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The 2011 RPG Of The Year Awards

by Joe Juba on Dec 30, 2011 at 03:00 AM

We may not be getting as many role-playings games these days as compared to previous years, but fans of the genre still had some fantastic options in 2011. The sprawling open worlds, punishing boss fights, and compelling storytelling in this year’s RPGs demonstrated that developers are from exhausting the exciting possibilities in this long-standing and much-loved category. Below you’ll find our picks for the best of what role-playing games offered in 2011.

Warning: Entries may contain spoilers.

Best Narrative: The Witcher 2

How many times have you been the chosen hero destined to save the world? The Witcher 2 goes in a different direction with its story, resembling George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire novels more than Final Fantasy. The narrative is steeped in political intrigue, has multiple branching paths (including one major game-changer), and makes you feel like an instrumental part of the action without relying on the whole “the fate of the whole world rests on your shoulders” crutch. If you want sophisticated storytelling, The Witcher 2 is for you.

Best Gameplay Options: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

RPGs have been integrating various degrees of player choice for years, but Deus Ex makes huge strides in letting players create the kind of experience they want. Accomplishing your goals isn't just a question of choosing stealth or gunplay; Adam Jensen's array of upgrades and abilities creates a web of possibilities. Deus Ex is built to accommodate a variety of possible character builds, and finding a path that plays to your strengths is part of the fun. All you need to do is invest in things that sound cool to you, and you'll find a way to conquer most challenges Deus Ex throws at you.

Best Protagonist: Geralt (The Witcher 2)

Geralt is character with multiple nuances and subtleties. He isn't reduced to a single common archetype, and the game doesn’t rely on the player’s own power fantasy to give him a personality. He's not a full-blown antihero, but he isn't necessarily a do-gooder, either. Just like the player, he gets annoyed when he gets stupid tasks, and has no problem telling people off. His skills make him a highly sought warrior, but his victory isn't assured; he can get seriously hurt and even lose important fights. In short, Geralt feels human.

Best-Written Villain: The Arishok (Dragon Age II)

For all of the ways that Dragon Age II stumbled, BioWare still knows how to create a compelling villain. Serving as the antagonist for the middle section of the game, the Arishok doesn't have a typical nefarious endgame. He and his Qunari army are stranded in Kirkwall, and during their stay, the corruption and hostility in the city slowly become unbearable. Eventually, the Arishok sees no solution and tries to take Kirkwall for the Qunari. Even though Hawke opposes him, the Arishok still shows the hero respect as they fight to the death.

Best Boss Fight: Sif (Dark Souls)

The fight against Sif was difficult on several levels for many Dark Souls players. Not only does this agile giant wolf carry a massive sword in its mouth and tear through heroes with low stamina like paper – when Sif reaches low health, it starts limping pathetically as it continues its assault. No matter how many times you got hit with that sword, there's something heartbreaking about killing a wounded animal…even if it tries to kill you first.

Best Combat System: The Witcher 2

Nothing beats a well-tuned battle system that keeps you on your toes. The Witcher 2's real-time, action-focused combat is versatile and entertaining. You hone your skill with swordplay, magic, and bombs, but you can't be a one-trick pony. You encounter difficult (but rewarding) foes that force you to explore the many options at your disposal. It may mean learning how to parry, or using consumables wisely, or choosing the right signs, but each challenge you conquer just makes Geralt that much more formidable in combat. You feel awesome by extension.

Best Setting: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Having a great setting isn't just about a big map and lots of locations. It's about building a sense of the world and the people within it, and Skyrim does this better than other game this year. The unforgiving climate in the land of Skyrim is reflected in the stoic and mistrustful Nord natives, and the tension is palpable as civil war brews between the Stormcloaks and Imperial loyalists. Disaster looms on multiple fronts, the residents live harsh and simple lives, and the reappearance of dragons has everyone on edge. This volatile situation creates a world perfect for adventure and provides an ideal environment for a hero to emerge.

Best Old-School Homage: Radiant Historia

Epic-scale RPGs may be the direction things are heading, but it's important to not forget the genre's roots. Radiant Historia is a tribute to the traditional role-playing titles of the 16-bit era like Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. The story is full of time-travel and alternate realities, but manages to stay grounded thanks to a great cast of characters and a few shocking twists. The combat system combines modern sensibilities with classic mechanics to create a strategic, turn-based framework that simultaneous feels innovative and familiar. It's like playing a long lost SNES game that you never knew you missed.

Best Leveling System: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

For all of the great things Skyrim has going for it, creating a powerhouse character is the main attraction. Improving your abilities is easy – you just need to do the stuff you want to develop. Wear light armor to improve its effectiveness, use one-handed weapons to increase damage, and sneak around to get better at avoiding detection. Not only does this system adapt to your playstyle, but the ability to choose perks means you get significant bonuses and new powers associated with your favored skills. The approach to leveling your Dragonborn rewards focused growth, but remains flexible enough to let you try new things. In a game as vast as Skyrim, that kind of freedom goes a long way.

Best RPG Innovation: The Narrator (Bastion)

Role-playing games tend to build heavily on the genre’s core conventions, so innovation isn’t always easy to find. The action/RPG Bastion channels the isometric combat of its many predecessors, but the addition of the narrator gives the story a brand new flavor. The omniscient voice of Rucks responds to your actions and lends a fresh sense of significance to the events, whether the Kid is fighting giant monsters or just breaking some crates. It also provides an interesting way to convey information; you never have to stop the action to read a bunch of backstory. As you're fighting, the voice overlays the combat, fleshing out the world without distracting you from the task at hand.

Best MMORPG: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Doubters said that a story-driven MMO couldn't be done, but The Old Republic has proven them wrong. With cool narrative hooks in its quest, an impressive amount of voice acting, and a rewarding progression system, The Old Republic is an excellent way to explore George Lucas' galaxy far, far away. Of course, The Old Republic hasn't been out for long, and its continued success will rely heavily on BioWare's ability to address player concerns and continue providing cool content. As it currently exists, though, TOR is at the top of the 2011 MMORPG pile.

Role-Playing Game Of The Year: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Many RPGs had a lot to offer this year, but the pieces all come together in Skyrim like no other. The vast world is full of interesting locations and cool quests, the progression system gives you the satisfaction of crafting a legendary hero, and the brutal combat puts gamers in the action like no other entry in the series. It isn't just the breadth of content that makes Skyrim impressive; from the well-written quest lines to the seemingly random occurrences, the adventures hold to a consistently high level of quality. These elements all combine to make Skyrim one of the most immersive and addictive games of this generation, making it easy to lose hundreds of hours in Bethesda's masterpiece. It isn't just a milestone for RPGs – Skyrim is a high point for gaming in general.