1. Max Payne 3
Max Payne 3 hosted the lion´s share of my favourite gaming moments this year. I was so exciting about getting to continue Max´s story, and when it arrived I found in it everything I had hoped for. The upgrade to the physics engine and masterful animation system made diving about so very exhilarating, and coupled with the solid cover mechanic it made Max manoeuvrable despite his heavier frame, a necessity given the increase in difficulty in this third outing. I found that difficulty to be very well balanced and a fun challenge - enough that it was the only game of the year that I played through for a second time on a higher difficulty level.
I loved the story and the variety in locations, I thought the colour separation-style to the cutscenes fit really well, and thought the voiceover from Max throughout gave the experience an extra dimension. The atmosphere throughout is thick, the mood is perfectly pitched and everything is so damn cool. The soundtrack by HEALTH is a masterpiece.
I found myself hooked on the multiplayer too, and sunk over a hundred hours into it, maxing out my level and prestiging to go around again. In its heyday around time of release, it was brilliant with enough players to keep full sessions going for long sessions played into the night. The DLC is still being trickled out to this day, and with double and triple XP weekends coming around at a regular pace, there are usually just enough people online at any time to get a good hour or two in. Max Payne 3 is the complete package for me this year, and hit all the high notes.
2. Far Cry 3
I finished up Far Cry 2 less than 6 months ago. After having lived on shelf for a few years, I decided to get through it and ended up having a ton of fun, despite the game's many limitations - traversal seemed slow and arduous, missions weren't particularly exciting, there wasn't much variety in what you could do. Far Cry 3 is everything that it's predecessor wanted to be and more, and brings back the original's tropical island setting. On top of that, it takes you on some wild rides and its story is, for the most part, enjoyable despite some missteps.
Whatever you find yourself doing, it is always entertaining. The core components hunting, driving and combat are all brilliant, and the variety of mission types will keep you on the hook for a long time. Crazy stuff will just happen as you go about your business as pirates and mercenaries clash against the jungles resident wildlife. The game also features one of the best characters of the year in Vaas, whose dramatic performances are frightening. I did not expect Far Cry 3 to be as good as it is, you can see the components from Far Cry 2 here, but the way they all work together elevates FC3 to greatness. One of the best of the year.
Journey was one of only a handful of games that I felt needed to be played from start to finish in a single sitting. I definitely think that there are right and wrong ways of experiencing many games; You shouldn't play horror games in the day, you can easily burn yourself out on games with complex mechanics, and playing Journey in bite sized chunks would be doing it a great disservice.
Every component is expertly crafted. Each moment along the way evokes such emotion from the player, at times exhilarating, at others calming or even unsettling. Your character's movement and flight is always gracious, and the gameworld is simply beautiful, but I've yet to talk about the most impressive element of Journey - the online play.
The game is a 2 player co-operative game, but not in any kind of traditional sense. If connected to PSN (and you really should be), you are randomly partnered with another player who in the same location as you. It isn't announced, you don't see their name, and your only means of communication are with a 'chirp' button that can be tapped or held. They'll be your closest friend as you make your way through each environment, yet they may just as easily depart from your game. This can lead to some harrowing and sorrowful moments as you realise they're no longer beside you.
My experience with the game was defined by my moments spent with one such other player that I spent the whole back half with… Or at least, I was pretty sure I did. I encouraged my girlfriend to play it and she instantly fell in love with it, though her experience differed pretty greatly from mine. The first player she connected with was dressed in white and gold, signifying that they had experienced a lot more of what the game had to offer than we had. They guided us about, leading us to items hidden in the game world, and had an infinitely respawning cape that granted them near limitless flight that we could benefit from. This experience got me thinking about my second playthrough, and upon reaching that first area for the second time, and encountering another player that seemed somewhat lost, I felt compelled to be their guide.
Coming back to the game now, all of the moments came flooding back. Journey is the home to a lot of my favourite gaming moments of 2012, and will be on the Top 10 list by the year's end without any doubt.
4. Halo 4
I´m in deep with the Halo saga. More than 10 books deep. All the games deep. Hundreds of Halo 2 online and clan match gaming deep. Halo 4 is my jam, and I´m really happy with how it turned out in the hands of the guys at 343 Industries. They made one the best Halo campaigns in the series, which takes the story to some interesting places and keeps the 30-second gameplay loop working its magic even with new enemies and weapons in play. I think the main complaints I have are with the lack of freshness on display - those new elements are very similar to what is already available - and with the lack of explanation around the Didact, a new antagonist for the series that is given no real introduction, as if everything should already know who he is. This is coming from someone half-way through a trilogy of books solely based on the Didact and the life and times around which he rose to power.I will let them off under the expectation that the go all out for Halo 5.
For the multiplayer, 343 seem to have learnt from the competition and modernised the game, for the better. Spartan Ops is also a grand idea (episodic multiplayer story with cutscenes, set after the campaign´s conclusion), and I really want to jump back in in the new year. Oh, and for crazy multiplayer shenanigans, Halo is still the place to be. Evidence can be found in the Community Nights hosted by us around the game´s launch.
5. Hotline Miami
The most exciting and refreshing game I've played this year, with the best original soundtrack. This is a top-down, fast-paced action puzzle murder-em-up, and it just gets me all jumped up every time I play. You learn the mechanics of the game naturally, usually by getting smoked as soon as you encounter something you've not seen before - but every time you master that new gameplay wrinkle, you feel powerful and dangerous. It's instantly on my GOTY list for these reasons. When a games gets me excited or emotional like this, it's doing things right. The game's visual style is equally exciting - swimmy, trippy and vibrant, but clear in its intentions and hiding hidden depth in the environment details.
I don't want to go into it much more at this point, as I'd like to see people try it for themselves. I'll probably come back with some additional thoughts once I complete it, but for now consider it recommended without hesitation.
I had the unrepeatable pleasure of playing Fez during the first few days of its release, and I believe that it might be difficult to appreciate just how brilliant that experience was if you didn't. The game, on face value, looks like a simple indie platformer, with an interesting dimension switching mechanic, but as you travel deeper into the game, the threads start to unravel. The music becomes more abstract, the map screen becomes more and more complex, and you begin to sense that there must be a meaning to the patterns and symbols in the levels.
What made those early days so incredible was that everyone internet-wide was discovering clues and solving puzzles together. These weren't traditional puzzles but far more obscure riddles with crazy solutions that required everyone's collective thoughts and ideas to reach. I stayed away from spoiling things for myself, and gave in only a couple of times when I found myself at the end of my wits, but the iconic 'cube found' audio sting made me feel so great every time. By the time I had discovered and unlocked absolutely everything, going back and thinking of it as it originally looked - a 2D platformer - is pretty crazy. I would recommend it for anyone out there who let it pass by originally, but make sure to push through and get deep in it. It is a special game, and oh so strange and wonderful.
7. Forza Horizon
Horizon has some real talent behind it. Former employees of Codies, Bizarre, Criterion, Reflections, Slightly Mad and Black Rock all under one roof, developing a game for Turn 10 and Microsoft Studios? That's a little unfair on anyone else out there trying to make a racing game, surely?
The handling is straight out of Forza, but is set in an open world setting, with a festival vibe running throughout. As a huge DiRT 2/3 fan, I also recognise a lot of visual design that feels borrowed, but it's certainly not squandered, as everyone works together to provide the number one racing experience of the year. It strikes a near-perfect balance between Forza and the more arcadey games out there, with all the community features from the previous Forza games.
What I liked the most was the sense of steady progression as you upgrade to better and better classes as you 'rank up' and unlock new events for faster car classes. Finally getting into an R2 or R1 car and unleashing it on the open world is fantastic. There are also a few events that aren't your usual circuit or sprint races, where you battle a bi-plane or a hot-air balloon. These are essentially time trials, but that additional layer and the visual effects in use keep it feeling fresh and exciting.
I finished up the 'story' and have plenty more to do, including new races, collecting, discovering hidden cars, and the simple yet engaging multiplayer setup. Whether I'll lay down 4000 Microsoft Points for the Season Pass is a question I'm hesitant to answer, that's a lot of additional money for more cars, though one pack will add additional off-road races.
8. The Walking Dead
The series'conclusion got its emotion hooks into me, I'll admit it. I'll avoid spoilers here, but suffice to say that the journey you take with these characters is perilous and at times moving. TWD is an episodic game done right, and the time between the release of each episode left me just enough time to have a true hunger to dive in for another 2-4 hours of tough decisions and dire situations. The gameplay is nothing special, but that isn't why you're playing. It's another zombie story, but is a fantastic use of the theme. Its also the best game Telltale has made in modern times, and leaves you sympathising with characters, and feeling truly torn up about the choices you're making. If you haven't played it yet, I'd advise that you do not take in all 5 episodes at once - that sounds like it'd be a little too much to handle.
A new IP, yet cut from familiar cloth (shades of Deus Ex, Thief, Half Life 2 and Bioshock run throughout), it perfectly hit the mark for me of empowering me when I want to be stealthy. The powers that I chose gave me new options that I'd not experienced before, key to it all being the ability to jump around instantly with Blink. I used it to move from one high point to another to avoid enemies and keep a good view of my surroundings, but after a while I realised that I could be much more bold with it. I tried using it to move directly behind enemies before going in for the knockout, and when times got tough and enemies were surrounding my position, I used it to skip around them and into a new hiding spot.
There were many abilities that I never even got to try, but that was my choice as I aimed to play it as cleanly as possible. Had I chosen to invest in some of the more deadly powers, I think I might have been more creative with my kills and escapes, and it looks like the game is well equipped to empower that kind of player as well - looking at videos of the abilities in action, I think I could have a completely different experience if I wanted to. The story and setting are fantastic, with the pronounced art-style giving it a distinct personality. The way that missions are set up initially feels stilted, but as you begin to become familiar with the world and your options, you appreciate it all much more. There are things that could be improved in a sequel (repetitive AI dialogue, some finicky use of the abilities), but as a stealth-adventure game built from the ground up to put the player in control, its a huge success.
10. Sleeping Dogs
I think Sleeping Dogs'sense of style is what sets it apart. Though it isn't the best as far as open city action games go, the hong kong undercover cop story and characters keep it entertaining whilst the high speed driving, incredible on-foot combat and traversal systems and strong licensed soundtrack will keep you playing far longer than the limited mechanics should allow. I dove deep into Sleeping Dogs, unlocking every achievement it had to offer, and generally had a blast kicking fools in the face, dumping them in the trunk of my car and then driving top speed through the city whilst listening to Flying Lotus.