Our Gaming Reviews team bring you their favourite titles of the year.
855So, with another year gone, the Gaming Reviews team sat down to highlight their picks of the past twelve months, all in preparation to argue their cases in the upcoming Game Of The Year edition of the Gaming Podcast, which will hit the site on the 14th of January 2013.Ben Ingber
It’s been a hell of a year for big-budget 3s. Max Payne 3 was a riot, Mass Effect 3 was dozens of hours of fun (whatever you think of the ending), and I am currently working my way through Far Cry 3, which is proving to be a stormer of a shooter. Elsewhere there was the slick Dishonored, the riotous Borderlands 2, the addictive XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Spec Ops: The Line, which was easily one of the most interesting games of recent times and in any other year would have made this list without question.
Ultimately I’ve gone with three titles that were all unexpected delights. Mechanically they’re very different beasts: I’ve chosen a third person exploration title, a point-and-click adventure and a tactical shooter modded into a multiplayer survival horror. But dig beneath the genre differences and they share one wonderful quality - a desire to craft stories and worlds that couldn’t exist in any other medium.
The word ‘unique’ gets thrown around a little too often by critics but Thatgamecompany’s approach to multiplayer is truly one of a kind. Players drop in and out of each other’s games, so the androgynous robed figure you guide towards the distant mountain will occasionally be joined by another identical traveller, but you have no means of communicating other than the little chirp your characters can emit. You play almost in parallel, and yet the bond between players is unreplicated in any other game. I’ve played it through five or six times now and still find it magical. If you have a PS3, it’s a must-buy.
2) The Walking Dead
I’ve always enjoyed Telltale’s point-and-click titles, but The Walking Dead is in a different league. Quite simply, it has the most engaging characters and story of any game I’ve ever played. The people you meet through the five episodes are rounded individuals with believable motivations that you come to genuinely care about. Clementine, a young girl for whom protagonist Lee assumes responsibility, is notable for being one of the best observed child characters I’ve ever encountered. You don’t need to have read the comics or seen the TV series to enjoy this, so don’t be put off. Unmissable.
The Real Virtuality engine that underpins ARMA II and the DayZ mod is intended as a military simulator. It specialises in managing huge maps, dealing with loads of online players, and creating realistic environmental conditions. All this lends itself to the atmosphere of DayZ’s zombie-overrun Chernarus, the jaw-droppingly massive 225km2 country where you and dozens of other players find yourself stranded with extremely limited supplies. Combining elements of MMO, survival horror and roguelike, no two sessions with DayZ are the same. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s caused me to despair at humanity one day, then make friends that I’ve gone on to speak to outside of the game the next. It’s made me jump, laugh, and ragequit. I’ve put more hours into this awkward little mod than any other game in 2012, and with the standalone around the corner I can see it dominating 2013 too. GOTY, no question.
It’s been one of those years again; we haven’t had a moment to catch our breath between games as so many top titles have launched over the course of the year. From new franchises to existing ones, they all had their look-in at some point with varying degrees of success and even a few managed to surprise us. It’s hard to choose three favourites as so many games out there have impressed and have found a permanent place in my collection. But here we are and I must choose which three were the best, the ones which gamers out there must play - enjoy!
3) Ratchet and Clank Trilogy
Whilst not strictly one title, this package is how HD remakes should be done and Insomniac did their beloved franchise a great service here. It looked fantastic and plays every bit as well as the more recent titles but more to the point, what isn’t to love about the cheeky duo?
2) Sleeping Dogs
Once shrouded in doubt and plagued by delays, some wondered whether Sleeping Dogs would ever see the light of day and fortunately for us it did! Giving a nice insight into Hong Kong culture and providing us with a storyline that intrigued and made us want to see it to the end. Sure, there were a couple of issues (no thanks to the choppy development saga) but the core mechanics meant these niggles could be easily ignored.
1) Darksiders 2
I’m surprised about this one and I never thought the follow up to the original, slightly disappointing Darksiders, would be my top game of 2012. The second outing was a complete turnaround from the first and provided us with excellent graphics, a better story and tighter mechanics. All of these combined, meant the game was much more enjoyable than its predecessor and made you want to explore every inch of the fantasy world. Playing as Death stood it in good stead as it was, but nobody was expecting it to be as impressive as it turned out to be, which makes it my top game of 2012.
What a strange, brilliantly entertaining year it was.Emmanuel Brown
Perhaps it's the eight-year console cycle that brought us to this, but 2012 was very much a year in which indie developers and small-scale projects were king. Both PC and consoles are home to a ridiculous amount of downloadable riches for those that seek them out; whether you were interested in spending time micro-managing a spacecraft in FTL, pounding the 80s techno-violence of Hotline Miami's clubs and streets, pouring over the cutesy puzzling environments of Pullblox, or tearing up the user-generated courses in Trials: Evolution; somebody had you covered.
Of course, that's not to say the big hitters were too disappointing either. Far Cry 3, Dishonored, XCOM, Halo 4 andBorderlands 2 rang the year in with quality and substance, whilst the likes of FIFA and Call of Duty continue to justify their annual iterations. None of them, however, managed to hit the magic of those smaller-scale and short-form projects for me, and so with that in mind I've chosen two titles that could only be considered as truly innovative minnows in comparison to the usual output of an EA or Activision label. The other justified its inclusion as a racing game with which I've had the most fun in the whole of this generation.
3) The Walking Dead
First in my list, Telltale’s take on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead is a highlight for anybody that enjoys good storytelling - and especially so in a medium that’s as bereft of quality characterisation as ours is. Leave your preconceptions about what videogames should be at the door, and you’ll be treated to one of the most nuanced and excellently delivered storylines in this generation, with the numerous moral choices swathed in shades of greyrather than a standard binary good vs evil. Your key decisions are brutally hard in this world, and Telltale pull no punches in not giving anybody an easy way out. Dark, compelling, brilliance.
If you’d told me in the summer that Microsoft’s expansive open-world racing sim would end up trumping the likes of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, I’d likely have emitted a thoughtful “hmmm” and wandered off stroking my beard. Such is the quality of Playground Games’ first title that it managed to firmly displace Criterion’s established take on the genre however, and with plenty of good reason. Races are short and snappy, tearing around the world is incentivised in some supremely clever and addictive ways, the UI only serves to assist your progress rather than hamper, the soundtrack is eclectic and never dull or annoying, vehicle handling is brilliant and it’s more attractive to stare at than pretty much any other racer of this generation. Outstanding work.
There’s not a lot that can be said about Journey without requiring the recipient of the discussion to have played it first. If I brought up the length of my scarf, for example, it might be a topical conversation choice for this time of year, but you’d get an additional glint in the eye from anybody well-versed in Thatgamecompany’s wonderfully atmospheric ambient co-operative adventure-platformer... experience... thing. It’s all about the gentle rhythm of exploration and the emotional resonance built on stark visual storytelling and fleeting experiences with strangers. Packed into a tightly-designed two-hour playthrough, Journey did more with its basic suite of interaction than most other titles of this generation. There are lessons to be learned for other developers there, and important ones at that.
It seems odd, particularly in a year when Nintendo have released a new console, not to have a first party offering from The Big N gatecrashing its way to the top of my list, but it’s been a good twelve months nonetheless for showcasing the breadth of range the industry has to offer; from the grand-scale slickness of AAA actioners to the more introspective artistic emotive nature of the downloadable indie gems.
My picks are not necessarily ones I’d argue to be the most ground-breaking games of the past year (my choices on that front are already well represented in the other lists you see here), but I’ve gone for the titles that, if only for a fleeting moment, put the biggest smile on my face.
3) Gravity Rush
Portable gaming hasn’t had a stellar year, partly because of the change-over to a new generation of hardware. BothSony and Nintendo’s new tech feature as many interesting features as gimmicks, but the PlayStation Vita - a console whose release schedule is so underpopulated as to make the streets in the opening scenes of 28 Days Later look bustling - still had a couple of titles worth checking out. Gravity Rush was unique, blending stunningly artistic visuals with a novel control scheme. By utilising the Vita’s in-built gyro in a game designed around the manipulation of gravity the Action-RPG served up something quite unique - a game that felt like a proper exclusive, do-able only on that system, and a charmingly captivating one at that. It’s a real gem, that follows all the patterns of the genre in the right areas, not trying to reinvent the wheel, but allowing its character and control scheme to flourish in a floating world begging to be explored through flight.
2) Okami HD
Okay, it’s not a new game, but it certainly felt like one given the top notch spit-shine high def makeover it received. Without a new Zelda game to tide over us early Wii U adopters during the festive period, Okami HD reminds us that it isn’t only Nintendo that conjure up accessible whimsical adventures full of beauty. The use of the Move peripheral offers players the choice of control scheme, either motion or analogue stick controlled. There’s a wealth of things to see and do in the stunning environment of a mythical period Japan, and the way in which the little additions are strung out is fine tuned to a tee. The world is full of visual cues carefully laid in your path, tugging at your curiosity, forcing you to explore to the limits of your current capabilities and then make a mental note of what’s piqued your interest. In terms of visuals, few have managed to get close to its calligraphy inspired brushwork in the intervening years since its initial release, and in glorious high definition it’s absolutely breathtaking.
1) Max Payne 3
Max Payne 3 was a game destined not to be appreciated until later, when the memory of everything that was has since faded to a nostalgic glow; as a lesson in how to kickstart a series without an overhaul that overwrites all that has come before, it was a smart, well executed manoeuvre. But where were the inimitably New York noir stylings fans screamed? The gunplay was still tight - and with a few tweaks it became a more sandbox game, you could favour a cover based strategy, go for the full John Woo experience - but I missed shooting goons in the snow; two guns blazing, decked out in a bad tie and leather jacket ensemble (a feeling solidified by the flashback sequence in which you did just that). Beyond the missing elements of the series’ aesthetics, the overuse of migraine-inducing cut-scene effects and excessive interludes which propped up achingly solipsistic narration masquerading as down-on-his-luck post modern hard boiled gumshoe schtick made for a game and character seemingly intentionally designed to test the patience.
Well, reinvention is a tricky job, even for the gurus at Rockstar, and Max needed a shot in the arm. I’d argue Payne’s third outing was almost a perfect example of how to break the bonds of franchise tropes, giving scope for further instalments, without severing the underlying ties. Did you find his whinging annoying? Good, how else do you write your way out of a narrative corner with a character whose dead family are proving dead weight in exegesis terms? Max’s jaunt through the sun-bleached shanty towns of South America wasn’t orchestrated to evoke the previous two games, it was a way to draw a line under them and lay the foundations for progression. The genius was in leaving enough of the identifiable features in place, such as the painkillers and basic control, whilst subtly tweaking the combat thanks to some aggressive AI and polished cover mechanics.
Once the maudlin attitude finally hits the floor, the synth kicks in (with the soundtrack of the year) and you head through the airport for the final confrontation to the strains of Tears by Health you should be in seventh heaven as you cut your way through waves of enemies in a gun-a-thon sandbox. The franchise has met Payne at the crossroads of both their journeys here, having exorcised the demons of a plot point that screamed of a one game deal and the idea that the character - and action - could only exist in one urban locale, destined to riff off familiar themes until we all finally got bored. The preceding game may not always have been to fans’ liking, however I’ve rarely felt as optimistic about a franchise’s future as in that instant - perhaps I’m just a sucker for a good tune and John Woo films, but it was my moment of the year.2012 has delivered some of the best gaming experiences to date.Leon Matthews
2012 has been a strange year, with the console life cycle stretching out, more sequels than ever have been released, which has lead to a lot of formulas being refined and as a result 2012 has delivered some of the best versions of several franchises. It has however seen the rebirth and re-imagining of several genres. As someone who has long played a majority of FPS games over any other, the long cycle has forced me to broaden my horizons and as a result 2012 has delivered some of the best experiences I have had to date.
3) XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Turn based strategy game. If you had told me last year (hell last month) that I would be considering Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown one of 2012’s best games I would have thrown my latest copy of Call Of Duty at you in disgust. Commanding your squad of soldiers against attacking aliens has a slow calculated pace of gameplay which rewards care and often dispenses rough punishment at the roll of a dice. Each mission rewards you with promotions for your squad members, spoils of war to upgrade their equipment and money from your allies to research and upgrade the facilities in your command centre.
The gameplay loop constructed here is so tight it is almost impossible to break out of, customising and upgrading your squad makes you surprisingly attached to them so when “Longbow” the sniper you have nurtured from a fresh faced rookie on your first mission to a headshot vending Corporal meets his demise at the end of a lucky hit it’s hard not to press the reload button as you mutter “no one gets left behind”. Ultimately you don’t mind though; the joy of the game lies in the gameplay, although there are a lot of elements to manage and behind the scenes the game is essentially a series of luck based encounters it feels like you have complete control of every aspect of the Earth’s survival from the inner workings of your squad to the fate of entire continents which makes it very, very hard to put down.
2) Mass Effect 3
This year I didn’t play Mass Effect 3; I finished the Mass Effect saga. For nearly 5 years I have been living in the Mass Effect universe. The best and deepest sci-fi universe created in gaming since the original Halo. Mass Effect has done what no other franchise has done: created a complete trilogy with games so connected you must start from the beginning to get the true experience. Almost a victim of its own success, many felt it failed to deliver on the “create your own story” element which was promised. There is a kernel of truth in this criticism as the much discussed ending and subsequent DLC prove. However to me this is short sighted, the last hour of the final chapter cannot and does not undo the satisfaction that was delivered throughout the entire game.
The whole game was the ending, tying up the character arcs which I obsessively explored in Mass Effect 2, visualising the foretold attacks from Mass Effect 1, finally solving the riddles of the inter-species conflicts and deciding the fates of several races in the process. This is to say nothing of the gameplay which evolved into a well crafted third person shooter that has more variety than it is given credit for and genuinely allows for different experiences on subsequent play-throughs. All of this is wrapped up in the best sort of sci-fi, with synth ladened tracks part of a grand sweeping score with vistas and skyboxes that transport you across the galaxy every time you spin that disc. Mass Effect was ahead of its time, and while technology and resources may not have allowed Bioware to fully realise the branching paths many expected, it was a spectacular first attempt which looks forward to an exciting future.
1) The Walking Dead
I hate Season One of The Walking Dead by Telltale. Each time an episode faded to black and my choices were on display I was reminded exactly how bad a person I can be. It flies in the face of almost all the commonly held preconceptions of what makes a “good” and “successful” videogame. There is comparatively little action, extended cut scenes and QTEs, when you are in control the mechanics are functional at best and there are no conventional win conditions. Most games usually place us in the shoes of a one-of-a-kind overpowered badass who was born into a world just waiting for them to save the day in roughly 8 hours. Lee Everett is not that man, the world is not shaped by him, he (and the player behind him) are shaped by the world, the simple tale of survival in itself isn’t particularly new but the characterisation and storytelling place the player at the mercy of the developers who have crafted some of the most affecting storylines I have ever experienced.
When an episode ended I would be released from the burdens of post apocalyptic life, decisions would weigh heavy on my mind and I would count the days till the next episode. Strangely though when one was released (most noticeably the final episode) I would hesitate to play, like a bungee jumper clinging to the ledge, I was scared of what would happen even though I signed up for it in the first place. I’ve spent the year playing largely predictable games which are all aimed at the area of the brain which responds positively to explosions, empowerment and feeling special. The Walking Dead is a depressing slice of survival reality where there are no right answers, you are not perfect and you can’t save everyone. The Walking Dead proves games don’t have to be tales of redemption or “Chosen One” rollercoaster rides to succeed, I can come away from an experience with a heavy heart and lots to think about and while I would find it hard to qualify the game as “fun”, it’s extremely satisfying in a way only a game can and should be.
So, there you have it, those were our picks of the year. If you disagree, feel free to comment with your own gaming choices of the past twelve months, and be sure to download the GOTY gaming podcast - hitting the site January 14th - where the debate is sure to continue.
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