2011 Spotlight: Video games

While this year started out rocky in the gaming industry, it ended strong, with one of the best holiday lineups in recent memory. This year, developers gave us sequels to “The Elder Scrolls,” “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” “Uncharted,” “Gears of War,” “Infamous,” “Dead Space,” “Call of Duty,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Mortal Kombat” and “Battlefield,” to name a handful. In short, if you were a fan of franchises, 2011 was your year. Here’s a rundown of the year’s best offerings.

Game of The Year

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

“Skyrim” exists on a plane few other games aspire to and even fewer reach. Bethesda Softworks’ newest entry in its popular series is a dream come true for fans of sword and sorcery, fantasy and folklore. The real star of the game is the world itself. Cities bustle with people and things to do, both story-driven and ancillary. There are always jobs to be done and adventures to embark on, and they take you all over the game’s massive and topographically varied landscapes, caverns and dungeons.

It’s the type of game where you set out to do one task and end up being distracted by 18 other, equally important ones. This all goes into making the world feel more immersive and alive. “Skyrim” isn’t the kind of game one sits down to play for an hour between classes or while on a lunch break; it’s a game swallows chunks of time on accident. And with quests that automatically generate and a long, winding story that follows the return of dragons, political intrigue and a rebellion, it’s an experience that won’t end anytime soon.

Runners-up: Arkham City, Portal 2

RPG of The Year

Skyrim

Beyond the game’s massive, vibrant world is a character-leveling system that rewards the player for playing the game however they choose. Do a specific activity or task often enough and you’ll level up said skill. Level a skill up enough and you gain access to new abilities. The end result is an experience that is different for each player, which in turn makes a player feel like they truly own their character. Add to that a wealth of perks and missions that lend themselves to whatever play type you prefer and it goes a long way in making each person’s time in Skyrim distinctly their own.

Action Game of the Year

Batman: Arkham City

Rocksteady took an already outstanding first entry in a franchise, “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” and made it better in every way. “Batman: Arkham City” is a lot of things — taut action thriller, a fitting entry in the Dark Knight’s canon and the best open-world action game since “Red Dead Redemption” — but most of all it’s the best Batman simulator anyone other than Christian Bale will experience.

While its boss fights were a little on the simple side, nothing topped the sense of gliding above the city, spotting thugs on the ground and dropping in to unleash brutal justice on the unsuspecting criminals. The freeflow combat returned, making it possible cut through scores of goons without them laying a hand on you. And it didn’t hurt that same outstanding voice talent and jaw-dropping graphics returned unscathed.

Runner-up: Uncharted 3

Shooter of The Year

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

There were plenty of shooters this year, but, really, 2011 will be remembered for two: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” and “Battlefield 3” and while on paper the games are very similar — you control a character from a first-person perspective and use authentic military hardware to kill your enemies online and off — the devil truly is in the details.

“Modern Warfare 3’s” multiplayer offered the same run-and-gun thrills we’ve seen since “Call of Duty 2” made its Xbox 360 debut, but it offered some refinements in its perks and killstreaks as well as some new modes that kept things interesting.

On the opposite side, “Battlefield 3” features some of the most realistic character movement and the scope and scale that the franchise is known for. Dice’s Frostbite 2 engine made it possible to destroy nearly anything and an average map was designed to accommodate on-foot combat, vehicular combat and aerial dogfights with choppers and jets.

“Battlefield,” because of its simple, but balanced class system that incentivizes players to form squads and complement each others’ type of play, made for a more satisfying and deep multiplayer experience.

But overall, “Modern Warfare 3” is the better game, as its offline modes, including Campaign, Spec Ops and Survival, are as compelling as the multiplayer aspect. The same can’t be said for “Battlefield.”

Runner-up: Battlefield 3

Sports Game of The Year

Fight Night Champion

EA’s first mature-rated sports game told an adult story about brotherly love, pride and redemption, but even if you skipped every cutscene, at the game’s heart it was really fun to hit people. “Fight Night Champion” refined its fighting mechanics but managed to make improvements on the already stunning graphics, achieving almost photorealistic fidelity.

The career mode made a satisfying return as did the incredibly deep create-a-fighter, which allowed you to import your own face with a digital camera. It was a little disappointing that you couldn’t upload fighters from previous versions of the game, but overall nothing topped going head-body-head on some helpless palooka before delivering a knockout blow.

And playing with your friends or strangers made the fighting even more exciting.

Puzzle Game of The Year

Portal 2

Is it fair to call “Portal 2” a puzzle game? Well, as I’m the only one here, I’ll answer my own question: Yes, it is.

But that’s like calling the Empire State Building tall. It’s true, but it doesn’t quite do the building’s majesty justice.

Valve has crafted a universe with its own set of rules, its own sense of humor and its own dark morality, and they’ve done it all on top of a game that was originally packaged into a bundle of well-known games people desperately wanted to play. Everything you loved about the original is here — the sense of humor, the mind-bending platforming and, again, the humor — but all of those (OK both of those) elements are expanded upon and polished to mirrored shine.

Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons voice two of the funniest characters in gaming history. And the game’s conclusion deserves better than to be spoiled here. To top it off, Valve added a co-op mode that managed to go beyond simple distraction by cranking up the complexity and requiring players to communicate well together.

Downloadable Game of The Year

Bastion (Xbox Live Arcade)

Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade has given us some great games over the years, including “Braid,” “Trials HD” and “Shadow Complex,” and now those titles need to shove over because “Bastion” is joining that list.

A gorgeously rendered, isometric 2-D action game, “Bastion” pulls from the greats including “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,” arguably the best 2-D game ever. But while the game’s influences are obvious ones, “Bastion” has enough personality to stand apart. The earthy-voiced narrator who chronicles your adventures is as easy to mock as he is to love. The game’s soundtrack is gorgeously detailed. Ditto to the visuals, which benefit from a hand-painted look in every frame. If you grew up playing “Phantasy Star” or, again, “The Legend of Zelda,” you’ll be right at home in “Bastion.”

Best Character

Wheatley (Portal 2)

Stephen Merchant’s role as the sublimely stupid A.I. Wheatley in “Portal 2” is beyond hilarious. Wheatley is a bumbler, incompetent, and mostly an idiot. He’s also essentially a metallic sphere with a big, blue eye in the center. In other words, the sum of his character was entirely dependent on Merchant’s vocal work, impeccable comedic timing and some of the sharpest writing in any branch of entertainment.

Biggest Surprise

Nate Drake’s stowaway flight.

Naughty Dog has said that they actually think of the action sequences before they find a way to meld them into the story, and while that can sometimes lead to some rough transitions, it also leads to this incredible sequence in which series hero Nathan Drake fights his way onto a cargo plane, gives a brute a swift exit and then … ah, just watch this video.

Biggest Disappointment

Rage

ID Software invented the first-person shooter game with “Wolfenstein 3D” and soon after “Doom.” A few years later, they revolutionized the genre by taking it into true 3-D with “Quake.” Suffice to say, stakes were high for “Rage,” the studio’s first original property since 1996.

To the game’s credit, “Rage” is gorgeous, especially when installed to the hard drive. Being able to stream high-resolution textures give the game a clarity and fidelity unlike almost any other game this year, and the added detail in the character’s faces, the wasteland environments and the weapons go a long way in making the game more immersive.

But for all its flash and visual splendor, the core gameplay hasn’t come far at all. Here’s “Rage” in a nutshell: Start at point A. Go to point B. Kill everyone. Return to point A. And the gunplay relies on an annoying ammo-management system that deflates any sense of tempo or anxiety to the action.

Runner-up: Connectivity issues with Battlefield 3

Biggest No-Show

Twisted Metal reboot

The return of the car-combat series was postponed until February, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but considering a proper successor to “Twisted Metal: Black” has been a decade in the making, any delay is an unwelcome one. The only silver (or chrome) lining was that the series will be getting its “M” rating.

Best PS3 Exclusive

Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series has been a staple of the PlayStation 3 for years and will be one of a handful of original franchises for the console that will survive long after we’ve moved on to holodecks and neurogaming. And “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” took everything we loved about the series — the witty banter, the likable characters, and, oh yeah, the massive action sequences spread across exotic locales and turned up the intensity.

Add to that a thoroughly tested and well-executed multiplayer element and you’ve got a game people are going to be playing for awhile.

Runner-up: Infamous 2

Best Xbox 360 Exclusive

Gears of War 3

The conclusion to the franchise that helped establish the Xbox 360 and really showcased what not just the console but the entire console generation was capable of, “Gears of War 3” went out on a very decisive note. The cover-based gameplay returned, as did the near-obsessive stat tracking and the multiplayer that will keep players invested long after the credits roll.

Perhaps the biggest improvement came in the form of Horde 2.0, which added a tower defense element to the survival mode that has since been popularized by many other series, including a few on this list. By adding barrier, decoys and weapon purchases, Horde 2.0 took on a whole new element of strategy previously unseen in the series.

As an added bonus, Epic Games have scores of downloadable content planned for throughout the year, including “Raam’s Shadow,” which launched earlier this month, and a Horde expansion that dropped in November.

Best Fighting Game

Mortal Kombat

After years of crossovers, missteps, poorly conceived spin-offs and just plain bad games, Netherealm Studios restored the bloody franchise to its proper place among the best 2-D fighters by doing what it does best: creating violent, over-the-top combat (Sorry. Kombat.) with a cast of colorful, sometimes hilarious, characters.

“Mortal Kombat” was a true return to form, as it was immediately familiar to fans of the series, but still offered some depth and detail fans of more contemporary fighting games are familiar with. And the variety of modes both online and offline shot the replay value through the roof.

Best Wii Exclusive

Skyward Sword

Was there any other game that came out for Wii this year? Even if Nintendo had released new versions of every one of its major franchises, the latest entry in “The Legend of Zelda” series would still probably top the list. The game adds a slew of new elements to the familiar series, namely the inclusion of MotionPlus support and a new flight mechanic that worked markedly better than the sailing aspect of Windwaker.

Runner-up: Just kidding.

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