I'm beginning to dislike these end-of-year lists at FEARnet. See, as the quality of games continues to increase, so does the difficulty of picking my top picks for the year. Original, sequel, or reboot, the games of 2011 set another high water mark for the industry. Which games were they? Find out after the break.
If we gave out Game of the Year awards here at FEARnet, Mortal Kombat would be the clear winner. Netherrealm Studios' reboot of the classic fighting franchise was a gloriously gory nostalgia trip that brought the series back to its lean side-scrolling roots, trimming away all of the fat that bogged down the 3D entries of the prior series. Gone were the weapons, different fighting styles, and bloated Kombatant lineups, replaced by a near-perfect 32-player roster (beefed up slightly through DLC) and that "klassic" gameplay that made us fall in love back in the 90's.
Not all of the artifacts of the 3D days were stripped away, however. Players earned "koins" through completing matches, progressing through the lengthy story campaign, and conquering different scenarios on the game's monstrous, 300-rung Challenge Ladder. These koins could then be traded in at the Krypt (my "K" key is wearing out from this), for everything from alternate costumes to additional fatalities.
On the subject of fatalities, Mortal Kombat was a gorehound's dream, offering up unbridled brutality at every step. Losing fighters were decapitated, disemboweled, dismembered, and disintegrated by their conquerors in positively repulsive fashion. As if that weren't enough, even infamous sleepytime slasher Freddy Krueger made an appearance in a move that, somehow, actually made sense in the game's canon.
Alice: Madness Returns
Ten years after leaving a Tim Burton-esque striped mark on the PC gaming scene with American McGee's Alice, McGee returned to the house that Lewis Carroll built with the aptly titled Alice: Madness Returns. Set years after the original game, it followed our mentally mangled heroine Alice Lidell as she once again retreated to Wonderland to face the demented demons of her own psyche. Wonderland has changed along with Alice, however, eschewing much of the game's original goth vibe for a series of beautiful environments ranging from a Asian-inspired garden to an aquatic arena…with Alice's dresses changing to match the level's aesthetic. I never thought that I, a thirty-year-old man, would get so excited over a virtual frock, but Madness Returns' jaw-droppingly gorgeous art direction elicited such a response.
The distorted beauties of Wonderland--that extended even to the enemies that she faces--stand in stark contrast to Alice's horrific life in the "real world" of London, a miserable existence of squalor and torturous psychological therapy that makes Alice an even more sympathetic heroine in spite of her blatant nihilism and cynicism. It makes the return after the 10-year absence knowing that Alice grew up right along with us.
Shadows of the Damned
The only game on this list that isn't a sequel or a reboot, Shadows of the Damned earns its place through its sheer originality and unbridled lunacy. Players stepped into the leather pants and snakeskin boots of one Garcia (middle name Fucking) Hotspur, a lascivious latino demon hunter pursuing his girlfriend and her captor through the strangest rendition of Hell that's ever been committed to any medium. Hotspur trekked through everything from a quaint, Prague-like hamlet to a neon-bathed red light district, accompanied by the flamboyant talking skull Johnson, who provided both weapons and penile humor for the raucous road trip. I've never played a game that had me wielding a weapon called the Hot Boner—which also launched a sticky payload—but Shadows of the Damned had me doing just that.
All of this was made possible by a Japanese horror-gaming dream team that consisted of Suda51 (No More Heroes), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4) and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill), each giving their distinctive mark to the game. Somehow, the whole thing worked beautifully, with Suda51's intense weirdness, Mikami's over-the-shoulder gunplay, and Yamaoka's jazz/rock/punk/metal/whatever soundtrack tying the whole thing together into a sulfuric stew of joyous insanity.
Batman: Arkham City
Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of our top picks for 2009, so it's no surprise that its superior sequel would be featured on 2011's list. Batman: Arkham City took everything that was fantastic about its predecessor—the free-flowing combat, the gritty atmosphere, and high-tech gadgets—and transplanted them to the sprawling Arkham City, a borough-turned-prison for Gotham's unnaturally high population of novelty-themed mentally ill criminals.
Everything about Arkham City is bigger than its prequel: the massive environment, beefier arsenal of gadgets, and expanded rogues' gallery all but dwarf Arkham Asylum. Impressively, all of these additions never once throw off the finely-tuned presentation of the game. The Paul Dini-penned story is positively riveting, every additional weapon in Batman's arsenal is useful and logical, and the gauntlet of villains, featuring everyone from Two-Face to Solomon Grundy, is satisfying and varied. This is how sequels should be made.