Game of the Year 2012

NB: I wrote up the following post at the end of 2012 and blogged it on another site, as Internal Robots did not yet exist to put it on. For posterity’s sake, here it is now for all your viewing pleasure. Please note that this particular GOTY list is my own person list, and not necessarily representative of the Internal Robots crew as a whole. At this time I don’t know how any future GOTY features will be handled, so I thought it was worth pointing out.

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I have been intending to write up a GOTY list for the past month or so, but could never bring myself to sit down and sift through the “shortlist” (somewhere in the mid-20s) that I had been keeping throughout the year. I also knew that the only thing worse than picking my top 10 would be ordering them. Thankfully, listening to the folks at GiantBomb debate their picks made many of my own preferences very apparent as I cheered internally to Jeff championing Syndicate and sighed with relief as Far Cry 3 was denied either of the first two places.

That’s not to say I entirely agree with their end result, though I was generally satisfied, but what they really brought to the table in this were some wonderful cases that reminded me just why I loved some of the games I played through this year. Having said that, I now realise that probably half of the games I played were done so in the name of “catching up”, and that this list would be quite different if I were to include some of my choice picks from the last two or three years that I only recently have gotten to. But it doesn’t, so who cares?

Before I start the list, I would like to make the probably redundant point that these are the games I have played (at least) significant portions of. There are several games that I would very much like to play, and several I would like to play more of, and I am certain that a lot of these would at least be in consideration for a position on this list, but time makes fools of us all, and completing my last year of University didn’t leave me with much of it. Wait… does that make me less of a fool? Huh… Anyway, I would like to serve up the following honorable mentions to games I feel would have had a shot at the list had I been able to play them/play enough of them in time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Dust: An Elysian Tale
  • Dishonored
  • Fez
  • Journey
  • The Witcher 2 (360 Edition)

Anything else left unmentioned I either played and it didn’t make the cut, or I forgot it, or I don’t care. Now onto the Top 10!

10. FTL: Faster Than Light

Other than the battle for first place, this final slot was the most contentious. There were several games that very nearly clawed their way onto the list, but in the end FTL clinched it. My reasoning for FTL over the other games that were vying for this slot was simple: I have played more individual sessions of FTL than any other game this year. Part of that would be to do with how incredibly short a session of FTL may last, but I wouldn’t want to sell it short.

FTL is a cruel mistress. It is so simple and undemanding, and allows you to stop time at any moment to issue commands, compose yourself or cry a little, and yet thirty billion things can somehow manage to go wrong at once. You are so very subject to chance and luck, yet there is also such a degree of skill and timing that comes into play, it’s impossible to know how any scenario will play out. Battles can be over in seconds or last a lifetime, with half your crew lost and all but one station being knocked out at any one time. Rooms will catch fire at a mild glance, and alien-spider-creature-jerks will always seem to just outrun the oxygen you’re ripping out your airlocks.

It’s a horribly exhilarating experience, and yet I keep coming back for more. It must be that little part of your brain that says “Fuck yes! This is terrible!”. How did that ever evolve? Admittedly, I’m still playing on easy (I did start on normal to little success), and I’ve only once made it to the final encounter, at which I was promptly obliterated. I’ve been playing better of late, but seem to be having worse luck, it’s quite maddening indeed. Oh, and the music is brilliant.

9. Borderlands 2

Admittedly, I have not finished Borderlands 2 either. This is largely due to the fact that I didn’t pick up the first game until early this year, and didn’t finish it until a few weeks after 2 came out. So when I came to play Borderlands 2, I was pretty burnt out of the concept. The other reason is that I have been playing 4-player co-op, which makes organising a time to play a touch difficult. I believe both my single-player and co-op games are at a similar level of progress.

Having said that, I find Borderlands 2 to be very much an improved Borderlands – as it should be. It is very iterative but given how much I ended up enjoying the first game, I’m not overly concerned by that. It is just unfortunate that I played it so recently. However, the joy of playing with three other people greatly outweighs that downside. I generally much prefer to play games on my own, (Gears of War and secondary play-throughs of Halo being among the few exceptions) so it is indeed a great experience to play Borderlands 2 with friends. The shouts of “I’m down!”, the division of loot, the confusion over where half my UI was while we were playing split-screen… its all added so much to my opinion of this game.

The great variety of weapons, most of which are very satisfying to fire (if in many different ways), the ridiculous encounters and… a decent amount of the humour, make for a very enjoyable experience that I find to be lighter than most shooters and thus ideal for the social elements I have enjoyed so much. I very much want to play more Borderlands 2, schedule of others permitting.

8. Mark of the Ninja

I have not finished Mark of the Ninja, but am confident that what I have played is adequately representative of the experience, and it is an experience that I have very much enjoyed. I have little taste for stealth games for the most part, with most of my appreciation being for those in which you can stealth until spotted, but can then resort to violence (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored, etc.), so Mark of the Ninja has been a welcome change of pace and real treat.

It is visually unique and aesthetically pleasing, but what it does so well is conveying all the information you need and granting you access to all the tools you choose/require. The result is the ultimate ninja power-fantasy where you are capable of performing just about every action you would want to do as a ninja at the drop of a hat, with all consequences apparent before the hat falls. Your bag of tricks is deep and varied, and being able to select your preferred items makes for a great way to vary gameplay and approach puzzles and problems from different angles.

The setting is unconventional for a ninja-based concept, but intelligently selected and designed to make the most enjoyable use of all skills, and many of the levels also allow for multiple paths as well as a variety of viable tactics. The controls are smooth and finely tuned, the animations are beautiful, and the lighting is both visually pleasing and well-employed mechanically. The scoring system is well designed and balanced and the inclusion of level-specific challenges and objectives add even more replayability and difficulty. I look forward to being able to play more of this game.

7. Far Cry 3

Much as with Sleeping Dogs, Far Cry 3 brought immensely satisfying combat to the table. Unlike Sleeping Dogs, it was more concerned with guns, explosions and some excessively gymnastic take-downs. As much as I enjoyed the shooting in Far Cry, and it was a lot, in direct comparison with Sleeping Dogs (as it has found itself given my ordering of this list), I just found that I prefer well executed melee combat over shooting most of the time.

The game is visually stunning, and plays very smoothly. I don’t know what all the complaints for the 360 version are about, I had very few frame-rate issues, sure as I am the PC version would still be a better experience. The world is fun to explore, the animals are unnaturally resilient, but reasonably so from a gameplay and balancing standpoint. The gun customisations were a fine addition, but I found that after burning through a few story missions and some outpost quests, I was able to afford the few guns and upgrades that would last me most of the game. Hunting was fun, and unfortunately addictive, as I burnt through a lot of it early on. I thankfully realised before it was quite too late, and spaced out my extra-curricular activities around the storyline more, as it regrettably needed to be broken up. That’s where this gets unpleasant. The story.

It starts out on a great foot and features a fantastic villain, only to be hampered by over-reliance on drug trips and dream sequences, and ultimately squandered on a pretty mundane third act. The disappointing story wasn’t aided by the sub-par story missions that often became corridor shooters or stealth sequences without killing. I found that the story lead you across the island a good pace, so that you could explore and free outposts at a good rate to break up the story, but never venturing far off track. This seemed to fall apart once you move to the other island though. The handful of story-missions on the second island are overwhelmed by the amount of outposts and radio towers to a ridiculous extent, and the story missions jump from one side to the other with no clear path to follow.

Far Cry 3 was, for the most part, a very enjoyable game, but I really can’t entirely forgive a game with such faults at it’s core. I would almost argue that if the roles were reversed – if the story paid off and the story missions were as fun as the open-world, but the open-world was so lacklustre – that I may have been more impressed by this game. But then maybe it would have nothing so unique to catch the eye. Who knows? I freed the last handful of outposts and collected the last couple items I needed to get an achievement or two right before the last mission. I felt no need to come back to the world.

6. Sleeping Dogs

I wasn’t intending on playing Sleeping Dogs, but then a friend wouldn’t shut up about it for a solid week after it’s release, so I figured I would give it a go. I’m glad I did. The combat was incredibly satisfying, the upgrade paths rewarding, the driving fun, the world interesting and visually stunning, and the story was entertaining and well executed, if not overly original.

For an open-world game it was pretty darn polished, with no weird quirks coming to mind, and only one instance of a broken quest (and it was a side-quest, so I wasn’t overly concerned). The combat was very fluid and savagely satisfying, so much so that I would often drive around town to find a group of enemies just so I could run them over a few times before leaping out of the car to break their various limbs. That might say something about my psyche… Oh well. The gunplay wasn’t superb, but passable and infrequent enough that it didn’t really drag the experience down. I found the story surprisingly entertaining, even if it was fairly linear and predictable, which may come down to how unafraid of some ridiculous gore, explosions or gang vs. gang scenarios they were.

I went out of my way to complete side-quests and hunt collectibles and the like, which I don’t often do in games, played through the whole game in only a few sittings. It was certainly an addictive experience. By the end, however, I felt as though I had had my fill, and after cleaning up a few imminent achievements, I was happy to part ways with game. It didn’t overstay it’s welcome by any means, and had I more free time I may have possibly gone back for DLC, but was certainly content without it.

5. Mass Effect 3

Kind of a similar story here as with Halo 4 (and I don’t mean the “chosen one” deal). Disappointed by where the story ultimately went, but won over by the gameplay and the bulk of the narrative/its quality. I came fairly late to the Mass Effect ship (which is confusing given my love of Bioware, RPGs and Sci-Fi), but played through all three in close succession within the last year (mostly within the last 6 months) and grew quickly invested. I avoided the specifics of this whole debacle surrounding ME3, but was prepared for the worst when I came into it. Aaaaand about an hour after getting away from Mars I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for a few months.

“Quickly, save Earth! …and do whatever you want for as long as you want.” The setup and pacing immediately turned me off, but I eventually came back to it and it turns out taking that time off resolved the pacing issue somewhat, as when I came back it felt more or less like a mid-game Mass Effect scenario. The stories were still well-told, even if some of them perhaps didn’t need to be told, the characters were mostly of the calibre I would expect, and my Shepard was able to continue pretty much as he always had. The incidental side-quests were awful and creepily overheard, but ultimately negligible. The constant cameos from my past were ridiculous, but not unexpected, and perhaps would have worked a lot better if they were a bit more at all spread out. The combat was the best it had ever been, and I had learned to play a lot more dynamically, making it all the more enjoyable.

I wasn’t a fan of wrapping up every single issue in the universe that had been established across such an extensive history, but each individual story was pretty enjoyable on it’s own. I was also able to hold onto the hope of “no way is this peace going to last in the long run, all these species/factions are jerks!”. Then came the ending. I didn’t hate the ending/s. I found the final choices to be somewhat appropriate thematically… but the issue was that they were just that: choices. There was not an ounce of influence on the decision from my three full games of story other than my Shepard is a good guy, which really didn’t make much difference in the ambiguous options. That kind of pissed me off. But only for the extent of making that choice, which I did mull over for some time.

The epilogue cutscenes were for the most part fine (granted I had the extended editions) and actually went some way to plant the final seed of intrigue into the future of the Mass Effect universe. So that’s what it came down to: I ultimately enjoyed my Mass Effect 3 experience, and it definitely left me wanting another great story (though very much separate) from that universe… but certainly not any more Mass Effect 3.

4. Halo 4

I’ll start with the negatives. I was disappointed with where the story went in Halo 4. It was not what I was hoping for from a fresh trilogy; that is to say, it wasn’t very fresh. The whole chosen one thing? Bummer. The Covenant vs. Marines crutch? Bummer. But I will at least say that, while I don’t agree with the direction 343 chose to take, they executed on it very well. My only other issue would be the Prometheans. They were fine enemies, and I was glad to get some new ones, but I would have liked a couple more different breeds.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the positives. 343: You made a Halo game. That is a fantastic achievement for someone that isn’t – sorry – wasn’t the makers of Halo. Halo 4 plays, looks and feels like Halo in all the right ways. Having not played much Halo in quite some time, it was a delight to slip straight back into that Spartan armour and feel at home immediately. But it goes even beyond that. Halo 4 is a stunningly beautiful game, so much so that I really wish it were on PC so it wasn’t restrained by the ageing 360 hardware. The new weapons, enemies and their death animations are gorgeous and the world they inhabit is somehow very Halo whilst being infinitely more alien and detailed than ever before.

And then there’s the multiplayer. I was raised on Halo LAN parties and competitions. Some of my fondest gaming memories are of a couple dozen people filling my cousin’s house with TV’s and Xbox’s for a full day of intense Halo carnage. Yet I never played any online Halo multiplayer. Well that has certainly changed now. I said before that XCOM wasn’t the game to consume the most of my time this year, Halo may very well be. Halo 4 came out the week I finished my final semester. The next two weeks were pretty much all spent in a wide variety of online games with any combination of my friends that were available, or slowly working my way through the campaign whilst waiting for someone to come online. Sadly, I burnt out not long afterwards, but the majority of my time in it was very enjoyable.

I am cautiously optimistic as I await the next instalment in the Halo series. I can now trust that 343 will make a good game, and a good Halo game at that, it only remains to be seen if they can craft a story that will recapture my interest.

3. Syndicate

I had to import Syndicate, as it was refused classification in Australia. That decision would also be on my Top 10 Best Decisions of 2012 list. There is little about Syndicate that didn’t speak to me. The concept, the art direction, the soundtrack, the setting, and so much more. Beautifully crafted gameplay and fun shooting, combined with delightful, smooth and frankly badass powers and set in cyberpunk, corporate controlled future? What could go wrong? Nothing, really. My chief complaint would be a less-than-original story arc (though the overall story concept is brilliant and right up my alley), but despite that I found the story to be interesting, entertaining and dynamic enough to keep me playing. Not that it needed to though, as the gameplay was more than enough.

The real genius behind Syndicate, and reason I had such a great time playing it, was the co-op. The missions set out a nice variety of objectives, in a great mix of locations, with a challenging array of enemies – though I was consistently finishing all the missions on the hardest difficulty last time I played, it certainly wasn’t with ease. Add on a levelling system, with great perks and upgrades to keep you going, as well as leader-boards and user syndicates for guilds, and you’ve got yourself some great multiplayer. The only thing missing was extra mission DLC. Damn you, EA! Syndicate was honestly the most enjoyable co-op experience I have ever had, and I often feel the desire the dive back in. Starting to wonder why this isn’t even higher on my list now…

2. The Walking Dead

I have never been a fan of episodic content in any form. I prefer to watch shows en masse and play games in as few sittings as possible, so I was very pleasantly surprised (you know, other than where it was horribly devastating) when The Walking Dead sunk it’s zombie-claws into me right in Episode 1. I am so glad that I did jump in at the start, for several reasons. For one, it meant that I was able to undertake lengthy conversation with two of my friends that were playing as well. It was incredibly enjoyable to compare decisions, reminisce over lost companions and speculate as to where our adventures would take us. It also allowed for very necessary recovery time between episodes.

To describe The Walking Dead as an emotional roller-coaster would imply a very downward orientated roller-coaster. The game violently abuses you at every turn, but apparently in just the right way to keep you coming back for more (a pretty sick relationship now that I think about it). But it’s all worth it, right? ‘Cause when you get to the end there’s closure and accomplishment and peace, right? Nope! That wound stays open. Open and bleeding. Why? Because your body doesn’t know how to respond: video games have never done that before. Also, you’re dead. I’m not an emotional person, and certainly not when it comes to media-induced emotions, but The Walking Dead managed to tell an amazing story whilst making me feel as though I were playing a huge role, and making me feel. Few games have ever even come close, and none of them killed me to do it. Well played, Telltale.

I was very fortunate in that I encountered almost no technical issues in my play-through (PC version). The only issue I did encounter was a save that didn’t take mid-way through Episode 3, so I had to replay maybe 5 minutes at most.

1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It was a hard decision for first place. Comparing The Walking Dead and XCOM: Enemy Unknown is like comparing Future Gameplay Apples and Zombie Story Oranges – very confusing. Where XCOM defines itself through stellar, strategic gameplay, The Walking Dead does so through deep, interactive storytelling, both to tremendous effect.

XCOM is not the game I have sunk the most time into this past year, but it is certainly the game that magically stole the most time from me, as only Firaxis can. Magic, you say? Yes, magic. It never seems like a bad idea to start up a game at 10PM when you have a pile of Uni assignments to get to (though maybe it should). “Just a mission or two” I say to myself. A few moments later it’s 3AM, but I’ve kept to my word as I’ve only completed two missions because my heavy that I’ve had since Mission #2 got stuck in a infinite-death-loop thanks to the autosave and it’s taken hours of reloading, strategising and experimentation to save him so I don’t have to restart the mission, despite the fact that doing so would have saved infinite time and Carlos’ life. Magic.

I didn’t really have any of the technical issues many people seemed to experience. I had two instances of being stuck in “Alien Activity”, but was able to exit the game and reload with relatively little progress lost. My only real issue with XCOM was that I would have liked a more present and fleshed-out story. Having said that, I’ll readily admit that the story served it’s purpose of providing a context for the fantastic strategy scenarios, and I never felt that it “needed” one, just that it could have made a brilliant game even more so. However, the level of personal investment gained through the randomly generated/personalised characters would never have been possible with scripted characters, and even if it was it would be far less impressive. I have never reloaded more saves in any game in my life, and that says it all.

The wonderfully cruel nature of chance in this game make for some incredibly rewarding scenarios, especially when you can manage to out manoeuvre said cruel chance. The choice provided in how you level your soldiers allows you to shape your own style of play, and the fine level of input combined with an intelligent but simple UI gives you a great level control on the battlefield. Even the worst-ending scenarios are a worthwhile experience, because ultimately it comes down to your choices. And I choose to reload.

A brilliant and masterfully created game.

In the end the decision between XCOM and TWD came down to two points:

  1. I can keep playing XCOM – that’s not a money:time value thing, it’s a “I want more of both of these!” thing, and XCOM can deliver on that.
  2. XCOM was very slightly less emotionally abusive. Whilst I love that The Walking Dead was able to do that, and I commend it for it, that wound is still a little fresh and oh so personal. But really that’s just an excuse to make a decision.

[Note: I ended up writing most of this between 3AM and 6AM after a full day at work. Why? Who knows. Point is, there may well be errors a-plenty in here.]

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