365 Days Worth of Gaming
2012 was a banner year in gaming for me. I went out of my way to play a lot of videogames, & had more than a few run-ins with analog boardgames.
To qualify for this list, these games:
- Were “beaten” in 2012, beaten meaning seeing the end credits roll and/or exhausting normal gameplay.
- Were released at some point before January 1st, 2013.
Okay here we go, & in no particular order other than how I remembered them so there’s probably some scale of favoritism here. Click any of the images to visit that game’s website.
RPG of the Year
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this stellar outing from Gearbox? The previous version, Borderlands, was kinda shitty. Shitty to the point where I didn’t really have any hope for the sequel. Then Randy Pitchford & the 2K marketing geniuses banged their penises together & sparks started flying. The hype was more or less impossible to resist, particularly if you were a shooter fanatic.
Even watching that now makes me want to pile more hours into the 120+ I’ve already dumped into this thing. Perfect controls, perfect characters, perfect environments. Perfect.
And the thing is, they keep adding to it! Gearbox is doing DLC right, carefully positioning each new module with the same care they did the original release.
Just one last quick sentence about this beauty: it’s in RPG of the Year because after you play it for 50-odd hours you start to realize that its design owes far more to the addiction-inducing grinds of Blizzard opuses Diablo & World of Warcraft than it does shooters like Call of Duty. And that’s a good thing. And this is actually 3 sentences.
Adventures of the Year
I didn’t want to like this game. The initial previews & bullshotty trailer had me thinking it was a lot of hype without substance. Sure enough, the game itself is nothing like that cinematic trailer.
This, however, is a good thing. A very good thing.
When I got my hands on a copy & went through the first level that introduces you to Dunwall & the world of Dishonored, I was spellbound. Dumbstruck. Another developer (the other being Gearbox with Borderlands) had taken the Unreal game engine & applied some common sense to it, going with a stylized look over the plastic lens-flared grit of Gears of War/Mass Effect. It was more like stepping into a watercolor painting, an experience similar to playing Sega WOW’s “Valkyria Chronicles“.
Then the game gave me reason to hate it. The first actual gameplay level is horrible. The stealth systems are not clearly communicated & very frustrating. I’m a huge stealth fan, having cut my teeth on Metal Gears & Splinter Cells, & I was woefully underserved by the opening of Dishonored.
HOWEVER, I overcame this by resorting back to something I hadn’t done in ages: the old save ‘n reload trick. Old-school PC gamers will remember this as the life-saving tactic that prevented many a broken keyboard back in the day, quicksaving before a suspiciously difficult challenge in a game to avoid having to do it all over again, & reloading upon failure.
Now, a lot of this has elements of DIAS, or “do it again, stupid” game design that I loathe. I prefer quick-time button mashing events to trial-and-error gameplay, that’s how much I hate DIAS. But the thing with Dishonored is that the bulk of the frustration is confined to that first area as you come to grips with playing the game a certain way. The way I wanted to go about it was stealthy, sneaky. If you want to murder everything in sight it’s actually a pretty easy game, even on the hardest setting. But you’re rewarded for not killing anyone, & not being seen. Plus I’d heard that the “best” ending was only shown after completely ghosting the thing. So I persevered, & after an hour or so I got my epiphany.
Once the game starts giving you powers (again, a mis-lead from the trailer as it appears that you get powers immediately, though such is not the case) the game opens up in breathtaking ways. The game designer in me was floored by the amount of choice offered in terms of combining powers to overcome levels. Make no mistake, it’s not an open-world game, but each “level” is beautifully crafted to serve the myriad abilities you have at your disposal.
When I finally beat the game & got my hard-earned “best” ending, all I wanted was more. From what I hear, Arkane is hard at work providing that more, & I’m looking forward to further exploring the world of Dishonored in 2013.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
It’s no secret I’m in love with transhumanism & cyberpunk. A lot of what I plan to do with Project Zero Eight revolves around these topics. The world of Deus Ex is a superb realization of a lot of the “possible futures” in store for humanity with the rise of cybernetics & augmentation.
I’d also finally beaten the original Deus Ex in ’12, & it would have earned a place on this list had it not been so overtly frustrating & soul-crushingly long. But what Deus Ex did for 3D cyberpunk games was a lot like what Blade Runner did for dystopian cinema. Although Philip K. Dick never got a chance to see the actual film, he had some words to say about it:
“Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment [that I saw] I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison.”
I felt the same when I first experienced Deus Ex back in ’00, & a lot of that feeling was renewed with Human Revolution. Combining bold visualization with an open-ended story & gameplay that supports the player’s moral choices & style, Deus Ex:HR is an absolute treat for futurists & transhumanists.
Everything that I wrote about Deus Ex could be written about Syndicate. This game garnered a lot of hate from purists who refused to see Bullfrog’s original game through anything but rose-tinted glasses, quite similar to how the 2012 re-imagining of Total Recall was vilified by critics who expected a frame-for-frame remake of the original.
If you could approach this with an open mind & an appreciation for the level of detail that Starbreeze is known for, you had an unrivaled experience. While Deux Ex was superior for overall narrative, there’s no denying the incredible visual fidelity present in Syndicate. For the first time in ages I felt like I was actually in the game. People bandy the term “immersion” around a lot, so much so that the word has almost lost its meaning in modern game design. But when you, as Kilo, jump down an elevator shaft & the camera adjusts to catch your landing, & you see your hand splay out & knee come up, & the sublime audio just melts in your ears it’s hard not to be present for those moments.
There’s plenty of homage to the original here as well, if you take the time to look for it. The environment design is the most detailed & fully-realized I’ve come across in any videogame outside of perhaps Half-Life 2 or Portal, & the handling of cybernetics is unparalleled. Another gem for the transhumanists out there, but make no mistake: this is a shooter at its core & a difficult one at that. But if you’ve got the chops it’s a hell of a ride & chock full of futuristic goodness.
The Walking Dead Season One
I wrote about this one back in July, & while it didn’t end as strong as it began it’s forever changed the face of what an adventure game can be. I have high hopes for Season Two.
Mind-Fuck of the Year
Spec Ops: The Line
Stealth of the Year
Mark of the Ninja
For a few days after its launch Mark of the Ninja was the highest-ranked videogame on Metacritic, & with good reason. Klei managed to perfect the stealth genre with this outing, & the sheer amount of design that went into it is staggering. It’s a reductive experience, one that you’d be tempted to call “casual” but in the long run it proves quite contrary, offering ever-increasing levels of challenge that await the player’s eventual skill improvements.
Mark of the Ninja is a triumph of game design, & is a must-have for any game enthusiast. Even if you’ve never liked stealth games, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find something of value here.
Sandbox of the Year
Saints Row: The Third
Yes, it’s bawdy. It’s rude. It’s crude. It’s over-the-top, gratuitous violence & glorification of a cartoon-like thug life. It’s all of those things that make the game what it is, & it’s a thrill-ride from start to finish.
I could talk about the variety of open-world activities, the hilarious campaign that can be played both solo & seamlessly co-op, or the great DLC support that followed the main release. But all this reading is stopping you from going out & playing it. If you’re one of those people who takes all videogames with deadly seriousness, you’d best avoid this title. But if you can enjoy games for what they are, your time will not be wasted in Steelport.
Touchtronic Experience of the Year
Infinity Blade 2
I bought the iPad 2 on release day, after standing in the cold like an asshole outside of Future Shop for 3 hours. I think that marked the beginning of the end of my love affair with Apple & its nefarious devices. Let me just go on record here by saying “fuck Apple” & “fuck iOS“. I’ll refer back to this post whenever people ask me if I’m making my games for mobile.
Despite my growing hatred for the horribly useless & insanely over-priced gizmos that Apple produces, I did manage to squeeze some blood-like enjoyment from the stone that is the iPad in the form of Infinity Blade 2. So much so that I managed to strain my shoulder joint from lying in bed on my side swiping & slashing for hours on end. This is a good game that makes full use of the device, & one that I couldn’t imagine playing with any other interface.
See, people? That’s the thing. To qualify for being a “killer app” on these over-priced pieces of glass & silicon, the products have to make full use of the fact that you interact with it with your greasy, fatty fingers. 99% of the (cr)apps don’t, & would be better off with a mouse, keyboard, or gamepad.
It’s worth noting here that I got my hands on a Wii U a week ago, & am still working my way through New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. Had I managed to finish the game by the end of 2012 it would have occupied this slot on the list. Nintendo gets touch interface in the way that so many other touchtronic developers don’t. Do yourself a favor & play a few Worlds worth of NSMBWU co-op & thank me for it later.
Boardgame of the Year
In 2012 I was fortunate enough to get the invite over to Lentz’s place enough times to form some opinions on what’s hot & what’s not in the cardboard token universe.
If you’re familiar with games like Puerto Rico, you’ll enjoy the systems in Power Grid. If you’re not, get off your ass & go play some of those types of games. I’d go into a lengthy description of how amazing European boardgame design is, but it’s something best experienced first-hand.
Sexploitation of the Year
Yes, it’s a game from ’09. I started playing it when it came out & the VFS Game Design resource library got a copy. K-Wright & I bundled off to the games lab a few times to put the first few levels through their paces. I later bought it & forgot about it.
Then K-Wright & I came full circle this year & cleared it together. Is it smutty? Sure. Violent? Check. A pinnacle of action beat-em-ups with stunning graphics, interesting characters, fascinating enemy design, & that classic edge that Hideki Kamiya is so famous for? Hell yes.
Haters need not apply, & if you want a razor-sharp game that turns you into a better gamer whether you like it or not, I can’t recommend this one enough.
Game I Play Every Year of the Year
Red Dead Redemption
There are a few rituals that I observe on a yearly basis: shaving my head on spring equinox, watching “There Will Be Blood” on the anniversary of Dark Acre’s founding, re-reading George Lois’s “Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!) & playing Red Dead Redemption in the fall.
Like a beloved vacation spot, Rockstar’s American Old West is a place I have yet to tire of visiting. Even though I know how it ends, I still enjoy riding the range as John Marsden. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve memorized a fair share of the dialog, but still refuse to skip cutscenes.
Only one thing would make it perfect: a PC version. You hear me, Rockstar? A PC VERSION.
Ludum Dare 48 Entry of the Year
Of the three Ludum Dare 48 competitions I entered this year, I finally hit my stride with this one. It’s very short, the controls are borked & there’s a modicum of bugs, but it’s far & away the most solid outing I’ve had to date.
I’ve talked all over this blog about my relationship with the Ludum Dare, so I won’t bore you with that any further. But as a yardstick by which I measure my progress as a solo independent game developer, this year’s last entry hit the high-water mark. Fingers crossed that it places equally high in the final peer-rated tally.
Disappointment of the Year
Now, this may seem like I’m throwing the game under the bus and in fact I probably am. But bear in mind that I spent my money on this at the insistence of pretty much everyone on my social networks & in the gaming press, & also on the strength of thatgamecompany’s previous outing, “Flower“.
Flower was fucking amazing. Absolutely stunning. Peerless visual communication, flawless use of the PS3′s Sixaxis motion control, & an all-around gorgeous demonstration of innovation in game design & storytelling.
TO ME, Journey tried to be all of that but came off feeling empty & pretentious. I guess the anonymous multiplayer aspect was new & exciting? But the obtuse story & endless hiking just wore me down. I played it to completion, enjoyed the hell out of the sand graphics, but in the end the clunky controls & opaque narrative left me cold. Don’t let my shitty opinions stop you from playing it! By all accounts, it’s the perfect game for people who don’t play games, & if that was the developer’s intent, to get non-gamers into gaming, then all the power to them. It just wasn’t for me & after all the hype I was like, “so what was the big deal with this?”
There’s a ton of honorable & dishonorable mentions, but I won’t get into those because no one remembers or cares about games that weren’t gripping enough to play longer than it took to load them.
Just a quick shout-out to you folks who still rail against AAA & incite the “games industry vs. the indies” argument at every opportunity spouting sentences filled with words like “innovation” & “sequelitis”: pull your heads out of your collective assess & go play some videogames, because clearly you ain’t.
P.S. To game developers who say they don’t play videogames: it shows.
All images copyright their respective owners, you’re welcome for the free marketing.