Personal Perspectives: The Top Ten of 2012
The GameSpot editors reveal their personal top 10 lists for 2012.
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Kevin VanOrd, Senior Editor Follow
Last year, I asked some members of the editorial team to write about their favorite games of the year. It gave a chance for us to speak from our hearts, and allowed the games that meant the most to us take the stage. This year, even more of the GameSpot staff participated, and we are excited to share our individual thoughts with you. Each day this week, we will unveil top ten lists from the GameSpot staff so that we might celebrate our favorite games of 2012.
Mind you, there is a difference between "favorite" and "best," and it's an important distinction to make. I don't believe that a few of my entries represent the best of 2012, but they nonetheless mean something to me, and sparked a part of me that made that game remain in my consciousness well after I had moved on to others.
Of course, such personal lists are always a reminder of all the wonderful games that I haven't played this year. I am still only halfway through The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day and Halo 4; I have only dabbled in Sound Shapes and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward; and I haven't even touched FTL: Faster Than Light and Lone Survivor. (And those are only a few examples of my 2012 pile of shame.) If only I had unlimited hours! But of the games I have played that came out this year, these are the ones that made the biggest impact. Please note: there are minor spoilers within.
10. PlanetSide 2
I liked but didn't love the original Planetside, which at its launch, made it difficult to actually get to the action. Planetside 2 has its downtime, but you need moments of respite in this game, which makes it easy to participate in its massive battles no matter where you are. Obviously, this massively multiplayer shooter deserves attention for its thrilling battles, but Planetside 2's structural successes deserve nods too. You don't need to wait for vehicles to spawn or to invade chat to find a group to buddy up with, and you can jump quickly to major battles--but not so often that you can exploit the system. Planetside 2 has the right mix of risk and reward, which in turn keeps you firing on the opposing faction.
Darksiders II might be the least original game on my list, but this is one of those times where I don't really mind. This game mixed Diablo looting, God of War slashing, Prince of Persia wallrunning, and Zelda exploration into a moody journey through a dark fantasy world. It may have looked to other sources of inspiration, but Darksiders II feels like one cohesive vision. Developer Vigil Games knew what tone they wished to strike, and understood what they wanted to convey with their world, their combat, and their characters. This consistency made the disparate elements come together wonderfully, and the overall result was fun and absorbing.
It's important not to confuse unnecessary obstacles in games with depth--just as it's important not to confuse the removal of such obstacles with a "dumbing down." XCOM: Enemy Unknown strikes a great balance: easy to get into, but still complex enough to inspire thoughtful decisions. What I loved most about the game was how I felt at war with percentages. How do I position myself to increase my chances of hitting while reducing my chances of being hit? Is it worth taking a shot when I have a 48% chance to hit, or should I get behind cover and activate overwatch? The resulting rhythm of tension-and-release made XCOM a real winner in my book.
From a gameplay perspective, Spec Ops is just a regular old cover shooter. And if its narrative were to work, it absolutely had to be. In most military shooters, those big moments where you kill legions of bad guys or hop behind a turret and mow dudes down are supposed to make you feel like a badass. In Spec Ops, you are supposed to feel shame. The game takes the expected recipe and turns it inside out, forcing you to reconsider all the power trips you've had in shooters before and look into the soul of a man who loses his soul in a power trip of his own. Spec Ops subverts the very expectations it originally expresses, initially passing itself off as just another military shooter, and ultimately condemning you, itself, and the entire genre. This kind of self-awareness is decidedly rare in games--and all but unheard of in shooters.
I admire developer Funcom. They have made three major MMOGs (not counting expansions), and each one is different from the last. Anarchy Online's sci-fi universe, complex character progression, and palatable mission structure make it my favorite MMO to date. Age of Conan's dark fantasy universe was so thick with atmosphere you could practically smell the fertile land. And then came The Secret World, a modern-day mythical adventure that mixes adventure-game elements with open-world exploration and intense storytelling. It has its problems, but The Secret World is one of several games that proved to naysayers in 2012 that modern MMOGs aren't just World of Warcraft clones anymore. This is an online RPG with the gall to actually make you think, and along with Guild Wars 2 and Tera, represents a trifecta that should influence developers of future games.
5. Far Cry 3
I am exhausted of hearing that "Far Cry 3 is like Skyrim with guns." That's silly. Far Cry 3 has similarities to other games, and is the product of a developer that employs some of the same themes from game to game. (Assassin's Creed was a clear inspiration, for instance.) But Far Cry 3 is above direct comparisons, instead standing out as an individual shooter in a genre crowded with copycats. While linear power-trip shooters will probably always have a role, I suspect that Far Cry 3, Natural Selection, and Planetside 2 pave the way to the future. If you still believe that games are just the same-ol' same-ol, I implore you to take a closer look. That is, if you can tear yourself away from Far Cry 3, which can get you easily hooked on freeing outposts, hunting tigers, and poking around in dark caves to see what secrets might be hidden there.
The final game in Commander Shephard's story greatly affected me. While some folks were up in arms over an ending that disappointed them, I was still mourning the losses of friends I'd grown close to. Bioware handled these moments of loss with great care, giving the characters the honor they deserved. I never saw Mass Effect as a franchise about plot: it was about people, places, and relationships. I will miss those things, which speaks to the power of this wonderful series. With its variety, its pacing, and the emotional investment it inspired, Mass Effect 3 made a mark on me.
3. Guild Wars 2
Any MMOG made from here on out exists in a post-Guild Wars 2 world. Guild Wars 2 fixed problems with the genre-standard quest limit by eliminating the quest journal completely. It brought exploration back to the forefront by rewarding you for moving through its world and investigating every nook. It shipped with enticing, broad player-versus-player regions. ArenaNet reconsidered everything we take for granted in role-playing games, and crafted them in new ways that made so much sense, it was a wonder no one had done it before. Guild Wars didn't drastically rethink the online RPG. Instead, it rethought the individual elements and brought them together in a great game that is both fresh and familiar.
Dragon's Dogma won't get out of my head. It's uniquely flawed and a teensy bit broken, but if you were to ask me at any given time what game I wish I were most playing, this would probably be the answer. To walk out of Gran Soren, only for a shrieking griffon to land with a thud and engage you, is a thrill. Climbing upon it and stabbing it while your pawns fling magic at it is more thrilling still. And holding on for dear life should the griffon soar into the air is the greatest thrill of all. The frustrations in Dragon's Dogma are many, but the battles, the nighttime journeys, and that ending--oh, that ending--are what make this game so special.
Journey seems to be a game that either works for you or it doesn't. For some, Journey is too mechanically simple; it lacks challenge and complexity, relying on atmosphere to convey its meaning. Those players never establish a connection.
I feel fortunate that Journey spoke to me so profoundly. Each time I played it, I was moved to tears, yet the game features no spoken dialogue, no named characters, and no traditional storytelling. It's just you, perhaps a human companion, and the entities that inhabit the land.
Simplicity isn't always an asset, but Journey is transcendental precisely because it strips interaction down to the essentials, and perfects those essentials so that you never struggle with the mechanics. Instead, the struggle is felt in the slow steps through snowdrifts, the shining eye of a hovering beast, and the force of the wind blowing you backwards. The struggles, though, are outshined by the joys. There are moments in which the slope of the land carries you forward, and all you can do is steer yourself through this gorgeous world and take in the sights and sounds, the lonely desert no longer a vast and empty prison, but a sun-drenched oasis.
There comes a moment when all seems lost. And then: a glimmer of hope, followed by a rush of freedom and ecstasy. If you have played, you know the moment I speak of. The uplift of the moment, and the ones that follow, is overwhelming. My spirit is lifted higher and higher, and then I understand. I understand.
Journey is exquisitely crafted precisely so that it might speak to you in this way. To call it too basic is to miss its true power. Journey strips away the intellectual elements almost universally associated with games so that it can instead directly impact the heart. Yet it wouldn't work as a film. To love Journey, you must feel it, and interact with it, and understand the flow. You can't just watch it happen--it must happen to you.
If you haven't played Journey, I hope that you will, and I hope that it speaks to you in the same way it did to me. I want people to feel the joy that I did; it's a feeling so wondrous, so overwhelming, that I want to share it with everyone. Like any experience designed to elicit emotion, the experience I had with Journey isn't universal. But even if Journey doesn't carry you away as it does with so many, I hope you are glad that such a game can exist, and that there are developers seeking new ways to explore the human condition.
Maxwell McGee, Editor Follow
Happy holidays, everyone! In the spirit of the end-of-year season, here's a quick rundown of my personal top 10 games of 2012. Now, you may be asking yourself why such fine games as Journey or Far Cry 3 didn't make the cut. That's because I limited this list to games I'd spent a considerable amount of time with. Thanks for reading, and be safe this holiday season.
This expansion pack for 2010's turn-based strategy game Civilization V introduced a ton of new content into the game. The ability to build and spread your religion gave you a creative and non-violent way to exert influence over your neighbors, while espionage further complicated the drama of global affairs (in a good way). This expansion allowed me to approach a game I had already poured double-digit hours into in an entirely new way.
There are moments of excellence in Downpour that will remain with me for a long time. In my review, I talked extensively about the Hansel and Gretel sequence; another I'd like to mention is the tutorial sequence. While essentially a combat tutorial, this scene's tension, and subsequent brutality, forces you to question the protagonist's motivations within minutes of meeting him. As you learn to fight, you are asked to decide why you fight.
Hotline Miami is an exhausting game to play. I often catch myself holding my breath, not blinking, and sitting rigid in my seat. My eyes seek out every possible danger, while my brain endlessly prioritizes (and re-prioritizes) each new threat. Harsh colors, trippy music, and a wobbly camera add to the anxiety. And only when the last guy falls, and everything returns to "normal," do I realize the stress I've been under. Rarely does a game elicit such a response.
I like how FTL is an ever-changing puzzle. Your goal is always the same, but what you must do to achieve it changes with every warp jump you make. The decision to save money, or spend it; your performance in battle; the acquisition (or death) of a crewmate--each of these can carry a weight great enough to make you rethink your whole strategy. And when you unlock a new ship, or just start a new game, the whole process is randomized and starts again.
Embarrassing as it is to admit, I think I may have independently funded Mass Effect 4 through multiplayer pack purchases alone. And I never did get that sweet N7 Destroyer class, but I'm not bitter. I enjoyed Mass Effect 3, and the entire series, for many reasons: the universe it created, the stories it told, and even the gunplay. I just hope that, say 10 years down the line, these games are remembered for all they did well, and not for the controversies and backlash.
As stated in my review, Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is a difficult game; a mean game, even. Its fighting system has been so refined and expanded upon over the years that it leaves little room for error. The lethality of combos in this game approaches that of Marvel vs. Capcom, in which just one touch can be fatal. The character move lists are exhaustive--meaning there's a long road to proficiency, and near-limitless room for improvement. As with any great fighter, TTT2 has a strong balance between execution and mind games.
With so many high-fantasy kingdoms, urban warzones, and faraway galaxies serving as the backdrops for games, I really appreciate the time and effort developer Arkane Studios put into developing the world of Dishonored. The city of Dunwall--with her tins of jellied eels and nautical painting--maintained an impressive level of consistency across the whole of its design. It was a pleasure to explore, and the game felt all the richer for it.
As a new fighting game and not part of an existing series, Persona 4 Arena makes a lot of smart decisions. Its combo system isn't as lethal (unless you have meter to burn) as another entry on this list, allowing for a bit more leeway in battle. The auto-combo system is an easy tool for newcomers to use, and considering this game is based on a successful JRPG series, there might be a few fighting game neophytes drawn to P4A. And the visuals and animation are outstanding. While TTT2 is a great fighter, I've always had a soft spot for Arc System Works' style.
Spec Ops: The Line posed several interesting questions to me, the player. It held up a mirror to an entire genre and asked if I felt okay with what was happening. Did I feel like a hero? Could anything good really come from such violence? In response, the immense body of critical work produced as a result of this game has been a real pleasure to review. When I think back to the games of 2012, I will remember the time I spent in Spec Ops: The Line.
Some games you just need to sit down and play for 11 hours straight. And then play for 11 more hours the next day. And a couple more hours the next. The game's feedback loop of fighting aliens, earning currency, and purchasing upgrades is well-made and hard to resist. With every alien bagged and new weapon unlocked you receive not only an immediate benefit, but a peek at what's to come. One more day. One more turn. It's addictive, without feeling manipulative, and I can't get enough.
Peter Brown, Editor Follow
Outside of a few notable games such as Dishonored, I barely had the time to play most AAA games that landed in 2012. As such, my favorite games of the year list will probably look quite different from my fellow editors', omitting games like Mass Effect 3, Halo 4, and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, simply for lack of exposure. Even so, there has been no shortage of amazing games that I have had the chance to play, many of which won't soon be forgotten.
Try, try, try again. Repeatedly attempting to execute perfect runs in Trials Evolution can be quite frustrating, but it's also amazingly addicting. The controls and physics never get in your way and you only have yourself to blame when you eat it in the same spot for the 18th consecutive time. In the back of your mind, that little voice tells you to try just one more time, every time. With such demanding and creative levels, I usually oblige.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is a definite guilty pleasure. It's simple to play and light on content, but its witty presentation of Final Fantasy's most memorable characters and themes is like gold to anyone with a fondness for the series. There have been numerous instances where I turn on my 3DS with the intention of playing through a song or two, and what happens? I spend the next two hours tapping my stylus along to classic Final Fantasy tracks, that's what. I suppose I enjoy relishing my memories of 50-hour RPGs from twenty years ago. For having such an amazing back catalog of songs, it's slightly disappointing that the majority of them are relegated to DLC at $ 0.99 per song. Still, I find myself playing the included songs over and over again for the occasional shot of nostalgia, and in that regard, Theatrhythm never fails to deliver.
After proving their aptitude in the side-scrolling shooter genre, Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture returned only months later with a platforming tour de force, the gloomy Black Knight Sword. It's like the product of a fictional tag-team consisting of Terry Gilliam and Edgar Allen Poe. The presentation is nightmarish and gory, and it's backed by a soundtrack filled with disturbing "songs" I'm convinced were created to induce a sense of impending doom. Having personally spent hours trying to complete single levels only to give up and try again the following day, I know it's not a game for the faint of heart, impatient, or weak willed. You need skill and the reaction time of a mouse to stand a chance of reaching the ending, even on normal difficulty. You could play on easy, but where's the satisfaction in that? Black Knight Sword even ups the ante by rewarding players that manage to reach the ending without health or skill upgrades. It harks back to the days of challenging platformers like Ghouls'n Ghosts or Castlevania III, but absolutely trumps those classics with a horrific sense of humor and punishing level design.
Journey may be the game that does the most by saying the least. I'm always impressed by thatgamecompany's use of light and negative space to lead the player along. By distilling interplayer communication down to a series of monotone chirps, Journey momentarily forces you to retrain the way you listen to others. Journey's goals, your abilities, and the solemn atmosphere aren't delivered with a heavy hand, but communicated through subtle yet meaningful nudges. It's a short-form experience that leaves a long-lasting impact and we absolutely need more games like Journey to keep the artform of games moving forward.
Arkane Studios has come a long way since releasing Arx Fatalis a decade ago and Dishonored marks their first full-fledged game since 2006's Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. You'd be forgiven for ignoring them in the past, but they've officially earned a place on the map with Dishonored. It's such a masterful combination of art, writing, and design that in many ways, it surpasses the likes of its influences, Bioshock, Thief, and Deus Ex. Tackling challenges in a variety of ways exemplifies the flexible level and mission design, created not to limit, but to empower players to get creative with pathfinding and skill selection. My only regret is that I still haven't been able to complete a non-lethal, low chaos run of the entire campaign.
The melding of 3D and 2D is Fez's primary mechanic, and it works, but there's a whole lot more going on in this inventive little gem. It's backed by a beautifully composed soundtrack filled with haunting melodies and uplifting ditties, accentuated by evocative dashes of light and color. The repeated use of shapes and motifs inspires handwritten notes and friendly discussions rife with theory pitching and head scratching over cryptic puzzles and passwords. Attempting to decipher the clues strewn throughout Fez's sprawling world can be a baffling experience, but nothing is more satisfying than having that revelatory moment when you finally unravel its mysteries. Fez successfully combines intelligent game design, charm, and expression into a work of art that shouldn't be missed or overlooked.
1. Sine Mora
Successful collaborations require balance and compromise. In the case of Sine Mora, the relentlessly brash mad scientists at Grasshopper Manufacture teamed up with the folks at Digital Reality to create a modern, story-driven, side-scrolling shooter. The plot--an element usually downplayed within this particular genre--pulls no punches. Mature topics including rape and slavery rear their ugly heads, so it's probably for the better that the characters are anthropomorphic rabbits and buffalo rather than proper human beings.
There's more to Sine Mora than captivatingly dark themes, thankfully. Within its genre, Sine Mora is as well designed and balanced as they come, but the introduction of a fascinating time manipulation mechanic elevates it to future-classic status. So many shooters confront your character or aircraft with targets that don't require elimination. Typically, they'll appear on screen and either fly past you or simply drift off-screen. It's not until you arrive at a boss that you're truly required to go on the offensive. Not so in Sine Mora. You're allotted an amount of time at the start of every level that's constantly counting down. You can add to your remaining time by dispatching enemies or by collecting more generous bonus pickups. Sine Mora is an example that the hitherto stagnant side-scrolling shooter genre is still ripe for innovation. Luckily, there are still developers who can create interesting, challenging, and captivating stages as well.
Carolyn Petit, Editor Follow
For me, 2012 was a year of unexpected pleasures. A number of big releases were quality games that delivered in exactly the ways that I expected them to, but didn't exceed my expectations or surprise me at all. More often than not, it was the "smaller" games that caught me off-guard, doing wonderful things that I didn't anticipate and earning a place in my heart in the process. Does the distinction between larger and smaller games even matter any more? I'm not sure.
This top-ten list can't accommodate every game I loved in 2012. I want to give honorable mentions to Sine Mora, which I loved for its gameplay, visual style and voice acting, and to SSX which, in addition to being a great update to the classic snowboarding franchise, has my favorite sound design of any game this year.
Of course, there are still many acclaimed games from 2012 that I haven't yet found the time to play. One day I hope to guide the soldiers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown to victory, to discover the realms of Guild Wars 2, and to craft wallets from sharks in Far Cry 3. But, as games like The Walking Dead remind us, we must all make choices, and I can live with mine. Here are my ten favorite games of 2012.
This is the first 2D Mario game since the heady days of Super Mario World to remind me of why I loved Mario games so much as a kid. The excellent level design keeps things easy at first, offers a satisfying challenge through most of the game, and forces you to survive some truly diabolical tests of skill if you're intent on earning the coveted 100% designation. Additionally, the sometimes-tired Mushroom Kingdom feels soulful and alive here; finding hidden exits to levels opens up surprising new pathways on the lively world map, providing a joyful reward for your discoveries, and levels like the Starry Night-esque Painted Swampland offer a fresh take on a world that has sometimes felt too familiar. As Nintendo looks to the future with the launch of the Wii U, New Super Mario Bros. U is a terrific throwback to the company's past.
I loved hopping behind the wheel of Twisted Metal's numerous death machines. The controls felt rough in the most fitting way, like you were driving a vehicle someone had bolted together in his garage from scavenged parts. Indeed, the whole game is rough and ready; sloppy and chaotic, sure, but isn't that the way a sprawling vehicular deathmatch between psychotic combatants should be? I had a great time with the campaign, and one of my biggest gaming disappointments of the year is that the multiplayer was so plagued with problems. On those rare occasions that it worked as intended for me, Twisted Metal's speedy, explosive multiplayer provided the most fun I had in online competition all year.
8. Halo 4
Cortana's wit and intelligence instantly made her one of my favorite characters in the gaming pantheon when she debuted on the scene in Halo: Combat Evolved. Sure, Chief is great, but what would he be as a character without Cortana to play off of? Interacting with the military, John has always been a good soldier, showing little personality beyond his willingness to do whatever needs to be done. It was through Cortana's relationship with the Chief that we got to know them both, and that relationship always provided the humanity at the heart of the lore- and technobabble-heavy Halo narratives. Halo 4 takes this often-sidelined relationship and puts it back at the center, where it belongs. It also has the most exciting Halo campaign since the franchise's debut, offering a well-paced mix of tense situations that find Chief fighting on his own and wide-open battles teeming with vehicles that make you feel like part of a larger conflict. The striking final image of the campaign has lingered in my memory; I don't know where 343 Industries plans to take the series from here, but I sure am eager to find out.
If you ever had and loved an NES, Abobo's Big Adventure will set off nostalgic fireworks in your brain with its spot-on recreations of so many characters, environments and tunes from that storied console's library. But there's much more to Abobo's Big Adventure than familiar sprites and music. The game spoofs The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Contra and many other NES games, tossing in tons of great cameos, hilarious moments and other surprises, but it never messes with the gameplay that made those games such classics. As a result, Abobo's Big Adventure is a great window into 8-bit gaming for those who may not have experienced the NES era firsthand, and for those of us who grew up with those games, Abobo's Big Adventure is like playing them again for the first time. It's just a delightful tribute to the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Sometimes, in our memories, we see connections between moments that are impossible to see when we're living through those moments. With the distance offered by time, we can see the ways in which moments are connected; one event can bleed into another that took place months prior, or years later. Playing through Thirty Flights of Loving feels to me like experiencing someone else's memories; it's full of smash cuts that move you forward and back through time in ways that can initially be disorienting, but that make emotional sense. I'm a sucker for heist movies so I was immediately drawn to the game's trio of criminals planning a huge vault robbery. I went in expecting a rollicking criminal escapade. What I got instead was a jarring, funny and poignant love story, a wonderful example of visual storytelling at its leanest and most focused. It's only about 15 minutes long, but I'll remember it much more vividly than most 15-hour games I played this year.
5. Max Payne 3
In Max Payne 3, Rockstar takes Max Payne out of the noirish New York setting that, along with Max's cynical, hardboiled internal monologues, defined the tone and identity of the first two games in the series. You can take Max out of America, but you can't take America out of Max, and his bloody experiences in and around Sao Paulo make for an atypical take on the all-too-typical American hero who saves the day. The game uses its setting brilliantly, taking you from hilltop mansions and dance clubs to favelas and condemned buildings. It's got plenty of outrageous action hero moments--if you need someone to dangle from a helicopter and shoot some guys, Max has you covered--but it also takes its time, letting you absorb its world and its story, encouraging you to consider the societal impact of the stark divide between the haves and have-nots, and the ways in which those with power often prey on those without it (a recurring theme in Rockstar games).
Max is a man who, unlike so many action heroes, actually seems troubled by the blood on his hands, and in a medium where lead characters of high-profile games are usually static, it's wonderful to see such a character be a different man at the end of a game than he is at the start.
Until now, Forza games have been all about racing. What Forza Horizon lets me enjoy, in a way that no game before really has, is the simple pleasure of driving. Of course Horizon isn't remotely the first game to give you an open world you can drive around in, but because of Forza's physics model, driving around in Horizon really feels like driving. And because of its gorgeous landscapes, which include forests, mountains, rock formations, and small town streets, driving around feels like taking a scenic road trip. As someone who enjoys just hitting the open road once in a while, Horizon appeals to my sense of automotive wanderlust like no other game before.
Few things matter more in this world than who we are in the eyes of the children who look to us for care and protection and guidance. The Walking Dead's crisis situations are the result of a massive zombie outbreak, but this game is really about the relationship between former history professor Lee Everett and nine-year-old girl Clementine. With every choice I made in this game, the concern in my head wasn't "How will this affect the story?" or even "What's the morally right thing to do?" but "What is the right thing to do for Clementine?" Often, the choices weren't clear. I agonized over whether to take food from a seemingly abandoned car so that I could better provide for her, or whether it was more important to set a moral example for her by not taking the food. Ultimately, most of these choices have little impact on the way the story progresses, but they affect the person you are in Clementine's eyes, and that is a powerful thing.
It was 1982, a post-Raiders of the Lost Ark world, when I first popped Pitfall! into my Atari 2600 and stepped into the shoes of treasure-hunting adventurer Pitfall Harry. In this world, you could venture left or right, and if you went underground, the logic of the world shifted; moving from one screen to the next underground took you somewhere else than if you'd made that same transition aboveground. Exploring, swinging on ropes, leaping on the heads of crocodiles--it made me feel like an adventurer in the Indiana Jones mold.
Now, thirty years (!!) later, Spelunky captures that same feeling, better than perhaps any game before. Exploration is one of the greatest pleasures video games can offer, and with Spelunky, the exploration never ends. Its mines, jungles, caves and temples are different every time, but they are always filled with danger. Death comes quickly and with severe consequences in Spelunky, so every potentially deadly trap or monster is cause for caution. But you can't be too cautious--linger too long in any area and an invulnerable specter will hunt you down. And the secrets--oh, the secrets! There is so much to discover in Spelunky's world. I'm still learning new things about this game after playing it pretty regularly for months.
The ever-changing nature of Spelunky's world leads to so many unexpected moments, so many tragic yet hilarious stories. I don't know how many times I've been merrily progressing through the game, when suddenly, a particular configuration of hazards and my spectacularly inept attempt to deal with them has led to a failure so sudden and so outrageous that all I can do is throw my hands up and laugh before picking up the controller and giving the quest another go, eager to discover what awaits me this time. Will fortune smile upon me? Will I be blessed with useful items like the compass or a bevy of bombs I can use to blast my own pathways through these treacherous environments? Or will I find myself thrust into darkness, or perhaps faced with the threat of giant spiders or terrifying bees? Even after all the hours I've sunk into Spelunky, I feel like I still haven't come close to exhausting its potential for exciting, death-defying adventure. This game taps into something I've loved about games ever since that fateful day way back in 1982, and I imagine I'll still be playing it for a long, long time.
Hotline Miami is an example not of style over substance, but of style as substance. If you perfectly duplicated its gameplay in a game about a cartoon sheep attacking wolves in a lush grassland as happy music played, it would not be a fraction of the game that Hotline Miami is. With the help of its propulsive, relentless electronic soundtrack, Hotline Miami pumped my cerebral cortex so full of lightning-fast, neon-bright violence and garish 80s opulence that I feel like the experience of playing it rewired my brain. Of course, the gameplay is crucial to the experience as well; it's in the chemically volatile fusion of mechanics and aesthetics that the magic happens. Yes, the enemies in Hotline Miami are stupid as hell, but they are exactly what they need to be to make the game so nerve-wracking. They react fast, encouraging you to act even faster. You often have little choice but to behave recklessly, charging into rooms and hoping that you can kill the thugs waiting inside before they even know you're there.
On some stages, I died dozens of times. When I would succeed in clearing out most of a level, and knew I either had to kill the last few thugs or face the entire stage full of Russian gangsters again, the level of tension I felt was almost uncomfortable. But I was far too hooked on the experience to give up, to walk away. Grooving to the music, I was driven onward. I died. I hit R instantly. I started again. And again. And again. It was trancelike. It was transportive. It was truly unforgettable. When I close my eyes, I can still see the biker, speeding along sleekly in the warm Miami night.
Danny O'Dwyer, Video Journalist Follow
In a year where I struggled to want to complete games, I finished off Hotline Miami twice in a single evening. Sometimes a game just clicks and you find it impossible to put it down. In many ways it reminds me of Super Meat Boy. It's unique and challenging, the controls are responsive, and the game rewards determination. To top it all off, it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. The levels sway and pulsate in response to your character's actions in a really satisfying way, and the soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission. Hotline Miami an intoxicating experience, and one I've returned to several times since its release. So if a crazed murderer burst into my house and put a gun to my head, I'd have to say Hotline Miami is my favourite game of 2012.
I adore first person shooters but 2012 was the year that broke me--I just can't be bothered to invest time into Call of Duty or Halo anymore. I find them boring, repetitive and uninspired. To me, even the lauded Dishonored felt like a well executed, but ultimately old, idea. So what a wonderful surprise Far Cry 3 was. A solid shooter, with gameplay variety, dynamic environments, an unpredictable storyline, interesting characters and emergent gameplay coming out of its ears. It's an open world game with an emphasis on shooting over role playing, one where you change as a player alongside your vocal protagonist. It's a game where you can set tigers on fire, take psychotropic drugs and squirrel dive off of mountains. If that doesn't get you excited about the future of first person shooters, I don't know what will. Master Chief can't even jump properly.
The third F1 game from Codemasters Racing is the best F1 game I've ever played--Crammond included. I'm not a petrol head by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the sport and F1 2012 enables me to extend that passion past race weekends. This year's edition made critical improvements to the artificial intelligence and driving model and is a much better game for it. Some sections of the sport's fans may cry foul about various less-than-realistic elements, but if you take F1 2012 on its own merits, it's a truly great game. It's an experience that delivers satisfying competition and all the highs and lows associated with it, and a game worthy of the best F1 season in recent memory.
Waking Mars is a game about planting alien flora in caves beneath the surface of Mars. I don't like gardening, I don't even have a garden, and I don't usually stay up until four in the morning to finish this type of game. But Waking Mars' atmosphere and addictive gameplay encouraged me to complete it in a single seven-hour sitting. You play as a scientist who must use the environmental effects of plants to unlock and explore deeper caverns which hold secrets of Mars' past. The environments are believable and striking, while the story and constantly evolving gameplay keep you intrigued throughout. I played it on iPad myself but it's since been released for PC with updated voice acting and HD graphics. Just make sure you don't have work the next morning.
Max Payne 3
Brevity is something I've come to appreciate this year. Though Max Payne 3 isn't short, it was one of the few third-person games that managed to hold my attention until the end. The shooting is brutal and satisfying, Max's monologues are clever as hell and the cinematic dressings are enjoyable throughout. Most impressively, the story helped tie this chapter by a different developer into the existing narrative in a way that didn't make it feel like a reboot. In fact, it felt like the final chapter of a trilogy. Suicide missions pop up in games pretty frequently, but there's little doubt the protagonist will somehow make it out in the end. In Max Payne 3 you really feel like you're watching the last act of a dead man walking. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the game is that not only is in one of my favourites of 2012, but it's also my favourite Max Payne game. Rockstar Vancouver may have died, but at least they went out in a blaze of glory.
Permadeath is such a great mechanic. It forces you to obsess over every tiny decision like it's the difference between life and death. Meanwhile, short games encourage you to experiment. Faster Than Light gives you a spaceship and a goal, and dumps you into an unforgiving universe. What happens from there is up to you and the God of dice-rolls, but every short adventure is memorable. Even with a full crew and a well-armed ship, a single bad decision can lead to catastrophe - and usually a hilarious story to tell your friends. FTL was among the first Kickstarter success stories. If crowdfunding produces more games like it, we're in for a treat.
Journey is a really pretty game, which is just as well because its graphics are just about the only part of the game you can talk about without sounding like a pompous drama student. The rolling sands, melting sun, and pure white glaciers are a joy to behold. As it happens, I was in Dubai the week after I played it, and despite being surrounded by the real stuff, it was the digital sand of Journey that plagued my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about it. The day I returned home I recorded a bunch of gameplay and edited a short music video about how it made me feel. A game with no words has to work very hard to reach you on that sort of level. It's also really pretty.
Best Game of 2012 that isn't from 2012: Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
Yeah, I know it came out in 2010, but it would be criminal not to mention my love of Starcraft II this year. A group of us in the UK office decided to try it out so we could better understand pro gaming and the video coverage surrounding it. Two months later we were still spending our lunch breaks trading blows and discussing tactics. I now frequently tune into Live On Three and spend weekends flicking through random matches on Twitch. I probably enjoyed it that bit more because I didn't have much experience with real-time strategy going into it. Perhaps my disillusionment with the first-person genre contributed in some way. In any case, I look forward to playing even more next year when Heart of the Swarm finally comes out. Perhaps it'll make it into my top ten of 2013.
Honourable Mentions: XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Walking Dead
Two games I played this year would probably get into my top ten if it wasn't for crippling technical issues that halted my progress. As a fan of the original games, XCOM was among my most anticipated games of the year, and I played it immediately on release. But an interface bug that trapped me in the menus after every mission put a stop to my game about a quarter of the way through. The other is The Walking Dead, the first chapter of which I've completed twice only to have chapter two load with no graphics. Both are games I adored right up until the point at which I couldn't play them anymore. So XCOM and The Walking Dead are my final two entries: My favourite games of the year that I never completed. Something to look forward to finishing next year.
Tom Mc Shea, Editor Follow
2012 was an amazing year for games. Do you want evidence? Observe:
10. Sound Shapes
Elevating a game's music to the same plane as the core gameplay is a tricky endeavor that few games seem to get right. Sound Shapes excelled at it. Creatures and objects in the environment created platforms with their songs, and leaping between them offered a pleasing combination of free-flowing movement and dastardly challenge. Every world (charmingly referred to as albums) presented a unique artistic and musical style that continually shifted my expectations of what lay ahead. And the best part of all? A level called Cities with a song written by Beck. As the singer bellowed the chorus, his words manifested in the environment, embodying the perfect mix of music and gameplay that Sound Shapes so expertly achieved throughout the game.
I have a major problem with military games. By ignoring the realities of war in favor of a fantasyland theme park, they alter our perception of the tragedies that take place every day. Spec Ops: The Line doesn't hide from the truth. Rather, it shows that war isn't fought between good guys and bad guys, that even those with the noblest intentions can perform terrible deeds in the wrong circumstances. Furthermore, The Line thrust the entire modern military genre under the microscope. The power fantasy so common in these games, where murdering thousands of individuals has no repercussions, is examined here in sobering detail. Playing another military shooter after The Line shows how juvenile they truly are, and I can only cross my fingers that more developers treat this delicate subject with respect in the future.
8. I Am Alive
I'm a sucker for stories centered on familial relationships. In I Am Alive, you play as a man in search of his family after a disaster tore his hometown asunder, and it shows what happens to society when no one is in charge. While searching for your family, you find a little girl lost in the wreckage. The bond you form with her is touching without being saccharine, and provides an emotional center for the chaotic events happening around you. Combat is rare and incredibly tense. You often get confronted by desperate survivors without any bullets to defend yourself, but merely raising a gun can be enough to keep people at bay. Few games have examined the psychology of what it'd be like to live in such a terrible situation, so I Am Alive stood out for me in its depressing and harsh view of an unthinkable ordeal.
The Mass Effect trilogy was incredibly ambitious at its conception, and I'm floored that it pulled off its huge ideas in such an unexpected way. The choices I made through three long adventures drew me closer to my companions and my ultimate goal, and the resulting payoff in the finale was worth all the time and energy I invested in the games. The sacrifices in the third adventure shook me because I had grown so close to these characters. What's most fascinating to me is that I don't care one bit for the shooting. Mass Effect 2 and 3 were rote cover-based shooters against boring enemies in repetitive environments, so all the action portions were weak points for me. And yet, even though much of the game was tiring, the story was so well told and the characters so expertly developed that I couldn't pull myself away.
No game released this year elicited as many stunned reactions as Closure. The mind-bending concept shows a world where objects cease to exist once the lights are turned off. The solid plot of ground you're walking on can vanish in a flash if the light fails to reach it. It's a crazy idea that's used in new and inventive ways throughout the adventure. Turning a pillar into a makeshift elevator just by moving a light source is eminently appealing, and trying to wrap my head around the devious puzzles made this a deeply satisfying adventure. And even after sinking hours into the game, I would still plummet to my death by forgetting that there really isn't anything to stand on near that door even though I had just been there a moment earlier. Closure is a fascinating concept done really well.
On at least a half dozen separate occasions, I openly despised Spelunky. Merciless is too kind a word for the unrelenting platforming trials Spelunky places before you. Randomly constructed levels filled with obstacles and baddies that can kill you at any moment, and yet I have to start from square one whenever my last heart disappears? That's just sadistic! And yet, I kept coming back. I learned to balance my patience and cunning. I learned that greed is the number one cause of death, and that there's no shame in running scared from a boomerang-throwing cannibal. Slowly but surely, I made progress, and I realized what these punishing design decisions were for. Spelunky is about discovery and reward, and by making you fight for everything, you earn everything you get, and the satisfaction of a job well done is impossible to contain.
Strong narrative in any medium makes me sad when the tale is concluded. I spent more than 30 hours playing Virtue's Last Reward, and in those many hours, I grew very close to the diverse cast of characters. There's quiet Luna, perpetually helping others while scared to divulge information about her past. Contrast her with crazy Dio, a foul-mouthed hot head whose agenda is clearly to save his own butt. And then there's Phi. You meet her in the first scene, and her steely determination and expansive knowledge urge you to uncover every detail about her that you can. These and other strong characters assist and betray each other as they struggle to figure out why they were kidnapped. It's a fantastic story told in a way I haven't seen before. Choices push you down a path, but to see the entire tale, you need to examine every decision. Wrap that up with clever puzzles that tie into the greater narrative, and Virtue's Last Reward catapulted toward the top of my favorite games list.
Ordinary high school problems seem like a dull idea to base a game around, but it's that mundaneness that makes Golden so compelling. Forming relationships is at the core of a life well lived, so the simple act of playing basketball with a troubled friend or consoling your crying cousin draws you fully into this experience. And as you grow closer to the characters, you understand the secrets they hide from the rest of the world. The nurse who feels helpless when her patients die and the hotel heiress forced to follow in her parents' footsteps exhibit relatable problems, and it's empowering to see their troubles resolved. Golden goes so deep into suburban affairs that you feel as though you're a part of this small Japanese town. Exciting turn-based combat exhibits the traditional video game elements you would expect, but it's the personal quest that makes Golden so enthralling. Clearly, this is one of the finest role-playing games ever crafted.
Journey is raw emotion. Instead of letting complexity obfuscate its message, Journey's streamlined action engenders a feeling of simple joy. Exquisite visual design continually took my breath away, and the soaring soundtrack perfectly complimented my movement. As I slid down hills and hopped upon shattered structures, I was entirely immersed in my cloaked hero's journey. This is a monumental achievement that shows how much power video games have. This wordless story resonates because you are in control, and as you struggle to reach the shining summit, you feel connected to this world, eager to discover the mysteries that lay ahead. And just when you think you're alone, that there's no one else in this entire wasteland, you meet a friend. Chirp and hop, follow along. You communicate on the most basic level, and that ties into the overall theme of Journey. This is an experience that strips away the artificial constraints that keep us from understanding one another and delivers a message anyone could digest.
I'm not going to mince words: Dark Souls is one of the finest games I have ever played. This is a phenomenal experience that gets to the heart of why I play games. Dark Souls respects me. It knows that I struggle at times, that I get down, frustrated. It knows that I sometimes want to give up in disgust. But it knows that handing me something, instead of making me earn it, would leave me dry and empty a few minutes later. That's why the challenge needs to be so high. When I fall down, I pick myself up again, and keep pushing forward.
But it's not the difficulty alone that makes this so compelling. Every element of this game is created with staggering precision. From the health system that governs how much life you can carry with you to the intricate pathways that link this interconnected world, every aspect ties into the overall point. Dark Souls is what's right with gaming. It's why I started playing years ago with The Legend of Zelda, why I pushed through Spelunky and Super Meat Boy even when I was at my wits' end. There is no joy greater than overcoming a challenge through my own will and determination, and Dark Souls is an amazing example of the drive that makes living life so eminently rewarding.
Andy Bauman, Video Producer
Chris Watters, Editor Follow
When I was a kid, my mom always forced me to write thank-you notes for every gift I received. After miraculously managing to overcome my perennial procrastination and professed loathing of the task, she would encourage me to not only thank the person for his or her gift but also elaborate on why I liked it, what I looked forward to doing with it, and so on. Though I may not have appreciated it then, I've since found that this thoroughness actually makes me more thankful for the gift in question, and also thankful for the relationship I have with the person I'm writing to. With that in mind, I've decided to write thank-you notes to my top ten games of 2012. They might not be able to read them, what with being inanimate objects and all, but it'll help me be more grateful for another great year of playing games.
10. Trials Evolution,
When I started playing you after loving your predecessor, Trials HD, I was expecting to once again grapple with fiendishly challenging tracks and get sucked in to heated leaderboard battles. Sure enough, I did, and it was awesome. What I wasn't expecting was to do all this through the beautiful countryside, in an eerie castle, and around a crazy baseball diamond! Man, you really outdid yourself with environmental and track design, and I want you to know how much I appreciate it. But you didn't just let your creativity shine through; you pointed the spotlight at the creativity of your community as well, and that was really cool of you. Even though you make my hands sweat more than any other game, I still love picking up the controller and going for a few rides. Thanks for a great year! Sincerely, Chris.
I have to admit, when we first met, I was a bit baffled. You worked quite a bit differently from regular old Monday Night Combat, and it took a bunch of matches (and some forum reading) before I started to get my bearings. I'm glad I stuck with it though, because the ebb and flow of your battles led to some epic struggles. I'm thankful that you have such a diverse roster of pros, because their various abilities create some fun strategies and encourage teamwork. For a few months there, you provided a great way to finish out my work day, and even if my team didn't win, I always went home with a smile on my face. And thanks for having such a lighthearted sense of humor! It's nice to play a shooter that doesn't take things too seriously. Fondly, Chris.
8. Dear The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings,
Thank you, first and foremost, for coming to the Xbox 360. Sitting on my couch and adventuring across the Northern Kingdoms late into the night was a wonderful way to deprive myself of sleep for weeks on end. Though I had spent similar hours with Skyrim just a few months prior, you had so many intriguing characters and great conversations that I was immediately captivated. I'm thankful for Geralt, Triss, Dandelion, Zoltan, Iorveth, Roche (sort of), and all the other humans and non-humans that make your world so fascinating. Your quest scripting, world design, and dialogue were so, so good, and it didn't hurt that your combat was a lot of fun. Dziekuje, Chris.
7. Dear Journey,
Though there are a lot of pretty sights to behold in countless video game realms, I think you are beautiful in a very special way. The textures of cloth and sand, the lovely color palette, and the elegance of your animation all come together to create something magical. Thank you for transporting me to a wonderful world, and for giving me things to do there that don't involve killing. As you can see from the rest of the games on my list, I'm not averse to violence in video games, but I really appreciated the opportunity to play in a peaceful way. Serenely, Chris.
6. Dear XCOM: Enemy Unknown,
I was really hoping for a chance to dive into a tactical challenge this year, and you provided the perfect outlet. Thank you for your methodical combat, which made me more tense than any of the fast-paced shooters on this list. Thank you for giving me a lot of powerful ways to improve my home base, but being stingy enough with resources that I had to do some careful planning. Even after I had to discard hours of play because of a few bad moves, I never got mad at you, because you were teaching me the things I needed to know to survive and succeed. Respectfully yours, Chris.
5. Dear Halo 4,
We both know I've been a Halo fan for a while, but it wasn't until I played your campaign that the story actually excited me. I think you did an excellent job with Master Chief and Cortana's relationship, and now that I'm seeing more of Dr. Halsey in Spartan Ops, I'm one happy camper (not like, in that multiplayer way, just to clarify). Thank you for giving me new reasons to love the series, and new ways to assassinate people in War Games. The tackle one is my favorite. Warmly, Chris.
4. Dear Far Cry 3,
When I sit down to play a game in the evening, I am lucky enough to have a lot of choices. Tense combat, a guided story, unfettered exploration, treasure hunting, vehicular mayhem, and open world hijinks all vie for my time. I'm usually in the mood for one of these things, and there you are offering all of them. Thank you for giving me an enticing place I can go and play however I like. Contentedly, Chris. P.S. I'm sorry I killed that manta ray that one time. They are beautiful, peaceful creatures, and it was wrong.
3. Dear Mass Effect 3,
Are we at the end already? It feels like just yesterday that I was humanity's first Spectre, fighting to gain some respect on the galactic counsel and sparring with an ornery Krogan. Now I've come to the end of civlization as we know it and said farewell to characters I love, not all of whom survived the trip. I'm so thankful to have seen this epic journey through to its conclusion. Playing as Commander Shepard for one last time was bittersweet, but also thrilling, because that lady is a total badass. For making me cackle with delight, cheer in triumph, and churn with regret (in a good way), thanks. Love, Chris.
2. Dear Dishonored,
From the moment that little Emily Kaldwin rushed up to me and gave me a big hug, you had me hooked. As I proceeded to explore Dunwall and come to know the city and her denizens (with the help of that ingenious talking heart), you entranced me. Whether I was stealthily evading my enemies, bloodily dispatching them, or meting out justice on the architects of the Empress' betrayal, you made me feel both powerful and responsible. Thank you for your wonderful world and for making me a part of it. Faithfully, Chris.
1. Dear Spelunky,
You aggravate me. You carelessly throw away all my cautious efforts and prudent preparation without blinking. You cause me to shout in anger, sigh with despair, and writhe in agony. You make me feel like an utter moron and a mouth-breathing incompetent. And now I'm supposed to thank you? Hmmm. Well, I suppose you also intrigue me with your ever-changing levels. You fascinate me with your hidden secrets. You beguile me with how you aggregate so much simplicity into a complex whole. You offer me enticing challenges, and you reward me upon completion with such pure, sweet satisfaction. You give me stories to tell and you make me feel like an adventurer. And even months after I've beaten you, I still return to your caves, time and time again. So thank you, then, for being the most compelling, most entertaining, and most exhilarating game this year. Devotedly, Chris.
Aaron Sampson, Video Producer Follow
I'm not going to lie: as a producer here at GameSpot, I see tons of games every year, but rarely have a chance to play them to completion. With that in mind, here are my top five picks of 2012.
Dance Central still has the smoothest Kinect integration of any game I've seen and has made that piece of hardware more than just a TV ornament in my household. Dance Central 3 is a game that gets gamers and non-gamers alike up and moving, and moving, and moving. Really, you can't cheat this game and you're better for it. My greatest criticism of Dance Central 2 was that it didn't bring enough unlockables to the table, but DC3 remedies that and at the same time introduces some lighthearted party-friendly modes.
This game also has some very interesting difficulty level differences. On the harder modes, not only are the routines harder, but the dancers' attitudes get ratcheted up several notches, making you feel more accomplished once you've sweated your way through a routine many times in order to get those coveted five stars. DC3 is a winner with my family this year.
No, seriously: the online combat in this free-to-play game was superior to Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. It also has one of my favorite movement and cover systems of the year. You can chain both a slide and a dive to get into cover. While in cover you can be prone, crouched, or standing, which means you can take effective refuge behind just about any object, from curbs to pillars. This cover mechanic also gives chest-high walls new depth, as you never know quite where to aim when clearing them. Ghost Recon Online also doesn't go for the regular old class abilities, and the abilities it offers do everything to encourage players away from a simple run-and-gun style, without actually forcing them away from it.
The powers selected for classes in this game encourage some insanely fun team play. For example, a specialist can charge over a capture point after turning on a bullet intercepting system, while an assaulter shield-charges anyone in front of him, while a sniper reveals all enemy positions, and voila, a zone capture succeeds. Speaking of maps, GR Online has one of my favorite takes on conquest mode this year, involving two teams fighting for a center point and then taking the battle past the opposing force two more zones. The unique part of this mode is that the maps can go in two completely opposite directions, giving the levels tons of replayability.
3. Halo 4
343 Industries took Master Chief from a man with no emotion to a man who couldn't express his emotions, and it made all the difference. Throw in Cortana grappling with her own mortality, a doctor devastated by the loss of her life's work, and superb camerawork and animation, and you've got a game that delivered deep emotion in very small spans of time. The type of writing in Halo 4 is the hardest type of writing, the less-is-more variety. Throw in some of the smoothest gamepad controls in the industry, the classic arena style combat, the need for ammo management, and a ton of enemy variety, and you've got a near-perfect package. I'm not afraid to admit that I was not a true Halo fan before. Halo 4 changed that.
Mass Effect 3 is a game about many individual endings, and it saw the passing of characters whose deaths made me feel actual grief. The really fantastic thing about this game, however, is that when I would talk to my coworkers about it, many of them would look back with a blank stare and reply, "That guy didn't die, what are you talking about?" Like Star Wars with its special effects and The Matrix with bullet time, Mass Effect 3 did what few things do: it gave me an experience I had never had before.
That experience was crafted in the old choose-your-own-adventure style. It's not that it hasn't been done before; it's just never been done this well. In the end, the game even gave me what I would consider a perfect ending when I went the control route. Mass Effect 3 also made me think about film differently--I now feel that film is obsolete for telling certain stories, because they can't give you the personal experience this game did. I am looking forward to many more years with this franchise and can't wait to see what Bioware comes up with.
This game is unabashed gun porn and it works perfectly. I swore off MMOs years ago but this game managed to sneak in all the old staples of that genre (including the dreaded fetch quest) and made me love them. At the heart of Borderlands 2 is a Diablo-style random loot system involving guns, shields, and special mods. 99% of loot dropped is normal, but the idea that a powerful enemy could drop a rare or legendary gun really drives players to explore this gorgeous cel-shaded world. The funny thing is that you are aware of the gimmick, but it gets you anyway.
The weapon systems of Borderlands 2 are unique and rooted in the concept of several different gun manufacturers, all of whom offer up firearms that vary in more ways than just fire rate and accuracy. The world of Pandora has also undergone a major upgrade since the previous game; it now has a much higher density and variety of enemies and NPCs, resulting in a landscape that's chock full of tactical decision-making and incredible personality. Having completed my first playthrough with Maya, Borderlands 2 has me feeling like I've only seen a small percentage of what it has to offer.
Shaun McInnis, Editor Follow
After building a new gaming PC at the end of last year, 2012 gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizons and begin to really dig into the unique games the PC platform had to offer. And while my consoles gathered dust for long stretches throughout the year, there were still some incredible games on those systems that made it onto my list--as those of you who have already stopped reading this and scrolled down to the number one entry can already tell. First, though, the games that didn't make my Top 10…
My Top 10 Games of 2012:
10. Mass Effect 3
No, I wasn't a huge fan of the ending(s). No, I didn't like how the multiplayer had a tangible effect on the single-player. But you know what? Everything else about the game I loved. I think a lot of people forget that Mass Effect 3 is still a huge game beyond those headline-dominating controversies. A huge, well-made, and deeply enjoyable game.
I have a weird thing with strategy games. I don't play a lot of them, but when I do, I like them to be as absurdly complicated as possible. Crusader Kings II certainly fits that bill, building on the "grand strategy" genre Paradox is known for with a deeper system of diplomatic relationships and family management. Crusader Kings II may have a ridiculous learning curve, but it's so very worth it.
Forza Horizon is pretty much the definition of a chocolate-and-peanut butter situation. I love simulation racing games and I love open-world sandboxes. Combine the two and I'm in heaven. Sure, the "story" was a bit grating--but it was also pretty harmless. The world you explore in those $200,000 sports cars is just so engrossing that it more than makes up for any issues with the narrative.
I'm generally a baby when it comes to difficult games, but there's just something so intoxicating about Hotline Miami that I plowed straight through the entire thing in a few sittings. The music is perfect, the juxtaposition of pixel graphics and intense violence is so strangely compelling, and the action itself almost has a puzzle-solving feel to it. Such a great and singular experience.
6. Far Cry 3
It's funny how Far Cry 2 and 3 are both open-world shooters, and yet I enjoy them for wildly different reasons. FC2 was a harsh, unforgiving world that seemed ambivalent to your presence--whether or not you got by was none of its concern. I loved that about it. Far Cry 3, on the other hand, practically bends over backwards to make sure you're entertained. I also love that. Does that make me insane? Probably. But I've accepted that.
5. Dear Esther
Lately I've developed a greater appreciation for games that play around with the conventions of video games, and what I really loved about Dear Esther was its nontraditional approach to storytelling. I never felt like someone was actively telling me a story; I felt like I had crept into someone's subconscious and proceeded to float through their memories, experiencing one fragmented thought after another in in a disordered jumble of personal recollections. That the world was so beautiful to explore was nice, too, and really added to the dreamlike reverie this game established.
Remember what I said earlier about strategy games? The same applies here. I don't play a ton of them, but for whatever reason I prefer them to be as absurdly complicated as possible. I skipped over League of Legends altogether and jumped straight into Dota 2, partly because Valve is a studio I know and trust, and partly because the allure of its greater learning curve seemed strangely appealing. I'm still not great at it, but I'm having an absolute blast even as I continue to get owned in public matches.
More than anything else, The Walking Dead is a testament to the power of player choice in video games. This is a game that presents you with some truly grim situations, and you have to not only make difficult decisions, but continue to deal with the fallout of those decisions in a never-ending domino game of human interactions. It's a game that takes that familiar element of people trying to preserve their own humanity during a zombie outbreak and adds an element of player agency that makes it exponentially more powerful. It's not "fun" in a traditional sense, but boy is it incredible.
Dishonored is like a time traveler sent to 2012 in order to teach a lesson to big budget action games. It's proof that you can make people care about an original IP as long as you create an interesting world and populate it with fascinating characters. It's proof that you can set a game in the first-person perspective and not make it a shooter. It's proof that you can revive ideas from bygone eras of gaming and make them work--really, truly work--by adding your own refreshing twist. That Dishonored managed to find success in this era of sequels and Call of Duty clones is one of the great stories of the year. Of course, it also helps that this game is just really, really good.
Journey may not be the best "game" I've played this year (that title goes to Dishonored). It may not be the best story I've played this year (that goes to The Walking Dead). But you know what? It was the best experience I had with a game all year, bar none. There was just something so magical and unique about what I experienced in Journey that I'll never be able to forget. I don't know if I'll ever be able to pinpoint what that something is, but it's there and it's deeply resonant.
Jonathan Toyad, Associate Editor Follow
Greetings, and welcome to my list of the best games of 2012. As some in the Southeast Asia region may recall, I previously mentioned my top 3 games from this year on my GameSpot Asia Beat podcast. Obviously, I needed more time to collect my thoughts and figure out the remaining seven, so here we are.
In no particular order, here's a list of games that I either played to death, or that just left a lasting impression on me.
Yes, you can criticize its tacked-on multiplayer and sand-pouring mechanic, but you'd be missing the entire point of Spec Ops: The Line. What we have here is a shooter that isn't afraid to tell its story; one that demonizes war and explores the dark corners a man can head to. It's also a huge criticism of the many shooters out there that glorify and justify their subject matter. While games are usually praised for being fun, this one in particular should be praised for taking a bold step in storytelling, albeit a grim one.
Capcom generally answered my prayers and came up with the brilliant idea of combining bits of Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, and Devil May Cry into one gumbo of RPG bliss. You haven't lived until you've seen a wizard and a ranger hanging onto a cyclops for dear life while pounding its skull and arm to kingdom come. While a bunch of goblins are pelting them with arrows. And a giant drake comes in just as they are out of curatives.
Despite the controversies surrounding it, this fighting game has a place in my heart because it's not every day you can team up a Russian bodybuilder with a grizzly bear, or with a cocksure Korean Tae Kwan Do practitioner. Combining aspects of both Street Fighter (zoning, supers) and Tekken (chain combos, tagging) while splashing in some new elements like gems and cross assaults makes for a meaty fighting experience. I do hope that the 2013 patch gets everyone back to playing this, because I'm having a hell of a hard time finding people to play against.
Some may regard the majority of The Last Story's narrative and character tropes as clichéd, but I call them comfort food. The trials and tribulations of Zael and his motley crew are worth giving a damn about; they shine thanks to their well-defined personalities and rich back stories. I'd even go so far as to say that Syrenne and Lowell's relationship was handled in a more mature and wholesome fashion than most TV shows or movies could hope to achieve. Beyond that, the Gears of War-inspired real-time combat is fresh and addictive, and the 20-hour duration is reminiscent of a time where RPGs did not need to have 70+ hours of padding.
This 3DS title can take the "so good it hurts" award, as I had to take breaks after every two or three missions due to the questionable control scheme for the ground segments. Nonetheless, its fourth-wall-breaking humor, epic soundtrack and frenetic action combine to create a thrilling ride that made me persevere to see it through to its climax.
As a purveyor of fine music, I should not forget about Nintendo's recent entry in the Rhythm Heaven series. Instead of opting for gimmicks like the DS Rhythm Heaven title, the Wii sequel went back to basics with its control scheme. Personally, I'm all for it as long as the wacky scenarios and situations are still intact. The developers upped the ante this time, making catchy tunes out of such riveting situations as a board meeting with pigs, a dance by elongated tap dancers, and an interview with a wrestler that made waves across YouTube.
You might not have believed a stealth game in 2D could work. Klei Entertainment made it possible while also making sure a ninja in a 2D space does what a ninja is supposed to do: sneak and assassinate, not blow stuff up in glorious fashion or go toe-to-toe with Godzilla. In addition to having a good story, the game does a great job of implementing noise and the cover of darkness as things you need to be mindful of. And like any proper ninja, you always look stylish and skillful doing the things that ninjas do.
3. Gravity Rush
I've always been a staunch supporter of new IPs, and Gravity Rush is a game that's important in this day and age. It weaves in huge influences from French comics while also being its own beast thanks to its gravity-shifting mechanic. The game makes simply exploring the corners of its world so much fun as you freefall and float around in style while also kicking bad guys' faces with full-fledged gravity kicks. With its lovable protagonist and lovely score, this game is a huge justification for owning a PS Vita.
I cannot imagine the ungodly number of hours I've poured into this game's multiplayer, re-killing bosses and re-doing stages, either with friends or with random strangers who usually aren't ninja looters of all things purple or orange. It's got great writing, memorable characters, and a main villain who I can safely declare to be the Kefka of 2012, so don't act too shocked if I'm still playing this game and raving about it after the year ends.
Honestly, before this year, the only game that had tugged on my heartstrings was Okami, and that was back in 2006. After seeing Telltale Games' The Walking Dead through to the end, I was in a world of depression. I'm impressed with how the devs presented the story for this game in an adult fashion while generating tension in timed moments of high-stakes decision-making. Between this, Journey and Spec Ops, I feel that story-heavy games are important in the grand scheme of things to elevate this medium we cherish so much.>
Dan Chiappini, Editor Follow
I applaud innovation. While I’m mindful of the fact that not every attempt at something new can be a success--and now more than ever the entertainment industries are weighed down and measured against the reality of commercial viability--I feel that those who dare to try, even if they stumble, deserve to be celebrated. Many of the titles on my personal GOTY list earn their place not only because they took a risk, but because in doing so their contribution furthered what games are, and what they can be.
10. Diablo III
Dat loot chase. I knew before I started playing that I would fall down the Diablo rabbit hole again; and, sure enough, it happened right on cue. A strong emphasis on social play, and the abundance of gold and items with randomised properties to collect, hit the reward receptors of my brain. Sure, the game made you play the normal difficulty campaign as a glorified tutorial before you got to the meaty parts, and then smacked players in the face with Inferno and its gear-check and auction-house-dependent progression, but I had a blast in the Nightmare and Hell modes.
9. Sound Shapes
I’m not a musician. I can tap out a beat on a table, and I’ve always kept what I deem to be great music within arm’s reach, but I can’t play instruments that aren’t plastic, or follow notes that don’t scroll down or across a screen. But I can play the hell out of a platforming game. Navigating each level as I found myself immersed in the progressive construction of tunes was an absolute pleasure. Enemies moved in predictable ways in time with the bass, and because of this, a wayward jump or a mistimed manoeuvre was always my fault, and never a cheap death.
8. Papo & Yo
Child neglect and substance abuse typically aren’t the first ports of call for inspiration when you’re building something fun for people to play. Wild power fantasies where the character you control eats danger for breakfast and saves the day have become the status quo for games, so it’s a refreshing change of pace, and a sign of the medium’s flexibility and growing maturity, when developers reach beyond the low-hanging fruit for something with real meaning. As Carolyn put it so eloquently in her review, “Even adults need to see the world through a child's eyes once in a while.”
Quick to pick up, with room to become a master, and underpinned by a thumping soundtrack that drives you to take action, Hotline Miami is one my standout indie successes of 2012. Brutal, unforgiving, and quick to get you back into the action when you inevitably die, this builds on the hallmarks of great mobile games, and epitomises the “one more turn” hook. While the strategy and twitch gameplay will have you trying to perfect your approach to combat, the music alone is worth the game’s very reasonable price of admission.
Yeah, I know, I can hear the booing from the back of the stands. Gamers think it’s cool to point at Call of Duty as the poster child for industry stagnation and dead horse flogging, but this year's game deserves some props for stretching the mold. There’s a lot of diversity in the package, and whether you’re the lone wolf campaign player, online competitive shooter, eSports junkie, or just want to screw around with friends in the zombie mode (or any mix of the above), CODBLOPS2 has something for just about everybody. Strike Force missions were a great way to break up the campaign's pace, and while I’m not going so far as to suggest a dedicated game in the same style, it gave me hopes for something more than a continued vanilla, corridor shooter franchise.
This was a tough one. Whether or not you think the sluggish character controls and hum-drum third-person shooting helped drive home the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder themes bubbling below, or resulted in a disconnect between creative vision and execution, Spec Ops is an aware and gripping experience. It’s an uphill slog with a heavy pack, and I don’t blame anyone that stops before the payoff, but the best parts of the narrative are drip fed through found intel, making what would have been an otherwise unremarkable military march into a twisted, surreal and poignant tale.
Borderlands 2, you’re literally dick and fart jokes, and you know what? I’m fine with that because you make it work. While you might get the impression from the other games on my list that I’m trying to strong-arm game makers into producing nothing but serious, mature video computer products, nothing could be further from the truth. Fun comes in many different shapes and sizes, and from Borderlands 2's laugh-out-loud exchanges with Claptrap to its gun-collecting, tight shooter controls, light role-playing elements, and co-operative multiplayer mode, this game scratched a lot of my metaphorical gamer itches.
DayZ was the perfect storm. It hit at a time when PC gaming has seen a resurgence in popularity on the back of this console generation’s gradual wind down. It was a bit indie, cheap to pick up and offered players willing to learn the ropes a game with genuine challenge. But where its wonky AI, finicky inventory management system, and brutal learning curve should have scared people off, myself included, this became one of the most interesting and enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time.
Its simulation roots (combined with some weird physics) meant that every action needed to be carefully considered. Would falling even a short distance to the ground break my legs? Could I trust other players even when they appeared friendly? Most importantly, what would I be willing to do to stay alive when food and ammo were so scarce? DayZ is a microcosm of human existence amplified by extreme duress, and regardless of which role you adopt (bandit, tourist, saviour), you’re constantly kept on edge as you eke out basic supplies after starting with nothing, or fight desperately to defend the virtual empire you’ve amassed.
My favourite aspect of DayZ is the freedom it offers. Survival and gear acquisition is everything, and while character death is permanent regardless of whether you fall prey to an enterprising fellow player or are torn limb-from-limb by the ravenous hordes of undead, each new life adds one more knowledge feather to your cap, another rich spawn deposit to search for gear, and a fresh start to do it all over again without feeling like you’ve simply been treading water until the inevitable.
I wrote at length earlier this year about my feelings on Journey, and how and why it touched me so personally. It was an incredibly moving ride for me, and one of the high points of this hardware generation. More humbling was the number of people who contacted me directly afterwards to tell me about their experiences--not only their in-game experiences but the life struggles the game reminded them of. This itself was confirmation that such a simple premise for a game could elicit such powerful responses. It wasn’t long, it wasn’t difficult, it wasn’t penned by prize-winning authors, voiced by celebrity talent, or draped in marketing hyperbole. It was a simple, elegant, and unpretentious experience of introspection, and something I hope to see more game studios strive to produce in their own way.
I’d be lying if I said I thought The Walking Dead was a faultless game experience; it’s not. But even now, simply thinking about it makes my heart skip a beat and my stomach begin to knot because of what it was. Some have likened it more to an interactive novel than a game, with its sprinkling of basic adventure mechanics and hokey quick-time events. But like DayZ, in spite of all its unwieldy, gangly arms that swish and fight for your attention, or attempt to obscure your vision, it is the gem at its core that makes this my favourite game of 2012. The Walking Dead’s storytelling and the way it elicits player reaction play to our raw, primal need for self preservation; juxtaposed with the drive to act (or pangs of guilt for ambivalence), it holds a mirror up to the player at every turn.
This game works because we are free to choose our path, but in doing so we’re faced with the often tough repercussions of our actions. The series is brilliantly written, the voice acting (particularly by Lee and Clem) put human souls in their virtual husks, and it will be a long time before I’ll forget the harrowing conclusion of the season. All of the games on my list come with my recommendation, but if you’re looking for a place to begin, I can’t speak highly enough of The Walking Dead and its significance for storytelling in games.
Edmond Tran, Video Producer
2012 was a phenomenal year to love video games, no question. But the games I'll remember and really revere are the ones that hit my emotions and manipulated my state of mind, the games that let me play as exactly the kind of person I wanted to be, the ones that forced me to do the complete opposite, and the ones gave me great experiences and stories to tell.
10. Far Cry 3
I'm one of those weird people that loved Far Cry 2. Though different in many, many ways, Far Cry 3 still had some of the things I loved about its predecessor. The open world gameplay, the dedication to a first-person view and the fantastic sense of physicality and weight to your character kept me completely immersed in the world until I somehow managed to wipe out the island's entire pirate population. It's the kind of game where my memories are not of the main story, but of the endless watercooler tales involving stealth missions gone wrong, vehicles flying off cliffs and parachuting right into a shark's mouth.
Although essentially a remake, the fact that Persona 4 still eclipses many JRPGs in 2012 speaks volumes about its strength. The visual aesthetic, enemy design and soundtrack are some of my all-time favourites, but it's the contemporary setting and social interaction which I love most. The honest relationships and real situations that you share with the protagonists' friends and family make me want to dive into the screen and give everybody a hug. I wish more games explored the same kind of themes Persona 4 does.
You know what was another phenomenal year for video games? 1998. That's when Thief: The Dark Project from Looking Glass Studios took over my life. Those great, stealthy memories were recreated when I played Dishonored and took on a strict no-kill, no-detection policy. The fact that Dishonored supported my play style as well as many others speaks to a game design philosophy I'm really glad is starting to make a comeback, and I hope that philosophy manages to make its way into more games as well-designed as Dishonored in the future.
The first time I stepped into DayZ, I had zero idea what I was doing. The game was buggy and the learning curve was steep. But I stuck with it, and what followed in the forthcoming months were amazing experiences that came from simply existing and trying to survive in a harsh, objective-less world. The game's atmosphere was bleak, harrowing, and almost always made me incredibly tense, which resulted in remarkable sensations of victory and relief from doing the most trivial things: learning how to build a fire and cook food, learning how to navigate the massive world via major landmarks, finding a weapon--any kind of weapon--and getting out of a major city alive.
But the thing that really defined my DayZ experience was the suspicion, fear and panic that occurred whenever I encountered other players. Sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, and often deceitful, I came to witness the very best and the very worst of human behaviour, and experienced some of the most significant human interactions I have ever had in my life. DayZ was and certainly still is an exceptional social simulation.
6. Dota 2
The thought of me playing a game like Dota 2 this time last year would have had me laughing in your face. But here we are today and thanks to GameSpot's Dota 2 Diaries series, I now have over 150 hours of playtime logged.
Although trying to set aside an hour or three to play Dota 2 often comes with a deep sense of guilt, what makes it special is the impromptu camaraderie I've encountered when playing with strangers. A Dota 2 game is won or lost by the strength of teamwork, and more often than not I've been in situations where a group of strangers have supported each other, rallied each other, and shared their knowledge with each other to flip a match on its head and pull back from the absolute brink of loss to achieve victory. It's a tremendously invigorating feeling. These moments make me love what games and their players can be, and Dota 2 provides an impeccably polished and finely-tuned Valve game to love them in. GG.
I love that fact that in 2012, a turn-based strategy game can get the AAA treatment and be received so well. Like DayZ, XCOM is a game that constantly puts me into situations that create strong, gun-wrenching sensations of tension and fear with the understanding that I have to live with my decisions and mistakes throughout the whole campaign (because Ironman mode is the only real way to play). The feeling of relief when you take down incredibly dangerous enemies and the heartbreak when your favourite solders die horrible deaths due to your negligence serve to create a stressful, emotional rollercoaster ride of a game.
Brendan Chung's games have always been perfectly concise pieces of work that execute a particular concept exceptionally well, and Thirty Flights of Loving is no different. Its method of telling a story really took advantage of player interactions and cognitive involvement and by the end of it, the game had punched me in the face and left me stunned. It's an experience unique to the medium, one that really exemplifies why video games can be so damn special, and one that should be experienced by all.
The first five minutes of Hotline Miami made me feel dirty. The grimy 80's aesthetic is so perfectly executed I felt like I was actually in a drug-induced haze, and the violence was so brutal it almost put me right off. By the time I finished the game I felt both physically and mentally gross: twitchy as hell from the frantic, suicidal levels, in a mental trance thanks to the game's excellent electronica soundtrack, and deeply disturbed by the game's wonderfully presented, David Lynch-esque narrative. Despite having to take a shower afterwards, Hotline Miami's effects created an intense, challenging and enjoyable experience I went back to again and again and again.
FTL hit many of the same marks as XCOM: the stress of being responsible for the lives of your crew and having to live with your losses in a difficult situation. But it also came coupled with what I thought was a fantastic representation of what it might be like to be in command of a spaceship. You make your way through a vast, lonely environment and try to make a difference despite feeling insignificant relative to the greater scheme of things. And when it comes to the battles, the frantic micromanagement of squad members, ship resources and combat really made me feel like I was doing something amazing.
I had many amazing experiences with video games this year, but none hit me harder than The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead made me cringe, cry and genuinely care about Lee, Clementine and the horrendous situations they got themselves into. By the end of the last episode I was a complete wreck, and even now, thinking about the final few scenes fills me with an immense sadness and terror. The game is explicit in its narrative intentions and rarely falters. It is exceptionally written, exceptionally moving, and I heartily applaud the team at Telltale Games.
I love all these games for exhibiting the different things a video game can be, and for demonstrating the different ways a video game can affect us. These are the kinds of works that make me really damn happy to be playing video games.
Ryan Schubert, Video Curator
My favorite games of 2012 in no particular order.
I love this game for breathing new life into a now aging franchise. It brings back the full open world of the first game with plenty of fun distractions while introducing new features like the oddly engaging naval warfare. The game is not without its flaws, but it’s engaged me for over forty hours. Sometimes just stomping through the snow hunting elk is enough to occupy my time.
In the last two years, myself and some friends have become somewhat fanatical about tabletop board gaming. XCOM plays like a tabletop game with special effects and sounds, and without a giant mess of pawns, chits, counters and dice. My girlfriend and I love playing this together, strategizing as if we’re playing a tabletop game co-op.
The hours of this game I have played with friends online have been so gleefully entertaining that I can’t recommend it enough. Not many shooters embrace the value of playing with friends (L4D, we still you love you! Gears, you’re OK too!) and Borderlands does it so well with its funky open world, gazillions of guns, and awesome, quirky characters.
There’s little I can say that hasn’t already been said about Mass Effect 3. I think the ire it stirred up in the gaming community is evidence enough of how deeply players were emotionally invested in the series. If only games with such strong characters, beautiful graphics, and engaging gameplay were more common. I will never forget when I purchased the first game and an employee of GameStop told me that Mass Effect spoils you for other games. When it comes to how involved I feel in the story through the decisions I make, I couldn’t agree more.
I can’t say that I played a ton of this game, but if there’s anything all of the other shooters out there can learn from this game, it’s how to create a sensible user interface and weapon customization system. The shooting range alone, where you can test a weapon before taking it into combat, is a feature all shooters should have in the future.
Sometimes your favorite games are ones that remind you why you stopped playing them. A few years ago, I stepped away from Call of Duty after logging 35 days of multiplayer in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. A couple of hours of Black Ops II completely vindicated that decision. In spite of its smooth controls, excellent multiplayer modes, and over the top killstreak and perk systems, my personal tastes have changed. Still, I have to hand it to Treyarch for producing a polished game in a tired franchise. Infinity Ward is no longer in charge of this series.
In spite of its hackneyed single-player story, frustrating menu interface and unlock system in mutliplayer, and the bombast of its “authentic” advertising campaign, Warfighter gives shooter fans bored with Call of Duty and Battlefield something to be excited about in the multiplayer arena. Battles are exciting, controls are smooth, and its perk system contributes to an enjoyable experience. If the aforementioned flaws can be worked out next time around, MoH will be a major contender against the other war shooter titans.>'