Disclaimer: My yearly awards include all games I actually played this year and not necessarily just games which were released this year.
gbrading's Game of the Year
Dishonored: If you had asked me in January what Dishonored was, I wouldn't have known. Before E3 this year, I'd never heard of the game before. Then E3 came along and it had an impressive showing. Finally, I read Giant Bomb's review which drew similarities to Deus Ex, and I knew that I had to experience it for myself. Dishonored is beautiful, daring and primarily an absolute blast to play. Its the first game where I feel that playing as a stealthy character is actually easier than playing as a gung-ho, all guns blazing one. The game rewards patience and stealth by allowing you to perform silent non-lethal takedowns on guards, or possess a fish and infiltrate the castle through a drain grating. The Blink power is also the most robust, allowing you to teleport short range up buildings or behind enemies. Add into this mix the fascinating setting of the decaying Neo-Victorian city of Dunwall, Dishonored is a marvellous game to both see and play.
Most Disappointing Game
Biggest Mixed Reaction
Mass Effect 3: We all knew going into Mass Effect 3 that it probably wasn't going to live up to the inevitably huge expectations which the previous games in the series had built up. What we didn't expect was that the ending of this spectacular series would be so thoroughly rushed, leaving gaping plot holes and a deus ex machina resolution which pleased nobody, because its appearance was never foreshadowed. This is not to say that Mass Effect 3 was a bad game: Indeed it actually plays very well and 90% of it is what you would hope to get from Shepard's third adventure. In fact, ME3 probably contains my favourite moment in the series, which the culmination of Shepard and Garrus Vakarian's friendship. But in the end, the way the finale lets the side down is difficult to look past, and so ME3 has to be this years biggest disappointment. Our trust in the series was heavily squandered.
Best Puzzle Game
Splice: Splice is the epitome of style. Not a pixel is out of place in this downright gorgeous game, with an elegant piano soundtrack and some brilliantly interesting puzzles. Splice takes its name from gene splicing, and the whole game appears as though youre looking through a microscope at individual strands of DNA, or are operating some super-advanced computer conducting genome research. The puzzles involve moving and altering splices so that they fit the corresponding shape. Its a simple goal which is more difficult than it first appears, but because it has been designed so intuitively it is easy to rollback any action and start again if necessary. In a year of great game soundtracks it was difficult to pick one, but Splice wins it for its haunting use of piano. Sword & Sworcery is a close second.
Game I Wish I Could Stop Playing
Most Addictive Game
Star Trek Online: I really wish that the parts of Star Trek Online I like were worse, because then I could turn the game off. Sadly, Star Trek Online still has enough hooks in me that I continually go back to it, hoping that it will improve. Although the move to free-to-play earlier this year has made Star Trek Online a lot easier to get in to initially, the end game content is still very grindy. More grind inducing protocols have been introduced recently in the form of reputation systems with the Romulans, and the whole planet of New Romulus is just one big fetch quest. Its all basic operant conditioning, Skinner box stuff. What I like about the game and makes me keep playing is that the core space combat has always been pretty good, but almost everything that surrounds it just feels like window dressing. It might be called Star Trek Online, but the most Star Trek-esque content you can find is in the Foundry missions which are player-created.
Thomas Was Alone: The amount of personality that seeps from every second of Thomas Was Alone is quite remarkable. For a game where every character is represented by plainly coloured rectangles, it has a deeply emotional story where every character has a unique personality, which merges into their special power. Thomas can jump, but cant jump as high as John. Claire is a square and can float in water. Chris... can't do much. Naturally, Chris is persistently grumpy because of this. These characters are ably brought to life through the charmingly whimsical narration of comedian Danny Wallace, who imbues these pixel rectangles with a sense of community spirit and friendship. Thomas Was Alone is a Romance of Many Quadrilaterals. Oh, and the puzzle-platforming is pretty good too.
Most Experimental Game
Dear Esther: Dear Esther can also be added as a runner-up to the Best Atmosphere category. It has no "gameplay" per se, in that all you do is walk through a series of 4 interconnected levels. While you walk, a narrator speaks of a terrible car crash, the history of the island and the early explorers who visited. The sense of place on this desolate Scottish island is palpable and no other game have I ever just stood still and stared at the scenery. Dear Esther is a beautiful game and is unlike anything else. Not everyone is going to enjoy this kind of experience, but for those who want something a little more abstract, its fascinating.
Most Pop Culture References
Best Retro-inspired Art Style
Retro City Rampage: Retro City Rampage is the gaming equivalent of the film Airplane! It's got so many jokes, pop culture reference and homages to other games crammed in its very difficult to keep up with the flow or even notice them when they arrive. Nonetheless, the dedication to source material is admirable and from a gameplay point of view it is a perfect emulation of the original Grand Theft Auto. Retro City Rampage however has ten times the personality of GTA 1, and any game which you can play with a filter that makes everything look like its running on MS-DOS or the GameBoy is alright in my book.
Best Adventure Game
The Walking Dead: The Walking Dead does things which no other game has ever done. More than that, it makes the player do things. Nasty, downright horrible things at times. It never cuts away, it never lets up, and it never pulls its punches. It tugs your heartstrings in all the right places. The Walking Dead is certainly the best game Telltale has ever done, and really exemplifies the very best episodic gaming can achieve. Add this to the fact that the characters and storyline are the best and most hard-hitting youll ever find and The Walking Dead is something very special. Lead character Lee Everett also wins my (Un)unofficial Character of the Year award.
Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City: Although I bought Episodes from Liberty City as a standalone game, I'm still treating it as DLC for Grand Theft Auto IV since thats what it was originally. The Episodes are certainly the longest and most in-depth DLC for any game, creating 2 new storylines which run concurrently to the main plot of GTA IV. Indeed, Niko even shows up at select points in both episodes. The better of the two is certainly The Ballad of Gay Tony, partly for the fact that Luis Lopez is a more interesting person than Johnny Klebitz, but also because the gameplay is better-rounded.
Most Emotional Game
Most Surprising Game
To The Moon: My expectations were totally subverted by To The Moon. When I saw it, I expected it to be a turn-based JRPG: The Japanese art style immediately putting me in a certain mindset. Indeed, the game even makes fun of this preconception at one point. To The Moon isnt an RPG at all but is much more of an interactive story, with light puzzle elements thrown in. The plot itself is quite simple but it is your investment in the characters, their shared lifetimes and their love for each other which really drives the game. To The Moon is the first game Ive ever played that made me cry. I can offer it no higher praise.
Most Adorable Game
Botanicula: The previous game Amanita Design completed, Machinarium, was a masterclass in how to make a modern Point-and-Click. Botanicula is less Point-and-Click and more interactive storybook, but don't let this fool you into thinking this game is just for kids. True, I would think that children would find all the weird bugs and insects which scramble, leap and lurch around Botanicula's levels endearing, but what the game does best is instilling a sense of teamwork into every action. Your ragtag band of insects is on a mission to save the tree from the evil, life-sucking spider-things, and the journey is one of psychedelic sights and sounds not to be missed.
Black Mesa: Black Mesa was released. Black Mesa lived up to expectations. Black Mesa is awesome. For a long time I had joined the crowd who believed that Black Mesa would never be completed, consigning it to the dustbin of history. Im pleased to say I was evidently mistaken. Black Mesa is still the original Half-Life, but it has a huge amount of new secrets, dialogue and features to enjoy. As of writing the game still isnt really finished since the levels in the alien world Xen havent been completed, but since this was the weakest part of the game anyway, I think its fine to wait just a little bit longer before we see the final result.
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP: Sword & Sworcery really is an Extended Play, and is neatly broken up into individual play sessions where the game encourages you to take a break. Indeed, if you play the game without cheating it will take you a whole lunar month to finish. Ably assisted by a glorious soundtrack, Sword & Sworcery has you playing The Scythian, who must complete a woeful errand. The writing is rather bizarre, featuring a mixture of sombre fantasy and modern Twitter lingo, which is either going to irritate you or make you laugh. With a lovely pixelated art style and some interesting gameplay, Sword & Sworcery is genuinely an old-school point-and-click masquerading as something brand new.
Best Licensed Game
Best Action-Adventure Game
Batman: Arkham City: Arkham Asylum is still an all-round better game than Arkham City, but City has a much better sense of scale. The freeflow fighting system has also been very finely tuned to make using Batmans plethora of gadgets and gizmos even easier, so that even in very challenging situations you always feel like you have another trick up your sleeve. The plot of Arkham City features a rogues gallery of most every Batman villain from the series, whilst the side missions fill in even more of the backstory. Playing as Catwoman is interesting and fun for a while, but it isn't the main draw. Once again, the highlight are those situations where youre trapped in a room full of armed enemies, and get to silently take the down one by one.
Worst Texture Pop-in
RAGE: RAGE is also a pretty big mixed reaction. It features a lot of really engaging and hard-hitting shooting, with some superior animation where characters move and express themselves in a very involving way. Because the shooting is satisfying and graphically the game is gorgeous, it is pretty easy to overlook the more challenging aspects of the game, such as the dull buggy racing and the lack of a tangible storyline or characters. RAGE's worst crime though is its coma-inducing texture pop-in, which bleeds into and out of focus every time you twist around. Its much improved on when the game originally launched, but its still downright terrible.
Best Independently Developed Game
Thirty Flights of Loving: Thirty Flights of Loving lasts at most, 10 minutes. After youve played it, there is little need to experience it again. And yet, Thirty Flights tells a better story in 10 minutes than many games tell in 10 hours. The game isn't the prettiest and nor is it the most fun, but as a self-contained little bit of narrative theres really nothing else like it. Id like to see more ultra-short games in future, but I think pricing needs to be sub-99p in the same way Apps are.
Saints Row: The Third: Saints Row 2 was a bit of a mixed bag: It had reasonably fun gameplay but a very poor storyline and an apocalyptically bad PC version (it won my Worst PC Port award in 2009). Saints Row: The Third suffers none of these problems and is the most accessible and downright fun Saints Row game to date. Whats more, with the third game Saints Row has finally thrown off the oppressive GTA clone moniker and becomes a series in its own right. Some parts of Saints Row: The Third is so downright ludicrous and hilarious you'll stare in disbelief. Although the characters are still very 2D, everything has been thrown into overdrive to such a degree that somehow they all, even The Boss, come across as likeable.
Most Unexpected PC Release
Alan Wake: For a game which was so long in coming to the PC, I was incredibly surprised when Remedy announced a PC version was finally arriving, financed off their own backs without any assistance from Microsoft (who had initially touted it as a 360/PC release and then quietly dropped the PC version so it could be advertised as an Xbox exclusive). There is a lot to like in Alan Wake, but there is also a fair bit to dislike, mainly about the repetitive gameplay and how weak Alan is at taking any damage. The non-resolution of the storyline was also rather disappointing for me. Nonetheless Alan Wake creates a palpable atmosphere akin to a Stephen King horror story, with believable characters and a great setting in the form of Bright Falls, which is almost an alter-ego of Twin Peaks.
Most Forgettable Game
Q.U.B.E.: Q.U.B.E. has a lot of great ideas, and certainly looks pretty cool whilst youre playing it. All the levels have a very Portal-esque appearance to them, and the puzzle solving mainly involves getting and changing the colours of various balls into their respective receptacles. The problem is there is absolutely no plot and no characters in the game whatsoever. It's like trying to play Portal without GLaDOS or Cave Johnson hurling insults at you: Most of the fun is drained out of it. Q.U.B.E. is a perfect example of why you should always conceive some justification for your gameplay, otherwise it feels unwarranted.