Finally, I bring you a belated GOTY list cum essay for 2012. What felt like a rather short Christmas break followed by a return to Uni slowed the process of getting this done. I both felt that I needed a sufficient amount of time with the Xmas influx of games to finalise the list and that there had to be a reasonable amount of justification for each title to make the endeavour worthwhile.
The length of this did get slightly out of hand, but hopefully you appreciate the long form style. Regardless, let’s get started then.
- XCOM: Enemy Unknown
- Far Cry 3
- The Witcher 2
- Rock Band Blitz
- The Walking Dead
- Asura’s Wrath
- Mass Effect 3
- Max Payne 3
- A Cadre of underwhelming disappointments (ME3, Hitman, AC3)
* Ever the iconoclast, I’m breaking the rules of the usual GOTY format. Click here to reveal my true game of the year. An explanation for this madness should find you should you choose to accept it, after the jump. Now back to normality.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM earns its place as the number one game of 2012 through sheer quality in execution. Many games boast beautiful graphics, are lauded for a great story or any other number of secondary merits – commendable attributes to have certainly, but secondary nonetheless. XCOM however, excels in the keystone of any videogame, in the execution of its gameplay.
The mechanics in XCOM feel exquisitely designed and fully thought out. To play it is to marvel at the expertise in its craftsmanship, akin to a Swiss timepiece. The meat of the game comes in the form of turn based boots on the ground missions. These are a tactical exercise, both thrilling and mentally demanding while the base management metagame back at XCOM HQ layers on additional strata of complexity.
Herein lays the engrossing joy of XCOM. Each fully realised system has an intricate interplay with the others, nothing feels surplus to requirements. One bad move on the battlefield can leave you with an injured soldier, this may exacerbate poor planning leaving you with a weak roster to field to a critical mission, you may then fail this crucial mission losing further soldiers, next Canada and South America pull your funding leaving you in the red and unable to afford the gear that would now be giving your squad a much needed edge back on the field.
A single poor choice can escalate into a butterfly effect catastrophe because of the interweaving nature of every aspect of XCOM; that is to say that it is entirely within a capable player’s ability to execute perfectly and it is ever so satisfying to achieve perfection and a rewarding experience to pursue it.
Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 succeeds and effortlessly excels its promising yet clunky predecessor by trimming away the fat and refining systems into a polished product. Far Cry 3 places so high because it is just a massive amount of fun to play. It drops you into a gorgeous sandbox, equips you with an arsenal of toys and simply encourages you to run wild in its lush environs.
Far Cry 3 has no qualms about empowering the player, be it through a very forgiving stealth system replete with powerful takedown moves, easily expanded health and ammo reserves or an absolute psychopath’s wardrobe of guns of every flavour – Jason Brody, and by extension the player, feels like a certified badass.
Beyond that the variety of play styles catered to is exceptional. Clearing an enemy outpost by carefully approaching by sea, pulling unwary patrol-men into the water then stalking through the brush, pouncing on pirates for a knife takedown whilst using THEIR OWN MACHETE TO THROW INTO ANOTHER GUARD lets you feel like some kind of stealthy god of tribal death. Conversely you could storm another outpost, releasing wild animals on panicking prey whilst razing it to the ground before destroying a roving attack helicopter with an explosive arrow just as it clears the tree line in true Arnold/Stallone fashion.
Far Cry 3 is awesome.
The Witcher 2 (Xbox 360 ‘enhanced edition’)
A swathe of the gaming audience is desperate for games that feature mature, involving narratives that can be used to legitimise video games as a fully fledged medium for real grownups. This has led many to eulogize The Walking Dead as this scion of gripping, nuanced storytelling and player interaction while actually being a pulpy drama piece with a shallow degree of player choice and even shallower gameplay mechanics.
Those looking for a deep, winding narrative with true opportunity to shape its outcome should look no further than The Witcher 2. Players can relish guiding the amnesia stricken Geralt through a world of political machinations and brutality that would make Game of Thrones look like a light episode of Eastenders – all while falling into some of the most complex gameplay seen in 2012.
The Witchcer 2 is for people who want a long engrossing story that makes space for legitimate player agency. It is for people prepared to delve into complex systems and learn the intricacies of combat systems that are often as welcoming and multifarious as its characters. The Witcher 2 is pretty much exactly what I look for in a game.
So many games are content to plop the player down in a lane of bad guys, offering them their choice and calibre of weapon with which to put holes in them as they run along a linear treadmill of bland environments and explosions.
Dishonoured is a throwback to a time when games really were dynamic, and demanded a certain input from the player that only this medium can. The world here is far from bland, a turn of the century steampunk Britain, grimy, dangerous and succumbing to a rising rodent plague all of which is carefully conveyed to the player with the lightest of touches through exploration and incidental dialogue. The world is built with subtlety, much like Bioshock or Deus Ex – the player is expected to think for themselves and read between the lines rather than pandered to with lousy exposition.
Dishonoured presents the player with a rogues gallery of fiends and arseholes who must be assassinated to clear the protagonists name. This is where the game really comes alive, as you are thrown into an open ended level with one of said targets within it and an embarrassment of ways to conduct your business. Corvo is fully equipped to be able to rampage through the level, cutting and stabbing his way to the target as he is to stealthily breeze non lethally to his quarry or even engineer a deliciously ironic fate suitable for such foul foes.
Dishonoured pairs a unique setting with a willingness to empower the player to excessive degrees, letting them ply their dark trade in whatever varied way they choose and it is this choice that really makes playing it a satisfying experience.
Rock Band Blitz
Blitz is unashamedly a rhythm game. Forgoing the usual peripheral driven experience, Harmonix harkens back to one of its earlier titles (one of my all time favourites), the fantastic Amplitiude, refining the Rock Band experience down to its key components for big scores and big fun.
Racing back and forth between instruments in pursuit of earning a high score on your favourite tracks is a stupendously good time, bolstered by the simplicity of the controller interface and enhanced by having the full force of the existing Rock Band song network to dip into so as to bring your favourite songs and artists into the fold.
Rock Band Blitz is Amplitude for the DLC era, polished and refined into overflowing, salubrious fun at a commendable price point.
The Walking Dead
I’ve been a huge proponent of Telltale Games for several years now. As a fan of the garrulous, puzzle heavy adventure games of the Lucasarts era, seeing the form renewed so expertly and lovingly by many of the very people responsible for its inception made me feel rather warm inside. From the charming Twin Peaks inspired sleuthing of Puzzle Agent to the rejuvenated Tales of Monkey Island, I’ve loved what Telltale has been doing and wished they garnered the mainstream appreciation I always felt they deserved.
Adulation came in sweeping praise hurled at their newest property (The Walking Dead), whose heavy story focus earned critical praise for its intensity and unpredictability. It may be clear to you by this point in the list that I’ve soured slightly on the game; partially in retaliation to the overwhelmingly masturbatory media reception and partially due to peering behind the curtain and realising the extent to which the much ballyhooed choice in the game is a product of artifice. This revelation made what I considered to be a pulpy, familiar but ultimately well told narrative much less impactful – and the tacked on puzzle mechanics all the harder to forgive.
Despite this, TWD builds upon the foundations of Telltales earlier work nicely and the real strength is in the development of the central characters, Lee & Clementine. The fact that the final episode essentially ruined several days of my life due solely to my attachment to these characters sets the game apart from its contemporaries – it’s just a shame that some more robust puzzle mechanics couldn’t be inherited from Telltales back catalogue because in my opinion these are worthwhile rather than atavistic qualities.
Asura’s Wrath is a stupid game. Plenty of games feature player characters that perform well beyond the limits of human endurance, hulking action movie heroes who soak up damage and deal it out in equally inhuman measure. Often these protagonists are supernaturally powerful. However, in Asura’s Wrath you take the mantle of an actual GOD, and the game does an excellent job of making that tangibly awesome and worthwhile.
Asura sprouts extra arms when enraged, storming around like a mythical Japanese Hulk, he fights ludicrous battles on a literally astronomical scale and when he loses, hibernates for tens or hundreds of thousands of years before bursting out of the afterlife pissed off to a degree unfathomable by mere mortals.
The only real gameplay is patronising character action fighting that is to be endured for a negligible amount of time to reach the true spectacle. Quick time events. Normally QTE’s are the bane of a much better game, however here they are the ludicrous centrepiece at the head of a bemusing anime inspired dining table. The key difference here is that button prompts are well conveyed, easily spotted and weaved into the action. Not only this but there is no real penalty for failing them. You will never have to repeat a sequence in Asura’s Wrath, scenes continue on unabated in their full, rambunctiously silly glory.
Asura’s Wrath is a stupid game, but in this case it’s a good kind of stupid. Sometimes you need stupid.
Mass Effect 3
Despite the backlash and absolutely insulting, lacklustre ending, Mass Effect 3 is still a good game. Combat, while far too heavily employed and with the exception of mindless turret sequences is clean and tight. Stepping back into the shoes of Commander Shepard is an exciting prospect for a good 40-60% of the game, while it’s still full of promise.
Downplayed as it is, interacting with the crew in the Normandy is satisfying in a way most games never achieve. The heartfelt one on one interactions with the party are indulgent almost to a fault but almost always feel earned in no small part due to the amount of time and development afforded these characters and this world throughout the series.
As much as a misstep as ME3 is, it never fully abandons the greatness it established for itself. Be it when battling through a desperate situation or bantering back and forth over sweeping moral decisions with the established cast past and present, that greatness shines through – the glean just about eclipsing the faults in the moment even when the overall experience is tainted after all is said and done.
Max Payne 3
The great moments in Max Payne 3 come when Max is careening through the air, the world slowly drawling by around him, two pistols held akimbo, firing off incisive, well placed shots into foes. Max hits the floor with all the force of a battered, overweight fifty something former tough guy, his bald head gleaming with the evidence of his exertion. As time shudders back to normality, thugs collapse succumbing due to their newly perforated bodies. Max remains grimacing face down on the floor, with a steely determination he rolls across onto his back – pumping round after round into an assailant charging from behind in the culmination of a balletic tour de force worthy of John McClane.
It is moments like these, of which there are many which excuse Max Payne 3’s competent but forgettable tale of retribution and depression and numerous minor frustrations like loading screens masked by unskippable cutscenes. Thrillingly visceral shootouts are the bread and butter here, and crucially they are entirely in the hands of the player. When a spectacle of bloodshed and bullets comes off like it was scripted by John Woo, there is no director manufacturing the events. At its best, the experience is entirely dictated by the player and all the better for it.
Yes, Mass Effect 3 again. Like a mad Aunt at a wedding ME3 starts out cheery and fun but progressively embarrasses itself and disappoints you. As the final instalment in a stellar series, it should have been a thrilling dénouement that tops off the trilogy in style. Instead, this is a game that eschews the rich character development and world building found in earlier games – especially as it reaches its climax – while offering wrote, deus ex machina like plot developments, an eye rolling 50’s style sexy robot lady, squandered DLC only story content and the much maligned endings that feel totally impersonal and leave the universe the player has become so attached to over three games in a perilous state almost as an afterthought.
Mass Effect 3 should have been a delectable dessert course that the player never wants to end, yearning for more. Instead, it simply leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
“Commander Shepard has become a legend by ending the Reaper threat. Now you can continue to build that legend through further gameplay and downloadable content. “
Hitman Absolution should have by all accounts been a more polished, accomplished successor to the excellent if slightly janky Hitman Blood Money. Disguises should have been donned, assassinations delicately planned and executed to perfection in a number of possible permutations. Unfortunately, while the graphics have been polished to a stupendous degree, the newly added disguise mechanic is devastating for players accustomed to the sneaky impunity that a change of attire used to bestow. Now the player is quickly reprimanded even while disguised. Enemies will easily spot the player at insane distances, becoming alerted and ruining the stealthily clean approach.
This in addition to the blatantly offensive story and the ensuing linear story driven experience abandons the uniquely attractive sandbox puzzle aspect of previous games and serves to make the stoic Hitman the centrepiece of an abysmal action movie which he is particularly ill suited (pardon the pun) to participate in. This is a bum assignment for agent 47.
Assassins Creed 3, despite being the fifth (go figure) console release in the franchise opts for a slow opening that belabours mechanics already familiar to anyone playing this instalment (and which are inherently so well designed that they can be picked up without comment) to an absolutely maddening degree. Were this not enough this hand holding introduction also finds itself weaving between the stunningly baffling overarching narrative of Assassins Creed (an impending solar eclipse forewarned by a highly advanced extinct elder race!?) and the stunningly unnecessary modern day sequences with Desmond and his massive arsehole of a father (whose presence is not explained at all in this time) while the focus should be on the actual protagonist of the game who ends up with a paltry few lines that give us little indication of his personality.
After a languorous 8 hour tutorial, I finally found myself decked out in the reassuring Assassins garb, handed the reins with full freedom to explore and no inclination to do so. I have progressed no further. I may never learn of the fate of the silly forerunner aliens or why Desmond’s dad is such a bellend (he wears two jumpers at once and a suit jacket) and I really don’t care to find out.
When a spookily lifelike digital Danny Wallace is the highlight of your game, something has went either terribly right or terribly wrong, and in this case I’m afraid it’s the latter.
The HD Collection Section: MGS, ZOE, RE4
Because it would be a shame to end with an Assassins Creed rant, and because these games deserve praise.
While putting in these rejuvenated gems from my collection of personal favourites in the list would be a disservice to games actually released this year; it would be wrong to ignore the absolute joy of experiencing these classics again. Replaying defining behemoths like these is a delicious reminder of my personal gaming golden age. Despite offering little additional value other than a slight graphical boost to make them a bit easier on the eyes, revisiting these milestones of the medium has been some of the most fun I’ve had with games this year, recommended to old pro’s and the uninitiated alike.