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?
With 2008 survival horror third-person shooter Dead Space, EA created a hit title. Dead Space went on to spawn a sequel, a rail-shooter spin-off and a puzzle game, animated films, comic books, and a novel. But according to one insider, EA is just getting started.
EA is looking at new ways to expand Dead Space, an insider told Kotaku. The Dead Space team was apparently told that it must look at ways it can make the series bigger and better. Thus, according to the source, EA is working on a Dead Space first-person-shooter. That's not all.
This would not be a first. Back in 2009, EA released an on-rails Dead Space shooter for the Wii called Dead Space: Extraction. The game, a prequel to the first Dead Space, was ported to the PS3 earlier this year.
EA's desire to expand Dead Space is also apparently why there are plans to make a Dead Space flight game—in short, it's Dead Space, but you're flying ships.
The insider added that after these titles are completed, the Dead Space team is moving forward on "an Uncharted-like game". Work on this game has not started yet, and the title is still supposedly in the early planning stages.
Dead Space's expansion comes as a management shuffle at EA brought in new brass that nearly killed off Dead Space 3—the reason being the Dead Space games don't sell like games like Uncharted games do. This change also means that there are likely to be fewer risky new big titles, such as Mirror's Edge.
Dead Space 3, however, is apparently not cancelled. The insider told Kotaku that the game will feature co-op and is set on an ice planet. That backs up earlier rumors that Dead Space 3 will be trade pitch blackness for a blinding, frozen tundra. As Kotaku previously posted, the next entry takes place on the planet Tau Volantis. The planet's "white-out blizzard conditions" may trade the blackness of previous Dead Space games for pure white, a new method for keeping the beasts of the horror franchise well hidden from view.
The third entry will also supposedly be the last Dead Space to feature engineer Isaac as the protagonist, thus ending a trilogy.
After that the Dead Space franchise is, as previously mentioned, moving on to an action-heavy Dead Space game. Think Uncharted in space.
None of these Dead Space games are yet official. Even Dead Space 3, which was apparently outed in September, hasn't been officially announced. Considering how often game titles are killed off in production, if true, a similar fate could await some of these games. Or, it's entirely possible that EA pushes them out the door and releases them.
If so, Dead Space the FPS, Dead Space the flight sim, and Dead Space the adventure game would only dilute what makes Dead Space, well, Dead Space, diluting it.
Kotaku is following up with EA and will update this post should the company comment.
This week, Sony brings its usual raft of new and tweaked content to the PlayStation Store. Notable additions to their selections include Dead Space 2 as a downloadable for $29.99, with a free full game trial for PS+ subscribers.
If you're more in the mood to try something new, you can give the Rayman Origins demo a spin and get a sense of Michel Ancel's latest flippy, slappy color-explosion. Disney Universe and Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One also get a demos, and Fight Night Champion becomes a downloadable for a mere $5.
The usual themes, avatars, discounts and updates are included as well. Check out the full list below:
Fight Night Champion ($4.99)
Dead Space 2 ($29.99)
Monopoly Streets ($29.99)
Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One Demo
Disney Universe Demo
Rayman Origins Demo
Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 Demo
Cars 2: The Video Game Full Game ($29.99)
Patapon 3 Perfect March Challenge
Patapon 3 Mission Pack 2
LittleBigPlanet 2 Oddworld Stranger costume ($1.99)
Dead Rising 2: Off The Record: Firefighter Skills Pack ($1.99)
Dead Rising 2: Off The Record: Gamebreaker Pack ($4.99)
Motogp 10/11 2011 Season Update (free)
Red Faction Armageddon: Ruin Pack ($4.99)
WWE '12 – Fan Axxess ($11.99)
WWE '12 – Online Axxess ($9.99)
3D Display Product Video
Gran Turismo 5 Spec 2.0
PlayStation 3 To Michael – Long Form
Batman: Arkham City Nightwing Trailer
Sam & Max: Beyond Time And Space Trailer
Rock Of Ages Humor Trailer
Rock Of Ages: Powerups Trailer
Daytona Usa Announcement Trailer
Payday The Heist – Slaughterhouse Trailer
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – The Missing Link Teaser Trailer
Final Fantasy Xiii-2 – 2011 Nycc Change The Future Trailer
Daytona USA Retro Theme ($1.49)
Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: Timeline Animated Theme Paid Theme ($1.99)
Christmas Nightmare – Halloween Dynamic Theme (Non Game Dynamic Theme) ($2.99)
Abstract Neuron Flow Dynamic Theme ($2.99)
Bikini Dawn Dynamic Theme ($2.99)
Bouncing Beach Babes Dynamic Theme ($2.99)
Halloween Wraith Dynamic Theme ($2.99)
Super Street Fighter 2 Avatars (x16) ($0.49 each)
Just Cause 2 Avatars (x9) ($0.49 each)
Magic Orbz – Sale (PS3) (now $4.99, original price $9.99)
Shift 2 Unleashed Digital (Price Change) (PS3) (now $29.99, original price $39.99)
Medal of Honor Frontline (Price Change) (PS3) (now $9.99, original price $14.99)
PlayStation Move Heroes (Price Change) (PS3) (now $19.99, original price $39.99)
Where is my Heart (Free Mini)
topatoi – 70% off
MONOPOLY STREETS (Free Game Trial)
Dead Space 2 (Free Game Trial)
inFAMOUS Festival of Blood (Free Dynamic Theme)
Super Street Fighter 2 Avatar Bundle – $1.49
You should know him, though, as a video game concept artist who's worked on games like BioShock 2, Dead Space 2, and Dragon Age: Origins.
Chan works at Massive Black, a creative agency that specialises in concept art for movies, TV and video games. They do good work; we've featured a few of their artists here on Fine Art before, like Coro Kaufman and Wes Burt.
In the gallery above you'll find a selection of his video game work, as well as a his contributions to Coke's 2011 Super Bowl ad and few trading card game pieces (World of Warcraft included) to go along with them.
To see the larger pics in all their glory, either click the "expand" icon on the gallery screen or right click and "open link in new tab".
Lots of video games claim to be scary. Amnesia, Dead Space, you name it, if it's dark and things jump out of closets at you, it's "scary". Don't let video game developers tell you what's scary. Let science.
User experience studio Vertical Slice has conducted research into scary games, using a 500-person psychological database, six live test subjects and fancy gear that measured stuff like skin temperature, sweat levels, and heart rate.
That's the good stuff. The bad stuff? They only tested on the Xbox 360, and then only tested from a shortlist of games deemed scary enough to be on the shortlist. Some titles considered, but ditched, included Left 4 Dead 2, Gears of War 2, Condemned 2, FEAR 1 & 2, Dead Space 1, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alone in the Dark and Mass Effect 2. Likely because half of them aren't scary in the slightest.
The four titles picked in the end to test on the live subjects were Alan Wake, Resident Evil 5, Dead Space 2 and Condemned.
In the end, the study found that casual and hardcore players were affected differently by horror in games, core players being less susceptible to scares (because we know basic game design, like what an area looks like when there's fighting to be done).
It also found that across both groups Dead Space 2 was the scariest game of the lot, proving that monster closet gags may be clichéd, but they also work.
So sorry, Amnesia. And sorry, Sherlock Holmes. Maybe next time they'll expand the platforms a little and include you too!
Scary Game Findings: A Study Of Horror Games And Their Players [Gamasutra, thanks Gavin!]
Dead Space's Isaac is normally running around in the dark scared out of his mind. Here, he's just a kid. Kickin' it on the playground. Maybe with an imaginary friend. Note I said imaginary friend, which is good times. Not imaginary dead girlfriend. Which is bad times.
If the style looks familiar, it's another giant-headed gaming masterpiece from Aussie artist Ben Guy, and if you dig this like you dug his other stuff (and live in the the Melbourne area) he's putting on a whole show of them, starting tonight, at The Vic in Abbotsford.
With Dead Space 2's multiplayer component suffering the same fate most of its peers—namely, being entirely forgotten shortly after release—EA reckons a couple of new maps might be enough to tempt you back into the game.
The Academy and The Concourse are the maps, which will be available on Xbox Live on May 31 and the PlayStation Network on June 3. They combine to form the "Outbreak Map Pack", and unlike similar offerings from other big-budget games, will be released for free. So at least it's got that going for it.
If you bought the fancy edition of Dead Space 2, you would have got yourself a little replica plasma cutter, one of the game's more memorable weapons. As is, it's useless, but this guy will show you how to turn it into a laser gun. That can set stuff on fire.
You can see the complete how-to in the video above. If you just want to see what the fully armed and operational plasma cutter can do to a balloon and a T-800 holding a pair of matches, skip to around 2:05.
Note: if you're going to actually try this, please heed the warnings in the video. Proper lasers can be dangerous!
[via Super Punch]