When 2011 ends and it's time to inform the citizenry what the best games of the year were, let us not forget the games that delighted us in the first half of the year (in other words, the era before Uncharted 3, Skyrim and The Smurfs Dance Party.) Click through the gallery to see our picks.
Bulletstorm (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) could have been an obnoxious waste. It could have been a one-trick game that successfully turned first-person shooting into a game of high scores (those scores based on a player's creative, sometimes-grotesque aiming of bullets into enemy legs, butts, heads or groins—or the aggressive placement of enemies onto the sharp edges of cactus needles and tangles of electrified wires, to name just a few quantifiable acts of in-game violence).
But Bulletstorm was something better than what was Tweeted; it was a memorable action-adventure starring a begrudgingly likable drunk space pirate and his friend-turned-half-killer-robot. The plot wasn't surprising or that far removed from Aliens and other sci-fi pulp, but the gameplay was charmingly varied to the end, making it the most fresh shooter in ages. —Stephen Totilo
Dead Space 2's (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) horrors scared me enough to make me fall in love with it the first time, impressed me with its brilliant lighting, immersive audio and attention to grisly detail the second time, making me think for some portion of January that it could be a Game of the Year contender. Like the leap Naughty Dog made from Uncharted to its greater sequel, so too does Dead Space 2 deserve credit for being bigger, playing better and, well, if not excelling at it, at least having a multiplayer mode. —Michael McWhertor
It may not have the attention to detail or overwhelming number of licensed cars as other driving games, but Dirt 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox 360) does what a good racing game should: make driving an expensive sports car feel fast, exciting and dangerous. —Luke Plunkett
I blame the attention-consuming Dungeon Raid (iOS) for sleepless nights, missed deadlines and half-heard conversations. Easily my most-played game of 2011, it's the Game Boy's Tetris of my iPhone, an infinitely replayable hybrid of match-three puzzle game and role-playing roguelike, an un-epic story of loot, magic and an evil high score that must be destroyed. —Michael McWhertor
Period-perfect in every regard, Team Bondi's thriller, L.A. Noire (PS3, Xbox 360), does the most justice to Hollywood by supplying memorable and legitimately complicated characters.
Your protagonist, Det. Cole Phelps, will be an unlikeable martinet, a coward, and a faithless husband. Above all he is a deeply lonely man; I heard it the most when he waxed nostalgic about a piece of evidence that reminded him of a childhood memory. He may not be the best cop you ever met, but where Phelps falls short his associates, especially the redeemed burnout Herschel Biggs, are there to back him up.—Owen Good.
Not just the best LEGO Star Wars game so far; not just the best LEGO game so far from development studio Traveller's Tales; no, Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii) is one of the best Star Wars games so far.
It takes the celebrated first two seasons of the Clone Wars cartoon, and reinterprets them into a surprisingly varied collection of great-looking levels that span that scales and theaters of action of the best Star Wars. This game can do small Jedi infiltrations on the ground and massive capital-ship battles on the fringes of the galaxy, and all in co-op, no less. Plus, the game's creators add real-time strategy to the LEGO series formula in this least-complacently-made of sequels. —Stephen Totilo
The thing you notice first about PixelJunk Shooter 2 (PS3) are its graphics: it, like its predecessor, is a side-scrolling subterranean game about flying a ship that shoots its way through caverns. It looks like a cartoon full of the some of the liveliest water, lava and poison gas you've ever seen.
The game's best quality, however, is its level design. Each level is a cavern full of treachery and surprises. Shooter 2 begins as a shootout inside the noxious guts of a beast but keeps twisting through creative routes that are rich with mazes and challenges to mix the environment's elements—and the ship's abilities—in imaginative ways. The game is ultimately the modern successor to old Marios and other side-scrollers that efficiently packed interesting things to do in screen after screen. —Stephen Totilo
Portal 2 (PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3) makes you laugh, makes you feel smart and lets you play with a friend. Portal 2, like its predecessor, is a mind-bending, locked-room puzzle game about shooting two portals, one that you can enter and the other that you'll exit—it's about using two of each of those portals in its co-op mode (communicate or suffer!).
All you ever have to do in Valve's wonderful series is use portals to escape from one vexing chamber to the next challenging place. From that simple blueprint was built a marvelous adventure with a great soundtrack, a hilarious script and perfect references to potatoes. —Stephen Totilo
Not all indie games have to be quirky, or innovative, or trying to make a statement. Some, like Proun (PC), can just strip a game back until it gives you nothing but white-knuckle thrills. —Luke Plunkett
Not so much a revolution as a refinement, Shogun: Total War 2 (PC) sees the series' developers, Creative Assembly, dialing back the ambition of the last true game in the series, Napoleon, and instead focusing on perfecting the franchise's fundamentals. Which it does to wonderful effect. —Luke Plunkett
The Masters and Augusta National's fabled course received top billing in this year's golf simulation, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12: The Masters (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii), but the real star of the show is the caddy. His shot recommendations are a leap forward in accessibility for a technically challenging game whose audience had plateaued.
A career mode trails off sharply after one complete season, but is a very welcome addition. Among sports games this year, there are some big-hitters still coming to the tee, but Tiger Woods is my clubhouse leader. —Owen Good.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (PC) is an unabashedly adult role-playing game, bristling with nudity and sexual situations. The fact that these moments of ribaldry take a back seat to the game's versatile battle system, devious decision-making and stunning visual effects is testament to developer CD Projekt Red's acumen. They've created a game that's better than sex. —Mike Fahey