2012 has been an interesting year, one likely to be remembered as the turning-point when enthusiast hearts and minds shifted away from the current console generation. However, this was far from a gap year.
On the contrary, 2012 was a fantastically varied year in gaming, where smaller passion projects consistently outpaced their blockbuster counterparts. Excitement for the next cycle and the continuing dominance of Steam have given a much wider range of experiences time in the spotlight. This ultimately points to a healthy industry, and that's something we can all get behind.
While our site-wide awards have been in full swing this week, what follows is my personal top ten games of 2012.
10. Spec Ops: The Line
In a year full of polarizing games, Yager's Spec Ops: The Line was far from immune to the heightened forum fray. I ended up falling somewhere in between those who saw this 21st century twist on Heart of Darkness as a mechanical mess with heavy-handed player choices, and those who placed great thematic significance behind each sandy texture and upside down flag. Ultimately, despite periods of somewhat uninspired first-person shooting, The Line's unique setting, excellent use of licensed music, and deceptively ambiguous moments of choice really stuck with me - the latter being the most important, by far. Spec Ops lulls the player into thinking they're faced with a binary set of undesirable options, while subtly adding layers of choice which only become clear upon further reflection. I can only hope the ideas Spec Ops experiments with are embraced by others.
9. Mark of the Ninja
Simply put: Mark of the Ninja is a huge creative step forward for Klei Entertainment. My initial interest in the game was tempered by the mistaken impression Klei was looking for ways to get more out of their engine, shoehorning stealth mechanics into the mix after going to the well multiple times with Shank and increasingly coming up dry. As it turns out, this impression could not have been further from the truth. While Shank was always prettier than it was fun to play for extended periods, Mark of the Ninja is an expertly designed 2D stealth game, one which uses the aforementioned engine's impressive visual presentation as a mere bonus. Klei's stealth entry uses the player's broad perspective to intuitively present all of their options - something the genre as a whole often struggles to accomplish. Coupled with a string of increasingly clever scenarios to test your ninja skills, I found myself naturally driven to pursue the game's high-level challenges, which is a true testament to the strength of its design.
8. Sound Shapes
Sound Shapes is an absolute gem. Much like Jonathan Mak's previous work with Everyday Shooter, Sound Shapes finds inventive ways to meaningfully incorporate music and rhythm into its mechanics, without sacrificing the systems-driven approach and sense of agency we've have come to associate with the industry's "art house" offerings. This made traversing the visually charming levels throughout Sound Shapes, adding layers to each artist's song along the way, a treat for more than just the ears. Everything from Beck's curated campaign finale, to the world of user-created levels on PlayStation 3 and/or Vita is worth experiencing.
The rougelike renaissance continues to produce gold, with everything from the PC darlings The Binding of Isaac and FTL: Faster Than Light, to Ubisoft's ZombiU getting in on the masochistic action in wonderfully varied ways. However, it was another worthy contender, Derek Yu's XBLA update of Spelunky, which drew me in and refused to let go. Spelunky's fantastic combination of just-out-of-reach objectives and massive roster of randomly generated environments, items and secret areas made each attempt feel, regardless of the end result, connected to my overarching dialogue with the game, one where simply cataloging a discovery felt like completing a level. Spelunky's addictive nature was reminiscent of my time with Super Meat Boy, and that's high praise.
Alongside Mark of the Ninja and Hitman: Absolution, Dishonored's unique take on stealth mechanics made 2012 a great year for junkies of this often maligned genre. That being said, labelling Dishonored as a stealth game, without caveat, would do a massive disservice to its other accomplishments. In the vein of Deus Ex before it, Dishonored succeeds in giving the player a toolbox of options to approach its sandbox levels and objectives. Whether playing as a silent assassin or rampaging maniac, Arkane skillfully balances the game to accommodate a wide variety of play styles. As you may have guessed, I happened to approach Dishonored in a decidedly and obsessively stealthy manner, patiently lurking in the shadows to plan the perfect kill. In a word: satisfaction.
Taken from my <a href="http://www.gamingunion.net/reviews/fez--680.html">Fez review earlier this year: "Meticulously crafted at every turn, the true nature of Fez's ambition only becomes clear after many hours of play, making its extended, rocky development come as no surprise. Fez quietly disguises itself as a playful platformer, with one clever gameplay hook and a handful of puzzles tossed in for good measure. Eventually, it's obvious you've been deceived, that behind the welcoming retro-inspired aesthetic lies an extremely cerebral, shockingly deliberate puzzler at its core. This realization makes Fez unique in so many ways, going far beyond its perspective-shifting antics and showing an incredible attention to detail..." That about sums it up.
4. Mass Effect 3
Looking back, it's really unfortunate the heated debate surrounding Mass Effect 3's ending became so toxic, because regardless of where you stand on the specifics, the Mass Effect trilogy produced one of the richest, most engrossing universes in gaming. Personally, aside from the clumsy way the final decision was presented, I didn't have a major problem with the original ending. Shepard's final act delivered the series' best combat, and closure for a band of characters I'd grown quite attached to over the span of a truly epic journey. Warts and all, I salute you, Mass Effect 3.
3. The Walking Dead
I can't remember the last time a game caused me to get visibly choked up, on the break of tears. On second thought, I can... It happened during the gripping finale of Telltale's The Walking Dead. The strong bond I felt between my personalized version of Lee Everett and Clementine is a testament to the strength of The Walking Dead's storytelling throughout its five-episode span. Having no direct knowledge of the series' comic book source material, I can at least say Telltale's take is a substantial upgrade in characterization and atmosphere over the TV show - the series' socially apocalyptic setting is just so ripe for interactive moral dilemma. When coupled with a series of clever refinements to the adventuring dialogue format, the sky's the limit for The Walking Dead's second season.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Firaxis have had an incredible year. From the Gods & Kings expansion which got me immediately hooked on Civilization V, to the revival of another classic strategy franchise in XCOM, Firaxis sit alone on top of the turn-based strategy throne. While I never played the original XCOM releases, I was instantly intrigued by the concept of sci-fi-inspired, squad-based tactics within the methodical turn-based format, but even that didn't prepare me to become so thoroughly addicted to the constant tension that is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. When all was said and done, it was the macro base-building portions which I remember most over my countless hours with the game. Firaxis struck a masterful balance between approachable controls and punishing consequences, making managing your resources feel like an endless struggle, but one that was always within reach of salvation.
What is there to say about Journey? Well, much like thatgamecompany's previous work, Journey is an experience unlike anything else in gaming, or entertainment as a whole. Thatgamecompany's latest effort possesses an absolutely stunning aesthetic, incredible attention to detail and a masterful sense of pacing, which all come together to allow Journey to tell a story with euphoric highs and crushing lows worthy of its predecessor, Flower. However, it's Journey's innovative approach to multiplayer that arguably leads to the most memorable moments this time around. By stripping your interaction with another player down to the base essentials of communication, you're able to relate to others on a universally human level, as both travellers progress along independent, but interconnected, journeys. Even with all of that in mind, I wasn't entirely sure Journey was my 'Game of the Year', until I showed it to a friend - after several months away from the game myself - and simply watched them play. Seeing another person absolutely mesmerized by every grain of sand and piece of tapestry reminded me of my own sense of wonder, and sealed the deal. Journey is in a class of its own.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Far Cry 3
Sid Meier's Civilization V: Gods & Kings
The Unfinished Swan