I didn't let my Afghanistan deployment hold me back from what I love doing: playing videogames! Despite being in pretty atrocious living quarters, I field crafted a decent gaming set up and had good support from my family back home and retailers that shipped to that part of the world to prevent a climbing backlog. I couldn't play a lot of downloadable titles at first, but remedied that when I returned home.
Looking at my GOTY lists every year, I incidentally craft a theme. Some sort of indication of what games were each year and what the experiences a gamer should expect. Last year was all about telling stories in non-conventional ways. With Saints Row: The Third telling an absurd plot, Dead Space 2 utilized a lot of environmental story telling, and Bastion's narrator was new and effective.
This year, the journey was important. It wasn't the destination that took precedence for better or worse. Every game here presents the player with incredible journeys. In The Walking Dead, we lived in Lee's shoes as he traveled through Georgia and struggle to survive the epidemic that tore society apart. The Darkness II was all about getting to the game's conclusion to figure out what reality was. And Hotline Miami didn't take players on the narrative journey like all these other nine games did, but made the trek through every stage meaningful. That game intelligently made the every move of the player count.
The first season of The Walking Dead is going to have a legacy. This is simply where videogames are going from a storytelling standpoint. I may be jumping the gun, but this game will probably go down as a modern classic. If I had to write down my Top 10 moments in videogames, half of those would come from this game alone. That’s how much of an impact The Walking Dead has had on me. I’ve never been as emotionally invested in fiction before. Characters I met in this game were people that felt real, and I connected with theme on an emotional level. Certain moments like the suicide and Kenny’s story arc were fucked up in ways that were never over-the-top and after many turning points in an episode’s plot, I had to seriously consider taking a break. I was emotionally exhausted after completing each of the game’s five episodes.
What makes this game phenomenal is the writing and characters. The “Zombie” part of the Zombie Apocalypse doesn’t matter too much. This is a group of normal people thrown into extreme situations. It casts a light on both extremes of humanity. By focusing on a small cast, the writing remained tight and focused. The game never painted a picture of the rest of the world or even what was going on down the road from the cast. This was a tale about Lee, Clementine, and the rest of the survivors.
It takes talented voice performers and incredible writing to invest players on this level and treat them like an adult. Every time a character said something to me, one of the response choices is the reaction I thought of in my head. There were few good and bad choices or responses. Every situation in this game is dark. I played Lee how I believe I would’ve reacted in real life. I would’ve given the food to the men performing the hard labor and the children. Sometimes silence was the only reaction I had. Other times, I backed up my best friend. And there were instances I had to square someone away or threaten them for the good of the group.
Clementine was a true connection to innocence. She is the resemblance of purity in a world gone mad. I made it Lee’s mission to revolve life around her. Protecting her was my watchword. Every action was done in her best interest. That moment in the farm when I stabbed the man and she gasped after seeing my actions, I felt horrible. In later moments in which I was tempted to do some morally grey things, I held back in fear of her witnessing any negative actions on my part. I trained her to shoot and brought her to Crawford’s in hopes of training her to deal with realities of the apocalypse for I came to the realization that I couldn’t be there for her forever. I honestly cared about this little girl and sought her satisfaction. That alone is beyond powerful for a work of fiction. I made sure she took care of me at the end and that she kept her hair short.
***End of Major Spoilers***
I wouldn’t say The Walking Dead is the watershed moment that halts the videogame train and changes everything. But it has certainly made an impact. I think this is a game we’ll look back on years from now and remember characters like Kenny and the dark moments of Episode 3. For the first time, a videogame has treated me like an adult. I’ve never been so interested in a game’s choices and possibilities. The Walking Dead is about the journey. This is a journey that has cemented itself in my mind and is crazy enough for me to have long conversations about it with total strangers. I went on an emotional ride with these characters, and while that ride was mostly depressing it was a powerful experience that won’t leave my mind anytime soon.
2. Persona 4: Golden (Or "The" Golden, whatever)
Simply looking at Persona 4 from a distance is the reason that it took me until a 2012 re-release of a critically acclaimed 2008 game to finally play. This is an very-anime looking JRPG that uses “dating sim” mechanics and takes a serious time commitment to sink your teeth in. All of these elements are typically things that make me run far away from a game, however in this case I not only welcomed it but fell in love.
Persona 4 is the complete package. Its got the best turned-based combat I’ve ever played, intensely (but manageable) strategic dungeon-crawling combat, and incredible characters. I wasn’t so confident in the game’s quality the first few hours. But after giving the game a chance to sink its teeth in me, I was glad to let it take over my life. I feel like I’m literally getting to know interesting fictional characters. Not to mention that the level of anime in this game is pretty tolerable. This game has a dizzying number of mechanics and activities. But they never feel too overbearing. In fact, all of this game’s elements blend almost perfectly; creating a cohesive experience that shouldn’t be missed by anyone.
3. Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 shares its best quality with my 2011 GOTY, Saints Row: The Third with being the most consistently fun game of 2012. While borrowing aspects from games such as Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead: Redemption, every mechanic in Far Cry 3 blends together perfectly. The game gets a lot of mileage with virtually every element.
In an ingenious move, Ubisoft doesn’t just dump all the content onto the player’s laps from the beginning directly. They crafted the game in a way that the player chooses the pace. Want to just discover the whole map immediately? Go explore! Or just do what I did and discover small landmasses and chew through all that content before proceeding. It’s incredibly easy to burn 12 hours of game time without even touching the main story.
Not since Mercenaries have I been dropped into such a fun virtual playground that will supply its own unique stories of hilarity. One time I was about to take over a Pirate Outpost. I was tactically approaching my target while conducting reconnaissance with my Sniper rifle. In my head, I crafted a brilliant strategy to sneak and stealthily take each foe out. As I approach my first victim, a tiger came out of nowhere, killed two pirates and immediately turned on me.
Its seemingly random moments like that and hunting sharks with Jet Skis that supplied me with more than enough “wow” moments that left me stoked to talk about with other people. Far Cry 3 celebrates the freedom players can have in games. The story never reached the potential I saw in the fantastically dramatic opening. Unlike most of the other games on this list, I didn’t care about the quality of Far Cry 3’s plot. For it’s easily the greatest open world game I’ve played and sets the standard for making a game fun.
Having faint memories of the original game, I picked up The Darkness II not expecting much out of it. I was shocked to find a game that had an impressive attention to detail in virtually every mechanic and narrative element. The story is well told and complemented by phenomenal motion capture and voice acting. The protagonist, Jackie Estacado is ultimately battling whether or not he’s insane and if the events of the game are just visions in his head. Each stage of the game is leap-frogged by a segment in a mental institution that may or may not just be Hell in disguise. The play on sanity had me even questioning what elements of the game were “real”.
Combat doesn’t get more brutal and fun than with The Darkness II. The malevolent demon in your head is constantly throwing out deviously dark one-liners and giving you access you rip foes apart in satisfying ways. With the demonic abilities being as fun and gruesome as they are, it’s a fun surprise that the gunplay is fun to boot. Developer, Digital Extremes succeeded in blending everything that makes a shooter great.
I’m a very visual person. Asura’s Wrath isn’t a game in the traditional sense. Yeah, you to take control of the game’s protagonist enough to constitute this as a “videogame”, but that isn’t really where the game shines. It’s when this game take power struggles seen in Dragon Ball Z and makes that even more intense. I played Asura’s Wrath in front of a few people who didn’t care too much for videogames, let alone anime. They literally couldn’t take their eyes off the insanity played on the screen. Every time an event comes like a crazy Earth-sized demi God being blown up by a man-sized hero, we all screamed that it’s impossible for the game to get crazier. But it constantly raised the bar with each passing minute. This is literally a game you have to see to believe.
6. Halo 4
Any Halo that understands the badassery of the Needler is automatically a game I want to champion. 343 went the extra mile with developing a fantastic Halo experience. I’ve voiced criticisms against this game for not taking advantage of an opportunity to write new and interesting fiction, and the Prometheans are far from interesting.
Despite these faults, Halo 4 looks and plays phenomenally. The singleplayer is littered with beautiful vistas and impressive set pieces. Master Chief and Cortana’s relationship is far more developed here than in games past. Cortana serves as the anchor for the overall plot, and her story arc has enough high points to look past the weak introduction to the new antagonist.
What really sealed the deal for me was the multiplayer. It isn’t often I get into competitive shooters, but I was more than glad to return to the Halo arena after many years of being away. Halo’s multiplayer stays true enough to the original formula for someone like me that loved playing Halo 2 to get into. The persistence and unlock system isn’t nearly as involved as other modern shooters, but makes Halo 4 feel like more of a breath of fresh air than anything out of date. For me personally, I’m tired of worrying about unlocking new optics. I just want to drop into battle and shoot dudes. And Halo 4 offers tight first-person action and functional multiplayer for me to scratch that itch.
With the disappointment Assassin’s Creed III ended up being, I’m so relieved another game took it upon itself to deliver a tight and involving assassination experience. A lot of games these days tend to feel bloated and often collapse under their own weight of meaningless content. Dishonored takes the linear approach by delivering a laser-focused experience that still customizable and give the players control over their own experiences.
I opted to play stealthy. Negotiating the environment without raising alarms and killing as few people as possible proved to be the most rewarding experience. The game world wasn’t too convincing of being a living-breathing space, but was more of a giant puzzle laid out for the player. Dishonored shines by expertly blending its world and the game’s mechanics. Every stage felt like it was specifically crafted for me to engage in, but gave me enough freedom for me to choose how I wanted to tackle it. At no point did the game communicate, “Hey, you need to kill that guy and use this skill here!”
The narrative got especially dark with how it tasked me with eliminating assassination targets. I always had the option to tactically murder the target, or show “mercy” by giving them a fate arguably worse than death. In one mission for instance, I sold out my female target to a man promising to keep her safe. However, it’s clear his intentions with this woman were less than noble.
I never fall into games that are hard on purpose. Typically, I can't get into games the require a specific mode of thinking or rhythm to be successful. Hotline Miami is a puzzle-ass-puzzle game. The kind of puzzle game that has zero mercy and will kick your ass and rarely communicate how you fucked up. I've never approached a game so carefully and tactically. Before going into a room full of foes, I would have to anticipate how the entire stage would react to the actions I was pre-planning. Things rarely happen by accident. Each time I was successful, each move I committed was planned and executed in specific cadence. This Super Meat Boy approach to action was somehow not frustrating. This was something I wanted to master. All this white-knuckle action accompanied by the psychedelic atmosphere and totally bazar affection for violence makes the whole package a total joy.
Mass Effect 3 did not have a good destination by any means. Despite the abundance of criticisms against the end-game, the journey was phenomenal by virtue of supplying plentiful memorable moments such and Moridin's goodbye and the epic space battles against the Reapers. The combat was just about as good as any other 3rd person shooter and the visuals were sharp enough to be an adequate replacement for the nuance the original game's film grain presented. Virtually no other narrative has as much cohesive attention drawn to the narrative and universe as Mass Effect's. The fact I know all the species and all their quirks is astonishing. And while it my be nerdy as Hell, I was obsessed with learning everything about this universe's fiction. While all the plot points ended too cleanly, seeing so many different characters interact in well told stories is something that just doesn't happen across any medium. Mass Effect is one of Science Fiction's best. While totally not the best Mass Effect in the trilogy, Shepard's final adventure was as engrossing and epic as a final chapter should be.
Spec Ops: The Line aimed to be thought provoking and mature. The game is a third-person shooter and took the definition of that genre very literally. The weapons you fire and the enemies to fight are unremarkable making the entire gameplay portion of Yager’s shooter is very by-the-numbers and won’t go down as the most robust shooter in 2012, but will probably go down as the most memorable.
A lot of games that deal with morality have some sort of contrived game mechanic to compliment it. Spec Ops relies on the player to think about their choices and live with consequences despite that none of theses moments are tied to an actual mechanic. To put it simply, Yager is banking on you feeling like a complete dirtbag throughout the whole game. And the game is mostly successful. It constantly makes the players second-guess themselves at whether or not they’re the hero or villain and to what extremes they’re willing to go though in order to accomplish their goals.
Any game that is inspiring someone to write a book about it is crazy enough. I went into Spec Ops just expecting a generic shooter to take up some of my free time. The story itself isn’t very great, but how it’s told is what makes this game a standout. I quickly found myself emotionally invested and in need for a hard drink after the credits rolled. The disconnect between the gameplay and narrative elements is jaunting, making the focus on the morality of war feel disjointed. However, that doesn’t do enough damage to the finished product for me to be totally blown away by the game’s atmosphere and powerful late-game moments.
Thanks for reading!