A good year brings a handful of bold, even revolutionary games to the PC. A great year, as 2011 is shaping up to be, brings so many that we spend weeks trying to whittle the list down to just 10. In the following pages we report on those 10 games, what makes them so special, and why 2011 is going to be a spectacular year for PC gamers.
Why it's a winner? An epic tale gets personal
I've put more hours into Dragon Age: Origins than anyone I know. I've played every origin at least twice, absorbed the majority of the story on 10-plus characters and completed it fully on three separate occasions. To say that I was skeptical of BioWare's plans to change the gameplay in the sequel to the all-consuming RPG that won my heart (and our 2009 Game of the Year award) is an understatement. I was legitimately terrified.
But that was before I played it. Now that I've had my mitts on Dragon Age 2, it's clear that the improvements BioWare is making are just that—improvements. The key mechanics that made DA:O great, like pausing combat to micro-manage your party members' skills for a tactical advantage and the engaging storytelling, are returning intact—and almost always with noticeable improvements. Abilities in DA2 combine across classes for much better results. For example, a Rogue's Backstab does bonus damage against an enemy that's knocked off balance by a Warrior's Shield Bash.
Although we can't see quite as much of the battlefield (zooming out has been reined in slightly), what we can see looks much better—filled with fast action and gorgeous visuals. Instead of watching a Rogue clunkily waddle behind a target to deliver a Backstab, in DA2 they ninja-teleport into position, and casually drop-kick smoking clay pots around the battlefield to stun groups of enemies. The tested concepts of DA:O's class designs (Warriors control the battle and stand firm on the front lines while Mages blast large groups of enemies and Rogues shred single targets mercilessly) are realized with these flashy and fun new abilities, like Backflip, which lets Rogues avoid spells and swinging axes with the grace of a trapeze artist.
The storytelling is also changing in both its style and sweep. Lead designer Mike Laidlaw explained the shift to me this way: “What Origins was, at it's heart, was an introduction. It's very big, it's very deep...It brought together a world that was seethingly rich and let you get perspective on [the different societies of that world] very quickly, very early.” He continued, “Moving to DA2 lets us say, 'OK, all that lore you know is important—it's crucial to what's happening—but this is a world that can be about more than the Grey Wardens, about saving the world.' It can be about an age of time: the events that shaped the world in this 100-year period.” This explanation echoes the reason so many of us loved Origins—the open process of discovering its world bit-by-bit—while suggesting a more intimate, personal narrative approach. I'm sure we'll return to the Grey Wardens' story someday, but for now, I'm looking forward to finding out all about the other key figures in Dragon Age's dazzling fantasy world, beginning with Hawke. JA
Why it's a winner? Cyber noir!
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is like Blade Runner, in that it's a dark, gritty science fiction mystery set in the not-too-distant future—except that it has actual blades that extend from your wrists to impale shadowy conspirators. Square Enix promises loyalty to the blend of action, stealth and deep intrigue that won our cyber-augmented hearts and minds in Ion Storm's 2000 original, and what cinematic glimpses of DXHR's story we've caught make it our most-anticipated mystery. DS
Why it's a winner? Six flavors of blood
More than a simple standalone expansion, Retribution (see our full hands-on preview on page 36) is gearing up to reinvent the entire Dawn of War II experience next year. The blood-soaked battlefields of Sub-Sector Aurelia are about to become more crowded with the addition of the armor-heavy Imperial Guard, raising the total number of over-the-top armies to six (including the Space Marines, Orks, Chaos, Eldar and Tyranids), and each side gets a super-unit on the scale of the Eldar Avatar. Combined with the option to massively increase the number of troops on the field in single-player by leaving some of your heroes at home, this PC-exclusive RTS will be the biggest, bloodiest version yet. DS
Why it's a winner? A new hope for Star Wars fans
I'm in my character's starting zone; I'm running through a cave to kill things and find lost artifacts. This could be an early quest in any MMO—until combat starts. I'm not wielding rusty daggers; I'm not wearing rags. I'm a bona fide Jedi, and I've got space magic on my side. When I encounter a pack of droids-gone-rogue, I don't fret—I rip a chunk out of the earth and hurl it at them with the Force, then pelt them with waves of tiny rocks and shrapnel before cutting their faces off with my energy blade. Then, as I listen to the quest giver thank me for my magnificent droid-killing and artifact-looting, I think about how fantastic it is to listen to NPCs prattle about my awesomeness aloud, rather than being served obligatory slabs of text. Because of these voiceovers I'm absorbing more story, which is well-suited to BioWare's signature deep plots and characterizations.
The most recently revealed class, the Jedi Consular, is wish-fulfillment for every Star Wars fan's dream of being a Jedi. Using the Force to suspend one enemy in the air, thrash his four buddies, and follow it all up with a ground slam to create a Force shockwave that knocks everyone backwards makes you feel like the badass do-gooder that you are—and is endlessly rewarding to watch every time.
About five hours into my playthrough, I found myself slipping into my usual MMO groove, and even absent-mindedly tried to Alt-Tab into iTunes to start up my favorite music, like I often do when playing MMOs (only to be reminded that I was playing on a demo rig). It was a signal moment in the demo, that after hours of play, I sank deeper into the game without a trace of fatigue. It's the moment in which I understood that The Old Republic might finally deliver on a goal that's proved to be agonizingly elusive: delivering a satisfying Star Wars online universe into the hands of gamers. JA
Why it's a winner? One-man army
Nomad is pinned between an invading army of vicious extraterrestrials and a ruthless paramilitary organization that wants its stolen super-suit back, and he has no cab fare to get out of New York. Fortunately, the upgraded Nanosuit 2 evens the score considerably. Though it still has no pockets, it includes a sensory-enhancing tactical mode that can track enemy movements, and the ability to deploy multiple power modes—such as speed and strength—simultaneously in order to, say, disable multiple enemies mano-a-mano or make a flying leap from the top of one skyscraper to a balcony on another. In fact, just about every gameplay tweak I've seen requires you not just to act like a one-man army, but to think like one as well, with strategic options that extend well beyond what we're used to a single person being able to achieve in combat-focused games (like using a taxicab as a moving shield, a defensive weapon and a battering ram, in that order). Remember, with Crytek also turning its obsessive attention to detail towards vertical level design and enemy AI in Crysis 2, don't expect a mere shooting gallery—and don't forget to look up. LD
Why it's a winner? The thrill of the co-op heist.
It's Ocean's Eleven on an arcade mach-ine. It's Hitman played from Pac-Man's perspective. Ever since Andy Schatz sent an early build of Monaco our way, we've been gathering 'round a PC for a weekly game of robbers-and-robbers. Monaco's colorful, abstracted design belies its challenge and payoff: pulling off the crime of the decade, again and again.
It'll be playable online, but one of the coups of the design is the shoulder-to-shoulder socializing that arises from the shared, top-down point-of-view you have of the upscale locales you're infiltrating. It encourages class-based teamwork; having your Hacker deploy a spy camera to monitor guard patrols in the lobby, then sneaking your Cleaner to chloroform a sentry while a Prowler uses adrenaline to sprint in and grab your objective: X-rated blackmail photos. EL
Why it's a winner? Uncompromisingly PC
A shot in the arm for the Call of Duty-fatigued, Red Orchestra 2 is Tripwire Interactive's gunpowder-perfumed love letter to complexity. We don't knock shooter-makers releasing their works on multiple platforms, but RO2 is already showing us what a multiplayer FPS can do when it's locked-in exclusively for the PC: true-to-life ballistics that differentiates between whether my bullet tags an enemy in the liver or the shoulder, a first-person cover and weapon-bracing system and massive, 64-player battlefields that forego the boring bottlenecks we're used
to in favor of intricate, varied avenues for shooting other men.
Of course, all that realism wouldn't be worth the ash off Stalin's cigar if it didn't control comfortably. But that may be RO2's greatest feat—building dazzling, detailed systems that reward precision, tactics and teamwork in a WWII setting, without any collateral damage to accessibility. EL
Why it's a winner? The ultimate lootable world.
We all know that Diablo III is going to shower us in gore, drown us in loot, and make us click until our fingers bleed, but what really surprised me when I played D3 at Blizzcon is its extremely granular attention to detail. Instead of always standing around, enemies are hiding behind walls or underground, waiting to burst out. When the Demon Hunter hurls grenades, each of the three incendiaries bounce off of the steps and cracks in a broken staircase individually, taking their explosions in different directions. The world feels vast, believable, complicated and unpredictable—just what this genre needs. JA
Why it's a winner? Reinventing online worlds
The big changes that Guild Wars 2 makes to MMORPG design—fluid class mechanics that let players swap between roles during combat based on what they think is needed at the time, player choices in quests that actually change the world for everyone, as well as spontaneous group interaction that means you're never spamming a set-in-stone spell rotation—shouldn't be surprising. What will seem surprising once GW2 launches, however, is that no one had taken those common-sense approaches to core MMO mechanics before. JA
Why it's a winner? Brain-breaking puzzles for two.
Its cast was comprised of a single NPC, some sentry units, and a cube. And yet, almost every PC gamer who played Portal fell head over heels for the game. We talked about the graffiti hidden behind the polished surfaces of Aperture Labs. We gasped at GLaDOS' wanton cruelty. We hummed Jonathan Coulton's catchy “Still Alive” theme as we hugged our Weighted Companion Cube plushies. If Valve can make a short, minimal, almost antiseptic game built around a single mechanic that provokes as much intense emotion as Portal does, then what could it do by throwing in two lovable, unkillable robots for co-op play?
The answer is, of course, oodles. And I'm not even talking about the Laurel and Hardy antics of the two 'bots who've become the newest objects of GLaDOS eternal torment. Instead, two players will enjoy a new take on co-op play that involves a vocabulary of symbols to indicate “look here,” “stand over there,” and “put a portal here”—as well as plenty of facepalms when these instructions get misinterpreted. It's the kind of intelligent, enchanting gameplay that Valve has built its name on. LD