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2011 – Something a Little Different

The last year has seen some truly fantastic experiences. Pressed onto shiny discs and thrust into our mitts, they probably caused more marital strife than gaming has ever caused before. “Not now dear, I’m slaying a dragon/shooting Russians/taking down a plane with a rocket launcher whilst I’m free falling out of another plane/Batman.”

Whilst not all releases caused such ructions, many tried to stand out from the crowd. They offered something a little different and whilst “different” may not always be enough, here we doth our caps to those who went against the grain in 2011.

7. Activision’s toys

Though the production line of plastic guitars and Fisher Price drum kits may have been halted by Activision with the suspension of the Guitar Hero series, they weren’t quite through with toy-like accessories to their games just yet.

Skylanders is an audacious attempt to merge the children’s toy market with the DLC. Whereas in most games players simply toggle a button to swap between characters, in Spyro’s latest reboot toys are physically placed on a sensor and then sucked into the virtual world. Want a new character? Grab a new toy and just swap them out.

Skylanders walks a fine line between being an interesting innovation and a potential cash black hole for parents with persistently nagging children, but I find it a fascinating concept. There’s a connection to your character, you can pick up physical DLC from high street shops, and the toys themselves allow profiles to be traded between 3DS, Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360. For that last reason alone people should take note.

6. Narrators

Our experience with The War of the Worlds may have been a torturous one, but its attempt to drive the narrative through well scripted lines and exceptional voice acting was one of its few redemptive features. The coup of bringing Patrick Stewart aboard added a gravitas that showed up many studios who thought voice work could be done on the cheap.

Similarly, the use of a narrator in Bastion brought about a feeling that this story was not one you were merely playing but actually driving. Be it falling of a cliff or bringing down a huge foe, the disembodied voice would pipe up and recount your tale as though a gravely bard of old.

5. A traditional sandbox

Modern sandboxes seem to be full of guns, cars and cities. Now whilst I may have left a few Matchbox racing cars rusting in my sandbox as a child, I can’t quite recall my mother allowing me firearms or large scale housing developments to take place in that green wooden box in the back garden.

From Dust gave every grownup the ability to play with sand and water in a way that we’ve always wanted. From created rivulets through a barren desert or frantically creating an adhoc walkway so your villagers may escape an impending forest fire, it was about playing and shifting and heaping and getting your virtual hands dirty.

4. Stunning visuals

Battlefield 3 may be able to push a bazillion polygons and render uberbit textures until the F14s come home to roost, but realism is not necessarily pretty. El Shaddai knew that. A wonderful and mind bending trip through landscapes and themes that experimented and toyed with styles. It wasn’t a traditional platformer trip through the clichéd list of elemental levels, but a journey that took in saturated heavens, high contrast oceans and scenes overlain with brushstrokes.

Slightly easier to comprehend was Rayman, who seemed to be channelling the hand drawn talents of Disney of old. So smooth and bright, his adventures through a world teeming with screen filling monstrosities and equally beautiful landscapes were as charming as a Saturday morning kids TV classic.

3. Core motion controls

Child of Eden may well have already been mentioned above, but for many its Kinect release was a watershed moment. Not because it was the first new title for the sensor for some months, but because it was the first core game released for it. A spiritual successor to Rez, your motions felt at one with the game, enhancing rather than hindering the enjoyment of the bizarre visuals. Others followed, Rise of Nightmares for one, but while there is still “killer app” outside of dance games and party pieces there are at least markers in the sand for those demanding “traditional” games.

2. Mo-cap

Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword and Enslaved may have set precedence, however it was Team Bondi’s LA Noire that took motion capture technology to new heights. Barely a soul could have witnessed the open minutes of this crime thriller without having their breath taken away by the sheer quality of the facial animation on display. Featuring many well known faces from the casts of Heroes and Mad Men, the ability to immediately recognise every emotion that played across them set a new – but ultimately costly – bar in virtual acting.

1. Twisting genres

Existing on the list for one reason and one reason only. Rock of Ages: the world’s first tower offence game.

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