Although there were some titles which left me disappointed, for the most part this year was an amazing year for people who like to play video games. In fact, writing this list and deciding on a Top 5 was a seemingly impossible prospect. When I sat down and went through every month's releases to make a list of candidates, I ended up with 20 wonderful games that were awesome in some way but these 5 were exceptional above the rest.
Magicka is a game that not a lot of people may have heard of or played. First, it's a PC-only game and even then it's not Battlefield 3. Magicka is THE best game when it comes to making you feel like a wizard. You're free to experiment with combinations of elements to discover new spells (there are many) and you can do it with friends. There are not many games which achieve the same level of chaos as four wizards going through a level, casting lightning bolts and meteor showers on each other as well as the enemies. Magicka is also one of the funniest game to be released in the past several years.
4. Frozen Synapse
It's the strategic complexity of chess with units which shoot guns rather than move in L shapes. Frozen Synapse does many things right but the primary one was asynchronous gameplay. My UK friend I played so many matches in this game and we were rarely online at the same time! This is because you can plan out your turn, assign commands to your soldiers, and then submit your turn whenever you want. In Frozen Synapse, you didn't just have to be 3 moves ahead of your opponent, you had to be 3 moves ahead of yourself. Few games force you to get into your opponent's mindset. But don't let me scare you off one of the best releases of 2011, it's not THAT brutal to newcomers.
3. inFAMOUS 2
I would not forgive myself if I did not include this game on the list. After all, I've beaten it twice, found all the 305 blast shards in both playthroughs, found all the Dead Drops, and had fun the entire time. The open world of New Marais is a great playground for you to play with your awesome superpowers and one of the endings was a pretty emotional experience that few games have managed. I went back to inFAMOUS as an experiment and found the experience unbearable. Sucker Punch improved on the setting, the powers, and the overall feel of the game to create a game well deserving the Number 3 slot on this list.
2. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
That said, I did not care about the world and the fiction of inFAMOUS 2 as much as I cared about the world and the fiction of DXHR (some people write DEHR but I think that's a lame abbreviation). It says a lot about the overall quality and brilliance of the game when the only bad elements were the out-of-place boss fights that were out-sourced to a different developer. I was completely immersed in DXHR during my time with it and can't say enough great things about (almost) everything in it.
There is one experience I would like to share. There was a point when I was inside a corporate building and I managed to hack into a turret. I was supposed to use an elevator and I decided to bring the turret with me because I had the proper heavy-lifting augmentation. When the elevator doors opened, I took the turret and carried it through most of the level while crouched. Nobody could hurt me and the turret ripped apart any enemies who were in my path. It was the single greatest gun I ever handled in any game ever, save for Half-Life 2's gravity gun or Portal's, well, portal gun.
Which actually brings me to my Game of the Year...
1. Portal 2
It's perfect. I do not know where to start with Valve's masterpiece. I may start with the dark humor in the game and its genuinely hilarious moments during the single player and the co-op campaigns. I may start with its brilliant puzzles designed with utmost attention or the astounding environments that Valve's level designers are so well known for. I may start with the co-op campaign which was a delight for my friend and I as we worked together to solve the puzzles, bouncing ideas off each other, and discovered the solutions together as a team rather than one person clearly leading and the other clearly following.
It may look like a love letter to Valve and in some ways it is, but that's because I am genuinely in love with this game. It may not have emergent gameplay of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or the fantastical open world of Skyrim, and it may not have the replayability of Gears of War 3's multiplayer, but it does have all the qualities of a game that I was proud to show my non-gaming parents as an example of what this medium can do, even more so than the original Portal. This first person puzzle game manages to tell a neat linear story without being too ungame and the story it does tell is mature without being too serious and depressing. The social aspect of it revolves around cooperating rather than competing.
Honorable Mentions: Bastion, ilomilo, Stacking, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.
Data Scientist at Wikipedia