My Gaming Year in Review, 2011

I bought an Xbox 360 in December 2010, though I already owned a few games for the system. My former roommate had one, and we lived together for four years, so it made sense to pick up a few used titles to play when he wasn't using it. However, he and I parted ways in the fall of 2009, so I went quite a while without playing video games. It had been even longer since I'd owned a gaming system: I sold my PlayStation 2 in summer 2004 to help defray the cost of moving to California after college, meaning I hadn't been anything remotely like a real gamer in years. I knew I wanted to get back into gaming, but I also wasn't sure what kind of gamer I'd become. I spent the year finding out what I like and don't about games, as well as discovering just how much my gaming preferences have changed.

What follows is a mostly chronological list of the games I played in 2011:

Medal of Honor: Airborne (unfinished, sold) One of the carryover titles I sold soon after I got my own Xbox was Medal of Honor: Airborne. I was a huge fan of first-person shooters growing up, especially the Medal of Honor series, so I'd picked this up years earlier while living with a roommate. I knew when I fired it up this time, though, that my days with simplistic games stuffed with infinitely spawning enemies were at a close. I still like a good combat game, and I'm not even averse to playing through something as narratively derivative as a World War II shooter laden with hilariously somber quotes about the cost of battle. But I want a shooter to be a real game, by which I mean a challenge I am asked to solve. Just running around and triggering waves of enemies (or, equally troublesome, their elimination) by hitting hidden checkpoints is pointless. There's no strategy, no thrill. It's just mindless explosions. I've got a feeling I won't be returning to the MoH series for quite a while.

Burnout Paradise (unfinished) Leaving a racing game unfinished isn't the same as quitting on a narrative. Burnout Paradise is meant to be played in discrete chunks. It's a great game, too, and one of the very few racing titles I like. (I got hooked on the series with Burnout Revenge.) I like the open-world set-up that lets you start challenges whenever you want or just drive the roads to explore and set speed records. The challenges are more interesting than typical races, too, involving stunts and crashes. It's a solid title.

The Orange Box (unfinished) I bought this just to get my hands on a copy of Portal again, and the game remains as pleasing and frustrating as ever. Pleasing because it demands concentration and smarts as you build out the moves in your head you will need to execute; frustrating because too many of the solutions rely not on intellect but on twitchy reflexes. This problem was solved in the sequel, which I loved.

Fallout 3 (finished) An amazing game, and the first title to really show me the possibility of open-world storytelling. I fell in love with the postapocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3, and I was enamored of the karma system that let you influence the world around you through your actions. I also really liked the mix of RPG and FPS in the combat system, which let me stack moves with the game's special targeting system or just fight it out in real time. Great powers, great choices, great story. The enemies scaled up as you went along, too, though there seemed to be a plateau at the end. Once you level up past a certain point, you can take down most enemies with some basic strategy (though I will never forget the genuine worry I felt when I had to fight mirelurks). My only real complaint is that the main narrative seemed to reach a point of no return toward the end, and while I thought I'd have time to explore the world some more between missions, I found myself rocketed toward the end. (Though that also meant recruiting an ally in Fawkes, which meant mowing through enemies like so much grass.) In a lot of ways, 2011 was the year I relearned how to play games.

The Beatles: Rock Band (unfinished) I had to. Great songs and interface, though the Beatles-style guitar controller isn't quite as good as the previous Rock Band models. The buttons don't have quite enough give, but that could just be a fluke with my hardware.

Fallout: New Vegas (finished, sold) I was so excited to play this after loving Fallout 3, which made my disappointment that much greater when I discovered an unwieldy, messy game. The maps were poorly layered (the map on the HUD was never clear about whether certain areas adjoined each other or if one was inside the other), the story was far too broad and complicated, and the overstuffed narrative led to burnout long before the game ended. I powered through out of sheer determination. Once I saw how things would end, I loaded an old save and maxed my persuasion skills (I usually load up on charm when I play an RPG to take advantage of more character loyalties and dialogue options) so that I could pass every speech check from there to the end. Then I just talked both final bosses out of fighting me. I'd have tried to fight them, but my companion dog vanished and couldn't be found, thanks to a glitch in the game. Not a title I'd be willing to replay.

Alan Wake (unfinished) This came as a free download with my Xbox, but I wasn't too intrigued. I played through the first level or two, but it was a bit heavy on the cut-scenes for my taste. I don't mind cinematics that forward a narrative; these just seemed like padding.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (unfinished, sold) I will always remain somewhat of a sucker when it comes to the opportunity to wield a lightsaber and fling objects with my mind. Plus, this was maybe $5 used at GameStop. Still, it got old quickly. Some fun Star Wars flair aside, it's a pretty repetitive button-masher with fiendishly hard bosses (typical for a Star Wars game) that become harder to beat when the game takes over the camera and limits your movements and sightline. I'm curious about the sequel, but only mildly.

Gears of War (unfinished, sold) This was another bargain-bin pickup that I remembered from playing at a friend's house years before. I found it at turns too maddening and too simple, and the erratic AI of my teammates grew tiresome. Not a big loss.

Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (revisits) I revisited these on a few occasions throughout the year just to have a palette cleanser. I stand by what I said about needing more from a game than just bodies and bullets, but these remain reliable guilty pleasures when I need to really unplug in times of high stress.

Halo 3 (finished, sold) This was the first Halo game I'd played all the way through, and though I liked a lot of the combat situations (I was especially taken by the aerial stuff, which totally took me by surprise), I found the actual play-through to be sluggish and uninvolving. Now, obviously, the caveat is that I was fresh to the series, so maybe with the previous two installments under my belt I'd have been more forgiving of the experience. I think not, though. It's a pretty game, but a pretty standard run-and-gun.

Portal 2 (finished) As challenging and as wonderful to play as you've heard. The game ditches the nail-biting mechanics of the original in favor of big rooms that give you all the time in the world to solve the puzzles inside. The new additions — cubes that redirect lasers, bridges made of light, and a number of gels that alter the physical properties of surfaces — are physically pleasing like few other game objects, but the real triumph is the way the producers have made a very linear story feel like a giant world that's under your control. Rooms are designed to push you along a specific path, and there's only one way to win the game, but there are many ways to play it, and that's what makes it so rewarding. My favorite section is the middle third, in which you navigate through staggering caverns while playing tests that introduce a 1960s-era story and a host of new tools to use. A fantastic experience.

Red Dead Redemption (finished) This has to be one of the best games I've ever played. Period. The gorgeous open world is a joy to behold, and you can ride what feels like forever through the open West without suffering load screens or frame lags as you move between regions. On top of that, the generous amount of side quests and mini-games make the world of New Austin and its environs feel completely at the player's disposal. This was a game I could craft as I saw fit. I loved the honor and fame systems that let you choose how to morally navigate the world; I chose to play as a good guy, largely because it's a lot easier to move through the game's world when the merchants respect you and outlaws fear you. (Not to mention that it's a pain in the ass to fend off bounty hunters and law enforcement.) The combat's great, too, and the escalating levels of Dead Eye made for nice challenges. Above all, the story was strong, and I found myself hooked on learning what would happen to John Marston on his long journey home. Just about perfect.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (finished) Good game. Not great, but good. The combat's solid, and I loved being able to play as Batman while swinging between gargoyles and taking out henchmen. Yet I found the boss levels to be, well, overly traditional "boss levels" in a classic platformer sense. I never quite got over the whiplash between giant maps that welcomed exploration and limiting battles that required a monotonous pattern of running, jumping, and throwing Batarangs. Still, well worth playing, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Assassin's Creed II (finished) I briefly played Assassin's Creed a few years ago, and I found it fun but stressful. Looking back, though, I realize it's because back then I was more interested in shooters and open combat and less willing to try a game that asked me to be OK with running and hiding from major threats. (After you assassinate big targets, you pretty much have no choice but to high-tail it through the village and go to ground.) I don't remember what inspired me to pick this one up aside from its high critical and consumer reviews and a desire to check out a franchise rumored to be good, but whatever it was, I'm glad I followed the urge. This turned out to be a wonderful game with dazzling physics, great puzzles, and a strong narrative to augment the gameplay. The combat was always a little wonky — it's usually easier to just run up and assassinate someone rather than engage them in a straight-up fight — but fighting is downplayed here, anyway. The real fun is running around and exploring the maps, climbing everything in sight (seriously, everything), and using a variety of learned techniques to distract your enemies and turn the city's crowds against them. Tons of fun. I just purchased the third entry, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and I'll likely check out Revelations after that.

Mass Effect (finished) A great friend of mine urged me to play this for months, finally loaning me his copy to make sure I did it. I've already thanked him profusely for making me see the light. This is a killer RPG with great first-person combat and exploration, and it's the kind of game that I really wouldn't have enjoyed before now. The scope's enormous, but what really won me was the variety of gameplay options and narrative choices at key moments. There's also not a lot of hand-holding, which shows a respect for the gamer; after a few tutorials, you're expected to just jump in and get it, which was awesome. Some repetitiveness did creep in during the side quests, which all seemed to take place in identically designed bunkers and mines. Still, that's a minor reservation The game's an epic space opera with memorable characters and legitimately tough choices: I found I felt good when I could please my teammates and sad when I had to leave some behind. That's the sign of a good game.

L.A. Noire (unfinished, sold) This was a disappointing way to end the year, though I'm currently on to other, better games. L.A. Noire's biggest failing is that it pretends to be an open-world game that puts you in charge of the narrative (not unlike a lot of the other RPG/FPS combos I played in 2011), but in reality it's a narrowly focused game that's essentially idiot-proof. The story revolves around Cole Phelps, a dickish LAPD cop who shuffles between desks as you guide him through cases and try to unravel ever larger mysteries. The trouble is that the story is too much of a mess. As I worked through cases, I would want to interview certain suspects only to be told they were unavailable; other times, I'd know that the likely suspect was probably innocent, but the case would resolve and end without my consent before I had time to question my other suspects. I knew I was being shuttled toward a "twist" that would reveal a killer on the loose and the wrong man behind bars, but that twist would've been a lot more believable if the guys I'd arrested actually had enough motive and evidence against them to be guilty. In addition, the game seemed to think I was an idiot. When tasked with deciphering location-based clues, my on-screen persona would eventually feed me the right answer; when pursuing subjects on foot, I was reminded what buttons to press to capture them (though, in another annoying twist, I was only allowed to tackle them when the game wanted me to, which it announced via the prompts); and so on. It's a great idea for a game, but the execution's awful. I quit halfway through and didn't look back.

The Best: Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Assassin's Creed II, Portal 2, Mass Effect The Worst: L.A. Noire, Gears of War, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Fallout: New Vegas