I have a love/hate relationship with making lists.
For one thing, I feel that every game is its own unique experience, greater then the sum of its parts, and that each is a beautiful snowflake that is special and all that other bullshit kids are being fed in grade school. There's a grain of truth in it, though; even though I may agree that game "X" is mechanically, thematically or visually more impressive then "Y", sometimes "Y" just resonates in a way that makes me enjoy it more. This throws the objectivity of lists such as these completely out the window.
Then again, these things are all opinions, so no shit, right?
However, making one of these reignites my love/hate for the game in question; in a year with such highs and lows as 2012, it's easy to forget all the little things that made games at the start of the year evoke that specific something, that undefinable quality which makes you remember. You never forget a great (or terrible) game; if you do, they just weren't as memorable (hence good/bad) as you first thought.
So, without further blabbering, here are the top/bottom games of 2012. Keep in mind I don't mean "best" or "worst", but what I enjoyed the most (or was most disappointed by) out of what I played.
The Top Ten
10. The Walking Dead, or "Fuck everyone who wrote this game!"
Now, I know you don't need justification for why you put anything on these lists, but I feel this one is a special case: It's not at the bottom just to be contrarian. While I appreciate how well it is voice acted (even more then how it is written), and how well it builds up an atmosphere, the "game" parts of the game are fairly...light. As a guy who likes games to grind glass into the wounds its difficulty inflicts, I couldn't stop myself from saying "Shit, this would be heaven if the game part of this game was better.", which is a real weird thing to mention about, you know, a video game. Still, I cannot deny how much of an impact it's going to be on the industry; hopefully it ushers in a trend of games with real emotional investment weaved into their stories....and not the bit where you don't really do all that much. Pulling through on merits of story, atmosphere and voice acting alone, it takes #10.
9. Asura's Wrath, or "BURRRRRSSSSSSSSSSTTTTT!!!!"
BURST! What else is there to say? Sure, some of the gameplay elements aren't exactly the greatest. Sure, it's a big QTE-fest. That didn't stop TWD from working as well as it did! And Asura's Wrath has one extra thing going for it: it's fucking insane! The last third of the game had me constantly wondering if someone slipped LSD into my drink; it was all such a blur to the point that I went straight to Youtube and watched the whole damn game as soon as I finished playing it. I'm convinced that the entire design team had a part in writing the story: one guy comes up with a plot point, passes it to the next who adds his or her own, and then it keeps going until everyone had their say. It reminds me of that game kids play when they are really young: one whispers something to the next, and so on down the chain until the last kid is left with a completely unidentifiable mess. This is one of those times when I just have to say "Play it. It's the only way you'll understand.", and that's why it takes #9.
8. Super Hexagon, or "High Score: 8 Seconds"
Super Hexagon hits that primal center of my head that only sheer difficulty can reach. It's the main drive for me, the reason why I play games, the sense of accomplishment that only rigorous hand-eye coordination or strategic thinking can fulfill. It's also the first game I've ever played on a mobile device to make me think we don't need handhelds anymore; if you can encapsulate this kind of an experience on a phone for that cheap, sign me up. Making me rethink phone gaming is an easy way to earn #8.
7. Dishonored, or "What do we do with a drunken whaler?"
When you are crafting a world, the goal is to draw a person in, to make them forget that what they are seeing was crafted by a design team. When done properly, it should seem like a living, breathing thing, and Dishonored nails that. It feels like Tesla and Crowley had a baby, and slapped it around just enough to give it a bleak worldview. On the gameplay front, Dishonored does its best to alleviate some of the mechanical problems other stealth games have run into, and while you are still more or less pushed down a linear path, the addition of the blink mechanic does a lot to make it seem less like a hallway and more like a street in NYC; sure you are going to wind up in the same place, but you can duck through a bunch of alleys or dash across buildings on your way there. And while the game's ending leaves a bit to be desired, the characters it creates and the world it frames, when coupled with some interesting gameplay ideas, are enough to secure it my #7 slot.
6. Xenoblade Chronicles, or "What the fuck, Nintendo?"
Why the hell did this game take so long to escape Japan? Technically a 2011 game (one that I went out of my way to play even before it made the jump), I was forced to put it down and wait for a localized release because I was spending too much time figuring out the mechanics instead of actually playing it. When it finally came out, it confirmed what I first felt: this is a real time RPG done right. The story is unique and takes a few unexpected twists, the gameplay is absolutely stellar and engaging, and it proves that you can do big, expansive environments on the Wii....as long as you don't mind sacrificing some texture quality. While not technically stunning, it has a great artistic feel to it; I could only imagine how much of a response it would have generated if it was on the PS3/360 and the bump in fidelity that entails. Still, in a year where my Wii got less use then my SNES, making me wipe off the dust and strap on a Wiimote is easily worth #6.
5. Hawken, or "Why doesn't Armored Core look this good?"
I love me some Mech games: the Armored Core series, Mechwarrior, Steel Batallion...if it stomps around and fires missiles, it's an easy win for me. Lately, however, there had been a dearth of good mech games, and I'm hoping Hawken leads the supposed resurgence. While it doesn't have the customization of an Armored Core game, I'm more then happy to give that up for intense visual fidelity and a fast paced multiplayer that actually feels damn good to play. I've been following this game for quite some time and was lucky enough to get into a few of the closed alphas/betas, and I'm glad to see it finally come out. Plus, it's free to play! When was the last time a free to play game looked this good visually? I can't comment on the buisness model much as I haven't played a ton of the non-beta version, but as long as they haven't messed that up, free + robots + sweet-looking + pew-pew = #5.
4. Sleeping Dogs, or "Who needs the True Crime license?"
Games with troubled development cycles become a total crapshoot. For every TF2, you get a DNF. For every L.A. Noir, you get a Daikatana, and so on. Sleeping Dogs winds up on the proper side of that equation; conceived as the next game in the True Crime franchise, it was canned by Activision, picked back up by Square (without the True Crime license), went to another year of development (after the previous three), and came out no worse for the wear. In fact, it's fantastic; after being killed off for not looking like a potential GTA-killer, it (in my opinion) more then achieved it's aims. It's one of those games that doesn't do anything spectacular, but every ounce of it is fun to play. Its one standout strength is how well it contextualizes actions normally seen to be ridiculous (as it's not out of place for a triad member to toss a man in a trunk now and then), which I would love to see more of. Being the diamond in the rough that Square hoped it would be is enough to net my #4.
3. Hotline Miami, or "My heart is racing and I don't know why!"
I really don't get why Hotline Miami is so intense. Sure, it's swift and brutal. And yes, it has visuals and a soundtrack that make it seem like you were shooting speedballs before playing. But it's no more technically demanding then something like Super Meat Boy, and no more fucked up then Asura's Wrath (although in a totally different way). I guess it's the marriage of the two that makes it such a trip; it's the kind of crazy I imagine you'd get if they remade Scarface, with less Miami Vice and more Drive. I also have deep respect for a developer that tells torrent uploaders to make sure they are pushing the latest version; if you're getting it for free, you might as well get the best experience that might lead to to buying the game. It probably could have made my Top 20 with just the soundtrack alone, but for dealing a fucked up and brutal experience with it, Hotline Miami takes #3.
2. FTL, or "Little Jimmy Taco is dead and it's all my fault!"
Every time I fire up FTL, I know my poorly named crew is bound to die. Sure, I've won before. I know it's a possibility. But I've trained myself to let go from the beginning; it makes the blood on my hands at least a little tolerable. In all seriousness, FTL proves you don't need to have character dialog, voice acting, or defining personalities to get you to care about people in your game. All you need to do is place their lives in the player's hands and put enough obstacles in their way to make death a likely occurrence. The mechanics are fairly complex, but it's the real time nature of the game which ratchets up the tension; managing personnel, targeting weapons, dealing with boarding parties, and delaying the inevitable destruction of your ship all add up to a frantic and engaging experience. The knowledge that you sent Blast Hardcheese to his death in a flame filled room...only for the oxygen to blow up on the very next missile...damn it...pushes FTL to #2.
1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, or "WHERE THE FUCK DID THOSE FLOATERS COME FROM???"
Speaking of Blast Hardcheese, XCOM takes whatever FTL does inside my head and cranks it up to 11. Sure, it's pretty buggy. But you know what, I don't care! It just makes it seem like the aliens are breaking the rules, turning even the code itself against me. Every time I come back from a mission with an empty seat, I'm replaying the fight in my head, wondering what I could have done better (unless it's a dead rookie, in which case everything has gone to plan). And none of them ever have a single character building moment outside of the ones you create for them in your mind. Anyone who thinks TWD can get you more emotionally invested never had your best heavy (poor Blast!) mind controlled and had to choose between their life or the potential lives of one of their teammates. On Impossible, every shot, every move, every overwatch was one step closer to the death of my liver. And with my own body on the line with every mission, XCOM easily takes #1.
(Honorable Top 10 mentions: Journey, Rhythm Heaven Fever, Darkness II, Binary Domain, Dustforce)
So, those were the good. The defining upsides of 2012 for me. But what's an upside without a downer to make it even sweeter? Here are the games that had me cherishing my Top 10 even more. Just keep in mind that these aren't necessarily the worst games I played all year (a few are), but the ones that were the most disappointing. This list is also a bit less serious then the first, so keep that in mind when reading.
The Bottom 10 Disappointments
10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, or "So big, so colorful...so bland."
Here's one of those games that just didn't do it for me, for one reason or another. Actually, it's that distinct lack of a major flaw which puts it so low on this list; about midway through, I just realized I wasn't having much fun. None of the characters were doing it for me, none of the backstory was really grabbing me...I don't know. The combat was fairly interesting, and I thought it had some good ideas when it came to UI and inventory management...but all the voice acting and reams of script couldn't draw me in like the nearly silent crew of XCOM or the totally silent crew of FTL. Alas, it seems like a fair amount of people felt like I did, which is a damn shame; even though this game might not have been worth the money, the idea that a man spent his fortune to create it out of a driving passion to make games is more then worthy. Sadly, that doesn't make the game any more enjoyable to me, and as such it earns the #10 slot.
9. Mass Effect 3, or "Wait a minute, I have to do what now?"
Overall, I think ME3 is a pretty good game. It had some really high points, and the gameplay was pretty solid. So, why does it make this list? Well, the ending, of course! Now I know people are tired of hearing about the damn thing, but what can I do? I honestly feel that it squandered the potential that had been building over the entire trilogy, and to swing and miss so hard at the end...well, it's probably unfair to lay that solely on ME3, but god damn Bioware! What happened? In 15 minutes, you took a reasonable entry in the ME universe and flushed it all away. Fans became so desperate for something, anything to grasp onto, that they started to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. I never bought into any of it, and neither did Bioware as they caved under pressure and put out an extended cut which...helped. A bit. When the ending is so bad that you can't remember the rest of the game you played, and when the developers go out of their way to try and fix it, you easily take #9.
8. Borderlands 2, or "I dreamed a dream in time gone by...."
Oh, Borderlands 2. I tried to love you like I did your predecessor. I tried to remember the countless (or 200, but whatever) hours we spent together, the classes we missed, the people we stole loot from. But it was all for nothing! A year ago, if you asked me "Would you like more Borderlands?", I'd probably nod my head until my neck broke. But as it turns out, I may have played so much of the original that more of the same just didn't cut it. I thought the story was well crafted, for the most part; Jack was a decent villain, there were one or two good twists, and I liked the expanded variety of equipment...but I've lost the loot lust. The drive for more guns. The need to grab as much off of my teammates as possible and run into the night. Unlike some people (notably Jeff), I found a class that more or less played like how I did in BL1, but it....it just wasn't the same. Or maybe it was, and I've just moved on? Either way, losing that lovin' feeling is enough to net #8.
7. Diablo III, or "Look, another spear! Look, better pants! Look....let's play something else."
I have absolutely zero history with the Diablo franchise. Never played any of the first two, never even knew anyone that was a rabid fan, and so on. Every damn time I'd look at a video of it, Quick Look or otherwise, it just seemed like such fun. Punch and stab a bunch of shit, get some better loot, go back to punching and stabbing, and so on. But it just never resonated with me. I gave it a fair go, I swear; I pushed all the way to Inferno or whatever the hardest difficulty is. You'd think after that amount of time it'd be somewhere on the other list, but I felt compelled to do it in order to stave off buyer's remorse. It felt like a chore, something to keep me semi-occupied while I listened to podcasts. I had a bunch of friends who all dropped out long before I did, and while it took me longer to see the light, I now realize just how worthless the whole experience was. Inane story, bland mechanics and artificial difficulty are more then you need to secure spot #7.
6. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, or "Oh god, why? Just.....just why? What did I do wrong?"
I knew this game wasn't going to be any good. I knew it. After the Shangri-La that was the first Steel Battalion with the massive controller, I knew there was no way a sequel was going to be half as good.
What....why? It's...it's ruined! They're never going to make another one of these!
You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!
(Making me quote Planet of the Apes is #6 material.)
5. Assassin's Creed III, or "I can't believe I kind of want Ezio back."
I think this one is all me, really. I think I'm just done with this series for a while. It finally wore out the good will that it had built up. It seems like series of weird judgement calls; the plot feels pretty disjointed when compared to something like Brotherhood, the cities are less interesting to traverse, they've added a bunch of mechanics that I feel are....questionable, and while naval combat is kinda awesome, the bugs that have seeped in make me wish they polished the rest of the game and left it on the cutting room floor. For me, the high water mark was Brotherhood; Ezio was still fresh, the added mechanics ranged from fine to awesome, and you actually felt like you were killing off high profile targets instead of...tougher normal redcoats. I don't know, my experience is probably atypical, but as it's my list giving me that "No, thanks. I'm done" feeling is enough to earn #5.
4. Hitman: Absolution, or "This isn't Blood Money! Give me Blood Money back!"
I'm usually all for trying something different with a new game in a franchise. I liked the move from Majora's Mask to Wind Waker, for instance. But in this case, all you had to do was give me more Blood Money. That's all I wanted! Make Blood Money, but prettier. Boom, $60. But no! This isn't anything like what I wanted. Sure, the contracts mode is pretty fun, but the main game is worthless! 47 completely blows all of his established character traits out of the water for some contrived reasoning and the rest of the game becomes a more or less linear approach to what Blood Money did so well. They also blew the difficulty; it goes from "Walk past the guards" stupid to "Seen across the map" brutal with no stops in between. When you've got almost guaranteed money in the bank and somehow find a way to piss it down the drain, you steal #4 without a struggle.
3. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, or "This is just straight up busted."
I love Dark Souls. Love it to death. But that was the PS3, and that was back in 2011. In 2012, I was jumping for joy when I heard that it was coming for the PC. It's my preferred platform, so if I can get a game I already own on the PC, I'm probably buying it.
But man, this port is FUCKED.
How did it go this wrong? I never expected a keyboard and mouse to be preferable to a controller, but they aren't even viable. I didn't expect a massive amount of graphical options, but to keep the game locked into 720p internally? I love the fact that the game has added DLC (good DLC, at that), but when you need a modder to come in and clean up your mess, you get #3.
2. Capcom, or "Holy shit, Capcom! What are you doing?
Capcom has lost their fucking mind! They've gone completely off the rails. Outside Asura's Wrath (and possibly Dragon's Dogma, but I haven't played that), everything they have touched has turned to pure shit: Street Fighter x Tekken is a joke of a fighting game, with mechanics that are actively contrarian to any sort of competitive environment. Resident Evil 6 is more or less the death knell of that brand of survival horror; even if you didn't like 5, it at least wrapped everything up fairly neatly. 6 is such a giant lump of shit that it makes Operation Raccoon City seem like a gem (it's not). I've already mention Steel Battalion, so even their published titles are turning to shit.
1. CAPCOM!, or "No, seriously! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Holy shit, it doesn't stop! You kill Mega Man Legends 3 and Universe, put out a shitty iOS game, drive Inafune out, and the best thing you do with that franchise is release a fucking fan game for the 25th anniversary (which is also the best thing you've done with that franchise this year)? Oh, good job closing Clover Studio back in '07, not like they've gone on to reform and put out anything interesting! I just don't get it. Who is even pulling the strings any more? I feel like Wily has actually manifested and taken over, and decided to indulge the same impulse that made him create fucking Spring Man over and over again. It's baffling; it's like Sega squandering Sonic but on a massive, grand scale. I bet there are even more that I'm missing, but Capcom has fallen far enough to take both #2 and #1 without a struggle.
So, that's my top and bottom 10. Sorry for the Capcom rant; I could have broken it up to just RE6 and the death of MML3, but they've kinda been a major minus for me this year. Feel free to pick at my points; after all that writing (and ranting), I think it's time for a drink.