2012 was a year that really highlighted some of the issues with an industry so heavily reliant on sequels and mainstream genres . It feels like this year, more than any this generation has had the most disappointing triple A blockbuster titles. It isn't that they were bad games, but rather that they fell flat as a result of general genre fatigue and a prolonged console cycle. At the same time, we've had some really amazing surprises that have more than filled that void. I've played far more games of varying genres this year, and some on this list are ones that were far off my radar if you were to ask me at the start of the year. This list has a few caveats though. I didn't include The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition or Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition since they technically debuted last year, and I just don't think a 2012 list with two old games at the top is particularly interesting. There's also Borderlands 2, which I'm currently playing at the time of this writing, but I just don't feel comfortable putting a game on this list that I haven't finished. It was really hard to pare down this list to five titles, so without further-ado, here they are.
5. Far Cry 3
I had a weird initial experience with Far Cry 3. After hearing how the game starts so strongly, I was slightly upset when the game just didn't click with me in the first few hours. I stuck with it and delved more into the side missions, and subsequently found myself with far more abilities and weapons that made everything much more enjoyable. Like Jason Brody himself, I found myself fully along for the power trip, decimating outposts and story missions without being detected. I have my gripes with the missed potential of the story, but overall it was fairly interesting, with several strong characters like Vaas and Sam to make up for the unlikable protagonists. Vaas in particular is one of the best villains in recent memory, and Michael Mando deserves credit for bringing such a truly terrifying character to life.
Similar to last year's Saints Row: The Third, Far Cry 3 gave me the feeling of absurd, demigod-like power without being incredibly linear and straightforward. It's a game that inspires water-cooler moments with it's dynamic world that results in random hilarity. The outposts were a particular highlight; waiting on the outskirts, planning my attack from a certain angle, and ghosting through each encampment is such a satisfying feeling that never became repetitive during my 20 or so hours with the main campaign. I can't talk about Far Cry 3 without recognizing just how beautiful it is. On the PC it looks and runs incredible, with lighting and characters in particular being outstanding. While I have my complaints with the repetitive environments, story, and boss fights (if they can even be called that), there's no denying how fun it is to just let loose on this amazingly beautiful sandbox.
4. Sleeping Dogs
If you would've told me last year that the game formerly known as True Crime: Hong Kong would be on this list, I would've said no way. Sleeping Dogs is the first game to really nail the actual gameplay mechanics that many open world games tend to gloss over in favor of immersion and scope. It accomplishes so much with minimalism, making guns a minor part of the gameplay and instead focusing on it's Arkham City inspired melee combat that feels like it could be a major component of other linear titles. In fact, no major aspect of the game feels particularly weak. The parkour, driving, shooting, and melee are all used in enough moderation to keep things fresh, and it's fantastic that all four prioritize fun over open world immersion. It's a huge game, sacrificing needless scope and size that many players will never see, in favor of polished, focused, and most importantly, fun mechanics.
Sleeping Dogs splits the difference between both Grand Theft Auto 4's self serious tone, and Saints Row The Third's goofy and aloof nature. The undercover cop story is executed well, and Wei Shen is a memorable and believable character who realistically conveys the dilemma of being caught between two worlds. It's also one of the most beautiful games this year too, and driving around Hong Kong at night is stunning. All of these aspects may not make a revolutionary title, but it's attention to mechanics and design over size make Sleeping Dogs high on the list of great open world experiences I've had.
3. The Walking Dead
So much has been said already about just how good The Walking Dead's writing is. It's plot rarely stumbles, and the characters are written well for the most part. Clementine in particular is easily one of the best child characters in any game to date; quite an accomplishment in this medium. The whole game is technically an illusion of choice, offering small variance instead of huge changes and different scenarios altogether, but it's done so well that I really had no issues in falling for it.
It's a horror game, but a completely different type of horror that we're accustomed to. It's the fear for Clementine, and just how desperate humanity has become. Zombies are merely incidental to the whole conflict, and although they are mildly terrifying, the real horror is through the character interaction and the difficult circumstances that a zombie apocalypse comes with. The story as a whole is one of the most emotional, impactful, and well paced in gaming. It has strong resonance, and it's an experience that stuck with me even days after I played it. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you value a great story, you need to play this game. The Walking Dead is Heavy Rain done right; a modern evolution of the adventure game genre, and a title that will be remembered for years to come.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I never had any experience with the original X-COM, so when I heard the reboot described as a deeper, sci-fi version of Fire Emblem, I was definitely intrigued. In a year filled with choice and consequence and emotional attachment, its surprising that XCOM: Enemy Unknown managed to have the most of these elements despite barely having any story development. The soldiers that I built up through the ranks became important to me, making it all the more devastating to lose any one of them as a result of a boneheaded decision I made.
As gamers, we're so conditioned to have control over every scenario, and for many, that control is what brings us to games in the first place. XCOM is a complete change of thinking, having to accept loss and failure, and being unable to satisfy everyone. Those factors make success so much more rewarding, and the really great moments where I got through missions with no casualties are some of best in gaming. It's both accessible, and insanely difficult; a very hard thing to do without dumbing many of the systems. There really aren't many games that capture the tension and intensity of turn based strategy. XCOM: Enemy Unknown amplifies those elements and nails it on every front.
If you asked me what my list would be a few days ago, Dishonored probably wouldn't have made the top five. In my initial playthrough, I powered through the game in about 8 hours, never really taking time to slow things down and enjoy the world (likely because of my #2 game releasing the same day). I decided to go back and replay the game, taking my time with each level, trying to be as stealthy as possible and collecting every rune and bone charm that I could. I kept reloading the first mission, and I was blown away at the various options for that initial assassination, and it's at that point when I realized just how damn good Dishonored is. The design compels you to find new routes through levels by searching for those objects that enhance your abilities, and it's great to experiment with different early game powers in new playthroughs. Even the non-lethal sub-missions for each target encourage entirely different styles of play, and it can feel like a very different side of the game. Playing without objective markers is freeing; a reminder of the freedom we've lost in favor of polished, focused, linear level design. Corvo's Blink teleport changes everything for stealth, encouraging fast, vertical, instantaneous movement in a traditionally slow genre. The oppressive world crafted by Viktor Antonov (Half Life 2) is one of the most immersive and unique settings for a game, and Arkane should be commended for taking such a bold stance with a new IP.
The level design is fantastic, with so many insane possibilities and creative ways to take out each target. Take this scenario for instance: I made my way to the highest point of Kaldwin's Bridge, slowed down time, jumped off the highest point to cut the difference between me and a guard, and possessed him to survive the fall, then moving him to a discreet area where I could choke him out and hide the body. Moments like those make you feel in full control of the game's dynamic systems, and it's simultaneously absurd and impressive that they even allow to have that much control. Dishonored gives you tools of total manipulation, and challenges you to be as creative as possible. Arkane's desire for you to experiment with their systems is best summed up by the mantra written on the walls: "The boldest measures are the safest." That bold direction, and willingness to carry on the spirit of Deus Ex and Thief makes Dishonored my favorite game of 2012.
Honorable Mention: FTL: Faster than Light, Guild Wars 2, Binary Domain, Tribes Ascend, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare