Welcome back to our sixth annual celebration of all the amazing things the gaming industry brings us. Welcome back, indeed, because now that the feel-good Special Awards and console exclusives are out of the way, we're about to start on the real Platinum Chalices. And if you're looking for categories like Best DS Shooter or Best Kinect Game for Working Moms, it's possible you're in the wrong place.
Our Platinum Chalices are different. We're not interested in tediously grouping these awards by genre, platform or other such technical categories – not when there's so much other fun stuff to concentrate on, and so many games that deserve awards for delivering said stuff. So if you're looking for the most satisfying gore, the best sidekick or the game that surprised us the most by not sucking in 2011, you've definitely come to the right celebration. Let's get it started…
Let’s be honest: to get the best (and therefore most) graphics out of The Witcher 2, you'll need a steroid-infused PC. Even on medium settings, though, you'll get a game that looks significantly better than anything consoles can dish out. PCs at this point are already a generation ahead (at least), and The Witcher 2 is absolutely on the forefront of that push. We can say without hesitation that, from a technical standpoint, The Witcher 2 is the best-looking game ever made.
That's not to say the game merely sports fancy effects and hi-res textures – the art design is equally sublime. It’s all in the subtleties; characters' outfits have exquisite quilting and detailed seams. A forest has massive, looming trees and lush, varied undergrowth to the point that your brain accepts it as a forest designed by nature, rather than a level designer. A shabby town has muddy puddles in the streets, laborers going about grimy work, and guards patrolling amongst the soft glow of torches. The Witcher 2 has an artistic impact that doesn't knock you over the head, instead worming its way in over time as you realize just how detailed and beautiful every facet of its world is.
Don’t lie. You know you’ve stopped in the middle of Nathan Drake’s wise-ass shenanigans and snappy banter to look at the jaw-dropping vistas and gorgeous landscapes off in the horizon, or those scary abysses that’ll send you back to a checkpoint. You’ve marveled at how expressive everyone’s facial expressions are, and how they speak as much as dialogue. But don’t worry, your secret’s safe with us. We’ll let you tell your friends how much you prefer ventilating faces. That’s why you play Uncharted, right?
Rayman Origins may have been overlooked during the busy holiday rush, but we were nevertheless completely blown away by its vibrant, festive colors and breathtaking art style. Sure, this traditional, 2D platformer teeters a bit too much on the difficult side, to the point where we want to hurl the controller at the television – but we don’t, because we’re spellbound by all the lovely, hand-drawn, beautiful landscapes.
The experience might not be nearly so enjoyable if it weren’t for all the tiny details going on in the background, which some artist had to painstakingly draw and animate. When we weren’t completely distracted by the chaotic four-player co-op, we would stop and watch, in awe, at what was going on in the world. Each level is carefully designed and feels alive as we bounce from one exotic platform to the next. Whether you’re watching vines unravel or undersea flora bloom, Rayman Origins is a visual masterpiece, and should be played – or framed above your living room couch.
The first Trine was already a jaw-dropping visual spectacle, and the sequel does not disappoint, with its dreamy, glowing, magical world. It’s so pretty we can’t help but just boot up the game and drool over this moving digital painting. And stare. Then stare some more. No matter where we are in the game or who we’re playing as, the soft lighting, exquisite detail and everything in the background make Trine 2, without question, a memorably detailed and wholly unique work of art.
Mortal Kombat has a long and bloody history of providing some of the best gore in gaming. In fact, it’s safe to say that blood and guts are what put the series on the map in the first place. But after Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe left us high and dry by stripping out its gore for a Teen rating, we started to worry the bloodbath was over. Luckily, with Mortal Kombat, the series not only brought back its signature edge, but went above and beyond our most gruesome expectations.
Wounds appear in real time during matches, leaving both combatants looking like mauled, bloody messes when the battles are over, but where Mortal Kombat really stepped it up is in its X-Ray attacks. After building up a meter, fighters can initiate a special move to greatly wound their opponents, and we get an inside look as the bones break and the spleens are ruptured. And of course, the game’s Fatalities raise the bar to new, horrific heights, as each fighter’s unique anatomy and separately modeled organs are taken into account to spray maximum gore during the exceptionally bloody kills. It’s that sort of attention to detail that really makes us squirm.
The Dead Space series was built from the ground up for gore, with its focus on strategically dismembering enemies and cutting necromorphs to bits with different weapons, but Dead Space 2 ramped up those nasty sensibilities to astonishing heights. Enemies also required additional prodding to drop their items, meaning we had to violently stomp on just about every corpse in order to extract all of the available money and ammunition. That alone would have put it on the list, but there’s one segment in particular near the end that made it a sure thing. We won’t spoil it, but we still get nauseous thinking about it.
Everyone knows Kirby is adorable – that's not anything new. But Kirby's Return to Dream Land takes cuteness to another level even by Kirby standards. Oh, you thought Kirby's Epic Yarn was cute? We did too – it was last year's winner in this category. But Kirby's Return to Dream Land makes Epic Yarn look like scat porn in comparison.
No other game elicited as many "squeeeee"s and "d'awww"s in the office this year as Return to Dream Land, in large part because of its continuous barrage of uniquely adorable animations for Kirby and pals. It's more than just seeing characters who are usually enemies put aside their differences to team up; it's the little things, like the way Dedede clings to Kirby's head with his gigantic feet to form a little totem pole, or the way Kirby dons a little life preserver when he floats on water. The relentless hugging was what really made our hearts hurt with adorableness though, and seeing Kirby press his squishy body into Meta Knight to share his health is truly not just adorable, but heart-achingly, unapologetically sweet.
Dancing around with Elmo, shooting hoops with Oscar’s trash, and singing a magic story into the sky with a cute little magical-story-singing monster are definitely some of the most adorable things we’ve done this year, and it’s all thanks to Once Upon a Monster. If that’s still not enough cuteness, then observe the Puffalopes – the pink-furred, wide-eyed bunny-antelopes who scamper towards you as you hand out treats. The game just oozes adorable characters, dialogue, and music, and it’s a great excuse to get off your couch and use your Kinect, too.
Was there really ever going to be another winner for this one? Generations' very reason for existing is to celebrate the past 20 years of Sega's blue mascot. And boy, is it fan-service heaven! For starters, it gives us the 3D re-creation of Green Hill Zone we always wanted (and could see in the background of Super Smash Bros, annoyingly), with a joyful, lush side-scrolling version for classic Sonic – and perhaps the greatest Sonic level ever for his modern equivalent.
Then there are the unlockables, which allow you to race through Chemical Plant Zone to the sound of Super Sonic Racing, or Sky Sanctuary to the unforgettable Palmtree Panic from the Japanese/UK Sonic CD. Add in cutscenes full of knowing nods and one of the best final-act reveals ever, and you've got yourself utter fandom on a plate. Fortunately, it plays rather well too, and if it's good enough to please our resident Sonic fans, it's done better than most.
The first version of Marvel vs Capcom 3, which hit in February, was so overflowing with tributes to its shared mythology, it seemed impossible that Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 could top it. Yet UMvC3 packs in even more winks and nudges for the hardcore. Unlikely fighters like Phoenix Wright and Rocket Raccoon joined Ryu and Spider-Man, while new stages were introduced that were bursting with shout-outs to iconic games and comics. Add to that single player endings lavished with unexpected cameos and other asides, it’s hard to think of any Marvel or Capcom fan that wasn’t serviced by the title (just so long as you don’t bring up Mega Man, anyway).