It should come as no surprise that the biggest event in my life this year had a profound impact on my gaming life as well. The birth of my baby girl at the beginning of the year and the subsequent conversion of office to nursery meant that my PC was moved out to the living room (and funnily enough, within a 30ft HDMI cable’s reach of my TV).
The brilliance of a PC console finally crystallized for me. I almost gave Steam’s Big Picture Mode its own spot on this list. Between that and grabbing an all-digital Vita library for my vacation I also realized I will probably never buy a physical copy of a game again. And I found a lot of joy in areas of the video game medium that I would not have anticipated 12 months ago. Just like years past where I initially thought coming up with a list of 10 would be a challenge, the hard work came in paring it down. Some games I’ve even yet to get a good crack at (only now getting to Dishonored) but this has been such a year that there’s already plenty to talk about. So let’s do this thing.
10. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 felt more like a video game vacation to me than some of its more directed brethren. While the story does present itself with some urgency (and with a couple of truly fantastic characters), being both aimless and mildly collectable-obsessed was where I had the most fun. The pinnacle of which came to taking down enemy outposts. By the end I had a solid methodology to said assaults, from a scouting phase all the way to the last knife takedown on an unsuspecting enemy, squeezing every last bit of XP out of them. The game is also good for at least one hilarious interaction between autonomous systems. Setting out with the most satisfying bow of the year, a knife, and a bunch of drugs, Rook Island is just a fun place to be.
Being a big fan of the original Tribes and Tribes 2 I had my doubts about Hi-Rez taking over the franchise. The beta didn’t really grab me, but more than that the free-to-play model really killed any anticipation for the game. It took the forceful pushing from a coworker to precipitate the biggest change in my perception of the game industry this year: a free to play game doesn’t have to be shit (and can in fact hang with all the other AAAs). Nothing about Tribes Ascend feels like they're locking away too much or artificially inducing stress to coax money out of you. The meat and potatoes gameplay of skiing and serving up hot blue-plate specials is immediate and available to all. Controls feel tight, combat is intense, and landing those mid-air hits is so delicious. What followed was many weeks of coordinated base assaults, tense flag captures and online combat that felt both refined as well as reverent for its origins.
I really loved the original Borderlands. I had max level characters on both the 360 and PC so I could play co-op with as many friends as possible. Borderlands 2 delivers improvements on nearly every front but what struck me the most was just how much more alive Pandora felt. There were a lot of small touches and details I saw that went into giving various areas of the world much more of a sense of place. All of which made gallivanting around shooting anything and everything with many a varied weapon that much more enjoyable.
Whether you’re painting the walls with arterial spray or picking up a VHS from the rental store, the booming soundtrack and breakneck ultra-violence of Hotline Miami oozes style and visceral gameplay. Solving the combat puzzle of each level, refining your strategy and timing feels like zeroing in on the ideal racing line. By the end of the level you will be in need of that quiet story break just to catch your breath. Having finished the game my play style, which started out as a timid incher, ended as a hyper-aggressive maniac. The fact that this coincides with the arc of the main character, in a way, I think, is no small coincidence and an impressive feat.
I always enjoy the video game novellas that come out of thatgamecompany; the crafted experiences that seem to target a specific emotional area of the brain. Journey was perhaps most anticipated because it bears the closest resemblance to a traditional video game of theirs to date. But while the the arc of your character, the varied environments they can craft with sand, and the mythos of the world were all great things to experience, what stood out to me was their thoughtful approach to multiplayer. It’s clear they didn’t undertake this aspect of the game lightly as Journey was the best co-op experience I had this year. The design of the game mutes, filters and repackages so many of the typical online player behaviors we’ve come to expect, to the point where I was genuinely happy to see new players join my world, and quite surprised at how many varied people there were with me throughout.
The emotional gut punch of The Walking Dead still lingers in me. The situations, the decisions and events the characters live through (or don’t) all suck and it is god damned compelling. With each episode's release came a unique combination of eagerness and dread. From the pinch points of the beginning and end of the story I genuinely felt like I had a lot of space to craft my own story of Lee and Clementine, in the end forming the strongest attachment to a character I’ve ever had. Kudos to Telltale for raising the bar on how much impact this medium can have and spurring alcohol sales everywhere.
Two notes into the main title theme and I was already hooked. Every detail about FTL draws you in further. From the lure of seeing what’s beyond the next jump to the tiny narratives you craft in your mind for your brave-but-probably-doomed crew. Victories come hard won in FTL as the game does a wonderful job of making your situation feel desperate. No other game has made me think harder about if I should really attempt to rescue that other ship or not. I sucked the gameplay marrow dry out of FTL, unlocking ships, exploring new sectors, and trying new strategies and had a helluva lot of fun doing it. And when I couldn’t, I still have that brilliant soundtrack on my phone.
I was on vacation when I first heard mentions of Super Hexagon. A quick download onto my phone and roughly 5.3 seconds after my first attempt at the easiest difficulty (“Hard”), I steeled my eyes and knew even then what was to come. What followed was hundreds of hours of my own personal episode of Breaking Brad. Slowly honing my abilities to deal with the disorientation, pacing and situational awareness the game demands of you made hitting that 60-second mark feel as sweet as a bull rider hitting eight. With all six of Terry Cavanagh's beasts vanquished I feel like I can put this one firmly to rest. But I haven’t. It’s still my waiting-in-line goto game. I think I need help.
At the outset it would appear Firaxis has done the impossible with XCOM. On the one hand they were able to take a top-down, turn-based strategy game and make it work on my TV, controller in hand. On the other, what made the original XCOM great was not lost in the process. The resulting strategy and base management tickling my PC-gamer lizard brain something fierce. All too often a “one more turn” muttered to myself as the sun set resulted in the same thought just as it rose. The game has an engaging feedback loop of grooming your squad, planning their abilities, then putting your creation to the test in the field. All so you can take those lessons home again to start over. With each new upgrade or weapon purchased, I could feel the tide against the aliens shift ever so slightly in my favor until I had a full contingent of psychic colonels laying mighty waste.
I want to erect a shrine to Nels Anderson and his team, probably in an air duct somewhere. The sweet harmonics of controls, UI, animation, enemy behaviors, all resonating together to serve one function: making you a stealthy angel of ninja death. I always enjoy reading about other developers’ process and Klei’s is in top form here. All the smart refinements and iterations quickly clicked for me, manifesting a deep rooted desire replay every level until I topped my friends leaderboards. No other game had as short or effective path from thinking about doing something awesome to seeing it executed on screen, and no other game consistently put a smile on my face as often as this one did.
Honorable Mention: The ship combat from Assassin's Creed III
I would be remiss in my extolling the gaming virtues of 2012 if I did not give at least some mention to Assassin Creed III’s ship combat. The soundscape of bells creaking and wood, gunpowder and shouting already does so much to make you feel like you’re there. Then you see the sails in the wind and the scurry of your crew rocking on the waves of the ocean. Lining up a well placed broadside never gets old and can be even more fun if you take the time to cripple your enemies with a chain shot. While the rest of the game was a fine execution on the AC formula it was where they broke away the most that I found myself with the most anticipation and enjoyment. By the end I felt like I had all the requisite skills to captain a pirate ship.