BEST WORST GAME: Dead Island
It’s hard to think of another game that experienced so steep a rise in interest early this year – on the heels of its legendary reveal trailer – only to plummet into a sea of mixed reviews on release. And make no mistake, Dead Island deserves the flak it got, mainly because of a host of bugs that could make the game damn near unplayable, or worse, wipe out hours of progress with a faulty save. Even beyond its technical flaws, it’s ugly, horribly acted and thuddingly repetitive – and nowhere near as cool as its trailer. Strangely enough, though, none of that really diminished our enjoyment of the game.
For all its warts, Dead Island is enormously, addictively fun. No other game this year has delivered quite the same visceral thrill that we get from decapitating zombies with an oar, or of throwing every last one of our knives into the ripped abs of a lumbering brute (only to snatch them all back again and repeat the process). It doesn’t matter that the missions are rote fetch quests, or that the same zombies always reappear in the same places – this is the gritty, katana-swinging, get-your-hands-dirty zombie apocalypse we’ve always dreamed of, and no amount of crashing (whether from the game itself or from its awkwardly driven cars) can keep us away.
Runner-up: Jaws: Ultimate Predator (Wii)
IT DOESN'T ACTUALLY SUCK!: Thor: God of Thunder (DS)
Dear WayForward Technologies,
It might be hard to believe, but sometimes, other game companies don't always try their best when creating licensed tie-in games. They know that a large number of well-meaning consumers will purchase the game without doing any research, assuming erroneously that it must be of similar caliber to the movie it's based on. Some companies use the purchasing patterns of the ignorant masses as an excuse to put whatever scraps they deign fit on a disc and slap a movie logo on it, with no regard to how many children's holidays will be ruined in the process. Can you believe anyone could be so unscrupulous?
But you're not like that, WayForward. You may not have given it quite the same level of polish as your stellar Contra 4 for DS, but Thor is still a solid effort that stands proud in a sea of licensed crap (particularly in contrast to your Thor brethren on other systems). Thank you for not phoning this one in.
Runner-up: Driver: San Francisco
MOST IMPROVED IN 2011: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
As crusty old fans of the original Deus Ex, we were a little apprehensive about Human Revolution. Fortunately, our fears of a linear, gray corridor shooter were unfounded – it was yellow, and there were multiple corridors. Kidding aside, Human Revolution pulled off the herculean task of capturing what made the original DX so great while dragging it into the current generation. New stealth mechanics, intelligent dialogue and story and a beautiful visual style resulted in a supremely crafted game.
Compare HR to Invisible War, and the divide is ridiculous. Where Invisible War simplified the original while adding nothing new, HR added a host of new features, while modernizing the FPS/RPG gameplay hybrid it helped create. While HR certainly isn’t as big or as wide-open as the original DX, it’s an immaculately polished example of a major series reboot capturing the core of the franchise while still making something new fans can appreciate.
Runner-up: Sonic Generations
IT AIN'T BROKE AWARD: Pokemon Black and White
People who don't play Pokemon tend to complain that every new set of Pokemon games is too similar to the last, but true Pokemon players know that's not entirely true. Pokemon Black and White made substantial improvements that are meaningful to those who follow the series, like reusable Technical Machines, C-Gear, and triples battles, all of which complement and enhance the core mechanics of the game. That said, it's actually the similarities and carryovers between B&W and previous games in the series that continue to make Pokemon such a worthwhile pursuit.
Since the GBA days, Pokemon trainers have been able to transfer their Pokemon from their old cartridges to their new games, meaning that you never have to say goodbye to your Pokemon or let go of all the hours you put into training them. We couldn't be happier that Pokemon Black and White continue to support this legacy – something that Game Freak could have easily decided to drop, given the heavy focus on the roster of all-new Pokemon in B&W. Seeing our old buddy Venusaur from FireRed fight alongside new friends like Chandelure definitely brings joy to our heart scales.
Runner-up: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Ho hum. Nothing new here. Just another breath-stealing, heart-pumping rocket rollercoaster of a campaign that whips you from the battle for New York City to the collapse of the Eiffel Tower to the assault on Prague in a single spectacular sitting. Just more expansive, addictive multiplayer that will keep you busy for potentially dozens or hundreds of hours. Modern Warfare 3 may not reinvent the shooter, but only because Modern Warfare 1 already did, and that formula still thrills four years (and two entries) later.
MULTIPLAYER THAT BROKE THE MOLD: Portal 2
You know what’s astonishing? How many people love Portal 2, and recognize Portal 2 as a clear Best of the Year contender, but haven’t even touched the second half of the game. Put aside your multiplayer prejudices, and you’ll discover that the two-player co-op in Valve’s masterpiece is not some commercially driven afterthought… it’s just as perfectly conceived and perfectly structured as the main story, a brilliant and bittersweet experience made extra-special by the fact that you and a loved one are experiencing it together. (It’s also a sequel of sorts, so you’re kind of denying yourself Portal 3, aren’t you?)
This is an award for the most inventive multiplayer, however, not merely the best. And sure, doubling the number of portals you can create at any given time adds a mad-genius level of complexity to every puzzle, but what’s truly new and refreshing about Portal 2’s co-op is the fourth wall-breaking psychology. Villain GLaDOS will try to turn you against your partner, constantly planting seeds of doubt, and sometimes speaking into only one headset or the other. Your defense against this division: trust, both in the game and in real life. Multiplayer that brings out the good in gamers? Weird, huh?
Runner-up: Dark Souls
THE SPRINT/NEXTEL AWARD FOR BEST SPORTS GAME, SPONSORED BY SPEED STICK*: NBA 2K12
“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael/
Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson,/
Jordan, Game Six” – Jay-Z
It’s the latter part of that quote that counts. If you were a kid in the ‘80s, you probably remember that Michael Jordan basically played real-life basketball in God Mode. That translated a little too well into NBA 2K11’s Jordan Challenges. NBA 2K12 diversifies the well of NBA legends and expands to include some of the greatest players to ever grace the court, including Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Dr. J, and Wilt Chamberlain. Rewriting history never felt so good. The challenges feel better balanced, and they need to.
Why? The game’s smarter than ever, and you need to have your wits about you, from tip-off to the final buzzer. The presentation looks magnificent, as it jumps from today’s sleek presentation to a variety of filters and effects to capture the feel of ‘70s broadcasts. The real-life NBA is fraught with uncertainty, as trades and moves whiz around the league at a breakneck pace prior to the Christmas Day season start. There is no uncertainty, however, that NBA 2K12 is a magnificent rendition of the world’s second-favorite sport.
Runner-up: FIFA 12
FIFA’s been solid for the past few years, but rarely has it rewarded tactics and human intelligence like it does in this wholly revamped engine. It’s a genuine game-changer whose effects will be felt for years to come.
*Award not actually sponsored by Sprint, Nextel or Speed Stick