This year has been rather monumental in terms of game releases. I don't think I have seen such a high quality release calendar since 2007, and the party looks set to continue deep into 2012. For a generation that is supposedly on its last legs, it certainly isn't showing it in terms of both lineup and sales. Next year I do hope to see more original franchises, as this year was very sequel heavy (4 out of the 5 games I have chosen are part of an existing franchise). While sequels are not necessarily a bad thing, change is nice because it brings with it innovation and brand new worlds to become invested in. Better release spacing should also be considered next year (even if it results in games being delayed), as publishers lost out on many potential sales and so much consumer mindshare by piling all their games into Q4 2011. The phrase "putting all your eggs in one basket" is brought to mind. So as a summation, this year was brilliant, but also should be used as a learning resource to hopefully make future years even greater. Here are the five games which I would say rose to the top of the pile:
5. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
I went into Human Revolution with hazy expectations. All I knew about it was that it wanted to be an intelligent, open-ended FPS, with a stronger-than-most narrative that tested my morality. It surprised me because not only did it largely manage to tick these intended boxes, it also delivered a surprisingly satisfying stealth layer on top of it. Combined with its 'futuristic' color palette, hiding from giant robots and being in control of a brooding hero with a stun gun, it created an experience that was eerily reminiscent of my old chum 'Metal Gear Solid 2'. While I can't personally comment on how effectively it lived up to the Deus Ex name, I can say that fan service or no fan service, its quality was well above the majority of games released this year.
After a failed attempt earlier in the year to try the beta and see what all the fuss was about, I decided to check out the final release on both a whim and a promise to give it a fighting chance. For me, the game was saved by the survival mode, which gave me just enough objective to keep playing for a few hours, before I finally came to my own realization of the beauty of the game's design. An amazing thing happens - a clicking point - in that within its infinite, randomly generated world with no storyline or specific tasks to carry out, the player starts to invent their own little goals and then spends hours working towards them. The pointless game suddenly grows whatever point you care to invent. And then it's taken online with friends, modded, and even lets you play it through a web browser while you should be at work. Any game that is so incredibly simple, yet deceptively deep enough to consume a person's life, has to be included in this list.
3. Batman: Arkham City
Arkham City re-uses Arkham Asylum's award winning formula and refines every area to near perfection. But most importantly, developer Rocksteady have also taken the series in its next logical step - the open world - allowing us to utilize Batman's acrobatic and cape gliding capabilities to their utmost. As well as the joy of flight, the game's overwhelming array of gadgets, arguably the best combat system this side of Bayonetta, and its large emphasis on ninja-like stealth, all convincingly came together to absorb me into the role of the Dark Knight better than every other comic adaptation to date.
2. Shogun 2: Total War
Steam does not lie - with 63 hours clocked so far, I think it's a fair assessment that Shogun 2 has been my most played game this year. I have rarely been one to play RTS games, bar the really important releases like StarCraft II, but owning a powerful new PC and having an appreciation for samurai ensured that I at least tried the demo. Thanks to the perfectly paced tutorial, a spot on Japanese aesthetic, and an excellent campaign map that I actually spent more time managing diplomacy on than fighting the real-time battles, I ended up buying the full game as soon as it released. I will go so far as to credit it for broadening my horizons into the RTS genre - i'd say Bioware ought to extend a huge thank you to Creative Assembly for getting me excited about Command & Conquer: Generals 2. And there's another important lesson for developer's to learn from my experience with Shogun 2: never under-estimate the power of a large, pre-release demo.
1. Dark Souls
In a manner befitting Demon's Souls before it, Dark Souls marks itself as the most refreshing release on the calendar. Tearing down modern game design conventions, it gives us back the traditional days of minimal player assistance, longevity through good old fashioned difficulty, and (as many will likely bemoan) an almost complete lack of story. But to me, it simply encourages the player to go out and learn more about the game world and then forge theirown tale within it - in other words, Dark Souls provides more legitimate role-playing than many of today's supposed "role-playing" games. It must also be noted that despite the minimalist in-game communication between players, outside of the game on the various wikis, forums and even real life, Dark Souls manages to get people talking far more than any other game released this year. Simply for being such a powerful force for discussion, it can happily sit atop the list.
Honorable mentions: Portal 2, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings