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My Surprise Hits Of 2011

This year had no shortage of amazing games that I knew I would love and put countless hours into. However, there were also a few games I never thought I'd even play, which turned out to be among my favorites.

Dead Island
When I first heard of Dead Island, I was instantly intrigued. An open-world survival/horror format is exactly what I had been waiting for in a zombie game. When I got the chance to sit in on a demo of the game nearly a year before it came out, I went into the meeting with high hopes.

Those hopes were quickly dashed when the developer revealed the combat was melee-focused. Suddenly, none of the other interesting-sounding aspects of the game mattered to me. A zombie apocalypse where you're stuck using oars and broomsticks to kill zombies? Lame. Add to that a rough demo (it was still an early build of the game), and I walked away thinking the title had potential, but it wasn't really on my radar anymore.

Eight months later I played some Dead Island co-op with Tim while he was working on his review and was blown away by what the game had evolved into. The detailed environments were massive and encouraged exploration, and the melee combat that I had scoffed at was visceral, nuanced, and supremely satisfying.

Best of all, zombies are once again formidable foes, which make them as scary as they are deadly. Stumble into a lone undead corpse, and you're probably okay, but if there's more than a few, you'd better run for your life. In most zombie games the undead are weapon fodder, but Dead Island reintroduces players to the "survival" side of survival horror.

Dead Island wasn't a perfect game by any means, but it's probably my favorite zombie game of all time. In a way, I'm glad it fell off of my radar so that I could go into it without any real expectations. For better or worse, the same wouldn't be true for a Dead Island sequel – which is something I'm praying Techland is working on.

Dark Souls
When I first heard about Demon's Souls, I thought it sounded stupid. Some people feel the need to play punishingly hard games in an attempt prove their worth as gamers, but not me. Long ago I stopped butting my head up against games that are too difficult – if I struggle with a game to the point where I'm more frustrated than entertained by it, I either turn the difficulty down or stop playing. In contrast, the community that formed around Demon's Souls sounded downright masochistic. I didn't think twice about skipping it.

Dark Souls was also on my list of games to not give a crap about, but it had one intriguing twist that its predecessor lacked: it was open-world. It also came out a month before Skyrim, and I was craving a large-scale RPG to sink my teeth into. So, I took a chance on a game I would have otherwise never played. I'm extremely glad I did, though I wasn't at first.

At first I hated Dark Souls. The notorious difficulty lived up to its reputation, and the perfect storm of death penalties (you lose your progress, souls – which serve as your currency and XP, and all of your enemies respawn) abruptly ended my first night of play in a flurry of obscenities.

But the next day I wanted to play more. Returning to the game, I triumphed over the previous night's obstacle (that stupid bridge monster), only to have my will crushed and night ruined again by another overpowered foe (that stupid armored boar). The game wasn't just difficult – the core structure felt totally broken.

And yet like Bill Murray in Groundhog's Day, I awoke the following day destined to do it all over again. But by that point something had clicked. I was playing the game differently (more cautiously and deliberately than any other action game), I had conquered a small section of Dark Souls' world, and I was no longer put off by the challenge, but enthralled by it. I still think the soul system breaks the game somewhat, but my enjoyment of Dark Souls now vastly outweighs my frustration with it, and I look forward to (and slightly dread) spending many more hours in From Software's creative and memorable world.

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