"When I think back to 2012, what I remember most is Sparky's Update. That, and stacks of Benjamins. No, really, stacks of guys named Benjamin. I did a lot of acid back then." -Darth Vader
"Sparky's Update? That blog still owes me ten bucks!" -An unreliable, lying hobo
"Cheddar. It's definitely my favorite. Wait. No. Maybe mozzarella? Hell, I don't know. Ask me again on Tuesday. What? Sparky's Update? Who the hell is that?" -Jack Bauer
Words to live by. Words that define the year that was.
What with the craziness of the holidays and my newfound mod-hood, it was pretty hard to find some time to come up with a coherent list and awards for the games I played in 2012. So naturally, I abandoned coherency, and have approached this with a childlike, gleeful abandonment of thought and preplanning. Have fun, keep away from the pointy edges, and whatever you do, do NOT read the following. You have been warned.
Those Weird 2011-2012 Games
These games get a special section unto themselves, as all of these are games I technically started and mostly played in 2011, but didn't finish until 2012. Since there would be some overlap in lists and awards (Saints Row 3 definitely would make the top two or three of my GOTY lists, in particular), these games get a shady back alley of this blog for their awards. I'm also not going to bother spending a lot of time yakking about these. So... yeah. Cool? Cool.
When and if the servers ever work in THQ's wrasslin' franchise, you can download a stunning number of created wrestlers to fill up your roster, pretty much rendering the abysmal character selection a moot point in these games. With tag teams like Robocop and Weird Al, I couldn't help but love the CAW aspect of WWE '12.
If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It (At All) Award
Uncharted 3 pretty much takes its predecessor's idea of creating a cinematic third-person shooter and puzzler, and does precisely nothing with it, besides tell a pretty great little story in the Uncharted universe. Is it the next great evolution in the series? Nope. Is it still a great deal of fun? You betcha!
Saints Row: The Third
You may call that parachute drop out of the chopper the best part of Saints Row: The Third. Well, I would too. But the second-best part? That stupid little moment with Pierce when you're both singing along to the same goofy 90's song. It's a terrific oddball moment in a game completely full of terrific oddball moments.
Best Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It
Assassins Creed: Revelations
I really liked Revelations. it told a quiet, mature story about Ezio and it wasn't afraid to try some experimentation with Desmond's story - which has traditionally been the worst part of the AC games. Mechanically, it wasn't much different from Brotherhood, and it did introduce a number of annoying elements and problems, but overall? I thought it was a pretty terrific game.
Worst Game With a Guy Named Ezio In It
Assassin's Creed II
Oh, don't get me wrong. ACII was terrific in its own right. But I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did AC:R. Still, ACII beats the overloving crap out of ACIII. We'll get to that stinkin' turd in a little bit. As stated by a gazillion other people, ACII did have one of the strongest stories in the AC games to date, rivaled only (maybe) by Brotherhood.
The Games I Actually Played This Year! Hooray!
Settle in. This shit is gonna get craaaaazy long. I like to award every game I've played each year with an award, be it good, bad, or weird. I've played a ton of games thoroughly this year, and as such, this awards ceremony is gonna be like the Oscars - overly bloated, full of eye-rolling douchebaggery, and loaded with crappy jokes that fall straight on their faces.
Sparky's Game of the Year
Much like last year, I wanted to get this award out of the way early for those who peeked in here just looking for my GOTY pick. Also, much like last year, the winner is head and shoulders above the rest of my Top Ten (which you can see when I've finalized it soon!). All Borderlands 2 had to do was bring more Borderlands to the table. And it did that - in spades. There's more charisma, more to see, more to do, more guns, more terrific character building options. The Badass rank system is my favorite new upgrade, and I'd love to see it inspire clones in other games. I even love the characters that the Internet loves to hate, like Handsome Jack and Tiny Tina. I've never had such a pleasant experience with a game's co-op either, as this game led to some new e-friendships and a whole lot of good times.
Good Intentions Gone Bad Award
War in the North
Unfortunately, when it comes to Lord of the Rings, there's a distinct lack of creativity since the release of the film trilogy, particularly when it comes to the games. Almost every single one cleaves to the time period and places featured in the novels. Although War in the North takes place in the fringe around the story of the Fellowship, it forsakes any opportunity to tell a great story of its own and relies on fanservice and the story of the trilogy to mold a weird, also-ran tale with no redeemable qualities. Mechanically, it's pretty okay - the action-RPG elements are neat, the hub system and quests offer up some variety, and graphically it has a pleasant style. But the story is just so bland and derivative that it's hard to recommend. Game companies, take note if you have access to the LOTR license - let's start making use of the Silmarillion for ideas on games in the LOTR universe that don't necessarily revolve around a ring.
Straight-Up Crappiest Game of the Year
There's a point early on in Divinity II when I thought it wasn't going to be so bad. There were lots of characters to interact with, a few fun quests, and a promising leveling system. And then the game decided to crap on all of that by introducing a mechanic where you shape-shift into a dragon. The game immediately, jarringly cuts out those interesting elements, getting rid of the towns and character interaction in favor of horribly designed new areas, incredibly bad aerial combat, piss-poor quest tracking, and a story so awful that the best part about the thing was seeing it end. There's one - ONE - nice story element in the etnirety of the game, and that doesn't come until the very last minute.
Stay away from this game at all costs.
It takes Crisis Core a while to hit its stride, but when it does, it's an admirable little RPG. While the dungeons and general environments are awful and don't let you experience exploration, the greatest joy of FFVII, it does a great job of fleshing out some characters and has a lot of charm in its own right. Zack is a great protagonist. The game is also noteworthy for having one of the best endings in a game I've played this year.
Best Worst Accents
Broken Sword: Sleeping Dragon
OK. So the accents aren't that bad. Sleeping Dragon was a pretty okay adventure game, mired down only by the conventions of the time. Keyboard-only controls are a nuisance, and the game requires a ton of item hunting in some pretty hard-to-see areas. That said, the story's decent and it's really hard not to like Nico and George, the two protagonists, as they continually bumble their way around.
Most Eye-Rolling Oversexualization of a Character, Obviously
Tomb Raider: Legend
The single most Herculean task of any game next year will be the recreation of Lara Croft into an adventurer, not a puzzle-solving pair of boobs with a British accent. Legend isn't a bad game - some of its mechanics are actually really decent, even today - but Lara's portrayal was straight-up awful at times, as it always tends to be. The voice actress, though, was really decent, doing the best with what was shit material. The insanely awful Arthurian-based plot was atrocious too. The game spends far more dialogue than is necessary explaining well-known facts about the Arthurian legend between characters that would know all this material already. This game didn't so much let exposition slip out as it did vomit it.
The "I'm Surprised I Didn't Like This Game More" Award
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
Let's get this straight - Lords of Shadow is a good game, made all the more surprising because it's a modern Castlevania game that doesn't suck. It looks terrific, the boss battles are big in scope, and the voicework is superb. But about halfway through it, I got a bit bored with the game. The melodramatic plot was a touch overbearing, and its conclusion was foreshadowed far too early. The gameplay, while decent and very mechanically sound, got a bit repettive. I don't know. I get why people really enjoyed this game, but it's just not one of my favorites this year.
Best Traditional Level Designs
While one other game on this list surprised me more in its non-suckitude, no game on this list had so many bad predecessors as Sonic Generations. Not only did this game surpass the low bar of its predecessors, it did so with tons of charm and great gameplay. While I'll likely never beat the game due to visual problems with an end boss, I played and enjoyed the everlovin' hell out of this game. Even more surprising, the level designs both in 2D and 3D are really fantastic, blending the old with the new in a way that doesn't feel like it's trying to cash in on modern fads or create some gimmick for the hell of it. This really is a good game.
Star Ocean: First Departure
Star Ocean: First Departure may have been a forgettable game, but its crafting and leveling systems were definitely not. Ambition is the name of the game here, with all sorts of skills that can be increased by spending points when a character levels up. Some of these give stat or combat bonuses, but most affect the crafting system. By learning a few different skills, the character can craft certain recipes. Since there are lots of skills, it becomes prudent to spread out specialities among the characters, both in terms of combat and crafting. But if characters overlap certain skills, they can perform group crafting, which creates even more powerful items. While not all of it is useful, it's a terrific basis for a system.
The Kitchen Sink Award
Kingdoms of Amalur
Among the bits of bad news this year in the gaming world, one of the saddest moments was the closing of 38 Studios after the release of Kingdoms of Amalur. An ambitious game, Amalur tried to reach for the stars, and while its mediocre story and characters ended up hurting the game, I'd say it succeeded - at least, mechanically and in scope. The combat in this game was seriously gratifying, blending a great skill-tree based leveling system with spot-on mechanics that felt oh-so-right. Throwing chakrams at baddies, preparing a spell, sneaking around... it was terrific. And the game's implementation and refinement of elements from other games may have been blatant, but it was superbly done. With the scope and fast travel of Skyrim and the skill trees and loot of Diablo 2, Amalur knew what mechanics could create addiction. This potential franchise deserved a better fate, and I hope someone picks up the IP or carries the torch spiritually.
The RPG Retrospective Game of the Year
When it came down to this award, I didn't have to think twice. No other classic RPG this year drove me forward as much as Vagrant Story. The plot and characters are superb in that way that classic Square PS1 RPGs tended to have. They felt fleshed out beyond the scope and needs of the game. Someone spent a lot of time designing these characters, this plot, this world (which is set in Ivalice - joy!). This kind of care just isn't as visible nowadays in JRPGs, and it's a damn shame. Though honestly, we can all do without the bug hair and assless chaps.
Most Annoying Character
Mew, from Tales of the Abyss
My dog went apeshit every time he heard the character Mew say anything in Tales of the Abyss. I agreed with him whole-heartedly. No character was as grating as this. I wanted to punt my 3DS every time it appeared.
Best Tower Defense Games
Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2
I'm cheating a bit here by listing these games together, but honestly, they deserve mentioning together. Orcs Must Die laid down a terrific basic formula - you set traps for the countless orcs and take control of a hapless buffoon armed with a machine-gun crossbow. Blending a basic 3rd-person action game with tower defense amounts to a stupid amount of fun. Orcs Must Die 2 expands upon that formula by making it easier to level up weapons and traps, introducing new types of enemies and ways to fight them, and multiplayer. If you decide to try them, there's no reason to go back to the original, but they're both great amounts of fun.
The Worst Experiment By An Otherwise Great Game Developer
Ugh. Jurassic Park was just dreadful. It told a side-story to the first Jurassic Park novel, but it missed out on practically everything that made that book (and movie) so appealing. Come to think of it, that pretty much defines the Jurassic Park franchise as a whole. Similar to the Walking Dead games, Jurassic Park is less of a game and more of a sequence of QTE's - except this isn't a series of events you really want to see played out. Every character is a dull caricature, every plot point is derivative, and at no point in the game did I feel at all invested into anything that was going on. It deserves props for being the experiment that led to the Walking Dead. But honestly, that's about all the praise I can give this one - and that's coming from a Telltale fan.
The "If My English Degree Could Pimp Slap Me, It Probably Would For Liking This Game" Award
I honestly don't get it. I should hate Dante's Inferno. It bastardizes some of the greatest writing to date, throws out nudity and shock moments just to get attention, and it has some stupidly tiny writing. And given that I didn't like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow before it, I should have despised this game. And yet... I kinda enjoyed the heck out of it. Sure, it has some awful late-game padding. But overall, there's this devious sense of fun about Dante's Inferno, as though it were thrwoing a middle finger up to no one in particular, much like the Grand Theft Auto games of old. It doesn't hurt matters much that the combo and fighting mechanics are pretty darned good too.
Best Game I Should Have Played Years Ago
Metal Gear Solid 3
I always felt a certain sort of gamer's guilt for never having gotten around to playing MGS3. I have fond memories of playing its predecessor in college as a friend and I completely ignored the needs and wants of our girlfriends in favor of discovering the mysteries of that oil clean-up rig in MGS2. I have no real excuse for not having played the third in the series - I just never got around to it until this year.
You were right, world - this game is incredible. And the port to the 360 is remarkably decent. Oh sure, the graphics haven't been touched up for the modern era, but this is still an good looking game. The larger outdoors environments play better to the strengths of the series, and the clever boss battles are a delight (even if I had to wait out The End until his old-ass passed away peacefully). In a year when I bought tons of compilations, this one was definitely a highlight.
Neatest Base Building Mechanic
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
While the majority of Peace Walker was relatively forgettable, one aspect I loved was knocking out enemies and forcing them off into the sunset with balloon pickups. Having them also join your team, with varying degrees of skill in combat, research, cooking, and medicine was just awesome. I'd love to see this mechanic pop up again in another MGS game.
Best Bargain Purchase
Pendulo Game Pack (Runaway Trilogy, Yesterday, The Next Big Thing)
I'm really cheating here by listing five games as one, but you simply can't talk about one Pendulo game without mentioning the others. I bought this game pack for about $12 on Steam, and it's been one of the best purchases I've made this year. While the first Runaway game had a stinker of a story and an awful, boring protagonist, it had a lot of heart, some really neat visual aesthetics, and classic point-and-click gameplay. But the real highlight came from the next two games in the series - Runaway 2 & 3, together, make one of the best one-two punches of adventure games. The characters and story become genuinely great and the mechanics are improved by leaps and bounds, culminating in the best of the series in the third Runaway game. The Next Big Thing does a remarkable job of creating a wonderful, creative world inspired by the monster films of the 30's and 40's while creating colorful, unique dialogue for its great characters. It's the best individual game of the bunch, so if you're interested in dipping your toes in the Pendulo jacuzzi, start with this one. And Yesterday, the darkest game of the bunch, might be short, but it's definitely a fun game with a great premise.
The "I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit" Award
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean
By this point, the LEGO games need to either shit or get off the pot mechanically. The core problems of the franchise, particularly its combat mechanics and adventuring elements, have never been so front and center as they are here. The levels look great, but I continually ran into problems with getting snagged in environmental objects or barricades. I'm also not fond of the frustratingly hard-to-see interactive objects. I've got LEGO LOTR in my to-play stack, but after that, I think I'm done with this series for a good long while.
Best Old School Feeling
I don't know if it's because I'm craving old-school turn-based RPGs on consoles so badly or what, but I freakin' loved me some Rainbow Moon. The story and characters are completely forgettable, but oh my good gravy, the old-school turn based combat did some magic for my heart this year. I can't recommend this one to everyone, as it's very repetitive and grind-heavy. But at least consider it, especially if, like me, you hate the comatose nature of the turn-based RPG at the moment.
Best PC Only Game
It's hard to look past Diablo 3's two biggest problems - the inherent greedy nature of the real-life AH/end-game and the idiotic removal of skill trees - but if you can, it's a pretty terrific game. It looks great, even on low settings, and the combat is well-balanced until the hardest difficulty. I'm sure post-patch they've fixed much of that, too, but I haven't played but maybe half an hour on the hardest difficulty and it was a nightmare. Regardless, fans of the action-RPG should definitely give this a go. Just realize that Blizzard is a very different company by now.
Best Mario 64 Clone
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
Sometimes, an old-school platformer is precisely what I need. This year, that void was filled nicely by Sly Cooper. It takes a lot of elements from Mario 64 and updates them for the PS2. Trust me, that's not a bad thing. The combat and jumping feel crisp and precise. The animated comic-book style cutscenes look great, even today. And while the characters are obviously meant for a younger crowd, there's a lot of charming moments. I'm also surprised that the game features such a strong motive for its protagonist - the murder of his family is pretty heavy stuff, but it's obviously not told brutally. This is a game your tweener could play and you could appreciate. Really, some neat stuff.
Best Buck and a Quarter Game
Worms Crazy Golf
I can't recommend that you pay much for Worms Crazy Golf, but if you like goofy little trifles, it's pretty great. By mixing in some optional objectives with the basic goal of parring each hole (or better), it becomes pretty addictive. Trying to get all objectives for each hole can range from mildly difficult to genuinely tough. Mix in the traditional Worms charm, and you've got a winner.
Best Sports Game
This year saw a great number of classic franchises get remade. SSX is a terrific example of how to update an older series - you keep the things that made the original games so much fun, update the graphics and streamline the systems, and above all else, you do not try to introduce hokey gimmicks. On that last part, SSX does, unfortunately, try to introduce some new gimmicky things like having to snowboard in darkness or firing off down a mountain while a natural disaster is occuring. But the core gameplay in the races and trick modes is just spot-on. SSX could also stand for a little less repetition in its runs, but beyond that, it's a pretty terrific combo-based sports game that nails the basics of what made the first few games so much fun.
Most Surprisingly Playable Game
Jagged Alliance: Back In Action
Make absolutely no mistake about it - Jagged Alliance is not a terribly great game. It's not even as good as the game it's remaking - Jagged Alliance 2. But the fact that this game was released at all is incredible, and the fact that it's playble is double so. I can't say as I'm a fan of the real-time elements and the Stop-and-Plan gameplay shtick. I'd much rather have a traditional turn-based Jagged Alliance game. But it's certainly an interesting idea, and one that actually works. Up until this year, it had been nearly a decade since we've seen a genuinely playable and fun turn-based squad strategy game, but the days of endlessly playing Silent Storm and Jagged Alliance 2 are officiall over, as now we've seen that squad strategy games can make a huge dent in today's market if done right.
Oh my floppy brown shoes, I have never, ever sunk this amount of time into a game before. But with my brother and his friends' encouragement, I sunk into the PC version of Minecraft this year and never looked back. Well, okay, originally I purchased it on the 360, but let's face it - that's a Minecraft demo in comparison. I'm still crap at figuring out how to build the more complex machinery of Minecraft, but when it comes to building castles, buildings, and little villages, I am thoroughly, undeniably hooked.
The Stop Your Bitching, It's Not That Bad Award
Mass Effect 3
Judging from the vitriol heaped upon Mass Effect 3, the vocal Internet populace and I had greatly differing experiences with mass Effect 3. Yes, the game's end choices were bad, and left little room for the ME universe to go anywhere. Yes, the endless fanservice of introducing characters from Shepherd's past at strangely convenient moments induced some eye-rolling. But overall, as a conclusion to Shepherd's story, this game was pretty great. It plays less like an RPG and more like a shooter, even more so than ME2, but I'm becoming okay with that. Old Bioware is dead, that much is true - but new Bioware can come up with a decent game, me thinks, if they can manage to blend this great gameplay with a better long-term plan for the evolution of their series. We'll see if that happens or not, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Best Action Game of the Year
Max Payne 3
The basics of Max Payne 3 aren't terribly endearing in and of themselves - to me, this is a generic third-person cover-based shooter. But surround that with a story about trying to crawl back up despite the countless beatings one man can take, and it becomes something infinitely greater. Now throw in a timely setting and a gritty world, and you've got the recipe for excellence in storytelling. I'm not a fan of the way Max Payne 3 craps all over its predecessor, but in its own right, this is a terrific story that leaves me hungry for more Max Payne in the future. And not in a cannibalistic way, either.
Best Racing Game of the Year
I never intended on buying Forza Horizon. It felt like a cheap way to turn Forza into an annual franchise and milk the shit out of some fans. But one Quick Look was enough to convince me I had to pick up this game - and you know what? I'm really glad I did. The open world area is pretty terrific, and while it relies on only a few key areas for most of its races, it immediately feels far more diverse and full of life than Forza 4. There are some severe shortcomings, mostly in the smaller car roster. Those same cars are nicked almost entirely from Forza 4, with DLC in Horizon mirroring cars that had already been released in the fourth game. That's just sleazy, but you won't need the DLC to enjoy the core game, which is far more approachable than Forza 4's clinical approach to racing. Personally, I prefer 4 just a touch more, but that's because I'm in this series more for cars.
Best Drink of Water at the End of One Long Drought
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
While Back in Action was merely playable and okay, Firaxis's remake of X-Com is fantastic on every conceivable level. It's approachable, but has that hardcore difficulty setting for those who want it. It controls wonderfully, even on consoles. It carefully adapts all the things that made the original great into a modern game, and it streamlines a lot of irritating components like inventory management. This game gives me hope that the squad based strategy genre will make a big comeback - or at least that we won't see such a huge drought in between quality games. For my money, this is the biggest revival since Fallout 3.
Best Game I'm Completely Awful At
Rock Band Blitz
No game so effortlessly kicks my ass in difficulty as Rock Band Blitz. The worst part is? I can't blame it on the game or my vision. It's actually really accessible. I just suck at it. Ahem. Moving on.
Best Adventure Game/Best Story/Best Child Character in ANY Video Game
This was originally slated to be the best "downloadable only" game, but that's obviously changed with the release of the game on disc. The Walking Dead is without question one of the best advancements in storytelling in games. I'm not going to go on and on about this game, save that if you're on the fence about playing it due to its episodic nature or other negative elements you might have heard about, stop procastinating and play it.
Best Open-World Action Game
This wasn't a tough decision, in that it was the only open world game I played completely in 2012. Even so, it's a terrific game that does everything well without ever really doing anything supremely well (besides its upgrade system and its car combat, which rock).
Best Fighting Game
Dead or Alive 5
Again, not a tough decision because it's the only fighting game I've played all year besides King of Fighters XIII. Since I didn't care enough for King of Fighters XIII to warrant playing through more than its incredibly brief story, this wins by default. That said, Dead or Alive 5 deserves some kudos for trying to take that precarious step of updating a game with modern sensibilities while staying true to its old formula. Maybe there's too much of the latter and not enough of the former, but overall, it's a passably fun game.
Best Handheld Game
Super Mario 3D Land
This game is a fantastic mixture of nostalgia and modern enhancements. The levels, while inspired by classic Mario games, introduce some great new ideas and tricky moments, making this one of the best Mario experiences out there.
Assassin's Creed III
ACIII is a huge step backwards for the series as a whole. Mechanically, it feels on par with ACII, eschewing many of the updates and new systems introduced in Brotherhood and Revelations. Naytham is a great character, but the new protagonist, Connor, falls flat. So does the supporting cast, the story, the pointless item hunting, the ridiculously terrible quest marker, the atrociously difficult-to-read mini-map, the mess of a crafting system, and the uninspired quests. It's as though Ubisoft had about ten minutes for playtesting and decided to use that time instead on, I don't know, sipping cappucinos and chatting about other, better games.
And that's it! I noticed about three quarters of the way through writing this that the editing tools somehow stopped highlighting headers. I will jump back in tomorrow to see if I can't fix that, and make this easier to read. For now, though, I need to give my fingers a rest.
I hope you all have a very merry Christmas, and that the new year sees some awesome new games and devices.