By no means will 2012 go down as a classic year for gaming. This current generation of home consoles is now in its seventh year and looking very long in the tooth. The Wii, DS and PSP are finished and meanwhile the 360 and PS3 has spluttered out an unremarkable Holiday season of games that are a plethora of sequels, sequels and more sequels. It didn’t help that some of the most anticipated titles of 2012 ended up getting pushed back to next year (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Pikmin 3, Grand Theft Auto V)
Happily, the next generation is upon us. The Wii U is now a few weeks old and has launched with a decent line up of games (although nowhere near the hype of the original Wii) and in 2013 we expect to finally get a look at the successors to the PS3 and Xbox 360.
It’s strange how things worked out. I actually liked the idea of longer console lifespans in theory. Historically, each generation has lasted 5 years and I had hoped the extra couple of years would mean that we got to see publishers take more risks as there became a wider audience to reach. But it seems the opposite has happened. The vast majority of the console-owning audience seem to be buying a very narrow sliver of games (Call of Duty, FIFA, Assassin’s Creed) and very little else.
By comparison, its the newer systems that have been willing to take risks and release quirky esoteric titles. Look no further than Sound Shapes on the Vita and Zombi U on the Wii U.
One interesting observation about the list – there are more games that are exclusively available via digital distribution than those that are sold through traditional brick and mortar stores. Compare this to the 2010 Top Ten list which didn’t have a single digital downloadable title.
With that said, this year’s line up of my favourite games is drawn from a pretty weird mix of gaming systems. Here it is, my Top Ten for 2012.
The Walking Dead
Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox 360
Game of the Year
The Walking Dead is hands down the unexpected hit of 2012. We knew this game was coming but I don’t think anyone thought for a second that it would compare favourably to the television series and at times, the original comic book series. Telltale Games have had modest success in the past with their episodic takes on Sam & Max and Back to the Future but they’ve really hit it out of the park with this one. The game’s season is told over five episodes with key decisions made by the player carrying over across each of the installments affecting the nature of the survivor’s relationships with one another and who ultimately survives.
The key to the game’s success is its peerless standard of writing and voice acting. Lee is one of the more interesting protagonists that we’ve had in a video game and the supporting cast is also great with Kenny and Clementine being two particular standouts. What I like is that game features pretty unconventional character demographics compared to the vanilla video game standard (an African American, a child and a middle aged Southerner are the main characters) but The Walking Dead never feels like its pandering or stereotyping their roles. They feel believable and natural. And impressively, for a game that offers a surprising amount of freedom in its narrative for the player to dabble with, it is still capable of offering a satisfying sense of closure to its narrative strands. Case in point – the resolution to the relationship between Kenny and Ben in my own play-through was pitch perfect.
The Walking Dead sets a new narrative benchmark for other game’s to follow. It’ll take a while for others to catch up but I think this game represents a watershed moment for storytelling in video games. I eagerly await Telltale Game’s upcoming projects: an adaptation of Bill Willingham’s excellent comic book series Fables and of course, a second season of The Walking Dead.
The Unfinished Swan
Playstation Network, Playstation3
Credit must be given to Sony Computer Entertainment America in 2012 for their admirable and dedicated support to esoteric, arthouse projects such as Papo & Yo, The Unfinished Swan and Tokyo Jungle. Occasionally the company will hit the jackpot, such was the case with the best-selling Journey but in most instances, I imagine these types of games are commercial kryptonite. The Unfinished Swan is an entertaining adventure game told in the format of a children’s bedtime story and explores the world of a petulant and obsessive king who clashes with his subjects over their inability to meet his perfectionist standards. The game is a short and sweet five hour experience but offers a real mixed bag of gaming concepts and is always nothing less than breathtaking in its art style and production quality.
Little Big Planet Vita
The Playstation Vita has had an unhappy first year with absolutely wretched sales since Day One which threaten the system’s lifespan. Which is a pity as it is already home to a multitude of excellent games. A good example in Little Big Planet Vita which has a franchise-best career mode that is inventive, well designed and an absolute blast to play. I played this game a short time after completing the disappointingly formulaic and lazy New Super Mario Bros 2 on the Nintendo 3DS and was surprised to find how much I enjoyed LBP Vita by comparison. As you’d expect on such a poorly sold system, the community feature is a bit barren compared to its PS3 counterpart but the single player mode is still worth the price of admission. Credit to Sony for also supporting a cheaper-than-retail digital download option on launch day too.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a fantastic launch title for the Playstation Vita. It’s a game that shows off the impressive graphical capabilities of the system and Bend Studio have done an admirable job at converting the look and feel of the Uncharted experience onto a handheld. For fans of the franchise, the game is closer in spirit to the original installment which was geared slightly more towards exploration and puzzle solving compared to the set-piece bonanzas that Amongst Thieves and Drake’s Deception turned into. This is no bad thing.
The game can be a little over-eager to use the Vita’s touch screen features just for the hell of it but ultimately, this is an easy recommendation to anyone who enjoys the Uncharted series and a worthy installment.
Playstation Network, Playstation Vita
Jonathan Mack, the creator of the excellent Everyday Shooter for the Playstation3, sure takes his sweet time releasing games. But they have proven to be worth the wait. Sound Shapes, his long awaited follow up, is an entertaining platform game that is a spiritual successer to Everyday Shooter in the same way that it melds the basic video game genre with a musical twist. In Sound Shapes, each time your circular blob hits an icon in the game, it plays a musical note on a loop which means that as you progress through the game, the soundtrack gradually comes along with more and more instruments and with an ever-changing beat.
The levels in Sound Shapes are also designed by a variety of different musicians and graphic designers and are sorted into albums for the player to navigate. My favourite album is definitely Beck’s and this game doesn’t get much better than the stage Cities which beautifully incorporates the song’s lyrics into obstacles for the player to traverse. It sounds like a weird concept to get your head around but trust me, it is worth experiencing.
Mark of the Ninja
Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox 360
One of the most enjoyable and unexpected surprises of 2012 was Klei Entertainment’s Mark of the Ninja, a brilliantly executed 2D stealth game that incorporates a wealth of different commands and maneuvers for the player to utilize whilst navigating their way through an environment that is built with flexibility in mind. It’s possible to complete this game without killing a single person but its also equally enjoyable to simply finish a level on a warpath or engaging in the interesting ‘nightmare’ mode where your goal is to spook the guards. Whichever way you play it, this is a game with impeccably sharp controls, excellent play mechanics and plenty of depth in its design.
It was always going to a formidable challenge for the studio that took over the Halo franchise from Bungie but credit to the newly formed 343 Studios, they have done a magnificent job. Not only does Halo 4 manage to get the look and feel of the franchise right, it does so in a way that has never looked better on the Xbox 360. For a game that is running on seven year old hardware, Halo 4 looks terrific. More importantly, the weapons, the vehicles and map design here definitely capture the style and heritage of Bungie’s opus but add enough new wrinkles to keep up with more recent trends and expectations of modern day online shooters. The campaign mode for Halo 4 is a great introduction for the new trilogy and takes some surprising steps forward for the Halo lore with regards to how they develop the characters of Master Chief and Cortana.
The game is bolstered by an excellent Spartan Ops mode that adds new content every week for six months after the release of the game. Between Spartan Ops and the ever-changing set of challenges in the multiplayer mode, few games offer as much value or community support as Halo 4.
Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox 360
Phil Fish’s long delayed indie platformer finally saw its release in 2012 and happily, it was every bit as good as we all hoped. The game has a charming art style and catchy soundtrack that makes Fez feel like a throwback to games of yesteryear. But even though the game clearly wears its influence on its sleeve from a handful of Nintendo classics, there are few games that I can think of that compare to the experience of this strange, complicated and meandering universe. Fez is one of the most personal gaming experience that I’ve played in a long time. It’s really apparent that it is the vision and design of a single person and that person clearly has a love of exploration and is slightly demented and obsessive.
Fez is unique, otherworldly and rewarding.
Playstation Network, Playstation3
Few games are capable of influencing your emotion with a sense of pure, unbridled happiness the way that Journey can. It’s that moment in the first dessert landscape, when you toil through the withering heat and steep sand dunes that you finally reach the crest of a sandy mountaintop overlooking a valley below. Then, with a single breath, you sandsurf your way to the bottom. Like a snowboarder, you can carve up arcs in the sand and propel yourself off jutting ledges to soar through the air whilst your scarf billows in the wind behind you. The orchestral score swells in time with your movement and the light shimmers and reflects off the sandy surface to create an eyewatering visual effect. A memorable moment from a memorable game.
The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings
Polish studio CD Projekt have won over millions of fans with their excellent fantasy series The Witcher which is based on a series of popular books in their native country that go by the same name. The Witcher series is known for its mature content which refreshingly, doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator or seem puerile compared to the video game norm. In The Witcher II, you play the role of Geralt, a hired assassin who finds himself caught between warring nations who are on the brink of conflict when an unknown mercenary begins committing acts of regicide in the kingdom. The game is refreshing in its sense of scope and story telling. Unlike most role playing games, you are not the world’s last hope and saviour but simply a pawn in the game. The broad array of characters who each have their own interests and politics to play make The Witcher II feel comparable to George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
Other great games from 2012 that didn’t make the list:
Kid Icarus (Nintendo 3DS), Trials Evolution (Xbox 360), Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360), Mutant Blob Attacks (Playstation Vita), Max Payne 3 (Xbox 360)
Top Ten Lists From The Past
Top Ten Video Games of 2011
Game of the Year – Clash of Heroes: Might and Magic
Top Ten Video Games of 2010
Game of the Year – Mass Effect 2
Top Ten Video Games of 2009
Game of the Year – Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves