I don’t have time to play EVERYTHING, but I make an honest attempt. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive, exhaustive list of the best releases of 2012 – this reflects my own experiences with the handful of games (I counted between 30 and 35) that I was able to spend some time with this year. I didn’t finish them all, and I certainly didn’t play everything for every available system – this was a big year for my PC, as most of these games were best on that platform. Anyway, here we go – if you cordially disagree and wish to make a counter-point to something I’ve said, please feel free to leave a comment. If you violently disagree and want to call me names… yeah, go ahead and do that, too. I don’t mind.
10. Hotline: Miami (PC)
I should get this out of the way immediately: the soundtrack is TOTALLY the best part of Hotline: Miami. That doesn’t mean that you should just buy the soundtrack and skip the game, though, as Hotline is a really well-crafted indie title. The plot is interesting and more than a little mysterious – you wake up, have a delusory conversation with three figures in Halloween-ish animal masks, check your answering machine, drive to a location, don your OWN animal mask (I’m partial to the wolf mask), and murder everyone in the building. Then you call it a day, until it’s time to check your answering machine again tomorrow…
There’s nothing that unusual about a game asking you to kill a warehouse full of baddies, so what is so special about Hotline: Miami? Aside from that soundtrack, I mean. It’s a combination of wonderfully responsive controls, combo-score-multipliers, and the puzzle-game mechanics of the actual bloodshed – the levels in Hotline: Miami have more in common with a puzzle-platformer like Super Meat Boy than with a traditional shooter. The action is frenetic and unforgiving, making it easy to try something, die, try something else, die again, try something that works only to die ten steps deeper into the level, try some OTHER thing… you get the idea – this can all happen in less than a minute, but the game encourages the player (with no death penalty and a super-fast reload time) to keep plugging away at a stage until all the villains are dead and a large red arrow with the word “GO” appears to guide you to the next screen.
Really, though, Hotline: Miami could have been nothing but a visualizer and that soundtrack and it might have still made it onto this list. For reals. In fact, check this out – I get appropriately homicidal around the 1 minute mark:
9. Hitman: Absolution (PC)
A Hitman game came out this year and it wasn’t my favorite game of the year. That, in itself, is a profound statement. As a guy who LOVES to sneak around in a game and stab/strangle dudes stealthily, you’d think this one would be a no-brainer winner – not so. I had a really good time with Hitman: Absolution but it just didn’t hook me like the previous Hitman games had.
That doesn’t mean that Absolution is a bad game, by any stretch, and it is totally worth the money I spent the day it was released. It looks great, the gunplay is easier to control than ever before, and there’s actually some depth and development to Agent 47’s character. I don’t know specifically what it is that kept me from diving into this game with the same enthusiasm I had for the earlier games in the series; the level design is varied and interesting, the mechanics are more polished than ever before, and the online challenge system gives the player a reason to return to levels over and over to do things differently.
All that said, though, and Hitman: Absolution (possibly my most anticipated game of the year) just doesn’t have what it takes to make it higher than 9 on this list. It’s great… but it’s not the greatest.
8. Max Payne 3 (PC)
You know what’s fun? Jumping to one side with a pistol in each hand while pulling off a ridiculous number of headshots in slow motion. It’s not quite as much fun as it was in 2001, when Max Payne came out, but over a decade later Max Payne 3 reminded me that this videogamey interpretation of a John Woo film still has what it takes. The game lost a lot of the stylish touches that set previous entries in the series apart from the rest of the third-person shooter world, but that felt like Rockstar’s attempt to keep the game fresh-feeling and relevant as opposed to just putting out the same game that came out in 2001 and 2003 with a new coat of paint and pixel shaders.
The new Max Payne is a more colorful experience, while remaining as tonally dark as the other two games in the series – Max struggles with (or, at times, embraces) an addiction to alcohol and prescription medication, mourns his dead wife, and generally bemoans his lot in life. The story focuses on Max, a washed-up cop turned washed-up bodyguard, and his attempts to protect a family in South America from kidnappers. If that sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Man on Fire – and so have these developers. A lot of stylistic elements used by Tony Scott in his 2004 film reappear here and lend an emotional weight to Max’s ordeals.
This is a gritty, dark game with great action sequences and an interesting plot, making it an easy addition to this list. (And the fact that I have a couple scores in the top 20 on the leaderboards doesn’t hurt.)
7. FTL: Faster Than Light (PC)
Three of the four games mentioned so far have had colons in the titles. That’s weird.
I don’t really know what to say about FTL – it’s Oregon Trail. In space. And you die. A lot. The whole game revolves around the idea of not dying, really. The encounters are randomly generated and everything in the galaxy is trying to kill you. I’ve had games last less than three minutes (Mantis-people beamed aboard my ship as I responded to a false distress signal and wiped out my crew) and up to an hour (I fought my way to the Rebel flagship and eventually won out) but almost every time a game ended I immediately fired up another round. That’s the weird appeal of FTL – you KNOW that you’re going to die, but you nearly always die in a way that leads to these two comments:
- That was fucking awesome.
- I can do a little better than that.
There are upgrade trees for the ships, loot, random quests… this weird mix of gameplay mechanics from RPGs, rogue-likes, space-sims and a few other genres come together to form a game that is greater than the sum of its component parts. It’s hard as hell, a little random, and as addictive as anything I’ve played this year.
6. Rock Band Blitz (XBLA)
Harmonix has already gotten so much of my money. I have a couple hundred songs in my Rock Band library which, at $2 per song, is something I try very hard not to think about. Rock Band Blitz capitalizes on that BRILLIANTLY – it’s a controller-based rhythm game that uses all that dumb Rock Band DLC I paid way too much for! Now I can feel good about paying $2 for that Duran Duran song, because I don’t need to pull out plastic guitars and drums to enjoy it – I can get my money’s worth all over again with a controller in my hand!
Does that sound like a desperate attempt to justify poor purchases? Maybe a little. Does it take away from the fact that I played more Rock Band Blitz in 2012 than Rock Band 3 in 2011? NOT AT ALL. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a game that will be on everyone’s end-of-year list. Not everyone has an embarrassingly bloated music library sitting on an xbox hard drive.
But I do, and this is my list, and I played hella Rock Band Blitz this year.
5. Borderlands 2 (XB360)
I wouldn’t like Borderlands 2 if I didn’t have friends who also like Borderlands 2. Gearbox Software’s follow-up to my favorite game of 2009 changed very little, which is both a positive and a negative. I played SOOOO much Borderlands in 2009 (and 2010) (and 2011) that when a game that was basically the same thing with new maps came out I wasn’t as instantly pulled into the action as I might have been. But that first game was so amazing that I’d be furious if the designers had changed too much. What do you do in that situation?
If you’re Gearbox Software you spend a lot of time thinking about fan-criticism of the first game, you problem-solve your ass off, and you produce a remarkably polished and fun distillation of the core ideas behind Borderlands. Borderlands 2 is still a first-person shooter. It’s still set on Pandora. It’s still full of procedurally generated guns with ridiculous properties. It’s still basically set up like an MMO for four players. And it’s still completely fun.
This is definitely the game I spent the most time playing with friends this year – as I said, if I didn’t have a couple of buddies periodically sending me texts that just said “Borderlands?” when the game came out then it wouldn’t have pulled me in. But I did, and it did.
And you know what? Thanks for that, fellas. Best cooperative game of the year, for sure.
4. Spelunky (XBLA)
I don’t throw controllers. I don’t kick tables. I don’t grit my teeth (and scream through them) when a game gets rough. Pretty sure I did all three while playing Spelunky this year.
Spelunky is one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. It’s aggressive. It’s unforgiving. IT’S MEAN. But I never thought it was unfair. Every time I died (all 400+ times) I knew that it was my fault. I got too greedy or careless or hit the wrong button at the wrong time or one of a billion dumb reasons and I paid the ultimate price. And, just about every single time, I restarted the game immediately upon dying.
As the player gets more acquainted with the rule-set of Spelunky’s world it becomes clear that the designer HATES the person playing. You can’t memorize the level or look up a map – the levels are randomly generated each time. You get four hearts and one life. That’s it. When you die (sometimes as quickly as 20 seconds in, if you hit some spikes or a locust-spitting Mummy) you get a Game Over screen and you start back at the beginning. You lose any items found. You lose any money gathered. You lose any forward progress in the level. YOU LOSE. Spelunky wouldn’t be able to get away with what it does if the controls weren’t perfect.
And I do mean PERFECT. In fact, the controls make the game harder in a weird, psychological way – they feel SO good that it’s tempting to run all the time. If you run all the time in Spelunky you will die. And it will be your fault. It’s a real kick in the balls.
3. Diablo III (PC)
I clicked on monsters until they blew up. Then I collected the loot they dropped, kept the best stuff for myself, and sold the rest. Then I went out to click on more monsters.
It sounds stupidly simple, and it is. It’s also a profoundly rewarding positive-feedback loop. There are quests in Diablo III, but they’re mainly just a backdrop for the “click-loot-sell” loop. There are characters, but they’re mainly there to send you out to click, loot, and sell. There are upgrades to earn, so you can click, loot, and sell faster or more efficiently.
When you really look at Diablo III analytically, it’s a series of systems layered upon one another to make the player feel like he/she is doing something that shows progress – getting cooler looking armor, leveling up, or pushing the plot of the game forward. Really, though, all you’re doing is clicking on monsters until they blow up. And it feels amazing.
My advice: don’t look at it analytically. That’s boring. Instead, go kill monsters. (And try to find the Secret Cow/Rainbow level –it’s pretty crazy.)
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)
Tense. Punishing. Focused on polished mechanics. Cool looking.
A lot of my picks this year have some similarities, but XCOM refines a lot of them to the point that I really don’t see much room for improvement. This is a game about decision-making and consequences – it’s turn-based, so you can take as long as you’d like to actually MAKE your decisions… but when you do, something bad is going to happen. It might not be as bad as what would have happened if you’d made the OTHER decision, but you’re going to spend some time on your next turn dealing with the consequences of your previous choices.
XCOM is a tactical, turn-based strategy game in the tradition of older games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, and (not coincidentally) the original X-COM games. Somewhere in the last fifteen years they lost the dash between the X and the C, but that’s about all they’ve lost. It’s punishing in the way that old games used to be – you should feel like a champion when you finish an XCOM level without losing any of your soldiers.
This game really is all about decisions: Which soldiers do you want to take on your mission? (I’m partial to a Heavy, two Assaults, two Snipers, and a Support.) What equipment should they bring? What equipment have you researched? What research have you unlocked? What special abilities did you assign to your squad members as they were leveling up? How should you position your soldiers on the map?
XCOM gives you a million ways to make life harder for yourself – it’s not afraid to let you paint yourself into a corner – but it all pays off when you can take six elite military units through a map full of explosions and aliens, complete your objective, and get everyone home safe. It’s rewarding in a way that most modern (read: easy/hand-holdy) games just can’t manage.
1. Mark of the Ninja
If you’d told me a year ago that my game of 2012 would be a stealth game I’d have smiled and said “So, Hitman: Absolution turns out to be pretty great, then?”
I hadn’t heard of Mark of the Ninja a year ago. In a year packed with smaller, downloadable games of high quality (half of this list, for example) it would have been easy to let this one slip under the radar, which would have been a real bummer for me because Mark of the Ninja is the best stealth game I’ve played in over a decade.
Coming from a guy who LOVES stealth games, I’ll let that last comment sink in. This is the best stealth game I’ve played in over ten years.
Mark of the Ninja, like all the games on this list, is extremely competent on a mechanical level – the game finds ways to relay information to the player without getting in the way to do so, the controls are tight and responsive, and the level design is varied and interesting. What’s harder to communicate is the “feel” of the game – the character on screen does exactly what the player intends and looks amazing doing it. The player gets to feel like the world’s greatest ninja as he/she effortlessly pulls off multiple stealth-kills, all while sticking to the shadows and terrorizing the hapless enemies. It’s every boy’s ninja-themed power-fantasy and it feels REALLY good to get through a level without ever being seen by the opposition.
Oh, incidentally, the storytelling happens to be amazing, too. The narrative leads the player to a decision at the end and, depending on the choice made, the ninja’s journey can take on wildly different overtones.
Mostly, though, I just like to creep around in the shadows and stab guys.