Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top 5 Games of 2012

2012 was a decent year for games if not a slow year for games. We seem to have settled into a bi-yearly cycle for the release of numerous major blockbusters and this past year was the off year for those releases. A look ahead at 2013 has a number of high profile titles slated to launch before the end of FY12 and are very likely to be the last such titles we see during this console cycle with the all-but-confirmed announcement and launch of at least one next gen console likely to happen before the end of the year.

While the crop of titles was smaller this year the quality was high and innovation still strong. 2012 was the year of crowd funding, with several recognizable developers utilizing Kickstarter to great effect in getting their next projects funded. This however, along with the continued strengthening of the indie games scene, has done nothing to heal the divide between various gamer factions. Forums and comment sections on gaming sites all over the internet have been constantly embroiled in idealogical shouting matches of mainstream vs indie vs old school.

It seems that gaming has finally developed a very vocal elitist class that claims to abhor modern mainstream marketing techniques such as DLC and F2P/MTX while championing niche throwback titles and bold anti-publisher actions by developers. While its an interesting conversation to be sure, several things remain to be seen:

  1. Will these elitist gamers put their money where their mouths are and withdraw support from mainstream triple-A developers and publishers?
  2. Are the numbers of these gamers as large as they seem or are they just loud?
  3. Are these gamers willing to support smaller, less cutting edge games, that look poorer, but meet their exacting aesthetic requirements or will they expect the same type of experience that big developers require millions of dollars and thus a broad audience to support?

I tend of believe that most of these people are all talk and while I want a Baldur’s Gate style throwback RPG and a massive open-ended space sim too, I don’t realistically expect these things to look and feel the same as a game that has a much broader appeal. It’s going to be interesting to see as some of these crowd funded projects begin bearing fruit how the elitist gamer community and the non-funding audience responds and what that may mean for all strata of development going forward.

Enough industry talk though. These are my Top 5 favorite games of 2012:

1. Mass Effect 3 by BioWare
Controversy surrounding the original version of the ending aside, Mass Effect 3 concluded the epic trilogy in a truly triumphant fashion. Taking some of the best aspects of ME1 and 2 and adding a few new tricks of it’s own, ME3 was a solid, enjoyable experience from start to finish. The game and the story didn’t let off the throttle for one moment and the stakes were always high. Not since the Baldur’s Gate series had I felt such affection for a group of characters in a video game both due to their excellently written dialog and personalities, but also due to the decisions I had made for and with them throughout each game. ME3 ended Commander Shepard’s story in grand style and has thusly earned a place of honor in my collection.

2. The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
After a couple lackluster titles with Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and yes … Law and Order, Telltale came back in a big way in 2012 with the first 5-part series of adventure games based on The Walking Dead comics. I always tell people that The Walking Dead comic is not about zombies, it’s about people and there just happen to be zombies in it. The Walking Dead game apes its source material perfectly in this respect with the zombies mainly being a device to put people into desperate situations and to force the player to make hard decisions. And boy will you make some hard decisions in The Walking Dead. It’s not always a choice between good and bad either, often it there is no good choice and more often than not the consequences will catch up to you in the end. It’s hard to talk in specifics about The Walking Dead without spoiling a game that’s full of honestly surprising twists. Suffice it to say that every element of this game from the art style, the game design, the cinematics, the writing, acting, and sound all come together to create an emotional tour-de-force that everyone should play at least once.

3. Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft Montreal
Like films that only play in New York and LA in the last week of the year in order to squeak by for Oscar consideration, Far Cry 3 launched at the beginning of December and immediately made an impact on numerous game critics. The thing here is that even if it had launched earlier I’m betting it would have made just as big an impact on many people’s year end considerations. The format is simple enough: Assassin’s Creed 2 meets Far Cry 2 and it’s a combination that works very well. What pushes this title above and beyond however is the main characters (like the brilliantly acted antagonist Vaas) and the story subtext. On the surface this is a very clear cut story of an outsiders getting into trouble abroad and going native to get out again. Far Cry 3 plays subtly with metaphor and allegory however making it’s beauty much more than skin deep. Add into this mix a protagonist that actually grows as a characters (not a common occurrence in this genre) and you've got something unique and refreshing on display here.

4. XCom: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis
The original XCom and it’s few immediate expansions/spin-offs are classics held in the highest regard by PC gamers over a certain age. Sadly in the decade+ since the last traditional XCom game, no one has been able to continue the tradition in a satisfying manner. When Firaxis announced that there were taking a stab at the franchise the PC gaming world breathed a sigh of relief. This new XCom is both homage and a much-needed modern update to the franchise and brings all the core elements one who has played the original would expect, but with modern trappings and manicuring. The end result is a product that new and old XCom fans can both get excited about.

5. FTL by Subset Games
Somehow 2012 ended up being the year of the spaceship crew simulation with games like Artemis, Spaceteam, and FTL each offering their own interpretation of managing the perils and teamwork required to pilot a sci-fi craft through space. FTL is simple to play, but difficult to master as it simulates operating a space craft on the run from an enemy fleet. The simulation is straightforward enough: players choose a craft and on each turn they plot their course through the galaxy. At each stop there is a chance of running into enemies, friends, plunder, or nothing at all making each jump a potential risk. In order to improve one’s chances however qualified captains need to upgrade their ship’s systems and purchase new equipment and that requires scrap gained from successfully navigating these chance encounters. While this is all straightforward enough, players will ultimately have to face the mothership of the enemy fleet, a multi encounter battle that’s seriously hard even on easy difficulty settings. It’s this difficulty that drives the deeper elements of the game and even as the player crashes and burns they’re already thinking of how best to outfit their ship for another go.

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