I am spectacularly under-qualified to write this, but when has that ever stopped me? I did a pop column for six months, despite being quite clearly a man in his mid-thirties. So here I am writing about the best videogames of 2011 having only played about ten in total. I haven’t had a chance to play two I’m looking forward to (Skyrim and Zelda). None of the games I have played were the big, brown franchises – Resistance, Gears, Battlefield, Call of sodding Duty – none were quirky Japanese side-scrollers and absolutely none had any downloadable content installed because I haven’t got a fucking modem, okay?
So for the half-dozen of you still here, let’s get cracking.
2011 was, for me, a year of gimmicks and sequels. A strong early contender for Game of the Year was Portal 2, the long long long awaited sequel to Valve’s short, sweet first-person puzzle comedy. Although the humour ante was upped considerably (GLaDOS’s ‘slow handclap’ circuit remains one of the funniest lines of dialogue in any game, ever), it felt more like a dazzling ghost train than before, funnelling you through the elegant, yet quite simple, puzzles to get you to the next set-piece, the next gag, the next chilling piece of visual narrative. I loved every moment, but can’t think of a reason to replay it.
Also impressive was LA Noire, a game covered on this site nearer its launch. While technically thrilling, it really just boiled down to a point and click adventure and, ultimately, a somewhat pedestrian one. I’m used to actually good hunt-and-peck games thanks to early Lucasarts, Her Interactive’s excellent Nancy Drew series (2010’s Shadow at the Water’s Edge is a return to form) and the mighty Mystery Case Files, whose Escape From Ravenhearst might have made the top spot if only I had time to play it through before writing. If you’ve never played a Mystery Case Files game, I urge you to go to Big Fish Games and try one. Preferably a Ravenhearst, or Madame Fate.
Batman: Arkham City was as meaty and satisfying as its predecessor – however you choose to play it (skulking in the shadows or both fists forward), it gives you a feeling of being Batman in a very visceral way. It’s beautiful, too, in its own way. Ditto Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – more of an upgrade than a sequel, but why mess with something that works so well? But neither of those games felt like more than an opportunity to wear a particularly comfortable set of novelty pajamas.
With the contenders out of the way, then, what is my game of the year? The answer may surprise you, because it wasn’t a particularly big release and it hasn’t captured any headlines. It’s another instalment in a mostly-unloved series that came unstuck trying to keep up with Rockstar in the last console generation. Yes, it’s Driver San Francisco. Pick yer jaw up, and I’ll tell you why.
At first I really, really wasn’t sure. I’d played the original Driver back on the PlayStation 1 and, while I loved the cartoonish handling and generous playing area, I really hated its harsh enforcement of petty rules and restrictive, repetitive mission structure. Driver 2 I barely got 30 yards in before ragequitting and never looking back – a decision I regretted not a bit, especially with the poisonous reviews of an apparently bug-filled, almost unplayable Driv3r. Then a fairly positive report for this game in Edge made me think ‘Oh, sod it, that sounds like it might be fun’.
You know what? It totally is. First impressions weren’t brilliant – returning series lead Tanner seemed a bit square, the plot was dumped on you in a hurried first mission, you couldn’t get out of the car (something I am just so used to doing thanks to prolonged exposure to GTA IV, and I honestly don’t much like pure driving games). Then Tanner had the prang of all prangs and entered an alternative world of his comatose imagination. At this point, things got interesting. Not only did Tanner seem to find his sense of humour, but the dream world also offered a new set of tricks which propelled play from ‘fun, if you like driving’ to ‘ridiculously entertaining’.
A simple push of the left stick activates boost, sending your car hurtling to its top speed (and beyond) in seconds, meaning your reflexes had better be good or you will be smashing yourself to pieces in the front grille of a truck. In a small stroke of addictive genius, avoiding such accidents rewards you with ‘willpower points’ to spend in the game, tempting you to drive headlong into oncoming traffic, just to slip by unscathed and with a few more points in the bank. In fact, all sorts of reprehensible behaviour is rewarded in this fashion, from executing a handbrake turn in the middle of the highway to driving up and over roving car-transporters (essentially, mobile stunt ramps).
There is also an ability to ram other vehicles, pulling back and releasing like a giant car-catapult (a cartapult, if you will). This is useful, as many of the missions require you to take down an opposing vehicle. But there is more than one way to skin that particular cat, and that brings me to the masterstroke gimmick, the idea that elevated this game from knockabout fun to my favourite game of 2011.
Shift. With a tap of the A button, Tanner’s disembodied spirit leaps out of his car and into the driving seat of any vehicle in the vicinity. And that’s a big vicinity; as you progress through the game, the entire city opens up and you are able to float miles above before zooming down to take control of any car you choose. If it is a car with a passenger, there is also the opportunity for some frequently genuinely funny banter – as I say, he finds his sense of humour. At first blush, this is just a great way to drive whatever car takes your fancy, and it takes a little bit of play before it become obvious that this, in fact, changes the game completely.
Take car chases. If you’re in a police car chasing a criminal you can flick between cars with a tap of the right bumper; the chase becomes a chaotic melee with you controlling multiple cars in order to obliterate your target. The game eventually nudges you to realisation that you can shift a little up the road, become a bus driver and smash your 10 tons of metal and glass headfirst into the car you’re chasing. Then back into the lead police car to mop up. The first time I discovered this I found myself laughing with surprised delight, and it’s still not getting old.
Car looking like it won’t make the end of the mission? No problem, got another right there. Going the wrong way? Shift takes care of that, no steering necessary. Need to get to the other side of the city fast? Done. Need to finish a street race in first and second place? Well, you could do it the honest, and bloody difficult, way or… well, why not take the opponents out by jack-knifing a tanker into their path? Possibilities, possibilities – the roads become giant puzzle boards, the cars unpredictable pieces in split-second decision windows.
Bundle all of this with a solidly-realised and often beautiful San Francisco, a briskly-told pulp narrative, some cute achievements, a well-chosen soundtrack, a ton of cars to buy, dozens and dozens of side missions, stunts, challenges and other distractions and it’s a game which can keep even a driving sceptic like me happily in the driving seat for hours on end. And, really, a few hours of happiness is all I ask of a game these days.