December 27, 2012 by Daniel
I missed so many damn games this year. This is what happens when you let things accumulate into “to-do” lists – you lose your ability to play a lot of new stuff that you really want to check out. I could create an entirely separate list of games that I missed this year, either because I don’t have the hardware necessary to play them (Journey, Tokyo Jungle), I lost the ability to rent games (Spec Ops: The Line, Persona 4 Arena), or because I just didn’t have enough damn time (McPixel, Torchlight 2, The Darkness II, Darksiders 2, Hitman: Absolution, and most grievously, frickin’ XCOM). With that being said, here are the best ten games I played this year.
Top 10 Video Games of 2012
Maybe it was just the very idea of turning a beloved strategy game into a first-person shooter that made this version of Syndicate sell so poorly and review so middlingly, but as someone with no connection to the original game, I don’t care about the genre-switch. What I do care about is that Syndicate is a shooter with some really interesting ideas, a well-realized (if a bit unexplored) world full of sleazy characters, and developer Starbreeze’s classic devotion to the first-person perspective. It also has a really fun online co-op mode that really makes it feel like you and your friends are a squad of super-agents each with their own special powers. Syndicate isn’t by any means a perfect game – in fact, in many ways it’s deeply flawed – but its got a bunch of unique gameplay concepts and the fact that it didn’t sell well enough for there to be a better-made sequel makes me a very sad man.
You know those parts in Star Trek where the Enterprise is under attack and all Picard can do is yell instructions to the rest of the ship referring to futuristic-sounding spaceship instruments? That’s what this game feels like – it’s chaotic and loud and crazy, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. What makes it work is that it’s easy to learn and a concept that most everybody intuitively “gets” once they start playing. It’s a party game through-and-through, preferably played with a couple drinks in you, and it’s something that I try to make everyone play at basically every party I’ve gone to in the weeks since I discovered it. Oh, it’s also free on the app store, so you have no excuse not to go ahead and start a Spaceteam of your own.
8. Diablo III
Like number 10 up there, I never played Diablo when I was younger. But the first Torchlight game made me fully understand the appeal of the Diablo-style loot game, and once I saw how snappy the combat was in Diablo III, I was hooked. I may not love the lore or too-serious atmosphere of the game, but between its streamlined leveling system, its awesome selection of unique classes, the constant support developer Blizzard have been giving it, and its ability to make you say go just one dungeon farther in the wee hours of the night made it one of my favourite experiences of the year – and one that I felt the need to go back to more than six months after I got it.
7. Frog Fractions
I only played this game two days ago. It’s a browser-based Flash game that only really takes about a half an hour to get through. It is completely, gloriously, mind-blowingly insane, and if you pay attention it actually has a fair amount to say about the stagnant nature of genres within our entertainment. I don’t want to say too much about it, because it’s better experienced – all that I’ll tell you is that it is more than it seems. Just take some time out of your day, go here, and play the damn thing.
6. Asura’s Wrath
Speaking of pure insanity, here’s CyberConnect2’s insanely over-the-top, anime-influenced 10-hour-long quick-time-event game Asura’s Wrath. This description may sound totally reprehensible to you, and even as someone who likes anime from time-to-time, in its first few hours I found it boring and kind of terrible. But it pulls it all together once the titular character fights an old mentor and he sends an extending sword THROUGH THE GODDAMNED EARTH. The level of absurdity that this game operates on is truly a sight to behold, and through some interesting late-game interface experimentation, it actually ends up validating its own hands-off gameplay systems. On top of that, the uniquely stylized world which mashes up a sci-fi anime aesthetic with religious Indian visual themes is a marvel to look at, and while you need to pay 8 bucks to get the game’s true ending – a ridiculous notion that I don’t, by any means, support – the plot ends up paying off big. There just isn’t really any other game like Asura’s Wrath, and there probably won’t be for quite some time.
5. Mass Effect 3
I try not to get into pre-release hype for games, preferring to wait things out and see some reviews before I actually get excited about anything. But when I played through Mass Effect 2 and it became one of my favourite games of all-time, every day waiting for the release date of third and final installment of the sci-fi action-RPG trilogy – my 21st birthday, coincidentally – got more and more excruciating. Luckily, Mass Effect 3 delivers on almost everything it promised: the action is faster and almost matches today’s best third-person shooters; conflicts that have been coming to a head throughout the trilogy finally get resolved; and old characters’ arcs are finished in very satisfying fashion. A lot of people took umbrage with the game’s ending – something I can understand even if I don’t entirely agree – but in truth the entirety of Mass Effect 3 IS the ending to the trilogy, and while it may not be the best entry in the series, with some dumb design choices here and there, it’s still a fantastic send-off to the most memorable universe I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
Ah, Fez – another game that is not quite what it seems. Fez looks like an aesthetically-pleasing indie platformer with one neat gameplay mechanic, and for a while, that’s exactly what it is. But the game busts wide open once you notice its true nature – a fiendish, cryptic puzzle-solving game just begging you to reveal its inner mysteries. It’s a testament to the game’s brilliance that I knew too much about it going in and cheated a fair amount to get through it, but was still absolutely spellbound by the sheer lunacy of the things creator Phil Fish had the cajones to do with Fez. It’s the kind of obsession-creating game that you think about when you’re away from it, and that ability to drill itself into the deepest recesses of your brain is what makes it place so highly on this list.
3. Mark of the Ninja
In a pure gameplay sense, Mark of the Ninja might be the best game this year. Its 2D stealth-system is so well-balanced, so immensely satisfying, so straight-up fair to the player that I strain to find a game that I had as much fun sitting down and playing as this one. I’ve always liked the tense action of stealth games in theory, but it’s a genre that rarely ever makes good on its promises for me. By contrast, the quick-moving action of Mark of the Ninja makes you really feel like a ninja badass, without taking away any of the danger and tension that a well-made stealth system provides. And it gives you so many different strategies for every single situation you’re in, based on your loadout, play style, and whether you choose to go for the highest rating in each level, that it begs to be played through more than once. Future stealth games take note: this is how you do the genre right.
2. Hotline Miami
Everything about Hotline Miami is meant to alienate you. From its cocaine-addled electronic soundtrack, to its disturbing trend of having characters adorned with creepy animal masks, to its penchant for gory, brutal violence, to its too-fluorescent 80s-colour-scheme, the entire game is just “off” enough to make you feel constantly on-edge. Hotline Miami is an action game with a brain, a snappy combat-puzzle game that sends you to murder roomfuls of people and then tells you to reflect on what you did afterwards. It’s a game that looks at the state of violent video games, stares the player in the face and asks “why do you choose to spend all of your free time murdering people?” At its core, Hotline Miami is an “art game”, one that asks big questions and subverts common notions of player choice and self-awareness. I had a blast playing it – but the fact that I did so makes me feel just a little bit scared of myself.
1. The Walking Dead
I’ve never been much of a crier, especially not when it comes to art. I can count the amount of times that literature, movies, or TV shows have made me cry on one hand – and I can say honestly that no video game has ever even come close to making me cry. At least, I used to be able to say that, because Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead is the first game to make me blubber like a baby. It’s weird that while everyone’s having these “are video games art?” discussions, I can’t really think of any game in my 15 years of playing video games that has affected me on the level of just telling a story in a really effective emotional way. The Walking Dead is a turning point – a game with strong, detailed characters, and fantastic, emotional writing. What matters about it is that it’s genuinely sophisticated in its storytelling, while still including the interactivity and player agency that is unique to video games as a medium. This is a story about a group of people trying to survive in a grueling, unforgiving world, but it peppers the grisly events with moments of brevity, humor, and even genuine beauty. It’s a testament to the game’s strengths that I actually think this game might tell the best story in the entire Walking Dead franchise. The Walking Dead feels like an important moment in the evolution of this medium, one whose influence will hopefully be felt years down the road, and a stunning example of what video game storytelling can do with just a bit of ambition.