While the crop of AAA titles this year wasn't as strong as last, I enjoyed more non-retail titles this year than any other. Having all of these quality smaller games made me reconsider how I do my rankings. Is it fair to relegate smaller games to a separate category just because they don't have the budget of the larger releases, even when I enjoy the experience just as much? It's a question with no right answer, a matter of personal preference. Ultimately I decided on a compromise. I included indie games in my top 10 and added a couple of honorable mentions. After the Game of the Year and Runner Up the other 8 games are not ranked. They are presented in alphabetical order. I've also included the platform(s) that I played each game on.
First off, the games I wanted to play but just didn't have time for:
Guild Wars 2
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward
Spec Ops: The Line (360) - It's surprising that a game like Spec Ops hadn't been done before. I won't give too much away, but its story, while it initially looks routine by modern shooter standards, turns out to be anything but. This was one of the most propulsive games I played all year and is worth a look for just about everyone.
Hero Academy (PC/iOS) - One of my most played games of 2012, Hero Academy is like if chess was combined with a turn based card game. Being able to play it anywhere, either on iOS or Steam, is a big bonus. The downside is that you're sure to be less productive no matter where you are. Once its got its teeth in you that notification can be a very difficult call to resist.
The Top 10:
Dishonored (PC) - Dishonored's quality comes in its abundance of options. Do you blink in stealthily through a window, or do you mind control a guard and have him shoot his friend before walking through the front door? There's room to be creative in ways that few games have. Add in a fresh and interesting new world and a passable story and you have one of the best games of the year.
Far Cry 3 (360) - Very rarely will I say that I love a game where the main story is the weakest component, but that's the case with Far Cry 3. The island is full of activities to do and places to explore. After all was said and done I even collected all of the collectible relics on the island (except the missable one) as I frantically looked for more excuses to continue my stay. If there's one thing I could change about the game it would be to make more of it.
Hotline Miami (PC) - Hotline Miami had been floating around and making waves at indie conventions for a couple years, so by the time it came out it was well on my radar. The comparisons to Drive have become commonplace, and they're not entirely inaccurate, but they don't fully capture the appeal of Hotline Miami. There is a stomach churning atmosphere to the whole thing that is perfectly summed up by the seasickness-inducing rock of the title screen.
Mark of the Ninja (PC) - Since Splinter Cell began its transition away from pure stealth the genre as a whole has had a bit of an identity crisis. There were some other good stealth titles in 2012, but Mark of the Ninja was the one that felt freshest.
Mass Effect 3 (360) - There's no "right" way to play a Mass Effect game, but I prefer the way that puts less emphasis on combat and more on exploration, conversation, and atmosphere-absorbing. I don't know definitely which of the three games had the greatest portion of the game filled with combat, but it certainly felt most prominent in this one. Fitting, as the Reapers finally arrived and the great battle to save the galaxy began. Well made, as most Bioware games are. It capped off Shepard's trilogy in one of the most influential RPG series of this generation.
Max Payne 3 (360) - Max Payne doesn't have the most varied or deep gameplay, so it's important that what is there is extremely polished and has a compelling, brutal story to back it up. Rockstar is simply the best at creating characters that I come to care about as they are put in near constant peril. They did a great job putting their own spin on a popular series while keeping its signature identity intact.
The Walking Dead (PC) - If you had told me 12 months ago that Telltale's Walking Dead game would even be in the running for Game of the Year at ANY of the major publications I would have laughed. Playing the game itself elicits quite a different response. It's a healthy companion to the comics, expanding the universe into a new format while hanging onto that character driven formula that has worked so well.
Ziggurat (iOS) - I've seen the gameplay in Ziggurat cited as "an extremely focused shallowness", but I don't think that's an apt description. I would say it's something like an iceberg: the surface level gameplay is simple and transparent, but the more you play the more you see just how meticulously the mechanics have been designed, and the true depth reveals itself. That all of this takes place in a $2 iOS game is truly remarkable. It's the best mobile game I've played, and is absolutely one of my favorite games this year.
Halo 4 (360) - With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to look back and say that Halo 4 was a sure thing, but in reality there were some serious doubts. It was being made by a new developer, already billed as the beginning of a new trilogy, and the multiplayer was being CoD-ified in some pretty worrying ways. But 343 delivered. It plays and feels like a Halo game and the multiplayer works better than anyone (certainly I) expected it to. It took some bold moves to create Halo 4, but every single one of them paid off.
Game of the Year
Journey (PS3) - Journey is a game that begs to be talked about but is one that leaves me speechless. If you speak with someone else who has played it there isn't a whole lot to say. You can talk superficially-- the visuals are gorgeous, the soundtrack is excellent-- but those qualities are far from its most important. The experiences you have in it, that you either share with other players or soak in alone, won't mean anything to those who weren't there. It asks that you feel something without telling you to.
2013 looks like it will have a stronger first half than second, which is rare. The Spring will have an absurd amount of quality releases potentially capped off by GTAV in May. In addition to GTA, I'm most looking forward to The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. The end of a console generation can be a weird times for games, but this 2013 doesn't seem to have any intention of slowing down. Keep 'em coming.