I completed more than sixty games last year. That’s two dozen more than 2011, not even counting games purely limited to multiplayer, such as Counter-Strike: GO and Hero Academy. Still, there were several no-brainers when picking the "winners" and losers you will see below.
Now, I understand the flaws in lists. Many people try to pass off a subjective ranking of qualities as objective writing. Sometimes it’s clear which movies, songs, or television shows outstripped their competition, but 2012 marked another banner year for the gaming industry – contrary to 2011 where most critics sang of Skyrim’s praises while heatedly debating the drop-off point for a runner-up.
But deciding what releases check off the right boxes on a game of the year list is a foolhardy strategy when you factor in dozens of titles from various genres, so I compiled my assortment of picks based on fun alone. You may not agree with my choices, though that’s hardly surprising given everyone’s individual tastes.
So let’s begin with a bevy of games that did not grace the hard drives of my various systems. I know I should have played several of these releases during the winter hiatus. In this case, you will just have to forgive my procrastination and sordid spending.
Considering the tsunami of news that broke about 38 Studios and the state of Rhode Island, I feel obliged to play Kingdoms of Amalur (I had a mere passing interest in the game before). But after a heavy dose of shooter fatigue ruined Borderlands 2 and similar titles for me, a hack-and-slash RPG may be the buoy to save me from an ocean of monotony.
A scantily clad, curvaceous, and wildly oblivious cheerleader slaying the forces of darkness with her boyfriend’s severed head securely attached to her skirt has all the makings for tasteless misogyny. Then you learn Suda51’s team at Grasshopper Manufacture spearheaded the project. The man rarely does anything unintentionally, and Shadows of the Damned managed to profit from its its premise better than first impressions would deem, so I’m all the more curious to see if Juliet’s world of glamour and gore can draw me in just the same.
Sleeping Dogs looked terrible when I was viewing gameplay videos not a month before the game’s launch, yet the final product shocked critics. A gritty open-world take on the brutality of an undercover cop infiltrating Hong Kong’s Triad certainly grabbed my attention, but the barbarous executions and bone-crunching displays of Chinese martial arts made this an easy purchase. The lively setting and convincing voice acting did not hurt either.
Even if there were only two stealth games worth recommending this year (the other being Mark of the Ninja and definitely not Assassin’s Creed III), those two revitalized the genre with their scope and freedom to assassinate or avoid targets in whatever way you so choose. But Dishonored has more going for it than a supernatural array of death-dealing powers. I am speaking of Dunwall, a town not unlike a steampunk version of Rapture and City 17. Two of my favorite locales possibly rolled into one? Shut up and take my money.
As someone that loves strategy games but cares little for actual battlefield base-building in the style of StarCraft II, XCOM would have assuredly made my GOTY list if I had played anything beyond the demo. The dynamic shifts between human-versus-alien conflicts – as you seize control of the situation one minute, only to have half your squad mind-controlled or cut down next turn – has all the randomness I look for in my turn-based titles.
There’s really no reason that I should have skipped the latest Forza when a shot of Colorado’s open roads has revitalized the series’ stagnating career mode, but I would prefer to wait for a Platinum Hits version filled to the brim by Horizon’s DLC to hit store shelves.
I loved the 2006 version of Most Wanted; I loved Criterion’s Burnout Paradise. The newest Most Wanted strikes me as a good balance between the two, and I actually bought the game during an Amazon sale, yet the early 2013 onslaught will keep me from playing this and the rest of the games in my backlog until the summer months.
My interest in prior Hitman titles starts and ends with the compositions of Jesper Kyd. Seriously, any soundtrack that man touches turns to gold. However, Hitman: Absolution seems to be the most accessible entry in the series, allowing you to actually shoot your way out of skirmishes once Plan A through Z go to hell. But seeing as the developers wish to rid themselves of the Hitman franchise for the time being, I see no hurry to dirty Agent 47’s gloves in blood and grime.
Just one more category before I break down my games of the year. With sixty games completed in 2012 alone, I ran the risk of stumbling upon broken and disheveled experiences that tried to pass themselves off as entertaining. Sure, those titles only make more polished releases all the more attractive, but the disappointments below prove that the bad can stick with you just as long as the good.
Watching Sergeant Walker’s psyche fall apart during the events of Spec Ops was a fascinating journey, and yet I was disgruntled by the rest of the storytelling. What choices you make are fundamentally superfluous in the end, and a certain act of retaliation involving white phosphorus disturbed me for the wrong reasons. It was not the graphic portrayal in the following cutscene; rather, the decision of the developers to remove player choice from that situation baffled me.
I did not feel pity for the dead. Walker forced his subordinates' hands, not me, and I felt no anguish for those soldiers just as nameless and faceless as any other virtual military force. Even so, one decision does not condemn The Line. I was let down by the gameplay as well, which struggles to cooperate on a gamepad. However, I can still recommend the game on PC thanks to the precision of a keyboard and mouse (surprising for a third-person shooter), and the game’s visuals and sand technology are more impressive on a high-end machine.
I may have been in the minority of people who actually enjoyed 2010’s Medal of Honor. In many ways you could call it a poor man’s Battlefield, but the campaign’s ending was notably poignant. Then the sequel crippled what little forward momentum it had by combining every generic first-person shooter element into a buggy six-hour war on terrorism. EA Black Box proved they could develop decent driving sequences once again; too bad a head-on collision cannot wipe the rest of Warfighter’s story or the multiplayer from my memory.
Zombies, love them or hate them, they've become that one big ticket item during this console cycle that gives studios an excuse to call their game ‘post-apocalyptic’. For Deadlight – a release that frequently faltered in execution – the Limbo-esque art direction provides the game’s sole saving grace, but who cares about the visual style when you’re restarting (for the twentieth time) one of the many frustrating platforming sections that require pixel-perfect precision?
Who cares about the graphic novel cutscenes when the following gameplay segments force you into a close-quarters situation where infected simply pass through your axe swings unimpeded? What difference does a world covered in shadows make when the final narrative twist becomes so obnoxiously foreseeable? I gave credit to Deadlight during the summer drought of releases, though I can count the number of remorseful 2012 purchases I made on one hand, and Deadlight happens to be sitting in the middle.
How do you screw up wave-based arena combat against packs of carnivorous dinosaurs? That’s easy: betray your customers. Although the developers promised patches were in the works to resolve issues that made Dino Beatdown unplayable, the team gave up on the mess of server connections, AI glitches, and consistent failure of the game to progress to the next wave. Eventually, they stopped responding to emails and forum posts altogether. So as a dinosaur fanatic, I suggest you skip this bastard of a love affair. It’s one of the few one-night gaming stands that I regret.
Resident Evil 6 was my most anticipated game of 2012 before then I played it. Wesker’s death at the end of Resident Evil 5 wrapped up the franchise’s overarching story, but what’s this? Neo-Umbrella has arisen from the company’s ashes to infect the world where its progenitor failed? Boring. Resident Evil 6 had a great presentation, including exceptional visuals, the series’ favorite characters, and AI tweaks that make soloing the four campaigns less harmful to your controller. Capcom simply changed too much in its strive to compete against Call of Duty.
Removing weapon upgrades in exchange for equipping three insipid skills was undoubtedly dumb. The dozens of quick time events that pop on-screen at the most random times result in too many cheap deaths. Enemies no longer react to well-placed shots, dropping their weapons or falling to their knees. Bosses never reinforce the player when they deal damage to the behemoths. Also, hiding away helpful gameplay tips in loading screens forgoes all logic. Resident Evil 6 has no reason to exist, and the more I reflect on my thirty hours with it, the more I wish it didn't.
At least Operation Raccoon City’s misgivings are somewhat more forgivable, namely because the game was not developed by Capcom. But the team at Slant Six misled fans with the game’s one unique angle: executing the series’ heroes. Leon’s death is ultimately your choice, an anti-climactic press-this-button-or-the-other decision made in the final five minutes of the game. The handful of hours prior are also punctuated by genuinely bad AI that would prefer to cuddle a zombie instead of stab it. Not even sharing in the cooperative misery with three other players pardons the imbalanced boss battles, ham-fisted storytelling, and horrendous multiplayer.
Okay, so as I said, I played a lot of games in 2012. Honestly, cutting the list down to just ten was an arduous task, but I felt the need to expose a handful of games that just missed their entertainment marks.
Thank God that Capcom got one of their latest Resident Evils right. Revelations shares much of the atmosphere that made Resident Evil 5’s Lost in Nightmares DLC special, in that it perfectly reflects the tension Resident Evils 2 and 3 were known for (being chased by Nemesis still haunts my dreams). The fact that Revelations makes use of the series’ over-the-shoulder perspective and presents responsive swimming controls helps, too. Tension can only contribute so much to a horror title, though, so it’s nice to see that Capcom retains the series’ current visual euphoria instead of resorting to polygonal abominations. It's a shame the grating voice work for characters known as not-Chris and not-Jill had me zoning out during cutscenes.
Although I prefer the industrialized machinery of a good steampunk setting, Syndicate’s addictive co-op and technological nuances sank its chip-ripping tendrils into me and refused to let go. As a multi-billionaire company’s top agent, the otherwise excellent shooting plays second fiddle to destroying hostiles with your mind. Sure, the middle act drags on as you singlehandedly dismantle a hostile corporation, but the ability to suicide and torment your opponents by hacking the microchips in their brains was too cool of a concept to simply walk away from.
Honestly, who cares about this game’s depictions of anthropomorphic animals? If you are that threatened by humanized lizards and cats, I shake my head at you, because you are talking yourself out of 2012’s most beautiful brawler. Dust responds to inputs flawlessly, ducking and dodging between enemy claws when not casting giant pillars of flames or arcing bolts of lightning. The maps also take inspiration from Metroid and Castlevania, encouraging you to return to areas once you obtain the ability to access hard to reach spots. An Elysian Tail seems even more remarkable when you acknowledge that the game was developed by one man. However, the one sticking point for me was the amateur voice acting. I watch a lot of anime, but Dust: An Elysian Tail is bad by English dubbed standards. The ending hardly contains the sentimentality that other critics have spoken so fondly of, too.
Both of these Persona games are visual novels at heart, and both retain the heavy use of yellow hues that made Persona 4 pop. Sadly, Arena’s dialogue is unnecessarily wordy at several points, and twelve individuals working to solve the case of the Midnight Channel’s revival contributes to some hearty overlap in the twenty hours of conversation. But the characters are still expertly portrayed and awkward in their interactions that are more humorous than annoying. And as a fighting game, Atlus skillfully translates the traditional turn-based powers of personas into a robust four-button system. Persona 4 Arena sets the probable events of Persona 5 in motion, and it’s a good excuse to finally reacquaint yourself with familiar characters in high definition for the first time.
However, I find it more difficult to award a GOTY slot to Persona 4 Golden. The original game released at the tail-end of 2008, the core experience has remained unchanged since then, and I only clocked twelve hours into it so far (out of the fifty on an average playthrough). Yet Persona 4 Golden is the undeniably best reason to own a Vita right now, and the new personas, school trips, social links, and English localization make this an easy purchasing decision for fans needing another excuse to solve the murder mystery of Inaba. Just don’t think twice about buying this game. It is one of those rare exceptions where teenagers overcoming their social problems makes for one the best narratives to ever come out of Japan.
So close, Mark of the Ninja, so close. Claims that Klei Entertainment developed the best stealth game ever are not without merit. When you consider how many covert experiences let detection fall to a dice roll, it’s good to see a game that instantly communicates your failings. You do not need some otherworldly ability depicting the vision cones of enemies, or a costly upgrade that reveals how much noise you make while sprinting; the developers lay all that information out for you from the start.
Instead, the skills increase the creative ways in which to skewer untrained guards, like a Spider-Man without regard for human life. Though there are a couple sections nearing the finale that almost always cheat you out of a perfect no-kill run, and I would hardly call your role as a ninja compelling. The stealth kept me going until the end, but the hamstrung story keeps Mark of the Ninja from earning a Top Ten spot.
And without further explanation, I give you the real meat of this blog.
Trials Evolution does everything a sequel should. It maintains the finely tuned controls of its predecessor, but RedLynx effortlessly expands on the gameplay, adding competitive multiplayer that avoids the damning phrase of "tacked-on" and crafting mind-bending courses that toy with the player’s visual perception. Moving the action outside the confines of a hazardous warehouse permits the developers to generate some ingenious tracks, too – the tools for building which have been made readily available to eager minds in the tracks editor.
Players can even alter bike physics and bend the laws of gravity in whatever ways they desire. Though that freedom would mean little if one could not share with the world, the developers make downloading/uploading tracks to their servers a breeze. With everything so elegantly refined from the days of Trials HD, it raises the question whether RedLynx will ever be able to top Trials Evolution in the form of another sequel, or if it will ever need one.
Beyond Call of Duty 4’s methodically paced campaign, the Call of Duty franchise had never been regaled in terms of storytelling until the first Black Ops released. Treyarch gave the man behind the gun a personality in a series that previously swapped from one blank protagonist to the next. Now Black Ops II has given the series another much-needed jolt. The new gadgets, scopes, and sensors are nothing short of a blast to use, and the gameplay is still tight and responsive.
And yet 2025’s technology pales in comparison to the choices that the developers expertly hide within the conventional shootouts. The story never enters a fail state because you acted on instinct, executing a man during interrogation or letting a hostage taker escape. The four endings take into account several key actions during the campaign, but what are those actions? The game’s lips are sealed, and for the first time in years, I was excited to replay the missions for more than just achievements.
Although it kills me to place Halo 4 this high on the list, looking over this past year, the early months of 2012 offered as many engaging experiences as the winter rush. Still, Halo 4’s narrative struck me as memorable, leaving me surprised when you consider that Halo 4 marks the start of another trilogy. What surprised me even more was the multiplayer, which borrows class customization and dedicated sprinting for a faster experience that I have yearned for since Halo: Combat Evolved. It’s still Halo at heart, and that’s good enough for me. Welcome back, Chief.
Before you protest my choice to include an expansion on my list, know that Creative Assembly still understands the meaning of the word. I’m not talking about a few extra battlefields and factions to counter growing boredoms. No, the developers justify the $30 price by including six new playable clans; a separate campaign set during the samurai’s decline; fresh multiplayer skill trees and retainers; hundreds of additional units, ships, and maps; the ability to play Fall of the Samurai without buying the base Shogun 2; the option to toggle multiplayer matches between opponents using matchlock armies or traditional samurai forces; and the decision to split multiplayer careers between your avatar generals. And amid these changes, Creative Assembly keeps the minute-to-minute strategies of testing/baiting your opponents’ flanks intact. If you consider yourself a fan of the Total War franchise, go buy Fall of the Samurai.
2012 was a year of the unexpected, ranging from the indie hit Journey, to the undersold Binary Domain, to the triple-A Dragon's Dogma, yet I crown Asura's Wrath as king of the action scene. It’s a must-play for anyone remotely intrigued by Japanese game design and anime insanity. Capcom’s intentional withholding of the true ending as DLC does sour favorable impressions; however, this is one case where I recommend ALL players buy the downloadable episodes for their finality and visual absurdity. Unleashing quick-time events where Asura punches a giant Buddha into space, battles the planet's corrupted core, and detonates thousands of warships as a hybrid of a Super Saiyan (Dragon Ball Z), Espada (Bleach), and Tailed Beast (Naruto) are moments I will remember well into 2013. Anime has always focused on the sheer determination and perseverance of the protagonist – a fact that CyberConnect2 nails in Asura’s Wrath.
What's there to recommend in Dragon's Dogma? The story collapses while shouldering a mountain of RPG tropes, none of characters exhibit a trace of personality behind their glassy, aimless stares, and there's little to actually do in the world once you remove the threat of mythological creatures. But admittedly, thinking back over all the bosses I've slain during the last twelve months, those of Dragon's Dogma stand out the most. Ogres, cyclops, drakes, wyverns, chimeras, hydras, cockatrices, and griffins tower over you and your pawns, and none of these confrontations would matter if it were not for the superb combat.
No game empowers you as a wannabe archer quite like Dragon’s Dogma. You always feel in control of the fight. For example, having a warrior pawn launch you skyward to grab a griffin's fur and strike its wings may culminate in a sharp plummet to the ground, but that opens the door for an over-leveled mage to summon a devastating tornado of dark magic to drain the grounded beast’s life force. Many of these fights can happen at random, and the first time said griffin swooped down from the skies and assaulted my party, I knew Dragon’s Dogma was special.
This may seem like a cop-out to put two very similar but ultimately different action RPGs as my number four seed, but I simply could not decide which one tickled the pleasure centers in my brain more. Whereas Diablo III supports four-player co-op, Torchlight II supports six. While Torchlight II presents an overwhelming amount of character abilities with a difficulty curve that punishes poorly spent skill points, Diablo III streamlines the experimentation into a handful of powers that do not require a respec potion to reset.
And after a series of flawed updates, Blizzard finally broke multiple lines of code to transform players' champions into unstoppable juggernauts on the infamous Inferno setting. Also, who could forget the loot? The compulsive comparing, buying, selling, and trading of armaments persists throughout the dozens of hours you spend clearing deserts, graveyards, swamps, and more. In my opinion, very few experiences matched the cooperative glee of conquering Diablo III and Torchlight II this year.
I was completely satisfied by the original ending of Mass Effect 3. BioWare wrapped up the trilogy the way they wanted to, leaving unanswered questions open for future titles. Yet debates broke out as gamers began signing petitions to alter the conclusion. While I lost respect for those misguided thousands, none of the naysayers detracted from the entertainment that comes with rescuing the entire galaxy from an ancient mechanical menace. Too many fans have focused on the game's last fifteen minutes, but who could deny that the thirty hours prior are not some of the most harrowing resolutions in the franchise's history?
Mass Effect has never felt so precise or heart-pumping when it comes to unique class abilities, and the writers managed to do the death of several major characters justice – evidenced by the sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach as Tali, Garrus, and Liara sacrificed themselves on my first playthrough. After five years, we have all grown attached to Shepard’s companions and the rich universe BioWare lovingly crafted, so I see no better way of honoring the trilogy’s finale than to include it in my Top Ten list.
No doubt 2012 was a year of player agency, too, so who knew that an episodic tale that employs gaming’s most overused source material could tell such an emotionally resonant story? Telltale redeemed themselves, especially after their Jurassic nightmare. Using a zombie apocalypse as a catalyst for human drama, the developers and writers of Telltale’s The Walking Dead capture what makes Kirkman’s graphic novel so enticing. No one’s immune to infection in this universe, and the worst deaths have nothing to do with the undead.
Rather, the heartfelt moments and bitter betrayals are a direct result of the interactions between Lee and the other survivors. The fact that Telltale Games often forces you to choose one life or another – sometimes between two people you originally cared for deeply – is an effectively cruel strategy for bringing out everyone’s inner demons. And that ending for Episode 5? It goes without saying that I eagerly await the second season.
Did that teaser image fool you? Yes, I have to say that Far Cry 3 remains the most fun I had playing games over the past twelve months. I already mentioned shooter fatigue, but there are so many distractions to be found on Rook Island that my exhaustion suddenly melted away. I fell in love with this untamed, virtual playground and its seemingly limitless supply of activities. Watching as the man-eating wildlife devours wayward bandits; strapping C4 to jeeps, driving into hostile encampments, and detonating the explosives; and cutting my parachute to use a patrolling pirate as a landing pad fall under the category of fun in my book.
There’s nothing bad I can say about the single-player, except that Vaas – possibly the best video game antagonist ever brought into existence – gets robbed of his screen time during the game’s third act. Exploring shark-infested waters; hunting bears, tigers, komodo dragons, etc.; burning marijuana fields; capturing outposts using nothing but the bow and binoculars; and getting a glimpse into the minds of sociopathic villains all cement Far Cry 3 as my 2012 Game of the Year. There’s too many positive things to say about this game without turning this blog into an essay, so go buy Far Cry 3 and lose yourself to the insanity. I guarantee you will not regret it.
Okay okay, one more catalog featuring my most anticipated games of 2013. Just remember that the following list only contains games that have a firm release date. That means I, regrettably, had to remove Grand Theft Auto V, Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light, and Rome II: Total War.
The Devil May Cry series was always known for two things: Dante and the combat. Now, he may look the spitting image of Hayden Christensen, but the alternate adolescent Dante has the skills to match his cocky attitude and foul mouth. Since playing the demo on Xbox Live, I am glad to say that Ninja Theory has managed to build upon an already staggering list of combos for impressive feats of swordsmanship. Good thing I don’t have to wait months to start hacking apart demons in the shape-shifting world of Limbo City.
I have not touched a Tomb Raider title since the original releases on the PS1, but Crystal Dynamics is going to great lengths to ensure both Lara and her struggle are relatable (that is, that she’s more than a pair of walking silicone implants). With every bone broken, I am sure to cringe, and the addition of light RPG elements ensures I will dabble in everything the game has to offer.
It’s good to see Naughty Dog putting the tech behind the Uncharted series to use for something other than treasure hunting. Another rampant virus that has mutated the world’s citizens sounds repetitive on paper, though I assume we’ll see a lot more characterization in The Last of Us than a run-of-the-mill apocalypse scenario. Naughty Dog is known for hiring the best voice actors to bring out its heroes and villains, and I suspect the relationship between Ellie and Joel will come to a head before the credits. I also appreciate a lack of linearity in games, and laying low long enough to scavenge supplies from bandits appeals more to my style of play than Nathan Drake’s “murder everyone” approach.
I am a stout defender of the Gears of War franchise. Although the acting may come off as wooden and overly sentimental at times, the developers have always been good about letting the quiet aftermath sink in following a character’s death, and the narrative has never found itself grasping at straws. I don’t expect players to accept Baird and Cole as the story’s main leads, but what I do expect are challenging shootouts set in a wide assortment of disarrayed locales that appear too gorgeous for the waning power of the Xbox 360. And then there’s multiplayer, one of the most white-knuckled, controller-gripping experiences to ever grace home consoles.
BioShock is one of the only games I would ever dare label as perfect. The developers breathed life into an underwater utopia that reviewers continue to cite as an example of atmosphere done right, and the “Would you kindly?” twist unraveled all my actions in a single flashback. So is it any real revelation that I cannot wait for BioShock Infinite? Irrational has teased short clips of Booker and Elizabeth’s powers, the political upheavals currently dismantling the airborne city, and the steampunk machinations that fill the role of Big Daddies, but there are still so many secrets Irrational has left buried in the halls of Columbia. Come March, I will find them all.