This year has been a weird one when it comes to the videogame industry. We're stuck in this holding pattern where our tired and sputtering old consoles are still at the forefront and everyone is on tenterhooks for Microsoft and Sony to elaborate a bit on words like "Durango" and "Orbis".
However, the death-throes of a generation often throw up some of its most interesting games and 2012 has been no different. Although little in 2012 matched the glorious heights of last year's Portal 2, Dark Souls, Bastion and of course; Saints Row the Third, I don't think I've ever experimented with new ideas and different genres more than during this year.
So here is a list of games that I enjoyed from this year in no particular order, let's imagine I love all of them equally. I didn't play a lot of this year's releases, so here's what I've got.
Max Payne 3
As a fashionable latecomer to the series from March of this year, I was simultaneously enamoured by Max Payne 2 and immediately curious as to what Rockstar would do to a sequel to a series with such a singular sense of style and personality. The answer was: Mechanically? Not much was changed. Stylistically though? Everything that makes Max Payne as a character who he is has been altered to fit the Houser Brother's desire to deconstruct a gaming icon. The gunplay was strong, the character work was stronger and Max Payne rocked Tom Cruise's grey suit from Collateral like only Max Payne could. I eventually realised that playing the game with a controller wasn't ideal and a few of Max's quips miss the mark, but it's still the only shooter this year that lived up to my expectations.
Syndicate is not how you do a classic revival. Deus Ex Human Revolution is a more faithful follow-up to the Bullfrog classic than Starbreeze's latest, but it doesn't mean Syndicate didn't satisfy on its own level. There's a lot to criticise about Syndicate, from the insipid story to the dearth of actual content, and rightly so. There's also quite a bit to love as well if you're looking for a fast-paced shooter with terrific AI and a great co-op component. Syndicate is the first game I've played that has managed to take the Left 4 Dead formula and do something interesting with it. The way the game enforces interdependence between players is genius, eliminating the frustration of playing co-op with strangers elegantly and intuitively. It's not an amazing game by any stretch of the imagination and it's a shame that Starbreeze's most mechanically confident game didn't reach the audience it deserved because it's still plenty of cold, corporate fun in its own right.
FTL: Faster Than Light
I don't like roguelikes. I want nothing to do with space-sims. I love FTL despite its inclusion of elements from both. What initially appears to be a simple game on the surface unfolds into nailbiting battle against unknown dangers waiting beyond the next star system and more often than not I watched with equal levels of horror and excitement as fires started in life support and evil space spiders beamed onto my ship to butcher the crew after about 20 minutes. Then I would exclaim "Damn that was fantastic" and start over. The fun in FTL is banging your head against a solid wall, it just so happens that doing so is immensely fufilling. Rest in Peace the crew of the Kestrel, the Torus and the twenty other namesakes whose crew never made it to the medbay in time.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I have no nostalgia or reverence for the original XCOM games because they were released when I was an infant whose mind would surely be corrupted by the presence of all those pixels. Similarly I've never been hooked by a Firaxis game as they've always seemed wildly impenetrable to someone raised on a dualshock. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was consequently a revelation for me. The feedback loop; be it positive or negative in its reinforcement, is constant. There's not a moment in XCOM where you don't feel like you're having a meaningful impact on the events occurring in the game, which makes it even more heartbreaking when you lose your best soldiers to the alien foe (Sgt Stephen "Hulk" Gillespie may you never be forgotten). What's more, XCOM handles beautifully with a controller, it's 1950's sci-fi aesthetic is delightful and there's a tangible feeling of empowerment as your green rookies grow up to battle-hardened colonels who can take out Sectopod in two shots. Be warned, bugs and performance oddities abound in Enemy Unknown, and that's about all I can say that's genuinely negative about my 40-odd hours with XCOM. It's a classic revival done right, so much so that I can see myself dipping into old XCOM to see what's what.
Mark of The Ninja
Stealth games suck! They really do! People have this fascination with being the silent assassin and for some reason that gives the cludgy stealth mechanics of games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid a pass. Mark of the Ninja is crisp and responsive where the competition is sluggish and imprecise. "Mark" as I choose to call him is a tad too sticky to most surfaces for my taste and I feel the level design is a proof of concept for a Metroidvania-styled sequel which dragged some missions down for me, which just makes me more excited for a new iteration. The way the game conveys information is revolutionary. You always know whether your actions will alert guards, how far sound is travelling and whether you're visible or not. It's a fantastic example of intelligent design and anyone with an affinity for stealth games should dive in as soon as possible, you'll be in for a surprise.
thatgamecompany are a sly group of artistics. Knowing full well that I was unlikely to buy a game where you play as a flower petal, they made a third-person adventure game that could at a glance be considered somewhat conventional. Journey is anything but conventional. It has that indefinable quality of being able to inspire emotion yet I don't quite know why. The wonderful orchestral soundtrack and the raw technical achievement that is the visual design manage to take you from bewilderment to joy then back down to despair in the space of 90 minutes. If there's a game that deserves to be branded transcendental, this is it.
Wow Hotline Miami you are messed up. You're a gritty haze of murderous violence set in a 1989 that makes me glad I was born in the early 90's. Hotline Miami is a murder simulator, it makes you think long and hard about how you're going to kill everyone in a building. More of a puzzle game that a proper shooter, Hotline Miami teaches you how to concoct a plan and then improvise when it all goes to hell as it most assuredly will. Not to say all the murder doesn't get tiring as you progress through the game, but by the time you start getting fatigued the oblique and utterly surreal story will make you want to see it through to the end. I can't say every moment I played of Hotline Miami was enjoyable. I can however say that it was intensely memorable, and that the soundtrack will be played long after the game itself is forgotten.
So that was 2012. I played a bunch of games that were released this year that didn't make it on to this list and that's mainly because most of them were disappointing experiences. Luckily the games above redeem this year's evident shortcomings.
Roll on 2013.