It’s that time of year again, when everyone in gaming starts banging out their lists of top titles for the year. I actually really like these lists, not just because they gives you insight into the tastes of the various people you follow but also because for some reason, I tend to see less of the Internet vitriol that plagues the gaming community with them. Not to say there is none but the arguments seem less heated over top lists, maybe because they’re multi-item things and not focused on just one game bar none. I’m not daft enough to think that my list really has any bearing on the tastes of anyone but I like making it because of the challenge it poses. I play a lot of games every year and like to think I have fairly wide reaching tastes so distilling it down to only 10 games and then ranking those 10 is something that really makes me exercise my brain, trying to organise my experiences and literacy of the industry from the year past. Hopefully some of you reading this will hear about some great games you hadn’t thought of and maybe I can lead you to some good experiences. I hope so.
With that out of the way, I’m first going to list my Honourable Mentions, games that are still very excellent but not quite enough to make the top 10. These are in no particular order and despite not being top contenders, I think they’re still great and people should check them out:
The Pinball Arcade – FarSight Studios is normally a budget developer and most of their catalogue can be considered shovelware with one exception, their pinball stuff. These guys not only clearly love pinball, they get it. The Pinball Arcade is their attempt to recreate a bunch of popular real tables from the past with an obsessive devotion to accuracy and boy do they do that. You can get this on almost every platform but it’s best played on a tablet, partially because of the ability to get proper vertical screen orientation and also because thanks to stupid console certification processes, non-mobile platforms are getting new table packs at a much slower pace. I do also own it on the Vita and it’s fantastic there as well if you can wait for the tables a bit longer. They’re still trying to get a PC version out so please go vote for it on Steam’s broken Greenlight system.
Borderlands 2 – It’s more Borderlands but tightened up and that’s really all I wanted. The story’s still dumb, the writing is still full of lazy Family Guy-style references instead of original jokes and Claptrap should be melted into scrap but this is still an absolute blast in co-op. Just like the first one, a friend and I would start playing it and not realise how much time had passed until we noticed that we should have gone to bed hours ago. Were the writing not so poor, this might have actually made the top 10.
Sine Mora – I love shmups despite being no good at them and this game, developed by two companies who had never done one before, is fantastic. Gorgeous art and music, unique mechanics, challenge that’s present but not unreasonable and a deep and very dark story make this a treat for fans of the genre. I now own this on 360, Vita/PS3 and PC and I don’t regret buying it in multiple places.
FTL: Faster Than Light – A Kickstarter success story and for good reason. It’s part starship command simulator, part rogue-like and a ton of fun. The only reason this doesn’t make the list is because the game flat out cheats with the last encounter and I think that’s a bad mechanic that should never be used. Strong challenge is fine but not when it’s done by exempting something from the rules. Even on easy mode, I’ll likely never finish this game but I don’t care because the rest of it is so good.
Hotline Miami – A one man project that somehow manages to make 8-bit pixel art that can be disturbing with how graphic it is. It’s tough but incredibly satisfying. This doesn’t make the list because it’s still a bug ridden mess. I still haven’t finished it due to collision detection and slowdown issues and it still has a notice on launch that Steamworks support is broken (despite it being approved for sale on Steam). We keep getting told fixes are coming but they never do, yet the creator has found time to port it to Mac and oh yeah, announce a sequel. The game is great but this isn’t how you treat your customers.
Hitman: Absolution – Potentially the most eyebrow raising of my choices. This game had polarised reviews but I think it was held to an unfair standard. It deviates in many ways from traditional Hitman games but I really like what it did. You can still make it brutally tough if you want, the grindhouse goofy story I thought was fun, and the mechanics make it feel like the old Splinter Cell stealth games. Unfortunately, that type of game play is considered obsolete by many but I still love it. The Contracts mode is also a brilliant way to do multiplayer without just having the usual deathmatch mode tacked on. If you’re a Hitman purist, this may seem like a step back to you but I thought it was a ton of fun and a great time value if you play it as intended.
Torchlight II – I only got to play a couple of hours of this in the last week with a friend but I can already tell this is the game Diablo III should have been. Light-hearted, fun and fast with mechanics and systems that are easy to learn but can be very deep if you choose to get obsessive with them. It’s also a lot cheaper than Diablo III and unlike that game, you get a complete experience for the initial buy-in price.
Asura’s Wrath – If you told me I would enjoy a game that’s almost entirely quick time events and based on a story that’s ridiculous and dumb even by anime standards, I’d laugh in your face but that’s exactly what Asura’s Wrath is and I loved it. It just keeps getting crazier and crazier and you’re compelled to push forward just to see how insane they can get. I rented this, “beat” it and then bought it later for cheap. In true Capcom fashion, they are trying to screw people with DLC by hiding the proper ending behind a paywall but since I got the game for $20, I can live with that. I haven’t played any of the DLC yet but I intend to. I don’t want to see a lot of these kinds of games come out but this one was just so nuts, it kept me smiling.
The Darkness II – The original Darkness was an underrated gem, not unlike most titles from Starbreeze Studios. When I heard a sequel was coming from Digital Extremes (who has a spotty record at best) I was nervous but I really loved what they did. It’s a very linear game but the action is incredibly violent, visceral and satisfying, the story is unique and tense and it has some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in video games. I fully intend to play this again and still want to try the co-op out. It’s criminal that this game by all accounts was a sales bomb and we’ll probably never get another one. It goes on sale on the PC constantly so pick it up and let’s play some co-op!
Tribes: Ascend – When I heard that the company behind the middling Global Agenda had bought the Tribes license and intended to make a free-to-play game out of it, I was bummed. I didn’t play much Tribes back in the day because I didn’t have a good enough PC then but I know how widely regarded it is. In the end though, Hi-Rez Studios made a fantastic Tribes game that kept everything great about the series and attached it to a free-to-play model that’s perhaps a bit imbalanced but not at all exploitive. I love this game, it’s just unfortunate that I haven’t been able to keep up with the community and have gone from being pretty decent at it to getting flattened almost constantly.
Next up are my Disappointments for the year. These are all games or concepts that I had high hopes for that just weren’t met. Not to say they’re all terrible experiences. Some were but others I still really enjoyed, they just didn’t meet the expectations I feel their pre-release hype created for me. Again, these are in no particular order:
Diablo III – As stated above, I think Torchlight II is what this should have been. I still haven’t finished my first normal difficulty playthrough of this and every time I think about it, I decide to play something else. I love this genre and played a ton of Diablo and Diablo II but this is a regression of what made the series great in every way. The systems have been dumbed down, everything has been engineered around monetising their broken and unbalanced real money auction house, it looks technically outdated and oh yeah, it has always-on DRM that prevented people from playing (even in single player) for several days after launch. Between this and purposefully splitting StarCraft II into three games, I honestly think I’m done with Blizzard for the foreseeable future. This makes me sad but they are running away from the values that made them what they are and way too much Activision thinking had penetrated their management.
Retro City Rampage – I was stoked for this game for months. A Grand Theft Auto style open world game in 8-bit style with music by Virt? Yes please! I grabbed it day one on my Vita but the more I play it, the more disappointed I get. The ideas are great but too many of the missions are horribly designed and even after a patch to substantially lower the difficulty on some, they’re still way too hard and often require sheer luck to get through. Again, I’m all for challenge but when it feels like it’s being brute forced on you, that’s no longer fun.
Mass Effect 3 – Alternatively titled The EA Effect. I love this series but the last game was ruined simply because of EA’s greed. Multiple critical story elements were held back as paid DLC. The ending was atrocious and rendered all of the choices you had to make in the series irrelevant (sorry but you are flat out wrong if you think otherwise). Rather than own that, BioWare caved to the whining fans and released an extended cut ending as DLC which was supposed to provide “clarification” but actually significantly retconned and altered critical elements of it. To their credit, the DLC was free but that’s still ridiculous. If they couldn’t do the ending right, at least they could have defended that position. Add to this a multiplayer mode that was actually good but was locked behind an online pass, had Skinner Box microtransactions and required you to play it in order to get the best ending to the campaign and that only makes things worse. This series deserved better than the treatment EA gave it with the finale.
Max Payne 3 – The game looked and ran great on PC and the action was as awesome as it was in the previous two Remedy-developed instalments but the story was a huge let down. These are supposed to be dark narratives and Max is supposed to be a torn, broken character but this whole story was about him voluntarily putting himself in horrible situations he didn’t have to and then endlessly whining about them like an emo teenager. In the other games, he had tragedy and conflict forced upon him. In this one he just runs head long into it and then bitches about how it’s everyone else’s fault. It ended up turning the game from a fun experience to one I wanted to finish just to get it over with. After a few cheater-filled multiplayer matches, I uninstalled it and will probably never touch it again. It sold badly so I don’t think we’ll see another one for a while if ever.
PlayStation Vita – This breaks my heart. I pre-ordered a Vita on the strong belief there was a market for it and I love the system to death. It’s a wonderful piece of kit and shows that Sony still gets quality hardware. The problem is, there haven’t been a lot of games for it. A lot of the releases have been stellar and I’ve bought more than $200 worth of stuff for it but the new releases have quickly dried up and even Sony’s barely talking about it. Two of the big tent pole releases for it this year were supposed to be new entries in the Resistance and Call of Duty franchises, both of which were hot garbage by hot garbage enthusiasts Nihilistic Software, who decided to rename and focus on mobile games after these. Good luck guys, a new name can’t change the fact that you’re bad at your jobs. The Vita’s in a horrible catch 22 where no one wants to buy it without games and no one wants to make games for it because no one’s bought it. With how much the mobile gold rush has taken off, I honestly wonder if the Vita can succeed and if there’s only enough room for one dedicated system to thrive, that being the 3DS. I so hope it can but as an early adopter, I’m disappointed even though I don’t regret my purchase and I can certainly see why any potential Vita buyer would be turned off right now.
Mobile Games As A Whole – Now before anyone starts spitting game names at me, yes there are a number of exceptions to this. I’ve played several mobile games I thought were very good but I’ve probably bought over $100 worth over the course of this year, mostly on recommendations and I’m sorry but most of them are garbage. Everything’s become about monetisation at the expense of good design. The majority of the games are boring, shallow, a regression in terms of systems design and every game has to have a bloody store front in between levels where they’re trying to get you to spend more money. These mechanics in free-to-play PC games are considered abhorrent but they’re somehow a revolution on mobile devices. To hear people call mobile gaming superior because the games are cheaper drives me nuts because it’s largely a lie and many of these games cost substantially more in the end. I’m happy to pay to get a complete, deep experience on a mobile device and there’s no doubt that the platforms are capable of those things and some even exist but the majority of what’s succeeding is Skinner Box garbage. It’s a de-evolution of the gaming medium and it’s turning a potentially amazing new way to get interactive experiences into a cesspool of the worst kinds of design ideas. That it’s popular doesn’t make it good. It can get better and it needs to get better. If this is where the majority of games end up, I’m going to have to find another hobby.
Next up is a quick list of Exclusions. These are games that very well could have made my top 10 based on my tastes but that I just couldn’t play enough to judge. Unfortunately, between work craziness and the new puppy we got a few months ago, my available gaming time has shrunk substantially and I just didn’t have time to get to everything I wanted:
Fez – Didn’t buy it at the time because I was busy, then the whole save corruption thing happened. I’m waiting for the PC version that’s been hinted at and if it doesn’t come, I might buy it on sale next year on Xbox 360.
Far Cry 3 – My car decided to be a bitchy pain in my arse this month and between it and Christmas, I got screwed for money and couldn’t afford this. Everyone says it’s awesome and I bet it is but I just wasn’t able to play it.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown – I pre-ordered this but have only had time to put about 2 hours into it. I’m liking it but I haven’t progressed enough to judge. From what I understand, it’s still extremely buggy and has largely gone unsupported so that may have kept it from the top 10 anyway.
Persona 4 Golden – I don’t like JRPGs at all but I’ve been told by many people that this is the game that transcends prejudices towards the genre. I intend to take a chance on it but again, money prevented me from buying in right now.
ZombiU – I wasn’t expecting to have a WiiU this month, then I got one for Christmas! This is a polarising game but the positive reviews have painted it in a way that could make me appreciate it, even if it might end up being a rare title I can’t finish. I managed to find the money to buy this on a Boxing Week sale but I won’t be able to put in enough time before the end of the year to render an opinion.
Assassin’s Creed III – I’m a huge fan of this series and pre-ordered this one but have only put in enough time to barely get past the abhorrently long and boring open. I hear the beginning and ending are poor but the middle is among the best offerings this series has made to date but I just haven’t gotten there yet.
And with all that, we finally come to the meat of this massive text wall, my top 10 video games of 2012. These are listed in order from lowest to my game of the year:
10. Spec Ops: The Line – This is a game you should experience not because it’s plays great but because it’s important. It’s a mediocre shooter developed by a studio whose only other known project was a B-grade flight shooter for the original Xbox. It plays OK but not as good as many other games and the multiplayer is laughably bad. However, the story is an absolutely incredible tale of a soldier’s descent into madness. It’s dark, it’s emotional and it’s very moving by the end. Nolan North gets made fun of for how many games he’s in but the man is one of the finest voice actors working today and I believe this role is his greatest achievement. If you have any interest in game narratives and want to see how a mature story can be done right, you should play it. It sold poorly and I get why but it shouldn’t have.
9. Tokyo Jungle – This is a game that sounds too crazy to exist but it does and it’s great. It takes place in a future version of Tokyo where all humans have disappeared, leaving the animals to ruck amok. I won’t spoil it but that concept actually gets fleshed out narratively. It’s developer had never made any games remotely like this before and it’s an experience I’ve never seen anything close to. It’s cheap on PSN and if you have any interest in the idea at all, you should check it out. It’s one of a kind.
8. Syndicate – It got all kinds of pre-release stick for having the name of the revered strategy game and instead being a first person shooter but it’s pretty damn good. Developed by the underrated Starbreeze Studios and covered in their unique style, it lets you play in a great dystopian cyberpunk future. The campaign is average yet still fun but the co-op is some of the most multiplayer fun I’ve had this year. It’s criminal this this game sold so badly, they even canned the DLC that was already near complete. It’s a co-op experience like no other and I still play it with some people on a regular basis to this day. They took the concepts created in the original strategy game and actually found out how to make them work well in a shooter. This deserved to succeed.
7. Sleeping Dogs – Another open-world crime game that seemed to be aiming to hit the middle of Grand Theft Auto’s seriousness and Saint’s Row’s insanity. And it did just that. It was in development forever by a studio who only had a kart racing game to their name, got dumped by Activision because it couldn’t be turned into a yearly treadmill and eventually came out through Square Enix of all people. It looks gorgeous on PC, the game play systems are deep yet arcadey and tight, the story is actually pretty decent and there’s a lot of great voice acting. I figured I’d enjoy this but not nearly as much as I did. After I finished it, I actually went back to keep working on side stuff which I never do in these games, I just wanted to keep playing in the world. The DLC has been a let down so far but the core game is great and any open-world fan should get it. This apparently also sold under expectations but I really hope it gets a sequel.
6. Dishonored – What’s that Frank Gibeau from EA? New IP this late in the console cycle can’t succeed? Yeah, shut up! And this one didn’t even need tacked on multiplayer or stupid cross-media stuff either like you also insist everything needs. I had high hopes for this game and they were largely met. The story is very good but sadly falls apart at the end and Bethesda’s obsession with celebrity voice actors again proves pointless. The game play and level design are incredible though. You can approach every level in this game in a myriad of different ways, all of which work. There are only has two endings but you can replay it half a dozen times or more to see every way it can be completed. Whether you like action or stealth, this is worth checking out. I’m very happy this sold beyond expectations and is becoming a series.
5. Dust: An Elysian Tail – Go watch some videos of this and prepare to have your mind blown. Ready? This whole game with the exception of the music and voice acting was made by one dude who only learned to program a few of years ago! I know right?! I still am amazed at that accomplishment but beyond that is also a fantastic game. A dark and moving story that also manages to be light and funny in places, super tight and fast combat, surprising length for a downloadable title and a gorgeous world with interesting characters. A not insignificant number of people avoided this because they apparently thought the art style was too “furry” like. If you’re one of those people, stop being an idiot and go buy this amazing game. Dean Dodrill deserves to succeed in a big way.
4. Mark of the Ninja – I love Klei’s style and I love stealth games, despite the genre largely dying away. Even though they never made a stealth game before, Klei managed to make one of the best ones of all time. It demands that you be stealthy but doesn’t outright require it. If you manage to alert someone, there are ways out of it but it’s tough. The systems take what is often a hard to learn concept and makes it accessible without having to hold your hand, something a lot of AAA designers never managed to figure out. It does stealth in a unique and fun way and with Klei’s amazing art throughout. This didn’t sell well on Xbox 360 because Microsoft doesn’t know how to market but it apparently did well on PC. I really hope we see more of these.
3. PlanetSide 2 – As I said above, free-to-play is maturing nicely this year and nowhere is that better demonstrated than Sony Online Entertainment’s incredibly ambitious MMOFPS. This isn’t an easy game to get into but when you figure it out and get in a good squad, it’s massive-scale mayhem like you can’t get anywhere else. I’ve had so many hours of fun in this already and every time I get into a groove with my squad, I have to tear myself away from it. And so far, I’ve only spent about $20 of real money and all of it on stuff I could have got without spending a cent if I had the time to put in. SOE is iterating constantly on the game and it’s getting better and better all the time. If you’re unsure if this is for you, it’s free so just go try it! I haven’t had this much multiplayer fun in years.
2. The Walking Dead – Mature, dark, deeply emotional storytelling in games has a new poster child. Many say this is better than not only the TV show but even the original graphic novel. I can’t speak to the latter but it’s definitely better than the show for me and I like the show. Barely a game at all and more of an interactive story, every episode ended with me in a depression flare-up but still very glad I had played it. All of the characters are interesting, have deep backstories that get fleshed out naturally and while not all perfectly executed, every episode was full of shocking moments, many of which I never saw coming. This was in a dead heat tie for first place but ultimately didn’t get it because despite of how good a game it is, it’s full of bugs on almost every platform and Telltale Games has not dealt with any of them. Combine that with the engine showing its extreme age and it doesn’t take the top spot. Nonetheless, this is a series everyone needs to play and given its massive success, I really hope Telltale has the resources to polish the second season properly and hopefully, go back and fix this one too.
1. Journey – I’ve always thought thatgamecompany’s stuff was neat in concept but that was about it. What footage I saw of Journey looked neat but I only had a passing interest in it. What I got in the end was one of the most beautiful, artistic and emotional experiences I’ve had in gaming. Not a word is spoken through the entire experience, yet volumes are conveyed to you. It has co-op that is integral to it but it’s only ever with one person that frequently changes, who you can’t communicate with beyond some chirping noises and whose identity is not revealed to you until after you finish it. I won’t spoil the story but never has a game had me on the edge of my seat pushing so hard on the controller that I had a bruise on my thumb afterwards. This can be held up as an unquestionable example of how games can be art. Until finishing this, The Longest Journey (which oddly has the same word in the name) was my favourite story based game of all time. It’s still amazing but this moved me in a way that couldn’t. Everyone who owns a PS3 needs to play this and if you don’t own one, find somebody who does and play it there. It’s one of the best games of its type ever made and without question my game of the year.
So there it is, over 4,500 words later according to my post editing tool. It took me a surprising amount of time to come up with these lists but I feel good having done it. I’ve done a lot of complaining on this blog throughout the year of the bad directions I feel parts of the gaming industry are going. I still have those worries but for all the thoughts I had about 2012 being the beginning of the end for the kind of games I enjoy, never have I had such a hard time picking only 10 games as the best ones I played this year. I’m a cynical guy and have never claimed otherwise but even as that person who feels the gaming business is going to a creatively dark place, this has been an incredible year for the gaming medium and for games that are based around design, narrative and experience rather than just the easiest paths to quick money. I really hope this side of it continues to grow, mature and most of all succeed in 2013 and the years ahead. Congratulations to everyone who won, you made amazing games and I hope you all get to keep doing so. Best of luck to the industry in 2013, I get the feeling they’ll need some of it.