2012 was a suprising year: It didn’t have showstopping AAA titles that reinvented the wheel, and the most high-profile titles ended up either not hitting all the right notes (Dishonored) or downright disappointing a large majority of fans (Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3). What we DID get in 2012, was a resurgence of the simple: Games that dedicated themselves solely to one style of experience, and pulled it off with grace and pinpoint accuracy. It wasn’t so much a year for innovation, as it was for renovation, and sometimes that’s exactly what is needed in an industry in the midst of change.
With that being said, it’s my pleasure to show you all which games I thought really stood out from the rest, and should be on your ‘Must Buy’ list, no matter your gaming taste. My Top 5 video is above, but below is the full Top 10 list, so I recommend viewing both! Let’s take a look at my Top 10 Games of 2012!
[10.] DARKSIDERS 2
Darksiders as a franchise is a wildcard for me. The first played like a Zelda homage, and while it did so with style, it also didn’t quite capture the magic that Zelda’s had from the beginning. With Darksiders 2, they’ve slowly gone away from the pure knock-off style of development, and took bits from Zelda, the newer Prince of Persia titles, and even Diablo to make a game that can be greater than the sum of its parts. I didn’t really get into the lore with the first Darksiders, but something about the presentation with this one really grabbed me. The more expansive world and puzzle solving really clicked with me, and I can’t say I didn’t feel giddy when I’d find a treasure chest, even if what was inside didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
The combat feels much improved in Darksiders 2, and it feels like the design team finally realized how to build boss encounters around the gameplay structures, not the other way around. I always felt in control of Death, and even though the camera angles didn’t always agree with me, I never once felt like the game cheated me out of a jump, or a precise kill. The art direction is still a little hokey for my tastes, but the cohesive direction they’ve taken the designs really made the world feel alive, and into a place I wanted to explore.
All-in-all, I enjoyed Darksiders 2 much more than the first one, and it had to do with design: Everything felt more ‘together’, and while the loot system was pointless, it did fuel me with some incentive as I made my way through the world. With THQ sadly in a bad way lately, you’ll probably be able to the pick the game up for a decent price, and I’d highly recommend giving it a shot.
[9.] LEGO LORD OF THE RINGS
I’ll say it, I’m a huge Tolkien fan. I re-read Lord of the Rings every year, I own multiple copies of every Tolkien book, and my daughter’s middle name is Shire. To say I love Middle Earth is a slight understatement, and hearing that LEGO was going to make a Lord of the Rings game, I was filled with both excitement and dread. With the recent release of The Hobbit, are they just trying for a quick cashgrab? What if they don’t really ‘know’ the source material? I’m pleased to say that LEGO Lord of the Rings continues the same great tradition of other LEGO titles: They get it. They nailed it. They love the source material the same way I do, and it’s much appreciated.
In proper LEGO fashion, the actors onscreen pantomime actions that take place throughout the book (well, more like the films) with some funny inside jokes and genuinely creative takes on the source material. The one thing that really worried me, though, is the fact that LEGO Lord of the Rings used the actual voiceover work from the films. I was worried it would take away something, as the great thing about LEGO titles is that classic pantomime, deadpan humor, but I’m relieved to say it actually adds to the experience. The story is as in-depth as it is in the films, and while the Tolkien fan in me would’ve loved to see more inside jokes from the appendices, what we get here is in no way lacking in content, or context.
The world feels open, as you venture forth with the Fellowship throughout all three installments of the LOTR trilogy. Each character becomes unlocked as the story goes, and each character feels valuable for the journey: Aragorn has agile sword wings, Legolas can shoot arrows at far-off targets to unlock secret areas, and Gimli can destroy certain barriers in the way. Samwise can start small campfires and plant flowers (Tolkien geek trivia: Samwise, after Lord of the Rings ends, is honored with the last name ‘Gardner’, his family tree taking the name ‘Gardner of the Hill’. That’s my last name!), which is something I truly love. The map is extremely large compared to other LEGO games, and you can spend dozens of hours frolicking Middle Earth in order to unlock everything in the game.
It’s the small attentions to details that really make these games shine, and LEGO Lord of the Rings is no different. It may not be in everyone’s list, but it absolutely earned a top spot in mine. A great, great tribute to a very dear part of my life.
[8.] FINAL FANTASY XIII-2
Talk about a shocker.
My total disdain for the original Final Fantasy XIII nearly made me forget the Final Fantasy brand existed. The overlong cutscenes, the literal straight-line maps, the lack of any sort of towns or shops, the overbearing melodrama, and the 30 hour tutorial definitely made me rage (I bought the game at launch, sold it a few weeks later, rebought the game a year later, only to sell it AGAIN within a week). The early impressions coming from message boards on Final Fantasy XIII-2 seemed to be a change of pace, but I was still skeptical. It seemed as if SquareEnix had learned from its mistakes, or at least changed enough about the presentation to warrant a look at this sequel. I’m glad I did, because it really clicked with me, even if the game still has its fair share of problems.
Instead of a fully on-rails, straight-line map presentation, you’re given room to explore each area, with multiple passageways and side paths that reward you with items, exposition, or both. Towns were also brought back, and it’s amazing what a group of NPCs and questgivers can do in relation to how ‘alive’ your world feels. No longer did I feel like I was stuck on a never-ending melodramatic railroad track, but I actually had options on which quests to do, and how to handle the task of opening time travel gates. Oh, yeah, this game has time travel! While it’s presented in a somewhat silly way, the time travel mechanic actually helps the game’s design, as the backtracking and broken narrative actually have a purpose, instead of being force-fed to you without your consent. The ending is definitely a groaner (it’s a literal ‘To Be Continued’), but the updated battle system, the more coherent world, the rewarding pet battle system, and the overall solid feel of the mechanics make Final Fantasy XIII-2 a wonderful experience, if a bit niche for some people’s taste.
[7.] POKEMON BLACK/WHITE 2
I’ve been a Pokemaniac since the very beginning in 1998. I remember trading Pokemon in the cafeteria or after school on the bus, when I should’ve been focusing on shooting spitwads or flirting with girls. While I loved the franchise over the years, I really hadn’t fell back onto the bandwagon very hard since getting a Nintendo DS. That all changed with Pokemon Black and White 2, what I’ve come to hold as not only my favorite Pokemon game, but a stellar RPG no matter what your gaming tastes.
The base mechanics are the same, and if you’re not a fan of the tried-and-true Pokemon gameplay stylings, Black and White 2 won’t change your mind. However, if you’ve never played a Pokemon game (GASP) or fell off the bandwagon for many years, Black and White 2 is the perfect place to pick back up: The amount of content is unreal, and to fully complete the game, you’re looking at well over 100 hours. Easily.
The locales are creative, the translation is great, and the Pokemon are pretty fantastic. Sure, they’ll never live up to the original 150+ in my mind, but these are no slouches. The game truly has something for everyone, from the OCD ‘gotta collect the most rare Pokemon’ guy (me) to the guy that loves endgame content (me), to the person that adores doing sidequests and silly things off the beaten path (me!). It’s more of the same, sure, but it’s refined, amped up, and multiplied to a degree that is awe-inspiring. Like I said before, not only is it my favorite Pokemon title, it may be my favorite handheld game ever.
[6.] ENDLESS SPACE
If you read my Honorable Mentions list this year, you’ve already seen one space strategy game getting its dues, so why is Endless Space, a more in-depth, hardcore strategy game, filling a spot in the top games list? Because it’s incredible, that’s why. While Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion may be a great entry point into this genre, Endless Space is a love-letter to the more dedicated strategy gamer: If you’ve played Imperium Galactica, Galactic Civilizations, Masters of Orion, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Space Emires, or Sword of the Stars, you’ll feel right at home here. If you haven’t, here’s why you should take notice: Replayability. This game is limitless in its shelf life, and you’ll have as much fun learning how to play today as you will ten years from now when you play your 10,000th session ‘just for old times sake’.
Endless Space brings the classic gameplay from the early ‘90s 4x strategy golden era, and brings it into the here and now. Every bit of information is at your fingertips, you can automate as much micromanagement (taxes, harvesting, chain of command, etc) as you’d like, or you can really dig in, and spend every single turn fine-tuning your mighty empire. Certain specifics from older titles (planetary population management, for instance) have gone through an overhaul, and takes up a tenth of the time it would normally take, leaving you more time to focus on the MASSIVE tech trees, or the small minutiae of economics.
The only thing I would give Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion the advantage on is the combat. Instead of Sins’ realtime combat, Endless Space is set up like a rock-paper-scissors match, number crunching your fleet’s various qualities against your opponents, having the best man win. The battles are passive, and it’s almost like watching an awesome battle scene from Babylon 5, but I wish you could take direct control of units. No matter, every other aspect of Endless Space is top notch, and should be experienced firsthand. It’s a daunting game to get into, but if you’re brand new to the Space 4x genre, and want something current that also values the history of its predecessors, Endless Space is your game.
[5.] MARK OF THE NINJA
Stealth games are either adored or reviled, depending on your taste. While I love Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (the only TRUE Splinter Cell), I despise games that shoehorn stealth sections into otherwise non-stealth games: It’s not that they don’t necessarily fit the narrative, it’s that game designers very rarely get stealth gameplay correct. Mark of the Ninja, then, should be viewed as the stealth game master class of sorts, as not only is the stealth handled extraordinarily well, it’s handled so well that the entire game consists of it.
Part action game, part puzzle game, and part score-based leaderboard game, Mark of the Ninja nails everything I love about this genre: The creeping sensation that you’re aware of your surroundings while your enemies aren’t. The knowledge that you have someone’s fate in your hands, and at the twitch of a nostril, could decide if the unknowing victim lives or dies. The thrill of knowing that you can have a kill perfectly lined up, then something goes wrong, leaving you scurrying for your very life. Mark of the Ninja rewards all of these traits, with multi-tiered levels with TONS of entry and exit points, giving you full access to avoid, or destroy, your targets.
Throughout Mark of the Ninja, I was constantly reminded of the fantastic multiplayer mode from Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. In that game, two players would team up as spies (more like ninjas), while two other players would play armed mercenaries, keeping their eye on valuable items, making sure the spies don’t capture the objectives. Mark of the Ninja takes the thrill of that mode, and condenses it into bite-size chunks of single player, story-driven gameplay. It’s a true treat of a game, and out of all the titles on my list, Mark of the Ninja is easily the most perfect in regards to responsive controls, and main gameplay functionality. A perfect stealth game? Why I never!
[4.] GUILD WARS 2
It was called the ‘savior of the MMO’ before its release, and while I don’t think it quite hits that mark, I think Guild Wars 2 offers something that many MMOs lack: Fun gameplay. In my World of Warcraft vs. Guild Wars 2 articles, I compared both games in multiple ways, going in-depth in gameplay mechanics, lore, and overall presentation/execution. For those that haven’t read the articles, here’s a quick rundown:
Do you hate MMOs? Do you hate going to quest hubs, accepting quests, focusing on boring content that doesn’t feel like you truly have any involvement? Guild Wars 2 might be the cure for what ails you, as it’s the most action-packed, new-player-friendly MMO on the market by a substantial margin. While it wont be for every MMO player, Guild Wars 2 is a perfect introduction to the genre, hiding the staples of the MMO behind agility and skill-based action gameplay. Moving, dodging, and elevation are all key ingredients to a successful hero in Guild Wars 2, and you’ll truly live and die by the skill you have controlling your character.
There’s also an in-game trading house where you can put your wares up for others to buy, and even the Black Lion Trading Company, a way to purchase cosmetic items, xp boosts, and seasonal treats for your character. Guild Wars 2 has a wonderful sense of community, and the addition of ‘Dynamic Events’ acting as replacements for quests is a brilliant move, making the game much more, well, dynamic. Leveling doesn’t take forever, you get experience for EVERYTHING, and you can even join multiple guilds at a time, something unheard of in standard MMO fare.
It may not be the savior of the MMO genre, but it’s a damn fine game regardless. If you’re interested in online persistent worlds, solid action games with tons of content, or an MMO with absolutely no monthly fee, Guild Wars 2 is exactly what you’re looking for.
[3.] SLEEPING DOGS
After Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row The Third, I could’ve sworn the open-world crime game had done everything, but Sleeping Dogs showed me that both of those titles were lacking one thing: spirit. Sleeping Dogs is definitely one of my biggest surprises of the year, as I wasn’t expecting to love this game as much as I do.
Call it my love of old John Woo classics like The Killer and Hard Boiled, call it my love of the Shaw Brothers, or call it my love of Bruce Lee films, but Hong Kong appeals to me in a way that few locales do, and Sleeping Dogs takes full advantage of that fact. The city may not be as huge as the cities in Saints Row The Third or GTAIV, but it feels more dense: The streets feel alive with neon lights, countless pedestrians, and even street meat vendors waiting to take your money for delicious treats. The city itself looks STUNNING, as this is definitely one of the most breathtaking games this generation. Hell, with the high-resolution texture pack and slick performance mods for the PC version, you’d swear next gen was already here, it’s that good.
The combat system is very similar to Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, relying on counters and environmental awareness in order to survive. Guns are few and far between in Sleeping Dogs, and a majority of your confrontations will happen with groups anywhere from 3 to 20 people. You’ll use mixed martial arts moves you learn from your sensei’s dojo, you’ll throw people into car trunks, and you'll bash faces against telephone booths. It’s brutal, rewarding, and all in a day’s work for Wei Shen.
The most telling thing about Sleeping Dogs for me, though, is the great storytelling. The voiceacting is the among the best of the year, and every story beat plays in the way it’s intended: If they’re telling a joke, you’ll crack a smile. If you were just betrayed by a comrade, you’ll seek revenge. It’s all genuine, and while the story doesn’t take any real heavy twists or turns, it’ll keep you captivated along the way, which is more than I could say for other games in this genre, even the high profile ones.
For what Sleeping Dogs lacks in huge cityscapes, expensive celebrity voice actors, or a AAA-blockbuster budget, it makes up for with soul. It’s great to see an open-world game with a confident stride, knowing what its boundaries are, and being comfortable in its own skin. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t try to be something it’s not, and for that, it should be commended. A true joy of a game.
[2.] XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN
This will be a ding against my PC gamer cred, but I didn’t really play a lot of XCOM back during its release. I tried the game, but being at the impressionable age of ‘this is hard, it sucks’,, me and XCOM didn’t get along. While I played other games in the style of XCOM (Jagged Alliance, Commandos, etc) and loved them, I never really got a feel for smashing through alien hordes with heavy weaponry and wit. Firaxis, I’m convinced, made XCOM: Enemy Unknown for me, and people like me: They take the addictive quality and ‘one more turn’ nature of Civilization and other turn-based strategy games, remove the overbearing difficulty while still keeping a challenge, and showcase the gameplay mechanics in a very dynamic, in-your-face style that begs to be explored.
Each part of XCOM is dependent on one another: Your abilities and skill in doing your missions will reward you for various items used for researching, or outfitting your squad. Researching technology and weapons can unlock various story missions, and definitely add some firepower to your squad. Your updated squad, then, can take on these new story missions, repeating the process seamlessly, and perform better within stricter conditions, rewarding you with more ingredients for higher tiers of research. It’s a constant reward cycle, and no matter what you’re doing, you’re making progress in every facet of the game.
Battles take place in an isometric plane, and consist of moving your squadmates across the playing field, taking cover and using situational awareness to your advantage. Lining up specific shots against enemies can be challenging, with barriers, cover, and debris blocking vantage points. No matter, though, as a few solid shots from an elevated sniper, or a spare grenade being thrown, can take care of everything in one fell swoop: That is, if it connects. Based on your stats, equipment, and position, you’re given a percentage of success, and it’s up to you to take your chances. 30% chance to hit from across the map? Take the shot if you dare, but don’t be surprised if it ends terribly. 95% chance to hit at point-blank? Odds are definitely in your favor, but in XCOM, nothing is guaranteed.
I’ve always wanted a PC version of Final Fantasy Tactics, and as odd as it sounds, XCOM fits the bill pretty handily. You customize your “job classes” with increasingly powerful weapons, focus on probability in the midst of position-based combat, and overcome seemingly more and more challenging scenarios, all while taking care of business off the battlefield, as well. I remember the reveal trailer for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and feeling cautiously optimistic. I’m happy to say that it easily surpassed any expectations I could have had, and it’s a game I’ll be loading up for many years to come.
[1.] THE WALKING DEAD
Narrative in videogames is always a heated topic. Many gamers love a good story, while other gamers could take it or leave it, as long as the gameplay is fun. Many of the greatest games of all-time have no real sense of storytelling, but really shine through mechanics and interaction. Saying that, what’s the next logical step for gaming to go? It seems we’re at a wash for new genres, and there’s been so many game releases over the past 40 years, it seems like all of the ideas have been used up. All of them, except one, it seems.
What would happen if you created a videogame where storytelling WAS the interaction? Would this be a conflict of interest to the player? The Walking Dead ask these questions, and in doing so, promotes a new wave of thought in the industry. The game is based off of Robert Kirkman’s compelling idea of having a zombie outbreak with no rhyme or reason, and the only thing people can do is adapt. Such a traumatic experience can change people, some for the better, and some for the worse. Why did the outbreak happen? Is there a cure? These aren’t the questions you should be asking, as they aren’t relevant. The proper questions, then, become much more sinister. Who can I trust? How can I surivive?
The Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure game with some updated interaction mechanics, in order to give a sense of tension to the player. Conversations happen throughout the majority of the game, and you have limited time to answer questions, or make comments on your surroundings. You’ll also be confronted with zombies, and your quick-reflexes will either save a life, or come with unimaginable costs. There are situations in the game that you really don’t want to be in, but that’s not your call: Shit happens, and how are you going to deal? Remember, every reaction you have affects the people around you, so if you show any signs of anger, remorse, or confusion, your comrades will follow suit.
Your choices encompass everything, and that’s the blessing and curse with The Walking Dead. While you play as an already created character of Lee, you feel more in-tune with Lee’s emotions than you ever will with someone like Gordon Freeman, Link, or any other ‘fill in your personality here’ characters. You can truly insert yourself into Lee’s shoes, as the writing is the best I’ve seen this generation. Everything from overarching narrative beats, to minor ‘Hey, here’s a candy bar’ remarks build upon one another, fully engrossing you in the actions and lives of these characters.
I know there’s a few readers out there that no doubt see a lot of hype for The Walking Dead, and jokingly insist that ‘The Walking Dead is not an actual videogame’, that it’s some sort of interactive fiction, or less-than offshoot of an adventure game formula, not worthy of a Game of the Year accolade, and you couldn’t be further from the truth. If you take a step back and see what The Walking Dead’s goals are, you’ll realize that there’s still game developers out there that are pushing the envelope, and aren’t taking no for an answer. The game uses conversations the same way Mario uses jumping. The Walking Dead promotes talking the same way Call of Duty promotes shooting. It’s a remedy for the ‘violence must solve every conflict’ trope that high-profile videogames have fallen victim to for decades.
The industry needs to take notice: The gamers of yesterday are now older, wiser, and more seasoned in life. We’ve become aware that violence happens in our society, but communication is tenfold more important. The world exists outside of this ‘I have a bigger gun’ action-movie videogame fairy tale, and the videogame industry needs to adapt to the changing environment. Talking solves problems, but it can also cause them, as well.
The Walking Dead tells us something. It’s up to us to listen.