Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

2011 in Review, Part 4: A Review of a Review

Radiostorm sure likes to type, doesn’t he?

I thought I would like to take a moment to weigh in on my brother’s year end review. This isn’t because I found it particularly erroneous or ridiculous; quite the contrary actually! My picks would have been very similiar, or at least along the same vein as the games he selected. I’m not quite as wordy as RS is, so I’ll try to keep things a bit more concise as I review his picks and make a few of my own. I must admit, I never thought that Terraria would catch on the way it did. I played the game on-and-off for about a month this year – and although I enjoyed it thoroughly – I found the gameplay was a bit too finite and derivative for my tastes. I felt that it was only a matter of time before the player base would slowly dwindle as people returned to Minecraft or simply ran out of content to complete.

Then last month Radiostorm informed me that the game had sold one million copies, and that content updates were fairly frequent and substantial. Never before would I have thought that “mining game” would become a legitimate genre, let alone one that could produce some of the best selling indie games of all time. Terraria is the first of what is sure to be many in this genre, and epitomizes what can be done with creative re-interpretation of core game mechanics. Although I agree with the observation that free-to-play games really found their footing this year, I don’t think that Team Fortress 2 was necessarily the trailblazer in that field. I would say that a slightly older release, League of Legends, is probably the true pioneer in the free-to-play gaming scene. LoL took a classic online game format (Defense of the Ancients) and managed to make it both profitable and engaging without selling a single copy or charging a monthly fee.

Team Fortress 2 was one of the first major studio releases to successfully follow this model, but in retrospect, it was a fairly low-risk decision for Valve to make. Most of the people out there who wanted TF2 had already bought a copy, and this simply was a natural step for the game to take to remain profitable. LoL took the free-to-play plunge right from the start, and created a model that is now mimicked throughout the industry.

Before I say some lovely things about Bastion, I’d like to take a moment to talk about three games that dominated the headlines this year: Portal 2, Arkham City and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Why am I lumping all of these games together? Because they are all large studio releases that demonstrate exactly should be done while designing a sequel.

Portal 2 is probably the standout of the aforementioned bunch. Like any good sequel, it builds upon the elements that won its predecessor so much praise: a unique plot, superb voice acting, and simple game mechanics used to solve challenging puzzles. It even managed to crank things up another level with the addition of a co-op mode, which I know is excellent as it is the ONLY co-op game Radiostorm and I have been able to complete without attempting to murder each other.

The real fantastic thing about Portal 2, however, is how the world, plot and characters are crafted into one cohesive whole. I have never before played a game where the mechanics and narrative blend together so seamlessly. The themes of the game are reinforced passively through the environment and puzzle mechanics, allowing the user to experience the narrative even when there isn’t a talking head to guide you around. And when there is in-your-face plot advancement it is bloody fantastic.

Arkham City was a big release that I looked forward to all year, and not just because of my love for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. AC promised to fix the few problems that its predecessor had (small game world, a few odd fight mechanics, lack of sidequests), while building upon the solid foundation that Arkham Asylum had established

It really is unfortunate that so many other great games came out in 2011, otherwise AC would likely be on top of most magazine’s “game of the year” listings. It refines and expands upon almost all of the things that made Arkham Asylum so great, building upon Batman’s rogues gallery, creating new combat moves and finishers, and providing the Dark Knight with a hunting ground chock-full of villains, sidequests and secrets. Most importantly of all, the game never seems deviate from the rich DC source material. You really feel like you are playing through the pages of a comic book, with nary a big lipped alligator moment in sight.

Although probably the most hyped game of the year, there really isn’t much to say about Skyrim. It is basically a bigger, better version of Oblivion. Which is good, because Oblivion was a game with a lot of potential that was killed by a bland and repetitive world. The folks at Bethesda did an excellent job of making the world engaging; filling every nook and cranny with NPCs, monsters and quests.

I liked this game a whole lot, but it really feels more of a step sideways from Fallout: New Vegas then a true step forward for Bethesda. Although the setting of Skyrim is an engaging one, it pales towards the rich source material provided by the Fallout franchise. I could feel “generic medieval setting blandness” creeping in every so often, but luckily there was enough content in the game to keep me distracted and contented.

Take a quick look at all the games I’ve mentioned above. What do they have in common? Every single one of them is a sequel or a reinterpretation of an already successful game. Developers decided to play it safe this year… for the the most part.

Bastion was one of the few truly original games of the year, and also happens to be my pick for the best. Radiostorm already covered a lot of the reasons that this game was great (polished gameplay, gorgeous graphics, endearing soundtrack), but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that this is an original release. No intellectual property, no movie license, no predecessor. Just a rock-solid game experience that the developers believed could stand on it’s own in a sea of sequels and retreads.

If you haven’t already, give this game a try. It’s only $15 for goodness sake! You probably paid more than that for lunch today.

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By Michael
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer