This year smacked me in the face with so many amazing titles that had me staying up night after night. My personal tastes bend towards turn-based strategy, but a bunch of other genres grabbed my attention like Assassin's Creed III, Sleeping Dogs and The Walking Dead - and those didn't even end up on the list. Here's my favorite games of 2012:
I wasn't really excited about the Wii U. I didn't get how an extra screen would enhance anything, but as soon as I picked up the Gamepad to bash in some zombie heads, I was hooked. The integration of the touch screen managing your inventory and an in-game useable item like the scanner increased my immersion to the point where I was freaking out looking around every corner. The roguelike element of playing one survivor and switching to another random Londoner when that survivor perished kept the tension at a boiling point. The story was barebones, and the tension eventually leaves feeling exhausted, but ZombiU showed the promise of what mature games could be on Nintendo's newfangled console. I wouldn't say I'm a survival horror fanboy, but ZombiU sucked me into its world and wouldn't let go - like any good zombie should.
Despite being a strategy guy, I had somehow missed XCOM the first time around so I had no nostalgia going in to downloading the reimagining from Firaxis. It turns out nostalgia wasn't needed, mastering the turn-based tactical of my silly little soldiers battling against the alien invasion was fun enough to stand on its own. The game nails the elegant balance of the strategy of base-building and research with the nitty-gritty percentage game of the squad missions. The customization options allowing you to create a perfect set of soldiers all named after your coworkers or childhood friends made it feel personal. Keeping your super squad alive on the normal difficulty was tough enough to provide a decent challenge - and the masochists could torture their brain with an Ironman run on Impossible. Goodbye, Sammy. You were a good at Capture the Flag in first grade, but I shouldn't have let yourself be flanked by a Sectoid. I'm so sorry.
I love fantasy so the chance to play a 4X game where you found cities and wage war against your fellow great mages was one I had to take. The first thing I liked about Warlock was that the generic fantasy setting isn't afraid of poking fun at itself. The trappings of raising minotaurs to fight against knights riding donkeys aside, Warlock's greatest contribution to strategy games was an AI that actually mimicked a human player. Seeing a computer opponent protect weaker units with heavies and retreating wounded units behind the lines to heal was a refreshing development. The spell system let you do all kinds of fun things like having a cadre of mages walk on water to blast an enemy city, or create a super unit by stacking enchantments. The endless customization options just beckoned me to play over and over again as an Undead caster or a maybe as a Monster with deep pockets filled with gold. The developers continue to support the game with patches and DLC that add features like leader units and artifacts, ensuring that I'll keep playing Warlock: Master of the Arcane well into 2013.
2. SOL: Exodus
Space is big. Really big. But apparently publishers believe no gamer wants to fly through its expanse anymore so we've had a serious lack of space combat sims in the last decade - except for SOL: Exodus. You'd be forgiven if you missed this title from earlier this year, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew how good it was at reproducing the feel of classics like Wing Commander and X-Wing. Not only do the flight controls feel nice and fluid and the missions progress at a frantic pace, but Exodus delivers a plausible sci-fi scenario that doesn't hinge on crazy aliens or precursor races. The surprisingly good in-cockpit voice-acting kept me entertained while I was shooting down bogeys and destroying capitol ships with satisfied grimace on my face. The addition of an interesting hacking mechanic involving memorizing character sequences while you're dodging fire made sure it wasn't just retreading old concepts. SOL: Exodus was a tasty appetizer - I can't wait for space combat sims to get the rebirth they deserve.
Fun fact: Since it came out in 2010, I've put more hours into playing Civ V more than any other game. I just love it. So when an expansion dropped this summer which added two huge new game systems and tons of extra units and wonders, I was pretty sure I'd play the crap out of it. And yeah, I was right. The religion system is my personal favorite in how it can either infect your whole strategy or become a wrinkle in your negotiations with the other powers in the world. Espionage doesn't pop up until the mid game, but it's a great tool to help you if you're lagging behind - especially on the harder difficulties - I love how you can rat out your friends secrets to curry favor with another leader. The new units fill in the gaps in the tech tree nicely, including a bunch of World War I era units like tri-planes and early tanks. Being able to capture cities with the new "melee" naval units finally makes investing in ships really important in Civ. Basically, Gods & Kings made one of my favorite games even better - and I'm going to go home and play it right now.
Hold on. I just finished the last episode of The Walking Dead game last night and I have to break the rules a bit to get it on my list. The crew at Telltale has created a horribly exquisite game that succeeds not just in making you feel sad or angry, but a full spectrum of emotions. Grief, love, devotion, guilt, loyalty, and of course, fear pour out of every scene. Being a father, I latched onto the story of Lee and did everything, everything I could, to protect Clementine from the damned walkers ... and the broken humans who've somehow survived. The adventure game schtick fades away after a while so that you're concentrating on the characters and their interactions, but somehow it never feels like just another interactive movie. It's perhaps The Walking Dead's greatest achievement to let you feel as if you are in control of the fate of the group, and the fate of the little girl who looks up to you. I've cried playing games before - I'm a bit of a sap that way - but The Walking Dead consistently challenged my morals and left me with so many bleak decisions to make that I broke down nearly every episode. I may have sunk more hours into other games this year, but none have affected more than The Walking Dead. It's the game from 2012 that I'll be thinking of next year, in ten years, and maybe my whole life.
Don't forget to check out the rest of our favorite games of 2012. You can even take the Five Favorites Quiz for a chance to win sweet prizes like a Limited Edition Far Cry 3 Engraved Gaming PC from iBuyPower and a Devil 13 Dual GPU from AMD!