Welcome to our end of year list for 2012! Here, we pick the best games of 2012, as voted by… *crickets* Oh yeah, that’s right, with the “refocusing” of the site, I’m practically the only one left. Right.
Oh well! I’ve never let that stop me from a good party! Here, I’ll list my top ten games of 2012. I thought about different ways to do this list, to be honest. I was going to go with an awards list, until I remembered that I don’t play games in half the genres out there. I thought of doing something like a collage – the biggest issues, and the biggest games – until I realized that was kind of pretentious. I was going to not do the list at all but fuck it, I need some features. So I went with the tried-and-true top ten list that I’ve been doing for years. Not the most original thing I’ve ever done, but this industry hasn’t seen something truly original in years, so c’est la vie.
There is really no super metric to this: these are my top ten favourite games of the year. These are only games I’ve played (I’m sure the Walking Dead is fantastic, but I never played it), for systems I own (sorry, Persona 4: Golden). No other thought went into this list other than the fact that it’s my ten favourite games of the year, in order.1
Spec Ops: The Line is one of those games that, as one plays it, tells the person what they care most about as a gamer. It should end the story versus gameplay debate with one simple question: did you like Spec Ops? If you like gameplay, you probably thought it average at best; it’s a standard edition third person shooter with cover elements, the likes of which we’ve seen since the original Gears of War.
Those that prefer a good story in their game over the elements of gameplay, however, came out of playing Spec Ops changed.
Spec Ops: The Line is one of the best examples of real time interactive storytelling I’ve seen. The story itself – of a group of soldiers sent into an alternative universe Dubai where order has been completely upended – has enough twists and turns to keep any Tom Clancy fan riveted. If it was just that simple, Spec Ops would be a good, but not great game. What sets it apart is the little things that come out from advancing in the game. As the story progresses, the player can see the protagonists’ mental state start to gradually deteriorate as the stresses of always being one shot from death take their toll. Executions become more visceral, messages become more curt, and in certain situations, one can literally see the effects of fatigue on the face of player avatar Capt. Walker.
Spec Ops: The Line is the grittiest war story ever told in video games because, even accounting for some of the absurdities of the story itself, one with even a layman’s understanding of the horrors of war can begin to understand what their characters are going through. The multiplayer is a waste of time, as the game’s developers made plainly known, but the best tribute to this game’s accomplishment could be found in the fact that an outstanding eBook was written specifically around the story. While maybe not a must-own, Spec Ops: The Line is absolutely a must-play.
We’ve been crying for a new Guardian Heroes for so long that most people didn’t even realize that the game’s spiritual successor is right under their noses, right now. Code of Princess, featuring key members of the team that developed the seminal Saturn classic, brings the gameplay that made the original game so beloved and stuffs it into a modern story that is equal parts charming and hilarious, with some of the most hilarious cast members in recent memory.
The gameplay enough is worthy of a purchase – a hack-and-slash with just enough strategy to keep things fresh, and just enough extra to keep people coming back – but the characters are what kept me going through the game’s story. Featuring the standard “sheltered princess” trope for a protagonist (and one who earned the name “Princess No Pants” by my girlfriend), it’s the side characters – among them a necromancer who is extremely glib about needing parts of other human bodies to keep herself going, like a supernatural ’75 Gremlin, and an overly confident bard who uses an electric guitar even in casual conversation – that gave the game its wonderful flavour.
Critics have slammed the game for being little more than a titillating package (pun intended), while passing over some of the game’s positive aspects. Ignore those people. Anyone with a penchant for smashing enemies, as well as the fourth wall, owes it to themselves to check out Code of Princess.
Maybe the Torchlight games are “just Diablo clones”, as detractors have labeled them. I’ll concede that. But if Diablo III was just like Torchlight II, it would be well worth the money. Torchlight II didn’t make me connect to the internet every second of gameplay, just because it could. Torchlight II didn’t have a shop that requires real world money. Torchlight II wasn’t so filled with bugs that it made the game a chore to play.
Notwithstanding all of those gripes, which only prove my dislike for the modern video game industry more than my liking/disliking of any particular game, the key point is that Torchlight II is a more enjoyable game to play than Diablo III in spite of having a smaller budget and staff behind it.
Torchlight II combines tried-and-tested gameplay with a story and execution that appeal more to someone like me, who doesn’t necessarily care for the drab world of Diablo. Atmosphere matters, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the world of Torchlight, whereas the first two Diablos were, at times, a chore to explore, devoid of variety for the majority of those games. Torchlight II, with its combination of an amazing world and great multiplayer options, was mechanically the parallel to the Diablo games for all but the most devoted Blizzard fan, and a game with a charm that Blizzard has never attempted with their biggest series.
I swear, Terry Cavanagh is a sadist.
After VVVVVV, one of my favourite games of 2011, we get Super Hexagon, which is a 12MB download on Steam. That’s it. Three button presses, and you’re in the game. Of course, four seconds later, it’s probably over.
Then you start again. And again. And again.
The entirety of the game is moving left and right, along a circle, while hexagonial walls come in on an arrow; avoid the walls and survive, hit them and it’s game over. While this is going on, the whole plane of the game spins, while the environment spins and throbs with a chiptune beat. I played the game for an hour my first time, which is impressive considering the fact that virtually every minute was spent actually playing the game. No tutorials in this game, which is just as well; even a child can figure it out.
The thing I remember the most about my Super Hexagon sessions is that I don’t really remember much. Succeeding in Super Hexagon – figuratively speaking, as I still have not succeeded in hitting 60 seconds in even the easiest stage – requires entering a zen-like state where the player is totally immersed in the game and what is happening, almost becoming one with the game. It sounds cheesy, but that level of concentration enables the player to naturally get better as they enter connectivity with the game, almost like two Newtypes in Gundam communicating telepathically. I almost needed a cigarette after playing Super Hexagon, even if I also often needed asprin for the results of the game’s graphics, and aloe for the beating it constantly gives me.
With that said, just like anything else Terry Cavanagh makes, I come back for more, willingly subjecting myself to the pain for the sake of the pleasure. At $2.99 for the PC version, I can certainly think of more expensive experiences that provide far less pleasure.
The first game I ever bought for my new PlayStation 3 when I first got it around Christmas of 2009 was Flower. I didn’t care that it was barely a “game” in the classical sense, and I don’t even care now; it filled me with a sense of wonder that typical games don’t even try to replicate.
It’s no small wonder that Thatgamecompany is back, after Flower and flOw, with Journey, a simple, three hour long game that features online connectivity with barely any way to communicate with other players, and virtually no actions available to the player. The only way to communicate with other players – similarly faceless robed avatars to the player – is to use contextual singing, which is necessary to get around a world that inspires awe at its relative size to the player as they trudge on their journey.
Journey is part unconventional game, part sociological experiment, and part experiment. Put together, it’s one of the most amazing experiences around, and even if not everyone will understand its charms, those that keep their minds open will never forget what they experienced in just a few short hours.
Arguably the most consistently excellent sports series of all time, NBA 2K13 continues the series’ evolution to find the perfect video game emulation of what it’s like to play NBA basketball. They’re not quite there yet, but no game comes closer to emulating its sport than NBA 2K13.
Like with virtually every sports game at this point in the console cycle, 2K13 is hardly a revolution; in fact, in terms of back-of-the-box features, it’s the least revolutionary basketball game in years. However, in light of Electronic Arts constantly jacking their games up in their neverending search for marketing buzzwords (looking at you, NHL ’13), that could arguably be considered a compliment. Visual Concepts eschews such noxious nonsense in favour of making their core game better. MyPlayer mode, which simulates what it’s like to play in the NBA as a player, continues to evolve towards perfection, combining outstanding gameplay regardless of one’s position with enough to do off the court to keep one entertained well into multiple seasons.
2K continues to evolve with the rest of sports gaming, but in some ways it’s blissfully behind the curve; only this year has a currency for the game been able to be purchased with real world money, and it’s hardly compulsory. For basketball fans, there is simply no better game to play than 2K13, nor will there be for years to come. I’ve said for awhile that hockey is my wife, but basketball is my mistress; my continued affair with NBA 2K13 proves this out, and it’s fantastic in the sack. Just keep on keeping on, Visual Concepts.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with roguelikes; while I find them addicting to play to an extent, I’ve never been in love with the concept of a game that can randomly kill me off with little warning, and no option to save said game. The past couple of years have shown an evolution of sorts, combining games that are tough with being fun to play. Last year, we had Dungeons of Dredmor, and in 2012, we have the sublime FTL: Faster Than Light.
The best way I’ve heard to describe FTL is that it’s Firefly in video game form. Playing as the captain of a ship that has critical information, in a badly stacked war that the good guys are losing, players jump from sector to sector, section to section, evading a fast approaching enemy fleet while acquiring enough weapons, currency, and crew members to be able to eventually take on the enemy’s flagship. It’s no easy task; one thing could go wrong and take your ship out completely, and even for those that make it to the end, the enemy flagship is no joke; in fact, I’ve yet to finish the game.
That isn’t for lack of trying, however. FTL: Faster Than Light is the perfect evolution of the roguelike and an outer space fantasy that makes every Captain Picard wannabe giggle with joy, even as the last of their spaceship is blown apart by an enemy missile.
As I noted in my rental review of the game, it’s a difficult proposition to remake a beloved cult classic; there’s virtually no way to please anyone, and a billion ways to piss off the world and become a source of ridicule and scorn. Firaxis, the former home of Sid Meyer, somehow managed to get the best of both worlds.
The new XCOM is a hard game with enough challenge for everyone, pleasing series veterans and masochists with the harder difficulties while letting others settle in on the easier ones. Resources, no matter what, are at a premium, with there seemingly never being enough money, which gets difficult as the aliens get vastly better, quickly. The sense of urgency the game communicates is also notable, with the panic levels of individual countries being difficult to control after some time, leaving some very tough decisions to be made. Finally, the almost excessive mortality of soldiers, as well as the difficulty in training new ones, raises the stakes in bringing the best soldiers to battle; yes, they’re skilled, but one errant decision and they’re gone for good.
Strategy games didn’t get better than XCOM when it was a PC title in the mid-90s, and they didn’t get any better in 2012, either. Not only is XCOM: Enemy Unknown an outstanding reboot of a beloved property, it’s a damn good game in its own right.
#2: The Pinball Arcade
Systems: XBox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Apple iOS, Apple OS/X, Google Android
Developer: FarSight Studios
Publisher: Crave Entertainment
Release Date: February 9, 2012
The Pinball Arcade is so many things in such an unassuming package. The initial package is four amazing pinball tables, ranging from the 80s to the end of the 90s, all of which emulate very well on the system of choice for whoever is playing. These aren’t just fantasy tables; these are some of the best of all time, such as Black Hole. Then even more tables come via DLC, also greats. Funhouse. Gorgar. Big Shot. For pinball fans, these are the big ones; the reason we used to go to the arcade to dump in quarter after quarter, all playable on our phones.
The Pinball Arcade became my “just a few minutes” game of choice. Waiting in line? I can get in a game of Black Knight. Having a contemplative moment on the “throne”? Let’s try to get better at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Bored? Hey, let’s nail the billion point shot in Bride of Pin*Bot. Good game design trumps eras, and that’s proven by these timeless classics.
It’s a shame that the ineffectiveness of both Sony and Microsoft have hindered the console versions of these games so badly; their obtuse and counterproductive update process have made those games inferior to their portable brothers. Regardless, no matter which system one chooses to play this on, The Pinball Arcade is a brilliant way to relieve an era of arcade gaming that is just about dead.
“Don’t release new IPs”, beancounters like to say. They don’t make money! No one buys them! If you do it, make sure it’s a franchise that you can milk! Don’t put energy into new IP, just keep releasing sequels that are guaranteed to sell!
Boy, did Bethesda shove THAT down everyone’s throats.
On paper, Dishonored has the makings of a good, not great, game. The story itself isn’t anything otherworld: a loyal servant gets framed for the murder of an empress, falls in with a rebel group taking on a corrupt government, gains supernatural powers, and reaches out for revenge and to capture the dead Empress’s young daughter. A competent backstory, but not exactly Xenogears.
Then the game’s morality system comes into play.
I’m not the type of person who typically likes stealth games. I don’t play video games to sit on my ass, not making a sound, and waiting for patterns to emerge, especially since most stealth games require stealth because the player’s avatar is unequipped for regular combat. I’m the kind of person who plays Metal Gear Solid with Gameshark codes. So it surprised me when I was able to attune myself to the stealth gameplay in Dishonored so well. Not only was I able to play it, but I had weaponry for when things fell apart. Of course, this is one of the few “stealth” games where the word is taken to its logical extreme; this is the rare game where it’s possible to beat the game with no fatalities. The only other games I can think of that do this are Fallout and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
This plays into the morality system of the game. Simply put, the more people you kill, the more the game changes. Every death has splash damage; kill too many people and more pacifistic characters will not be kind to you, or even betray you. More rats will infest the sewers. More people will be diseased. The murder of people might make the game easier, but it asks its own question of weather the ends justify the means. Most impressive is how open-ended the game integrates this system. Most games have a point system of sorts, where you know that X amount of people dead means Y amount of chaos. There’s no hard and fast metric I can find in Dishonored, which means that no one game is ever truly the same.
Dishonored bucked a lot of trends in 2012, and in the process, made what I feel to be the best game of the year.
I didn’t do a top 10 in 2011, but in 2010, I called it the Year of the Indie, because of the proliferation of top quality games that weren’t being put out by major publishers with major budgets. Thinking back, I think I was naive. THIS is the Year of the Indie; lower-budget games like Journey and Fez got legitimate game of the year buzz. The Walking Dead, according to a comprehensive collective done by Destructoid, was the consensus Game of the Year. My own list is half filled with what I would personally define as “indie” games (counting the SCE published Journey). Including that, AAA games have become such a risky proposition that they’re almost pricing themselves out of their own market, requiring more and more money to get the most out of them, and giving less and less in terms of new experiences. The real innovation has always been in the indie sphere, and thanks to a few converging circumstances – the increasing ubiquity of digitally distributed games, the power of Steam and other digital storefronts, a more cost-conscious gamer and the maturation of mobile gaming – they finally have the tools to play on a more even field when going against the big guys of the industry.
I’ve been jaded for years – it’s always been part of my writing style – but this is the first time I’ve gone into a year and said I was outright excited for what was in store.
1 – Honourable mention goes to Sine Mora, Trials: Evolution, and Persona 4: Arena