What a helluva year. The birth of my second daughter, multiple new gigs and the imminent move from NYC to - wait for it - Jersey means that I didn't have much chance to relax this year, even to play games. But plenty of fantastic video games were released this year, both comfort food and trend-setters, a perfect mix of sequels to beloved properties and brand-new titles that have the potential to change the future of gaming.
Before I start, a list of games I didn’t get a chance to play, so you don’t call me out for any big misses. Being broke and having Nintendo ignore my cries for a Wii U means no experiences with new Mario or any of their lineup, so there’s that. I also haven’t yet gotten a chance to check out XCOM or Far Cry 3, despite friends going bananas over both of them and the fact that I almost assuredly will love both of them (as long as Far Cry 3 doesn’t bungle the second half of the game as badly as the last one.). A few acclaimed indie games like FTL: Faster Than Light and Legend of Grimrock I haven’t gotten to yet, either. I also didn’t play Assassin’s Creed 3 because I played through the first two and that was more than enough. Fool me once, and all that.
So without further ado:
Strangely forgettable for such an entertaining time, Bethesda took Bioshock’s visual style and wrapped it around a stellar stealth title. You’ll have blast sneaking around plotting the death of a target, seeing all the varied ways you can traverse a level. It’s a really great game that you’ll never want to go back to ever again.
9: Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Curt Schilling completely fucked up his game studio (click here for a terrifying look at the dangers of excess, something they could have learned from 3D Realms) but 38 Studios still managed to push out one of the RPG highlights of the year. It combines elements of Skyrim, Dragon Age and Fable and loads it up with a great combat system. The kind of game to which you could easily lose dozens of hours.
8: Darksiders 2
The idea of a post-apocalyptic Legend of Zelda was enough for most gamers to turn Darksiders into a minor hit, despite its lack of originality. The sequel is even better. Controlling Death instead of War gives the game a different feel and the quest is even more massive this time.
7: Call of Duty : Black Ops II
What? What’s a Call of Duty game doing here? Have I gone nuts? But give this installment a chance and you’ll see that they’ve expanded on the long-dead formula, offering branching storylines and the ability to customize your weapons along the way. This is the finest installment of the series, period. Add in a decent zombies mode and incredibly polished multiplayer matches and you’ve got a game that you could play for a very long time.
6: Lego Lord of the Rings
They keep topping themselves with this series and this is perhaps the most faithful to a license yet. I still keep booting up this game in order to find more mythril objects, and likely won’t stop till I’ve got 100%. Not many other games get this much attention.
A beautiful experience like no other, but what else would you expect from the creators of flOw and Flower? It's just a joy to move your character around the sand dunes of the world and explore all that it has to offer. Built-in co-op that smartly doesn’t allow for verbal communication allows you to share the experience with a stranger without being taken out of it.
4: Borderlands 2
In the words of Clarence Boddicker: guns, guns, guns! It doesn’t do much to change up the formula of the original - it’s still all about using guns to finish quests in order to get more guns - but it’s still as addictive as ever. Borderlands is the kind of game you think is merely pretty good, until you realize you HAVE to get to that next quest and NO you’re not putting down the controller just yet and DAMN the sunlight is streaming through the window outside and you just played all night again.
3: The Witcher 2
Difficult, brutal, with perhaps the most mature roleplaying storyline you've experienced, The Witcher 2 improves upon the already great original in every way. It's got a deep fantasy story full of so much political backstabbery that George R.R. Martin would be proud, an incredible combat system and one of the most intriguing main characters you’ll ever control. Love this game to pieces, and the fact that it got me into Andrzej Sapkowski's books.
2: Mass Effect 3
Oh, Mass Effect. Any other year and you would have been at the top. Still the most fulfilling series that has ever been created, the final chapter to a years-long (and hours-long) story that completely nails the ending, no matter what nonsense has been thrown around the internet. This is the Return of the King of gaming.
1: The Walking Dead : The Game
Telltale Games. I’ve been preaching the gospel of these guys ever since Sam and Max returned and it’s been great to see them grow into such a respected developer. (Let's just forget that Jurassic Park ever happened.) The Walking Dead isn’t just a great game, it’s the kind of game that everyone is going to emulate. It's a game that will shock you and affect you and bring you closer to the characters than ever before. This is the kind of game that changes an industry, that makes other developers stand up and realize they could have been doing that much more. (Expect to see lots of upcoming games that bungle attempts at an affecting story.) This is the kind of game that makes you realize why you love games in the first place.
BONUS AWARDS SECTION
Goriest Game: Sniper Elite V2
Biggest Disappointment: Max Payne 3
Max Payne 3 isn’t a bad game, by any means, but it’s an insanely repetitive one. Walk to an area, shoot up people, watch the last one die in slow motion, repeat. Even a couple of turret sections and the most melodramatic cutscenes this side of Gears of War can’t save you from wanting to down some painkillers of your own.
Guiltiest Pleasure: Lollipop Chainsaw
I’d call this straight-up pleasure if it weren’t focused on a busty high school teenager that uses her phallic chainsaw to carve up thousands of zombies. It's the kind of game that gives you an achievement for trying to look up the her skirt, so: guilty pleasure. With game design by Japanese madman Suda51 and a story written by Badass-loved James Gunn, whose humor lifts the game up to a higher level, you’re not going to forget this one anytime soon. James, if we can't get another novel (The Toy Collector is brilliant) can we at least get some more games?
Worst spin-off: Resident Evil:Operation Raccoon City
We all knew this was a bad idea as soon as they said “Squad-based multiplayer by the guys from SOCOM” and realized they were talking about a Resident Evil game.
Best Resident Evil Game: Resident Evil: Revelations
Resident Evil 6 pained most gamers, many of whom didn’t realize that the game they were looking for was on the 3DS. Here is the true successor to Resident Evil 4, a spooky blast-a-thon that shouldn’t be as much fun as it is on the little screen. All we need now is a console port.
Best shmup:- Sine Mora
If you like old-school shooters with screens filled with bullets (known as “bullet hell shooters” to fans), look no further. You will scream, you will cry, you will curse this game as you cram the button to play it once again. Difficult difficult, lemon difficult. Casual gamers or those afraid of death stay far, far away.
Worst Ending: I Am Alive
If you were thinking I was going to say Mass Effect 3, you are wrong. Also, an idiot. I Am Alive is one of the bleakest games you’ve played, a father’s nightmarish journey to find his family after the apocalypse. It does everything absolutely right, until it abruptly ends. Not everything always has to be tied up neatly all the time but this arc gets sliced right off.
Best Physical Card Game: Android: Netrunner
Fantasy Flight’s revamp of the classic card game by Richard Garfield (Magic the Gathering) offers up intentionally lopsided combat. One player plays a runner, a hacker who’s looking to get into a corporation’s servers and steal their information. The corporation has to put up firewalls and security to prevent the runner from getting in. Both sides play completely differently and it makes for lots of terrific back-and-forth, once you get past the typical obtuse rulebook.
Most Innovative Board Game: Risk Legacy
While I gushed in my review of this game about how incredible it was to mark up your board, rip up the cards and customize your own world of Risk, it wasn’t until after I’d written it that things got even better. As you play you’ll open up envelopes full of goodies - new rules and cards that completely change up the game, and one in particular was quite awesome. You’ll just have to see for yourself what happens when you fire off three missiles during one turn...
Dorkiest Thing I've Started: Pathfinder: Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition
As a young kid I owned the Ravenloft AD&D books but had no idea what to do with them, and while some board games offered similar experiences (DragonStrike! Hero Quest! First Quest!) this is the first time I've started the real deal. Pathfinder is the first RPG I've ever played, and I jumped in as a DM. Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition is Paizo's hardcover release of their entire first adventure path, actually six books in one, and offers a campaign that can take you a year to run. Preparing for it as DM is incredibly fulfilling, and I'm enjoying the challenge of doing improv and learning all these new rules for the players. For me, getting older apparently means getting dorkier.
Best Mobile Game: Punch Quest
I wrote a whole list of the best mobile games elsewhere on the web, which Punch Quest easily topped. Addictive and fun and featuring great retro graphics, it’s an auto-runner in the vein of Jetpack Joyride, only with a whole lot more punching. It’s free right now so jump on it!
Best game from a shitty comic, again: The Darkness II
The Darkness is an awful comic, just pure tripe. The game is surprisingly enjoyable, with a stronger story, deeper characters and some delightful violence. Some properties just work better as games.
Best soundtrack: Fez
Perfect ambient music, and what I listened to while writing this list. So many varied styles, so beautiful. You can check it out for yourself right here.
And that's all! Let's look forward to 2013, which is kicking off with Bioshock Infinite and Dead Space 3.