Jeff Green has been writing about games since you were in short pants, having worked at magazine publisher Ziff Davis for 17 years, starting as an associate editor for Computer Gaming World and ending as the editor-in-chief of PC content for 1UP.com. After a brief stint at EA, where he worked on The Sims franchise in various capacities, Jeff is now the Director of Editorial and Social Media for PopCap Games, whatever the hell that means.
First, some disclaimers, so you don’t think I’m a total a-hole or moron with this list. I mean, I may in fact be both of those things, but I don’t think my Game of the Year list should determine that. If you want reasons why I’m a total a-hole or moron, please consult with my wife.
Anyway, so here’s the deal. I don't get to play every game I want to because:
1. I have to pay for most of them myself, unlike the elite snobs of the gaming press, like the 1-percenters at Giant Bomb.
2. I'm super busy with my job tweeting about PopCap games, which, as you might imagine, is exhausting and super stressful. (It’s listed as third (3) in the American Society of Sociologists (ASS) chart of most stressful jobs, right after airline pilot and fluffer for Justin Bieber).
3. I'm old and fall asleep early now, instead of gaming all night like I used to. Which I don’t have a joke for. It’s just sad and true. I’ll tell you this, though: Don’t get old. It fucking blows.
Anyway, those are my excuses for not playing some of the games that other people are going to say are one of the 10 best. Maybe they are. I don’t know because I didn’t play them. So if I’m wrong, or missed one of your favorites, go ahead and sue me. Try it. I have a team of lawyers so powerful and Jewish, they’ll countersue you back into the Stone Age, where the only games you’ll have to play are with rocks and sticks and animal carcasses. We clear? Great. So here are some of the games I never got to at all in 2012, which may or may not be awesome, who the hell knows: Mass Effect 3 (sorry!), Assassin's Creed III, Guild Wars 2 (sorry again!) Far Cry 3 (even sorrier!), Max Payne 3, and Black Ops II. I unfortunately also didn’t get as far enough into Halo 4 as I would have liked, though I did play enough of Spartan Ops to think it was super cool. But… can’t put in on the list with a clean conscience.
Okay, enough yammering. Here’s the list. In reverse order to build suspense because god knows I’m as gripped as you are right here.
Firaxis Games’ big achievement in 2012 comes way later on this list, and, I suppose technically this is “just” an expansion, but it’s such a goddang great one that it totally elevates the original to the point where you realize all this stuff should have just been there in the first place. But that’s not a knock against Firaxis. It can’t be easy shepherding the most legendary and beloved strategy series in PC gaming, and yet, here they are, keeping it solid and invigorating and addictive as hell over 20 years since the first game came out. I’d actually gone back to Civ IV before Gods & Kings. This one brought me back into the fold, a believer again, and I’m happy to be back.
9. Triple Town
Okay, technically it came out before 2012 on Kindle, Facebook, and Google+, but we’re not counting that because nobody does. It came out in 2012 for iOS and Steam, and it is by far the best “Match Three” game outside of the one that puts my kid through college. The geniuses at Spry Fox took an overly familiar concept and crafted something wholly and surprisingly new: A Match Three that is also a city builder. Match three grass to make a bush, match three bushes to make a tree, match three trees to make a house… and so on. So ridiculously addictive that it’s the first game in years to give me Tetris Dream Syndrome… where I’m matching pieces in my dreams. Don’t be a snooty “I don’t play casual games” loser. Just slum it with the rest of us and thank me later.
Since I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 yet, the pressure was on: How do I get an EA game on this list so I can keep my job in 2013? Thankfully, Criterion came to the rescue, as they usually do, with this fantastic edition to the creaky-yet-still-kicking old franchise. To be totally honest, I tend to prefer their Burnout games, since I’m better at crashing than racing, but this is just a stupendous achievement, especially in the way it lets you compete against your friends online without actually, ya know, having to socialize with them. The open-world city is huge and full of challenges, surprises, and Easter eggs, and there was never a minute playing this when I was not totally happy. And if this isn’t enough to keep me employed, fuck it. It’s still a great game.
I resisted Borderlands 1, mostly because it seemed, at the time, too much like Diablo Wsith guns. And I already loved Diablo. But since Diablo III was ultimately a big disappointment for me (sorry!), this was the year in which Diablo With Guns 2 actually worked for me. Maybe it was the dialog, which was funnier than ever, or the graphics, which reminded me yet again why I love cel-shaded games so much more than those with “realistic” graphics. But, nah, it was the sheer organic tomfoolery of the whole enterprise. As with Criterion, you get the sense that Gearbox makes games because they actually enjoy them. And they put things in games just so you can have fun. Which seems simple and obvious--except so many companies don’t do this.
The last game I finished in 2012 turned out to be one of the best. Enough has been said about Arkane Studios/Bethesda’s new IP that you don’t really need me blathering about it, but, yeah, what they said. The amount of freedom and choice in this (relatively) open-world stealth game is astounding. How they play-balanced this thing gives me a headache just to think about, and yet it is balanced. There isn’t one single way--stealthy, magical, shoot-everything-that-moves--that will get you through the game in a way that feels like “cheating.” I love the world they created here, but also wish they’d have done more with it. Since Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite novel of all time, I’m a-okay with revenge stories, but in the end the story felt a little more linear--and thus the world was a lot smaller--than I ultimately expected. Still, a great achievement, and super heartening to see such stellar new IP. Now hoping for an even better Dishonored 2.
My other favorite stealth game of the year. And, hey, before Dishonored and this one, I didn’t even think I liked stealth games anymore! Like Dishonored, Klei Entertainment's 2D side-scroller/platformer excels in offering multiple solutions to every challenge in the game. It’s just a big playground of toys and tools and powers, and I loved it to pieces. What was especially well done was the extensive alert system, one of the best I’ve ever seen in a game--with both visual and audio clues guiding you without ever making it too easy. There’s been a lot of hoohah the last couple years about “retro” games, but most of those, I have to admit, have left me a bit cold, feeling more like intellectual exercises than anything else. Mark of the Ninja knocks it out of the park where it matters most--gameplay--and holds its own against all the big budget games of this year.
Yeah, yeah, I know: “It’s not a game.” There’s one other on this list that has been accused of the same thing. But whatever. Fuck you. Like that other game, this was a thoroughly moving affair from start to finish--one of the most weirdly, profoundly uplifting experiences I’ve ever had in front of a game console. Thatgamecompany somehow, without a word of dialog or much in the way of actual “game”, still managed to craft a suspenseful, gripping experience that, I think, is all about how much you put into it. Play it dispassionately, waiting to be entertained, and you’re likely to be underwhelmed. But in the right mood, and with the right emotional investment, Journey can hit you, as the kids say, “right in the feels.” God I hate that expression. But that’s what it did for me.
Look at me, putting all these indie games on my list! I’m so hip that way! Someone buy me a $5 free-trade coffee to spill on my retro typewriter! But hey, it was that kind of year. I didn’t even get to FTL until last month, but once I did, good lord, did it have its way with me. FTL thoroughly seduced and used me, and I yet I kept (keep) coming back for more, gladly. This devious little strategy game from Subset Games is, when you get right down to it, little more than an Excel spreadsheet with (bad) graphics, and yet, for strategy fans, it’s a tiny little holy grail of awesome, demanding repeated play to understand and master (hah!) the moves, tactics, and decisions that will finally let you beat that feshtunken rebel flagship, my overall pick for Villain of the Year. Yes, it is occasionally totally unfair (sun flare and intruders on my second jump in Sector One--yeah, fuck you too, FTL!), but that actually just added to the charm for me. FTL had the balls to be hard, even obnoxiously so, and for that I give it my middle finger salute and high place on this list. Rock on.
The most emotionally gripping game of this year and, seriously, possibly ever--and that will only feel like an exaggeration if you haven't played it yet. I'd agree with many folks that it's more "interactive fiction" than "game," but only if such distinctions really matter to you (and I don’t know why they should) is this anything to get butt-hurt about. The truth is, the “game” part was all about decision-making, and the decisions you had to make in The Walking Dead were never easy, always brutal, and never quite "rewarding" in the way gamers are used to. That is, unlike other games that pretend to offer choice, there wasn't a "good" or "bad" path to take here. Most choices were between the lesser of two evils. And even choices that may have seemed "good" in the moment--like giving a revolting character a break--might come to bite you in the ass later on, when you learn you maybe you should have just killed him in the first place. It’s just never easy. Telltale Games has made many good games before, but nothing even remotely like this. This is a true breakthrough, not just for them, but for interactive storytelling and, maybe even more important, episodic gaming in general. Telltale proved you can divide a game up, release it in episodes, and have each episode be so great that fans were clamoring for and anticipating each new release, just like the best TV shows. Perhaps most important, The Walking Dead made it clear how important good writing can be in a game, and revealed just how terrible most of it is. Give people real, complex characters to identify with – not stereotypes, not bulleted-lists of characteristics - and they will respond. I went back and forth on whether to make this my #1 Game of the Year, and it really does deserve it. If I did “ties,” it would be with this one, but ya know, that would be cheating. So, as in the game, I had to make a tough, thankless call here. I can’t wait for Season Two.
My number one pick for the year, in the end, really had to be this, if only because this was the game that obsessed me like no other in 2012. I have hundreds of hours invested already, and I’m not done. Not by a long shot. I suppose there might be some nostalgia involved here, as Firaxis Games’ reboot of the beloved 90s strategy series is, if nothing else, a paean to those classics. But, if that’s all XCOM was, it would have gotten boring fast. What Firaxis did instead, quite remarkably, is stay utterly faithful to the spirit of the old games while also expertly bringing it into the 21st century, making this hardcore PC strategy game about an alien invasion of Earth accessible to newer audiences, even on consoles--which would have been unheard of back in the day. I love what Firaxis has done with all aspects of the user experience--the interface, graphics, controls, menus, all of it, make a thoroughly complex game surprisingly easy to comprehend, while retaining the underlying difficulty of the experience. (And if you’re naïve enough to think you’ve “mastered” it, you can bump up the difficulty level to feel like a bumbling chump all over again.) PC gamers had been dying for an XCOM reboot for years, but even while doing so, I think there was great trepidation as to whether the magic could be recaptured. I think most of us thought that it would probably just suck. Firaxis not only made a game that doesn’t suck, but did tremendous honor to the original without being stuck in the past either. Yeah, I know there are a few flaws--night missions would have been great, the reliance on cover feels a little forced and Gears of War-y. But in the end, that amounted to very little for me. I loved it. I don’t think XCOM was the most profound or groundbreaking game of the year--that honor goes to The Walking Dead--but, in the end, it gets my vote if for just one simple reason--and fact--alone: for weeks straight, I actually set my alarm so that I could wake up early and play it before going to work. That’s how addicted I was. And that’s about as good a definition of a Game of the Year as I can think of.