Acouple days ago I posted my first few picks for my Top 10 of 2012, but the list continues ever onward. Here are my 7-5 picks:
7. Far Cry 3
Even though it's been over a decade since Grand Theft Auto III defined what a great open-world game should be, the genre has always struggled in its attempts to transfer over to the first-person perspective. In most cases, open-world shooters have fallen into the strange trap of having worldbuilding and solid mechanics fighting for development attention. Games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Operation Flashpoint, and Fallout 3 sacrifice the polished shooting mechanics provided by more linear experiences in favor of building an immersive sense of place, while other titles like Crysis and Rage choose to forgo a certain degree of player freedom in order to focus on core combat systems. Far Cry 3 is, oddly enough, the first sandbox shooter that realizes that an absorbing setting and great gameplay aren't mutually exclusive. Though the activities available on Rook Island are more or less limited to climbing radio towers, hunting animals, and shooting pirates, it's easy to put up with the lack of gameplay variety simply in order to explore more of the sprawling locale's magnificent vistas, bombed-out batteries, and deep, dark caves.
Even despite the fact that the aforementioned objectives repeat over and over again, Far Cry 3's shooting mechanics are superb. The weapon handling and aiming feels straight out of Call of Duty, but the game's swath of upgrades, crafting items, and skill trees all add a meaningful sense of progression that isn't often found in more straightforward FPS titles. This sense of character advancement may, in fact, be Far Cry 3's greatest strength, as it works so well in tandem with its open-world and its story campaign. The college-chic Jason Brody starts out as just a normal dude, but working your way through the game's huge number of missions, story beats, and upgrades turns him into a menacing (and tattoo-ridden) warrior. By the time all's said and done, you, the player, might just feel the same way (minus the tattoos, anyway).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Far Cry 3, like many of last year's most violent games, takes some time to ask players if indulging in all the bloodshed was really worth it. In contrast to some of those other games, however, when this question is posed here, not one moment need be given for pause and reflection. The brutal action was most definitely worth it. To not take part in it would simply be foolish, as Far Cry 3 is 2012's most gleefully liberating action blockbuster.
In an age where overeager game developers, marketers, and journalists give up way too much information about a given title before it actually releases, Fez stands out because its willing to keep a vast number of enthralling mysteries to itself, leaving you to discover and wrap your brain around the unknowns it ever-so-subtly hints at all on your own. The greatest genius behind the complex cypher that lies within Fez is the fact that it's so well obscured by a simpler, but no less entertaining set of challenges. Though an entirely different set of collectibles lurk beneath the game's surface, the golden cube pieces that serve as the game's more overt objective are a lot of fun to track down despite their relative ease of acquisition. This is largely thanks to Fez's exemplary showcase of mechanics and presentation working in tandem. The game's beautiful pseudo-3D environments are begging to be explored, and the Super Paper Mario-esque perspective-switching system ensure that treading every last pixel of each locale is engaging and challenging. Add to that a hypnotic soundtrack that plays out like a bitcrusher-drenched clash between ambient electronic and post-rock, and it's pretty much guaranteed that even tackling the game's easiest challenges is completely and consistently captivating.
I don't want to delve too much into the cryptic secrets that Fez houses for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the slow realization that the game holds far more than it lets on was one of my favorite (protracted) gaming moments of 2012. It should say something, too, that even though I missed out on playing Fez within its first few weeks of release - which was when many gamers were coming together to try and feverishly crack its many mysterious codes - that I was still blown away by its complexity and subtlety. In the hands of most other creatives, the game's more in-depth puzzles would be presented front and center so that the developers could bask in their brilliance, but the fact that Phil Fish exercised such restraint in presenting these challenges leads Fez to possess a wondrous sense of discovery that went unmatched in 2012.
5. Max Payne 3
Ludonarrative dissonance' is a term coined by former Ubisoft designer Clint Hocking to describe games whose story and mechanics don't work in tandem. A prime example of this is the Uncharted series: Nathan Drake, shown in the game's cutscenes to be a witty, effortlessly charming hero also happens to be merciless homicidal maniac during gameplay. Ludonarrative dissonance is something few developers who try to present even remotely complex narratives in their games are able to successfully avoid; everything from BioShock to Red Dead Redemption, Dragon Age II to Gears of War, suffer from this design problem. Thus, playing the rare game that presents an intricate narrative and still triumphs over this game development roadblock is a truly special experience. Max Payne 3 is such a game, and between its ferocious Bullet Time shootouts, it presents quite an interesting conundrum:
Being that he's the player character in a trilogy of over-the-top shooters, Max Payne's skills lie solely in death and destruction, which come courtesy of the series' fine-tuned shooting mechanics. In the first two games, he exercised his considerable "talents" without much restraint; though I won't spoil anything here, the second game sees Max do some particularly heartless things in order to accomplish his mission.
In Max Payne 3, however, our titular anti-hero quickly sets out to change his ways. So what happens when a man whose skills only lie in death-dealing has a sudden need to do good? As the game tells us, he fails. A lot. As players, this can be a hard fact to stomach because we're so used to receiving constant rewards for our attempts at heroism. Even if we don't succeed with much grace, character progression, Achievements, unlocks, and all other sorts of digital back-patting makes us feel fulfilled. Max Payne 3, on the other hand, uses its narrative and often punishing difficulty to actively disempower its players on a consistent basis.
What pulls us through is the fact that there's something truly thrilling about taking control of a protagonist who's so self-aware, and thus cognizant of the very mechanics that drive the game itself. Max grows to expect that bloody shoot-outs will follow him wherever he goes. He knows is mission is futile. He knows of his inner demons that arrive in the form of alcohol and painkiller addiction. But watching him gradually own up to his tendencies and decide to put them to good use to try and stop those who would oppress others makes him and his cause easy to root for. Max's bloody campaign to stop the corrupt forces that wreak havoc in Sao Paulo gives 2012 one of its most impactful game narratives.
In many ways Max Payne 3's story is one that could've only been crafted by a fresh set of eyes. Taking the helm from Remedy, even a studio as legendary as Rockstar had a lot to live up to on every front. But even beyond its surprising and self-aware narrative, Max Payne 3 iterates and improves upon the franchise's acclaimed foundations in every conceivable way. The gunplay - an incredible combination of mechanics new and old - is perhaps the best representation of the game's simultaneous acknowledgment of its roots and willingness to branch out. The bloody Bullet Time ballets and run-and-gun recklessness of games past is seamlessly combined with new-school mechanics like cover-taking and limited weapon counts. The linear, cutscene heavy campaign, while reminiscent of recent games like Uncharted, still allows for the understated exploration and experimentation the series is known for.
The theme that seems to pervade every aspect of Max Payne 3 is the combination of new and old, seen most strongly in the minute-to-minute gameplay, and in the engaging plot that sees Max trying to reconcile his old bad habits with a strong desire to change (which, not coincidentally, strongly mirrors Dan Houser's evident desire to turn Max Payne into a character of his own rather than a continuation of the persona crafted by Sam Lake). All of this adds up to a game that eloquently demonstrates the coexistence of development philosophies of past and present - quite a significant statement at a time when the resurrection of so many longrunning series possess a shaky (at best) adherence to the vision that initially guided their given franchise. This even extends to the game's presentation which, despite ditching its former neo-noir trappings in favor of an audiovisual style that's more in line with the films of Michael Mann or the late Tony Scott, still provides plenty of the hard-boiled, deeply cynical attitude that defined the look and feel of Max Payne and its sequel. With a respect for its past identity as well as an awareness of the best recent gaming trends, Max Payne 3 is the epitome of series modernization done right. Other developers seeking to resurrect long-dormant franchises had best take note, Max Payne 3 sets a new standard in terms of how old series can be given new life.
That's it for now. Check back soon for my 4-2 picks.