2011 saw its share of disappointments, but it was also a year that contained a good number of nice surprises. Some were games we just didn't see coming—they snuck up on us and grabbed us with their excellence. Others were games that we thought were going to be terrible or at best so-so, but which would up being terrific.
I polled my fellow Kotaku editors and assembled a list of some of the most pleasant surprises of 2011.
I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't sold on Bulletstorm. It looked juvenile and boring, like a generic FPS dressed up with some color and silly language. I played a bit of it at a press event and remained unimpressed. I wrote a skeptical, critical preview.
As it turns out, I should have given Bulletstorm, and by extension its developers at People Can Fly, much more credit. Our reviewer back at Paste loved the game, and when I finally really sat down and played it, I found that I loved it too. It's genuinely funny in its brash dumbness, and it plays like a dream. The slide-kick alone is one of the most satisfying, endlessly fun gameplay mechanics of the year. I am still surprised at how much I love this game.
An iPad/PC game based around making chemical compounds certainly doesn't sound fun, but boy is it ever. As Stephen Totilo wrote in his Review, it is "a stellar puzzle game well worth your time and brain cells." Easily one of the best iOS games of the year, and the most fun I've ever had nerding right the hell on out.
This one was a surprise mainly because it came out with so little preamble, pomp, or circumstance. And yet it was a fantastic game, utterly worth buying in every way. Ashcraft called it "his new favorite shooter," while Totilo described it as "the total package of retro-chic style and substance," and one of his favorite PlayStation 3 games of the year. (!!) That alone puts it on the "surprises" list.
Superman on iOS
When Totilo wrote this game up, he said that it's not perfect, but simply surprising that it's so good, given the crappiness of most Superman games. I haven't played it, but I'm actually surprised that a Superman iOS game is good at all, so it makes the list!
The Witcher 2
It wasn't so much a surprise that The Witcher 2 was good—its predecessor had also been a fantastic game that got better and better the more you played it. The surprise was the way that The Witcher 2 was good. The Witcher had been a fairly niche game, a stat-based hardcore CRPG that made those of us who love that sort of thing very happy, but didn't have much mainstream appeal. With a new engine and control scheme, The Witcher 2 arrived on PCs loaded for bear, a game that was ambitious not only in its scope and storytelling, but in its mainstream accessibility. In fact, it was the game that the very-mainstream Dragon Age II wished it could be, a complex, hugely branching tale of moral intrigue loaded with great characters, cheap thrills, and fun action combat (once you got past the first few levels.)
I'll be very interested to see how its coming Xbox 360 port does—provided it's a console translation of the amazing game we PC gamers played in 2011, The Witcher 2 will surprise a whole new crop of console gamers in 2012.
What looked like a somewhat strange god-game from Eric Chahi wound up surprising us with is depth, difficulty, and satisfying gameplay loop. Stephen Totilo described it as "a very good video game that starts badly," going on to say that it crept up on him, and as he wrapped up the campaign, he was in love with it.
Trenched, of course, is now known as Iron Brigade, a humorous action/tower-defense game from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions. I remember when Schafer unveiled it at the end of the GDC awards in March, and I felt… underwhelmed. It was weird, the tone was kinda bro-y, there was this guy yelling, and I wasn't clear on what the game was. Then, it came out, and I played it—and fell in love with it. Double Fine has a reputation for making games that favor art and story over gameplay, but project lead Brad Muir's design chops made Trenched arguably the best-playing Double Fine game of all time. It's great in single-player and even more fun in co-op, and was one of the summer's most enjoyable surprises.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
So obviously, I loved this game a whole lot, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a surprise. I knew next to nothing about it before it came out, and it sure took me by surprise.
As our own Brian Ashcraft put it, "I had no idea iPhone games could do that." Indeed, Ash.
Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars
When the 3DS launched, the pickings were pretty slim. I had a bunch of the launch titles, but there were very few that I wanted to play for more than five or so minutes at a time. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars was the exception in a big, big way. A combination of Ghost Recon and X-Com, it was a top-down tactical strategy game with an emphasis on troop positioning and canny battlefield exploitation. It was also supremely addictive. Our own Brian Crecente agreed, calling it a 3DS Must-Buy. Later games like Super Mario 3D Land and Cave Story 3D replaced in in my regular rotation, but I still play Shadow Wars quite a bit.
Dead Space 2
I'm putting this one in because I was all but convinced that it was going to suck. I had liked the first Dead Space no small amount, largely because of its isolation and genuine scares. Seeing trailers (like the one at the left, actually) with Isaac talking, stupid rock music playing, Uncharted-ish action sequences… it left me thinking they were going to amp up the game and wreck it. Little did I know that Dead Space 2 would be one of the most polished and enjoyable mainstream action games of the year, a near-seamless blend of horror and action that was almost impossible to stop playing. Bravo, Visceral.
Man, did I not see this one coming. Who did, really? I'd been kept in the loop by Microsoft PR, and when they finally sent me a copy, it was right after I got a Kinect. So, I plugged it in, thinking "This will be a silly kids' game for sure," and what did I get but one of the two or three funniest games of the year. It worked great with the Kinect tech, it was hilariously written, and it was really fun to play. As it turned out, the origin story for the game was a hilarious case of last-ditch improvisation. I can only say I'm glad the guys at Twisted Pixel faked it like they did—the result was a game that all but proved that the Kinect could have super-fun games.
Saints Row: The Third
This one certainly snuck up on me—I'd liked the first two Saints Row games fine, but I was most certainly not expecting the third one to be as polished, smart, hilarious, and balls-out fun as it was. I tried to articulate that as best I could in my review of the game—this was a game that was generous, funny, and would go to almost any length to show the player a good time. At times, I couldn't even figure out how they were getting away with the things they were, but there ya go. Saints Row: The Third was easily one of the most welcome surprises of the year.
But those are just a few of the things that surprised us. What games pleasantly surprised you this year?
It can be a challenge to buy a gift for your brainy, science-obsessed friend. What kind of games might he or she like? The science brains among us can be so intimidating, partly because it's always scary buying things for smart people, but partly because who knows what those science people even like? Do they want beakers? A scale perhaps? Maybe some sort of assistance in covering up their secret meth-cooking operation?
This list is for you, weary gift-giver. It's here to help you find some fun science-ish gifts for the egghead in your life. And always remember: if none of these sound good, you can always tell them that your gift-selection process is "still in the hypothesis stage." Scientists love that kind of stuff.
One of the smartest games in recent memory, Spacechem and science go together like peas and carrots. I mean come on, it's called "SpaceChem!" And it lives up to that name. It's an ever-more complex game that involves creatively coming up with combinations of molecules to form new chemicals. It's open-ended, hugely brainy, and rewards lateral thought and creativity.
While we're talking about things that smart people like, Tom Bissell's 2010 book Extra Lives: While Video Games Matter, while not particularly sciency, remains one of the most purely enjoyable pieces of video game writing you can buy. Think of it as a more holistic alternative to Jesse Schell's book (later)—well-written, humorous stories about games and the people who make them.
Since it's a safe bet that your friend will already have played Valve's smart and sciency Portal 2, what better way to celebrate both their love of games and their love of Portal than with a fun Portal T-shirt? This one, from ThinkGeek.com, seems particularly appropriate. One of the best things about Portal T-shirts is that they hold up even if the person viewing the shirt doesn't get the reference. There's science to do!
Fate of the World is a game that cries out for a scientific mind. A complicated and unforgiving simulation about global climate change and strife, it requires players to carefully navigate a minefield of potential disasters while working towards some sort of accord. Which usually never comes. A knowledge of world economic, political, and environmental affairs is required, and even the most seasoned leader will learn something after a few games. It's not easy, and it's not forgiving, but science never is.
One of the smartest and most accessible game-design books out there, Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses strikes a great balance by being both hugely informative about the process of making games while not shutting out readers who may not know a ton about the nuts and bolts of game design. Schell himself—former Disney imagineer, professor at Carnegie Mellon, all around cool dude—is the main attraction here, and his inviting style makes for a tremendously enjoyable and educational read.
When buying games and gifts for a person who loves science, it's important not to forget the most science-tastic game of all, Portal 2. While it's likely that most science fans have already played the game, it's worth making sure, since Portal 2 was easily one of the smartest and most enjoyable games of 2011. The puzzles are first-rate and make you to really use your brain, and the story is hilarious—you'll never look at robots (or potatoes) the same way again.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Adam Smith)
A new update to SpaceChem has arrived, adding a sandbox mode to the brain-challenging indie wonderpuzzler. I haven’t tried it yet because I can feel a vein beginning to throb in my temple as soon as I think about the possibilities. There is a competition to find the best creation and this quote to introduce it doesn’t help matters:
I suspect that some people will be building molecular computers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we’re looking for.
So, they’ll be building molecular computers, will they? If I load this up there’s a very real chance that it’s the last anyone will hear from me until I’m found with my entire face clenched into four square inches of pure concentration as new elements spew catastrophically from my motherboard.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Adam Smith)
I’m only allowed specific provisions to make my way through the days and writing even a brief missive about the follow-up to AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, threatens to use up every ‘a’ in the giant scrabble bag from which I construct my mendering prose. Mendering, eh? I guess tht mens I’m out. Still, it would be rude of me not to tell you tht the fntsy bse jumping gme is out, with 50% discounted from its price in the utumn Stem sle. But only for nother couple of hours. It includes remstered versions of the 82 levels in the originl !!!, long with 43 new ones tht see you leping from spce in n extrvgnt disply of ntiuthoritrin gusto.
2009’s SEO-challenging AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!-- A Reckless Disregard for Gravity was basically the bits from Mirror’s Edge where you miss-time a jump and fall to your death turned into a whole game. If you missed it the first time round it’s now been re-released as a “semi-sequel” titled AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome. It features all 82 levels from the original game, as well as 43 new ones and a “new lighting system and fancy shader effects.” It’s currently on Steam for just £3.49/$4.99, too.
* Added a "sandbox" puzzle type to ResearchNet to facilitate "experimental" pipelines, such as molecular computers. * Added Japanese and Italian translations. * Fixed several errors in the Russian translation. * "Quick alt-tab" fullscreen now properly hides the menu bar and dock on Mac OS X. * Fixed a bug where erroneous zero scores were sometimes uploaded to Steam leaderboards. * Fixed a bug where control-dragging atoms in molecule editors wouldn't copy them on Mac OS X.
The Humble Bundles keep on rolling, with a new 'pay what you want' indie mega-bargain arriving mere weeks after the last one wrapped up. The new Humble Introversion Bundle packs four games from English indie Introversion: hacking sim Uplink, RTS Darwinia, its multiplayer sequel Multiwinia, and Cold War 'em up Defcon.
The Bundle also includes two Introversion tech demos, the procedural city generator used in Subversion and a voxel-based destructible building demo. As Subversion is on indefinite hold, it'll be nice to get a good look at some of it at least.
The Bundle has already outsold Xbox Live Arcade's Darwinia+ within 41 minutes on sale, Introversion revealed on Twitter.
As ever, all games come DRM-free, but you can activate them on Steam if you fancy. And, as Humble Bundle tradition dictates, you can choose how you divvy up your money between the developers, organisers, and the Child's Play charity and the EFF.