Tuesday, 7 February 2012

2011: Year In Review

Videogames, TV, movies and music, these are a few of my favourite things...

There was an overwhelming feeling compiling this list of "well, something's got to go on it", which to me says this was a highly disappointing year for games. Yes, those present were good, more than good in fact, but no release this year ever made me think "well, fuck me sideways". I'll admit that LA Noire remains untouched while the year's other major releases, namely Shogun 2, Crysis 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution likewise merely sit on my Steam library, uninstalled. Although the latter two partly because I feel uncomfortable playing them when I haven't finished their predecessors. And while I've had fun playing Dead Island, I'm not far enough in to say whether it warrants a place on my list. So, almost with a hesitance then, here are my 'favourite' games from 2011...

This wins almost by default. With the delay of Mass Effect 3 and my disappointment with Batman: Arkham City, Naughty Dog didn't really face much in the way of competition. Now don't get me wrong, Uncharted 3 is a phenomenal game in its own right and vastly improves upon its progenitors in many ways, but this is also the one I least enjoyed playing in the series. Once again the story is grand, the graphics impossibly good and the set-pieces second to none. This was all very well, but I couldn't help but feel this was a more contrived experience than the previous two. Uncharted 3 was by far the most streamlined experience in the series with more set pieces and movie-esque shenanigans than ever before. The problem with this however was that it saw a divergence away from the more challenging puzzles and epic wall-scaling of Nathan Drake's earlier outings. I felt less like I was playing a game and more like I was interacting with a story and while I enjoyed being a part of an unravelling plot, I also missed, y'know, playing a video game. Still, it could have been worse. It could have been Metal Gear Solid 4.

2. Battlefield 3 (PC)
I don't think there are any more superlatives one can attribute to the Battlefield series. Once again the boys at DICE have outdone themselves with one stunning game which also happens to be hella fun too. Like last year's Bad Company 2 they've also added a nice little single player campaign in what used to be an anomaly for the series. While admittedly the story is incredibly dated by today's standard and almost as ludicrously bombastic and batshit-crazy as that of the Modern Warfare series, it is nonetheless an appreciated and highly polished effort. However it is also incredibly frustrating and it would be perfectly understandable should one choose to disregard in favour of fragging some noobs online instead. Chances are this is what you came for anyway and by now you should know what to expect from Battlefield's multiplayer. That is to say, some of the most goddamn fun you can have online! Gear up soldier!

3. Assassin's Creed: Revelations (X-Box 360)
This is the smallest, most concise Assassin's Creed yet, taking place exclusively in Constantinople and delivering to fans the conclusion of Altair and Ezio's respective stories. I've put Revelations on this list more out of a fanboy loyalty than anything else, the Assassin's Creed world having captivated me since the first instalment back in 2007. I love how it pulled all the real-world conspiracy theories together into a 'coherent' narrative and have consequently eagerly anticipated each sequel for the next plot twist. As for the actual gameplay itself nothing revolutionary has been added here. You will get a hook which allows you to catch onto things but not much else. Saying that, there are two additions which can only be described as 'iffy' at best, feeling much like unnatural bolt-ons. First, a tower-defence minigame which has absolutely abysmal mechanics, second a first-person animus platform puzzle thingy which ostensibly gives us a deeper insight into Desmond but ultimately controls like a dog. Fortunately neither is essential to the game as Revelations mercifully allows you to ignore them should you choose. Other than that nothing revolutionary here, just nice to see the final -cough- revelation.

4. Batman: Arkham City (PS3)
There was one game this year upon which I pinned all my hopes and hype after ME3's postponement. Indeed, the Bat was back. With Batman Arkham Asylum being one of my, if not most favourite game in the past few years, then you could imagine my glee at the prospect of a sequel which promised to be bigger and better. Giving more freedom than the infamous lunatic asylum, Arkham City was certainly larger than the Dark Knight's first outing, so much so in fact that it was almost overwhelming. But it was here where the problem lay. There was something to be said about Arkham Asylum's confined setting, an environment which allowed you to get more intimate with the big bad bat. And while Arkham City is in many ways an improvement, particularly with the additions to its fighting system and bat gadgets, I felt strangely less connected to the caped crusader than I was in Arkham Asylum. This was perhaps in part due to the decision to include every bad guy Bats has ever faced which, in my opinion, diluted the story no end. And while Arkham Asylum had a more focused narrative and largely linear progression, it was nonetheless enjoyable and logical. Arkham City conversely piled on the content, and while gave me more freedom to play like Batman, it scarcely ever felt like I was Batman. In a sense then I was a little disappointed with the final outcome of what I'd been plugging as 'game of the year' beforehand.

5. Football Manager 2012 (PC)
Last year I made a promise to myself. After winning the Champions League with Everton I vowed never again to play this horrific game. Guess what? I broke that promise. I'm now Norwich and on the cusp of achieving similar feats of greatness. I don't even know what the allure is any more. It's the same game as before, the same look, the same feel, the same mechanics, but every year Football Manager just feels... different. Maybe it's the updated squad lists, or the different tones you can use in your team talks. Perhaps it's even the new transfer and contract features available to you. Whatever it is, I've once again been sucked into this black hole, spending by far the most time on this than any other game this year - by several orders of magnitude. There's something bewitching about her, like a really toxic, co-dependent relationship you know isn't good for you, but you stick with on account of a series of complex emotions built up over the years. I hate what she does to me, but I still love her. So, SO much!

The album is dead. Long live the single. At least to my mind it is. With the advent of services which enable one to download individual songs, you'd have to produce something pretty fucking special for me to want to download your entire album. Indeed, only one album this year actually made me go "fuck yeah!", and that was M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming. As such I don't really have a basis to make a top 10 albums list. Thus I'll list my favourite songs released in 2011 instead. It has been compiled using the latest methods known to science. That is to say, the number of plays on my iTunes library.

1. Pop Culture - Madeon
2. A Real Hero - College feat. Electric Youth
3. Nightcall - Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx
4. Loca People (What The Fuck?) - Sak Noel
5. Wovon Sollen Wir Träumen - Frida Gold
6. Jar Of Hearts - Christina Perri
7. Midnight City - M83
8. Take You To Rio - Ester Dean
9. After The Moment - Craft Spells
10. Why Even Try - Theophilus London feat. Sara Quin

Perhaps the biggest curiosity is German artist Frida Gold, although then again maybe not considering that ever since an ex-girlfriend I've kept my beady little eye on the German charts. Indeed, there would have been another entry on the list, Culcha Candela's Berlin City Girl, had I not only found out about it this year. But yeah, you can safely assume that I have a bit of a guilty pleasure when it comes to Deutsches pop-music. Another track which defined 2011 for me, likewise released in 2010, was the unofficial 'theme song' of my 'lads on tour' Cyprus holiday. Ralvero's In My Bedroom boasts ridiculous lyrics while also happening to be ridiculously catchy. Anywho, there you have it, my 'favourite songs', or near enough, released in 2011.

Not a bad year at all as far as movies go. Where 2010 was the year of 80s-remakes and blockbuster sequels, 2011 was certainly the year of the art house film. Indeed there was an ambrosial amount of originality on display this year, even the year's mega films mostly new franchises. And while the King's Speech set a seemingly impossible bar by critic's standards early in the year, new films continued to delight and surpass each time. Here is a list of my favourites.

1. Drive - Ryan Gosling's finest performance to date as an ultra-cool getaway driver with an ultra-cool soundtrack to match. Definitely the most stylish film of the year. Read the review.

2. Melancholia - Perhaps one of the more disquieting films I've seen in a while, Melancholia is a strangely alluring film which should be recognised as Kirsten Dunst's breakthrough role. Read the review.

3. Midnight In Paris - Difficult choice between this and The Artist as most charming film of the year, but Woody Allen's love letter to Paris is just delectable. The completely unassuming Owen Wilson merely adds to its appeal. Read the review.

4. Zeitgeist: Moving Forward - A documentary which may well prove to be the most influential thing you've ever seen. It has its faults, but filmmaker Peter Joseph will challenge everything you previously thought to be true. Ever wanted to know why the world is so fucked up? Watch this. Read the review. (YOU CAN WATCH THE WHOLE THING HERE)

5. The Artist - An immensely beguiling film which, to paraphrase Ronan Keating, says it best when it says nothing at all. Made all the more enchanting with the two most effervescent performances all year from the wonderful Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Read the review.

6. 50/50 - Ever wondered how to make a comedy about cancer? No, me neither. But it's exactly what screenwriter Will Riser, upon whose experience this is based, did in this touching yet funny tale. Read the review.

7. The Guard - Hilarious dark comedy about a contrarian cop who's partial to the occasional drug use. Brendan Gleeson is phenomenal, sporting shades of an equally fantastic portrayal in In Bruges, while you wonder how the fuck they got Danny Glover anywhere near this. Read the review.

8. Moneyball - Not quite your traditional sports drama, more like what would happen if economists ran a baseball team. Brad Pitt in glorious form once again while Jonah Hill shows another side to himself as the pair set about sticking it to the man by using numbers. Read the review.

9. The Tree Of Life - Probably a controversial choice given that many people will see it as esoteric existentialist bullshit. However, if you're into all that contemplative metaphysical garb and are able to accept that this is not your typical kind of film, then this might be well worth a shot. Read the review.

10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - While this received the plaudits it deserved it was another British film, The King's Speech, which hogged the limelight this year. However there is no doubt in my mind that this was the superior film, dragging you into its compelling dreary world and helped on by an all-star cast with a fine performance from one Gary Oldman. Read the review.

Raspberry: Bridesmaids - By far the most overhyped, overrated film of the year. This 'Hangover for girls' did more to reinforce that sexist stereotype of 'women aren't funny' than anything I've seen before. Utter shite. Read the review.

Phenomenal year for television once again. I don't think I've been privy to as many 'WTF' moments in one dose as in 2011. Except maybe with Lost - that had more 'holy shit' moments than all other television combined. Nonetheless, this year was good. The old shows upped their games, deepening or relationships with characters we've come to know and love, while there were also some excellent newbies as well.

1. Breaking Bad (Season 4) - An absolutely fascinating battle of wits played out as Walter White took on one of the most revered bad guys in recent TV history, Gustavo Frings. Some absolutely tense shit right here with an ending that showed that even after four seasons we really don't know Mr. Heisenberg at all...

2. Game Of Thrones (Season 1) - Based on the best selling novels by George R.R. Martin, this well-realised fictional Medieval epic smacks of Machiavellian concepts taken to their logical extremes. Political and literal backstabbing abound, Game Of Thrones was the most absorbing thing on TV this year.

3. Fringe (Season 3/4) - More the third season here, Fringe managed to reignite my passion for the series just where I thought it would never go anywhere. New reveals and plot arcs came into play as the two universes met, adding an impetus to what will surely be its final season. Although season 4 has started slow it's only a matter of time before it kicks up a gear.

4. Boardwalk Empire (Season 2) - Twists and turns abound in season two of Boardwalk as Nucky's former protegee, Jimmy Darmody, attempted to usurp him as Atlantic City's kingpin. Some of the finest drama on television this year.

5. Homeland (Season 1) - It's nice to see Damian Lewis sporting his excellent American accent again, this time in an 'is he, isn't he?' drama about a PoW returned home who's suspected of being a terrorist. Just when you thought you had him figured out, Homeland neatly made you guess again where I don't think any of us truly knew what was going on until the final episode. Promising stuff makes season two an exciting prospect.

6. Sons of Anarchy (Season 4) - A solid season for the Sons which saw a new sheriff, an ambiguously motivated FBI guy and Clay doing some unspeakable shit. Plus, Danny Trejo! The ending was a little bit of an anti-climax, but it did nicely set-up some interesting story arcs for next season.

7. The Killing (Season 1) - US version of the Danish series, this was an entertaining little crime thriller about the seemingly isolated murder of a teenage girl which fitted into a much larger conspiracy. Its aesthetic reminded me heavily of -uhum- Heavy Rain.

8. Person Of Interest (Season 1) - Nuanced drama with Lost star Michael Emerson about a system which can detect pre-crime. The series is still finding its feet but each episode always exceeds the last and they're now beginning to build in some interesting plot threads. If it continues as is this can only get better.

9. Community (Season 3) - One of the best comedies on TV in a long time. Sadly however it's currently on hiatus due to not getting the ratings it deserves. This is probably because it may seem a little recondite if you don't enjoy movies or television that much, particularly if every episode is invariably a piss-take of popular culture.

10. The Walking Dead (Season 2) - The jury's still out on this as far as I'm concerned. This is well above solid in its characters and setting, but the lack of anything 'meta' and the mere function to survive every week can make for more boring than compelling television. Sometimes it's like watching Big Brother but with added zombies. Good drama, but needs direction.


And there you have it folks! My review of 2011. Until next year...