The Year in Games – 2012

This post should’ve been finished already.  Sure, time has been limited of late, but it’s always crazy in December, and in years past I’ve always found the time to work on it.  But, well, in this post-Newtown era, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m feeling a little down about games.  And it’s hard for me to reconcile what I enjoyed playing this year back when I was actually playing those games with what I’m currently feeling.

So, before I begin, I need to link to Rock Paper Shotgun’s incredibly interesting, spoiler-heavy interview about Far Cry 3.  There’s a lot to unpack in that interview – the questioner echoes a lot of my own feelings about the game, what it’s appearing to say, and how successful it is in that regard – but I’m specifically linking to it to highlight this one question, which never quite gets a satisfactory answer.

 You talked about how in previous Assassin’s Creed games you questioned themes and tropes, and have gone far farther with that Far Cry 3. Do you think it’s a fair criticism to say, why not make a game that doesn’t make all these mistakes? Why set out to highlight the mistakes or the laziness, or the issues, or the laziness in the players – why not set out to make a game that’s really good?

And to follow that up, I also want to link to Leigh Alexander’s fantastic, devastating piece of her post-Newtown thoughts, because she gets right to the heart of the matter:

Obviously there is no causal relationship between Newtown and video games. But I have played the damn things since I was a very small child and only in the last few years have I, as an adult woman, begun to feel profoundly uncomfortable with their unapologetic celebration of gun violence. I kill things in games every day, and sometimes I even shoot people in the face, but even I have begun to’ve had enough. It feels dark.

Something is wrong with my country.

Any games writing that questions that right to bear virtual arms with joyful impunity is often accused of having some irrelevant political agenda, of ruining the fun, of refusing to accept the all-important fact it’s just a game. Like disassociating ourselves from any intellectual consideration of the content we consume or any emotional response to it is a basic requirement for participation in this community.

I can’t accept that.

The top-grossing games of all time are about marching in a straight line and shooting people. I’ve felt confused and sad about that for a few years now and I feel moreso this week.

This sadness I’m feeling about the hobby that I’ve been passionate about for over 30 years (?!) is very hard to shake.   Games used to be about more than shooting and death.  Games used to have more imagination than that.  And it was, ironically, easier to lose yourself in the worlds those games provided despite how limited they were in their graphical and technical resources.

And so it’s hard for me to sit here and reflect about what I played this year and find cause to celebrate, since a great deal of what I did involved shooting and killing, which are activities that I’m having a hard time finding the fun in these days.  “Shooter fatigue” does not just refer to the fact that every game is a shooter, or that the act of shooting everything stopped being a novel concept about 10 years ago; it’s that I’m tired of having “shooting” be my only option when I pop in a game.

When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?

*     *     *     *     *

Anyway.  The raw data:

Strictly limited to consoles/PC, I played 43 games that were released in 2012;  I also spent the bulk of January playing 2011’s The Old Republic (up to level 40 or so), Assassin’s Creed Revelations (which I only got an hour or two in before wanting to set it on fire), the PSN HD remake of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, and a few intense sessions of Renegade Ops, an XBLA dual-stick shooter that got a lot of love in the Giant Bomb year-end podcasts.  (My iOS purchases were considerably higher in number, but I think it’s also fair to say that I only really focused my attention on around a dozen of them.)

GAMES I FINISHED:

  1. Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (main story, at least – still plenty of side stuff I never got around to; probably too much, actually)
  2. Mass Effect 3 (but none of the DLC – I may yet try some next year, though)
  3. Journey (multiple times)
  4. Max Payne 3 (twice, on 360 and PC)
  5. Diablo 3 (3 times, stopped playing on highest difficulty)
  6. Dear Esther
  7. Walking Dead (well, sorta.  this will be finished before year’s end.)
  8. Spec Ops: The Line
  9. Zuma’s Revenge (xbla – the game’s actually quite short)
  10. Quantum Conundrum
  11. Darksiders 2
  12. Sleeping Dogs
  13. Mark of the Ninja
  14. Borderlands 2
  15. Lego LOTR

GAMES I DID NOT FINISH: looking at my Google Doc, which was kept, more or less, in chronological order, it appears that I finished none of the 11 games I started in between completing Borderlands 2 (last weekend of September) and completing Lego LOTR (2nd weekend of December).  Now, 2 of those games include Forza Horizon (which is just massive) and XCOM: Enemy Unknown (which is super-intimidating and which I’ll address in further detail in a bit).  But other games in that particular window of time include games that I actually sunk a fair amount of time into, including Resident Evil 6 (why?), Assassin’s Creed 3, and Dishonored.   This category actually needs to be broken down into further sub-categories, for reasons that will become self-evident.   (There’s also an embarrassing amount of stuff I bought during various Steam sales that will get its own specific list – I’m not even sure I even installed half of them.)

Did Not Finish, But Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Dishonored – I did get pretty close…
  • XCOM
  • Dust: An Elysian Tale
  • Hotline: Miami
  • Papo & Yo
  • Dyad
  • Soundshapes

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Minecraft (xbla)
  • The Darkness 2
  • Torchlight 2 (this really bums me out, too.  I loved the first one and was really looking forward to this one; I think I’d played too much Diablo 3 to give this one a fair shake.  Maybe I’ll give it another look in 2013.)
  • Asura’s Wrath

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish, But Still Sunk Some Time Into:

  • Resident Evil 6
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Halo 4
  • CODBLOPS 2
  • Final Fantasy XIII-2
  • SSX
  • Far Cry 3

Played for 5 Minutes or Less:

  • Twisted Metal
  • Ghost Recon Future Soldier
  • Dragon’s Dogma

Games of Note that I Did Not Play:

  • Star Wars Kinect (my wife played this, though.  she’s a HUGE star wars nut, and if this game was built for anyone, it was her.  she hated it within 5 minutes of turning it on.)
  • Prototype 2
  • Rock Band Blitz
  • Fable The Journey
  • 007 Legends
  • Syndicate
  • Medal of Honor: Warfighter
  • Dance Central 3
  • Hitman: Absolution
  • Tokyo Jungle – this needs to be corrected
  • Unfinished Swan – this, too, even though I don’t have the Move controller
  • anything for the 3DS, the Vita, or the WiiU

GAMERSCORE:  I am no longer the shameless Achievement Whore I used to be, but I do keep track of this stuff for some reason.  I started 2012 at 77580.  I am currently at 85485 (as of 12/19/12), and if that number goes up it’s only because I’m forging ahead in Lego LOTR, Batman Arkham City (on my PC), or Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which I just inexplicably rented from Gamefly.  Also, I do plan on finishing Walking Dead Eps. 4 and 5 over the holiday break, so there’s that.

Favorite Achievement:   There isn’t any one particular Achievement that stands out to me – not like when I found the last orb in Crackdown, or when my wife and I did the Endless Setlist in Rock Band 3 – but I suppose I’m the proudest of whatever I was able to accomplish in Fez without using a walkthrough.

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I’m not sure that these are all amazing games, but they were certainly absorbing, and addicting as all hell, and made my subway commutes hassle free (except for that one morning when I was so focused on Chip Chain that I missed my subway stop).  Also of note: not a single gun.

  1. Chip Chain
  2. Rayman Jungle Run
  3. 10,000,000
  4. Puzzle Craft
  5. The Room
  6. Punch Quest
  7. Dream of Pixels
  8. Super Monsters Ate My Condo
  9. Puzzle & Dragon
  10. SpellTower
  11. Pocket Planes

So, yeah.  Steam sales.  Even though this section isn’t necessarily about the Best Games Of The Year, it’s still relevant because I found myself playing more games on the PC this year than ever.  And because the notion of a “Steam Box” is suddenly sounding incredibly sexy.  And if anyone’s going to be able to compete for the living room with Microsoft and Sony (and Nintendo, if the WiiU is for real), I think Valve has the best shot.  And, as I’ll be a new father in a few months with a much tighter leash on my disposable income, the fact that I bought everything below for under $60 COMBINED is perhaps one of the most significant things that happened to me this year as far as my game-consuming habits are concerned.

THE STEAM SALE HAUL (Summer):

  • Galactic Civilizations II (super pack) – [why did I even bother?  I saw “turn-based strategy in space” for under $8 and couldn’t help myself.  have I played it yet?  of course not!]
  • Bulletstorm – [#10 on my Best-of-2011 List.  looked AMAZING on my PC, and was even better the 2nd time around.]
  • Alan Wake (complete pack) – [I played and sort-of liked the first game on the 360.  I tried the first few minutes of American Nightmare on the PC; it’s a little ridiculous.]
  • Quantum Conundrum – [I’d written a huge review of this that I’d intended to post, but when I re-read it it felt so negative that you’d never understand why I even bothered to finish it.  The short, nice version – it’s a charming game with some really unique puzzles, but it’s also got some flaws that are hard to get past.  And it’s never going to be as brilliant as Portal.]
  • SOL: Exodus – [This space combat-ish game got a lot of talk earlier in the year on various podcasts, which is how I presume it wound up on my wishlist.  I tried the first 10 minutes or so; it’s promising.]
  • Legend of Grimrock – [I was sorta hoping to wait for the iPad version, but the sale price was too good to pass up.  I played the first few minutes; I need to spend some serious time with a tutorial to figure out just what the hell I’m doing.]
  • Saints Row the Third [which I’ve already finished on the 360 – but how could I pass it up for 75% off? ]
  • Indie Bundle 2 (Botanicula, EYE, Universe Sandbox, Oil Rush, Splice) – [bought this only for Botanicula, which I haven’t yet played.]
  • Anno 2770 – [as with GalCiv2 above, I have no idea why I bought this.  I opened it up and played the first 5 minutes and didn’t know how to do anything.]

THE STEAM SALE HAUL (Thanksgiving):

  • Tropico 4 – [they had it for $7.  And I’d always been curious about this franchise, even if I don’t understand what it is or how it’s played.]
  • Yesterday 
  • Thirty Flights of Loving
  • Resonance
  • Batman Arkham City GOTY
  • Dishonored

OK, let’s get back to the awards!

BEST GAMEPLAY MECHANIC OF 2012:

  • Dishonored, “Blink“.  This might be the easiest category of all, when I think about it.  I had some significant problems with the game as it went along, but I never got tired of zipping around the environment; whether for strategic purposes in plotting out how to attack an area, or simply to speed things along, it was an immediately satisfying maneuver, and I used it at every opportunity.  In fact, when I eventually tired of the game and started playing other shooters, I found myself missing being able to Blink.  (It certainly would’ve come in handy in Borderlands 2 and Far Cry 3.)

MOST TIME SPENT IN GAME:

  • TIE:  Borderlands 2 / Diablo 3.  I’m not sure the numbers are accurate, but raptr says I spent 56 hours in Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I was around that amount (if not more) in Diablo 3.   The key difference, though, is that I didn’t hate myself when I played Borderlands 2.

BEST MOMENT:

  • TIE, again:  Mass Effect 3, visiting the temple (with the Prothean in my party) / Journey, the sand-skiing level.  There’s a pivotal scene late in ME3’s campaign where, after a lengthy firefight, you’re exploring the ruins of an ancient Asari temple.  Some pretty amazing things are revealed.  The first time I played this scene, though, I didn’t have the Prothean team member in my party, and I realized that if anybody could shed some light on what I was seeing, it would be him.  It was worth it to reload my save and hear his commentary; what he added changed everything.  As for Journey; well, I’m not a good enough writer to describe what happened to me during the sand-skiing level.  But when I asked the question above, about the last time you played a game and felt joy?  That moment was it, for me.  Sheer exhilaration, wonder, awe.

B3ST GAM3 With a 3 in the TITL3:  There have been plenty of franchises that have made it to a 3rd game, but it wasn’t until last year that it started to get a little ridiculous.  In keeping with the tradition, this year’s nominees are:

  • Far Cry 3
  • Max Payne 3
  • Diablo 3
  • Assassin’s Creed 3
  • Dance Central 3
  • Mass Effect 3

I was fully prepared to give this to a different game, but as I was writing the Best Moment section above, I had a change of heart.  Even though Far Cry 3 has a lot of things going for it, I’d be crazy to not give this to Mass Effect 3.   If the ending wasn’t as great as we’d wanted it to be, it was still an extraordinary experience, and  a fitting conclusion to one of the most important intellectual properties of this generation.

BEST NEW IP:

  • Mark of the Ninja.  One of the finest stealth games ever made, with great writing and a fantastic art style.  While the story has a definite conclusion, thus making a direct sequel somewhat narratively tricky, I would absolutely play more of these in the future.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:

  • Need For Speed Most Wanted.  I was afraid of this, to be honest; I was afraid that when EA bought Criterion, they’d prevent Criterion from doing what it does best.  What Criterion does best is making Burnout games, with Burnout rules, and with the freedom of destruction that having unlicensed cars provides.  Need For Speed is a franchise that EA is desperate to make relevant again, and so by buying the Burnout developer and preventing them from actually making Burnout games, but sort-of letting them shoehorn some of the Burnout magic into a completely different IP, they’ve managed to please nobody.  I had hoped that Criterion could trascend this; alas, the game feels rushed, though it does feature some of the most frustrating rubberband AI in the history of the medium.  (Honorable mention goes to another failed EA reboot – SSX.)

FAVORITE FRANCHISE THAT I’M MORE OR LESS READY TO GIVE UP ON:

  • Yet another TIE:  Tiger Woods / Assassin’s Creed.  I’ve been threatening to quit on these franchises for a while now, and this year’s entries did nothing to dissuade me from that attempt.  The putting game in Tiger is maybe more frustrating than the rubberband AI in NFS:MW, but the fact that almost half the game’s courses are locked behind a paywall is unforgivable.  Meanwhile, Assassin’s Creed had managed to subvert the curse of annualized release dates for a little while until last year’s dreadful Revelations, and this year’s edition, while a little bit better, was still an embarrassing mess.

BEST / WORST TREND:

  • Kickstarter.  The incredible success of DoubleFine’s Adventure Game must have appeared to be a glorious, watershed moment for indie developers – finally, a way to subvert the traditional publisher relationship and have a direct relationship with the consumers!  Sure enough, eventually it seemed that there was a new high-profile developer making a Kickstarter pitch every other week, and for a while we all got pretty excited about the possibility of crowd-sourced development funding.  But it’s started to get a bit out of control, and there’s a growing concern that a lot of these projects, already behind on their delivery dates, may never get released.

2010’s MOST-PLAYED GAME OF 2012:

  • Pinball FX2, which is the gift that keeps on giving; its steady stream of quality DLC tables has kept it in my rotation for pretty much the entire year.

THE “SACRED 2” MEMORIAL AWARD FOR THE MOST TIME PLAYING A GAME THAT I ACTIVELY DISLIKED:

  • There’s a distressingly high number of games that fall into consideration for this category, when I think about it.   But the thing about naming this award after Sacred 2 is that I actually finished Sacred 2, even though there was so much to hate.    And in that regard, while I can’t say I hated Diablo 3, I did eventually start to hate myself for playing it to death.  I finished it 3 times, eventually getting stuck on the hardest difficult level, where my level 60 Monk never managed to survive past Act I.  And grinding Acts 4 and 5 of the lower difficulty’s tier began to grow very tiresome.  The best loot I ever got in the game was from the Auction House, not from a drop – not even from a drop while having 5 sets of Nephalim Valor or whatever the hell it was called.  Diablo 3 is an incredibly well-made game, to be sure, and I did have a lot of fun for a while, there.  But eventually the experience became monotonous and repetitive and the fun gradually faded, even as I continually left-clicked my enemies to death.

FAVORITE GAME THAT EVERYBODY ELSE SEEMED TO DISLIKE:

  • Max Payne 3.  I have no idea where all the hate for this game came from; I loved it.  When Steam offered it along with a free copy of L.A. Noire, I immediately downloaded it even though I’d already beaten it on the 360, and had already beaten L.A. Noire, too.  It’s the best-looking game Rockstar’s made, but more importantly, it was true to the franchise’s roots.  The trademark slow-motion gunplay was still fun as hell.  Sure, the story gets a little ridiculous and melodramatic, and Max can be a bit of a downer (to put it mildly), but I thought the campaign was really well designed, and the multiplayer was arguably better than Red Dead Redemption‘s.  (I say that possibly because it’s one of the few competitive multiplayer modes that I’m not completely terrible at, but hey – it worked for me!)

BEST GAME THAT I DIDN’T FINISH, EVEN THOUGH I WANTED TO:

  • With apologies to The Walking Dead, which I have every intention of finishing this holiday weekend, this award must go to XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  It’s maddeningly difficult and intimidating as all hell, but it’s never unfair; I learned from each of my mistakes, even at the expense of one (or more) of my soldier’s lives.  I do need to get back to this one; I put it down only because the pressure got to be too much.  It’s so goddamned tense!  Each turn of play has the potential to go horribly awry!  Even thinking about now makes my blood pressure rise.

THE BEST EXAMPLE OF AN HD REMAKE THAT MAKES YOU QUESTION YOUR MEMORY:

  • With apologies to the remake of Jet Set Radio, which I only played in demo form, I have to give this to Tony Hawk HD.  I was really looking forward to this release, as I played the original THPS1 and THPS2 games to death on the Dreamcast, and I’ve missed the purity of those original games’ design and intent.  Alas, the HD remastering only revealed that the levels weren’t nearly as interesting as I remembered them being, and that my skills were somewhat lacking.  As of this writing, I have not yet purchased the “Revert” DLC, but I’m not sure I want to; I’m already a little sad that I didn’t love this game as much as I’d wanted to.

THE BEST EXAMPLE OF AN HD REMAKE THAT RESTORES YOUR FAITH IN YOUR MEMORY:

  • I still need to play more of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath on the PS3; I got a few hours into it and then got distracted.  But man, that game is still fun as hell, and it looks absolutely fantastic in HD.  Here’s hoping that the HD remakes of the original Abe’s Oddysee and Exoddus are as good as this was.   (Supposedly there’s a remake of Munch that’s either out or is arriving shortly, but I don’t think any amount of HD tweaking will fix what was wrong with that one.)

*     *     *     *     *

THE TOP 10 GAMES OF THE YEAR

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • Sleeping Dogs – maybe the most pleasureable surprise of the year; certainly one of the better GTA clones ever made.
  • Trials Evolution – one of the best XBLA titles gets an even better sequel.
  • Walking Dead – I reserve the right to amend my top 10 list once I finish this.  I’ve heard from everyone who’s finished it that it has one of the best endings in videogame history.
  • Diablo 3 – despite my self-loathing, it’s still a really well-made game.

10.  Max Payne 3.  See above.  I know it has problems, but I found it an engrossing experience, with action just as flashy and enjoyable as the originals.

9.  Fez.  This was near the top of my most-wanted list for years, and while it wasn’t quite the game I expected it to be – it was less of a 2D/3D platforming puzzle game and more of an abstract code-breaking journey – it was still a remarkable, singularly unique experience.

8.  XCOM Enemy Unknown.  I am afraid of this game.

7.  Darksiders 2.  I had an absolute blast with this one.  This was, for a long part of the year, my top pick for GOTY.  It wasn’t quite as good in New Game + mode, but I can’t hold that against it; the first time through, it was a great time.

6.  Forza Horizon.  If I was shocked at how disappointed I was in Need For Speed Most Wanted, I was just as shocked at how much I enjoyed this one.  I fully expected this to be a cheap cash-grab, but instead it was a full-featured racer that took the best qualities of Forza and added a gorgeous open world, a satisfying variety of race types, a fun and engaging driving model which straddles the line perfectly between sim and arcade, a dynamic leaderboard that encouraged you to best your previous marks, and even some side stuff that gave you something else to do while soaking in the scenery.  I need to get back into this one; there’s still a lot I left unfinished.

5.  Mark of the Ninja.  As noted above, this is perhaps the best set of stealth mechanics in the entire genre, be it 2D or 3D.  The art direction and writing are top notch, and there’s plenty of replayability to be found after finishing the story.

4.  Far Cry 3.  This was almost my #1, to be honest.  I’ve written too many words about it this week to give it its proper due in this post; it’s a fantastic game with some remarkable voice acting and a gorgeous open world to explore, but it’s also got a troubling narrative that threatens to drag it down, which is a very kind way of putting it.  As it stands, I’ve chosen to not finish it, and instead spend the rest of my time with it finding all the relics and hidden items; what I’ve read of the ending sounds distasteful, and  in any event, I’ve still gotten my money’s worth.  Despite the writer’s intentions, I found the game I wanted to play in it, and I’m grateful that the game designers allowed me that much.

3.  Mass Effect 3.  At some point next year, I’m going to go back and replay this one.  In each of the earlier games in the series, I played through twice – once as a paragon, the second time as a renegade.  Alas, I never got around to the renegade playthrough for this one, and so, when I do, I’ll also have the benefit of seeing some of the DLC that’s supposedly enhanced the experience for the better.  In any event, this is a remarkable entry in one of the most outstanding technical achievements of this generation – I’m still impressed at how it managed to do what it did.  It’s a shame the side quests were so poorly conceived and executed, but whatever; the main story was engaging, the larger universe was a joy to explore, and the overall experience was nothing short of incredible.

2.  Borderlands 2.  My shooter fatigue has developed into a troubling malaise with videogames in general, which is a real bummer for a number of reasons; but if this is the last pure shooter I ever end up playing, I think I’ll be OK with it.   It kept everything that was great about the first game, threw out everything that sucked, and then made everything funnier and more colorful and bigger and better and etc.   I will continue to check in on this game’s DLC, as I’m glad to have any opportunity to drop back in and see this world.  The violence is plentiful and gratuitous, to be sure, but it’s also very silly and cartoonish; the game is never taking itself all that seriously, which is refreshing in this day and age of gritty, visceral realism.  There’s still not very much to do in this game, when I think about it; to re-quote Leigh Alexander, it’s still ultimately about marching in a straight line and shooting people, but at least it’s having fun while doing it.  I might finish a session of Borderlands 2 and be exhausted, but I’m not emotionally drained.

1.   Journey.  I finished this game very quickly the day it came out, and I was so taken with it that I sat my wife down the following day and watched her play it.  Soon enough, a stranger arrived in her session – with one of the longest capes I’ve ever seen – and showed her around, helping her get through tricky platforming sequences, leading her to a bunch of hidden, secret stuff that I hadn’t found in my own playthrough, and staying with her throughout the entire game, right through the heart of the mountaintop.  That this random stranger was able to do all of this without uttering a single word is truly remarkable.   It’s true that the sand-skiing sequence is one of the most beautiful, joyous experiences I’ve ever had in a game, but it’s also true that the entire game itself filled me with wonder and emotions that I still can’t quite explain.  There is no dialogue; there is no “story”; there is no violence; there are only two actions – move and jump.  You are compelled to move forward and explore.  That this game could be made in this day and age is something to be celebrated.  That the game is so fucking good is something else entirely.  I wasn’t expecting to give this my top slot; indeed, when I started writing this post, I was still pretty sure that Borderlands 2 was going to take it.  But the more I think about it, the more I want to go back and play this game; I want to feel those feelings again; I want to be reminded that there will always be more to do in this medium than simply killing something.  You can be touched.  You can feel joy.

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