell's right as a developer and certainly in their best interests as a business, but I can't shake the nagging suspicion that Run Roo Run!, an otherwise innocent delight with an infectious aesthetic, is little more than a money printing machine designed to take advantage of those who choose to play it. The normal levels are pathetically easy, and the challenging 120, the only point where the game becomes demanding enough to occasionally require assistance, are sure to only be engaged by those who legitimately enjoy the game. It makes me think of how much better Run Roo Run! could have been if the current business model favored feature-complete games for $5 that everyone pays rather than glorified starter packs with outrageously priced additional content burdened to the select few whom actually like playing it. In any case, it's all a little uncomfortable, and a sad state of affairs if good ideas are being corrupted for a cash grab. 

 

Ok, so this obviously isn't a Best of 2012 list a full year in advance. I've only actually played two of these games and there's a lot that could happen in a year, but this is more like a fun guess over what has the potential to make my list come this time next year. I estimate that two or three will actually make it through. If all ten appear unchanged then I'll promptly quit writing for Digital Chumps and seek employment at a bacon factory or something equally ridiculous.

Journey (thatgamecompany – PlayStation Network) Journey knocked my socks off at E3 and set my hair on fire with the beta a few months later, mostly because it openly explained almost nothing and was increasingly better for it. Journey looks to be a game about discovery and about creating a series of abstracts for the player to decipher. I'll be surprised if there is ever even a line of text in the game, or if it bothers to cater to the American institution of explaining every last detail. Journey's allure is its relative ambiguity, and its risk is trusting the player to appreciate and enjoy it. Sign me up, because I can't wait to see what else is out there. Read Chris' E3 impressions. Read my beta preview.

BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games – PC. 360. PS3.) Irrational Games is home to some of the most talented minds in game design and they've now funneled five years of their time into building BioShock Infinite. The hands-off E3 demo was one of the few times I’ve witnessed everyone in a room being wide eyed and speechless over the events that were transpiring on screen. Ripping open temporal rifts and avoiding a jealous mechanical antagonist, all set against a steam punk, ultranationalist backdrop sounds like fertile ground for interactive entertainment. Wouldn't you agree? Read my E3 preview.

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance (Platinum Games – 360. PS3.) I was disappointed when Rising emerged with a comeback trailer at the shitty videogame award show. The trailer looked amazing and was cause for celebration, of course, but there was virtually zero crowd reaction when the Platinum Games logo flashed across the screen at the end of the trailer. That rumor had leaked out of NeoGAF six months prior, but seeing it there, literally confirmed, was like a wish coming true. With Vanquish and Bayonetta under their belt (and Mad World, yeah yeah), Platinum can do no wrong in my eyes, and I'm insanely curious to see what the guys there can do behind the wheel of a Metal Gear game.

Mass Effect 3 (Bioware - 360. PS3.) Despite advertising that seems to be campaigning directly against my interest in the series, I still think Mass Effect 3 is going to be something special. Mass Effect 2 was one of the two games I've given a perfect score at Digital Chumps. Its RPG aspects were certainly toned down, but its mood, atmosphere, and characters were second to none. Knowing that Bioware has vowed to restore some of Mass Effect's RPG foundation has me waiting with baited breath, in spite of its idiotic trailers.

Twisted Metal (Eat Sleep Play – PS3) Twisted Metal was the reason I bought a PlayStation in 1996, and anticipation for the sequel reached nuclear levels for my precious fourteen year old mind. With series' creator David Jaffe and his team at Eat Sleep Play back on board for a long awaited follow up, I can't not be insanely curious over how it's all going to turn out. The bits I got to play at E3 2010 felt great, and I can only imagine what else they've managed to do nearly two years later.

Gravity Rush (SCE Japan Studio – Vita) Ever since Mega Man V, playing with gravity is a mechanic I'll never get sick of. Hopping around Gravity Rush's apparent open world RPG will no doubt quench that thirst, but honestly my interest in the game began with absorbing its crazy visual style. Gravity Rush looks distinctive, memorable, and downright dreamy. Along with Sound Shapes it's the only other game I plan to buy with my Vita.

Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North(?) – 360. PS3.) Grand Theft Auto V's sole trailer was as vague as it was impressive, which is pretty much business as usual for Rockstar. I have no doubt that they're aiming high, but I'm super anxious to learn what kind of game GTA V will be in a 2012 landscape. The amount of time between San Andreas and IV was even shorter and those two games were wildly divergent in terms of theme, narrative, and gameplay. On top of that Red Dead RedemptionJust Cause 2 and Saints Row The Third have done open world bigger and better, and I can't wait to see what GTA V will do to, once again, redefine itself.

Prey 2 (Human Head – PC. 360. PS3) I didn't expect much from Prey 2. I walked into the demo area at Bethesda's E3 booth only because it seemed ridiculous to have three of us covering Rage. I sat down to watch a live, hands-off demo and was, in a manner of speaking, blown away. Human Head is apparently making Blade Runner, because Prey 2 appears to have discarded 95% of the nonsense from Prey in favor of creating a dark, interplanetary mercenary simulator. It felt like I had the opportunity to wreak havoc on Mass Effect 2's Omega or go completely nuts in environments so wrought with detail you'd think they were a prerendered background. My interest in Prey 2 went from zero to sixty in about fifteen minutes, so who knows what sitting down with the full game could do. My E3 Preview.

Amy (VectorCell – PlayStation Network) Regret isn't usually a character-defining trait for videogame characters. And yet that was the first emotion I noted in my time brief with AmyAmy is a survival-horror game where the player character Lana becomes infected with a zombie plague and spends the game's opening moments coming to grips with her fate. She's screwed, and she knows it, but knows there is still time to guide a little girl, Amy, to safety. Amy could be a giant escort mission with a few cool gimmicks, like Lana gaining powers as she tries to delay the inevitable transformation, along the way, or it could evolve transcendent experience along the lines of the much loved Ico. History isn't in its favor, look at how many games feature terrible escort segments, but Amy could be something very special.

Quantum Conundrum (Airtight Games – PC. 360. PS3.) This one is a bit of a risk. On board are Kim Swift, auteur of Portal and its pseudo predecessor Narbacular Drop, and Airtight Games, the folks behind Crimson Skies and (gulp) Dark Void. Everyone is expecting another Portal-like experience and the team certainly isn't shying away from those claims (they would be stupid not to, after all). What's actually presented looks categorically insane, like some sort of mash up between a furry party, a copy machine, and Back to the Future. I can live with that.

Others that I’m really looking forward to:

Sound ShapesEveryday Shooter made my Best Of 2007 list and remains one of my favorite PS3 games. Super excited to see what Jonathan Mak has learned over the last five years.

Borderlands 2 - My friends and I dumped dozens of hours into exhausting Borderlands content. Can't wait to do it all over again.

Papo & Yo – Because how often are adventure games used as metaphors for dealing with an alcoholic father? My E3 Preview

The Last of Us - Naughty Dog introducing a new IP this late in a console life cycle merits interest. Bonus points for the Enslaved vibe.

The Last Guardian - lol

Starhawk - Rumored to be in existence forever, I was glad to see it finally announced and I'm anxious to see what it's like.

Lollipop Chainsaw - Sold on concept alone, which I’m deliberately ripping from the Wikipedia article: Lollipop Chainsaw focuses on zombie hunter and cheerleader Juliet Starling who, along with members of her family and her boyfriend, a disembodied head, fight hordes of zombies in San Romero High School, where Starling formerly cheered. The enemy zombies are led by "a group of zombie rock and roll lords. I sort of can't believe Grasshopper keeps getting funding, and I mean that in a good way.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 - Look, I liked Final Fantasy XIII, and hearing that Kitase took fan criticism to heart when building XIII-2 gives me hope for something cool.  

Prototype 2 – Haven’t seen much beyond some aggressive Heller vs Mercer marketing drips. I am intrigued when a game makes its former protagonist its chief antagonist, though I’ll be surprised if that holds true to the end-game.

The Witness – Jonathon Blow’s long awaited follow up to Braid.  Brief previews started popping up a few months ago and mostly suggested that my brain isn’t educated enough to properly engage what he’s planning. Or maybe I didn’t understand the previews. Either way it’s the next game from the guy who made Braid, man.  

 

Hello and welcome to my top ten for 2011. A couple odd trends worthy of note; only two games were developed in North America, and only two were legitimate sequels. This is consistent with my particular interests, meaning I tend to favor new ideas (even when they fail) and ambition rather than engage an experience I've already had several times over. In the case of the two sequels I think it's hard to make an argument that either game didn't completely overhaul its predecessor, and, regarding the lack of American/Canadian development, well, my heart's always been in Japan.

Additionally here are my top tens from previous years: 2006 I 2007 I 2008 I 2009 I 2010

And in no order...

Child of Eden

Child of Eden blends the dreams of 80's era game design with 1999's desire for an infinite euphoric apocalypse. Player control, even with Kinect, is unapologetically simple; all you really do is move a cursor around and shoot two different types of ammunition in traditional rail-shooter fashion. In Child of Eden's case, context overwhelms input and builds toward a visual presentation that's as impressive as it is unprecedented. I don't remember a game where you saw giant space whales evolve into massive condors, or helped bash two opposing planets together so they could transform into dueling running men, which, by the way, was all in the name of harvesting the memories of the first girl born in outer space who, of course, sometimes appears dancing in the background in full motion video form. That's quite a mouthful, but it's why Child of Eden made the list. Like Sonic Team's Nights: Into Dreams, Child of Eden is categorically insane and yet also supremely composed and confident. It's pure gameplay masked in layers upon layers of chaos. Even as a sequel to Rez, there's nothing quite like it.

Signature moment:  Passion is the best level, but Evolution broadcasts Child of Eden’s craziest sequence. Upon attacking the final core, each time a shot connects images of Lumi dancing flash across the screen. Given the visual overload from the last fifteen or so minutes I actually thought I was hallucinating, but then it happened again and I realized the folks at Q Entertainment actually went to the trouble of video capturing and syncing an real human into the game in perfect harmony with both the gameplay and the music. 

PixelJunk SideScroller

PixelJunk SideScroller might as well be Child of Eden's evil twin. Whereas the latter smothers its 80's influence under layers of glorious confection, SideScroller proudly wears its lineage on its sleeve. While SideScroller does concede a few amenities to modern game design (continues, in particular, feel like a godsend) its roots are in the days of hazy arcades and semi-shitty cathode ray tube screens. Rather than settle for a deliberate replication (ala Mega Man 9) SideScroller goes the extra step and uses its shoot ‘em up base as a tool to enhance one's sense of supposed nostalgia. The subtle Japanese voiceovers, the ridiculously catchy music, charming graphical filters, and endless detail on the tiniest objects charm the living hell out of anyone born in the 80's. And the final level, with the possible exception of M.s Spolsion Man, is one of the greatest interactive climaxes of 2011. My Review.

Signature Moment: The final level. I'll skip the context (and for shit's sake don't click that link if you haven't played it), but SideScroller's climactic finish ties the bow on the entire experience. The whole game is exceptional and on harder difficulties easily lends itself to a transcendent, almost zen-like experience in maintaining perfection, but if every level is your standard street level smack then SideScroller's blowout would default as uncut Colombian cocaine. 

Bulletstorm

It's not just about the insane profanity. "Here comes butterdick Jones and his heavenly asshole machine" and "suck the tears off my dick you ugly mudf--kers," were oddly endearing doses of sophomoric wordplay, but they were complimented by fresh mechanics from a developer willing to twist and turn the rules of boilerplate first person shooter game design. That's because in Bulletstorm, you don't just shoot dudes in the face. Using a leash, a mighty boot, and your surrounding environment, the context of the kill is just as important as actually killing someone. Racking up points for all kinds of crazy kill combinations was incredibly addictive, and creating dozens of "skillshots" remains 2011's greatest contribution to first person shooters. In a perfect world this would have caught fire like Call of Duty 4's infectious multiplayer and spawned a dozen clones, but that's a topic for a different day. My Review.

Signature Moment: The Wheel of Death level. Bulletstorm was rarely at a loss for words or interested in dull moments, but I think it hit its peak when the hundred foot tall razor blade was tearing up Alderan (or whatever that planet was called) and the player was charged with murdering bad guys while all of that was threatening in the background. And that was all in a turret sequence, which is atypical for that game (and my personal taste). Pulling off seemingly impossible skillshots felt great too, but no I'd have to say the huge razor blade wins out. 

Xenoblade

Xenoblade single handedly corrects the disappointment left behind by the wake of Final Fantasy XIII, Lost Odyssey, and Blue Dragon. Hundreds of quests, countless expansive environments, worthwhile fiction, great characters, a smart combat system, and a world big enough to support dozens upon dozens upon dozens of hours of playtime. Almost every other stab at the genre has carried the weight and tradition of its predecessors and subsequently failed in the current gaming landscape, but Xenoblade absolves every sin. It has fast travel anywhere at any time. It has an unlimited inventory. Your health recharges. Quests are well organized. And it has Giant god damn robots. Forget that it’s on Wii, it’s actually coming to North America in April and it’ll be worth every penny.

Signature Moment – Entering Bionis’ leg. When I got out a cave and walked into Bionis’ leg, there, right before my eyes, was a playground at least twice the size of Final Fantasy XIII's prized Gran Pulse, and Xenoblade only spent a few blissful hours before getting there. Dozens of quests, tons of loot, countless monsters roaming the land, it was almost as if Monolith was flaunting its ability to give JRPG fans everything they were looking for. 

Radiant Historia

Time travel is an ambitious concept, one that often requires a significant budget for top shelf visuals and brain melting CG. Radiant Historia, a modest DS RPG from Atlus, has none of that. The team didn't have the resources (or the hardware, really) for whiz-bang effects, leaving their aim focused squarely on the gameplay end. It worked wonderfully. The battle system is classic turn based, but relies on a clever hook of shifting enemies around a 3x3 grid for maximum effect. The narrative is woven into the gameplay via the White Chronicle, a device that allows the protagonist Stocke to move around to different nodes over two timelines and play out scenarios in different ways. This not only alleviates the worry of missing something (you can essentially replay everything as many times as you want), but also adds the potential of consequence without the stigma of game-over failure. Radiant Historia could have easier pushed its concept harder, but what's there is still good enough to be one of the most innovative and worthwhile games of the year.

Signature Moment: Whenever it was I finally wrapped my head around how Radiant Historia allowed the player to move forward and backward in time. It honestly wasn't explained very well (despite being quite a wordy game) and when the light bulb turned on and I suddenly realized that I go back and do everything and/or anything over again, Radiant Historia went from good to exceptional. It's proof that a great idea can power a game without much of a budget. (note: YouTube DS footage sucks so that link goes to Alistel’s wonderful music) 

Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 offers the player maybe a half second of control before it starts unloading lethal threats upon Isaac Clarke. The opening sequence is a haunted house of carnage, and really sets the tone for what Isaac must endure for the next ten or so hours. The fiction is ultimately hokey when examined with any sort of scrutiny, but experience as a whole, specifically when walking down abandoned (space!) apartment hallways or running the hell away from necromoprhs. With Isaac desperately shooting out airlock doors, attempting pin point accuracy on necromorph appendages, and playing cat and mouse with stalkers, the gameplay end held up its end of the bargain as well. My Review.

Signature Moment (major spoiler): Reboarding the USS Ishimura. Discovering that that ship is on the premises and realizing you're going to have to board it again is terrifying. Better, Visceral wasn't content to recycle the same assets or lame scares, not only canvassing the entire ship in white plastic as if it were some sort of biohazard, but also crafting gameplay segments that deliberately play with Dead Space veteran’s expectations. 

Dead Island

Dead Island's loot system was a poor facsimile of Borderlands. It's dearth of enemies and weapon crafting reeked of Dead Rising 2. The mission structure was ripped right out of Fallout 3, and the open-world jungle setting was employed better by Far Cry 2. What Dead Island did have was an unwavering commitment to raw survival. This is an odd thing to say about a game that only penalizes death by taking ten percent of your money, that relies almost exclusively on energy drinks and power bars for health replenishment, and requires arbitrary money to repair weapons and create modifications, but it's surprising how seriously Dead Island takes itself. Zombies that level up with the player create a constant sense of vulnerability, further enhanced when you're in the middle of nowhere armed with a hammer, two flaming baseball bats, and a defective handgun with six bullets. Whether I was driving my truck around and exploring abandoned gas stations or walking up and down the beach, I felt somewhat prepared, but ultimately powerless and alone. Dead Island probably hit its peak on the first "area," but that feeling lasted throughout the entire game. You're always on edge. My Review.

Signature Moment: Pure Blood. Unfortunately this was the mission that nearly wrecked my Dead Island experience. I had to break the game in a different way in order to move past that section, and the Dead Island’s final scored ultimately dropped two points because of it. Unlike Skyrim, It was an isolated incident from a lack of testing rather than a global problem (and it’s since been patched out), but it left a lasting impression on an otherwise thrilling experience. 

Portal 2

Portal 2 is Valve bringing a novelty sized calculator to a gun show and (once again) walking away with first prize. Creating a clever first person game without a traditional weapon front and center is reason enough for celebration, but Portal 2's sentiment is magnified under the lens of its spectacular characters. GlaDOS was destined to impress, but the emergence of the spherical buffoon Wheatley and Aperture founder Cave Johnson were some one of the best surprises of the year. Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons, respectively, employed great writing with hilarious personality, often relying on subtlety and nuance rather than vapid easy one liners. Over time most of Portal 2's puzzles will fade away, but no one will ever be able to forget those characters. My Review.

Signature Moment - (major spoilers) It has to be the end, right? Knowing that the white gel was composed of moon dust, looking at that hole in the ceiling, seeing the moon, and, in a split second, going from "oh shit is this going to work" to "HOLY SHIT THAT ACTUALLY WORKED" was marvelous. Yes, the game was built with that finale in mind and there's no other way it could have possibly ended, but in the moment it felt spontaneous, like I was actively breaking the game in half. 

Catherine

You wouldn’t expect beers with friends and the moral complexity of infidelity to be suitable for an interactive medium, and you certainly wouldn’t anticipate marrying those concepts to a box pushing puzzle game to materialize into anything remotely interesting. And you would have been wrong. The elevator pitch for Catherine sounds like a joke, but it’s actually one of the most thought provoking, challenging, and legitimately interesting experiences out there. It's no secret that Atlus' in-house development teams are something of a late bloomer in console generations, and if Catherine was Altus only getting their feet off the ground, I can't wait for a Persona-fied follow-up. My Review.

Signature Moment - (considerable spoilers) Catherine keeps the player honest by planning Vincent's actions in cut-scenes through otherwise unrelated questions elsewhere in the game. Meaning, when his girlfriend Katherine catches him cheating with bar trash Catherine, there's no telling which way the shit is going to hit the fan. Wondering which way the angel or devil in Vincent's ear was going to push him was unexpectedly terrifying, and even though it was admittedly stupid and unrealistic,  the tension of that particular scene went unmatched in 2011. 

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

El Shaddai is a work of surprising confidence. Combat that favors leveling up the player's (as in you, not the on-screen character) skill set is worthy of admiration, as is a wildly imaginative, frenzied art department that never allows their beautiful work to overstay its welcome. In a way El Shaddai feels like it was born to be a cult classic, a game with a highly specialized aim that isn't interested in pleasing everyone, but feels absolutely perfect for its intended audience. I haven't seen very many of those in this generation, and El Shaddai should be commended for daring to dream up something different.

Signature Moment: Chapter 6. El Shaddai was always content to devour its scenery; a theme or visual style that could serve as a backdrop for an entire game is briefly employed before, almost immediately, being burned away, but the sixth level is where El Shaddai really blows its load. Before that the game had stayed close to an ethereal, pastel pallet of various sizes and shapes, but then Enoch dropped down into what I can best described as Tron meets Akira. I had no idea how much I wanted that until I played it. My Review.

What either fell short or what probably could have (had I played it) made the list:

Ms. Splosion Man - Great platformer with one of the best ending sequences…I don’t know, ever? My Review.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - Currently at 105 hours with much more to go, but I can't, in good conscience, praise a game that's constantly fighting off my desire to play it. I made the mistake of buying the PlayStation 3 version, which, as history has taught us, Bethesda can't bother to bug test properly. It's broken, fundamentally broken, after the save file starts hitting double digits, and it really puts a damper on every moment. Nathan's Review (of the 360 version).

Sonic Generations - This was the last one out. Loved playing the game and devouring properly induced nostalgia, but couldn't put it before any other game on the list. My Review.

LittleBigPlanet 2 – Right behind Sonic Generations. The level where you control robot bunnies, dogs, and hamsters was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in co-op. My Review. Nathan’s Review of the Special Edition.

Trenched - Right behind LittleBigPlanet 2. Chris’ Review.

Bastion – Loved the atmosphere and music, didn’t care for player control.

Gears of War 3 - Haven't played enough of it.

Super Mario 3D Land - Haven't played enough of it. Greg's Review.

Saints Row The Third - Bought it, have yet to play it. Will’s Review.

Shadows of the Damned - Bought it, have yet to play it. Steven's Review

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Bought it, have yet to play it. Steven’s Review.

Rayman Origins – Right up my alley, but waiting for Vita. 

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