2011: The Year In Pleasant Surprises

2011 saw its share of disappointments, but it was also a year that contained a good number of nice surprises. Some were games we just didn't see coming — they snuck up on us and grabbed us with their excellence. Others were games that we thought were going to be terrible or at best so-so, but which would up being terrific.

I polled my fellow Kotaku editors and assembled a list of some of the most pleasant surprises of 2011.

Bulletstorm

I'll be the first to admit that I wasn't sold on Bulletstorm. It looked juvenile and boring, like a generic FPS dressed up with some colour and silly language. I played a bit of it at a press event and remained unimpressed. I wrote a sceptical, critical preview.

As it turns out, I should have given Bulletstorm, and by extension its developers at People Can Fly, much more credit. Our reviewer back at Paste loved the game, and when I finally really sat down and played it, I found that I loved it too. It's genuinely funny in its brash dumbness, and it plays like a dream. The slide-kick alone is one of the most satisfying, endlessly fun gameplay mechanics of the year. I am still surprised at how much I love this game.

SpaceChem

An iPad/PC game based around making chemical compounds certainly doesn't sound fun, but boy is it ever. As Stephen Totilo wrote in his Review, it is "a stellar puzzle game well worth your time and brain cells." Easily one of the best iOS games of the year, and the most fun I've ever had nerding right the hell on out.

Pixeljunk Sidescroller

This one was a surprise mainly because it came out with so little preamble, pomp, or circumstance. And yet it was a fantastic game, utterly worth buying in every way. Ashcraft called it "his new favourite shooter," while Totilo described it as "the total package of retro-chic style and substance," and one of his favourite PlayStation 3 games of the year. (!!) That alone puts it on the "surprises" list.

Superman on iOS

When Totilo wrote this game up, he said that it's not perfect, but simply surprising that it's so good, given the crappiness of most Superman games. I haven't played it, but I'm actually surprised that a Superman iOS game is good at all, so it makes the list!

The Witcher 2

It wasn't so much a surprise that The Witcher 2 was good — its predecessor had also been a fantastic game that got better and better the more you played it. The surprise was the way that The Witcher 2 was good. The Witcher had been a fairly niche game, a stat-based hardcore CRPG that made those of us who love that sort of thing very happy, but didn't have much mainstream appeal. With a new engine and control scheme, The Witcher 2 arrived on PCs loaded for bear, a game that was ambitious not only in its scope and storytelling, but in its mainstream accessibility. In fact, it was the game that the very-mainstream Dragon Age II wished it could be, a complex, hugely branching tale of moral intrigue loaded with great characters, cheap thrills, and fun action combat (once you got past the first few levels.)

I'll be very interested to see how its coming Xbox 360 port does — provided it's a console translation of the amazing game we PC gamers played in 2011, The Witcher 2 will surprise a whole new crop of console gamers in 2012.

From Dust

What looked like a somewhat strange god-game from Eric Chahi wound up surprising us with is depth, difficulty, and satisfying gameplay loop. Stephen Totilo described it as "a very good video game that starts badly," going on to say that it crept up on him, and as he wrapped up the campaign, he was in love with it.

Trenched

Trenched, of course, is now known as Iron Brigade, a humorous action/tower-defense game from Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions. I remember when Schafer unveiled it at the end of the GDC awards in March, and I felt… underwhelmed. It was weird, the tone was kinda bro-y, there was this guy yelling, and I wasn't clear on what the game was. Then, it came out, and I played it — and fell in love with it. Double Fine has a reputation for making games that favour art and story over gameplay, but project lead Brad Muir's design chops made Trenched arguably the best-playing Double Fine game of all time. It's great in single-player and even more fun in co-op, and was one of the summer's most enjoyable surprises.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

So obviously, I loved this game a whole lot, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a surprise. I knew next to nothing about it before it came out, and it sure took me by surprise.

As our own Brian Ashcraft put it, "I had no idea iPhone games could do that." Indeed, Ash.

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

When the 3DS launched, the pickings were pretty slim. I had a bunch of the launch titles, but there were very few that I wanted to play for more than five or so minutes at a time. Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars was the exception in a big, big way. A combination of Ghost Recon and X-Com, it was a top-down tactical strategy game with an emphasis on troop positioning and canny battlefield exploitation. It was also supremely addictive. Our own Brian Crecente agreed, calling it a 3DS Must-Buy. Later games like Super Mario 3D Land and Cave Story 3D replaced in in my regular rotation, but I still play Shadow Wars quite a bit.

Dead Space 2

I'm putting this one in because I was all but convinced that it was going to suck. I had liked the first Dead Space no small amount, largely because of its isolation and genuine scares. Seeing trailers (like the one at the left, actually) with Isaac talking, stupid rock music playing, Uncharted-ish action sequences… it left me thinking they were going to amp up the game and wreck it. Little did I know that Dead Space 2 would be one of the most polished and enjoyable mainstream action games of the year, a near-seamless blend of horror and action that was almost impossible to stop playing. Bravo, Visceral.

Gunstringer

Man, did I not see this one coming. Who did, really? I'd been kept in the loop by Microsoft PR, and when they finally sent me a copy, it was right after I got a Kinect. So, I plugged it in, thinking "This will be a silly kids' game for sure," and what did I get but one of the two or three funniest games of the year. It worked great with the Kinect tech, it was hilariously written, and it was really fun to play. As it turned out, the origin story for the game was a hilarious case of last-ditch improvisation. I can only say I'm glad the guys at Twisted Pixel faked it like they did — the result was a game that all but proved that the Kinect could have super-fun games.

Saints Row: The Third

This one certainly snuck up on me — I'd liked the first two Saints Row games fine, but I was most certainly not expecting the third one to be as polished, smart, hilarious, and balls-out fun as it was. I tried to articulate that as best I could in my review of the game — this was a game that was generous, funny, and would go to almost any length to show the player a good time. At times, I couldn't even figure out how they were getting away with the things they were, but there ya go. Saints Row: The Third was easily one of the most welcome surprises of the year.

But those are just a few of the things that surprised us. What games pleasantly surprised you this year?


Comments

    I still don't get why Trenched is so well recieved, when the Toy Soldiers games are very much superior. Don't get me wrong, I'm a TD/war-asthetics nut, and was very much looking forward to Trenched, but after Toy Soldiers it just felt small and lacking impact.

    What? No mention of Skyrim?
    Was no one else pleasantly surprised of the limited number of game breaking bugs from a Bethesda Game?
    I knew it was going to be an amazing game.. I just expected more bugs and desktop crashes lol

    I'm surprised Skylanders didn't make the list. The toys were a cash grab, but the game itself was apparently quite decent.

    My pleasant surprises this year were... (note a lot of these aren't 2011 games)

    Finishing Assassin's Creed (the first one) didn't think I was gonna get through it

    Mass Effect 2 - so much better than the first it's not even funny

    Splinter Cell Conviction - Face Off mode is a two player vs mode that is the equal of any multiplayer frag-fest I have been involved in

    Portal 2 - I was pleasantly surprised that the co-op was split screen so I could play with my son! I was also pleased to see the game rated PG - a rating the first game should've had.

    Crackdown 2 - I didn't expect the multiplayer to be good and to be honest it wasn't but it was stupid brainless fun!

    Ass Creed Brotherhood - specifically the multiplayer was a revelation.

    Alan Wake - I thought this would be nothing more than Luigi's Mansion: Hardcore but instead the story sucked me in with it's X Files/Stephen King sensibilities - I only rented the game for a week finished the first three chapters (I never play a game that fast) and yet it remains one of the most memorable entertainment experiences of my year.

    Fruit Ninja Kinect - I shouldn't even have to elaborate - I find the mobile version tedious - I only got the Kinect version cuz I wanted the Gunstringer - this must be how people felt when they bought Half Life 2 and ended up getting TF2 and Portal in there for free!

    Bulletstorm - I bought this at the tail end of the year - the demo doesn't really do the game justice - this is the game DNF should've been or would've evolved into.

    Kotaku - specifically after the culmination of a long struggle to claim a prize I had won in 2010 (Crysis 2) the way that all unfolded made for one of the best surprises of the year

      Fill us in? What happened with Crysis 2?

        Well first there was a competition from June 2010.

        I was one of the winners http://www.kotaku.com.au/2010/08/your-crysis-2-interview/ (Jason Oliver - I used to log in with my FB ID!)

        Game was gonna come when it dropped - date was pushed back from Nov to March 2011, that's cool. March 2011 rolled around and nothing happened...

        I waited two weeks (figure these things take time) then decided to contact Mark through 'Ask Me Stuff', then by Email - turns out he had no control - I had to deal with EA - so I did, they kicked me back to Kotaku, the whole thing stalled, Eventually I wrote a massive email to EA and incredibly they took action - late July got a package from EA - Crysis 2 - the PC version!

        I was like
        FFFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU

        Seriously - My PC is a DELL Hybrid - if that doesn't tell you all you need to know just know that it struggles to run Team Fortress 2 on anything other than super low-res textures!

        I got on to TAY and relayed my predicament which resulted in another member, Jo, offering me his copy of the game in exchange for nothing! Only that passed my PC copy on to someone in TAY who wanted it (which I did!)

        Some of that is chronicled here
        http://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/08/community-kudos-42/

        The icing on the cake was it is a really good game too!

    I loved saints row the 3rd, I'd never liked the old ones. It was like a hilarious version of GTA without being overly corny. It reminded me a lot of Archer.

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