2012: A Good Year for Games

Recently (I say recently, it was actually about two months ago) I was writing a blog about 10 notable games and found I needed to look up some release dates. Usually when that happens, I spend the next 15 minutes jumping between wikipedia articles, looking at related games and reading about their development, a habit I've managed to develop stemming from my annoyingly persistent curiosity. This time I noticed an interesting pattern: an inordinate number of fantastic games were released in 2012.

Since the list format worked so well in my most recent blog (it's so much easier to write in bite-sized chunks on single topics) I'm going to pick my top 10 games from 2012. This was actually pretty tough, and was extended to 10 from 5, but at least I managed to cut out my honourable mentions!

Anyway, here they are: my favourite games from 2012, a great year for games!

10. Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin's Creed 3 didn't go down so well with audiences at release, mostly because Connor was seen as a pretty dry protagonist and the story failed to capture the hearts of players in the same way as the Ezio trilogy. But personally I thought AC3 had a lot going for it. Mechanically it was a vast improvement on previous installments, with everything tweaked to be just a little better: combat was less formulaic and a bit more difficult, navigation was tuned to be more sensitive and fluid, stealth was improved and gear was a little more varied. In fact, I think many people look back on Ezio's time with rose tinted glasses: Assassin's Creed 3 fixed a lot of problems that people had with the franchise to date.

Although the classic white robes are what stick in the mind, clearly 2012 me had a thing for Connor's dark outfit, which probably cost hours worth of trading and side missions!

On top of a good number of small additions, like new gadgets and homestead mechanics, there was one major new feature: ship combat. It was by no means perfect in Connor's lifetime, but paved the way for the absolute gem of a game, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. The game was also the basis of a brilliantly conceived piece of DLC called the Tyranny of King Washington, which explored an alternate timeline and had plenty of space to bend the rules. It was a great piece of 'what if' work, with mechanics that had no place in a standard AC release but were huge fun to play around with!

9. The Walking Dead

I will be sad not to see anymore Telltale releases in the future, regardless of the nature of the company's demise and the controversy surrounding it. In particular the series I am sad to see go is The Walking Dead, the first Telltale game I tried and the one which kept me coming back to Telltale over and over.

The first series of The Walking Dead was the first game of its kind I had really played: a decision based, dialogue heavy, occasionally quicktime action game. I think that Telltale was in no small part responsible for the prevalence that this genre has seen in recent years, with games like Life is Strange and Until Dawn being other success stories of the interaction style, and the Walking Dead was the kind of game which carried these elements very well: tense, high stakes events spaced out by tricky series of interactions which have an effect on the future.

The relationship between Lee and Clementine was wonderfully realised.

Some might argue that TellTale doesn't actually do this very well, and I've even heard 'TellTale Syndrome' quoted as an occurrence where your decisions have no effect on any outcomes. While I concede that of course there are interactions you can perform which don't have repercussions, I don't think that this is inherently a problem: TellTale games make you feel like every decision is important, which is what your player character would likely feel, and personally a game that makes me feel something that isn't there is doing its job. Isn't that what games are? You're never in any actual danger when Sonic starts to drown, but the stress and fear brought on by his music makes you feel like you are, and I think in many cases The Walking Dead has managed to achieve this sense of pressure and dread which persists throughout the game.

Anyway, I'm deviating.

8. Borderlands 2

I think Borderlands 2 is the only game of its kind that I've played to be just as fun for me in singleplayer and multiplayer. It really shines as a co-op game, with its silly quest lines to prop up an excuse to kill something with flashy colours and a lot of explosions, but is still excellently balanced and perfectly good fun when your friends are busy.

The artistic style of Borderlands 2 was still unique and colourful in its second instalment, which was refreshing for FPS games at the time.

Borderlands 2 had broad and interesting RPG mechanics, particularly around the loot system. The weapons and gear, though generally arranged across a number of factors by level, can rarely be ranked according to an individual stat: while it may be tempting to grab weapons with the highest damage output, the range, reload time, clip size, elemental damage and many other stats will have a huge impact on gameplay, affording a huge range of playstyles and customisation options.

Borderlands 2 was yet another game in 2012 that was well implemented and did what it did really well, holding up to the test of time even today.

7. Darksiders 2

I'm not sure if the Darksiders franchise has ever garnered a lot of traction. As of writing I have only played the second and third instalment, having only just completed the latter, and look upon them both very fondly.

I can't say what attracted me to Darksiders 2 when I first played it: it was one of many games sitting in my library that I was flicking through, looking for something to do. Perhaps it was the concept of playing as Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; how many games can boast that? Perhaps it was because I hadn't played a hack-n-slash in a while and had a little bit of an itch to scratch. Whatever it was, I'm very grateful for it, because it opened up two very interesting and enjoyable games to me.

Joe Madureira's talent shows through in the artistic style of Darksiders.

Even without having played the first game, it didn't take me long to figure out the broad strokes of the plot leading to the events of Darksiders 2, and the lore was very compelling to me. The major beats of Biblical narratives and themes have been hit, but enough has been added, twisted and reinterpreted to make the world familiar yet interesting. Such additions are making the Four Horsemen Nephilim, or generalising the roles of God and Satan to The Creator and The Destroyer; they feed on a well known idea or theme but put a spin on it to make it fresh and unique, building a real personality into the feel of the game.

Something that struck me about Darksiders 2 was how pretty it was. I expected underworlds and apocalyptical scenes, which can certainly be found in abundance, but scattered between gorgeous green landscapes and heavenly halls. Even the apocalyptical scenes have a certain aura to them which is impressive: they are big and bold, with their own sense of grandeur and power.

6. LEGO The Lord of the Rings

Frodo looks nervous about the journey ahead, but at least Sam is happy!

LEGO The Lord of the Rings began a new chapter in Traveler's Tales story. It was the first LEGO game to be fully voiced, which might have seemed like an odd decision at the time, but they couldn't have picked a better game. The developers leant heavily into the grand, loud, bordering on over-the-top - and highly meme-able - dialogue, recreating it with cutesy little LEGO figures waving their tiny arms and brandishing plastic weapons. It also had a large, interesting, wonderfully realised open world, packed full of characters and locations from the Peter Jackson movies and beyond. Supplemented by the unspeakably wonderful original score by Howard Shore and the soothing click-clack of tiny feet on the ground, the game is an absolute joy to kill time in. Not to mention the strange catharsis brought on by destroying fake LEGO sets with prejudice!

5. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

As Ellen Rose will tell you, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning did not get the acclaim it deserved when it was released. It can be likened to Skyrim in scale and ambition, but 38 Studios took a very different approach to their representation of high fantasy. Instead of gritty, murky realism, Kingdoms of Amalur is comprised of bright colours, lavish scenery and larger-than-life characters woven into a fantastical and intriguing world steeped in lore.

Chakrams are the only way to play!

One of Kingdoms of Amalur's strengths is a very high level of player customisation, which at later stages boasts huge stat boosts in chosen disciplines. This strength is amplified by the relatively low cost of re-speccing, allowing you to reset and retrain all of your stats without losing anything but pennies and playing through new areas with a completely new style. Kingdoms of Amalur also boasts an interesting collectable system in the form of lore stones, which flesh out the world of Amalur but also give tangible, permanent character upgrades for completed sets. With that as a reason to keep exploring, and completely changing up your style to keep it interesting, it's easy to sink hundreds of hours into the game before running out of things to do.

4. Far Cry 3

Honestly, I'm surprised that when I weighed up all these games, Far Cry 3 was only at position 4. It's a really well crafted game with great gunplay mechanics and a nifty open world (I feel that it slipped in just before Ubisoft started making open worlds that were just too big and empty) and a really interesting tatau gimmick.

But Vaas was the character who really stole the show. Charismatic, calculating and completely insane, he emanated dangerous and compelling energy which permeated the whole first half of the game. I think that without Vaas, Far Cry 3 would have been a well put together open world shooter with some cool elements but not much more. Vaas was the lynchpin to drive the narrative of the next two games, with Pagan Min and Joseph Seed being the focal points of the next two games.

Nothing beats a tropical holiday!

Perhaps it's not fair to give all the credit to Vaas: another introduction in Far Cry 3 which the series went on to nail in later installments was the random animal encounters. I remember multiple occasions where I was either doing really well or really poorly until a tiger or elephant charged in and completely turned the tables. It's a mechanic which creates unique stories for every player, and when games pull it off as well as Far Cry 3 did it's a real treat.

3. Dishonored

No game, even its sequel, made me care as much about stealth as Dishonored did. This wasn't even because of Dishonored's multiple endings, which fundamentally depend on the player's stealth, but because it was something so ingrained in the game: mechanically and thematically, stealth just worked so well in Dishonored that the very act of pulling it off was rewarding, satisfying and enjoyable in its own right.

Dunwall plays host to so many environments, but Corvo invariably ends up in the worst of them!

Dishonored told a story which I considered to be familiar in the sense that it didn't exactly break the mould or throw in any incredible twists - being a standard redemption-by-assassination plot as seen many times before - but it was compelling and interesting enough to keep me invested all the way through. The world of Dunwall was very nicely portrayed, with snippets of lore being distributed throughout the game for the keen-eyed, fleshing out the intriguing dystopian world. Dunwall is an interesting place with a curious political backdrop and a unique approach to magic, which sets the stage for a wonderfully dark journey.

2. Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line starts in the style of many modern-military-style shooters: a rugged team of operatives dropped into a hostile location and kill lots of native people between blockbuster action setpieces. A friend whose taste I trusted recommended this to me and I was quite disappointed in him after the first ten minutes or so - I had seen this before and knew it wasn't really my thing.

A rugged military shooter set to the backdrop of a ruined Dubai with hidden depths and a heavy message.

I'm very glad I trusted him and pressed on. Spec Ops is not what it seems, and the first hints of that are quite subtle, pointing to some larger conspiracy or a deeper secret. The truth is much more sinister, and not something I want to spoil so I'm not going to talk about the story anymore at all!

In terms of gameplay, Spec Ops is nothing special: it's fairly standard third-person shooter fayre without many bells, whistles or gimmicks. The environments are beautifully desolate and play host to some gorgeous set pieces, but not in the grand and lavish way that Dubai is famous for. The Dubai of Spec Ops: The Line has fallen victim to a destructive sandstorm, turning its luxurious aesthetic to a tarnished, vertical landscape devoid of life, with nasty secrets tucked away inside its ruined passageways. The game slowly builds to a heavy, thought-provoking payoff which sticks with me to this day.

1. Mass Effect 3

There is no way that this wasn't going to come out at the top of my list. I don't think I have ever been more excited for the release of a game as I was for Mass Effect 3: due to my circumstances I'd never really been 'up to date' with a franchise before, and I had finished Mass Effect 2 about a month before 6th March so was at peak apprehension!

Is there anything more scary than a teleporting Banshee on a Platinum rated solo match? I don't think so...

I wasn't disappointed. Mass Effect 3 is a meaningful, emotional adventure which continues - and concludes - the story lines of characters seeded in the original game. I find it very difficult to express why I have such strong feelings about it: it' by no means a perfect game, and at release the ending was a poor payoff for the trilogy-spanning buildup, but to this day I can't get it out of my head and frequently return to it. Somehow everything about it breathes significance and importance for me, and I think it will forever be something of a landmark game for me.

As I've mentioned on this blog before, Mass Effect 3 was the first game I ever really sank a reasonable amount of multiplayer time into. I can't really say what it was about it that was so compelling: many other games have included interesting co-op multiplayer since, indeed Mass Effect: Andromeda's multiplayer followed exactly the same template with a revamped engine, but failed to grip me in the same way.

So there we have it: my favourite games from 2012, of all the bizarre topics to write about! I've thoroughly enjoyed looking back to a few years ago to pick out these games. Once again it's an acitivity I recommend: what year so you think was a peak for your gaming experience? What have I missed?

I haven't quite figured out how to end these succinctly yet! It doesn't feel like a paper or report where I can wrap up my findings, because writing like this is more of an internal, exploratory experience, and my findings are internal, personal and indistinct. Still, I am enjoying it, and look for ward to writing more frequently. Until next time!