Video Games' Unsung Heroes of 2011

By Ryan Winslett in Infinite Ammo, Lists!
Friday, January 6, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Looking back over the past 12 months of video game releases, it's hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed. The AAA blockbusters got rolling early in 2011 with only a few lulls in the action leading up to the monstrous holiday window.


We saw a lot of big titles this year--both new IPs and a ridiculous number of high profile sequels--as well as some pleasant surprises that managed to sneak under the "awards show" radar.


It's this second group of games I'll be focusing on for this week's column. While pretty much every gaming site on the planet is releasing their annual "top 10 of the year" lists this week, I instead want to take a gander at some of the games that might not be receiving as much attention.


With so many stellar releases this year, it's hard to fault anyone for overlooking a few of these gems. So let's give it up for the little (relatively speaking) guys.

 

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Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 was everything a sequel should be: bigger, badder and a hell of a lot meaner than its predecessor, and it managed to pack in quite a few scares along the way. The survival horror genre has taken a nosedive in recent years. The foggy streets of Silent Hill haven't won over many new residents since the series' third iteration and, let's face it; Resident Evil 5 was so far removed from the genre it's hard not to simply consider it a straight-up action adventure.


While Dead Space 2 is arguably less frightening than the first game's romp through a crippled space vessel overflowing with undead invaders, it certainly had a knack for making the ole' skin crawl. Gruesome moments were punctuated with clever trickery that had the player questioning the reality they were being presented. The action was intense, environments were foreboding, enemies were ghastly and the team at Visceral even managed to pack in a unique multiplayer experience that, while unnecessary, was worth out time and attention.

 

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Terraria

Often referred to as "the 2D Minecraft," Terraria is a massive adventure game with a heavy emphasis on creation. Terraria's offerings seemed humble when the game first launched, but those who took the time to dig deep into the randomly generated world discovered enough content to keep themselves busy for an unlimited number of hours thanks to the huge maps and the immeasurable number of items you could discover and build.


Developer Re-Logic has been adding an amazing amount of additional free content to the mix over the past several months, which means you could easily spend as much time in Terraria as the mystical, dragon-filled lands of Skyrim. This is a title that keeps on giving with some amazingly rewarding 8-bit Zelda-esque adventures. And then there's the stuff you can build. Good lord, the stuff you can build.

 

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LittleBigPlanet 2

Featuring a more varied campaign with beautiful graphics, oodles of charm and exciting boss battles, I discovered pretty quickly that LittleBigPlanet 2 was going to be much more than just a glorified expansion pack parading around in disc format.


But it wasn't until I dove into the game's creation mode that I discovered just how much new (and more user friendly) content developer Media Molecule was offering its fans. Like an overflowing toy box of gadgets, baubles and whats-its, you can build pretty much any type of game, level or contraption you can think up with these amazing new tools. It's simply staggering what LBP2 lets the player create and what the community has created since its launch in early 2011. I wholeheartedly believe some of tomorrow's best developers are playing LBP2 today.

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BloodRayne: Betrayal

Do you remember those action platformers from back in the day that coupled precise controls with gorgeous visuals, satisfying combat and the occasional set of obstacles that required you to perform a chain of commands flawlessly? Downloadable game BloodRayne: Betrayal is exactly that sort of game, and man is it a delightful treat.


Wayforward took a series I had otherwise never cared about and made it into one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2011. There's not much in the line of story, but a gripping tale isn't exactly priority number one in a game that has you dancing through the air like a death-dealing ballerina, pulverizing anything foolish enough to get in the way of your wrist-mounted blades and dual pistols.


Betrayal looks as beautiful as it plays and packs in several wonderful little touches (a heavy metal headbanging demon-boss and turning your enemies into walking blood bombs, for instance) that make it a thrilling, tough and memorable experience

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Dark Souls

Considering that Dark Souls was both a commercial and critical success, I was hesitant to include it on a list about quality games that may have gone overlooked. Then I remembered that it hit the market standing shoulder to shoulder with such titles as Uncharted 3, Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3 and, yep, Skyrim.


Rather than harp on the game's notorious difficulty, brilliant online components or the deep combat, I would instead like to focus on the beautiful world developer From Software meticulously crafted for players to explore. Dark Souls is home to a massive world of interconnected zones that flow together seamlessly, but without being repetitious. Each area is unique in design and setting, as well as in the type of creatures you'll be going toe to toe with.


Figuring out how each area is put together and discovering what lies over that next hill is half of the fun of Dark Souls. Not a scrap of this brutal world feels reused and your curiosity will always be rewarded.


And, yeah, it's super difficult.

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Mortal Kombat

When NetherRealm said they were making a new Mortal Kombat game, bringing the series back to its roots, I was cautiously optimistic. I think pretty much all fans of the series were in the same boat. Mortal Kombat and 2D fighting had parted ways about a decade ago and, while I found the 3D games to be entertaining, they weren't exactly the best, most balanced experiences. Not by a long shot.


To say I was keeping my expectations low would be an understatement. I was hoping for a decent fighter with all of my favorite characters returning to their over-the-top, gory antics, and was instead treated to, not just the best game in the series, but one of the best fighters of all time.


The unique characters are well balanced, the combat engine has been retooled and given additional layers of depth, the online competition is smooth (now) and there are enough additional modes and unlockables to keep any fighting fan busy for weeks. Add to that a solid story mode (something fighting games have never really done well), and you have a fighter that managed to bring a floundering series screaming into the next generation.

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Rayman Origins

Perhaps the most criminally overlooked game of 2011, Rayman Origins is an unadulterated delight. Every aspect of this game--from the art and soundtrack to the controls and story--is absolutely overflowing with creative ideas and an unbridled devotion to good old-fashioned fun.


Rayman harkens back to the platforming greats of old while managing to push the genre forward, displaying top-notch craftsmanship, an unparalleled attention to detail and enough tweaks to the mechanics to keep the whole experience fresh and engaging.


And the best part is that the game can, quite literally, be enjoyed by players of all skill levels. Co-op allows friends to team up and help each other out while any level that is proving too tricky can simply be skipped. For those die-hard types in need of a serious challenge, though, Rayman Origins offers it in spades. Don't let the lighthearted, cartoony exterior fool you. Rayman is overflowing with diabolical challenges that require perfect timing and a mastery of the controls that will have high score seekers coming back to its healthy helping of levels time and time again.

 

Infinite Ammo is a weekly column by Ryan Winslett about video games, the industry that make them and the people who play them. He can be stalked via his blog at staticechoes.com and followed on twitter @RyanWinslett.


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