Unlike last year, there weren’t a whole lot of games in 2012 that I was actively looking forward to. Because of this I ended up branching out a bit and trying some games I may not normally have spent the time or money on. The result is a top 5 list that is fairly diverse. Before we get into the list, though, a few disclaimers: this list is not definitive as there are a few high profile games that I have not played yet, most notably Journey, Fez, and Far Cry 3. Also, as far as runners up go the only other game that I gave any serious consideration for including on this list was Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. In the end, though, I realized that that game worked so well for me because it hit a lot of very specific buttons (i.e. being an old-school Platformer filled with classic Disney nostalgia) that allowed me to overlook some of its more glaring problems.
So, without further ado, here are the Top 5 Video Games of 2012:
I gave this one a fair bit of thought before deciding whether or not to include it on the list. Dishonored is, unfortunately, a lot of great setups that lead to some pretty lackluster payoffs. The game establishes a really rich world with an interesting history and lore, and then proceeds to ignore all of it when it comes to the main story of the game reducing it to empty texture. The story starts out fairly compelling, but then resorts to an overly obvious twist and finishes with a completely bland ending. While Dishonored is a fun game it has the unfortunate quality of being obviously inspired by other, better games without doing enough to establish itself as something uniquely essential. All that being said, giving it some thought, I did legitimately enjoy the game quite a bit. Despite ending on kind of a sour note, it is extremely fun for most of its duration. As someone who is a fan of stealth games I’m very happy to see one being made with this much promise, even if it doesn’t completely follow through with it.
The combination of traditional weapons with the magic abilities unlocked through the game created a fun sandbox allowing a lot of interesting potential ways to move around the environment and stealthily take out enemies (or not, if you prefer the “go in guns blazing” method). Even something as simple as the “Blink” ability (which allows you to move rapidly over a short distance, even bridging gaps) completely changes the dynamic, making it different from most other stealth games. And Blink is merely the first ability you acquire, there’s so many options that allow the player to tackle situations in a very personal way, it’s just a shame that there wasn’t the same level of creativity when it came to shaping the story. In my opinion, arguably the best thing about Dishonored is the potential it sets up for future entries in the series. I hope that as Arkane Studios is developing Dishonored 2 they incorporate more elements of the lore directly into the story and create an experience that builds to a solid conclusion rather than starting strong and sputtering out at the end.
This one seems to have caught a lot of people by surprise, and I was certainly among them. At a glance it looks like a generic modern military shooter; yet another Call of Duty knock-off in an industry that’s already disgustingly over-saturated with “grim ‘n’ gritty” dirt covered machismo. In reality, though, Spec Ops: The Line is anything but generic. The guys over at Extra Credits give a better pitch for this game than I ever could, but suffice it to say this is a game that deals with themes of war, emotional trauma, and the very nature of why we play video games in a way that is by far more mature, nuanced, and often unsettling than anything most other shooters dare throw at the player. It’s by no means a perfect game, there are a few minor pacing issues, and there’s a bit of narrative trickery that doesn’t completely hold up to scrutiny, but in the end, these amount to fairly minor nitpicks as this game has something legitimately interesting to say and doesn’t pull any punches in the way it goes about saying it. Hats off to you, Yager.
Unfortunately I have a feeling that the legacy of Mass Effect 3 will be mostly focused on the controversy over the ending, which is really a shame because regardless of whether you loved or hated the ending there’s a whole lot more that is worth talking about. The Mass Effect trilogy was a hugely ambitious project; a grand space epic set in a massive science fiction universe with a deep and intricate history in which the choices you make shape the experience across three games and easily 120 hours or more of gameplay. It’s a landmark accomplishment for the medium of video games and stands as a testament to the potential of interactive media. The first two games were both incredible works with Mass Effect 2 arguably holding the title of my personal favorite game of all time, and, for all intents and purposes, Mass Effect 3 sticks the landing.
The gameplay is the tightest it has ever been in the series, the scale is immense, and the characters that you’ve grown to care about deeply over the past two games reach the conclusion of their arcs in this final installment. The result runs the gamut of emotions. The story, in my opinion, doesn’t nail it on the same level as ME2, and there’s certain characters that I wish had come into play in a more significant capacity, but even as a criticism, those kind of speak to the levels of success BioWare achieved with the Mass Effect series. I’m not going to talk about the ending here because that’s already been discussed to death, but the bottom line is, when a game is this good it’s not worth throwing 40 hours of the baby out with just 10 minutes of bathwater.
A year ago I would have told you that I have just about zero interest in playing a Turn-Based Strategy game adapted from an all-but forgotten ’90s classic. And when I say this, it’s not just a cute cliché, I literally mean that a year ago as a moderator on the 2K Games Forums where the only movement in terms of XCOM was an oft-delayed and much maligned First Person Shooter reboot, I would have flat out told you that I would rather have the shooter reboot than a new TBS. Now, before you drag me away with your torches and pitchforks, let me be the first to admit that I have seen the error of my ways. Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is fantastically made, brutally difficult, scarily addicting, and also one of the most fun games I have played in a long time.
I’m hard pressed to tell you definitively which I enjoy more, sending my squad out into the field to battle the alien invaders (and probably lose some soldiers along the way) or managing resources and researching upgrades back at XCOM HQ. It’s incredibly impressive to me that Firaxis has made what would normally be “the boring part” of the game arguably as much fun as “the fun part.” And I tell you what, there’s nothing like the mournful ache you get when a promising new soldier who has been with you for a few missions gets gunned down by a Muton, or when your star soldier gets mind controlled by a Sectoid Commander and starts wiping out all the rookies on your squad. I still would like to see the FPS XCOM eventually come to be a reality, because it sounded like 2K Marin had some interesting plans for it, but sadly I fear that one has slipped away quietly in the night. I guess I’ll just have to make due with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which shouldn’t be too hard because it’s absolutely one of the best games of the year.
I did not see this one coming. In the past I’ve had about the same reaction to game developer Telltale Games as I have to anything with the title “The Walking Dead,” namely general lack of interest. I do like Point-and-Click Adventure games quite a bit, but the Sam & Max games have never really done anything for me, and even Telltale’s Back to the Future game was one of those cases of “fun, but not fun enough to buy the rest of the series”. As for AMC’s The Walking Dead, I watched the pilot, and it was fine, but it didn’t hook me. I was content to move on with my life and not add another show to my routine. So, as you can imagine, when I heard about Telltale Games developing a game based on The Walking Dead (the comic books, not the show) my response was a polite “I’ll pass.” How could I have known what I was missing?
In November, just prior to the release of the fifth and final episode of The Walking Dead, Devin Faraci of Badass Digest wrote an article about the game that persuaded me to give it a look, and after playing through the first episode I was hooked.
The Walking Dead is the best written game narrative I have ever experienced. The characters are all fully realized and establish a strong emotional bond with the player, including Lee, the player character. I honestly don’t think there has ever been a time when I’ve felt such a strong emotional connection with the player character in a video game. The supporting characters, yes. I’ve fallen in love with plenty of supporting characters in games, but the player character is typically just an avatar; often nothing more than a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto. Occasionally you’ll get a fully realized player character, someone like Cole Phelps, Nathan Drake, or John Marston, but in a lot of cases their character exists primarily outside of the realms of gameplay and is developed through cutscenes and non-interactive dialogue. Even John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, who would have easily been my favorite game protagonist before this, can’t hold a candle to The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett. Lee was a character who was shaped by my decisions, but still felt like an individual person who existed beyond my input. It’s a hard thing to describe, but the results were incredible! Lee isn’t just a Commander Shepard who is little more than a virtual puppet, yet Lee’s character is fully defined through interactivity, not through cutscenes. The rest of the cast of characters is great as well: Kenny, Duck, Lilly, Ben, Omid, Christa, Doug; these were all people that I cared deeply about, even when we didn’t always see eye to eye. Even they, though, pale in comparison to one of the elements that truly makesThe Walking Dead shine, and that is a 9 year old girl by the name of Clementine.
Clementine is the heart and soul of The Walking Dead, and her relationship with Lee is both life-affirming and heart breaking. I cared so much about Clem, and not just her physical safety, but also her emotional well being. What do you say to a little girl whose parents are missing and most likely dead in a world where everything has gone to hell? Do you crush any hope she has that her parents might still be alive or do you lie to her, trying to help her hold onto the hope that she has? This is the strength of The Walking Dead a game where choice doesn’t just boil down to a “badness level,” but dynamically affects the world and characters around you as a natural result of your actions. This is not a game with clearly labeled “good” and “evil” choices, instead, this is a game that gives you mere moments to choose between situations that are all unideal. This is a game that makes you evaluate what your priorities are in a mature and nuanced way. This is a game that allows you to see the consequences of your actions without resorting to over-the-top clichés of heroes and villains. This is a game that will affect you deeply on an emotional level, and this is one of the best games ever made.