This is it, people. Now that we've all made it through the apocalypse, it's time to begin a glorious new era for the good of all mankind, an era in which we at Giant Bomb make grand, declarative statements about the best things that happened in video games over the 12 months prior.
Hmm. In that respect, maybe this era isn't much different from the dark age that preceded it. In any case, you can look forward to a new batch of our awards every day this week, and be sure to hear our deliberation podcast to get an aromatic whiff of our sausage-making process.
2012's 2011 Game of the Year
Super Mario 3D Land
There are games that define a system, and Super Mario 3D Land is exactly that for Nintendo's 3DS. Not only it is yet another spectacular platformer from the same creative minds responsible for Super Mario Galaxy, but it simultaneously made the case for 3D being more than just a visual gimmick that tires your eyes. The 3D in Super Mario 3D Land actually enhances the player's ability to assess the world around them, and provides useful information for the game's trickiest moments. You won't encounter the most dastardly of those sequences until the second half of the game, a curious design choice that might lead someone to write the game off too early. Everything before the second half is fun to play, but it lacks a certain edge.
The second half of Super Mario 3D Land has all the challenge you're looking for, especially for players pursuing the hidden golden coins. For the most committed, beating the whole game a second time with Luigi unlocks one of the most difficult Mario levels ever constructed, one where you'll resort to checking a FAQ to complete, and spend hours cursing the screen in glorious frustration. In a year where we collectively lost faith in the Mario franchise with back-to-back lackluster sequels in the "New" series, Super Mario 3D Land reminds you how relevant Mario can be, and that Nintendo's decision to soften the challenge in many of its games is a deliberate one. When it wants to punish you, it can. Super Mario 3D Land is proof. How about a little more of that, Nintendo? Please.
Runners-Up: TrackMania 2: Canyon, Pushmo
Fez - Cracking the Code
Fez might be the world's greatest switcheroo. It's a bait-and-switch that actually pays off by taking one game that you already wanted to play and turning it into a different game that you simply can't stop playing. Or thinking about. Obsessing over Fez and its real meaning was the thing to do in April and May of this year. All of that obsession starts once you begin to realize that there's much more to Fez than simple platforming and puzzle-solving. It's there, just under the surface, and it's constantly trying to tell you something.
Figuring that "something" out is the best moment of 2012. Realizing that the game is communicating with you from the very beginning, and that all those various blocks and scribbles aren't just gibberish is part of it. But finally cracking that code and getting to the root of the game's language is a magical happening that's unlike anything else. It shifts your perspective on the entire game, inspiring you to go back through every little bit in every single room to hunt for more clues and secret messages. It went from a quaint little 2D game with inoffensive puzzles to something with huge depth. It suddenly felt vast. It's nuts. It turned the game into a huge mystery, with message boards full of people poking away at different parts of it in an attempt to figure out what the hell Fez is really all about. Honestly, we're still not sure if the mystery was ever completely solved, but the journey was certainly worth it.
Runners-Up: Journey - Side-View Sliding, Frog Fractions - Going Underwater
Best New Character
Video game villains regularly come in one of two flavors: boringly flaccid or cartoonishly evil. While there's certainly an extremely evil quality to Far Cry 3's pirate ringleader Vaas Montenegro, the intensity of his character never quite gives way to the over-the-top near-parody that plagues the bad guys in so many other games. Vaas feels genuinely threatening every time you come face to face with him, and even though the guy displays plenty of unstable behavior, you're never quite sure exactly what else he's capable of or what he's going to do next. He's the sort of unhinged madman who makes you feel uncomfortable every time he's around you. You just want to get the hell away from him as fast as possible. That's a good villain.
In a medium full of people plagued by the uncanny valley, all of Far Cry 3's major players are rendered with a relatively impressive sense of character and believability, and the Ubisoft team deserves much of the credit for bringing them to life. But Vaas wouldn't be as chilling as he is without actor Michael Mando, whose likeness and captured performance are what really instill Vaas with such a chilling malice. If the eyes are the window to the soul, you can see clearly enough into Vaas to know that he doesn't have one. Even if his potential and incredibly strong introduction are ultimately squandered by his perfunctory dismissal from the story later on, Vaas is still one of the stronger arguments we've seen lately that characters in video games can match the dramatic standards set by the actors in television and film.
Runners-up: Lee Everett, Javik
The one thing you can say for all of the nominees in this category is that in each case, the music was an integral part of the experience. Not just ambient noise, or catchy riffs, but music painstakingly crafted to evoke a very specific emotional response in the player. In the case of Hotline Miami, most often that feeling could best be described as a kind of psychotic, yet leisurely dread.
The developers at Dennaton built their game's aesthetic heavily around the dingy, neon-soaked horrors of Nicolas Winding-Refn's film Drive, and to compliment that aesthetic, they sought out a variety of indie electronic artists to craft an aural vibe well-suited to that kind of late-'80s griminess. As the beats and synths kick into gear, the on-screen action becomes more than just a quickly paced top-down shooter. It turns the act of playing Hotline Miami into something almost resembling an intoxicating fugue state, the likes of which you simply won't want to escape from.
But don't just take our word for it. Listen for yourself.
Best Classic Revival
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
It certainly didn't feel this way at the time, but the way 2K rolled out its revival of XCOM almost feels like some deep, insidious plan in hindsight. Like this:
- Announce that you're turning a beloved turn-based strategy game into a first-person shooter.
- Show off said shooter and receive a fairly negative reaction.
- Remove shooter from view for "retooling."
- Announce that you're working on a more faithful reboot of the original turn-based strategy game.
What if the whole first-person shooter thing was a ploy from the get-go? It's the video game equivalent of tuning your guitars to A432, man. Seriously, I read all about it in one of my newsletters. Ultimately, none of that matters. What does matter is that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a kick-ass modernization of one of the greatest games of all-time. It treats the source material with an appropriate amount of respect without sacrificing modern playability in the process. That's something of a highwire act these days, and not only did Firaxis nail it, but the team there also figured out a way to make the whole thing run on consoles without controlling like a total embarrassment. Super-impressive.
Runners-Up: Syndicate, Double Dragon Neon