Best Games of 2012

My favorite games from 2012.

List items

  • The Walking Dead deserves so many superlatives, it’s hard to know where to start. To begin, it’s easily the best thing to come out of the increasingly popular zombie franchise. It’s also one of the best adventure games in years, and has one of the best stories in a video game ever. I know hitting emotional notes isn’t the only thing a story can do, but it’s one of the places where games in particular have had the biggest trouble, and the fact that I can honestly say this game made me cry by the end definitely speaks volumes about how well they end up developing the characters and their relationships. The story doesn’t branch as much as you might expect based on what the developers said about it, and if you aren’t into basically just clicking on things and listening to people talk, it might not be for you. But it’s certainly one of the best zombie stories ever told.

  • Dishonored deserves praise just for the fact that it exists. A big budget action stealth game with magic powers, a somewhat cartoony graphic style, and a setting that is hard to sum up more succinctly than “whale oil-punk”? I still wonder how it got made. But to only praise it for the miracle of its existence is to ignore that it’s actually a really good game. You are tasked with exacting vengeance on the people who have had you falsely accused of treason and thrown in prison (from which you promptly escape), and your options in doing so are vast and always interesting to discover. You have a variety of powers and equipment at your disposal, and it’s up to you whether you try to sneak by enemies without being seen or run around killing them like a madman. Your options are a bit limited if you want to avoid murder, and the story isn’t too interesting, and they don’t really make much use of the extremely famous voice cast. These are minor issues though when you take in the sheer depth and inventiveness of the game’s exception world design and the way it all fits together.

  • Mass Effect 3 caught a lot of heat for its (honestly underwhelming) ending, but everything before that lives up to the challenge of bringing an exceptional science fiction saga to a conclusion. It lacks the thrill of discovering a whole new galaxy from Mass Effect, and doesn’t have the huge, diverse core cast of Mass Effect 2. It does give you the sense of a whole galaxy struggling to survive, and brings back a lot of the series’ larger conflicts and resolves them in satisfying and often deeply affecting ways. It’s also the most fun the series has been to play, as long as you don’t mind doing a whole lot of shooting from behind cover. I wish the conclusion cared a little more about how I spent the previous 80 hours it took to get to that point in the series, but it’s still a game worth playing, and has payoffs a fan of the series would want to see.

  • Hotline Miami. It’s sort of like if you made an entire game out of those brief scenes in Drive where Ryan Gosling killed goons with his bare hands. It’s an extremely fast action game. But it’s also a stealth game. And a puzzle game. Your goal on each level is to kill everyone you see before they can kill you. You can knock them over by bashing through a door they’re standing behind. You can shoot them or smash them with guns or various objects you find. If they’re lying on the ground but not dead yet, you can smash their heads into the floor, or snap their necks, or worse. Playing it can feel like a bad trip – the faux-80s dance soundtrack (there’s the Drive influence again) is always pounding, and the graphics are ugly pixelated garbage, and lights are flashing and the ground is kind of moving in a disorienting way. The story is nonsense, and it tricks you into thinking maybe there’s something deeper under all this violence, before it pulls out the rug and you finally learn it really is all about the violence. You will die hundreds of times, and you won’t care because you can start a level again instantly and it’s just so fun to play. Hotline Miami is unique and unforgettable.

  • Far Cry 2 was a brilliant game, but a lot of people didn’t see it that way, and I don’t blame Ubisoft for a lot of decisions they made with the sequel. In fact, I think some of them were for the better. Far Cry 3 combines the setting and basic premise of the first game (regular guy trapped on a tropical island) with the basic gameplay and structure of the second (you wander around an open environment in first person, fending off attackers from all sides), and adds a bunch of systems and poorly-thought through plot elements. You can now take over outposts to prevent enemies from ever appearing in the same area again, and you can gain experience points to unlock new abilities, and you can hunt and skin animals to craft items that let you hold more supplies and boost your stats. It makes it overall a friendlier world to be in, which is good for accessibility, but undeniably damages the unique feeling of lonely desperation you got out of the last game. Still, it’s a blast to screw around, whether you’re burning a patch of jungle to the ground, silently knifing every thug in the immediate area, or getting into a hectic car chase that will end in a painful explosion and lots of gunfire. Just make sure to turn off some of the more intrusive interface elements and ignore the poor attempts at story and character.

  • I know a lot of people were really disappointed with Darksiders II. And I don’t really get it. It combines fast-paced, stylish character action in the vein of Devil May Cry with puzzle-focused dungeon exploration in the vein of The Legend of Zelda just like the original Darksiders, and also adds fluid traversal/platforming in the vein of Prince of Persia. I realize that that’s a lot of “in the vein”, but that’s what the series is. Where the game definitely falters is in the addition of an RPG-style randomized loot system, which makes some sense when you think about the lure of always finding better gear to keep up with the increasingly tough enemies, but which takes away the definite thrill of discovering things in this kind of game. It’s certainly odd to go through the trouble of solving a uniquely designed, one-time puzzle and get rewarded with a randomly generated item that may or may not be better than what you already have. It’s also sort of dull from a story perspective, sticking to mundane fantasy worlds where Darksiders mixed that up with a destroyed modern earth in interesting ways, and not being allowed to advance the plot by virtue of taking place at the same time as the first game. Still, it’s full of well-made dungeons and is just a lot of fun to play, so I have a hard time taking much issue with it. Not what it could have been, but still good.

  • I never played a game in the True Crime series, so I was uninterested when they announced a new one set in Hong Kong, even after it stopped being a True Crime game and got the title Sleeping Dogs. I kept hearing about it after it came out though, and finally gave it a shot, which turned out to be worth it. Sleeping Dogs is the best modern open world crime game since Grand Theft Auto IV, and you can make a strong case that’s it’s actually better. Like plenty of games since the GTA series became popular, it offers a few innovations on the formula that will only make the genre more accessible, but it’s also worth checking out just for the game itself, which is just the right length and level of maturity. Inspired by Hong Kong action movies, it tells a totally competent undercover cop story with some great voice acting, has a variety of things you can do to pass time, and most important, the core missions are actually a lot of fun, with decent car and foot chases, acceptable gunplay, and best of all, a robust melee combat system that takes obvious inspiration from both kung fu cinema and the great hand-to-hand battles in Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel. It has its shortcomings, but I’d recommend it to anyone who needed a fix while waiting for the next GTA.

  • I wasn’t as in love with Journey as some other people, as I kind of felt like we already got some of what ThatGameCompany was going for with their previous game, Flower. Even if you aren’t grabbed by the game’s simple play of jumping around and sliding down hills and wordless, vague story though, it might be worth discovering on just a technical level. The graphics are gorgeous – I don’t think anyone’s ever made a desert look this attractive before. And the unique multiplayer creates an experience that’s possibly worth the purchase price by itself. It’s amazing how easy it is to prevent people on the Internet from being jerks just by taking away their ability to talk. It’s a game that for some is a transcendent pleasure, and for others a boring experiment that doesn’t work. I found myself closer to the former on the spectrum.

  • Mark of the Ninja was one of several games this year to rely on stealth for the meat and potatoes of its gameplay, and while it wasn’t my favorite, it was certainly interesting in its approach. Most stealth games tend to anger their players at some point or another when they get caught and don’t know why, but that’s never a problem with Ninja, where thanks to clever interface and game design, it’s perfectly clear at any moment why you can or cannot be detected by enemies. Add in the beautiful 2D art and animation, extremely fluid controls, and useful variety of weapons and gadgets, and there’s a lot to like here.