2012 ain’t over until I say it’s over. Me and Space-Time got a deal worked out.
So before we close the book on video games (“Video Games 2012: The Official Book Of The Year Of The Games”) I gotta’ say my peace, give one last shout out to the games that deserve it and carve out once a final opportunity to talk about what a bummer Borderlands 2 is.
Or I guess I just did. Anyway, to da list.
#10. Dragon’s Dogma
Dragon’s Dogma does everything wrong. It’s an open world game with a joyless, lifeless open world that’s a huge pain in the ass to explore. Its storytelling is virtually nonexistent, which makes it all the more terrible when your quest is interrupted by the cast of interchangeable renaissance festival stand-ins. It’s a game bereft of pacing and tension, as you're flung from assignment to assignment until the game decides that it’s time to fight the titular dragon. About the only thing Dragon’s Dogma gets right is that dramatic and intense combat, successfully splitting the difference between Capcom’s timing-heavy tactical brawler Monster Hunter and the more casual combo-heavy hooks of Devil May Cry. Thankfully, that combat system--combined with the ability to climb over monsters Shadow of the Colossus-style—result in some of the most exciting moments of combat I've had in any game this year. Scaling the heads of hydras, pouncing on Chimeras, and clipping the wings of the cockatrice with the (sometimes) help of your AI pawns is absolutely gripping in a way that almost no other game was in 2012.
Of course, combat alone isn’t enough for most games to shine in an increasingly crowded video game landscape. No, where Dragon’s Dogma secures the numba’ 10 spot is the game’s absolutely psychotic epilogue that simultaneously manages to dramatically improve the core structure of the game AND provide a 10000% unforgettable climax. “Better” video games may come and go, but Dragon’s Dogma is a hot dosage of the kind of crazy—simultaneously bonkers and curiously affecting-- we only get from Japan.
Oh, and it’s secretly a dating sim. So that helps.
Gamers were over Syndicate before it ever came out, and fuck ‘em for it; they missed out on one of the most brutal and striking shooters released in 2012. Syndicate’s vision of Corprocracy might have seemed little more than a rehash of last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but Starbreeze presents an equally fascinating version of a future world where the chipped have information about their environments pumped into their eyes at all times. And, unlike Deus Ex, Syndicate is a rip-roaring shooter with stylish, exciting gun play, terrific animation and a suite of useful and ridiculous powers to give you the edge against the Corpro-Cyber-Scum.
But where Syndicate earns its place on this list is the game’s unstoppable multiplayer, a Co-op campaign that draws from both Left 4 Dead zombie fights and World of Warcraft dungeons. In Syndicate’s co-op, drawing enemy aggro and healing teammates is just as important as firing your own weapons. Craziest of all, your custom multiplayer agent will actually grow to be more powerful and effective than your character in the single player campaign; I had few accomplishments in 2012 that made me feel more badass than soloing a 4-player co-op mission on the hardest difficulty with my decked out agent.
Also: chip rips.
One of the few games released in 2012 that merits the use of the word “elegant.” Mark of the Ninja unfolds so many effortlessly executed systems that you just know that getting them all right in development must have been a monumental undertaking. Klei finally takes its impressive 2D art and uses it in service of immensely satisfying stealth (real stealth!) gameplay. A game that makes every stealth game that came before it (including some of this year’s biggest games!) obsolete.
The first time I played Hotline Miami, I had to stop after 45 minutes because I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. Trying to execute on the game’s beyond frenetic, precision-required gameplay—over and over and over again—was so stressful that it was literally making me ill. My skin was crawling and my stomach was churning, and that sure as hell wasn’t because of the game’s terrific and horrific displays of carnage.
That’s exactly the kind of psycho cocktail that Hotline Miami is. It’s a dayglo massacre of a game, taking the manic fever a coke-fueled hyper binge and pairing it with the focused execution of your Masocore-style die-and-die-again action games. The result is a game that’s doesn’t so much ooze style, but rather injects its style directly between your toes so you can feel it faster. It’s one of the few games of 2012 I can instantly call to mind because both its artistic and gameplay triumphs are so singular.
I have to take a phone call…right now
The funny thing about Journey is that, were it “just” a 3D platformer, it would still be a worthwhile little game. It’s easy to think about Journey solely in terms of its striking landscapes and engrossing art design and invisible, affecting multiplayer. In my mind, however, Journey’s singular achievement is that is just feels so good. It’s game with, essentially, three gameplay options (move, jump, chirp) and each of those gameplay actions just feels immensely satisfying; the satisfying glide you get when you jump above the sand, the joyous sliding sequence, and the simple pleasure you get when you mash that chirp button to get your mysterious companion’s attention. Journey was one of those games that just gave me a suite of enjoyable gameplay options and an utterly distinct world to execute those actions in.
Of course, what makes that gameplay so special is that it’s wrapped around that impressive, dramatic desert landscape and the seamless multiplayer. But the heart and soul of Journey is interactive; it’s the fact that you, the Journeyman, are jumping and gliding and sliding and having a blast—an artistic blast—as you make your pilgrimage.
And while the game’s terrific sliding sequence has received plenty of praise, my mind is drawn to a second distinct even in Journey: the moment when your character can no longer continue moving forward. It’s one of the most tragic and gorgeous moments in any video game I’ve played. Had the game ended right there, Journey would have been ABOVE my list rather than simply on it.
I am not Patient Zero for The Walking Dead save bug. I’m just another victim of the plague.
Not 30 minutes into my own playthrough of the Walking Dead episode 5, my laptop crashed. When I rebooted my machine, my save—a save over 4 months in the making—was totally gone. My experience—my personal Lee—was gone.
So, yeah, I’m a bit chuffed at The Walking Dead. I’ll probably replay the entire season at some point just to see exactly how it goes down (even though it sounds like I called that shit months ago). But while I can’t call Walking Dead my favorite game of 2012, I can certainly give it props for being a haunting, harrowing, and shocking interactive experience as any we’ve seen in video games. I can give props to Dave Fennoy, who’s imbues Lee with such believably as he tries to weather the storms—the zombie storm and the human storm. And I can give props to all the gentle, quiet moments of despair in a year that was louder and dumber than ever before.
But perhaps what makes The Walking Dead so important—and so good—is how it makes any discussion of Players have, in recent years, put a far greater emphasis in having agency over their games—of being in control of their actions and having their choices dictate where the story of the game goes. Of course, true video game agency doesn't exist; we’re always following along the paths the designers allowed us to have. Some of my favorite video games of the past decade (BioShock and Metal Gear Solid 2) are precisely about how little actual control the player has over their own path. Similarly, The Walking Dead had limited agency; the story is always going to end in the same basic way, and there aren't going to be any true deviations from the path. But that never really becomes an issue in the Walking Dead, because I always felt like my agency mattered, even when it didn't All of my actions were punctuated by designer-controlled set pieces that encompassed some of the best video game moments I had in 2012. As a result, I was OK with having in-game actions “tailored” rather than being the result of my personal agency; it all led to moments of such dramatic intensity that I was completely absorbed. I never had an opportunity to question just how much control I had over the events of the game: the story of the Walking Dead was too powerful for me to want to look behind the curtain and see what was really going on in the game. It’s a game of smoke and mirrors, to be sure, but it all results in an emotionally resonant experience and the number of games you can say that about can’t be counted on one hand.
FTL presents a vision of space flight that I imagine in my head; random and utterly precarious. Everything in that universe is trying to kill you; enemy ships, drones, mantis men, nebulas, sun storms and asteroid belts, not to mention that damn rebel fleet. Surviving through just one system requires as much luck as it does skill, but making it all the way to the rebel flagship? Fuck that. It’s a testament to FTL’s simple and immensely effective mechanics that you just want to jump back onboard seconds after your last ship went down in flames.
The best part of FTL’s randomness is that it’s able to both reward AND punish every type of role and personality the player takes upon themselves for their next space flight. The pragmatist who tries to help every single person he encounters? They’ll eventually catch that virus that kills a crew member, or take too much damage trying to repair an outpost. The warmongering mercenary that shoots every person they see? They’re going to eventually get into a battle they can’t win, lacking the tools they could have earned from helping folks out. The explorer who wants to see every nook and cranny of a star system? Their fuel reserves are going to be critical, leading them dumping their scrap just to keep their ship going or leaving them stranded in space until the Enemy fleet catches up to them. FTL lets players adopt a persona and a story for exactly as long as their next space flight lasts; when their ship burns out, they can dump that personality and try another one. It’s that kind of varied, terrific options that make every flight in FTL memorable. FTL is a $10 story generator, proof that Kickstarter can be used for good, and the single best indie game released in 2012.
#3 Dota 2
I played 1000 matches of League of Legends this year.
I point this out merely to indicate where the majority of my MOBA time (and, if I’m being honest, a large portion of my disposable income) was spent in 2012. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours learning (and enjoying!) the ins and outs of the most popular online game in the world. I played virtually every hero, could play every role in every lane with some degree of proficiency, and was on my way to becoming a competent player. I even had a pretty decent ELO in the game’s last ranked season.
And I had Dota 2 that whole time. I received beta access earlier this year. But every time I booted the game up to check out a match, I shut down the program and bailed from my computer like a bat out of crazy hell. For a game that was ostensibly in the same genre as LOL, Dota 2 felt incomprehensible, cramped, unfocused, needlessly obtuse, uncommunicative, toxic and totally random. I never wanted to play Dota 2 again.
Something changed in December.
I can’t properly explain what happened. Maybe I was just on some losing streak in LoL and I wanted a break. Maybe I just needed a reason to finally buy some Valve hats. For whatever reason, in the last month of 2012, I opened my heart and my computer to Dota, and it’s rarely been shut down since.
The funny thing is that my description of Dota 2 from earlier is still accurate. The game is still too tough for most to get into and it sure is random. But, ironically, those are the things that make Dota 2 measurably more exciting, dramatic, strategic and ridiculous than the genre’s leading competitor. It’s an extreme take on the MOBA genre, and I mean that literally: abilities, crowd control and mana costs are far greater and more powerful, while all the heroes feel significantly more fragile. As a result, every encounter in the game is faster paced and far more tense, as death comes much quicker (and carries a far greater price) Being a competent Dota player means you’ve got to think broader than just what’s going on in your lane; it requires you to move fluidly across the map, to manage your personal economy in a smarter way, and to not choke on the brutal tension of every match.
As a result, every single fight in Dota 2 feels ten times as wild and 100 times crazier than just about any other multiplayer game I can think of. And coming out of those encounters victorious is the most immensely satisfying experience you can have online, a fact I know because I SAVOR that triumph the few times I’ve been able to achieve it. Dota 2 is going to be rough for new players, knowledgeable MOBA enthusiasts and anyone who puts their self-esteem on the line when they play a video game. But for those manage to stick with it, Dota 2 is an absolutely unforgettable strategy that game will destroy time and suck every spare hour you’ve got into its deep, dark pit of strategy RPG madness.
#2:Far Cry 3
There aren’t too many games that let you set a bear on fire.
That alone merits Far Cry 3 for consideration on this list, but what’s so striking about Far Cry 3 is how effortless everything feels; the seamless interplay between the game’s disparate systems; hunting idols and hunting wildlife, moving from foot to car to hang glider to boat to ATV and back to foot, climbing towers and clearing camps and fighting tigers all the while. Developers have been trying to crack the Open World FPS for years now, but Far Cry 3 is the most natural execution of the idea yet, combining an immensely satisfying shooting model with the goofy randomness you only get from a ridiculous open world game. And it sure helps that Far Cry 3 fixes the vast majority of its ambitious predecessor’s problems, making for the single best shooter in a year that was full-to-bursting with high profile gun games.
And I would be remiss to end this section without a special word of thanks for Vaas, a spine-tingling, magnetic antagonist who makes me never, ever, ever want to know what happens when he “pulls the pussy trigger”.
I’m sure it’s gross. And terrifying.
I can’t beat XCOM.
Oh no, I don’t think XCOM is too hard for me to complete. (not on the default difficulty, anyway) Nor do I think my battle hardened crew of Heavies, Assaults, Snipers and Supports (big ups to my supports!) aren’t capable of fucking up whatever the alien menace has waiting for me, be they Cyberdiscs, Berserkers or Sectopods.
No, I can’t beat XCOM because every time I try to watch the cutscene that occurs when you finally use the Gollop Chamber that enables the final mission, my game crashes.
I can’t skip the cutscene, I can’t hack my way into the final mission. I’m totally, 100% stuck. Not even the actual assistance of a real-for-real Firaxis employees could get my save solved (thanks again for all of your help, Justin! I really appreciate it!). Call it the price of playing games on laptops, call it bad QA, call it the Ur-bug—that most terrible of bugs that keeps you from completing your game withing striking distance of the end.
And it still doesn’t prevent XCOM from being my favorite game, the best game of 2012.
Clearly I’m not to be trusted: giving Game of the Year to a game you can’t actually finish because of a crippling bug? I must be the Sheriff of Crazy Town, the troll underneath Cuckoo Bridge, the King Asshole of Stupid Asshole, USA. But 2012 was a year full of incredible games cripples with absolutely destructive, game ruining bugs. And In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man can still Double Tap the Mutons from 10 squares away.
No game in 2012 was able to more effectively cultivate tension and dread, triumph and relief and the sweet, sweet appreciation for safety than Firaxis’ immaculate turn-based triumph. It’s as much a game as it is a devious “Hold-Your Breath” simulator, designed to keep you on the edge of your toes every time you send your squad into the fog of war and every time you line up a shot.
But XCOM’s greatest success of all is the way it so effortlessly blends the cold and objective work inside the base with the emotional tension of the battlefield. Inside the XCOM HQ, it’s all business; you perform clinical autopsies and establish efficient production of supplies, all the while keeping tabs on alien activity across the globe. But every time you take one of your teams onto the field, the entire tone of the game—both in-game and in your heart—transforms. The clinical detachment of the metagame vanishes, and in its place is the tense, perilous combat where the lives of your squad mates are on the line...and in your hands. More so than its success as a retro reboot, XCOM’s real triumph is the way it seamlessly adopts and shifts its tone as you play it, resulting in incredible dramatic tension in the actual gameplay instead of just in a cutscene.
Few games more deftly handle this balance between the cold and clinical with the emotional, and fewer still let you play an active role in both sides of the spectrum. XCOM is a masterful exercise in how gameplay can be used to generate stories, create moments of utter terror and raise the emotional stakes of a conflict. I’ll remember XCOM long after I’ve forgotten about my computer troubles. That’s the kind of Stockholm syndrome you only get with a game as terrific as XCOM.
And the Runner Ups!
It’s not that dogs CAN wear hats and shoes in Tokyo Jungle. It’s that they SHOULD wear hats and shoes. It makes them stronger, faster and more able to survive. Being fashionable might just give that little Pomeranian the edge he needs in the literal dog-eat-dog world of post-apocalyptic Japan.
Not since Viva Piñata let you feed parent piñatas to their children has a game managed to be so sublimely silly and completely fucked in equal measure. Tokyo Jungle so effectively balances its silliness and its cynicism in this Like so many of the best games of 2012, Tokyo Jungle is a story generator, setting up a world so ridiculous and utterly brutal that you can’t help but tell people about the time you Golden Retriever ran 20 blocks away from a crocodile only to mate with the first dog you could lay your eyes on, or that time a fat cat fought a hippopotamus for control of the Tokyo bullet trains. And all of that ridiculousness is bolstered by a totally solid gameplay system that boils down the animalistic needs of natural life into a simple, brutal formula, eat, mark territory, mate and die. It’s all easier said than done in Tokyo Jungle, but it was a gameplay loop I was thrilled to do over and over again.
And Finally, One Last Thought About Borderlands 2
Tiny Tina Is Not Funny.
See ya in 2013.