The block-building game from Mojang Specifications may not look like much, but its core concept is so effective and unapologetic that I have to respect it. The satisfaction I feel after completing a large-scale project in Minecraft is the same I felt when I finished a Lego set as a kid or an art project in college. Sure, my legs went numb from sitting and I'm exhausted from lack of sleep, but I completed something. It's finished.
The enemies are uninteresting, but necessary to stay focused on a goal. Once shelter is established, it's easy to fall down the rabbit hole -- to develop better safeguards, a higher watchtower, smarter traps. Minecraft is what you make of it, and few games can make that claim at such a fundamental level. Now that heavy-hitters like Epic Games have shown interest and are drawing inspiration, we may well look back in a decade and realize Minecraft shook up the industry, subtly from beneath the surface.
After floundering for months without decent content, the 3DS received a sudden surge near the end of the year with a bevy of Ambassador games and some high-profile Nintendo franchises. Pushmo, a quirky downloadable title, ran the risk of being overlooked. I'm glad to see it being evangelized, and I'm doing my part to spread the word further.
The conceit of the game -- moving shaped blocks along three levels of depth to climb them and reach the top -- is deceptively simple. As more blocks are introduced, the sinister strategy of a well-made Pushmo puzzle becomes more apparent. It features tons of puzzles for the downloadable price, and even afterward you can grab extras from a burgeoning creator community. The game smartly lets you grab puzzles quickly from AR codes, so a few minutes browsing creator pages can give you plenty of new puzzles to keep you occupied. Pushmo is simply charming, classic puzzle-platformer gameplay that 3DS owners need to experience.
Pushmo from developer Intelligent Systems
I've never been a Mortal Kombat lover, so I approached this reboot with an air of cautious skepticism. The result was a pleasant surprise that reminded me of the shock-value fun of violent death, while fine-tuning the controls to create a deliberate fighting pace.
NetherRealm could have been satisfied to stop there, but instead pushed the genre forward by setting a new bar for story modes. Most fighters repeat the same formula for their stories -- pick a character, battle random other characters, maybe slip a line of dialogue or two in a match. Instead, MK shows an epic journey featuring each of the fighters and demanding that you hold your own as all of them. It's a system we should see more fighting games emulate in the years to come.
Mortal Kombat from developer NetherRealm Studios
Dead Space 2
Isaac Clarke's visit to the Sprawl may not have been as full of creepy scares as the USG Ishimura, but as an iteration, it's an accomplishment. The set-pieces were bigger, the environments more varied, and the space navigation much improved. The addition of a female foil for Isaac made the proceedings a little more light-hearted, including a gag that played off our expectations from the first game's shocking ending.
I heard it said of the first Dead Space that you don't play the game to beat it; you play it to beat it again. The New Game + feature from the first game, giving space to fully upgrade your weapons and experience the whole story with a little more confidence. Dead Space and its sequel both hooked me enough to immediately start a new game after completing them, and I can't say that of many other titles.
Dead Space 2 from developer Visceral Games
Iron Brigade (Trenched)
It's a shame this game took so long to reach Europe. I've enjoyed Double Fine's new downloadable approach, but Costume Quest and Stacking felt like RPG and adventure shells with some of its zany sensibilities painted on top. Trenched, now renamed Iron Brigade, was this year's standout from the studio for me, a fine mix of tower defense and mix-and-match mech building. Creating and showing off my own personal death machine in multiplayer was one of the highlights of my year.
Iron Brigade (Trenched) from developer Double Fine
It would be easy to pass off Bulletstorm as more machismo-soaked pablum from the publisher who brought us the phrase "Bigger, Better, More Badass." Even a cursory glance at the Achievements or listening to a few lines of dialogue would probably convince the casual passerby that it's a game for dude-bros. They would be wrong.
It takes a deft hand to do dumb humor so smartly, and I remain convinced that no one could combine this much profanity without knowing exactly what they're doing. The self-aware satire becomes especially apparent in the moments when cracks show, and even the characters themselves raise an eyebrow at their own over-the-top dialogue. "What does that even mean?" Grayson shouts at one point after a creative (albeit nonsensical) threat from our female lead. I still laugh thinking about it.
The best writing would mean nothing if not for combat that rewards clever moves and feels perfectly tuned to let you express that creativity. Kicking, roping, and blasting enemies into the environmental hazards of the combat arenas was some of the most fun I've had this year, and it deserved better than to fizzle out in sales.
Bulletstorm from developer People Can Fly/Epic Games
"You forgot..." Let us stop you there! This week we're revealing the Shacknews 'Staff Favorites,' which are titles that didn't quite make our 'Best of 2011' list. This week we'll also be revealing our Honorable Mentions, games that almost made our 'Top Five of the Year' (those are coming next week). If you see a game on this list, it means no amount of arguing, hair-pulling, or crying was enough to get it to be featured on our overall 'Best of' list. Let's agree to disagree! Despite that, these were great games in another stellar year of gaming.