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Four Surprises of 2011

Here's the rough gems we found in 2011...

There were a lot of big games out in 2011 and there were probably a vast amount of them that got lost in the noise surrounding the release of games like Gears of War 3, Modern Warfare 3, Saints Row: The Third and Skyrim. We thought is might be a good idea, while we're still at the beginning of 2012, to draw some attention back to games that certainly gave us a nice surprise in 2011 before the noise of triple-A releases gets deafening again.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon

Flying games seem to have fallen by the wayside of late due to the proliferation of military FPS titles lead by the Activision's ultimate WMD Call of Duty. With Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Namco Bandai's Project Aces studio was tasked with making the seventh Ace Combat game in the series much more friendly to FPS gamers.

In order to do this Project Aces decided to get all up gamers' faces to provide a much more visceral and action-oriented experience. Enter the new dogfighting mode. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon does have many attributes that those familiar with the series will recognise but the most important difference is the new approach to the actual combat. Assault Horizon is all about getting in close and dirty and watching opponents' aircraft disintegrate in a hail of missiles and gunfire.

To do this simply jam both buttons when the HUD indicates the enemy is in range and the camera will switch to a much more 'intimate' over-the-shoulder style view behind the plane. Now is time to wrestle the enemy into the crosshairs and get a missile lock while firing off a few rounds on the cannon to do a bit of damage. Every hit causes a shower of oil and metal shards to fly off the target aircraft producing a nifty splatter effect on the screen in the process.

This is an impressive effect and it really does make the dogfighting in Assault Horizon far more engaging. Throw this into a very healthy multiplayer mode as well and Project Aces really have put together a very engaging air combat game.

The game does have a few slower sequences with a fairly dull Hercules Gunship segment and a few chances to get into the cockpit of an Apache helicopter gunship to provide fire support to ground troops which are also a bit slow but getting back at the controls of the latest multi-million dollar fighters more than makes up for these sparse distractions. Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is well worth a look when Modern Warfare 3 fatigue sets in.

Warhammer 40K:Space Marine

Relic has been trusted with the development of Warhammer 40K games since their incredible success with the Dawn of War RTS franchise. With Dawn of War they managed to bring the series to life in a way that had never been done before and managed to introduce the Games Workshop's desperate and desolate distant future to a whole bunch of people that would usually have shunned the idea of a table-top wargame. So, it seemed logical that they take their intimate knowledge of the 40K universe and us it to create an action game.

Space Marine is not an ordinary action game though. Relic were very brave in trying to create a game that would blend melee and shooting combat together. Given the wide array of different weaponry available to Space Marines from the eminently brutal chainsword to the long range target-vapourising lascannon choosing the Emperor's finest as subject for this bold experiment seemed like a good idea.

It was. Games have rarely managed to get the balance between melee and ranged combat just right. There is usually an overbalance on one side making the other half of the combat mechanic feel limp and hollow. Somehow Relic have managed to strike a very effective balance between shooting and slicing that helps make Space Marine a very engaging game. The shooting feels very meaty and the variety of ranged weapons from the standard bolt pistol and boltgun all the way through to heavy weapons like the plasma cannon are all respond the way they would be expected to. Make the switch to using the chainsword, power axe or the mighty Thunder Hammer and things are just as fun.

Some of the best sequences in the game involve the nifty combination of Jump Pack and Thunder Hammer allowing the ability to wreak devastating crushing blows to crowds of Orks from a great height. These sequences are probably the high point of the game and there are plenty of them to dotted through the beefy single-player campaign.

The game does have its downsides, chiefly a lack of variety in the Ork opponents which gets relieved later on in one of the plot twists. Warhammer 40K: Space Marine is probably about as geeky as it gets without a collection of miniatures, a measuring tape and bucket of oddly-shaped dice but is actually fun and shows that melee and range combat can comfortably and enjoyably co-exist in a game.

Fight Night Champion

As far as boxing games go the Fight Night series has always been the pinnacle. The problem it has always suffered from has been a certain level of impenetrability for anyone who isn't well versed in the world of Queensbury rules.

Fight Night Champion set out to change all that and took a very innovative route for a sports title in order to do it. For the first time in the series EA Sports decided to introduce a story mode to one of their games in order to draw new players into the world of boxing gently, teaching all the skills needed to get to grips with the game as a whole.

It actually worked too. The story mode involved following one boxer from his roots as a middleweight, through his career including prison time after being framed by a crooked promoter, to raising the Heavyweight World Championship belt above his head. Each fight along the way, be it a sparring match or a competitive fight throws up new challenges like trying to beat an opponent with your weak hand because he's broken a bone in his good hand and teaches how to approach different opponents to find their weaknesses and exploit them. It is an impressive lesson in boxing and it's also a fairly entertaining story that is well worth playing through.

Behind the story is a revamped play mechanic that re-imagines the analogue fighting style that EA had tried to force on players in Fight Night Round 4 making it much more natural and easy to get to grips with while also offering button bashers the change to use a more traditional control scheme.

The new story mode and wider control options instantly broadened the appeal for Fight Night Champion and helped put together a very sound and as it turns out BAFTA-winning boxing game.

Resistance 3

The Resistance series has always been a bit like Marmite. Those that loved it really loved it but many found it to be a bit lacking especially when compared to heavyweights of the FPS genre like Battlefield or Call of Duty. Still it offered enough people a decent-enough experience that Sony commissioned not one but two sequels from Insomniac and so when Resistance 3 arrived it was expected that despite the demise of Nathan Hale it would be business as usual as humanity puts up a futile resistance against the Chimeran onslaught.

Strangely enough it seems that, with Resistance 3, Insomniac has actually found their feet. The real surprise here is the story mode. The struggle has been brought to life like never before in the series and there is a real sense of futility of the battle but there are also a few really key moments in the game that provide just a bit more than the previous games have. Of course the use of the Uncharted 2 engine with full technical support from Naughty Dog helped very much make Resistance the best looking game in the series by a country mile it was more about a couple of clever bits of level design and storytelling that really makes Resistance 3 special.

One particular sequence, which borrows heavily from Half-Life 2 draws the player through a mining town infested with feral Chimera. This is intensely atmospheric and, although those who have played the Ravenholm in Half-Life 2 will find it intensely familiar it sits well in the context of Resistance 3's story and helps to immerse players in the story more effectively. Later still, after Joseph Capelli has been captured and imprisoned by a bunch of convicts who now rule their own prison provides a new quirky Unreal Tournament-style weapon and a prison break sequence that pours on the atmosphere again and culminating in a large battle between the prisoners and the Chimera.

Resistance 3 really saw the series come of age and it came as a very disappointing blow that Insomniac have decided to give up working on the series now that they have finally got it right. This is be the only truly decent game in the Resistance series to date and that's what makes it well worth a shot.

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