And so we come to the zenith of a yearly awards scheme, when we rejoice in the fantastic games which we have enjoyed throughout the year. For all the horridness that this year has brought us, arguably it has also brought with it some of the best games in years, and today I reward some of them with love and affection.
After a couple of days talking about the worst of the year, it’s just wonderful to get down to my favourite games of the year.
This year has seen plenty of nice games which I wanted to honour but they couldn’t all fit inside a top ten list – which is a real shame. So let’s first talk about a few games which almost made it into the list;
- Lone Survivor – Retro-style indie survival horror, brilliantly tense and excellently made.
- Spelunky – Infuriatingly addictive, one of the better Live offerings this year.
- Fez – More indie goodness, great game.
- WoW: Mists of Pandaria – a World of Warcraft expansion you might actually want to play! Joy!
- New Super Mario Bros. U – new 2D Mario taking cues from its successful past. And it just works.
But, of course, there can only be ten games in a top ten, so these and many others have just been pipped to the post by the following selection – games I’ve loved, adored and sunk my time into over the last year. These are for me the reason I play games; when you get titles such as these on, you just feel such joy and wonderment.
So now, let’s cue drum rolls for the actual list!
10. Legend of Grimrock
There’s nothing so joyous than to kick off a top ten games of the year with a fabulous, glorious indie title that harks back to a gaming era that we forgot, but is not constrained by the limitations of that era. Legend of Grimrock is a dungeon crawler in the Eye of the Beholder vein – but it’s a delight all the way.
Indeed, this is arguably what I love about the indie world; the revisiting of classic ideals as well as the forethought and verve of coming in with new, fresh ideas. For a small indie company, the game is a glorious looking piece of work, with lots of maps and plenty of secrets to be found. It was also made to be modded, added to, expanded, and this gives it a scope that feels unlike anything in recent years. But above all, it’s the simplicity of the execution that wins out in the end; for all the fancy lighting and the great enemy design, it’s that the game remains entrenched in a ruleset that works, with traditional weaknesses and levelling curves as well as the opportunity to perhaps level wrongly as well. With devious puzzles aplenty as well as an interestingly different sort of final boss, Legend of Grimrock is the fusion of the old with the new in the absolute best sense of the term. A game that is decidedly retro; and yet incredibly modern as well.
It was brave to revive the old dungeon crawler genre. On the basis of this, I’d be happy for a revival.
9. Darksiders 2 (as long as it isn’t the Wii-U version!)
Some will accuse me of being a bit conflicted in my message. I hate cloning and copycat titles, sure, but Darksiders 2 – for all the ideas it borrows, all the wholesale theft of concepts above its station – is actually a much better game than the original Darksiders because this time, they made it all blend together.
It’s an adventure, as everyone’s favourite Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, looks for a way to undo the mistakes of his brother War (who destroyed Earth in the first game!) whilst simultaneously having to fight his own inner demons, and confront a past that he long hoped would not return to haunt him. Throughout it, there are memorable characters told with a real understanding, with personality and verve, as well as plenty of bonuses and dungeons to explore for those prepared to wander off the beaten path for a while. It’s a game that rewards the curious, and yet flows seamlessly as well – a truly modern kind of adventure, through landscapes ravaged by corruption and the decay of time, and yet bringing in the compulsive obsessional crowd with loot, upgrading and generally managing gear and weapons for different occasions, rather than focusing it all on a story. It’s a fabulous game by a company in real trouble, and that’s the only downside.
THQ deserve to survive for putting games like this out there. Original? Perhaps not. But still quality gaming. That’s what counts.
8. Torchlight 2
There were as equally high hopes for this game as there were for Diablo 3; but where one collapsed under its own weight and the mismanagement of the game by the people supposedly meant to keep it alive, Torchlight 2 in comparison shone all the brighter for being a lot more in control of itself.
Those who enjoyed the first Torchlight were a little disappointed this was decidedly more RPG than Dungeon-Loot-Hunter, but Torchlight is still an offshoot of a future MMO after all so perhaps it was right they focused on expanding the narrative here, as the Alchemist from the first game succumbs to the corruption he had battled; it is a journey across an interesting, varied world that isn’t all dark and brown and dingy. It’s bright, interesting and full of life trying to survive in the face of death and the corruption of the Ember Blight, with a slightly more honed class system (now made modular for expanding!) and plenty of clever jokes and events that charm the pants off you. It’s also as similarly addicting as the first, a real quality product and yet less than half the cost of Diablo 3. Again, it was hardly pushing new ground but when a game is this fun, clever and charming, one can argue it doesn’t need to be taking such risks.
And it’s all the better for that. Now let’s hope they manage to get that risky MMO venture going sooner rather than later…
7. Resident Evil: Revelations
Perhaps the biggest revelation of Resident Evil: Revelations is that it was a surprisingly competent action horror game! In the face of Resident Evil 6, and the divisive Operation: Raccoon City, it would be all too easy to forget that this year did at least bring one great Resident Evil game to the table, and on the 3DS of all things!
Revelations is the complete opposite of what RE6 is; a controlled, focused game. Telling a story, in chunks, across a large scheme. Not only is it visually gorgeous, dryly hilarious with tongue firmly embedded in cheek and really well told, the single player was offset with what can only be described as the most striking revelation of them all; the Raid mode, an advancement on the Mercenary mode and all the better for it. Set, modular missions with goals in which you can earn weapon upgrades, new costumes and even find rare weapons to take on later missions, it’s an incredibly compulsive experience; a simple, uncomplicated blend of tutorial and training with brief flashes of RPG elements and taught, balanced but still fast-paced action. It was a joy, robbed me of many many nights sleep and became the best reason I could think of to be going in and out of hospital this year; because I could play more of it along the way without distractions!
It also reminds us that the best ideas can be the simplest. Control, discipline and focus. This game had it. RE6? Not so much so…
Without a hint of irony, this is exactly why I love the zany stylings of Japan. Because whilst you can strip it down to a basic puzzle game, it’s the added flavour of a story about a man cheating on his fiancée and suffering horrific nightmares driven by his feelings of lust and guilt that make this work so brilliantly.
Vincent, our hero of the piece, doesn’t start off as much. He’s a loser, with a girlfriend who wants to tie him down and make a man of him, with friends who are jerks. It is into his life that a cheery, bubblegum-looking blonde girl called Catherine enters the piece, triggering an internal meltdown that is glorious to watch unfold across the game, as we help Vincent decide which path to take in his life and to keep him alive from some of the most frankly bizarre enemies in a game that you will ever see; this is so obviously an offshoot of Persona and terribly good with it. Throughout it, the puzzling – climbing a tower before the monster below catches you – gets faster and more challenging, whilst we watch our hero change with it; becoming a stronger person through battling these hidden demons and helping save the sheep, or other men trapped in this dream landscape, from their own doomed fates. He changes. And we begin to respect him.
Catherine is a tremendous example of a mature, adult story without the need for guns and F-Bombs. More power to Atlus for it!
It was clearly a good year for new IP, and Dishonored shone brighter for it. It had taken four long years to bring this Steampunk fantasy to life and it was worth every single second of that waiting time; a game about an assassin… or is it, when you don’t need to kill to progress onwards?
Dishonoured was a glorious tale of a wronged man, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, offered the chance of redemption and/or vengeance by forces beyond his comprehension. Dishonored was a game about choice, planning and thought; an intelligent game designed around the concept of there being more than one way to get around a problem, and this ensured that you could enjoy it in whatever manner you wished to. The story, Corvo’s tale, weaves throughout the city of Dunwall whilst there is plenty of visual spectacle and a stellar cast of well-voiced characters that work within the setting. It dares to be different, and no doubt it cost an arm and a leg to make as a result; this was pushing the FPS RPG formula forward one more notch, and treats the player with the kind of respect and tact that often seems arbitrarily missing from so many First Person titles in this day and age – “You have a brain. Use it!”
Hopefully this is the kind of thing Arkane will revisit. Let’s hope it won’t take another four years.
It must hurt Capcom and Konami so much that UbiSoft have come in and stolen the Survival Horror crown from underneath them; Zombi-U is not only a great demonstration of what the Wii-U can bring to gaming, but arguably one of the finest survival horror games in years as a result of it!
Of course, many won’t care that this is a sequel – it’s true, Zombi was one of UbiSoft’s first games, and many of the elements that feel so fresh here began back then too. But it’s the attention to detail in Zombi-U that truly and profoundly changes a man; the haunting quiet, the correct use of scares and noise and enemies to overwhelm and terrify without pushing you too far away. The U-Pad, doubling as the scanner device, is an incredibly brilliant tool executed to perfection; allowing management and tracking as long as you remember to keep an eye on your otherwise vulnerable survivor, otherwise they will be infected and your next survivor will have to hunt them down for their Bug Out Bag, and all the loot in it. It’s brilliantly executed and the at the same time reassuring and chilling Prepper, the disembodied voice guiding you on, tells a story that is compelling, clever and never completely obvious, dropping clues and hints for you to pick up on.
Easily the best game on the Wii-U right now. And one of the best horror games out there. A terrifyingly good game!
3. The Walking Dead
Some can argue that The Walking Dead is more of an interactive novel than a game based on a comic book; I fully accept that accusation, but at the same time this is a classic adventure style where your choices matter across each episode, and it is the compelling narrative that absolutely makes this one of this years highlights.
TellTale Games haven’t always got their episodic games quite right – Back to the Future and Jurassic Park sit as some of their bigger mistakes – so it’s incredible that it is in The Walking Dead that suddenly they find their stride, blending action and narration into a seamless, controlled stream of pure awesome. With an emphasis on the cast, and the events as they unfold, there is just something innately compelling about the way events unfold, how your choices matter and how things happen. Not to mention they managed to display the best example of a child in a video game than we’ve seen in many years above the Little Sisters. Intelligent and emotive, Clementine is just the sort of child you’d hope your kids grow up to be in the future; smart, lovely, sweet, vulnerable – but not defenceless. The rest of the cast carry this story towards its conclusion; it doesn’t deceive you, you know some things are sort of set in stone, but it never really matters.
A fantastic license that is a million miles ahead of the TV Series, which let’s be honest here, has gotten real old real fast…
2. Far Cry 3
To say Far Cry 3 is brilliant might be slightly understating things; this is a game unto itself, almost a genre unto itself, a first person shooter set on a set of islands you are stranded on, with some of the most crazy cast you could ever hope to meet – but you’re thrilled to be meeting them, because they blow your mind.
It’s not merely that Far Cry 3 is a great game, with a good plot and quite a bit to do. Nor is it merely the cast and crew who compel you onwards, through like or dislike. Nor is it Vaas, the posterchild of Far Cry 3 who has become famous on the back of his psychotic tendencies (he is brilliantly acted as well!). Everything in Far Cry 3 blends together, it’s a tour-de-force of great game design, great storytelling and a compelling cast that inspires and drives you onwards. I must admit I played this game in a real haze; it was like having rainbows shot into the back of my eyes, sweet crazy people muttering in my ears. An obscure wilderness, harsh and uninviting, soon opens up as you explore and becomes the sort of wild playground that games like Grand Theft Auto wish they could be, the kind of wilful freedom that borders on escapism; a doorway to another world, a playground where the rulebook is pumped full of lead before being blown apart. And then set on fire.
Far Cry 3 is one of the finest games of many years. But not quite brilliant enough to compare to the top spot…
Words are without meaning when you discuss Journey. How can you describe it, and do it justice? How can you explain how this silent, pastel-shaded desert can inspire and move you in ways that few other games can manage? How can a stranger become so close, yet feel so far away at the same time?
Journey is a profound game, and it is a game. I am loathe to call it an “Art Game” as it really is better than being put into that category. But it’s a glorious, gentle, serene game without the wham bam thank-you ma’am stylings of other games this year – it really is about the Journey, through a desert, through ruins and up a mountain to that compelling, shining beacon that you saw so long ago, fuelled further by visions and visitations. It’s an almost religious experience, but one that doesn’t inherently smack you over the head with the concept; it just does something beautifully well, something so wounding in its simplicity and emotive punch that you can almost have your own personal little awakening, that this – this is what great games are. Simple, elegant, beautiful and the sort of thing you absolutely wouldn’t be ashamed of showing to the world as a highlight of where games can go; that we are escaping into worlds like this. Profoundly moving us.
Journey is just great, great game design. It’s a pure, classy, brilliant game. And easily my favourite this year from an otherwise stellar line up of games.
And that concludes my best games of the year – in fact, that concludes my looking back through 2012. And it’s amazing that I had such a pool of amazing games to get through this year; the field was incredibly packed with great titles, and I apologise if your favourites didn’t get mentioned in this article, you can of course mention your personal favourites of the year below. But damn, what a year!
Tomorrow will see my last article of 2012, and it will be looking forward into 2013, at the games I am most looking forward to. It’s actually already written – I wrote these days ago. I’ll confess that. But I’m going to actually go out this New Years, and have a good time. Can’t get drunk, so I can start filing blackmail material away for future use in the next year on friends and acquaintances when I need a little leverage for whatever happens.
So have a great time. And try not to get too drunk over the new years.