MassEffect3 2012-07-02 20-33-04-41

Back at the start of the year I remember a conversation which noted how good 2011 had been for games, while 2012 looked like it was going to be a quieter, less interesting year. Turns out that was an entirely incorrect prediction, as this has been one of the most exciting 12 months for gaming in quite some time. Without any further faffing, here are my top games of the year…

Dishonoured

After somehow sensing that this was going to be something special fairly early in its development, I went into a media lockdown, avoiding the vast slew of trailers and gameplay videos that progressively robbed the game of its wonder and mystery prior to release. As such, every part of the game was a joyous reveal as I played it, from the absolutely spot-on stealth mechanics to the super fast, viscerally satisfying combat. Dishonoured is a game about planning: much of it is spent lurking on ledges and rooftops, formulating a plan of either infiltration or attack. Then there are the frantic moments when everything is about to go wrong and there’s half a second to hide before being spotted by guards.

The slick, exceedingly fun stealth/exploration/combat trio is built upon a distinctive and fresh world. The city of Dunwall lives and breathes around you and, while Dishonoured is a game with a linear narrative, it feels more alive and convincing than any open world game I’ve played. It has verisimilitude seeping from every plague-ridden pore, from the architecture to the characters. It was referred to by many reviewers as a steampunk setting but it is closer to a kind of electropunk; Victoriana merged with high technology. It’s an alternate reality fantasy game that feels more ‘real’ than anything else I’ve played this year.

Dishonoured’s story has been criticised for not being about anything in particular, lacking any central theme or grand message. It’s a criticism that surprised me, as I found the story to be very overtly about the corrupting influence of power – hardly a new theme and it doesn’t exactly cover new ground, but the intent is definitely present. The game goes to great lengths to explain the motivations of its villains, characters which initially appear as cartoonish caricatures but which are gradually revealed to be flawed beings often doing what they thought was best in impossible situations. All characters have doubts about their actions and motivations, revealed either through writings or the ingenious ‘heart’ power. The key question the game poses, then, is whether the player will become similarly corrupted.

Journey

(Edit: I omitted Journey from this article originally, having forgotten that it was a 2012 game. For shame.)

Journey more-or-less single handedly made my PS3 a worthy investment this year (well, along with its blu-ray capabilities, I suppose). Playstation 3 is an almost entirely derelict games platform for me, offering very little of any interest. It looked promising at first, with the likes of Heavy Rain, the early Uncharteds, Brutal Legend, plus of course the precursor to Journey, Flower. But in the following years nothing has caught my attention that hasn’t also been available on PC (usually in a superior form). When it comes to games, Playstation 3 simply is targeting a completely different demographic.

Then they went and released Journey, one of the finest games I’ve ever payed. Exquisitely designed with a focus on enjoyment rather than challenge, it’s a highly linear adventure in which you play a floaty guy with a long scarf that can fly a bit, traversing a vertical world of sand and ruined architecture. Visually and aurally it’s a towering achievement and it’s also found a way to ensure rewarding co-op play between strangers, with minimal communications options actually resulting in a far more memorable and resonant experience for two players journeying together.

Simply wonderful.

Spec Ops: The Line

Talking of power corrupting, we have Spec Ops: The Line. I reviewed this in detail a while back and it’s remained my joint fave of the year, alongside Dishonoured. The difference here is that Spec Ops is all about themes and big questions, while its gameplay remains very traditional and unremarkable – although it could be argued, if one was being particularly obtuse, that Spec Ops’ mundane gameplay is a deliberate comment on the action genre.

In terms of story there’s never been a game quite like Spec Ops, and I suspect we won’t see the like of it again for quite some time.

Mass Effect 3

Here’s a game that will be remembered entirely for its last 30 minutes, a bizarre narrative mis-step that seriously pissed off a lot of people. The extended cut, for me, resolved the issues and provided a satisfactory ending to the trilogy but the key thing to note is that the entirety of ME3 is serving as en ending, not just the final scenes. It’s a game all about endings, from sacrifices by long-known characters to the end of entire races. The game does an incredible job throughout of making your decisions from the previous two games have purpose and consequence – even if your influence is not so apparent at the very end.

The conclusion to the Krogan and Geth storylines were stunning in their scope and multi-game build-up, and it’s those storylines that remain stuck in my mind, rather than the big Reaper shenanigans. Bioware’s greatest achievement with this series is in having a persistent player character, one that I’m so familiar with that it feels odd I’ll never see him again. His face is so recognisable to me that I half expect him to show up in other, unrelated games, just as a favourite actor will appear in many unconnected movies.

XCOM & FTL

Neither of these games are ones I would expect to enjoy, as I left the strategy genre behind many years ago after finding it all rather too much hard work. XCOM and FTL both manage to imbue their number crunching with emergent, player-driven narratives that feel very personal. While driven by random events and encounters, there’s just enough player influence to make it feel like I’m in charge, albeit in a difficult and unpredictable universe. They provide excellent examples of non-linear storytelling that is nonetheless powered by the player, giving the illusion of a structured, authored experience.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron

War for Cybertron, the first game in this series, had largely terrible gameplay but absolutely nailed the Transformers feel. They harked back to the glory days of the 1980s G1 Transformers, with clear influence from the outstanding UK comic as well as the (mostly ropey) TV show. The style and tone served to highlight just how awful Michael Bay’s movies really are.

This year’s sequel ratchets up the storytelling and style but, most importantly, makes the game actually fun to play. The combat is fast, slick and varied. The transformations have more purpose, being actively useful in combat and exploration. The levels shift from all-out assault to stealth and semi-platforming. It’s a hilariously over-the-top game in every respect and is likely to seem like utter nonsense to anybody who isn’t already a Transformers fan. But if you still have your 1980s toys in a box in the garage, this game is made for you.

From Dust

This is quite old but I only got round to playing it this year, courtesy of a Steam sale. It’s a simplistic God game, quite short but epic in visual scope. Working against the clock to protect villages from enormouse, physics-driven tidal waves and volcanic eruptions provided perhaps the most awe-inspiring gaming moments of my year.

Dear Esther

Many people bang on about this not being a game. I’m not terribly interested in that argument and don’t feel it’s relevant to, well, much of anything. Regardless of what it is or isn’t, Dear Esther gave me a couple of hours of engrossing, whimsical story. It’s linear and basic, but the simple ability to walk around within a narrative and drive it at my own pace seems to add a level of investment that I don’t necessarily find in other mediums. It feels like something new and if anybody follows in its footsteps we could be in for some very interesting future projects indeed.

Stacking

Talking of whimsy, Double Fine have created in Stacking a gloriously silly and fun puzzle game with a beautiful, miniaturised steampunk setting. It’s a world inhabited entirely by Russian dolls, and finding the right type of doll to jump inside (ooer) is the source of all the game’s frivolity. Harmless and charming.

And finally…

Three games which I’m loving but haven’t played nearly enough to form a final opinion on would be Sword & Sworcery, Lone Survivor and The Walking Dead. All have their own unique styles and feel like they’re trying to push the edges of traditional gameplay.

Meanwhile, Guild Wars 2 surprised me by being an MMO that is actually fun – not that I actually have time to play it.

Finally, the biggest disappointment of the year has to be Max Payne 3: superb gun-wielding slo-mo action entirely ruined by an overload of cutscenes. Although I suppose that’s not quite as bad as Uncharted 3, which turned out to be rather rubbish gun-wielding made tolerable by decent storytelling.

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