More than one week into 2013, I've finally gotten my best of 2012 list down pat. My rules: the game didn't have to come out this year, but I have to have played it for the first time in a given year. Without further ado...
10) Resident Evil 6
I don't know if it's a desire to please my inner fanboy or the utter and stark realization that I played a lot of bad games this year, but despite the schizophrenic feelings I have for it Resident Evil 6 finds its way into my #10 slot. I found so many things wrong with this game, from the controls feeling out of date and the strange checkpointing to too many supposedly thrilling moments feeling too much like work. Yet, there was something glistening underneath all that modern-day muck. There were things that pushed a lot of the right buttons like Leon's cockiness, Chris's badassery, the returns of Sherry and Ada, the monster design, and the use of silly keys to open doors. It also helps a lot that the A.I. partners actually help a lot more than Sheva did in RE5. It's just too bad I had to look so hard for the good parts, but despite Capcom's smashing together of many game ideas to create what they think people want to play, I still found enough parts of RE6 to be reminiscent of the Resident Evils of yore.
9) God of War Origins Collection (Chains of Olympus & Ghost of Sparta)
I love GoW, but the Origins Collection is here for the same reason RE6 is: was it great, or did I just play a lot of junk this year? I played Chains of Olympus on the PSP years ago, but playing its HD version make me forget its system of origin; it plays and looks just as good as either God of War 1 or 2 on PS3. Ghost of Sparta was an all-new experience, and I was glad I finally got to play it 'cause the PSP version is nigh-impossible to find. It's arguably the most story-driven God of War game, and there's really nothing to say about it if you've played a God of War game before because Ghost of Sparta is just more of that plus a few new tricks. But that's not a bad thing, 'cause it's already refined and polished and doesn't need too much changing, and you have two great games in one box that I'm very glad I own.
8] DJ Hero 2
When the first DJ Hero was announced in 2009 I couldn't have cared less, and the fact that it was getting a sequel the following year made little sense to me. Many stores bought what Activision was shovelling a couple of years ago and bought piles of music game bundles, many of which they are now stuck with. As sorry as I felt for the poor schmo who made that call years ago, I'd always wanted to try a DJ Hero game. While aimlessly wandering around a Zellers with a friend of mine some months back, we wandered into their electronics section and made our way to the poorly-lit back where many of the aforementioned bundles were stacked up, waiting to be sent off to die. On a whim I picked up a DJ Hero 2 bundle box, still sealed and going for less than a new disc release, feeling hopeful.
Long-winded back-story aside, DJ Hero 2 is quite a fun game, if a bit hard to get used to. I've found that the turntable works best if you're playing at a desk or table, but it works on your lap too; the different switches, knobs, buttons and spins felt close to second nature after the tutorial. The music is all well done; I admit I don't listen to this kind of music of my own volition, but even if I hadn't found a few familiar surprises all of the tunes seem to mash together well enough. The career progression is similar to Guitar Hero's "perform your way to the top," and I even managed to find a couple of people to play against online! The Guitar Hero / Rock Band fanaticism that used to define me is long past, but DJ Hero 2 re-awakened that part of me a little bit. But not as much as...
7) Rock Band Blitz
I was big fan of the PSP's Rock Band Unplugged a few years ago (I'd go as far as to say it's one of the PSP's must-own games) and I was guessing Rock Band Blitz would play and control similarly. It turned out I was a bit off-target. Rock Band Blitz is a simple-yet-challenging-enough version of Rock Band that's played with a regular controller and nothing more, yet the social integration, leaderboards and challenges from other players, plus using your entire downloaded catalog with no problem make it a blast for a burned-out music game enthusiast. Whether it was to fulfill a challenge I accepted on Facebook, to see who sent me a Score War request or just to see how one of my favourite songs "translated" into RBB's gameplay, Rock Band Blitz was a game I kept going back to for more.
I warned last year that this game could find its way onto my 2012 list, and indeed it has. After replaying Crysis 2 early in the year and gaining a deeper appreciation for it, I finally cracked and bought Crysis 1 on PlayStation Network. It controls largely the same with a few gameplay tweaks taken away (after all, how fair is it to judge the first game after the second), but what was kept intact between the two and what Crysis 1 brought to its own table was remarkable.
I know this game is five years old on PC. I know that version's rep for being the most hardware-demanding game ever. I know people are increasingly lukewarm about Crysis as a series. But solid controls, an invisibility mechanic, jaw-dropping graphics (even after being ported and downgraded), set pieces like the liquid-like innards of an alien craft and snowy mountains and weapons and levels I wanted to play multiple times add up to nothing less than one of the better games I played in 2012. Kudos to you, Crysis.
5) Assassin's Creed III
Assassin's Creed III starts out by lulling you into a false sense of security before throwing you a massive curveball unlike anything I've felt since Heavy Rain. After settling in, for better or worse, AC III becomes an Assassin's Creed game. Despite the change in setting and refinements in gameplay, I've played this game before. However, I guess that speaks volumes to the team at Ubisoft that got it right so many years ago 'cause despite my grousing it still holds up very, very well. Massive cities to run around in and climb around on, and great big wilderness to explore in lieu of even more cities, some of the clever revisionist history that the Assassin's Creed series does so well and a combat system that had been obnoxious has been refined to a state of near-polish (even though it still has a couple of bumps). And the addition of era-appropriate concepts like naval navigation and combat actually work very well. Perhaps it's not everyone's cup of tea, but I found it enjoyable once I understood what I was actually in control of and how to do it well.
Without spoiling anything, the stories in both timelines fall on their faces at the end. I felt down particularly about Desmond's ending, but remembering what AC has gotten away with in the past I feel it's almost fitting. No less dumb and silly, but still fitting. That said, AC III's biggest problem is me. I love getting everything into everything in games like this, and having so many sidequests, collectibles, minigames and 100% Synchronization moments make it quite maddening at given points. Also, this game might be a bit too big. The cities are massive, the wilderness feels bigger than anything, and despite a horse whistle and upgraded fast-travel system it still feels staggeringly huge. I suppose this game would be perfect if I was 14 again and had no other games to looks forward to for another four months. As is, I feel that Assassin's Creed III lives up to what I was expecting of it. It is the totality of everything that came before it and feel it is worthy of being in my game collection.
4) Spec Ops: The Line
I've heard a grumbling consensus that 2012 was an off year that was only saved by the last mad dash to the finish line. In ways that also describes Spec Ops: The Line to a T. Spec Ops had no right to be any good. It was a modern-gen reboot of a B-tier line of budget military games from the PS1 and had no one thinking anything about it. It does little to dissuade from this notion early on: your team of three is sent into a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai to save an American colonel and his men, and you fight men dressed differently that you for no other reason than that they shot at you first. But what sounded like a throwaway line early on of "what the hell are we doing here" evolves as the game goes on until you begin to comprehend the horror of what is happening around you and what you yourself are inflicting on men who have committed no offense other than that you want them dead. The story that the developers crafted turned The Line from a bargain bin also-ran into one of the deepest game stories I've ever played. In hindsight it seems fairly telegraphed, and maybe it is. The gameplay itself is fairly paint-by-numbers with some good set pieces and decent controls. But those story moments made me very uneasy and almost ill.
If you haven't played Spec Ops, avoid this next paragraph. When Captain Walker comes across what he thinks is an enemy camp, he has no qualms with burning everyone alive via a silly Call of Duty-esque top-down aerial attack, and then tells the one survivor that he brought this on himself. When Walker, and subsequently the player, realizes they've just murdered dozens of innocent people instead, Walker keeps repeating that Conrad, the colonel, is the one responsible, for reasons that make no sense to anyone but himself. And when Walker finally breaks at the end and realizes that Conrad has actually been dead before the game started, and everything Conrad says to Walker was in Walker's head, it was enough to make someone jaded enough like me to really sit up and gasp. Depending on your actions Walker can either kill himself (while thinking that Conrad is shooting him), be taken out of Dubai by a rescue team of Marines but with a terrible case of PTSD, open fire on and gun down said team and "take charge" of Dubai like Conrad before him, or open fire on his rescuers and be shot and slowly bleed to death. I saw all endings, and the message of "war is bad" gets lost somewhere in the preceding mind**ckery because you slowly realize that you were the bad guy all along. And you hate yourself for it.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that needs to be played.
3) Final Fantasy XIII
I gave Final Fantasy XIII an "Honourable Mention" back in 2010 because I only very briefly played it and wanted to give it recognition for piquing my interest while also letting it stay on the pile so that I may play it for real someday. Well, in 2012 that day finally came.
After numerous false starts over the years I was finally able to break the walls that were holding me down in FFXIII. I finally understood its leveling and class system, how Eidolon fights worked, how to best construct my team for the enemies at hand, I finally fully understood the backdrop and back-story of the world and I could finally experience a JRPG without worrying that I was playing it "wrong." All of the "problems" I'd heard about, like forced linearity, a battle system that isn't turn-based and things like not enough towns weren't a problem 'cause I'd never really cared for those things in the first place. Over the course of numerous chapters, meeting new characters, watching flashbacks and piecing together the terrors that gripped the world of Cocoon, I came to realize that I was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime game, which I'm sure some people would call me crazy for saying, but I probably just described their first Final Fantasy experience as well. I enjoyed watching all of the characters grow and mature (some more than others), I pushed my chair in during most of the cutscenes and subsequent playable vistas, I kept pushing forward in the game to find out twists that the game let drop while you played as a different group of characters and I kept humming numerous tunes to myself while I wasn't playing.
And yet, despite all that, I can't place it higher than this spot because and what I considered its biggest flaw, which really isn't even the game's fault: I couldn't stop playing it in spurts. I'd stop for weeks, break through the big boss or Eidolon fight that was holding me back, make a whole lot more progress and then get stuck again. But I don't sink over 40 hours of myself into a game and come out feeling nothing but wholly satisfied that I spent that time in that world. Final Fantasy XIII is an amazing game, one that deserves your affection if you'll allow it.
2) Lollipop Chainsaw
Going back to the idea that 2012 was mostly an off year, while I can't actually disagree, the fact that Lollipop Chainsaw was released back in June pokes a couple of holes in that theory for me personally.
Lollipop Chainsaw is far from the most perfect game in the world, but if you go into it with both eyes open it an amazing experience. I'll admit, if not for the Jessica Nigri cosplaying photos I'd seen plastered all over the internet I would've had no idea this game existed. But once I was able to suppress all urges about the company's hot spokes model and delve into the actual game, I found numerous silly things that somehow manage to make this game much more than the sum of its parts. It is one of the most fun, unique experiences I'd had in quite some time.
Despite all accusations of sexism leveled at the portrayal of main character Juliet Starling, she's a pure badass who doesn't take $h!t from anyone, and she's also just enough of an airhead without coming off as a total bimbo. I'd laugh out loud at a lot of lines spewed by Juliet, the straight-man answers from her boyfriend / sidekick / talking head Nick and the hundreds and hundreds of zombies Juliet was mowing down with increasingly intricate combos while wearing decreasingly visible outfits. I'd play certain levels numerous times to move up the worldwide and in-game leaderboards in order to unlock more achievements and in-game coins in order to buy more outfits, weapons and character upgrades. I'd practice with new weapons in order to psyche myself up to go through Ranking Mode, a one-life mode that is no small feat when the A.I. of the NPCs you have to protect has absolutely NO survival instinct. (Seriously, how hard is it to run away from the zombies as you're forced to run around a baseball diamond?) And I actually wanted this game's soundtrack, an eclectic mix of 1950's bubblegum pop, 1960's psychedelia, 1980's punk, '80's electronic music and all sorts of original game tunes inspired by the aforementioned eras. Seriously, you have no idea how fun it is to unleash stored energy from a bar in the corner of the screen and go around chopping heads off to the tune of Toni Basil's "Mickey" until you've actually done it.
Lollipop Chainsaw is far from perfect, but it's fun as all hell and should be in my list, don'cha think?
1) Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition
Even as entire nights drained away from my life as I continued to play Borderlands, I couldn't quite believe I was having as much fun as I was having. I'd heard numerous opinions about Borderlands back in the day, with opinions ranging from everything from immense praise to derisive put-downs, and many things in-between. All I can say for certain is that it floated to the top of my game rental list and I decided to give it a shot, and I had almost zero expectations for it. This was right when both RE6 and Borderlands 2 were coming out, and I dropped one and very nearly bought the other 'cause I couldn't stop playing Borderlands.
I realized quickly that Borderlands doesn't have a whole lot of a story and that you had to look for beats and project yourself into the game's world to get the most out of it. I played a lot of the story missions by myself, but upon realizing I was a good chunk on my way to a Platinum trophy I finally hopped online and discovered how awesome the co-op can be. But it totally stands up on single-player, too: the quirky and somewhat lovable characters that populate the world, the enemies that take a little bit of strategy unless you're in someone else's game and you can just overpower them all, the abilities that each playable character can use and the simple joys of selling vendor trash and finding upgrade slots so that you can hold even more insane guns that do both massive damage and light enemies on fire, all while they yell about being on fire.
After not long I went out and bought my own copy, specifically the black-labelled GOTY edition, and even after smacking down the final boss I jumped right back into the extra content. It all integrated perfectly and organically into the crazy world of Pandora; Dr. Ned's experiments, Mad Moxxi's...madness, General Knox's desert prisons and Claptraps deciding they'd had enough. They all feel so fun to play and mess around in, and they solidify my choice to un-ironically and fittingly name Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition as my Game of the Year for 2012.