We're about half way through the year. That means it's time to list my favorite games from the first six months of the year.
Unfortunately, 2012 has been something of a disappointment. Games I was sure would knock my sox off -- games like Twisted Metal, SSX and Diablo III -- failed to live up to my expectations. In fact, as my list shows, not a single 2012 boxed retail title on an HD platform left me super-impressed. However, the downloadable, Wii and handheld titles have picked up some of the slack.
5. Kid Icarus: Uprising (Nintendo/Shooting/Nintendo 3DS):
One of the year's few pleasant surprises, Kid Icarus, with its tight shooting mechanics, great scoring system and surprising depth, has held my attention since it launched in March. Dev teams have an, at best, inconsistent record of bringing classic franchises to the third dimension. Only outliers, such as the Metroid Prime and Maximo games, have managed to successfully make the transition. Thus, I was a bit wary when I heard Nintendo planned to transform classic Kid Icarus into a rail shooter. When the reviews started pouring in, I knew my fears were unfounded.
Fortunately, Nintend had the good sense to put the team behind the popular Smash Bros. series at the helm. Aside from generally being good game designers, the Smash Bros. folks have a knack for absolutely cramming their games with unlockable content, varying gameplay and attractive interfaces. Kid Icarus' fundamentally strong shooting and scoring mechanics benefited greatly from the game's bevy of unlockable weaponry and insanely adjustable difficulty settings. The prospect of earning a ton of hearts or buying that shiny, new gun creates quite the incentive to replay a level and go for that high school.
The game looks and sounds great, too. Uprising is easily the best-looking title to date on the Nintendo 3DS, and the system's often-criticized 3-D significantly enhances the game's beauty, creating characters that spring to life off the screen and special effects that really pop.
The only complaint I have with this game -- the only thing keeping it from topping rail shooter greats like StarFox and Panzer Dragoon Zwei -- are the controls. Once you get used to them, they work well enough. However, having to use the stylus to aim and the d-pad to move hurts the hands after a while. Further, the controls get awkward during the game's on-foot segments. My suggestion: Pick up a good thumb stylus if you can find one.
Score: 9.0 out of 10.
4. Resident Evil: Revelations (Capcom/Survival-Horror/Nintendo 3DS):
Capcom's franchise survival-horror series has suffered since the franchise's creator, Shinji Mikami, left the company after Resident Evil 4. The series' last installment, Resident Evil 5, failed to live up to the standards set by its predecessor and didn't retrieve the survival-horror crown from newcomer Dead Space. The game was just too bright, too unwieldy without a strafing option and too tame to overcome the chills, thrills and tense combat offered by Electronic Arts' survival-horror title.
While playing Resident Evil: Revelations, I got the feeling that Capcom wanted to inject some of that old-school RE atmosphere back into the series. The devs ditched RE5's bright, colorful African villages for (mostly) an old luxury liner that had seen better days. And, the game is much better for it.
Revelations' ship sections mix much the claustrophobic, item-hoarding tension offered by the older Resident Evil games with the excellent control schemes offered by Alan Wake and Dead Space 2 (provided you have the slide pad add-on). Basically, take any creepy hallway segment from the first Resident Evil game, add better combat and more competent enemies, and you have Resident Evil: Revelations at its best.
It's too bad the game can't keep its survival-horror feel throughout the entire experience. Though most of the game is great, the developers, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to put survival mode-style, kill-everything-that-moves sequences into the game. Yes, the game controls well, but it can't out-Gears of War Gears of War.
The bonus features, such as a mercenary mode you might have paid full price for last year if you bought Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, add plenty of longevity to the title.
Score: 9.0 out of 10.
3. Trials: Evolution (Microsoft/Racing/Xbox 360):
A downloadable title made it high on the list this year. Even if the field of games were stronger, Trials: Evolution would be a keeper.
Trials: Evolution's name is very fitting. Essentially, the game is everything everybody loves about Trials -- and given the game's sales figures, I gather that everybody does indeed love Trials -- with everything everybody has ever wanted to see in Trials. Evolution brings simultaneous multiplayer, a more robust track editor, better visuals, outdoor environments and a difficulty level that ramps up more evenly than the original game's did. In short, there is no reason not to own this game, especially if you liked the first or have an affinity for Excitebike. Eff it. It more or less is a modern Excitebike.
Score: 9.0 out of 10.
2. Journey (SCEA/Adventure/PlayStation 3):
I'm not a professional game journalist, but I imagine Journey was a tough game to review. First, is it even a game at all? It certainly isn't challenging. Hell, a friend of mine who barely plays games at all was able to breeze through Journey in less than two hours. Maybe it's more of an experience. Maybe it's art (though I'm too much of an elitist to admit that). Whatever it is, I'm still thinking about more than two months after its release. That says something.
Journey shifts from quiet desert exploration to engaging rock-climbing portions to an exhilarating segment in which the player surfs down sand dunes as the sun slowly sets in the background. The game stimulates so many different emotions it's hard to give up when you know Journey could be hiding something amazing just beyond the next dune. Sure, the hidden do-dads a practically meaningless and the game isn't scoring you; it still manages to be one of the most engrossing, addictive and maybe even moving gaming experiences I've had in a long time.
I feel like a huge nerd for saying that. So, I'll just end it here with the score.
Score: 9.5 out of 10.
1. Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo/RPG/Wii):
To think we almost didn't get this in the U.S.
Xenoblade Chronicles goes exactly where I'd like to see JRPGs heading. The game has some of the unfortunate trappings to cookie-cutter RPGs -- cheesy dialogue, poor voice-acting -- but it mostly eschews JRPG gameplay conventions that became stale years ago.
Xenoblade's developer, Monoliftsoft, wisely used a real-time combat system based on MMORPG battles. The result is combat that never seems like a chore and battles with variables that change quickly enough (as characters are buffed, de-buffed etc.) to keep the player interested. I never tired of the combat during my 60 play-through, which is something I can't say for many JRPGs.
The game's art style makes the title look good -- well, as good as a Wii title can look, at least. It sounds phenomenal -- the soundtrack is really top-notch.
Final Fantasy XII featured similar gameplay, and I'm not sure why it never took off. I hope Xenoblade sparks interest in this particular type of JRPG. I'd love to see more games like this.
Score: 9.5 out of 10.