Game of the Year 2011

Yet another year has passed by, and much to our grinning surprise, it's going to go down in the history books as one of the best twelve-month stretches of role-playing game releases in, well, a very long time. And while there were many strengths exhibited by this year's lineup, we felt that character development came to the forefront a bit more than it has in recent years, and that's prompted us to add an entirely new category to recognize the games that haven't overlooked a good progression system in order to cater exclusively to the cinematic-seeking crowd.

Yes, loyal RPG fans, there was something for everyone this year. So let's get started:

Best Character System

Best Character System Winner
Drakensang: The River of Time (Winner)

The Dark Eye tabletop system was created in 1984, and through years of refinement and updates, reached a fourth edition in 2001. Drakensang: The River of Time's character system is based on this current version of The Dark Eye, and with nearly 30 years of iteration behind it, it's not much of a surprise that The River of Time offers the most intricate character system of 2011.

Its breadth is on display right from the character creation screen, where it provides a selection of 22 archetypes across 3 different races. Following these initial customization options, you're then presented with an assortment of other options as the game progresses. As adventure points are acquired, they can be allocated toward 8 attributes, 13 combat skills, 23 non-combat skills, 11 branches of special abilities, and 58 spells/miracles. Not all skills are equally useful, and some overlap with the functionality of spells, but the various non-combat skills come into play often during dialogue, thieving, and item crafting. And while the game's combat isn't anything we haven't seen before, the sheer variety of skills, spells, and weaponry available to you means that you can mix things up during each battle, should you choose to.

Best Character System Runner-upFrayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon (Runner-up)

If there was one game that was heavily fueled by its mechanics this year, it was Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon. Though it starts players out with four fixed characters, its system quickly opens up to allow for a huge amount of flexibility and variety in building them. With hundreds of options available, solid game balance, and plenty of different strategies to tap into, Frayed Knights made us agonize over each and every stat point and level-up in the best possible way. And considering that it was one of only a few titles that allowed us to build entire parties this year, it had an edge on most of its competition right from the start.

Best Story/Writing

Best Story/Writing Winner
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Winner)

This year brought stiff competition to the story category from big publishers and indies alike, from CD Projekt, to Bethesda, to Spiderweb Software. Despite all that, it was the follow-up to the beloved Deus Ex, Human Revolution, that ultimately won us over. Paring back the conspiracy theories and amping up the transhumanism theme, Deus Ex: Human Revolution was as notable for us not just in the way that it got us to care about its characters and world, but also for how it kept us talking about it well after we'd finished with the game. Few titles out there, even RPGs, manage to get us to think deeply about important issues, and we're pleased to count Human Revolution among them.

Best Story/Writing Runner-upDrakensang: The River of Time (Runner-up)

2011 had some well-scripted titles and no lack of intricate plots, so it might seem odd to pick out this quiet German title with competent but not outstanding localization. However, The River of Time stands out by being different from the standard fare, and by doing what it does extremely well.

Specifically, the setting, quests, and dialogue have a light-hearted, quirky tone that does not necessarily click for everyone, but which we view as a breath of fresh air in this era obsessed with grimdark and "mature" stories and settings. Similarly, the story it tells is a smaller, contained one, and while its political scope increases as the story continues, it never becomes an ego-stroking "epic" story. The player character isn't really the story's protagonist, either, and the small cast of characters allows it to flesh out some of them in a way that smaller-budget games often can't. These elements are all very unusual in cRPGs nowadays, and its that uniqueness that is the main strength of TRoT's story.

Best Graphics Winner
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Winner)

The quality of CD Projekt RED's recreation of Andrzej Sapkowski's fantasy world is nothing short of astounding. From the majestic Flotsam forests to the believable architecture of Vergen and the elven city of Loc Muinne, The Witcher 2 is a triumph of fantasy environments, rendered with utmost care and expertise, and emphasized by the impressive technical capabilities of the RED Engine. Character designs are also very well-realized, often giving insight into their personality; furthermore, both monster and equipment designs are detailed and instill a sense of cohesiveness and culture to the title. Sure, there are a few animation-related blemishes here and there, but they don't detract from the fact that CD Projekt's sequel was at the top of the graphics pedestal this year.

Best Graphics Runner-upThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Runner-up)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim doesn't have nearly the graphic fidelity of The Witcher 2, but sacrifices have to be made for an open-world game capable of running on consoles as well as the PC platform. That said, the studio had its priorities straight in picking which battles to fight, as the strongest points of Skyrim are its wide-open, snow-covered vistas, as well as the strong art design that features believable Nordic themes throughout. Add to that some very attractive particle/weather effects, as well as some of the best water effects we've ever seen in a video game to date, and Skyrim does more than enough to ensure that the TES series impresses us yet again.

Best Sound/Music

Best Sound/Music Winner
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Winner)

There's no soundtrack quite as memorable or beloved as the original Deus Ex's, with its distinctly 80s-inspired score providing both catchiness and ambiance. Luckily for fans, Human Revolution managed to capture many of the familiar melodies and put them in a brand new context, seamlessly blending electronic and traditional instrumentation for music that arguably surpasses even the original game's. Human Revolution's near-future sound effects were also expertly chosen, bringing life to both the dismal urban environments and its technology. Solid and consistent voice-acting round out the package for one of the most satisfying aural experiences we had this year.

Best Sound/Music Runner-upBastion (Runner-up)

While it ultimately fell short when pitted against Deus Ex: Human Revolution's cyberpunk soundtrack, Bastion's amazing sound design should not be overlooked. Supergiant's action RPG treats players to a varied soundtrack that covers all manner of genres, as well as some of the best and well-implemented voice acting we've heard in quite awhile. Yes, folks, Bastion's focus on a single narrator makes it notable not just for the quality of its execution, but for its originality as well.

Best Expansion/DLC

Best Expansion/DLC Winner
Fallout: New Vegas Old World Blues (Winner)

Fallout: New Vegas was treated to four story-based add-ons that truly demonstrated what the post-release content model is capable of, with varied and memorable experiences that feel indespensible to the full game. Without question, Old World Blues was the best of the set. It has an irreverent tone based on the Science! films that have always inspired Fallout in smaller ways, as well as ten hours of new content, including new enemies, weapons and locations to explore. Though complaints can be leveled against the recycled nature of a few of its dungeons, and the humour may not be for everyone, there's no denying that Old World Blues provided both quality gameplay and a huge amount of value, earning it top honors as 2011's best DLC.

Best Expansion/DLC Runner-upDeus Ex: Human Revolution - The Missing Link (Runner-up)

Human Revolution ended up being one of Eidos' most successful games this year, so it goes without saying that they were quick to release a DLC add-on for it shortly after launch. The Missing Link filled a chapter of the game's story previously only touched, and provided a surprisingly dense and character-driven story. Though the new locations were better-designed than ever before, and the hints of a wider plot kept fans talking about what's next for the Deus Ex series, the relatively short length-to-price ratio and lack of new features left The Missing Link just shy of excellence.

Most Anticipated of 2012
Diablo III

Though there's plenty of upcoming games that RPG fans have to look forward to, few have been as long-awaited and hotly-anticipated as Diablo III. Our hands-on time with the beta and the constant trickle of information about the game coming out of Blizzard has been enough to whet our appetite, and even in its early stages, it displays a level of polish that few finished games can match. While the online-only play and changes to the game's character system still leave a few questions, there's little doubt that the core Diablo gameplay is set to be as strong as ever.

Independent RPG of the Year

Independent RPG of the Year Winner
Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon (Winner)

2011 brought us a healthy dose of independent RPGs, but none of them stood out quite like Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon did. A living tribute to the old Might and Magic and Wizardry games, this long-in-development labor of love by Jay Barnson (and some especially dedicated friends) kept us coming back for more with its excellent turn-based combat and entertaining writing. Old-school in both its interface and gameplay, additions (innovations?) like Drama Stars helped alleviate some of the frustrations that often come with RPGs from years past, and its literal hundreds of spells and feats gave party-building fans plenty to chew on. It might not have been the most polished indie game released this year, but it's hard to deny the entertaining gameplay that took RPGs back to their roots.

Independent RPG of the Year Runner-upDungeons of Dredmor (Runner-up)

If there's one title this year that gives you value for your money, it's Dungeons of Dredmor. Though roguelike purists might lament its newfangled point-and-click interface and tongue-in-cheek humor, Dungeons of Dredmor was both important in bringing the normally archaic gameplay of roguelikes to a wider audience without sacrificing the depth and variety commonly found in the genre, and in helping make the case that the indie RPG scene is stronger than ever. Besides, what other games this year let you specialize in Necronomiconomics, Fleshsmithing, and Viking Wizardry?

RPG Hybrid of the Year

RPG Hybrid of the Year Winner
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Winner)

As RPGs in general move toward appealing to wider audiences, the competition in the hybrid RPG category seems to heat up a little bit more each year. However, there was one title that was leaps and bounds ahead of any of 2011's other crossbreeds, and that was Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Human Revolution wasn't just one of the genre's greatest successes this year, but it also demonstrated that a decade after the original game's release, it's still possible to make a game that straddles the line between shooter and RPG without making many compromises. We can only hope that other hybrid developers look to it for inspiration in the coming years.

RPG Hybrid of the Year Runner-upMight & Magic Heroes VI (Runner-up)

No matter how you jumble the title, or which developer you put into the driver's seat, the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise has always been an excellent source for turn-based strategy and RPG-style character development. This year's addition, from Hungarian developer Black Hole Entertainment, was no exception, and it served as yet another reminder that turn-based strategy hybrids can be a hell of a lot of fun when they're done right.

And say what you want about Ubisoft, but we can't help but tip our hats to them for sticking to the PC and not crippling the series' controls and gameplay in order to chase the burgeoning console market.

RPG of the Year Winner
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Winner)

We certainly had very high expectations for CD Projekt RED's sequel to The Witcher, and what we ended up with was a game that met and exceeded them in a variety of ways. Not only did The Witcher 2 sport greater production values this time around, but it also contained a fast-moving, intricate, and delightfully intriguing plot filled with game-altering choices and consequences that would make most other developers hide behind a stack of elaborate player metrics.

The script also flows well in English from the very beginning, and based on the testimonies we've seen from around the web, it does the same in the other ten supported languages. But CD Projekt's biggest achievement with The Witcher 2 is probably how, in an era where most role-playing sequels are being "streamlined" to the point that they barely resemble their predecessors, they actually managed to inject some much-appreciated complexity into the title. Expanded character build diversity, the addition of a robust crafting system, and the introduction of an entirely new ability system? That's the stuff.

Sweetening the deal even further is the Polish studio's commitment to a DRM-free experience, highly ambitious updates like patch 2.0, and the availability of all DLC for free. And so, for a second time in a row, we're proud to hand our RPG of the Year award to the exploits of one genetically-mutated monster hunter, Geralt of Rivia.

RPG of the Year Runner-upThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Runner-up)

Skyrim continues to raise the bar for what The Elder Scrolls series has always done well: it draws you into its an awe-inspiring world and then continuously taunts you with the temptation to explore its dozens of cities, villages, keeps, towers, dungeons, caves, and other landmarks that dot its enormous map. In sheer scope, it's hard to find any other game that can stand up to Bethesda's offerings, and Skyrim is no exception. It's also a huge step forward in comparison to the relatively disappointing Oblivion - it has better writing, a more cohesive setting, and more varied dungeon design.

However, for as much quality content as the game offers, there are a few glaring faults that keep it from taking our top award this year. Balance issues, repetition of mundane quests and enemy types, lack of world reactivity, and optimization issues mar an otherwise amazing experience, though we suspect that there aren't many players out there who will find any of these elements to be deal-breakers. As such, we consider Bethesda Softworks to be the masters of open-world excellence, and it's the continued call of hundreds of hours' worth of adventure that have us forgiving Skyrim of its flaws.