The 20 Best Videogames of 2011

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The 20 Best Videogames of 2011

Every day until New Year’s Eve we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we run down our twenty favorite videogames of 2011. This list looks exclusively at games released for consoles, PCs or traditional gaming handhelds. We’ll have a separate list for mobile, social and browser-based games later this month.

This list was tabulated from ballots submitted by a number of Paste videogame reviewers, including games editor Garrett Martin and freelance contributors Richard Clark, Drew Dixon, JP Grant, Steve Haske, Rowan Kaiser, Brendan Keogh, Mitch Krpata, Luke Larsen, Jeffrey Matulef, and Brian Taylor.

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20. Fate of the World
Developer: Red Redemption
Publisher: Red Redemption
Platforms: PC, Mac
Fate of the World doesn’t work like other games. It’s a strategy game that tasks the player with regulating the entire planet’s environmental policies to keep Global Warming from running rampant. Turns out, those “other games” are wrong; saving the world isn’t easy. Swinging a sword or waving a wand won’t make all your problems go away. Instead of cracking skulls, Fate of the World made me crack books and pore over graphs. And I loved it.—Nathan Grayson

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19. Dance Central 2
Developer: Harmonix
Publisher: Microsoft 
Platforms: Xbox 360 Kinect
When people ask why I play videogames I might mention the few good traditional stories that exist in the medium, or how vividly realized worlds like the one in Far Cry 2 can thoroughly pull my mind out of the real one. I’ll talk about how finishing or excelling at a good game makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. With Dance Central 2, Harmonix’s latest dance simulator for the Kinect, I actually feel that accomplishment. Like, with my body. That physical rush, combined with good music and an addictive high score mentality fostered by a childhood spent in arcades, keeps me dancing on my own, through the pain, sweat and exhaustion. Maybe by Dance Central 3 I’ll be able to go for more than thirty minutes at a time.—Garrett Martin

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18. Saints Row: The Third
Developer: Volition
Publisher: THQ
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Saints Row: The Third has the kind of storyline dreamed up in a cloud of pot smoke by a group of dorky teenagers who chuckle every time they say the word “boner.” Yet at the same time, it’s also surprisingly self-aware, with a few genuinely hilarious lines, the best of which lambast video game culture and the over the top nature of the game itself. It isn’t going to win anyone over with a complex narrative or Mametesque dialogue, but the story is incredibly fun if you’re willing to switch off your brain and simply enjoy the sheer idiocy of it all.—Adam Volk

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17. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
Developer: Infinity Ward
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is at 100% throttle, 100% of the time. It slows for nothing and because of this nuance and consideration are lost, and only our guts feel any sort of impact. But that is how it’s always been, and how it’s meant to be.—James Hawkins

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16. Yakuza 4
Developer: CS1 Team
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: PlayStation 3
You could go your whole life and not play as accurate a Pachinko simulator as the one you’ll find in Yakuza 4. Ditto its batting cages, its casinos, its hostess clubs… So convincing are the details that you’ll buy into the fiction well before you find yourself brawling with crooked stock traders, following cats to buried treasure, and becoming the kingpin of an underground economy in which garbage is currency. All this, and Yakuza 4 has a story, too!—Mitch Krpata

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15. Super Mario 3D Land
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS
Super Mario 3D Land may not innovate with new powers or concepts, but it doesn’t need to. Instead it uses what came before as building blocks to assemble bite-sized mini-adventures that manage to be just as thrilling as any HD blockbuster. While the 3D environments don’t always blend with its punchier 2D sensibilities, the nifty level design and jovial nature keep things much fresher than they have any right to be. The princess may still be getting kidnapped, ghosts continue to haunt the land, and the Mushroom Kingdom remains one big death-trap, but Mario’s still smiling, and so am I.—Jeffrey Matulef

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14. Warhammer 40000: Space Marine
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
We are given to understand that Space Marine is Reliquary’s first attempt at a personal combat simulator. They are to be commended for the excellent technical performance of their software, for their faithfulness to the magnificent and terrible glory of being a Space Marine in the Imperium of Man, and for their simulation’s success in engaging the trainee in what neophytes might call “fun.” Yet we are forced to conclude Space Marine contains several key flaws, including repetitiveness, linearity, and limited modes of operation. We wish the Design-Priests would have taken more risks.

Still, we recommend further investment in the Reliquary Simulator Manufactorum, as we believe this simulation, while imperfect, proves their ability to construct software worthy of the Emperor’s chosen. We earnestly await their next effort. Until then, Brothers, may the Emperor protect and guide you.—Rob “Robert Zacarius” Zacny and JP “John Petraeus Grantae” Grant

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13. Battlefield 3
Developer: DICE
Publisher: EA
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The typical round of Battlefield 3 will contain enough breathtaking moments to keep your adrenaline pumping for a week. The game promises large-scale multiplayer warfare, and it delivers in spades. You will engage in thunderous tank battles, tense sniper stand-offs, and withering, Black Hawk Down-style shootouts, sometimes within minutes of one another. You’ll kill your enemies using high-tech, long-range weaponry, and the cold steel of your knife. All of it is dynamic and player-directed. Considering the sheer scale and variety of Battlefield 3’s combat, I can’t say I’ve ever played anything like it.—Mitch Krpata

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12. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PlayStation 3
Story is vital to Uncharted games, but they would still stand out even if they were disconnected sequences of action scenes featuring wordless rag dolls. Few developers can match Naughty Dog for epic action set pieces. There are at least three passages in Uncharted 3 that try to channel the sheer chaos of the lengthy shoot-out within a collapsing hotel that was Uncharted 2‘s exhilarating highlight. The best of the three, Drake’s escape from a sinking cruise ship, might actually improve upon it.—Garrett Martin

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11. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Wii 
Skyward Sword’s dungeons are among the best in the 3D Zelda canon. They’re beautifully structured cathedrals of kid-appropriate evil replete with vexing foes and puzzles that largely hit the sweet spot between obvious and obscure. There’s little of the annoying repetition of the recent DS Zelda games or the frustration of Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple. Enemies are now puzzling in their own right, thanks to a complex new combat system. Gadgets aren’t just nostalgic call-backs to the past but vital components that blend seamlessly into the action. If an item as constant and iconic to the franchise as the boomerang can be discarded and not missed, as happens with Skyward Sword, then clearly the designers were more concerned with making a game that smartly uses the abilities of the Wii Motion Plus than with ticking off whatever fan-service features we expect from a Zelda game. And aesthetically, the orchestral score and painterly visuals make Skyward Sword almost as beautiful as Wind Waker.—Garrett Martin.

Today we run down our twenty favorite videogames of 2011. This list looks exclusively at games released for consoles, PCs or traditional gaming handhelds. We’ll have a separate list for mobile, social and browser-based games later this month.

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10. The Binding of Isaac
Developer: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Platforms: PC, Mac, and Linux
The Binding of Isaac is the kind of game that I should hate. I am not a fan of overly challenging games. Additionally I am a Christian pastor and Isaac certainly takes a lot of liberties in its “retelling” of the classic Bible story from which it takes its name. The game is deeply dark, and often unsettling. There is nothing simple, understandable, or light about child abuse. Thus Isaac is thoroughly discomforting, challenging, and darkly funny. The game won’t make you able to understand child abuse but it will make you feel for Isaac—sometimes deeply. Other times it will completely bewilder you, much like Isaac’s world has done to him.—Drew Dixon

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9. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac
Between a story as well crafted as the finest conspiracy-laden sci-fi fare, solid mechanics, interesting character and player development and engaging gameplay, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a game for the ages. It will go down among the finest of our generation. In the year 2027, our world may not mirror the one of Adam Jensen. Until then, I will be content returning, again and again, to this version of the future. Embrace the revolution, or face losing it all. The choice is yours.—Bo Moore

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8. Batman: Arkham City
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The central conceit of Arkham City is as elegant as it is effective: Having apparently heard that open-world video games are in vogue (presumably from a media-savvy intern), new Gotham mayor Quincy Sharp cordons off part of his city as an Escape From New York-style open-air prison. By imprisoning all (seriously, all) of the local supercriminals and finally Bruce Wayne himself, Sharp creates what is arguably the perfect setting for Batman to traipse around doing Batman stuff. The end result is almost exactly what you’d expect, and only barely different in any meaningful way from Arkham Asylum, but the attention to detail here— both in the sticky, satisfying physics of being Batman and in the look and feel of Arkham City itself— keeps AC from being a boring retread or cash-in.—Joe Bernardi

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7. Minecraft
Developer: Mojang
Publisher: Mojang
Platforms: PC
 Minecraft isn’t easy to embrace. You might start by spawning in the middle of an ocean. It might take a while to craft a steel pickaxe. Punching a tree isn’t the most exciting start to a videogame this year. Progression takes investment, patience, research, and a reliance on the knowledge and efforts on others. These are values that modern convenience and modern media have encouraged us to abandon, videogames included. With every quest-line, every arrow pointing the way, and every pre-established reward we grow just a little bit farther outside of ourselves and buy in just a little bit more to the cultural zeitgeist. We’re content with this because we’ve lost the ability to create structure and meaning for ourselves outside of a pre-established system. In Minecraft, we’re finally left alone – a shockingly simple and subversive approach that makes the game both an unapproachable and essential experience.—Richard Clark

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6. Shadows of the Damned
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture
Publisher: EA
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Third-person shooter Shadows of the Damned is so straightforward in its tongue-in-cheek immaturity, it comes off as entirely natural, making it damn near impossible to not immediately be taken, mesmerized, down the dark and eccentric narrative path it throws in front of you. This is director Suda 51 truly embracing his identity as an auteur; just as Tarantino has seemingly flipped a stylistic switch with his films (weighing heavy tracts of his signature dialogue against fleetingly punctuated moments of incredible violence from Death Proof onward), so too is Suda giving us something expected-but-different in Shadows of the Damned.—Steve Haske

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5. Dark Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
It’s not the significant difficulty or repetitive structure that earns Dark Souls a spot on this list. Those are just symptoms of what makes the game great: its insistent coyness. Dark Souls gives the player almost no direction, forcing us to explore and figure out things on our own, with only cryptic and potentially untrustworthy messages from other real-life players to guide us. Instead of ponderous text or cut-scenes Dark Souls tells its story of degradation by showing instead of telling. Some say Dark Souls treats players with indifference or outright contempt, but in truth it respects us, our abilities and our intelligence more than most other games.—Garrett Martin

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4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
The word “epic” gets thrown around a lot these days. Screw up badly enough and it’s an epic fail. Scarf down a couple of cheeseburgers and it’s suddenly an epic feast. The word no longer has the punch it once had. Yet, there’s really no other adjective that so aptly describes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that’s epic in every sense of the word, from its immersive gameplay and jaw dropping visuals, to its sprawling storyline rooted in the real-world epics of Norse mythology. At the risk of fanboy-induced hyperbole, there really is nothing that comes close to approaching Skyrim as a game whose scope, design and presentation sets a new bar for the action-RPG genre.—Adam Volk

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3. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron
Developer: Ignition Tokyo
Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
El Shaddai’s constantly evolving art style manages to surprise and delight right up to the end credits and its refined combat is elusive yet engaging. Where most games struggle to take us to a new world, El Shaddai takes us to several.—Jeffrey Matulef

El Shaddai is full of the ambiguous happenings and statements that cause us to question the assertions of the game-world on its face. As a Christian, these questions and doubts are undeniably familiar to me. In this case, El Shaddai gives me the opportunity to ask them more openly, without my faith on the line. It may seem irreverent, but it’s also true: El Shaddai gives me a sandbox in which I can play with my beliefs. Who should I trust? God or the human race? Righteousness or human progress? What is the source of reward, and what is the cause of evil and suffering? Who is to blame? Who deserves praise?—Richard Clark

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2. Portal 2
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
 Portal 2 is a superbly crafted, joyous experience, a loving tribute to creative design, problem solving, and the remarkable flexibility of the human mind. Its puzzles are clever and for the most part immaculately constructed, and Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton and Chet Faliszek’s script earns the game a place alongside the very funniest of all time. I’d say that by any possible metric, Portal 2 was absolutely necessary.—Kirk Hamilton

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1. Bastion
Developer: Supergiant Games
Publisher: Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Bastion finds itself on that ever-so-small list of games that left me short of breath and covered in goosebumps as the narrative conclusion drew nigh. What gives Bastion its potency isn’t its (admittedly simple) story or its (admittedly simple) gameplay, but its masterful synthesis of the two. Most games struggle to blend story and gameplay, as though one were water and the other oil. But Bastion, through a conscious and deliberate distilling of narration of play, through playing to the strengths of both words and games, brings the two into a much tighter relationship of worldbuilding. More than anything, Bastion is about piecing together a world that no longer exists. And it does so through its playing and its telling.—Brendan Keogh

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