Matthew Rorie is a Renaissance man. He has authored countless game guides as a member of the shadowy organization known as the Stratos Group, provided his services as producer for Obsidian Entertainment, and he currently dominates the highly competitive field of Internet Puppy Appreciation. He is one of our favorite people, and we don't care if that makes other people feel bad about themselves.
It's been a year of gaming frugally for old man Rorie. I've been working with a pretty strict gaming budget this year, preferring to buy games that have been steeply discounted on Steam rather than pick them up at full price. As such, I'm still waiting to get my hands on some late-year titles like Dishonored, Hitman: Absolution, Darksiders II, and Sleeping Dogs. I've also largely set my consoles aside over the last year in favor of PC gaming, so I haven't played most of the top-shelf console exclusives like Fez, Journey, and Halo 4.
That doesn't say anything about the recent quality of console gaming, of course. Rather, this has simply been a year where I didn't feel like I really needed to get too far from my PC in search of excellent games; overall the quality of ports to the PC has been exceptional lately (I think I only had to find an FOV fix for a single game, Kingdoms of Amalur), and games do indeed get slashed in price on what I like to call the Thinking Man's Console far more quickly than they do on your plebian and underpowered little boxes from 2005. Also, I'm lazy enough at this point to expect games to come to me rather than make me bend all the way over and turn on my Xbox 360 to gain access to them. It's like three feet away from me! Who am I, Stretch Armstrong?
With all those caveats stated, it still seems like it's been a very good year for gaming, if not one that I would categorize as legitimately great. Developers hit a lot of doubles in 2012, but looking back over the games that I spent time with, I'm not finding many real home runs, games that I think I'll come back to in a year or two for another go-round. As such, my list is going to be a bit short, at just five titles.
Before we begin, let's discuss a few also-rans. While plenty of people are calling this the year of the downloadable game, I didn't find many titles that sucked me in to the tune of 40+ hours played the way Terraria or Space Pirates and Zombies did last year. Technical issues prevented me from getting very far in The Walking Dead; neither the aesthetic nor the gameplay really grabbed me in Hotline: Miami; and FTL was pretty good for a few hours but didn't stick with me beyond that. There are a few other downloadable games that I've been meaning to try, like Mark of the Ninja, but overall it was a year where the big-budget games wound up resonating with me more than the indies did.
Of those mainstream games, a few titles lurk above the cutoff for my top five list. Guild Wars 2, for instance, was fun, and ArenaNet gets a lot of credit for putting out a full-featured MMO without either a subscription or overly obnoxious real-money cash-ins, but the gameplay struck me as simplistic, in that most battles have you pressing the same three or four buttons over and over again. I also never really cared for their solution to the "holy trinity" problem; dungeons wound up feeling less enjoyable than simply chaotic at best, and frustrating at worst. (The lack of an LFG tool is also largely inexcusable.) I hit max level with a character, fooled around with the endgame, and haven't really picked it up since. I may return to it at some point, but it would probably take some pretty hardcore design changes to convince me to level another character.
Max Payne 3, on the other hand, was pretty fun to play, in a way that was both challenging and refreshingly focused on the mantra of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," as it retained the classic Max Payne gameplay without any controversial overhauls. However, the let's-have-a-cutscene-every-three-minutes-to-cover-up-loading-screens gambit wound up grating on me, largely because I didn't really care about the storyline, the laboriously woe-is-me script, or any of the characters. And for god's sake, Rockstar, if you're going to ask me to scout around an area to find hidden items, don't make your lead character passive-aggressively yell at me to keep moving forward every 20 seconds.
Mass Effect 3 was fine-ish, I guess. I wasn't even one of those people who went all sturm-und-drang on the ending, but then that's largely because I've never felt particularly attached to the Mass Effect universe, so even bathos on the level of the finale didn't really strike me as anything worth signing a petition over. The game had a lot of problems regardless of its storytelling, though, not the least of which was a singleplayer system (the Galactic Readiness map) that relied on multiplayer contributions to be fully exploited. That's a virtually indefensible design decision in my book, and other issues, like the tedious repeat trips to every level of the Citadel to turn in sidequests, were equally annoying. I'm really curious where the Mass Effect series goes from here, but I'm hoping that the next game in the franchise takes the opportunity to explore the studio space a bit instead of delivering more of the decreasingly impressive same that ME3 served up.
Lastly, Far Cry 3 started off like it was a serious contender for overall game of the year, but managed to steadily work its way out of contention after I logged my first ten hours on Rook Island. It's a wonderful PC port: the weapons feel great, Vaas is one of the most memorable villains of 2012, and it looks beautiful, but some of the game's design decisions are absolutely baffling. There's constant and aggravating reminder text prompting you to move to the next mission (even when you just want to explore); it's often pitifully easy, even on the highest difficulty level; the hunting and crafting quests can be completed almost as soon as you start the game, rendering the entire hunting system irrelevant from then on; the side quests are uninspired at best; and by the end of the game you're likely to be facing a world that's almost completely devoid of enemies, thanks to your conquest of their outposts. That last bit was the most curious to me: imagine a game of Skyrim where enemies simply disappeared from the game entirely as you progressed through the storyline. I'm sure they were considering the feedback to Far Cry 2's respawning checkpoints when they designed the game this way, but they made a decision that seems equally as bad, if bad in exactly the opposite way. The result is an open-world game with a world that feels dead by the time you reach the end of the storyline; not a recipe for continued interest on the part of the player.
All that aside, here are my five favorite games of 2012. They may all be big-budget titles from major publishers, but sometimes you're in the mood for a blockbuster action movie instead of an indie character drama, and for the most part the gaming equivalent of those megabudget movies wound up hitting my sweet spot this year.
5. Diablo III
I'll be frank and say that D3 was perilously close to not even making my top five list. If you had told me that was a possibility before the year began, I would've told you that you were crazy. However, I sunk a lot of hours into D3, reaching max level with four different classes, and enjoyed myself pretty much the entire time. The caveat here is, of course, the endgame, where the launch version of the game stumbled by including a lot of weak legendary items and a grind to gear up for Inferno difficulty that was painful to experience unless you were either rich enough to splurge on the real-money auction house or dedicated enough to farm for gold for hours on end. The auction house as a whole rendered a lot of the fun of the Diablo formula moot, in that you were far, far more likely to find usable items by shopping in a store rather than actually playing the game itself.
Still, Blizzard titles are going to wind up being case studies in iterative tweaking for the next generation of game designers, and Diablo III should wind up being at the forefront of those analyses. Blizz has done a lot of massaging to the game since it came out, mostly for the better, and it'll be curious to see how they further change the endgame over the course of the next year or two before the first expansion arrives. Even though I burned myself out on D3 within a month or two of its release, it's still a game that I come back to from time to time, and I'm sure I'll check in on it every few months for the next couple of years, in the same way that I've always kept my Diablo II discs in a box marked "Break In Case Of Boredom."
Most of the fan reaction to ACIII seems to have been middling-to-negative, from what I've read on various forums, and there's a lot of justification to those complaints. Many of the side activities, like hunting, building your homestead, and naval combat, were not integrated very well into the main storyline, making them almost entirely optional unless you were really driven to pursue them. Some of the combat changes, like the removal of grappling, were unpalatable; many of the assassinations moved away from the series' strengths and towards simplistic bull-rush tactics; the inclusion of city sewers was mostly pointless; and Connor Kenway often wound up giving off a disturbingly Anakin Skywalker-esque vibe during the game's many cutscenes.
Still, when you interpret ACIII as the basis for a new trilogy, it gives me a lot of hope that its sequel may rival Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as one of the best games in the series. The naval combat, for instance, was executed far more enjoyably than what I thought a probable gimmick feature would be. The treetop parkour showcases the series' trademark excellence in animation, and tracking down elusive hunting targets kept me entertained when I wasn't charging forward in the main story. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Connor and Kenway, even if its culmination left a lot to be desired. The game also seemed to, at least in my eyes, push towards new ground in terms of artistic and graphical beauty. Sometimes throwing 400+ people at a game's development can result in great things, and the many artists that worked on ACIII have a lot to be proud of.
ACIII might have thrown too much in the sandbox to have wound up cohering as a solid title, but I'm pretty confident that with another year to think on things that the next game in the series is going to pull everything together. As it is, ACIII still managed to wind up being enjoyable from start to finish, and given the generally high standards of the franchise, that's enough to lodge it firmly in my GOTY top five.
Like many dedicated MMO players, I have a bit of a bipolar relationship with World of Warcraft. I'll play every day for a few weeks or months, get sick of the endgame grind, take a year off, and then come back as if nothing had ever come between me and that sweet, sweet epic loot. The launch of Mists of Pandaria has proved no different. Although I'm sure that I'll tire of it in another four or eight or forty weeks, at the moment it's compelling me to log in every day in a way that my other recent flings with MMOs simply haven't been able to.
Mists of Pandaria isn't the best expansion the game has ever seen (I'd still put Wrath of the Lich King in that spot), but neither is it the worst (Cataclysm was a great facelift for the levelling game, but the endgame dungeon experience was a slog). Still, with Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard retains its stranglehold on the mainstream MMO market after eight years and the failures of countless would-be WoW-killers. (The last year alone has seens both the shameful scarlet letters of F2P descend on Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Final Fantasy XIV actually throwing up their hands and calling a mulligan on its entire game world.) Mists seems certain to continue Blizzard's dominance in the space for at least another year or two. Monopolies are usually pretty boring affairs, but, as with Diablo III, Blizzard continues to prove itself a master of iterative game design, making a number of notably fun (if controversial) changes to its gameplay while retaining the sheer addictiveness that got us all into this mess in the first place.
Mists is a joy if you enjoy dungeon-running, as most of the high-end dungeons are both quick and enjoyable to play through (with the notably rage-inducing exception of the Stormstout Brewery). The monk class is also a fine addition to the game, and has quickly become my second-favorite class to tank with after my paladin. The biggest drawback to the expansion thus far is its heavy emphasis on daily quests as an endgame chore. It's difficult to imagine who this is supposed to appeal to, honestly, but in the meantime the talent and specialization overhaul, while initially seen as a gross oversimplication of the gameplay by many (including me), wound up resulting in a streamlined system, but one that still resulted in a lot of options in any given battle. It takes a confident developer to make changes on the level where Blizzard finds themselves at the release date of every expansion, but if the results are as strong in the future as they are in Mists, it seems unlikely that anything will knock World of Warcraft off its perch until Blizzard's own Project Titan comes along. Which, knowing Blizzard, will probably sometime in 2017.
As someone who primarily games on the PC, I was reluctant to place a pre-order for Borderlands 2. Borderlands on the PC was certainly playable, but it also featured one of the most incompetent ports of recent years, with an awful FOV setting that couldn't be changed in the graphical options, user passwords stored in plain text in document files in the install directory, and a hilariously bad multiplayer setup that had many players futzing with their router's port forwarding settings a decade after we had all considered such tweaking to be a thing of the past. BL2 manages to negate most of those bad memories with a very good PC port that included a bunch of options for power tweakers including, finally, an FOV slider.
Although Gearbox didn't change much about the core gameplay, that didn't wind up mattering much, since that gameplay is among the best in modern FPS design. There are still some quibbles here and there, such as how it's pretty easy to outlevel content if you tackle every quest that comes your way, but in the end, Borderlands 2 is still the best pure shooter of 2012 (and we're talking about a pretty crowded genre), with plenty of fun boss encounters and guns that feel great to shoot. It knows well enough to keep its cutscenes short, so as to keep you shooting stuff rather than talking to people, which is a design facet that seems to remain frustratingly out of reach for most FPS developers today.
Borderlands 2's major drawback is its intensely insipid sense of humor, which piles on lame pop-culture references at a rate that would be offputting even to your average Futurama-quoting Reddit karma whore. If I have to grit my teeth and curse the firstborn child of whoever thought up Claptrap, though, I'll gladly do it if it means that I get to keep popping out mile-distant sniper shots at Pandora's more unseemly denizens.
1994's X-COM: UFO Defense was one of my first great loves as a gamer, and was the first game I can recall ever playing so long in one sitting that I wound up blinking with surprise (and fatigue!) at the sight of the sun rising outside my window. Firaxis' reboot of the series, which was somehow announced after and released before the shooter variant that I always assumed was 2K's focus, is a fine update, and is a fantastic example of a modern game design that streamlines away a lot of the somewhat arduous complications of the original games while still retaining most of its great core gameplay. The turn-based strategy genre has never had its shortage of excellent if underappreciated titles, what with Valkyria Chronicles, Civilization, and any number of other franchises routinely dishing out play-till-3-AM experiences, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown exceeded almost any rational expectation as to its quality level, and will hopefully usher in a renaissance of TBS games that are console-friendly without alienating the PC strategy-gamer grognards.
XCOM isn't perfect, obviously: the fact that enemies can react-move when you spot them is a bit cheesy, the camera was really wonky inside multi-level UFOs, and I swear to god I must've slept with the random number generator's ex-girlfriend from the way it treats me when I attempt Overwatch reaction fire. Those are all relatively minor quibbles, though, especially when you consider that the game has one of the most polished and enjoyable turn-based combat systems I've seen in years. A big part of this is the array of difficulty options: if you want to play a relatively fair game, but still reload every time one of those damn dirty aliens lands a lucky shot on Emma Stone, sniper extraordinaire, then that's perfectly permissible, with the Ironman Classic difficulty lying in wait for the true sadomasochists out there.
There are a few things I do miss from the original games, like using weapon fire to shoot holes in walls, and the original waypoint-guided Blaster Launcher. The new additions, though, like the class-based character system, and the light RPG elements, are genuinely meaningful. The result is a complete package: a game that's tough, but fair, and one that rewards both strategic and tactical intelligence.
Again, 2012 was a year that was pretty good for games, but not fantastic. If XCOM is the king of a somewhat small pile, though, that shouldn't take away from its accomplishments. It's a game I flipped for, and an easy choice for my game of the year.