My top ten games of 2012

Everybody’s doing lists… so I suppose I should join in. I spent some time today, on the 1st, reflecting on my favourite games from the previous year. It’s always hard to distill a top ten – but I’ve got mine, with two additional honourable mentions outside of the top ten. Here goes:

Persona 4: Golden is a release that I haven’t actually played yet – so it obviously can’t qualify for this list. I did want to drop it a mention, though, as I understand that it is an incredibly competent port of what is not just one of my favourite games of the year of its original launch, but in fact of all time.
Minecraft wasn’t released in 2012, though I did first experience it this year, through the Xbox 360 port. After ignoring it for years, I was bitten by the Minecraft bug – and from there I ended up tumbling down the rabbit hole of the PC version and the suite of incredible game-changing mods. This is a truly mind blowing piece of software, and I can’t believe I was this late to the party.

10. Gravity Rush
It’s kind of a bummer to me that I never actually bought this game. It was always on my radar, but I never quite got around to it and couldn’t justify the cost when I was busy with a million other things – but when it became free on PS Plus, Sony’s gravity-based action/adventure/brawler was easy to give five minutes… and that quickly became much, much longer. It grabbed me easily.

The fact it stars a the brilliantly well-designed girl called Kat with a black cat accompanying her helps, but it’s just really smooth, slick and fun to play. The gravity mechanics just work, combat’s fun, and the gyroscope-aided comic book cutscenes look cool as hell. Japanese games and the Vita have both had a rough year, but this game is proof both aren’t doomed just yet.

9. Rock Band Blitz
I don’t think it’s unfair or an exaggeration to say that the music genre has died a death. While my Rock Band gear still gets lugged out into a wide open space for some fun once or twice a year, it certainly isn’t the dominating presence it once was. That’s a little bit gutting when I know I’ve spent a lot of money (I dread to think, but it’s probably in three figures) on discs and downloads to flesh out my music library.

In Rock Band Blitz, Harmonix has provided me and countless others with a wonderful reward for sticking by them – an addictive, single-player, score-attack arcade experience that lets me use all of that DLC I purchased with drunken parties in mind. Rock Band Blitz is a bloody awesome experience all on its own, though, and is a firm reminder that the rhythm and music genre still has much to offer and doesn’t always need to rely on over-the-top plastic instruments to thrive.

8. Asura’s Wrath
Insanity! There’s not much I can really say about Asura’s Wrath; you just need to experience it. I need to be clear, though: I think anime is pretty crap. Boring drivel, usually – and so Asura’s Wrath certainly doesn’t appeal to me based on how closely it follows the structure of your average anime series, right down to the ‘we’re going to sell the true ending separately’ bullshit.

It appeals instead on the merits of how well it utilizes an over-used mechanic, the quick time event. They’re integral to gameplay here, built into a deliberately over-cooked power fantasy of crushing gods and demons on a planetary scale. Fairly average brawling punctuates these segments, but the real reason to play is to experience some of the incredible moments this game has to offer. It’s an incredibly brave release and had me utterly enthralled throughout.

7. Sleeping Dogs
In mid-2012 I was down at Square Enix Europe’s London office to check out another of their releases. They’ve a nice-looking meeting area where press and partners are usually wooed, and I was surprised to see that one of the rooms had been redecorated since I was last there with a gigantic Sleeping Dogs mural. “Why?” I thought, whilst simultaneously politely complimenting it to the PR rep I was with. “This is a game that Activision ditched,” I thought. “It’s just a shit cash grab, surely?” Could I have been more wrong?

Sleeping Dogs is as refreshing a take on the open-world-crime genre as Saints Row 3 was the year prior. Instead of ridiculous satire it recreates many of the best scenes and set pieces from Hong Kong cinema. It’s a little slice of Jackie Chan in ‘Police Story’ and Chow Yun-fat in ‘Hard Boiled’, all wrapped up in an incredibly pretty, well-realized version of Hong Kong. Plus, as a Brit, I appreciated driving on the right side of the road in a game for once. Ensure this gets a sequel, Square Enix.

6. Borderlands 2
Borderlands 2 does everything right, and on paper should actually be a little higher on this list than it is. Gearbox must have looked incredibly closely and carefully at all the fan feedback and thoughts about their break-out RPG/FPS mash-up, as the sequel addresses all of these issues and some, tweaking and improving the game in just about every area you could imagine whilst playing the original title.

More post-game content? Sure. More character customization? No problem. More variety in weaponry and its potential effects? Piece of cake. In the end Borderlands 2’s greatest flaw is that it spends so much time fixing the first game’s shortcomings that it doesn’t really introduce many all-new ideas. The result is an incredibly polished game that feels just a little too familiar – but it’s still addictive as all hell.

5. Halo 4
Numbers 5 and 6 on this list actually share something in common. Much like Borderlands 2, Halo 4 is an incredibly accomplished version of the gameplay you’ve come to expect from that series – almost to its detriment. It’s amazing, but sometimes does feel like the incredibly accomplished team at 343 spent a good chunk of their development time ensuring they could successfully recreate Bungie’s signature Halo style at a better graphical fidelity. They accomplished that, and in Halo 4 you get that typical Halo action in spades – but there perhaps isn’t quite enough new on offer here.

The biggest triumph comes in the form of a Master Chief who makes massive strides to being a more believable character over a one-liner spewing robot as well as clever changes to the multiplayer. While the most hardcore fans still have issues and it certainly isn’t perfect, Halo 4’s multiplayer experience successfully transplants some of the speed and immediacy of Call of Duty into the traditional not-quite-arena-shooter feel of Halo. It works. I can’t remember the last time I had a full party of 8 friends all playing and working together like I’ve had in Halo 4 – but if I had to guess, it was probably Halo 3. Mission accomplished.

4. FTL: Faster Than Light
My ship’s hull is pierced. Oxygen is draining away, and oxygen replenishment systems are only at half power. I have a difficult choice – do I repair the oxygen systems and leave my guns and shields unmanned, or do I take my chances and hope we can end this battle before my men suffocate? I make the wrong choice. Moments later, my ship is blown to smithereens – but hey, at least my oxygen system was working as the men burned alive!

FTL’s greatest achievement is that in spite of losing an hour’s worth of progress, I’m not angry. I jump right back in, past mistakes taken on board and hopefully used to propel my newest ship a little bit further into its deep space journey. Sometimes you don’t need fancy graphics, sound or presentation to earn hundreds of hours of play time – you just need to be bloody fantastic. FTL is.

3. The Walking Dead
If you’d told me that an Adventure game that wasn’t Phoenix Wright or some spin-off of it would make it into my top ten this year, I’d have scoffed at you. Number three? Crazy talk. Yet here we are. The Walking Dead is a TV show I’ve never had even the slightest inclination or interest in watching, but the talk and buzz about the game was such that I had to check it out. Sure enough, it looks pretty hokey in places and definitely isn’t a big-budget blockbuster, but what it lacks in flashiness it makes up for in heart.

I’m a fan of branching stories in games, and this is in a sense the ultimate in that genre. Telltale has constructed a five-episode epic that really makes you question your decisions and your morality. It’s never a choice between good and evil, but rather a choice between two different and often entirely valid points of view. It becomes moving, heartbreaking and really a special, pivotal moment in the history of this genre. This is a landmark.

2. Mass Effect 3
Yeah, alright. That ending. I know. But what about the rest? Mass Effect 3 in places soars even higher than the other two episodes in the series, from quieter moments that validate what is potentially hundreds of hours spent with the series’ cast through to massive-scale set pieces battling to pull together the resources you need to stand a chance against the Reapers. The number of choices this game pulls in from the previous two is actually rather hard to believe, and while many of the larger choices tend to taper back in and end up in a similar place regardless of what you did, the smaller choices are the ones that tended to grab me; subtle changes to dialogue based on conversations and decisions made in previous games.

There’s no denying the way this game ties a bow around large galaxy-wide conflicts established in previous games is obvious fan service and perhaps a little too neat, but it is satisfying – this has been several games in the making, after all. Top all that off with the tightest-feeling combat the series has ever had and even flaws of being too linear and ‘that’ ending can’t hold this game back from nearing the top of my list. Hopefully Bioware has learned from the mistakes they made.

1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I love strategy games, but I do have a confession – I’ve never played the original XCOM. The beauty of Enemy Unknown is that you don’t need to, though. It streamlines the gameplay from that title down, keeping the most important core values of the original while updating it for a modern audience. It’s the gaming equivalent of sanding the sharp corners off a desk so nobody walks into it and hurts themselves. Amazingly, it works – Firaxis actually succeeded in the seemingly impossible, satisfying both the old-school XCOM fans and people oblivious like myself. The experience this team garnered with the console-based Civilization Revolution clearly came in handy here.

They’ve managed to fashion a deep, challenging title that can easily become obsessive. I found myself developing an attachment to randomly generated characters, screaming ‘No!’ at the screen as my favourite Chinese Sniper-lady finally bit it on her 30th mission. It scratches that devilish, devious ‘one more turn’ itch in your brain that only Civilization and Street Fighter seem to manage for me… and just talking about it wants me to go and play it. So I probably should.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s hoping 2013 is just as good for games!