You’ve hopefully already listened to the latest Re-Play Radio, in which Steve Watts and I discuss the best games from 2012. I think we did a great job covering the best of the best but there was one distinct problem – we had to agree on the choices, and while I love Steve Watts to death sometimes he’s not only the mayor of Wrongtown he is every single resident. Like most things in life, the show would have been better if it was just me, but that is an issue I think we have the platform to rectify right here on the Geekspeak Network blog.
What follows is, in no particular order, a list of my personal favorite games of the year. Not all of these games are the best examples of their genres or on their platforms (though some certainly are) but I spent a lot of time with them and I think they’re worthy of your time as well. So consider these your marching orders.
- THE WALKING DEAD
We talked a lot about why this game is so great on the show, but suffice to say that it is easily the most moving, nerve-wracking video game experience I have ever had in over two decades of time spent with the medium. This game will put you through the wringer, force you to make impossible choices, and make you care about virtual people more than you could possibly have ever thought you would. Yet, for all the doom and gloom and emotional apocalypses in the game, it never feels bleak or exploitative in the way the comic and television show so often do. That’s largely due to the precocious Clementine, the young girl your character Lee Everett is left in charge of as a result of happenstance – not only is she written like an actual child and not a tiny adult, her character serves as a moral barometer and inspirational figure. You’ll find yourself regretting decisions in the game because of how she reacts, or making choices solely based on what she thinks. It’s unusual that a character in a video game inspires such attachment but Clementine does, and it’s a credit to Telltale Games that they were able to implement her so well without the character becoming cloying or obvious.
No, there’s not much of a game here – the action sequences are just this short of lousy, and the puzzles are mostly simple affairs (save for one prolonged sequence in the third episode). Yes, the story doesn’t change all that much as a result of your actions – there’s no branching Mass Effect-style paths, and most major decisions have the same basic end result, even if the circumstances surrounding those results differ. Yet the game excels because of, not in spite of these limitations. Every decision feels weighty and important, because it is. Every decision feels like an inventory of your ethical stock, because it is. No, you won’t have a wildly divergent experience in terms of the ends, but you and your friends will have a lot to talk about when it comes to the means. The Walking Dead is truly appointment, water-cooler gaming and easily one of the best experiences of this and any other year. Let’s hope Season 2 follows suit – Telltale’s warning to hold on to your save files suggests it just might.
2. XCOM: ENEMY UNKNOWN
The original X-COM: UFO Defense is one of my all-time favorite games. As director of the multinational X-COM initiative, you have to not only balance the economic and political realities of dealing with a global defense effort with developing the technological and strategic chops necessary to defeat an unstoppable alien menace, you also have to deal with turn-based combat that is genuinely nail-biting and extremely difficult. I have never finished the original X-COM: UFO Defense. However, when 2K Games announced that they were putting the (incredibly ill-advised) first-person shooter reinvention of the franchise on hold to work on a more traditional turn-based strategy game, I nearly leapt with glee. The end result justified any glee-related leaping that may have occurred.
Enemy Unknown does the Lord’s work in modernizing and fleshing out an amazing base from the original game. The overall process is streamlined and simplified, something that annoyed veteran players but in practice ended up being the right decision. Sure, you can’t build multiple bases in different countries, but it’s also harder to waste resources on things you don’t actually need. You’re still forced to make hard decisions about what to develop and when, and rather than simply getting distress calls from one country at a time you’ll get three at a time, forcing you once again to choose between useful spoils and keeping global panic under control. Turn-based combat isn’t quite as suspenseful this time around but it’s harrowing in completely different ways, as you pray that your recently-exposed soldier survives just long enough to move them into a new form of cover, or that the aliens will conveniently ignore your only psionic soldier that you moved into the open like an idiot. You’d think that having fewer moving parts would make the game easier, but it doesn’t. Enemy Unknown is just as tough, strategic, and brilliant as its predecessor. I was able to finish it this time, but I’m not ready to talk about Classic Ironman mode. It’s a sore subject.
3. KID ICARUS UPRISING
The original Kid Icarus is a game that is more fondly remembered because of nostalgia than actually being any fun to play. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that it took Nintendo so long to revisit what was essentially a less essential Metroid, but what is surprising is just how essential Uprising is. Few games this year managed to reach the heights of this game’s production values, writing, and humor, and few 3DS games managed to top it in terms of sheer content. There is so much to see and do in Uprising, and the game rewards you so well for revisiting previous chapters and getting higher scores, that it’s hard to see it as anything other than the best game released on the platform this year.
Sure, you can gripe about the on-foot controls (though it’s possible to tweak them, the nature of trying to evoke dual-analog controls on a touchscreen never is by its very nature an impossible goal), but the game is forgiving enough that it never becomes frustrating, and even its online offering, while somewhat shallow, is pretty darn fun. Throw in a surprisingly deep loot and crafting system, tons of customization options, and neat metagames like AR card collecting and…whatever you get for giving Palutena hearts, and up until fairly recently this game would have been #1 on my list. If you have a 3DS, you need this game, and if you don’t have it you’re a bad person.
4. PLAYSTATION ALL-STARS BATTLE ROYALE
In the highly factionalized world of online gaming communities, Sony didn’t do itself any favors by coming in to the four-player mascot brawler world so late, and the numerous leaks that showed a development team with their back against the wall in dealing with outside companies did not do much to build excitement or confidence. It’s kind of a miracle, then, that Battle Royale not only came out and delivered on its (admittedly meager) promises, but that it also does so much better than the game that so many NeoGAF threads accuse it of ripping off.
You heard me. The online is better, every character on the roster feels unique and true to the game from which they originate, Cross Buy works flawlessly on the Vita (in fact, the Vita version is my preferred version), and there’s a lot more emphasis on combos and strategy. I was skeptical at first, but Battle Royale is in some ways a better game than Super Smash Brothers. Granted, it lacks the polish, presentation, and roster depth of Nintendo’s star franchise, but hopefully developer Superbot can improve on these areas in a sequel. Given the sales so far that’s not a guarantee, but I’ve sunk hours upon hours into this game and I think you need to as well.
5. PERSONA 4: GOLDEN
I’m normally not one to put ports on a list like this but after months of hearing about how Persona 4 was the greatest JRPG of all time, that it was the sole reason to get a Vita, and so on and so forth I bit the bullet and checked it out. Now, in my time as an Internet Person, I have learned that Persona fans are crazy, with a love for their series that borders on religious zealotry. In my time with Persona 4 Golden, I have learned that they are also right. They’re still crazy, but they’re right.
Persona 4 Golden does so much right in the stagnating JRPG genre (and, for that matter, in the struggling Vita marketplace) that it’s a wonder more games haven’t aped it. Battles are quick, strategic, and seamless, built around a system of elemental strengths and weaknesses that invites experimentation and strategic thinking. There’s a staggering amount of content in the game, so much so that it’s literally impossible to see everything in one playthrough without a FAQ (luckily, it’s got a New Game+ mode). Persona 4 Golden encourages you to meet with other characters in the game with the goal of improving your Social Links and improving your ability to create new Personas and learn new skills in battle, which in most other games of this ilk would be agony but in P4G is a delight. That’s because the writing in the game is phenomenal, with story threads that address complex, nuanced issues such as the encroachment of big business into small towns, homosexuality, gender roles in a patriarchal society, and parental abandonment in a way that never feels overly preachy or treacly. While I wasn’t always happy with how these issues are addressed (several of the solutions to the characters’ problems feel mired in conservative Japanese perspectives on sexuality and gender, and the game takes a sharp turn into fanservice on far too many occasions for my liking), the fact that the game addresses them at all is a significant improvement from the pseudo-scientific fantasy psychobabble that defines far too many games in the genre. How Atlus can have figured this out so long ago while heavyweights like Square-Enix struggle to make stories that are coherent, let alone interesting is baffling.
I still don’t think Persona 4 Golden is the only reason to get a Vita, but if you like JRPGs and (like me) have missed out on this series it’s a darn good argument.
6. TOKYO JUNGLE
This is a game in which you can play as a kangaroo and kick dinosaurs to death.
Any other year, this would have been GOTY easy.
7. FROG FRACTIONS
I cannot in good conscience tell you why Frog Fractions is so great. You must experience it for yourself. But I will say three things:
1) You can play the game in your browser here
2) Upgrade often
3) Remember, you have a “down” key for a reason
8. HALO 4
I’m still pretty early on in this game, which is why it’s not ranked higher on this list. But 343 Industries made a strong case for being the right group to carry on Bungie’s legacy. Halo 4 is gorgeous, polished, and does everything a late-generation Halo game should. The story contains an emotional weight that nothing in the series has matched so far, and the cutscenes are above reproach – the opening scene featuring the interrogation of Dr. Halsey is stunning, not only laughing in the face of the Uncanny Valley but pushing it down the stairs. Spartan Ops offers an intriguing way to tell episodic stories in a first-person shooter framework, and promises to extend the life of this game well into 2013. In fact, that’s a recurring theme with Halo 4 – it’s everything you like, and a lot of it. This is to say nothing of the multiplayer, which acknowledges progression in the genre by taking the best parts of Call of Duty – loadouts, perks, and unlocks – while ignoring the worst parts (everything else).
In short – it’s the new Halo, and like every other time one of these games comes out that’s reason to celebrate.
9. WWE ’13
This is partially a pity selection because of the hard times THQ has been facing as of late and partially a metaphorical “high-five” to the publisher for making the best wrestling game with their name on it since November 17, 2000. WWE ’13 offers a myriad of gameplay options, improved online code and matchmaking (though most of the people you’ll meet online are either ragequitting punks or socially inept idiot savants, which is a problem not innate to WWE ‘13), and new gameplay quirks like the OMG! moments that let you smash your opponent through barricades or collapse the ring underneath a devastating finisher. Not everything’s perfect – some of the wrestlers look like terrifying Dreamworks nightmare monsters, there’s far too many Triple Hs and Undertakers on the roster, and the much-ballyhooed Attitude Era mode is less a compelling campaign and more an exercise in pointless nostalgia – but there’s so much here, and it works so well, you kinda need this game if you like what the kids call “pro graps”.
There’s no telling where the WWE license is headed after this, but if this is THQ’s last bite at the apple it’s a pretty great bite. Plus, it lets you set up dream matches like the one above.
Did you ever pretend that you were captain of a spaceship when you were a kid, going on crazy interstellar adventures with your alien and robot friends? FTL will evoke some of those same childhood memories and intercut them with crippling adult moments of horror as you watch yet another seemingly great run through the solar system go up in flames through no fault of your own, the lucky members of your crew dying instantly while the unfortunate souls left over slowly asphyxiate while trying to fix the oxygen systems. As your ship slowly starts to collapse, becoming a lifeless, silent tomb floating endlessly in the black expanse of hostile space…
…you sigh, figure out how you’re going to do it better in the next go-round, and click “Restart” for the 400th time.
FTL is great.
HONORABLE MENTION: SIMPSONS: TAPPED OUT
This game shouldn’t even be on this list. For the first few months of its release, Tapped Out was broken beyond repair, to the point where the game was actually pulled from the App Store and unhappy customers were given rare refunds for their in-app purchases. It’s barely even a game, more an exercise in killing time as you wait for your characters to finish “missions” and then harvest the cash and XP they leave behind to buy more buildings and characters to do the same thing over again.
And yet I have probably spent more time with this game than anything else on this list. Part of it is my long-past-the-point-of-where-any-reasonable-person-would-have-given-up Simpsons fandom, part of it is the snark and charm with which the game operates, and part of it is the social aspect, but I really like this game. So it gets an honorable mention. Deal with it.
Any thoughts? Oversights? Feel free to leave your comment below, where it will be promptly ignored by top men.