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Dec 25 / Great Apes

Top 5 Video Games of 2012

I’m going to run down a few of the games I most enjoyed this year.  But before starting, I just want to list a few games that I haven’t played yet that I very much intend to.  The omission of the following games from this list is one of time, not of quality – Need For Speed: Most Wanted, XCom: Enemy Unknown, Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2.

One thing I will say is that I found 2012 to be a pretty disappointing year for games.  I’ve felt for a while now as though the AAA console side of the industry has been moving away from the kinds of games I find interesting.  Almost everything is a shooter of some sort or other now.  When I think about all the great games even one generation of consoles ago, even those that had guns featured them only tangentially (Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3 come to mind, Silent Hill 2 & 3 as well, etc.) The JRPG, my favourite genre, has all but dropped off the face of the Earth.  The last good JRPGs I can think of, Lost Odyssey and Eternal Sonata, came out 5 years ago.  And while I used to be a big fan of action-adventure games, there’s virtually nothing like Beyond Good & Evil being released anymore.  Action-adventure games these days have too much action and not enough adventure.  So I found 2012 to be a fairly unimpressive year for gaming, and I hope 2013 offers more.

But now, let’s dive into the best games of 2012.


5. Dishonored

Dishonored seemed to come out of nowhere.  I’d never heard of it until this spring, when Garnett Lee mentioned it on the Shacknews podcast as a game he’d seen behind closed doors that was really going to blow people away.  Over the course of the year information began trickling out about the game.  First an exciting cinematic trailer.  Then some gameplay.  Then more gameplay.  Suddenly everyone was talking about it.  Part of what made it seem so fun was that it was such a rarity: a big budget game with a new world to explore, and we hadn’t been exposed to it until shortly before it was released.  Before any of us had even played the game it seemed so exciting just because the circumstances surrounding it were so unusual.

And how about the game itself?  It mostly succeeded, although not quite.  The first few levels of the game (after the tutorial area) felt fresh and open and vibrant.  They seemed full of possibility.  They were big, open spaces (or had the appearance of it, anyway) with big, open gameplay.  You could run into enemies head on, though your pistol was not very effective; you could use your magical abilities to confuse or frighten your foes (even possess them!); you could use the fun new Blink ability to shoot up to the rooftops and evade your foes entirely, looking for the perfect line through the rooftops where no one could spot you.

And then, somewhere along the journey it loses its way.  Levels become closed off.  Stealth becomes less viable and also less fun.  Deaths seem to come frequently (at the urging of Rock, Paper, Shotgun I played the game on Hard, so maybe that contributed to that aspect of the game).  I came to realise how unrewarding the stealth often was.  While Metal Gear Solid turned stealth into a game of cat and mouse, where the chase was often half the fun, Dishonored said you were either hidden or fighting; fleeing was often useless and never fun.  And then there’s the plot, which was neither entertaining nor enlightening.  The game increasingly falls back on a tired bag of game design tools, like audio logs, diaries, and one of my least favourite game experiences: getting captured halfway through the game and losing all of your powers.

It sounds like I’m pretty down on the game, but I think that’s because it showed so much promise.  Parts of the game are brilliant.  Parts of the game could have used more work.  But it was almost always fun, and those glimpses of excellence are enough to land this game in my list.

4. Torchlight 2

Diablo 3 may very well be my most played game this year, if measured by the number of hours played.  That’s largely because it had cross-platform (Windows/Mac) co-op, and I’ve played through it with my girlfriend with every character except the Witch Doctor.  (Because the Witch Doctor is pretty terribly racist.  Check out this page to see how Blizzard portrays it.)  While Diablo may have logged more hours for logistical reasons, Torchlight 2 is unambiguously the better dungeon crawler.  In fact, measured purely in terms of gameplay, Torchlight 2 might be the best game I played this year.  On a mechanical level it’s pitch perfect.  It’s well balanced, lovingly crafted, and exceedingly fun from moment-to-moment.  Now, I’m a guy who values other stuff in games too, like story, character, and setting, as you’ll see when you get further down the list.  For that reason, Torchlight 2 sits a bit back on my list.

But while you’re playing Torchlight 2, oh what a game it is.  There are so many moments in Torchlight where I find myself saying “Why couldn’t Diablo do this?”  Some of them are simple, like the fact that resource management (health and mana) is far more tactical in TL2.  Some of them are big, like the fact that boss fights last longer and involve more complex tactics, completely changing how you have to approach them (while in Diablo 3 bosses are all just damage sponges, and not even very good ones most of the time).


To some degree it’s hard to describe why exactly I like Torchlight 2 so much, especially in comparison to the other games on this list, about which I have an awful lot to say.  The best way to describe it is to say that the moment-to-moment tactical decision making is just tremendously fun, and very involving.  It’s a game that requires you to pay attention virtually all of the time.  For a game about bashing things in the face, it provides a surprisingly large variety of ways to do it between different character classes and the viable builds within them.  I felt like the individual skills I was using at any given time, combined with the varying tactics needed to beat different kinds of enemies, made the game feel far more active, more engaging than Diablo 3.

There’s variety in other places, too.  The environments, drawn in a comic book style, are frequently a sight to behold.  There’s a great mixture of sprawling outdoor environments and claustrophobic indoor environments, and which one you’re currently in affects the tactics that are viable.  You almost always have several quests at any given time, and travelling around the map finishing them up is fun.  The Phase Beasts lead to challenge rooms that frequently require the player to approach them in ways that a standard encounter wouldn’t.  There’s just so much here that’s so cleverly designed.  It’s a joy to play.

3. Guild Wars 2

Unlike Dishonored, which approached very suddenly and felt like a mystery, Guild Wars 2 is a game I’d been anxiously waiting for since April 2010, when ArenaNet released its Design Manifesto.  The ideas it contained, and those put forth by ArenaNet in subsequent press for the game, made it sound like they were turning the MMORPG genre into something fresh and exciting.  They talked about breaking up the “Holy Trinity” of DPS/Tank/Healer, of making the game more social, of ridding it of the grind.  Did they succeed?  I think they mostly did.

Many of the games innovations seem so obvious it’s unclear why they hadn’t been done by someone else.  Removing “revive” skills and simply letting any nearby player revive a fallen character makes it feel like you can rely on others in combat.  Because experience is granted for reviving a downed character, strangers will often revive strangers they run across on their adventures; brilliant.  Giving experience points to every player who takes part in a fight rather than just the player who first attacks a monster is a great way to foster cooperation.  Making loot drops unique to each player cuts down on ridiculous fighting over who gets the goods after an enemy has been defeated.

In fact, if there’s one thing that I love most about the Guild Wars 2 experience, it’s that the game constantly finds ways to make players want to work together, even if they’re strangers and may never cross paths again.  This makes the game feel genuinely massive and social at all times.  The world events, not exactly an innovation but very well done in GW2, add to this too.  There is virtually never a downside to working with other players to accomplish your goals and there is almost always something to be gained from it.  I’m a huge fan of online games that cause players to want to work together by the very nature of their design (Left 4 Dead would be another excellent example), and Guild Wars 2 absolutely nails this.  People will frequently talk about how online games prove that people are really selfish and destructive, but games like Guild Wars 2 show that it’s really all about what the design supports.  Give people an environment where teamwork is more fun, and they’ll jump on the opportunity to help each other out.

There are other great things about Guild Wars 2, too, like the joys of simply exploring and the fact that the game rewards you for it, but as this is getting a bit long already I’ll leave my praise there.  With all that said, you may be wondering why a game worthy of this much praise isn’t higher up my list.  There are certainly faults in the game, like the fact that you more or less max out on power and unlock all of your abilities very early on, reducing the feeling of growth that is often pivotal to RPGs.  And the combat, for all the tweaks they’ve made to the MMORPG format, is still not tremendously impressive. Also, while the game has great depth and many innovations, it’s incredibly poor at teaching you to play.  I know we live in an age where MMO players scour wikis and message boards for strategies, builds, etc., but it boggles my mind that in 2012 a game like Guild Wars 2 could be released that doesn’t even explain something as important as the fact that your off-hand weapon gains different abilities based on what primary weapon you have equipped.  Players shouldn’t have to find that out by accident!

Part of it too, is that for me GW2 partly succumbs to its excellent pricing model.  Because there is no subscription to play, I don’t feel any particular sense of urgency to return, knowing that content will all still be there when I want it.  Having written so much praise for the game though, I’m suddenly pretty keen to get back to it.

2. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is all sorts of things that video games usually aren’t.  It’s episodic (released in 2-3 hour chunks roughly once a month for five months).  It’s only $25 (I picked it up for half that during one of Steam’s sales).  There aren’t a lot of guns.  There are lots of female characters, and none of them runs around half naked with big, bouncing boobs.  There’s a lot of dialogue, and it’s pretty smartly written.  It may go without saying that I was pretty stunned when it won Game Of The Year at the Gametrailers/Spike TV Video Game Awards.  And while you’ve seen that it’s not #1 on my list, I still think it was well deserved.

One of the main complaints levelled at The Walking Dead is that it only offers the illusion of choice.  Since the game is marketed largely as one where the player is frequently faced with difficult plot and character-related decisions, this could be seen as a pretty major blow against the game.  But I think that attack it’s misguided at best and ignorant and mean-spirited at worst.  All video games offer illusions.  Video games are illusion machines.  And the illusions that The Walking Dead offered me were some of the most enthralling illusions that I’ve ever been offered in a video game.

This is a game that you owe it to yourself to play, and since so much of it revolves around potential spoiler territory I’m going to try to avoid describing too many specifics.  But here’s an example of why the game is so great.  The game primarily revolves around the relationship of the player character, Lee, and a little girl named Clem who he is protecting.  Their relationship provides moments of tenseness, tenderness, and all sorts of things in between.  It involves some of the most moving scenes I’ve ever experienced in a video game.  But if the game were just the story of Lee and Clem, it wouldn’t be what it is.

No, to me the thing that really makes the game tick is Kenny.  Kenny is from the southern U.S.  He speaks with a drawl.  He has a handlebar moustache.  He drives a truck.  In any other game, Kenny would be a disaster, a joke for educated suburbanites to laugh at and feel superior to.  In The Walking Dead, he’s a complex, empathetic man whose love for his family is the force driving him to stay strong in a world full of despair and uncertainty.  He’s central to many of the game’s scenes.  He clashes with many characters, including Lee, when he feels that there’s a way to do things that would be better for his family.  Over the course of the game, I developed a bond with Kenny as strong as the bond I’ve formed with any other video game character.  I’d defended him, I’d fought with him, I’d wondered if I’d be better off without him, and I’d stood side-by-side with him through the worst the world could throw at me, knowing it was me and him against the world.  The plot is threaded through Lee and Clem’s relationship, but Kenny and his family are what makes the game truly special.

It’s not a perfect game.  The addition in later episodes of what essentially amount to first-person shooter controls in a few sections was a real let-down.  And the story as a whole gets too action-heavy in the last couple of episodes, which is a shame because The Walking Dead works best when it’s a character drama rather than an action game.  Additionally, given that this is a game from Telltale, whose previous works include the excellent Sam & Max games and the terrific Tales of Monkey Island, I was disappointed that there were virtually no puzzles to solve.  But none of those things significantly detracts from the experience.

And in the end . . . I didn’t cry.  But I was pretty choked up.  The Walking Dead was the most emotionally satisfying experience I had with any piece of fiction in 2012.

1. Mass Effect 3

After saying all that about The Walking Dead, and after all the criticism and controversies surrounding Mass Effect 3, ME3 is still my favourite game of 2012?  It is.  I’ll begin where it makes sense, at the end.  There’s no way around it, the ending of the game is terrible.  But it’s not terrible for the reasons that it’s frequently criticised for.  No, it’s terrible because it’s a deus ex machina, and deus ex machinas are without fail a shitty way to resolve a story.  Apart from the ending itself, the entire last hour or two of the game seems very tonally different from the rest of the series and doesn’t quite work.  It’s yet another example of a story that starts out by building a great mystery (way back in Mass Effect 1) and then unravels when the mystery is solved.

There are other problems with the game too.  The first Mass Effect was a role playing game with some action elements.  The second Mass Effect was an action game with some light role playing.  ME3 tilts slightly back toward the role playing end of the spectrum, but it’s still primarily a third-person shooter.  It’s still not a very tactically involved game, there’s still not much customisation or character growth (in gameplay, not narrative terms), and it still relies almost entirely on twitch reflexes rather than statistics.  It does at times have problems dealing with the complexity of what’s come before, including a number of problems with the narrative that ME2 introduced (like the unnecessary diversion of the Illusive Man storyline).  Because of the possibility that virtually every primary character in Mass Effect 2 can die at the end, ME3 isn’t able to treat the ME2 characters with the gravity or screen time that I think they deserve.

Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic game and, up until the final section, a fitting end to a great series.  People complain that they felt that decisions from previous games didn’t affect Mass Effect 3 enough, but I found decisions I’d made affecting ME3 at every turn.  Take, for example, the game’s ability to pursue romantic relationships with other characters.  In Mass Effect 2, my Commander Sheppard had entered a relationship with Tali.  In Mass Effect 3, before Tali had even entered the story, the option to have a romantic relationship with other characters had been closed off.  This may sound minor, but it’s not: on account of a decision I’d made in a previous game, characters in Mass Effect 3 became more emotionally distant from my Sheppard.  Most games simply let the main character sleep with as many characters as they want, many even reward the player for it through achievements.  But in Mass Effect 3, my decision about a relationship in a previous game still carried narrative weight.  That’s fantastic.

Another example of why Mass Effect’s story-telling is so great: Steve Cortez, the man who manages Normandy’s armory.  During a conversation with Cortez, he mentions that his husband died in a Reaper attack.  The game doesn’t make a big deal about the fact that Cortez is gay.  Neither does Sheppard.  He’s not “Steve, the gay guy”, he’s “Steve, the guy who cares about his spouse”.  This may not seem like much, but given the lack of gay characters in the vast majority of games and the excessive homophobia in some gaming communities, it actually speaks very highly of Bioware.  This matters not because I want games to tick off a nice “liberal” checkbox in their plots, but because it’s moments like this that show that Bioware is capable of making games that are really genuinely mature.  In an industry where “mature” is so often a marketing tool meant to indicate excessive vulgarity, Bioware at its best is capable of creating a much more relatable “maturity”, one that reflects the depth and the humanity of real people.

As I said when describing Torchlight 2, story in games matters to me.  And until the last little bit, Mass Effect 3 nails its story.  Many players complained that the ending didn’t allow them much closure on their relationships with the various members of their crew, but that’s missing the point: the whole game is that closure.  The main characters, like Liara, Tali, and Garrus, receive closure on their stories in the lengthy sections of the game that take place on those characters’ home planets, and elsewhere in the story as well.  The major decision made on the quarian homeworld is the closure on Tali’s story.  And those sections of the game, which take up a significant portion of its playing time, feature great level design, beautiful locations, and emotionally gripping narrative.

I know I’ve not said too much about how Mass Effect 3 plays, but it is a lot of fun to play.  I wish it were more RPG and less action game, but as far as action games go it’s well designed, well balanced, and pretty unique (even if it does involve a lot of shooting, the tech/biotic powers change up the format quite a bit).  Torchlight 2 may be the best game I played this year in terms of mechanics and The Walking Dead may have had the most involving story, but Mass Effect 3 was the game that combined story and gameplay in the way that most engaged me.  That’s why it’s my game of the year.

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