30 December 2012

My Top 7 Games of the Year 2012

I haven't played every notable video game that released in 2012, but I have played a fair whack of them, and I wanted to highlight them here.

NUMBER SEVEN: Borderlands 2

 I tried to get into Borderlands last year, and once again this year, but it just didn't hook me the way the sequel did.  I'm not certain what was so different about Borderlands 2 that made me hunger for loot and level-ups; perhaps the smart writing and humorous dialogue greased the wheels.  All I know is that with Borderlands 2, I now care what guns I'm carrying; I now want to tick off everything on my to-do list; I now want to play a first person shooter for more than 50 hours...

NUMBER SIX: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I don't play many strategy games, but when I do, it's usually a well-crafted one by Firaxis.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown is no exception, and may well be my favourite strategy game this side of Civilisation II.  I was emotionally invested in my squad, and not wanting to see them die horribly was the key motivator to playing the game patiently and properly.

NUMBER FIVE: Mass Effect 3

Sure, Mass Effect 3's ending left a lot to be desired, but every story beat brought a Mass Effect story thread to a satisfying conclusion.  Some of these moments were among the most deeply moving experiences I've ever had playing a video game.  It's not the best Mass Effect game, but it was worth it just to see Garrus, Thane, and Mordin one last time.

NUMBER FOUR: Mark of the Ninja

Mark of the Ninja was the most mechanically satisfying game I played all year.  The controls are tight and super-smooth, the ninja's arsenal is versatile and interesting, and the game deftly transmits feedback to the player.  All of these things are paramount for a stealth game, but what's most remarkable about Mark of the Ninja is that it makes all of these things work in 2D.  2D stealth has never been done before, but this game will make you wonder why nobody tried it sooner.


Journey is one of the most beautiful games ever created, inside and out.  It is filled with the awe of discovery. Discovering another player for the first time; discovering that close proximity to that player increases your ability to fly, and keeps you warm in a snowstorm.  It's magical.  By limiting player communication to a single sound and a single button press, it manages to forge unspoken bonds between complete strangers.  So much so, my stranger-turned friend and I simply stopped and stood on top of a hill, just to look at the sky.  It was a rare moment of shared beauty.

NUMBER TWO: Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami is a horrible 80s cocaine binge in the best possible way.  Its broken-record soundtrack, hazy filter, and wavering camera put me right in the disturbed headspace of its protagonist.  In a way, the game is a systematic, stealth action game.  But its one-hit-one-kill policy rewards the brazen far more than the methodical.  The game kills you until you are a genuinely better player.  Twitch reflexes develop; muscle memory sets in.  Make no mistake, I died many times during the course of Hotline Miami, but I thought to myself, just one more try, EVERY time.  The game design really serves and encourages this with quick controls and quick restarts.  Clearing a level is satisfying because it can only be done quickly and flawlessly.  It is also harrowing because the music stops and the game forces you to reflect upon your violence as you do the walk of shame back to your car.  Hotline Miami is conceptually brilliant: the most violent statement against violence in video games.

And NUMERO UNO is...

The Walking Dead video game is not only superior to the television show; it is better than the comic book series that spawned them both.  The emotional bond with its characters is strengthened by the interactive nature of the medium.  Its high stakes plot is raised by throwing the player into heart-wrenching decision-making.  The Walking Dead treats player choice with the deepest respect, and yet there is a fatalism that propels its story.  Often those choices will be between abandoning or mercy-killing a doomed friend or family member.  At two particular points, the weight of these decisions reduced me to a weeping, sobbing mess.  By the game's conclusion, I felt like an empty shell of a man - a zombie, if you will - and it took me a long time to recover.  It's not often I can say that about a video game, let alone any form of entertainment.  Congratulations Walking Dead, you are my Game of the Year for 2012.