We’ve been talking about Game of the Year stuff as a matter of course over at Game Front. Everyone makes their top picks each year, and while we’re streamlining the number of awards and hullabaloo that’s going into it for 2012, we’re still doing it.
At Game Front, the system is democratic, and certainly a few of my favorites aren’t going to get mentioned. But I played a lot of really solid games this year, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to run them down and bring back the Tuesday Top 5 list convention, which I’ve fallen off from lately.
5. Slender: The Eight Pages
For Game Front’s “indie” game of the year category, Slender: The Eight Pages was my choice. It’s a remarkable little game, and while I’ve talked quite a few times about my interest in the Slenderman myth, it’s not really the enemy character that gives the game its weight or scares — it’s the atmosphere and pitch-perfect pacing. Slender is a game that’s about little more than walking around in the dark, finding creepy notes, but the tension escalates in an incredible way. Great sound design and music coupled with an utterly oppressive landscape of full darkness, save for your flashlight, leaves you surrounded by the unknown. Slender only lasts 20 or so minutes on a given playthrough, and yet it captivated the Internet this year and spawned many an imitator and homage.
I’ve been engaged in a number of interesting discussions about Dishonored’s triumphs, as well as its failures, but overall, I very much enjoyed the game and its lore. I’ve theorized that it’s important to play Dishonored with an eye toward stealth and exploration to really get everything out of it that it offers. More than the gameplay mechanics, which I enjoyed, though, it’s the rich and expansive world created by developer Arkane Studios that really got me. I want to know more about this decadent, awful world they’ve created and the horrible people who live within it. I want to understand their religious beliefs and the powers inherent in the leviathans of the sea who make their way of life possible. I want to see more of the city of Dunwall. In the end, I very much enjoyed visiting it.
3. Natural Selection 2 / XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Lots of games are challenging, but few are quite so challenging or quite so rewarding as Natural Selection 2. It’s an asynchronous multiplayer title, which means that the two teams of players fighting each other are different — one controls a group of human marines, and the other controls members of a diverse alien race with multiple creatures under its thrall. Natural Selection 2 expects you to pay attention and learn a lot in order to play it, but you constantly feel like you’re improving. It rewards you for being good, it’s not just a series of battles in which you do everything the same, but whoever saw the opponent first wins. For that, I’ve spent lots of time playing it, and mean to spend even more.
XCOM is just crazy addictive. It never lets up, either: the turn-based strategy of sending your squad into battle against alien adversaries is almost always difficult, and balancing the other half of the game, in which you allot limited resources to the defense of Earth, is extremely engaging as well. I always feel like I’m losing at XCOM, even when I’m winning, which is exactly the kind of feeling you want a game about a scary extraterrestrial invasion of the planet to feel like.
2. Tribes: Ascend
Even better than Natural Selection 2 for multiplayer has been Tribes: Ascend, though. The game is built on speed — players have the ability not only to fly for limited distances with jetpacks, but also to “ski” down hills to pick up incredible amounts of speed. I’ve never played a game quite so fast and frantic as Tribes: Ascend, and especially when engaging in capture the flag, the game is incredibly quick and a lot of fun. It also requires an investment to pick up, like Natural Selection 2, and it also rewards you for your time by making you feel like an absolute bad-ass more and more often.
1. The Walking Dead
Hands down, the best gaming experience I’ve had this year, and I’ve had a number of great ones. Each episode of The Walking Dead has left me hungry for more, though, and I’ve waited with more anticipation for the release of each new installment than any other game this year. The Walking Dead packs an absolutely phenomenal story with great characters, and it does choice beautifully — even though your choices might not directly change a situation’s outcome, you always feel like you’ve shaped yourself. How the others in your group perceive you, what they think and feel about you, whether they’re angry with you or not — those things are yours and you shape them, even if you can’t change where those people ultimately wind up in the end. It’s a spectacular gaming experience and speaks to the kinds of stories video games could be telling more of the time.
Honorable Mentions: Thomas Was Alone, Mass Effect 3
I highly recommend checking out Thomas Was Alone, a simple and short indie platformer. It’s the endearing narrative that really hooked me, even more than the gameplay, which is fun without ever being especially ground-breaking or challenging. Your goal is to move a group of geometric shapes through each level, and each has a different capability when it comes to jumping, so you’ll have to use the characters together to get them all out. But it’s the story, delivered by narrator Danny Wallace, that really makes this a memorable and, at times, beautiful experience.
As for Mass Effect 3, well … I’ve written extensively about the ending and the controversy it kicked up, and the truth is, the game is flawed on many levels. The gameplay itself oscillates from fun and tense to tedious and boring, and there’s an awful lot of filler in there. I’m not fan of the ending. But then there are the true moments, when story threads tie together and characters we’ve been traveling with for years come into their own, or sacrifice themselves, or suffer tragedy. Those moments are phenomenal, and playing through them, at the time, was amazing. It’s important to remember those good times, even if they’re tempered by some bad ones.
There are a number of other awesome games I got to this year, as well, and the vast majority were in the indie category. In fact, I found 2012 a bit of a disappointing year for the triple-A gaming establishment. Fine by me, however: there are plenty of awesome, smaller titles with which I can spend my time.