GOTY 2012

I've somewhat reluctantly created this list of my favorite games of 2012, but be warned that any GOTY list I make which only includes games actually released during the last 12 months is going to be wildly misleading. Like most non-video game journalists I don't have a very compelling reason to only play the latest releases, and any complete account of my gaming adventures of 2012 would include, among other things, a first-time playthrough of MGS1-2 and a lot of time spent replaying games like Mass Effect 1-2 as well as the PC ports of Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo 2.

Also, this list only includes games I actually played through from beginning to end. Relatively complex strategy games such as XCOM, quick save-lacking RPGs á la Dark Souls and MMO time sinks along the likes of The Secret World and Old Republic simply don't fit into my everyday schedule very well, and as a result of that I never had enough time to get through all the singleplayer content (even though I spent a far amount of time with all these titles). As for much-discussed The Walking Dead, I sort of lost interest in the (somewhat problematic and uneven) game after the first three episodes, but it's still possible that I will finish the remaining episodes before the end of the year.

List items

  • For an old PC nerd like me, playing Dishonored feels like coming home. The game may not represent a historic reinvention or evolution of the first-person stealth action game, but it's great in exactly the same ways that Thief was great - i.e. by delivering a combination of player freedom, rewarding exploration, memorable art design and plenty of atmosphere - and that's certainly good enough for me. Just like the whole crowd-funding Kickstarter-driven phenomena which had such a significant impact on the games industry in 2012, Dishonored makes a strong case for recovering some of that complexity and curiosity-driven design which has been lost as a result of tireless efforts by various big publishers to expand the gaming mainstream.

  • Even when viewed in isolation, Mass Effect 3 is one of the most lavishly produced and solidly designed shooter/RPG hybrids out there. And when seen in the context of Bioware's unprecedented three-part sci-fi epic, it's almost magical to have come this far and still hear the echoes of choices made, alliances brokered and romances initiatied over the course of five long years. The much-maligned ending, while not exactly brilliant (though at this point almost perversely underrated), takes away nothing from this ground-breaking achievement, and Bioware deserves all the praise they can get for daring to go through with this grand experiment. Mass Effect does not represent the future of RPG gaming per se, but it does provide a glimpse of what modern AAA gaming can be given enough time, resources and developer talent.

  • While not nearly as memorable as its somber and delightfully contrarian predecessor, Far Cry 3 came out of nowhere and sharked its competitors (including Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed III) in all sorts of embarrassing ways by providing one of the most meaningfully content-packed open worlds ever as well as some very satisfying and emergent action/stealth gameplay. The top-notch motion capture, voice work and dialogue sadly wasn't matched by an equally great overall plot, but as a complete package there are few games in this notoriously uneven genre that delivers this much bang for your buck.

  • A graphical tour de force if there ever was one, Halo 4 shows there's still plenty of life left in those aging kiddieboxes we hook up to our television sets. Since the annualized Call of Duty juggernaught has such a profound influence on the genre, playing Halo 4 makes one realize just how important it is to have a series of relatively accessible FPS games focused on tactical awareness and intelligent crowd control as opposed to twitch-heavy shooting galleries. Halo is not the king of console shooters any longer, but in some ways the series has never been more relevant than now.

  • Designed from the ground up to be the thoughtful gamer's guilty pleasure, Binary Domain is a very respectable third-person shooter wrapped in a juicy tale of Blade Runner-esque existentialism. Yakuza creator Toshihiro Nagoshi delivers colorful characters, shocking plot twists, decent romantic subplots and a whole lot of exploding mechs...and at the end of it all, it's hard not to feel that a heavy dose of Japanese narrative risk-taking is exactly what Western games are missing.

  • Ubisoft's latest time-bending action adventure is a brave and confident epic that is unfortunalety weighed down by poor mission design and superfluous side activities (much like earlier AC games, to be honest). I applaud the improvements over previous installments when it comes to (the historical part of) the narrative, and can only hope that Ubisoft does not misinterpret the game's comparatively lukewarm reception. Oh, and that prologue? It's just fine, thank you very much, and should probably have been (even) longer...

  • Even when a combination of Blizzard's myopic traditionalism on the one hand and creepy desire for control and monetization on the other threatens to sink their latest release into an endless quagmire of controversy and player outrage, there's just something remarkably solid and professional about their core gameplay design which makes it very difficult to merely dismiss a game like Diablo III. I hated the awful first playthrough and never quite got the hang of the gold-based Auction House, but for a couple of weeks there I was desperately hooked on the second and third difficulty modes and got a lot more fun out of the game than I had ever anticipated. The left button mouse clicks just *feel* right...

  • An improbably audacious head trick (especially coming from a major publisher like 2K Games) that cleverly questions virtual violence using a surprisingly sophisticated, multi-layered approach. For all the talk of the plot's shocking revelations and heavy-handed references to Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, this game is noteworthy primarily because of how far down the rabbit hole of meta-commentary it actually goes. Ultimately I think it's a sign of health that - unlike the NRA - the game industry clearly got its most perceptive critics within its own folds.

  • Journey is not exactly good art - there's still way too much crowd-pleasing kitsch in thatgamecompany's productions for them to qualify as such - but this is still a remarkable release for being tasteful and aesthetically pleasing in ways that video games so rarely are. One of those precious indie gems truly worth the price of admission; not to mention a jaw-dropping technical achievement in more ways than a small developer like this should be able to accomplish.

  • Few games (even in text-heavy fields such as interactive fiction) aspire to any kind of literary value, and while there's arguably more deliberate mystery than actual substance to Dan Pinchbeck's script for Dear Esther it nonetheless ups the ante for non-conventional game writing. Combined with Nigel Carrington's superb voice work and Jessica Curry's mesmerizing score, Dear Esther's melancholy tale of loss set in the windswept Hebrides is a memorable experience despite the lack of traditional gameplay mechanics.