Welcome to the quick-and-filthy look at today's awards categories. Sure, we spent time writing that text below, but it's really only here for people who don't have the time or energy to listen to our deliberation podcast or watch the video recap for today's categories. That's not you, is it? OK, go check that stuff out and then swing back by over here if you're looking for a little further explanation about our categories and winners. Deal?
WarioWare Spirit Award
The WarioWare Spirit Award goes to the game that most embodies the things that make WarioWare great: Frantic action, objectives that change so fast that part of the game is figuring out what the hell you're even looking at, and a certain awkward sense of charm. In a year with a WarioWare release, this category would be redundant. But these days (and with no proper WarioWare sequel on the horizon), you're going to have to dig around for games that follow in the fat man's garlic-soaked footsteps. Surprisingly, there were numerous games to choose from.
But no one else captures the true spirit of WarioWare better than Honeyslug's Frobisher Says!, which was launched as a free downloadable game back in October, with some additional paid DLC releasing to expand the game with more microgames. Frobisher meets the WarioWare standard in a few different ways, first by delivering on that frantic gameplay that requires you to be fast on your feet and then by packing in the work of numerous artists who hadn't worked on games before, which lends the proceedings a unique look. But it also pulls off the neat trick that many of the WarioWare games also accomplish: it uses the available hardware in a lot of interesting ways. In the Vita, Frobisher Says! gets to play around on a platform so packed with weird, often-clumsy control options that it can't help but make you respect all that stuff. One game exclusively uses the back touch to move. Another uses the camera to detect if you're smiling or not, with the goal being to smile only at the pretty ladies. It's amazing. And most of it is free, which is perhaps the craziest part of all. If you have a Vita, stop screwing around and go download Frobisher Says! immediately.
Best Download Game That Makes Us Want to Eliminate Award Categories for Download Games
The winds of video game distribution are changing--have been changing for several years, in fact--and we're fairly certain (and if nothing else, hopeful) that with the next generation of consoles, the phrase "downloadable game" will give way to a more appropriate term like, say, "game." The games you obtain through your Internet pipe have become every bit as ambitious, mechanically sound, and narratively engaging as the ones that come in a box. Actually, in many cases, the downloadables surpass the retail games in all of those categories.
No download game resonated more this year than The Walking Dead, which told a damn good story, emphasized meaningful player agency, and hewed to the sort of piecemeal episodic release schedule that got people talking around the water cooler in a way they haven't for a long time. But truly this was the year when we repeatedly took a pause, looked at all the stuff we'd been playing, and were repeatedly shocked and delighted at just how many of our favorites were smaller games in the 10 to 15 dollar range. Mark of the Ninja, with its impeccable stealth-puzzle mechanics, and the lovely retro aesthetic and mind-bending cryptography of Fez were among the best games of the year, nevermind what they cost or how you obtained them.
But the list hardly stops there. Let this category stand as a tribute to all the excellent games that materialized on our PCs and consoles out of thin air this year, including Journey, Hotline Miami, FTL, Rock Band Blitz, Spelunky, Trials Evolution, Dyad, Sound Shapes, Dust: An Elysian Tail, McPixel, and too many others to list here. If this is the caliber of games that results from the modest budgets and ease of release afforded by digital distribution, the future is looking bright indeed.
Criterion is the studio responsible for some of the most influential multiplayer innovations of this generation. The "Autolog" feature that worked its way into the team's previous Need for Speed game is now everywhere, from shooters to open-world crime simulators. But the crew at Criterion isn't solely focused on reinventing the leaderboard. Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a prime example of how to find ways to play multiplayer that feel inclusive, rather than just developing something that can only be enjoyed if you're willing to devote every last second of your free time to staying good at something.
Most Wanted's multiplayer is competitive even when it's cooperative. You're up against the other racers in your game whether you're jetting over to the next starting point or working together to all reach a specific rooftop. It also makes a lot of exciting moves in the way it handles its racing by eliminating boring old starting grids in favor of something a little wilder... a little meaner. But at the end of the day, it's still about learning how the cars handle and knowing how to bash another racer off the road, things that have a decidedly lower learning curve than most other multiplayer games out there. Tack on a fun leveling system that ties together your progress across all modes and all versions of the game to give you a Call of Duty-like perk system for your cars, and you've got enough little hooks to keep you interested for a good long time.
Now if they could just make it easier to mute all the chatty Russians with always-on microphones in the PC version...
There are two stories playing out in The Walking Dead: the one you're creating and the one authored by the creators at Telltale Games. The tension between the two reveals the subtle brilliance of The Walking Dead. In terms of the broader story beats, you ultimately have little control over what happens in The Walking Dead, but your influence over who lives, who dies, and how you choose to interact with characters in the most bizarre and upsetting of situations is profound. Though the overall story head to the same point for everyone, how you get there and who you leave behind will be very different, and results in a game pulling off authentic player choice in a way we haven't seen before. Who could have predicted that in the year that gave us Mass Effect 3?
What's remarkable is how little desire you feel to see how else the story could have played out. Even though Telltale Games built in a "rewind" function for that specific purpose, there was no motivation to use it. Your story was the story, and Telltale Games managed to make that stick for five episodes. Still, since you knew the story could play out differently, the first conversation after an episode was "what'd you do when [insert horrible choice]?" The Walking Dead inspired endless discussions about what does and doesn't make sense in most dire of circumstances.
Player choice aside, The Walking Dead is just a damn good story. You come to know the characters on a very personal level, and while the armchair designer in us may realize Clementine is a bit of a crutch for the writers to pull at our heart strings, it makes your relationship with her no less important. Protecting her become vital to survival in The Walking Dead's dreary new world. If we can't raise children and impart our values onto them, what's the point of surviving? By the end of The Walking Dead, that question becomes paramount, and sets up a tear-jerker of a conversation. And this is all without complimenting the game's overlooked but no less impressive portrayal of an African-American lead character, complimented by a child. How many games would even try that, let alone pull it off?
Most Disappointing Game
First off, let's be clear that, for something to be disappointing, there had to have been expectations of something great, and it hadn't been that long ago that greatness visited the house of Assassin's Creed. Last year's Revelations may have felt rote and unnecessary, dragging out the Ezio story longer than it needed while simultaneously robbing him of his youth, but 2010's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was this series at its best, and all signs leading up to the release of Assassin's Creed III seemed incredibly promising.
The exciting and unknown setting of the American Revolution seemed awash in possibility, as did the new protagonist, a half-British/half-Native American character whose lineage had the potential to make him more invested in the coming conflict than his predecessors. New settings and a new hero meant new activities, and what we had seen of the huge naval battles and of Connor traipsing through the treetops hunting game looked good, or at least, looked like a distinct change of pace. On the other side of the Animus, there was also the promise of finally wrapping up Desmond's story, learning the truth about the First Civilization, and bring a stop to the apocalyptic event that all of this has--apparently--been leading up to.
What we got wasn't bad, per se, at least not across the board, but it was hard not to be disappointed. Connor's righteous naïveté paled in comparison to the cocky self-assuredness of Ezio. The lack of verticality provided by the dirt streets of Boston and the other young cities of Colonial America was a trade-off for the tree-filled wilderness that linked them together, but there simply wasn't much to do in that wilderness, and it forfeited the kind of urban exploration that had come to define much of the series. While many of the mysteries surrounding the First Civilization and Desmond's connection to it get resolved, the final resolution was unsatisfying and abrupt. All of these weaknesses are compounded by the fact that, for all of the side-missions you can get up to, the game fails to wrap them up into an interesting, cohesive whole, which is ultimately what makes Assassin's Creed III our most disappointing game of the year.