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Will Smith's Top Games of 2012

Get jiggy with Will's favorite games of 2012!

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Will Smith is a tech writer and one of the founders of Tested.com His interests include corgis, coffee, and being almost frighteningly pale.

He lives with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.

8. Super Hexagon

If you want a game that will give you a satisfying play experience for somewhere between five seconds and a minute? Get Super Hexagon for iOS. It’s the best arcade-style game I’ve played this year.

The game is incredibly difficult though, breaking 60 seconds on the easiest mode is one of my great accomplishments in video games. If Super Hexagon had been in my local arcade when I was a kid, I would have blown my college fund, $0.25 at a time.

That said, never, ever play Super Hexagon for more than 20 minutes at a time. It will break you.

7. Far Cry 3

It’s a testament to the mechanical awesomeness of this game that I put Far Cry 3 my game of the year list despite its shitty story. Taken a bit farther, it could have been an amazing parody of modern videogame tropes; they’re all in here. The story is offensively dumb and inanely referential. The AI is charmingly incompetent. There are sharks and tigers and monkeys. The villain is a megalomaniac. Your everyman character unlocks mystical assassination powers when confronted with a threat, etc. When the villain sent me running off into the woods and screamed “Run Forrest, run!” I thought I had to be in for another Saints Row the Third-style ride. Unfortunately, I don’t think parody was the developer’s intent.

The thing Far Cry 3 does nail is mechanics. It takes the open world of the first Far Cry and combines it with the crazy combat and wildlife mechanics from the second game, ditches the malaria, and adds a few conveniences, like fast travel. Everything about the game--from hunting and crafting to taking new territory to assassination side missions--is paced perfectly and great fun. Were it not for the awful story, Far Cry 3 could have been my favorite game this year.

6. Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja is my new high-water mark for stealth in games. The game succeeds by removing the ambiguity that has become a hallmark of the genre. If you are spotted or trigger a trap, it isn’t because the game obscured information, it’s because you ignored the warning or were moving too fast. This turns what is ostensibly a stealth game into a fantastic action puzzle, complete with multiple outcomes that can be tailored to your unique playstyle.

5. Eminent Domain

At PAX Prime this September, I was introduced to Eminent Domain. It’s a board game, a deck-builder (like Dominion or Ascension), but it lifts some of the ideas of a 4X game. Each game has several distinct phases--exploration, expansion, exploitation--and each player’s strategy must change based on the cards that come up. Despite some minor random elements, the game is eminently fair and your success or failure will depend entirely on how effective you are at shifting between the different stages of the game. Games usually take between 30 and 45 minutes, and it’s great for 2-4 players. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

4. FTL: Faster Than Light

I don’t like roguelikes. Most of the ones I’ve played are frustrating in a way that isn’t fun for me. I do love FTL though, a roguelike about a spaceship on a desperate mission to save something from someone else. And maybe you have to carry some hidden plans or something?

Like XCOM, the point of FTL is that it is a story-generation engine. The game puts you in difficult or impossible situations, and your job is to micromanage your spaceship’s systems and crew so that you live to fight another day. If you mess up and your ship gets blown up, or your whole crew is killed, you start over and go back to the beginning. It’s pretty unforgiving.

FTL is difficult, but it’s mechanically very tight, and it never really seems unfair. What keeps me playing though, is the stories. In each playthrough I generated enough stories to fill an entire season of Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek. Whether it’s fighting pirates, rescuing colonists, or just making a run across a hostile sector while my last two crew members clung to life in a crippled ship, FTL scratched an itch that I didn’t know I have.

3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

X-Com was one of the first modern PC games I played, in my dorm as a freshman in college. I was awful at it. Really, really bad. Then Doom came out and I stopped trying to learn X-Com in favor of late-night deathmatches in the school’s computer labs.

There was one guy on my floor who was amazing at X-Com, and watching him play was a treat. He’d taken the time to figure out the mechanics of a brutally difficult game filled with sharp edges, and played cautiously and carefully through entire campaigns. When he finally finished the last mission, it was an event. A bunch of us reveled in the glow of his 13-inch CRT as he beat the game.

Even though I’m still terrible at the original X-Com, it was something special. Firaxis successfully distilled the core mechanics--turn-based combat, base building, research, and outfitting--into an accessible, fun, modern game, without losing what made the first X-Com special. It captured that “I can’t believe that just happened!” feel of the first game without softening too many of those sharp edges. If you take risks, XCOM punishes you.

But, the triumph of XCOM isn’t in recapturing old mechanics or taking a hardcore PC classic and making it accessible to the console-wielding masses. No, the wonderful thing about XCOM is that it is a story-generation machine. The game just sets a stage--you create the characters and tell your own stories. If other studios take one lesson from XCOM, I hope that is it.

2. Fez

Fez is a multi-layered experience--in the beginning, it seems like a simple platformer, but over the 20 or 30 hours I played, I peeled back layer after layer of the game. From the first literal twist--you’re a 2D character living in a 3D world--the game reluctantly let go of secret after secret.

I found meaning hidden in every part of the world--in corners, in secret rooms, in the background music, even in my completion percentage. As I realized that Fez is an exploration game, a puzzle game, and even a kind of ARG what became most clear is that Fez is a loving tribute to video games, as seen through the eyes of the game’s creator.

It’s an intensely personal experience. When it was over I was wrung out and I wanted more. If you love video games, you should probably play Fez.

PS Fez also sports my favorite game soundtrack of the year. Chiptunes never sounded so good.

1. The Walking Dead

This is the year that I started really paying attention to dialog in games, and most of it is pretty bad. Even in games like Mass Effect 3, which successfully build complex, interesting worlds, the things that come out of characters’ mouths are frequently laughable. Just as I was ready to flip on subtitles once and for all, along came The Walking Dead.

That’s not to say that The Walking Dead is perfect. There isn’t a ton of actual game there, if you’re looking for novel mechanics. The occasional groaner--that line that just doesn’t play, no matter how hard you try--stands out more because everything else is just so good. But both the clever writing and the strong dialog combine with the other things the game does really well, and the effect of them all is cumulative. The characters stay true to form without seeming one-dimensional. The game gives the player the illusion of agency through every part of the game. In most of the game’s climactic moments, I had to consult the Internet to see if they could have gone differently.

Most importantly, the Walking Dead replaced the cartoonish good-or-evil choice structure common to most RPGs with a bevy of... well... really shitty options. I didn’t choose between a good path or an evil path, all you could do was choose the flavor of shit sandwich you wanted on that particular day.

By the end of the game, I’d developed real empathy for my ragtag group of zombie apocalypse survivors and shifted from making decisions based on my character’s survival to making decisions that would benefit the group as a whole. I’ve never really empathized with a character in a game--hell, I rarely care enough about them to remember their names. Not only did I learn their names, but by the end of the fifth episode, I actually cared what happened to the other characters, and that’s makes The Walking Dead my game of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Borderlands 2, Legend of Grimrock, Rock Band Blitz, Journey