Two Thousand and eleven (not a typo) was an odd year. Its general theme seemed to be games that I considered good (such as Portal 2, L.A. Noire, and Batman: Arkham City) getting incredible amounts of praise, to the point that I would end up being the voice of dissent on games I actually liked. Hell, at one point somebody gave Batman: Arkham City a 6 stars out of 5. Now, people liking games more than I do is perfectly fine and not all that uncommon, but this happened constantly throughout 2011 for almost every AAA game, and it left me wondering what had happened to critical discussion.
Perhaps that's why I thought 2012 was such a great year for games: there wasn't all that many triple-A titles to over hype. The smaller games got to shine, and there seemed to be an actual resurgence of critical discussion. Genres that had been losing steam in recent years (mainly point-and-click adventure and Japanese role-playing game [JRPG] titles) seemed to find their footing. Unlike 2011, there was actually enough great games to make narrowing them down to 10 a difficult thing to do.
Before beginning the list, let me name off a few honorable mentions: Max Payne 3, Tales of Graces f, The Last Story, and Gravity Rush were all strong considerations for making my top 10, but were ultimately left off. Some other titles that I liked but didn't come close to being in my top 10 were Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Resident Evil 6. Finally, the worst game of 2012 was Ninja Gaiden 3. With all that said, let's begin.
Sleeping Dogs (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Sleeping Dogs' story didn't live up to the hype the developers were building, which is the main reason it didn't place higher. For all the talk of calling back to Hong Kong cinema's golden era, the story's effective build-up leads to a surprisingly flat final act.
This is a problem, but in my eyes Sleeping Dogs' gameplay and setting do a lot to make up for these failures. The game is kind of a compilation of gameplay innovations from other open world games. It has a Grand Theft Auto structure, Batman: Arkham City-style combat, and even free-running/chases similar to Assassin's Creed II. The setting ties this all together, with a great deal of effort being put into distinguishing Sleeping Dogs' version of Hong Kong from the American cities that so many open world games seem afraid to break away from.
Many reviewers brought up the Grand Theft Auto comparison as a way of establishing it as derivative and uninspired. I would argue that since there hadn't been a new console GTA title in over four years, this is forgivable. It's not as if the idea of running around a city committing crimes is that creative of a premise to begin with, GTA just happened to get to it first. The structure works, and there was more than enough variety to keep me playing until I had 100%-ed it. Sometimes fun is just fun.
I Am Alive (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Xbox Live Arcade is primarily dominated by 2D platformers with unique art styles, something I personally am getting tired of. I Am Alive bucked this trend, and as a result, ended up being one of the most polarizing games of the year. Many ripped it apart for having bad graphics, a puzzle-like combat system, and an old-school save system where running out of retries sends the player back to the start of the chapter. I view these complaints as misunderstanding the survival theme of the game. This isn't a game meant to be convenient or flashy.
While most post-apocalypse games focus on how humanity rebuilds, I Am Alive focuses on the period when almost everything is still dead. Survivors are rare, and often feel like they're barely clinging to life, and the stamina system makes clinging to the side of a skyscraper just as tense as it should be. When it comes to games that made me feel like I was barely staying alive at all times, I can't think of a game that did that better this year than I Am Alive.
Dishonored (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)
Dishonored is a game that can be beaten without killing a single enemy. The key word here is "can," because I don't understand why someone would want to do that on a first playthrough. The number of creative ways to go about killing somebody is tremendous. The sword alone can be used for many different visceral murders, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Windblasting guards into a wall of electricity, freezing time and then firing several crossbow shots into a guards face all at once, or possessing a guard and unpossessing him at the edge of a cliff so he falls to his death are just some of the methods I used to rain death down upon Dunwall.
The world itself invites players to find any number of ways to infiltrate the sanctuaries that the rich and corrupt reside in. I'm currently only part of the way through my second playthrough, but I've already found several alternate paths for getting through to the targets that I missed my first time through the game. It's a shame that the game's story is crippled by it having a silent protagonist, because this otherwise great game could've ended up much higher on my list.
Asura's Wrath (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Out of all the games on this list, this is the one I played through the most times, with six completions in total. Part of this is due to the fact that the game is a feast for both the eyes and ears with its excellent soundtrack and art style. There's more to it than that, though. "S" ranking every stage, on every difficulty, with several different power gauges, became an addiction, simply because I liked seeing the game's insanity be executed as perfectly as possible. Asura's Wrath's spectacle, scope, and sheer insanity are unmatched.
Unfortunately, this game was published by Capcom, so of course there's some downloadable content that's essentially them giving players the finger. The entire final act of the game is DLC. The fate of Asura, his daughter, his brother-in-law, and the whole world are shown in this, and without it, the story of the game is incomplete. Still, the game's ending, as well as the final boss where Asura fights the creator of the universe, is one of the most memorable moments of the year for me. Even Capcom's terrible DLC practices couldn't ruin that.
Mass Effect 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC)
Mass Effect 3's ending was possibly the biggest video game story of the year, so it's hard to discuss the game without bringing it up. I'll be blunt: I hated the original ending, like many people. After building up to a massive, all-out war of organics versus reapers, we see them in a 20-minute battle in London, then Shepard hits the galactic reset button, we see an explosion of light, the Normandy crashes, aaand… credits. Unsatisfying, out of place, clearly rushed, and loaded with plotholes are only a few ways I would describe it.
Never let it be said that tantrum-throwing fanboys can't accomplish anything, though. The response to the game's ending was so negative, BioWare decided to release a free extended version of the ending. It allowed the player to ask far more questions of a key character in the ending, explain how certain characters ended up where they ended up, and showed much more of the aftermath. I was satisfied with it, and in my mind, the original ending no longer exists.
Ending aside, Mass Effect 3 was a great improvement over Mass Effect 2 in every way, and helped restore some of my faith in BioWare after they greatly let me down with Dragon Age II. The environments had much more thought put into them than Mass Effect 2's waist-high wall-littered hallways, and had a narrative much deeper than Mass Effect 2's "Here, go find a bunch of squadmates and solve their family issues" plot. The game had decisions that felt impactful, and really did the characters justice. The narrative never reaches Mass Effect 1's level of quality, but the conclusion to BioWare's space epic is good enough to satisfy any sci-fi fan.
The Walking Dead (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, iOS)
The Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure game, it's episodic, and it's based on a non-video game property. In other words, it seemed virtually guaranteed that it would suck. Instead, it ended up being one of the most engaging games of the year. Few games, if any, have ever made me wrestle with decisions like The Walking Dead. The decisions are tough because of how well written the characters are.
There are times when the narrative makes some concessions for the sake of drama. There were a few character actions (particularly at the beginning of episode three) that felt incredibly forced. Then there's episode four, which is nothing but forced drama that adds almost nothing to the overall plot. These flaws were enough to make think this wasn't as much of revolutionary narrative as some have claimed. Even so, The Walking Dead's characters and intense moments, combined with the sheer rarity of it being an adventure game that's worth playing, make it one of 2012's best, most surprising experiences.
Halo 4 (Xbox 360)
In my eyes, the Halo franchise had progressively gotten worse and worse since its release up until its most recent entry. The first two games were great, but Halo 3 was mediocre at best, and ODST and Reach were even worse. So imagine my surprise when I found out that Halo 4 is not only the best game in the series, but the best pure first-person shooter (FPS) I've played in years.
The method for delivering such a great game turned out to be incredibly simple: take the original Halo formula, make it bigger and better, and strip out all the garbage that has been piling on it in recent entries. Remember all those incredibly annoying and pointless characters in Halo 3? Miranda Keyes? Johnson? The Arbiter? Guilty Spark? All of them are left out in favor of focusing almost entirely on Master Chief and Cortana. This is a very wise decision; they've always been the best characters in the series, and Halo 4 explores the connection between the two of them far more than ever before. Halo 4's campaign vastly exceeded my expectations.
Of course, when it comes to Halo, multiplayer is very important. After playing a ton of online with friends, I can say that Halo 4 is strong in this area as well. The stages are balanced and promote creative movement around the map, and the armor abilities aren't broken like they were in Halo: Reach. Best of all, the Battle Rifle is back, and more trustworthy than ever. Playing the games in this series with friends continues to be one of the biggest parts of my gaming life.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition (Xbox 360, PC)
It's hard to pick just one thing to praise about The Witcher 2. The combat is skill-based and challenging. The environments look incredible, in terms of both art design and graphical prowess. There's a system of choices and consequences that can make two playthroughs massively different from each other. The characters are deep, interesting, and are convincing human beings rather than just archetypes. Many of the side-quests have actual stories behind them, and the player can have an input on how it ends. (Such as the one where you trick two guys into being sacrificed to a bunch of ghosts)
While The Witcher 2 is certainly aiming for the mature crowd with its nudity, violence, language, and more nudity, it avoids the mistake of making the whole game ultra-dark. Characters enjoy each other's company, and the game isn't afraid to stop the action to have more quiet moments. I loved the The Witcher 2 for being about people, not just its fantasy world and the darkness within it.
Binary Domain (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Binary Domain, to me, will hold a place alongside Deadly Premonition and Alpha Protocol as the games of this generation that were most understood. There are quite a few reasons for this, not the least of which being how it was (or wasn't) advertised. There was a fair amount of focus put on the consequence system, where the player's actions can raise or lower the squadmates' affinities with the main character. I liked this feature for what it was: a way of making the characters seem more real by making them reactive, and also making changes to certain scenes in the process. But really, as someone who has played through the game four times, all that really changes is the last 10 minutes and a few extra scenes. The main plot is unchanged completely. Even if the player treats the female lead like garbage, for example, her relationship with the main character still has the same ending as it would if the player treated her perfectly. By over-emphasizing that feature's importance, many reviewers labeled it as a failure for not being on Mass Effect levels in terms of story impact. Combining this with how it was commonly dismissed as a Gears of War clone and how it got very little advertising, Binary Domain ending up being a title that many people didn't really understand or even know about. As a result, sales in North America were terrible.
This is an incredible shame, since the game gets almost everything right and is my favorite third-person shooter since Vanquish. Because of the creative, contrasting environments of both the ruins of old Tokyo and the beautiful upper Tokyo, there's a strange richness to this world that's a great change from the common brown areas of many other shooters. The characters were funny and have entertaining interactions thanks to both great voice actors/actresses and some very clever writing. There's effective build-up and satisfying payoff in the story. The shooting mechanics are rock solid and provide incredibly satisfying feedback in the form of the way robots shred apart and fall to pieces. Simply put, I loved just about every aspect of this game, and the fact that it sold so poorly is perhaps the greatest shame of the year, gaming-wise.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Wii)
When it comes to 99% of modern games, the effort to keep up with modern gaming technology results in cuts to save disk space, reduce production costs, and reduce development time. What's more, these cuts are usually very obvious, and leave the game feeling less than whole. Xenoblade Chronicles is a proud member of the 1% of games that genuinely feel absolutely complete, and fulfill the vision of its creators entirely.
I like to compare Xenoblade Chronicles to the film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. This isn't just because both are fantastic, but more so the thought process behind the way they were designed and directed. While many fantastic games and movies have been very smart to maintain a tight narrative and a faster pace, both of these titles denied that approach. They instead sacrifice having a typical running time for the sake of setting up the story, characters, motivations, and setting. Most games wouldn't be able to pull this off without feeling incredibly bloated, but Xenoblade Chronicles has enough substance in the story, depth in the combat, and creativity in the art design to make it warranted.
The result of this is a massive, glorious, 70-hour adventure that was easily the best thing I played this year. It never feels rushed, padded, or insubstantial. It's the incredible vision of an inspired team of artists given all the care and passion that a group of human beings could give a game, and for that reason and many others, it's my game of the year. Congratulations Monolith Soft, you made a masterpiece.