I can’t remember a year in which it was more difficult to pare down my choices for best game of the year than 2012. My initial list of candidates had thirty-four entries. Thirty-four! That's almost double the average number I put together from year to year, and with so many titles in the mix, sanding the ballot down to just 1, 5, or even 10 "bests" feels unjust. For that reason, I’ve decided to present my top 5 not so much as a ranked last, but as a collection of superlatives and the reasons for why these particular games are so important. Let’s begin.
5. Max Payne 3
The Wild Card: Max Payne 3’s epic about an addicted killer remains as fresh in my mind now as it did when I first played it back in May. I’ll admit that it’s gameplay and storytelling aren’t for everyone- the game does wield its script like a truncheon -but there’s so much thematic care and poise for every moment that it managed to make my inner-critic shut up and accept it for what it was, wholesale. It takes power for a story to do that, and no matter how cumbersome, pathetic, or out-of-sorts Payne gets, it’s never truly weak.
4. Mass Effect 3
The Best Sequel: Man, this game was perfect, huh? Not a single unrealized gameplay addition, nor an unfulfilled narrative thread. I can’t think of a tighter, more satisfying end to a franchise than this; and the fact that everyone else felt the same way? Gravy. Pure gravy.
3. The Walking Dead
The One Game Everyone Should Play: I don’t think The Walking Dead is as unimpeachable as some of my other cohorts here, but damn if it isn’t one of the most effectively presented player-driven stories ever made. There are plenty of others who will be able to explain why it’s so important, for it’s accessibility and writing, but it’s the fact that it made me shut up after I finished it- that I turned down a podcast because I didn’t want to talk about how things had finished -that speaks to how captivating it was. I don’t ever want to play it again, but I can’t think of a game that should have a wider audience than this one.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
The Best Game of the Year: If you’re asking me what the best game of the year is on an enjoyable, mechanical level, it is undoubtedly XCOM. Oh boy howdy is it XCOM. This is the best tactical strategy game I’ve played since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (as it happens, my favorite game ever made), and I can’t think of another example of reflexive, consistent game design that’s done as well as this. It’s accessible, yet engrossing and relentlessly difficult; Skol to Firaxis!
1. Spec Ops: The Line
My Game of the Year 2012: Anyone who read my original review of Spec Ops probably saw this coming. I love military shooters, I’m not ashamed to say, and for that reason I tend to be pretty underwhelmed by most of the hokum that comes out year-after-year. Spec Ops is not hokum. I wants so badly for you to think it is, and just as that feint might convince you to start playing something else, it delivers one of the most memorable gut-punches in gaming since, “Would you kindly?” It might not look so impressive as the standard 3rd person shooter it is, but it's got gigantic, filigreed, brass balls. I’ve played through Martin Walker’s tour of Dubai five times now, and each time it presents more layers, more humanity, and more depth than any other military shooter, or game, I’ve played in this year and many before it.
Honorable Mentions: Dishonored, They Bleed Pixels, Pushmo, Gotham City Impostors, Persona 4 Golden