Another year has come to a close.  While some gamers look forward to the big titles of next year–Mass Effect 3, BioShock Infinite, and Halo 4 among them–most gamers are still playing the deluge of games that have been released this holiday season.  Games like Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, and The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim are still sucking away hundreds of hours from many gamer’s lives.  I’ve played most of them, and so I’m going to tell you which games stood out to me the most this year.  As with any list of this nature, there’s bound to be some disagreement; I know right off the bat that my #1 pick isn’t going to be the same as most other people’s pick.  Yet, I feel confident that these are the 10 best games I’ve played this year and the 10 games that I would recommend above all others.  Note that games like Batman:  Arkham City, The Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword, and Super Mario 3D Land have been disqualified because I haven’t played enough of them to make a decision on where they’d fit on this list, if they would fit at all.

1.  L. A. Noire:  I gave L. A. Noire a perfect “10” review score earlier in the year and said that it was the best game I’d played up to that point in time.  I was fairly certain that something would topple it–Uncharted 3 or Skyrim, perhaps?–but nothing in the latter half of the year eclipsed L. A. Noire.  This is the game that, when I look back on the year, really sticks out for me.  It’s unlike any game I’ve ever played; there are action scenes, sure, but they’re not the main focus of the game.  In fact, players can skip over action scenes entirely after failing them a few times if they just want to experience the story and characters.  The main focus of L. A. Noire lies in actual detective work.  As detective Cole Phelps, you search for clues at crime scenes and then interrogate witnesses/suspects.  The whole process feels like an evolution of the old-school PC point-and-click adventure titles of the ’90s.  The now defunct Team Bondi’s amazing facial capture technology allows for real facial movement and expressions when interrogating people–it’s like you really are interrogating someone.  The entire thing is woven around a pitch-perfect recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, too.  Those expecting another Rockstar game along the lines of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption are bound to be disappointed, but open your mind a bit to something new and you’ll have a unique experience you’ll never forget.

2.  Portal 2:  The original Portal released back in 2007 as a small part of Valve’s The Orange Box compilation.  The game was short and weird, so Valve wasn’t sure if Portal would be a success as a standalone release.  As we all know now, of course, Portal was a breakout success, outshining even Half-Life 2:  Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 as the best reason to own The Orange Box.  When Valve announced that Portal 2 was going to be a standalone full-priced release, many gamers were skeptical.  The first game was great, true, but it was also extremely short and didn’t exactly seem like a game that needed a sequel.  Thankfully, Portal 2 is an unquestionable success that outdoes its predecessor in every way.  Portal 2 is much longer than the first game and features even better puzzle design built around new gameplay mechanics, but that’s not what makes it such a standout game.  Instead, it’s the story that reveals much of Aperture Science’s history and the hilarious new characters that really make Portal 2 rise above many other games released this year.  The hilarious and treacherous Wheatley–deftly voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant–alone is enough to earn Portal 2 the #2 spot on my list.

3.  Battlefield 3:  Ask most gamers about Battlefield 3 and they’ll most likely say something about the game’s graphics.  It’s true that Battlefield 3–especially on the PC–is the best-looking game I’ve ever seen.  However, it’s the large-scale online battles that truly make Battlefield 3 a must for any FPS fan.  You haven’t experienced anything quite like Battlefield 3‘s enormous 64 player battles that mix infantry and vehicles together with outstanding gameplay and the best audio/visual presentation around.  Call of Duty is downright boring next to the dynamic chaos that occurs all around you in Battlefield 3‘s biggest skirmishes.  Those seeking a tighter focus can play smaller infantry-only Team Deathmatch and Squad Rush modes, too, meaning there’s something here for every multiplayer FPS fan to get into.  The bland campaign and afterthought co-op are disappointments, for sure, but Battlefield 3‘s outstanding competitive multiplayer offerings more than make up for any of its deficiencies.

4.  Deus Ex:  Human Revolution:  When I sat down to write this list, I knew right away what my top three games would be.  Coming up with number four, however, was tricky.  I knew it’d be an RPG–but which RPG?  There were a ton of great RPGs this year, including the extraordinarily popular critic darling Skyrim.  Yet, the RPG that I had the most fun with this year–and one of only two I’ve finished so far–is definitely Deus Ex:  Human RevolutionDeus Ex isn’t even a good RPG in many ways–its story is generic, its characters are uninteresting, and the voice acting is absolutely horrendous.  Yet, Deus Ex is a ton of fun and allows you to mold protagonist Adam Jensen any way you see fit.  Want to focus on sneaking around and hacking into computers?  Feel free to do so.  Want to go in guns blazing like Rambo?  I don’t recommend it, but you can if you’d like, particularly later in the game.  Want to talk your way out of most situations?  You can do that, too.  Deus Ex:  Human Revolution allows you to play the game however you’d like while having a lot of fun doing so–and isn’t that the main point of an RPG?

5.  Dark Souls:  ‘Oh, come on now Nick, this is getting absurd.  Another RPG beats  Skyrim?  And it’s a ridiculously hard RPG that only the most masochistic gamers are going to enjoy?  This list is utter nonsense and I’m done reading it.’  Wait, impatient reader, hear me out!  Skyrim will be next on this list, I promise.  Besides, Dark Souls is a better game than Skyrim.  Why?  Simple; Dark Souls is better-looking, more unique, more challenging, and ultimately, more fun to play.  Sure, it’s not as massive as Skyrim, but Dark Souls has a truly unique open world that is gorgeous to look at and features a smorgasbord of incredible environments to explore and creepily designed enemies to fight.  Just wait until you see the hideous bosses that await you in the depths of Dark Souls‘ deepest sewers, castles, and forests.  Dark Souls‘ Lordran is infinitely more creative and impressive to behold than Skyrim‘s generic Nordic-inspired world.  Better still, Dark Souls features easily the best combat in any RPG.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Dark Souls has combat that is on par–if not even better–than an action game like God of War or Devil May Cry.  The barrier to entry is extremely steep thanks to a merciless difficulty level and deep systems that aren’t explained anywhere in the game or in the game’s manual, but those who are brave enough to take up the challenge that Dark Souls provides will find the most creative and memorable RPG in years.

6.  The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim:  The popular choice for best game of the year, Skyrim needs no introduction.  Everybody knows what to expect heading into this game–a massive world, deep RPG systems, streamlined leveling, hundreds of hours worth of great gameplay, and dragons.  Skyrim is so massive that you can put 200 hours into it and still not have seen everything the game has to offer.  The combat is much improved over previous games in The Elder Scrolls series, too, having some sense of weight and allowing for dual-wielding of weapons and spells.  The flipside of all this–and the thing that nobody seems willing to admit–is that Skyrim can be downright boring.  In other games, I almost always have something fun to do.  In Skyrim, though, I spend an ungodly amount of time aimlessly wandering around and searching for something to explore.  I’ve spent somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours playing Skyrim so far, and at least 15 hours of that time has been spent either wandering the world in search of adventure or talking to the boring townsfolk that inhabit the game’s cities and villages in the hopes of picking up a new quest.  When Skyrim gets exciting, though, it gets really exciting; dragons swoop down out of nowhere and attack, frost trolls chase you up mountains, and a cave may be a secret vampire lair.  Skyrim is a game that is the very definition of the word ‘massive:’  I just wish it was also the very definition of the word ‘fun.’

7.  Uncharted 3:  Drake’s Deception:  This one really hurts me.  Seriously, the amount of emotional pain I feel over Uncharted 3 is downright depressing.  It’s not because Uncharted 3 is an emotionally downbeat game, either; the pain I feel is that of disappointment.  No other game in 2011 disappointed me as much as Uncharted 3 did, not even Crysis 2 (which didn’t make this list for a reason).  Uncharted 3‘s direct predecessor–the phenomenal Uncharted 2:  Among Thieves–is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a perfect game and probably the best game released last decade.  It really was this good; if you ask me what needed changing in Uncharted 2, I’d give you a blank stare for a couple minutes while eventually stumbling out with “….um, the final boss could have been better, I guess?”  Ask me what could have been better about Uncharted 3 and I’ll talk to you nonstop about frustrating enemy encounters and pathetic enemy A.I..  Remember the awesome-looking cruise ship level that Naughty Dog demoed at E3?  It’s not fun at all thanks to a bunch of combat scenarios that involve lots of heavily-armored enemies that require multiple magazines worth of ammo to take down and seemingly-endless waves of enemies in tight locations.  The cruise ship section isn’t the only part of the game that is this frustrating, either; the entire middle half of the game is this way.  The entire game suffers from what may well be the worst enemy A.I. I have ever seen–these morons run back and forth in straight lines in the open when tons of cover is right next to them, begging to be shot.  It’s a complete shame, too, as Uncharted 3 manages to look even better than the last game and has some of the best scenarios I’ve ever experienced in a game, including an amazing sequence where Drake wanders the desert and the best chase sequence in any entertainment medium.  The characters, dialogue, puzzles, climbing sections–all are top-notch and put every other game to shame.  When Uncharted 3 is firing on all cylinders, no other game can touch it in terms of spectacle and fun factor.  It’s a shame that the atrocious A.I. and extremely frustrating difficulty make this my least favorite Uncharted game.

8.  The Witcher 2:  Assassins of Kings:  The last RPG on this list–and the last one worth playing this year–The Witcher 2 is every PC fanboy’s dream come true.  Exclusive to the PC for now (an Xbox 360 port is supposedly coming next year), The Witcher 2 leverages the power of gaming PCs to produce stunning visuals with the best character models ever seen.  The lighting effects and environment design look great, too.  The game suffers a bit from being generic high fantasy–it’s The Lord of the Rings with more sex– and there are quite a few annoying bugs (every time I tried to play the dice poker minigame, the game would crash on me), but the characters and dialogue are well-written and feel real.  The combat is supposedly inspired by Demon’s Souls‘, but it’s not nearly as good or as challenging.  It’s fun, though, and extremely deep.  In fact, The Witcher 2 is easily the deepest RPG I’ve yet played–there’s no pointless streamlining here.  Alchemy, crafting, magic, combat, skill trees, dialogue choices, decisions that literally change the game you experience; it’s all extremely deep and obviously made for a PC audience who grew up with classic BioWare RPGs such as Bauldur’s Gate.  It’s a bit tough to get into, sure–the tutorial throws everything at you at once, and there’s barely any time to get adjusted before you’re fighting for your life–but this game isn’t Dark Souls and won’t require constant dying on your part once you get the hang of things.  If you want to experience the deepest RPG around and have a decent gaming PC, The Witcher 2 is what you’re looking for.

9.  Gears of War 3:  The final part of Epic’s fantastic trilogy, Gears of War 3 isn’t terribly innovative; instead, it improves upon what’s already in the franchise.  Thought the story and characters of the first two Gears games were boring and flat?  Not so with Gears 3–this game has the most touching and heartfelt moment I’ve experienced in a game this year.  Seriously.  The graphics are even better than in the last two games, making for one of the best-looking games you can buy.  The cooperative Horde 2.0, four-player co-op through the campaign, and new Beast modes provide the best co-operative gameplay of the year.  The competitive multiplayer is unbalanced and keeps the game from placing even higher on this list, but everything else the game does is topnotch.  Even if you weren’t a big fan of the previous Gears of War games, you owe it to yourself to play Gears of War 3.

10.  Rayman Origins:  The last slot on my list could have gone to any number of great games released this year, including Dead Space 2 and Mortal Kombat.  Instead, I chose to highlight the best game that’s going to get buried under the avalanche of huge holiday releases, Rayman OriginsRayman Origins is a beautiful 2D platformer that features extremely creative level design and gorgeous graphics.  It’s also challenging–just the way I like my platformers–and has great replay value thanks to four-player co-op and a huge amount of secrets to find.  The game’s a bit short to be a full-priced $60 release, but GameStop is now offering the game for sale at $30 brand new.  If you like games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns, you’ll love Rayman Origins.




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