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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.
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
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.
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.
($9.99 on Steam)
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.
($15.61 at Amazon)
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!
($18.99 at ThinkGeek.com)
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.
($30.87 at Amazon)
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.
($42.75 at Amazon, Cheaper Used at Half.com)
You will only need one game for the entire flight, I told him.
Shortly afterward we sat down. I produced my iPad and proof. The proof is called SpaceChem.
SpaceChem must be recommended with warnings. It is a game about chemistry sexed up with the short skirt of assembly line management. I told my friend he would enjoy SpaceChem if he didn't mind feeling nerdy. My friend will also have to enjoy feeling like the architect and foreman of an auto plant.
This is a puzzle game based on partially fake science. Each SpaceChem mission requires the player to produce molecules from atoms. The atoms and molecules are accurate. The game even includes the Periodic Table for reference. The means of constructing these small particles is not.
The SpaceChem player is given grids, some assembly line track to draw through those grids and a batch of commands to place along those paths. With that, you will assemble molecules.
Let's say a level of the game tasks you to create water, H2O. You will draw and program one line so that it summons and snatches a hydrogen atom, places it on the left of three adjacent bonding circles and then does that again, but puts the second hydrogen on the circle on the right.
Before setting your hydrogen conveyer in action, you will draw and program another line to drag an oxygen between the hydrogens, activate the bonding circles to forge the H2O molecule and ferry it to an output area.
Since you will need to make 10 water molecules, the two assembly lines will need to loop and not fall so out of sync that they start outputting HO instead. They probably will, so it is good that the game allows the lines to be halted so you can redraw or reprogram them.
You believe me now? Nerdy. Assembly Line... Not work. Fun.
Levels in this game last a long time, because your brain will be taxed trying to figure out the proper process, moreso when the game zooms out and requires you to assemble multiple molecules in multiple reactors en route to forging one final molecule (as seen in the screenshot atop this post).
The game's long play sessions will keep my friend occupied on his flight, but so will the problematic touch controls, less cheerfully. SpaceChem was originally made for computers, where it's been available for months (we've called that version "frightening" and "addictive"). With a mouse, the precision required for laying all these assembly line tracks and commands is no problem, but even on the big screen of an iPad, the human finger is too fat to easily tweak a complex part of SpaceChem assembly line. Laying the line out is fine, but once you need to press on certain parts of a spaghetti of track, you've got yourselves a molecule of a problem. My friend will spend part of his flight wishing he could see through his fingers, I am sure of it. The solution would seem to be to magnify portions of the screen with a touch, but that's not in there.
The fat-finger limitations of the touch control do not ruin the game, but they add unnecessary frustration to a game that already points out to you on its menu screen that there is a more robust version of the game available for computers. (The iPad version lacks the computer version's bosses and some other features it's ok to live without.) Surely this game controls best with a mouse or would with a stylus.
I expect my friend to have a good flight, as long as he's taking off on or after October 1, the day SpaceChem for iPad becomes available (for $5.99). Touch issues notwithstanding, the game is a nerdy wonder. It's a stellar puzzle game well worth your time and brain cells.
SpaceChem official site (It'll be on iTunes on October 1)]