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The Year That Was, Then Wasn’t: 2011

February 13, 2012

Imagine the Incredible Hulk music playing over this, and it's instantly 12 times as poignant.

Guys. Guys. It’s February. And I think we all know what that means. It’s time for my unwaveringly untimely “Best of 2011” post. You remember 2011, right?

BEST SONG – Lykke Li – “Sadness is a Blessing”

Her middle name is "Timotej". She is named after a shampoo. Silly names: the great equaliser.

In a year when Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Tom Waits, Dawes, My Morning Jacket, Amber Rubarth and Eddie Vedder all released new music, it’s as big a shock to me as it is to my pretty no readers that I’m awarding this to Lykke Li. But “Sadness is a Blessing” is about as perfect a four minute pop song as you’re likely to find, and it wins points for coming completely out of left field for me. Her strangled pronunication of “beg you not to go” in the last bridge is amazing and heartbreaking, and it lends further credence to my theory that the song is for all intents and purposes 2011’s version of “The Winner Takes It All”, though that’s primarily based on my limited knowledge of bittersweet Scandinavian pop. Also, the video was quite something.

BEST ALBUM – Tom Waits – “Bad As Me”

His middle name is "Alan". I'm just sayin'.

In a year when Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Lykke Li, Dawes, My Morning Jacket, Amber Rubarth and Eddie Vedder all released new music, it’s no shock whatsoever to anyone ever that I’m awarding this to Tom Waits. Bad As Me isn’t his best work – nowhere near it, really – but it doesn’t have to be; it still viciously slaps down all the other contenders like it was Chris Brown winning Best Female Artist at the Grammys. It takes a certain kind of genius to make an album like this. Waits is genreless, going from the demented train-track blues of “Chicago” to the tenderly beautiful barcarole “Back in the Crowd” to the violent, gunshot stomp of “Hell Black Luce”, before finishing up by borrowing Auld Lang Syne’s chrorus for “New Year’s Eve”, all the while backed by such luminaries as David Hidalgo, Marc Ribot, Flea and Keith Richards. Disastrously, perhaps the most beautiful track “Tell Me” is an iTunes Bonus Mega-Exclusive or something, which is ridiculous, wrong and crappy (in that order) but even that doesn’t sour the song’s gorgeousness. And the video for Satisfied is quite something.

BEST GAMES

There are three of them, and these are those them.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

HIDDEN CONFESSION: I only completed the original Deus Ex for the first time shortly before Human Revolution was released. It was still magnificent.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about DX:HR wasn’t that it was so goddamn good, or that it sold fairly well for a role-playing game about transhumanist philosophy in a golden techno-renaissance world (although it is also viciously stabbing men with elbow spikes, so), but that it was a Deus Ex game in 2011. That alone is cause for celebration for a certain breed of gamer (technically referred to as “PC gamers”, but let’s not get bogged down in semantics). But its excellence was a surprise, and a relief, and a thing of joy. 2011 was the year my taste in videogames was clearly distilled into a simple formula: I want games that ask me what I want to do, and let me choose my approach, instead of telling me what I must do and how I have to do it or else you don’t get to play anymore. Human Revolution let me make the decisions. It let me decide which augmentations I wanted, it let me decide whether to be stealthy or overt, lethal or non-lethal, and it let me decide my views on transhumanism.

Also important: it was one hell of a game, with the most satisfying mechanics I’ve ever beheld. There are few things as glorious in gaming as determinedly sneaking your way up behind a crim, tapping him on the shoulder, and punching him tremendously hard in the face. Or crawling around a police station, piecing together little sub-stories from the e-mails on the computers you’ve hacked into. Or getting bored of trying to hack a gate’s keycode, and instead, stacking some crates so you can just hop over the fence. Sure, Adam Jensen had the most distractingly gruff voice this side of, well, Tom Waits, I guess. Sure, it would have been nice if the ending made its four discrete choices a little less blatant. Sure, it would have been nice if the city hubs were a little larger, and a little more alive. And yes, it would have been a hell of a lot nicer without the rubbish boss fights. But these quibbles fall meaninglessly aside in the face of such a robustly fantastic game. Its soundtrack was also quite something.

The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings

Entire game played in Polish, the grittiest of languages.

Let’s be very clear: this wass the prettiest game. From the verdant, technicolour forests of Flotsam to the way the light catches the wrinkles in Geralt’s leather armour, every aspect of the game’s visuals were worthy of hours of ogling. (CD Projekt RED’s focus on developing with powerful PCs as the lead platform paid dividends in that respect – the upcoming Xbox port will be the equivalent of playing it at “medium” graphixability on PC. Pah. Medium.) The combat mechanics didn’t quite match those dizzying heights, with its weird difficulty curves and responsiveness issues and such, but the story very much did. The devs no doubt  benefited from having a well-established world and cast of characters to work with, thanks to Andrzej Sapkowski’s series of novels (and their own original Witcher game), and Witcher 2 was compelling from the outset. The focus on such a defined protagonist gave it room for some meaty character development, to the extent that a choice you make in the first chapter clefts the game in twain – two different, but complementary stories play out, depending on your choice. You even got to choose if there is a final battle.

It ended somewhat surprisingly prematurely, but there’s always The Witcher 3 to look forward to, I guess. Plus, the trailer for the aforementioned Xbox port is quite something.

The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

In my defense, the horses in this game have NO sense of self-preservation. "Oooh, a dragon! Let's hoof him to death."

Its melee combat is extremely basic. Its ranged combat even moreso. Its stealth is unsteady, and its controls are shoddy. The characters are insipid, the writing moreso. It’s glitchy at the best of times, broken at the worst. It’s silly. It ran like ass on my mastodonic PC until the most recent patch. (It’s now commendably butter-smooth for the most part, even with the giganto-texture pack.)

But it’s huge – I’m currently on the third or fourth mission in the main storyline, having played it for 90 hours.

Very little of that time has been spent on the main storyline, of course. During that time, my character (the “dovahkiin”, or “Dragonborn”, Skyrim’s version of “The Chosen One”, or whatever) has studied at the Mages’ college, and then became the Arch-Mage, and also become a member of the Companions’ Warrior Guild, then became a werewolf and their new leader, and also joined the Thieves’ Guild, and then became Guild Master, and also joined the Dark Brotherhood assassins’ guild, and then became “the Listener” (the Dark Brotherhood’s version of “The Chosen One”, or whatever), and killed the Emperor after swimming out to his special boat, and also joined the Stormcloak uprising, and also solved a murder mystery in Windhelm, and got married, and picked about 18,000 locks, and became a master blacksmith, and bought and decorated a house or four. All the while, travelling on horseback around the vast mountainous world Skyrim offers – no poxy fast-travelling for this guy.

And that’s what will remain with me when I’m finished with Skyrim. I won’t remember how I saved the world, or why, but I will remember the world that I saved.

Its main theme is also quite something.

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