The J for Janky Game of the Year Spectacular, 2011 edition — Part 3: Numbers 5-1

You can find part 1, the honorable mentions, here and part 2, numbers 10 through 6, here

5. Bulletstorm — People Can Fly

Bulletstorm

Bulletstorm doesn’t tell a great story. It doesn’t have charming visuals or music. It doesn’t explore challenging themes.

Bulletstorm does, however, make shooting fun again.

It gives the player enough tools to turn each firefight into a unique ballet of violence. I really can’t overstate how fun Bulletstorm is once everything is moving in tandem. Here’s an example: enemies enter an arena; you reel one in with your energy leash, sprint to him and give him a nice boot to the face; as he’s flying toward his friends, you lasso a bomb to him and detonate it just in time blow up two others baddies. This and endless variations on the formula are common occurrences in Bulletstorm.

People Can Fly did a great job of incentivizing experimentation with these sorts of improvised death routines. Its ingenious “Skill Shot” system rewards players for deploying new tactics and choreographing the most elaborate chains of destruction they can imagine.

On the production side, the game does look great, deviating from modern shooter conventions with lots of lush green environments. The script is dumb as rocks, but occasionally funny and builds some surprisingly compelling relationships.

But that’s not what you’re here for. Bulletstorm is a breath of fresh air for a genre that has become mired in rehashes. You won’t be shooting realistic guns at realistic brown people in realistic Fakeistan in search of some hokey self-serious plot. You’ll just be having fun.

4. Saints Row: The Third — Volition Inc.

Saints Row: The Third

Some games aren’t looking for anything artistic. They can’t be bothered with narrative or emotional resonance. Some games just want to see the world burn.

Okay yeah, so I borrowed that from The Dark Knight, but it’s the perfect characterization of Saints Row: The Third. This is a game in which you fend off helicopters while hanging from a bank vault suspended thousands of feet in the air…in the first mission. This is a game in which you’re free falling, shoot out a plane’s windshield, fly through it and grab a parachute on your way out…in the second mission.

Volition understands something that many developers do not: the player’s time is king. Instead of having a single, drawn out animation for hijacking a car, you have the option to sprint at a car and just jump through the windshield. Instead of spending minutes swimming back to shore if you happen to fall in the water, they included a warp to shore option – no punishment attached.

The game doesn’t lock all the fun and crazy away either. From the very beginning you have the ability to jump off a roof and pull a parachute. From the very begging you can sprint down the street and jumpkick random pedestrians. This puts the onus on Volition to make the tools they dole out to you even crazier as the game progresses and they succeed.

What’s most impressive about Saints Row: The Third is that its absurd violence and vulgarity isn’t grating. It feels appropriate in the hyperbolically debaucherous world Volition has created (as shallow as that world may be). Further, the game is flawlessly written, striking a nice balance between self-seriousness and self-parody.

Saints Row: The Third is video game maximalism of the highest order. Talented developers can make pretty much anything, so why not build a mission that tasks you with driving around an angry tiger? Why not build a series of ­Tron-esque cyberspaces and let you take the light cycle back into the real world? Just make sure you’ve built a reality within your game to back it up, something Volition pulled off perfectly here.

It might not be the classiest game on the block, but it’s definitely one of the most fun.

3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — Bethesda Softworks

Skyrim

Skyrim is a massive achievement, impressive in both the scope of the experience and ambition of the developer. Just thinking about the amount of variables that are being tracked at any given time is pretty scary. But it all amounts to what feels like a real, living world for you to muck up.

Skyrim is also a game of magical, fleeting moments: the instant dread brought on by the roar of an approaching dragon; leading a small army of soldiers, ghosts, your angry horse and a friendly dragon into battle; being propelled thousands of feet above the ground by an ancient god.

Everything on the periphery is spectacularly executed. The score ranges from intimate and delicate during quiet exploration to bombastic, Viking choirs that pump up dragon fights. The user interface is slick, intuitive and pretty. The leveling system just works — turning “role-playing” into an integral part of character development and giving plenty of leeway to change course at any time.

But of course it’s the world that really shines. Skyrim is the most well-crafted world yet in a video game: her people have lives; they work, eat and sleep; they notice when you pick something up or drop an item from your inventory; they’ll question why you’re sneaking around a town in broad daylight. You’re there with them — a mysterious voyeur, intruding on their lives.

The landscapes are vast and often beautiful. Waterfalls flow off mountaintops and pour through caves, giving life to what little vegetation has managed to grow. Nothing in this world feels like it has been crafted superfluously. Everything has a purpose and a place.

Skyrim is the game Bethesda has been trying to make for a very long time. It’s brimming with wonder and mystery. It’s the realization of Oblivion’s promise and the deserving champion of modern role-playing games. No one else is making games like this and I don’t think anyone else can.

[Screenshot courtesy of Dead End Thrills]

2. Portal 2 — Valve Software

Portal 2

Portal was an experiment in video game form and narrative – a puzzle game that asked you to defy the puzzle-maker and escape the game itself.

With all the basics established – meticulously crafted learning curve, mind-bending and intensely rewarding puzzles, an ever-present yet disembodied AI baddy – all Valve needed to do was iterate. But how do you improve on something so groundbreaking, definitive and iconic?

The answer seems to be: just do it again, but bigger.

Portal 2 doesn’t add much to the Portal formula. Sure, there are a few new pieces of Aperture Science technology to play with, but in the end Valve didn’t deviate from what makes Portal, Portal.

And yet, Portal 2 is so much more.

The writing and performances are phenomenal — more intelligent, more thoughtful and funnier than any game I’ve ever played. It feels like the script has travelled through time, from a future where games have finally become what we all want them to be: smart, complicated and engaging.

Wheatley, the AI core voiced brilliantly by Steven Merchant, is incredibly charming, even after his betrayal. The care that went into crafting the character is obvious and not just in the writing and acting. His meticulously animated eye is a thing to behold, perfectly capturing his manic, bumbling persona in a tiny mechanical sphere.

More impressively Valve managed to impart this same kind of detailed characterization into just about every inanimate object in the Aperture facility. Each bit of mad science you interact with – bouncy goo, light bridges, laser sensors, spring pads – has a personality and a voice. It may not be represented as directly as Wheatley or GladOS, but you can hear it when you interact with them: the harsh, industrial rasp of the Faith Plates; the comforting warmth of the laser sensors; the syrupy, infinitesimal drones of the Excursion Funnel.

And this is Portal 2‘s greatest achievement: it is incredibly human and yet, its only human character remains the protagonist Chell. In fact, Chell is the least human thing in all of Aperture: a mute, emotionless lab-rat acting only on the command of others.

Portal 2 is some seriously next-level stuff. It’s miles ahead of almost every other game when it comes to wit, intelligence and sophistication. Even on the occasions that it drops the pretenses and becomes a thrill ride, it doesn’t disappoint, proving that these portal mechanics can work in an action setting just as well as in slow-paced puzzles.

And don’t even get me started on the revolutionary, mind-meld inducing co-op.


1. Bastion — Supergiant Games

Bastion

Can any piece of art really be perfect?

In lieu of using that dirty word I’ll say this: there is nothing in Bastion that I would change; nothing I think the seven-man team behind it could have done better.

The world-building in Bastion is just incredible. Every weapon, every environment, every piece of music, every word in every piece of dialogue has been carefully chosen to support this Wild West meets steam-punk setting. It’s not a book or a scroll. It’s a dusty, old tome. It’s not a shotgun, it’s a scrap musket.

It’s more than just setting. It’s tone. Bastion is one of the few games that has a tone that makes it beyond anger or whimsy. It’s dour. Even the game’s cover art features our hero sitting alone on a floating bit of land, chin planted firmly in his hand and looking out at the empty wasteland that used to be his world. There’s no hope in his eyes; no vengeful anger.This oppressively bleak world makes the fleeting moments of hope that much more emotionally affecting, spawning not one but two of the year’s (and I would argue gaming history’s) most memorable moments.

Much of the credit has to go to the game’s writer Greg Kasavin. Supergiant has built a game where his writing is the reward. I would change my weapon combination just to hear what the narrator would say about it. I would dash to him to show off the junk I collected, just to get his little story about it. I even spent my money on more junk to make him talk.

And talk he does – a lot – and it never gets old. The first time you fall off the side of the world and hear “And then the Kid fell to his death…naw, I’m just foolin’” is pure magic.

Thanks to the narrator, Bastion is able to tell a deep story without mounds of dialogue or cut-scenes. It’s about rebuilding. It’s about the oral tradition. It’s about the struggle between the secular and the spiritual. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man and the unpredictability of his predictable aggression.

But most of all it’s a redemption story. That redemption, however, is never guaranteed or provided to the player. Instead we’re left hoping – left hoping that humanity can do something right for a change.

[You can buy Bastion for Xbox 360 here or on Steam here]

Congratulations to Supergiant games on winning the second annual J for Janky game of they year award. They created something truly remarkable in Bastion. 

Advertisements

About Matt Gerardi
Matt Gerardi is a journalist and musician. He also happens to write about video games.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: