10. Mass Effect 3 – Bioware – 03/06/12 (PC)
The culmination of five years of waiting with an expectation level so high that it would almost be impossible for any game to meet. Mass Effect 3 and more importantly the Mass Effect series is ultimately about the journey and I feel that my journey was one of the best I have ever had playing video games. That being said I would be remiss not to mention a few of the mistakes made by Bioware. The first and most glaringly being the pitiful ending to what could have been a fantastic finale to a fantastic series. Another poor decision is the day one DLC that featured one of the most interesting characters and additions to the story that would be omitted if a player didn’t want to spend more money after purchasing the game. Mass Effect 3 did feature great wrap ups of some of my most beloved characters and storylines of the series including the Geth, Quarians and Genophage and while the ending was disappointing it didn’t ruin the dozens of hours that I enjoyed playing this game leading up to it.
9. Legend of Grimrock – Almost Human LTD – 04/11/12 (PC)
Another difficult game on my list, Legend of Grimrock, evokes memories for me of playing dungeon-crawling action role-playing games of my youth such as Eye of the Beholder, Wizardry, Dungeon Master or Ultima Underworld. The puzzles are challenging, rewarding and interesting and a lot of them are also optional. The combat can be simplistic at times but it can also be challenging and downright difficult to survive. Ultimately I feel Legend of Grimrock is what you put into it and given the time and exploration is a fun and interesting indie RPG.
8. FTL: Faster Than Light – Subset Games – 09/14/12 (PC)
FTL is a real time strategy game created by Subset Games that was also a Kickstarter campaign. I mention that simply because in a year where Kickstarter gained so much prominence it is a relief to many backers to see a successful project be completed. A difficult game to be sure but also one of the most rewarding games of this year. You pilot a single spaceship with critical information for the Federation that you must deliver to the Federation Base by traveling through the galaxy and fending off Rebels, aliens and pirates along the way all before the Rebels destroy you or your base. As you play through the game and feel secure in your ships chances to defeat the Rebels, amongst various other encounters you face, you will suddenly find yourself watching helplessly as everything goes wrong and you and your crew are destroyed. “Well, that sucked, if only I had done X differently. Let me try that again.” That sentence was a constant refrain after each play through for me, but amazingly the difficulty and struggles serve a purpose because when you do get it right you truly feel like the savior of the Federation.
7. Hotline Miami – Dennaton Games – 10/23/12 (PC)
Hotline Miami features the best soundtrack of any game I played this year. I have listened to the album a dozen times since finishing this quick and incredibly challenging indie game and will probably listen a dozen more times. Set in the 1980’s you play as a man who is slowly losing his sanity and as you murder each room of thugs violently you may find yourself starting to question whether you should be enjoying the violence as much as you do. The 80’s sounding dance music thumping in the background fuels your determination to clear each level, and since you will fail, you will be “clearing” a lot of people. I haven’t found myself repeating levels while simultaneously being frustrated and thrilled like I was in Hotline Miami since Super Meat Boy. Hotline Miami is intense, visceral and is altogether one of my favorite games of the year.
6. Mark of the Ninja – Klei Entertainment – 10/16/12 (PC)
I am not a fan of stealth games, typically. In games like Splinter Cell I tend to get frustrated and impatient trying to be stealthy. I usually start out thinking I will be a stealthy assassin and wind up opting for the action oriented route, which in some games can be just as fun, however I want to feel like that stealth ninja. The majority of the time my frustration stems from a lack of peripheral vision and awareness that I often find lacking in this genre. This year I played two games that eliminated the frustration for me, Dishonored and Mark of the Ninja. Mark of the Ninja is the best stealth game I have ever played. The mechanics Klei introduces to let me be the stealth ninja that I’ve always wanted to be is the reason why. You witness footfalls, you can take out lights with ease, you can distract and take down, you will feel like a ninja. While the story is engaging, ultimately strategizing and executing a plan of action in a room full of guards is so rewarding the story becomes a side note. The scoring system adds a level of replay value and challenge that is welcome. Truthfully the fact that I want to replay it at all is new to me for this genre.
5. Fez – Polytron – 04/13/12 (Xbox 360)
I was anxious for Fez to be released this year and after so many awards and delays I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew it would be interesting. What Fez ended up being was one of the most complex and enigmatic games of the year. I don’t think that this game would have worked five or maybe even three years ago. The sense of community in solving some of the more difficult puzzles is a product of the age we live in. The first time I had to whip out my smartphone to scan a QR code to solve a puzzle I knew that this was something different and exciting. The soundtrack was my favorite gaming soundtrack until Hotline Miami came along but it is still listened to close to eight months later in my morning runs. Polytron has announced that they will be releasing Fez on other platforms and I hope that includes the PC as I sold my Xbox 360 earlier this year and I am looking forward to playing it again.
For a more fully featured review please see my Fez review from earlier this year.
4. Far Cry 3 – Ubisoft Montreal – 12/4/12 (PC)
Far Cry 3 was a game I anticipated all year, not because I knew it would be great but because I was concerned that what was once one of my favorite open world shooters was going to continue on a decline. I could not have been more wrong as Far Cry 3 ended up being in my top five this year. A few complaints to start. While the opening missions are some of the best I have played in a while the end is very weak and doesn’t help to solidify the story in any way. Speaking of which, it doesn’t take long to realize that the store is another Mighty Whitey story. Still, while the narrative is lacking the gameplay excels. Running around on the jungle floor and fighting tigers, leopards and bears is downright entertaining. Ubisoft Montreal also manages to make to attacking enemy encampments with the stealth of an assassin or burning it down like Rambo equally fun. It is a vast playground in which you get to explore and conquer to your hearts content. Chaining take downs followed by zip-lining across gorges and setting buildings on fire are just a small example of some of the mayhem you can cause. Amidst all this chaos you will notice that it is one of the best looking games of the year as well. A Jurassic Park mod is supposedly on the way as well. Clever girl.
3. Journey – Thatgamecompany – 03/13/12 (PS3)
I don’t own a Playstation 3 but I seriously considered the purchase of one this year for the latest release from Thatgamecompany. Journey is one of the best video game experiences I have ever had and it is also the most unique. You play as a robed figure in a desert and when you begin you will notice a large mountain in the distance, this mountain serves as the ultimate destination for the game. The journey to the mountain is split into multiple sections with differing terrains, lighting and experiences. As you play, a scarf that your robed protagonist is wearing will grow allowing you to float for longer periods of time which helps you navigate different obstacles. You will meet another robed figure on the same quest as you to reach this tall mountain. One of the key elements to the success of this game is the interaction you will have with this other player character. There is no dialog, no voice chat, no chat at all except for a single ping that can be sent between you and your partner. The two of you can work together to reach goals as your proximity to the other player recharges your scarf allowing you to float and sometimes seemingly fly. I don’t want to spoil anything else about the game as I think the meaning and emotion felt is only achievable by actually playing through it. Journey evoked emotions I have never really felt during a video game and I have heard comparisons to non-denominational religious experiences and while I can honestly say I have never had a religious experience I can understand the comparison. The art is breathtaking, the music is haunting and the meaning I derived from it will leave me with memories for years to come. As an example Journey Stories is a Tumblr blog that allows people to share their stories and experiences with Journey.
Special thanks to David Morrison for letting me borrow his PS3 to play Journey.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Firaxis Games – 10/09/12 (PC)
In a year of difficult and rewarding games XCOM stood above the rest in both categories. Playing on Classic Ironman or even normal can be a challenge. Firaxis knocked this 1994 remake of XCOM: UFO Defense out of the park. Unsurprisingly the makers of the Civilization series know how to make a turn based strategy game but what is surprising is the accessibility they were able to achieve for newcomers to the genre. This is done through a comprehensive and exceptionally well done tutorial that leads right into the game so well you’ll barely notice they were holding your hand. The one-more-turn experience is very much alive in XCOM but with a twist. A new technology or weapon you are waiting on, a satellite you absolutely need in order to keep a country from leaving the XCOM project are going to be interrupted by small form tactical battles that inevitably lead to more panic across the globe negating work done on previous excursions. This is simultaneously frustrating and thrilling. The strategy elements of the overlying “ant farm” and the tactical elements of the combat against the invading aliens are so superbly done that a lot of other games in the genre could take note of either aspect and benefit from it. As I said in my look ahead to the video game season, one final word, Firaxis.
1. The Walking Dead – Telltale Games – Episodically 4/24, 6/29, 8/29, 10/10, 11/21 (PC)
What an incredible year. 2012 saw the revival of strategy games, the further rise of indie and downloadable games and in my opinion the best game of the year, an episodic adventure game, a long thought dead genre. The Walking Dead did what I thought was impossible, it took licensed content and not only made it as good as the source but in a lot of ways it made it better. Robert Kirkman’s comic is all about life around zombies and the influence a world changing event like the zombie apocalypse has on people, playing as a character in his universe brings a new level of intensity and understanding of this nightmare. The ultimate success of Telltale Games release this year is Lee and Clementine’s relationship. The choices you make as Lee impact the story, the events that take place and ultimately how you feel about yourself after the dust has settled. The places the game is willing to go to tell a great story and the attachment you feel to the characters is not an accident. I have heard there are a few issues with bugs, but I didn’t encounter any so I can’t comment on how that would effect an otherwise superb game. There are moments in this game that I didn’t know a video game or any media for that matter could take me emotionally and I am very excited for season two.
1. Diablo 3
3. Max Payne 3
4. Rayman Jungle Run
5. Spec Ops: The Line
Games I Didn’t Get Time To Play That Probably Would Have Made This List:
1. Sleeping Dogs
2. Halo 4
Assassin’s Creed III