5. Borderlands 2
“Well done! Your ability to walk short distances without dying will surely be Handsome Jack’s downfall” – Claptrap
Everything a great sequel should be, Borderlands 2 took the core mechanics of the first game and tweaked and perfected them, adding in fun new characters, more environmental/weapon variety and a compelling villain. Missions were more dynamic and interesting. It looked gorgeous, had a fantastic soundtrack courtesy of the always reliable Jesper Kidd, played smooth as hell and although it became a little grindy towards the end (and EXP-LOADERS can burn in hell), it was almost always a ton of crazy, hilarious, violent fun.
4. The Walking Dead
I have mixed feelings on the current epidemics of a) zombie games and b) all the “good” stories in gaming being relentlessly bleak and miserable. But I can’t deny that this game affected me. The story’s huge emotional punch was almost solely due to the ingenious character of Clementine and her relationship with Lee. I can overlook the rudimentary puzzles and lack of engaging, challenging gameplay elements when I genuinely care about the characters this much.
When Clem is in danger you really freak out, you get stressed, you feel the fear because the writers have made you love her. She is innocent but sturdy, sad but hopeful, scared but trustworthy and never, ever a burden. She is the goal in the game. The Walking Dead has set a new precedent for character interaction and I would love to see some more games take its example and expand upon it.
3. Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 has ruined Firefly for me. I am currently watching the much-loved sci-fi series for the first time and though the characters are wonderful, I am terrified to engage with them and emotionally invest. I am afraid that if I give that much of myself to a story again and trust the writer with my emotions, then I will once again have my nerdy little heart shattered. So I watch while doing my best not to care too much about Mal and his merry crew and it feels like I’m betraying them and their story.
This is the best way I can sum up the effect Mass Effect 3 had on me. Never has a story made me feel that way, let alone one in a videogame. People not invested in the series don’t really get where all the “entitled whining” comes from but take it from me – it was a real sucker punch and something I’ll never, ever forget as long as I live. For that reason alone it deserves a spot here, but there’s so much more.
Mass Effect 2 was my Game of the Year in 2010. The weird part is, ME3 did a lot of the things ME2 did, but better. Maybe it should be my GOTY … but there are so many things that conflict the emotions.
There’s the Tuchanka mission – probably one of the best written, perfectly presented 2-3 hours in gaming history, with 3 games worth of buildup all coming to a head for the Krogan in a glorious, hugely rewarding, emotional climax.
Then there’s Javik. Don’t let anyone ever tell you Javik is an “optional” character. This is a lie. The infamous DLC Prothean is essential not only to the story lore but also to Liara’s character arc. You learn more about Mass Effect history in Javik’s DLC than in the entire rest of the game. EA making him a paid-for add on to exploit fans’ love of the lore was a dick move, end of story.
There’s the climax of the Quarian/Geth conflict. Seeing your old buddy (or lover) Tali play such a pivotal, emotional role in her species’ fate was hugely rewarding, as was Legion’s story.
Then there was the God awful mission menu that didn’t bother to tell you your progress as you wasted hours of your life on another coma-inducing planet scanning minigame then more hours running up and down the citadel to maybe bump into people who might need that freaking artifact you found on some random moon somewhere.
There’s the wonderful character interactions, the many magic, tragic moments between Shepard and his crew that bring tears to your eyes and make you do fist pumps and want to kick those reapers’ big purpley-black shiny metallic asses back into dark space. There’s the combat which is an elegant, refined mix of the previous 2 games. The growing sense of a galaxy coming to terms with its imminent doom and the knowledge you’re the only one who can put it all right …
And then along comes that final ten minutes. That glaringly transparent, story-ruining moment that felt like it was solely written in to force an arbitray, cliched, “difficult” choice on the player. For many it ruined the series forever. You couldn’t even get the “best” ending without being forced to play the multiplayer. The extended cut fixed it a bit for me, giving at least some emotional resonance to the ending and explaining, y’know, what actually happens. But compared to the perfection of the ME1 and ME2 endings which were the same with minor differences involving the characters you cared about depending on how you played, it’s still a damp Hanar.
Still, for all the game did right I really love it. It’s the final part of my all-time favorite story, even if it did break the other two parts somewhat. And whatever your thoughts on ME3, gamers will never, ever forget it.
2. Far Cry 3
Ubisoft had a lot to prove in my eyes this winter after the relative disappointment of Assassin’s Creed 3. The rigid, strict, hand-holding, anti-fun missions, dull location and God awful, laughable ending left me less than enamored with their 2012 output.
Then Far Cry 3 came along and made me want to hug them. It is a welcome alternative to the extremely scripted and linear design of so many other shooters this year. It gives you a bunch of tools and toys in a massive, beautiful world and tells you “Go mad, do whatever you want, whenever you want.” The freeform base captures are exhilarating, the stealth is really satisfying and fun, the guns are meaty, the villains are wonderfully written and acted (though I wish we saw more of Vaas), the crafting is simple and non-intrusive and the tropical sandbox, full of dangerous and dynamic wildlife, is stunning and endlessly engaging.
As good as the game was, one niggle must be addressed – the DRM, sorry, I mean, “servers.” More than once, players were locked out of their single player campaign for almost a whole day due to issues with Ubisoft’s DRM, shit, sorry, again, I mean “servers.” This should never, ever happen and there is no excuse you can ever give me that in any way justifies it. Dick. Move. Period. Aside from that issue, Far Cry 3 is a wonderful game that made it a tough choice for me to pick my number one spot, but in the end it just had to go to …
It’s all about the atmosphere. Most of my favorite games are ones that draw me in with their worlds more than anything else. From the Capital Wasteland to Lower Hengsha, from the Russian metro tunnels to the rooftops of Venice – nothing pleases me quite like a well-made, atmospheric game world. Exploring a new game world is escapism at its best for me. Dunwall’s dark, whale-oil powered, classical beauty alone would have been enough to enamor me with Dishonored, but it just so happened to have a fantastically deep and option-filled stealth game inside those Rapture/City 17-inspired locations.
The wealth of ways you could approach the missions in Dishonored made me think of a Steampunk Deus Ex. The stealth had just the right amount of challenge to it for my tastes and the combat, when you decided to use it, worked well (despite the massive flaw of not being able to replace your sword in your right hand, rendering one hand utterly useless for non-lethal playthroughs). I’m not even into stealth games much, so Dishonored being my favorite game of 2012 is a pretty big deal for me. The story was interesting with tons of optional lore to discover, some of it very emotionally affecting. Emily, kind of like Clementine from The Walking Dead, was a perfect motivator for me; I wanted her to turn out ok and the way the game used my actions to dictate that was clever.
The way the city reacted to you was interesting, even if it did feel a little frustrating at times to almost feel like the game mechanics punished you for taking the more violent route. Becoming more infamous and eavesdropping on NPCs whispering about you like some terrifying ghost story was very satisfying. Then there was the party mission – an absolutely perfect, gorgeous, organic, beautifully freeform assassination mission with multiple paths to your goal that summed up everything great about the game, made even more memorable both for its lavish location and the moral ambiguity of the non-lethal solution.
I love seeing new IPs do well and am glad Dishonored was a success. I cannot wait to see what they do with a sequel.
It was overall a pretty good year, though 2011 is still my favorite in recent years judging by the games themselves. Skyrim, Arkham City, Portal 2, Dead Space 2 and Deus Ex in particular will take a lot of awesome games to beat. Here’s to an awesome 2013 and fingers crossed Grand Theft Auto 5 is a classic.