Another year, another contender for game of the year! Maybe it's just me but it felt like this year was a bit more subdued than previous years and with few exceptions, there weren't a whole lot of major AAA titles. That's not to say 2012 wasn't a good year for video games. Emotions ran high with the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy, a starry-eyed MMO didn't make it a full year without going free to play, video games proved once again that they have the capacity to make the player cry and some fresh new properties proved that even as we near the end of this console cycle, there is still so much more fun to be had. Out of all the games released this year, I've singled out five titles that shone brightly from the rest, becoming truly memorable experiences and as far as I'm concerned, required playing.
5. Borderlands 2
There are a lot of things that can be said about Borderlands 2. It’s funnier, the secondary characters are far more insane, TWO bajillion guns, enemy battles are more dynamic and the ending is leagues better than the last one. The best part about Gearbox’s sequel is how it treats the original Vault Hunters that didn’t have proper personalities outside of a few quips and one liners. They were given life, emotion and a genuine purpose. They laughed, they cried, and Brick smashed a whole lot of stuff. Sadly, the new Vault Hunters suffer the same fate of and lack any strong character development outside of a few pre-game audio logs. But hey, maybe Gearbox will start a trend with Borderlands 3 and flesh them out further!
4. Mass Effect 3
It’s a shame that most of what Mass Effect 3 did right was drowned out by a sea of nascent complaining from the peanut gallery. Obviously the game did not live up to their lofty expectations but let’s be honest, what would? The rabid raving and condemnation against the entire game for its ending served as one of the more depressing news items of the year because it glossed over just how beautifully it tied up the series’ loose ends. Every significant event Shepard faced in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 were resolved in the most touching and powerful way (at least, for my playthrough). Taking part in curing the Genophage that forced me into a standoff with Wrex on Virmire was a magnanimous call of duty. Helping Miranda, my love interest in the second game, resolve her family issues was a worthy cause. Getting Tali and her people back to their home planet and brokering peace between the Geth was a moral imperative. The game’s knack for bringing back surviving members for short missions never felt cheap, rushed or shoehorned. Given Shepard’s fate at the end of the game, getting a chance to say a final goodbye to characters that I fought alongside with for so long was more meaningful than I expected.
3. The Walking Dead
The first two Max Payne games are adventures near and dear to my heart. I loved the dramatic tongue-in-cheek atmosphere and the hardboiled, scrunched up face cop who took on the mob after his family is killed. As fun as it was to use Bullet Time to take out low level mob punks and drug dealers, catching the latest episode of “Address Unknown” and “Lords and Ladies” ranked high on my list of amusements. I was disappointed that Max Payne 3 would be moving away from the tone Remedy established in favor of something a little more Rockstar. Despite my grumbling, I picked up the game after hearing the buzz surrounding it and boy, am I glad I did.
It just goes to show: don’t judge a video game by its previews. Max Payne 3 was a fantastic adventure identified by its impressive cinematic flair and amazing set pieces. Along with a number of familiar Max Payne trappings, health bar, painkillers, Bullet Time, a long awaited cover system brought the series out of its old school hole and into the modern age of game design. Adding to the entire experience is the liberal use of slick, Michael Mann-style film flourishes that really sell the in-game cutscenes. All in all, a damn fine shooter.
1. Spec Ops: The Line
Without a doubt, Spec Ops: The Line was the biggest surprise of the year. What was believed to be just another run of the mill modern military shooter quickly turned into a nightmarish twist on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and its film adaptation, Apocalypse Now. Spec Ops doesn’t do much with its gameplay nor does it attempt to advance the genre. There’s a familiar cover system, a gun swap mechanic, shootouts built around large set pieces - in short, it feels like a scaled back Gears of War. What makes Spec Ops stand out is its incredibly dark subject matter and a mature, psychological narrative the shows the mental and physical impact of war on the human condition. While there have been other games that attempted to do this (Shellshock Nam ‘67), Spec Ops succeeds because the deliberate miscommunication, “known unknowns” and shocking imagery are handled in just the right way and with the right amount of emotional pull. Remember how incredible it felt to see your player die in Modern Warfare from a nuclear explosion? Spec Ops: The Line offers that same feeling only this time, the experience lasts for about six to seven hours.
There’s nothing gratuitous or celebratory about the game’s violence and while the enemy soldiers may do so, Spec Ops does not respond to the player’s kills by awarding points or talking through a Chris Tucker-like character who shouts, “DAAAYYMMMM, you popped his head like a grape!!” after each headshot. The utter lack of any positive in-game feedback makes the experience all the more disconcerting, especially when the loading screens begin to question your actions. Just like The Walking Dead, there are choices to be made, often under a state of extreme duress, that will lead your squad into situations far beyond your control. This is not a “fun” video game by any means and Spec Ops goes out of its way to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible. That said, it’s worth replaying in order to experience the story with a knowing eye making all of the “Wait, what the hell?!” design flourishes more noticeable
In this age of Call of Duty, where war themed video games have become parodies of summer blockbuster movies or introduce half-baked narratives designed to keep the multiplayer naysayers at bay, Spec Ops did an incredible job of breaking away from the genre’s status quo. Simply put, this game needs to be played because its different.
Congratulations, Yager. You really knocked it out of the park.
Honorable Mention: ZombiU, Fez, Journey, Dyad, Persona 4 Golden
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.