2011 was far from a perfect year for video games, with too many unpolished diamonds in the rough and too few true standouts. Still, a number of games managed to rise above the rest and make the year bearable. In no particular order:
If top 10 lists didn't require the other nine, I'd just declare this over after Skyrim. It is to Beowulf what Beowulf in the eighth century was to a cave drawing of a mammoth: bigger, louder, more immersive, and with an order of magnitude more dragons in need of a good killing. Come to Skyrim for the Viking action, but stay because it'll take years to finish it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum did the unthinkable when it set the bar higher for not just franchise titles, but games in general. Arkham City went one further by being a sequel that's more than just a mediocre sophomore effort. By giving Arkham Asylum an open-world facelift, Arkham City beat the odds against it and proved that Rocksteady's success with Batman wasn't just a fluke.
It's not often that a game can restore a player's faith in humanity. For many gamers, the Deus Ex series represented both the heights to which a game could aspire and the depths to which it could sink. Thankfully, Human Revolution found itself in the former category, restoring the series' respectability and countering the old-timers' truism that gaming is going to hell in a handbasket.
Valve releases maybe one game every geological era, but they get a pass because when they do actually release something, it's something like Portal 2, a storytelling onion of a game, with layers of time, space, and failure wrapped around one another to create a seamless world in which science-mad titans of industry can be tragic figures, sociopathic AIs can be heartwarming, and one gun that doesn't even kill anything can be more than enough.
Speaking of long-overdue sequels, the fighting game to beat all non-Smash Bros. fighting games finally got an upgrade this year. Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is the over-the-top fighting game that fans have been clamoring for since, well, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. Arcades may be a thing of the past, but this game proves that arcade-style fighters still have a place.
Mario Kart 7
Nintendo's 3DS launch was a symphony of miscalculations, with much of that coming from Nintendo's misguided attempt to allow third-party developers a chance to release early titles without worrying about competition from Nintendo's own stable of franchises. Nintendo is only now digging itself out of that hole, but if Mario Kart 7 is any indication, 3DS early adopters might finally have something to look forward to that isn't playing old DS games (or re-released N64 games, for that matter) on a new handheld.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
The 3DS's weak start wouldn't be so bad if its predecessor hadn't ended its life cycle so strongly. The DS was hitting on all cylinders right up to the release of its successor, thanks in no small part to games like Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. A point-and-click adventure from the perspective of a recently deceased detective-turned-poltergeist, it was an offbeat, one-of-a-kind game that proved the robustness of the DS line even as it ended.
L.A. Noire was a mixed bag. It fell short in a couple of places—its much-heralded facial-capture techniques ended up being just barely on the creepy side of the Uncanny Valley—but its '50s-era style and the fact that it proved that a Grand Theft Auto-esque sandbox can be about something besides killing hookers more than made up for the weird sensation one gets when one's next objective is to interrogate a digitized version of TV's Greg Grunberg.
Dead Island made killing a few thousand zombies fun again by putting them in a tropical resort and letting players slap together improvised solutions to the undead problem. It answered the age-old question of which is more fun: a baseball bat with nails in it or a machete with a built-in taser? As it turns out, both (and several other answers) make for a big, rotten, squishy hoot of a game.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP
Don't let the implicit pretense of a self-described "collaborative art + music + videogame project" for iOS devices fool you—Sword and Sworcery is a transcendent meta-game that has to be seen to be believed. Imagine every trick Peter Jackson used to take The Lord of the Rings out of nerd-dom and into the public consciousness, but tiny, in 8-bit graphics, and with a bit of interactivity thrown in, and you've got an idea of what Sword and Sworcery does that few others even try to pull off.