Every January, I start a document called “Favorite Games” and leave it on my computer desktop, so that I can add to it whenever a game impresses me. Come December, I pick over my selections to arrive at my Five Favorite games of the whole year, which is a lot harder to do than it sounds. This isn’t about what games were the “best,” it was about the games that I just plain liked the most, and the games on this year’s list are so diverse that it’s like asking what I like more – a short line for a rollercoaster or getting a hot dog at the ballpark. They’re both great – I’m supposed to pick one over the other? Impossible.
So I’m cheating and adding a sixth favorite. What? They’re my rules. I can bend them if I want.
6. Mass Effect 3
There’s a salarian scientist by the name of Padok Wiks. You probably haven’t met him, because you probably loved Mordin Solus so much that you went out of your way to keep him alive at the end of Mass Effect 2. And what’s not to love? Mordin is funny, smart, sings show tunes, and he’s even good in a fight. Padok’s just the understudy, the backup plan. He’s a perfectly good scientist, of course, he’s just not Mordin. I mean, Mordin is larger than life, and Padok is … well, he’s just Padok. When it came time for Padok to take his elevator ride, I cried, ashamed that I’d spent so much of my time with him wishing he was someone else. Mass Effect 3 takes the enormous stakes of a galactic war and makes them intensely personal – until even the loss of a virtual stranger becomes almost too much to bear. Others will remember it for the ending that made them angry, but I will remember Mass Effect 3 for how much it made me care.
Ok, look, I get it if you consider Blink to be cheating when it comes to stealth. I respect that. But Blinking in behind someone and knifing them in the neck never, ever got old for me as I exacted revenge on those who’d set me up in Dishonored. Summoning swarms of rats to devour them alive was pretty great, too, don’t get me wrong, but Blinking, slashing, and watching my victim disappear in a cloud of ash induced more than a few giggles of malicious glee. Dunwall is a great place to explore, with its reliance on whale oil, overly grand architecture, dingy back alleys and colorful thugs. It’s a place I don’t feel like I’ve visited a thousand times already, full of people I don’t already know. Plus, Tallboys are kind of the coolest thing ever.
4. Persona 4 The Golden
This one is a little bit of a cheat, because it’s actually just an upgrade of a PlayStation 2 game that was released in 2008. But what an upgrade. More content, streamlined mechanics, online features, and portability – it’s an even better version of an already-glorious game. Putting aside the addictive dungeon crawling, amazing visuals, and bound-to-get-stuck-in-your-head soundtrack, what I love about Persona 4 are that its cast of high school student heroes have the kinds of problems that high school kids actually have. One is confused about his sexuality. Another is struggling with her sense of obligation to her family and her desire to pursue her own interests. They’re all in that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, not quite one or the other, with aspects of both. Sure, there’s plenty of great dungeon-crawling action and general JRPG silliness in Persona 4 The Golden, but there’s plenty of depth, too.
3. Tokyo Jungle
Every year I have one game that I adore and that people never quite believe me about. And then they play it and realize that you should always listen to me when I tell you about the weird little game you’ve never heard of. Three years ago, it was Plants vs. Zombies. Then it was Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Last year it was Bastion and this year, it’s Tokyo Jungle. I’m not sure what I love more about this game – that you can play as a baby chick trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, or that the premise is presented so matter-of-factly. That’s not to say there isn’t humor in Tokyo Jungle – you can’t really do something this absurd without eliciting at least a chuckle or two – but for the most part, your missions are presented to you utterly straight-faced, as though a beagle fighting off a hippopotamus is the most natural thing in the world. And of course you should hide under a box to escape the velociraptors, duhhhh. Redonkulous exterior aside, success in Tokyo Jungle actually requires a great deal of planning, resource management, and strategy. Do not be fooled by its fluffy exterior – this game will put your skills to the test … and possibly make you want to put a sweater on your cat.
2. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead shouldn’t have worked. It got zombies, which we’re sick of; it’s episodic, which hasn’t really worked out very well thus far; and it’s an adventure game, a genre that’s felt pretty stale for the past decade. But the story of Lee, Clementine, and their fellow survivors is brilliant, placing you in uncomfortable scenarios that question your values not as a gamer, but as a human being. There are no right or wrong answers, just choices that you’ll have to live with as you see them play out across the game’s five gut-wrenching episodes. The Walking Dead is an evolution in adventure games, a revitalization of storytelling and puzzle solving that makes sense in a modern context. It’s also bold, shoving unpleasant realities down your throat and forcing you to suck it up and deal – and you will, because you must find out what happens next.
I don’t like playing games with other people, as a rule, because they have a way of getting in the way of my enjoyment, but other people are the entire point of Journey, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The actual “game” part of Journey is simple, with few controls and a very simple goal, but the magic comes from your randomly-assigned companion who can only speak to you through musical notes. The journey the title refers to is the literal one to the mountain, but also the one you take with your partner, starting off as strangers, learning how to communicate and understand each other until you couldn’t imagine being in that landscape without each other. So many games try to impress or overwhelm you, but Journey takes your hand quietly, letting you absorb your stunning surroundings at your own pace. On top of all of that is Journey‘s elegant soundtrack, which was so good, it’s been nominated for a Grammy award. I’ve never played anything quite like Journey, and the trip across the desert is one I’ll not soon forget.
And those are my five (plus one) favorites of the year. If you haven’t played them yet, you should! Be sure to check out the favorites of the other editors, too – there’s very little overlap, which illustrates just what a great year for gaming 2012 really was.
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!