I played more games in 2012 than any other year of my life. It was a weird—but thoroughly wonderful—year, and one that upset a lot of my expectations. Games I'd assumed would be amazing fell short of the mark, while others came out of nowhere to become fast favorites.
This being a time well-suited for retrospection, I thought it'd be a good idea to write down my
ten eleven favorite games of the year. (I tried to keep it to ten, I really did.)
Here they are, in no particular order.
Usually when people talk about Blendo's Thirty Flights of Loving, they talk about its brevity. What's most striking about this game's brief run-time isn't just that it's short, it's how much it manages to do in such a short time. By cleverly using hints, allusion, tropes and subverted clichés, Thirty Flights packs more drama and intrigue into 15 minutes than many games manage in 15 hours. It was one of the most memorable things I played all year, and something I'll be recommending to friends for years to come. (PC only)
For some reason, I feel this underlying sense of disappointment whenever people talk about Max Payne 3. And yet all these months later, I still find myself playing it, and I have to say: This game was baller. It wasn't just that it had better graphics than anything else that came out this year (on PC, anyway). It wasn't just the ridiculously good soundtrack. It was the way it played, the overwhelming sense of kinetic, chaotic danger. A sequence set in a cubicle-filled office was the most brutal and exhilarating action sequence I played all year. It has its share of problems, sure: Some difficulty-spikes made me want to throw my TV out a window, and at times it felt like more of a movie than a game. Considering how gritty and self-serious it all was, it sure could be ridiculous. But even if it lacked the charm of past Max Payne games, Max Payne 3 more than made up for it with satisfying, stylish, bloody-minded action. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
For a time, somewhere immediately after I completed the devastating, masterful third episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead, I was convinced it was the best thing I played all year. After completing the game and taking some time to really look it over, I have to say that there were enough technical niggles, rough edges, bugs and reported save-game errors that I came away a bit frustrated with it. All the same, seeing a mainstream game this well-written, a game that treats its characters with this level of care, felt like a watershed occurrence. Sure, there have been other great adventure games in the past, but never one that felt so confidently of-the-moment. With every accolade, game critics and players are making a statement: We want good stories in our games, thank you very much. May The Walking Dead pave the way for countless more games like it. (Xbox, PS3, PC, iOS)
Violent, crazed, self-aware and painfully cool, Hotline Miami was one of the most maddening, involving games I played this fall. The soundtrack was so good it hurt. The story was as disgusting and uncomfortable as anything I've ever played. The action was peerless. I can't remember where I first saw this, but Hotline Miami is best described as a series of rehearsals before a final performance—again and again you die, until you choreograph your own perfect ballet of death. By the time you leave each blood-soaked floor, you'll be intimately familiar with every nook and cranny. An exacting, meticulous, brilliantly brutal game. (PC only, coming soon to Mac)
I didn't know what to expect going in to Gravity Rush. I'd heard good things, liked what little I'd seen of in trailers, but really had no deeper notion of it. It didn't take me long to fall for it, and when I fell, I fell hard. Appropriate, since this superhero game isn't about flying; it's about falling. And it's a superhero game in the best sense: It showed me a world that was as mysterious as it was fantastical, loaded with unanswered questions and improbable vistas, and let me explore it as an instantly likable character. Best of all, the gravity-manipulation controls actually took me a while to get used to; they felt genuinely, at times startlingly new. The game had its problems—notably, the combat was frustrating and several sections from the halfway point onward could be a real slog—but when it was firing on all cylinders, Gravity Rush was a dizzy joy. (PS Vita)
Every year, it seems there's one game that hits me right in my gaming sweet-spot. Last year it was Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this year it was XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I fell entirely under this game's spell, regularly finding myself up at 3 or 4 in the morning, heading out on one more mission before finally going to bed. Here's a story: the early PC press build of the game caused a strange error with my save game, and I lost about ten hours of progress. I had to start over fresh, but I found myself doing so without a complaint. And I wasn't even reviewing the game! I relished the opportunity to play the opening acts again, to use what I'd learned and get everything right. I anticipate I'll be playing it well into the future. It doesn't just belong in my top
ten eleven—XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my two or three favorite games of the year. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
Just today, I put forth the argument for why this game should be Kotaku's overall game of the year. I also reviewed it back when it came out. I don't have much more to add, so I'll just say that it's a beautiful, remarkably assured game that does what it does so well it's easy to forget just how difficult it must have been to make. It's ThatGameComany's masterpiece. (PS3 only)
I showed up to Far Cry 3 with a lot of baggage: See, Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and everything I'd seen of Far Cry 3 made me think it would be a less serious, less focused, move video-gamey take on its predecessor. And it was that. It was also awesome. At some point, maybe around the eight- or nine-hour mark, I realized that I didn't want to stop playing. I wanted to keep going, and going, growing my abilities, learning the island, exploring, conquering, and hang-gliding. Sure, the story fell apart for me a bit after the halfway point. And yeah, my adventures wound up making the islands far too safe, devoid of enemies to fight. But as a feat of game design and technical artistry, Far Cry 3 deserves recognition. (For more, see my full review.) It's not just that it does so many things so well—it's that it does them well in the service of being a really fun video game. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
No other game this year made me smile as widely or as often as Botanicula. The Michel Gondry-esque art, the wonderful physical comedy, the amazing, handcrafted music and sound effects, and fantastical story won me over completely. So many games concern themselves with mastery and competition; far too few concern themselves with joy. Botanicula was easily the most joyful game of 2012. (PC, Mac)
Sleeping Dogs was one of the very best surprises of 2012, a fine open-world game that proved how oftentimes, GTA-style games can be even more fun without guns. It didn't quite have Rockstar's lavish production values, but United Front's take on the city of Hong Kong sparkled at every turn, and the PC version in particular looked lovely. It conveyed such a remarkable sense of place, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that you had to drive on the left side of the road. The story was strong too, a surprisingly mature tale that borrowed heavily from Hong Kong cinema. Anyone familiar with undercover cop-stories likely saw every twist and turn coming, but I still enjoyed it all, thanks largely to the top-rate performances. Sleeping Dogs felt like a game that knew its own boundaries: It didn't come with any shoehorned-in multiplayer, and it didn't become overstuffed or fall apart in the third act. It was good all the way to the end, and even beyond: I'm still playing the DLC. Here's hoping Sleeping Dogs merits a sequel. Sleeping Dogs 2: Waking Dogs? I'd play it. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
And now we come to the end, where I'd put the number one game, if these were in order. And while they're not in order, still, Persona 4 Golden kind of deserves to be mentioned last. XCOM may have hit me square in the game-nerve, but I fell even more profoundly into Persona 4 Golden. I ache for this game, you guys. Earlier this year, I had played 60-odd hours of Persona 3, and every time I'd tell someone how much I dug that game, they'd say, "Wait until you play Persona 4." They were right.
Jason and I have already gone into great detail about why we love Persona 4, and if I couldn't capture my feelings in that many thousands of words, I probably should just give up. The town of Inaba and its residents have left an indelible mark on me; I'll never forget this game. (PS Vita, original game is also on PS2)
And that's that. Oh, hmm. There were a few games I didn't get to list here, so honorable mentions go to FTL, Mark of the Ninja, Dyad, Torchlight II, Dishonored, Papo & Yo, Super Hexagon and Sound Shapes.
2012 was a great, often surprising year for games. Here's hoping 2013 is even better.