Welcome, one and all, to the first part of My End of 2012 Awards.
I've been doing these end-of-year, Game-of-the-Year-style blog posts for a few years now, but it wasn't until last year's sprawling effort that I hit on a formula I was really happy with. I've decided to stick with that same formula for this year, using the next three days to present each game I played in 2012 with a unique individual award. The reason for this is simple - rather than giving all the most prestigious awards to a handful of the best games I played this year while ignoring the vast majority, I feel like this approach results in a better representation of how my entire gaming year unfolded. On Day Four (New Year's Eve), I'll round out the awards with a definitive list of my top ten gaming experiences of 2012, so the best games I played have a proper chance to shine.
As with previous years, My End of 2012 Awards won't just be limited to games that came out in 2012. To do so would restrict my awards to a single game (Final Fantasy XIII-2), the end result of which probably wouldn't be all that interesting. Instead, I'll be throwing the award-doors wide open to every game I've played and beaten over the course of the last twelve months, no matter when they were released. Alongside the aforementioned token 2012 release, you'll see a game from all the way back in 1993, and plenty of stuff that came in between. As long as I played it in 2012, I think it's fair game to be considered for a 2012 awards blog.
So with all that explained and hopefully out of the way, let's proceed with the first batch of awards, shall we?
'Bricks And Mortar' Award for Most Promising Foundation for a Series
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
I had more fun playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing than I've had playing any other kart racer since Crash Team Racing way back on the original PlayStation. That's largely because the core racing mechanics are so much fun, offering a simple but thrilling take on mascot racing not wholly dissimilar to the aforementioned CTR or even the Mario Kart franchise. There are lots of cups to win, a host of missions to complete, and all manner of awesome rewards to unlock in the game's shop menu. As I played Sega Racing, though, I couldn't help but feel that with a little more time, every single aspect of it could have been a little better fleshed-out. By the end of my time with it I was longing for a little more depth to the racing and a proper story mode to sink my teeth into. As things stand though, Sega Racing is a brilliant starting point for a kart-racing series, with load of potential for growth and improvement. I haven't played the recently-released sequel Transformed as yet, but I hope to find out whether Sega have delivered on that potential in 2013.
'Shiny Happy People' Award for Most Memorable Characters
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
Despite finishing the game as early as February, Persona 3 has stayed with me all through the year. A big part of that is down to the personalities of the game's cast of characters, all of whom left a lasting mark on me long after my playthrough of The Journey was over. The characters that make up the player's S.E.E.S. squad all have distinct personalities, and to begin with they seem to adhere to conventional JRPG archetypes, but as the adventure runs its course every member of the squad is revealed as a well-written, well rounded individual. That care and attention shown by the writers is extended to the various Social Links within the game too. Most of these interactions are centred on the theme of loss, and more specifically dealing with loss, and really resonated with me due to what I was going through in my own life while playing Persona 3. I don't think I'll ever forget the likes of Bunkichi and Mitsuko, little Maiko, Akinari, and all the other people I met in my time at Gekkoukan High.
'Shatter' Award for Game That Broke My Rose-Tinted Glasses
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend
I've long been a Tomb Raider fan. Anybody who read this year's Christmas Mega-Blog has probably ascertained that much about me. When I elected to replay the entire Crystal Dynamics trilogy in quick succession earlier this year, it was a decision motivated by nostalgia. It didn't take me very long to learn that in the case of these particular games, nostalgia can be a fickle mistress. I recalled Tomb Raider: Legend as a stunning return to form for Lara Croft after the disappointing Angel of Darkness nearly wiped her off the face of the gaming industry - a little on the short side, but redeemed by its innovative gameplay improvements, beautiful environments, and better-realised heroine. Fast-forward to 2012, and the benefit of hindsight reveals those innovations to be directly lifted from Prince of Persia, and the 'new-and-improved' Lara undermined by a plethora of skimpy unlockable costumes tucked away for the most dedicated players to sniff out. Legend is still a good game, but it's not the Tomb Raider I once imagined it to be.
'Time Flies' Award for Biggest Time Sink
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I spent more time in the snowy wastes of Skyrim than I did with any other game this year. I played Bethesda's latest RPG masterpiece for a total of 167 hours. To put that into perspective, that's just one hour short of a full WEEK. In that time I led my humble Nord through not only the main quest, but also to the head of the Companions and the Mages' College, and I even found time to help the Stormcloaks win the civil war. Even if that were the total of my time spent with Skyrim, it would have waltzed home with this award comfortably. But I can't write about this game without mentioning my A Month in Skyrim blog series, a monstrous thirty days of consecutive daily blogs, chronicling my first eighty-odd hours of adventuring in the north of Tamriel. The fact each entry took me a couple of hours to write adds another 60 hours to my total, bringing it to nearly 230 hours of living and breathing Skyrim this year. And do you know the scariest thing? I'm more than ready to jump right back in in 2013, to see all the unexplored content and new DLC the game has to offer, and lose my life to it once again.
'You Could Have It So Much Better' Award for Best Remake
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary
After the aforementioned disappointment of Legend not living up to my nostalgic memories, I was very worried about picking up the next game in the Crystal Dynamics trilogy. Thankfully, it didn't take long for the game itself to prove me wrong. Tomb Raider: Anniversary carries forward everything I loved about the original Tomb Raider - the brilliant puzzles, the memorable level design, and gorgeous environments that pique the exploring player's interest - and faithfully re-imagined them using the Tomb Raider Legend engine. The slicker platforming and traversal, more interesting combat, and the extra graphical horsepower of the PlayStation 2 all help to make Anniversary feel like the game the old CORE Design team might have made if they hadn't been limited by technology. As it stands, Tomb Raider Anniversary is far and away the best Tomb Raider game, and not only the best remake I played in 2012, but probably the best remake I've ever played, period.
'Tales Of Brave Ulysses' Award for Worst Use of Real-World Mythology in an Original Narrative
Tomb Raider: Underworld
There are lots of things I could have criticised Tomb Raider: Underworld for when it came to giving it an award. I could have singled out its decision to abandon everything learned in developing Anniversary in favour of reverting to the framework established by Legend. I could have picked on it for its bugginess, citing a frustrating camera, level geometry and collision detection for wrecking the otherwise fluid platforming. But instead, I've chosen to draw attention to the game's fucking batshit crazy bastardization of Norse mythology. That Crystal Dynamics ret-con a bunch of Norse motifs into various other ancient cultures (many of which preceded Norse culture by several centuries) is bad enough. What's completely unforgivable though, is the absurdity of the final level, in which Lara is actually given the fucking Hammer of Thor to wield, against an immortal Atlantean queen, in a subterranean ocean cave in the Arctic Sea, while proto-Norse machinery threatens to bring about the end of the world. It's poetic license so outrageous that it makes even Legend look faithful to its source material by comparison.
'Pain Is So Close To Pleasure' Award for Most Sado-Masochistic Gaming Experience
Grand Theft Auto
Playing Grand Theft Auto this year was, at times, little more than an exercise in punishing myself. Part of that was down to the game's archaic mechanics, which were very much a product of their time. Drawing inspiration from arcade releases, as many games did back then, the original GTA was built on the premise of earning high scores by chaining multipliers and trying one's damndest not to die. The gameplay is pretty unforgiving though, with devilish design decisions such as 'only taking one hit before you die' and 'not being able to retry any failed missions' making things nigh-impossible by default. Add to this the personal frustration I experienced from frequent, irregular and unpredictable disc lock-ups, one of which struck as I was on my way to a final meet after hitting my target in order to complete a level, and you have a recipe for the video gaming equivalent of self-harm. I don't know what kept me going, but I did finally see the end of GTA, and shortly afterwards vowed to never, ever play it again.
'You Better You Bet' Award for Most Improved Sequel
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Final Fantasy XIII-2 earns itself the first of only four returning award categories from last year, wrestling the award from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood by achieving something I honestly thought it would fail to - specifically, being better than Final Fantasy XIII. My feelings on the thirteenth instalment of the long-running Final Fantasy series were conflicted, and to be fair so were my feelings towards its sequel. What really earned FFXIII-2 this award is the fact that it improves on what I felt to be the weakest aspects of FFXIII - namely its linearity, and a lack of gameplay variety. FFXIII-2 addresses the first of these concerns by providing the player with much more open environments that, while still ostensibly fairly linear, provide the player with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. It also boasts a much wider variety of gameplay types and side-quests to keep the player engaged. On top of this, it preserves the awesome Paradigm-centric battle system of FFXIII, as well as throwing in a monster-raising aspect to keep things interesting. It may have been a little weaker in terms of its story and characters, but as far as actually playing the game went, I found FFXIII-2 much more engaging than the game that spawned it.
Well, that's a wrap on the first day of My End of 2012 Awards. Tomorrow I'll be serving out another nine individual awards to games that defined my year. It'd be awesome if you could join me for it. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Sam & Max Episode 4: Abe Lincoln Must Die! (PC)