Looking back at 2011

2011 was a year in which gaming started to feel like it was repeating itself, a record skipping and endlessly looping the same line. It was the point at which I started to feel we’ve heard this stuff a bit too much before, and at times 2011 started to feel like a surreally postmodern nightmare, where gaming endlessly cannibalised itself for ideas. The buggy undead DIY blood disco Dead Island, for example, was pretty much the greatest hits of zombie games, shamelessly pilfering its game mechanics from every example of the genre you can think. To be fair, the melee-based limb-slicing was deliriously enjoyable, so Dead Island could maybe be forgiven its many staggering faults and malfunctions. If it maybe borrowed a bit too liberally from Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising and Resident Evil, then at least it was good, schlocky fun.

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Who would have thought anyone would want to copy Resident Evil 5’s implied racism?

Sequels and sequels and sequels inevitably dominated gaming fare in 2011, with some more prepared to bring new ideas to the table than others. The only way that Ubisoft could think to innovate with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was to add a Tower Defence minigame, and if you read that again you’ll realise how ridiculous it is. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is a great one, but Ubisoft are milking the whole Ezio storyline for all that it’s worth, and it’s starting to tarnish the series in my eyes. It seems kind of cynical that they’ve starved us of something genuinely new (not just Ezio’s Turkish holiday snaps) for years, only to bring out what are essentially glorified expansion packs.

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Visual metaphor theatre: Europe denies Turkey EU membership. In the face.

The entire first person shooter genre, similarly, is starting to feel like an Andy Warhol painting – the same essential experience rehashed in a million different colours. Whilst playing the cheerily xenophobic Red Dawn ‘em up Homefront, I remember thinking that the gung-ho modern shooter genre must have finally reached some kind of critical mass, because I honestly don’t know how many more of these I can take. With Homefront they at least changed the Russians to North Koreans, and it had the decency to be competent enough during the forty-five minutes it took you to play through the single-player campaign.

Every shooter nowadays is chasing the Call of Duty goldmine so hard we’ve reached a kind of saturation, and the climax of this was when, in a moment so hilariously absurd it registers as bleak parody, two competing yet identical bullet tennis championships – Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 – were released within weeks of each other. This was clearly some sort of sick joke on the part of the games industry, bringing a game out and then expecting consumers to buy the exact same game a week later. Anyone who believes there to be any difference whatsoever between the two games is not sensible enough to be allowed to dress themselves. Every time I see the same group of elite military counterwhatever soldiers blasting their way through another industrial complex, I really hope the game would lead you through a gun fight in a paint factory, so at least there’d be some colour other than brown.

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Google “battlefield 3 modern warfare 3 which is better” and be prepared to read some of the stupidest sentiments ever articulated by human beings. I use the words “sentiments,” “articulated” and “human beings” in the loosest possible sense.

Inexplicably, some sequels in 2011 managed to do the exact same thing as the previous instalment, but somehow better. Dead Space 2 and Gears of War 3 were both stellar sequels, taking everything that was great about what came before it and polishing it to a dazzling sheen. Dead Space 2 in particular managed to be so much more compelling and intense than its predecessor by tightening up the central gameplay and structure, and then throwing breakneck-paced set-pieces at you like confetti. Not for the faint of heart, it was nonetheless one of the most thrilling games of the year, a hugely underrated gem.

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Pictured: pretty much the only moment in Dead Space 2 where something isn’t trying to tear you apart.

Perennially popular pointy-eared vigilante ball-buster Batman: Arkham City shook up its predecessor’s Zelda-like structure for a more sandbox feel, and may have lacked the tight focus of the original for it. Nonetheless, Arkham City was a robust, confident sequel, and given how perfectly Arkham Asylum’s mechanics captured the experience of how awesome it is to be Batman, it’s perhaps reassuring that they changed so little. If Rocksteady are planning on carrying the series forward in an open-world vein, however, then they need to learn that it’s a sandbox game cardinal sin to place a large, impassable walled area RIGHT IN THE CENTRE OF YOUR GODDAMN GAME WORLD.

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Come at me, bro.

2011 was not a year totally devoid of invention. The frenetically silly hedgehog simulator Vanquish had solid and muscular gameplay, with a distinctly Japanese sensibility adding a bit of colour to the game, even if the voice acting was so awful I genuinely think it’s the only thing stopping me from playing it again. Bulletstorm was a pleasant surprise, a slab of big, dumb, shooty nonsense, more fun than most games that year, and with beautiful graphics to boot. Though obnoxiously stupid and utterly charmless, Bulletstorm at least made the gameplay enjoyable with some well-implemented and inventive environmental mechanics, which made playing through the gorgeous levels a real joy.

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My original review of Vanquish.

It was also nice to see some experiments in 2011, even if they didn’t always turn out so great. The James Ellroy-inspired cyborg detective epic L.A. Noire came packing some serious cutting-edge performance-capture technology heat, and was an ambitious attempt to straddle modern action-orientated gameplay styles with a more narrative-driven focus on explorative, investigative and interrogative mechanics. I’m not entirely sure it worked, feeling oddly like a sub-standard over-the-shoulder shooter with weirdly familiar retro adventure game jaunts every now and again to break up the pace. Despite its many imperfections, L.A. Noire was a bold step in the right direction – a renewed commitment to story and character, an example I hope will encourage imitators in the games industry. It should also win some kind of award in inspired postmodernity for being the first sandbox game without an actual sandbox in it. L.A. Noire had a faithfully recreated 1950s Los Angeles, and then didn’t let you drive around and explore it, choosing instead to funnel you through parts of the city on the way to and from crime scenes. Between this and the disappearing middle-section of Arkham City’s map, you might as well call 2011 the year of doing open-world games badly.

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L.A. Noire also had the most “Oh, it’s that guy from that show!” moments of any game in 2011.

Check back on Friday and I’ll be talking about my favourite game of 2011.

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