The Ambivalist's Top Ten Games of 2012

I'm going to list off some games that I really liked in 2012, and why I think they're neat. These games are pretty good. You should probably play them. 

By Tony Walter | Feb 9, 2013

I debated for a bit whether or not I would create some sort of Game of the Year thing. Just about everybody out there is throwing together their own top ten lists right now, and not just for games. While a top ten list isn't exactly breaking new ground, consider this an exercise in 'getting to know you'. It seems important, if I expect people to read what I write, that they understand my tastes. What better way to do that than create a list of games I really, really like?

This is a little more than a simple top ten list, though. I spent a great deal of time over the past few weeks thinking about what it is exactly that makes a game great. There is no simple answer, and certainly everybody has their own reasons for loving a game, but the greatest games do have something in common.

10. Fez

2012 was a year of beautiful games, and not simply on a technical level. Fez is nothing if not a fantastic example of this. Adorable and haunting are the words that come to mind. Fez isolates players in a mysterious world and provides just enough bread crumbs along the way to keep you guessing and striving towards solving its mysteries. An interesting phenomenon happened around the release of this game, a since of community was created. I can't imagine there was a video game website immune to the desire of uncovering Fez's mysteries, and I can't remember the last time I saw so many strangers working together to accomplish something.  

9. Far Cry 3

I managed to sneak to the top of a nearby cliff overlooking the enemy outpost. With my camera, I noted all of the enemy locations. Two guards were in the main building, one sitting in front of a cage housing a pair of rabid dogs, another in a watch tower with a sniper rifle, and the last wearing heavy armor standing near the road. I shot the sniper with a well aimed arrow to avoid raising alarm, then moved to his location. A perfectly lined rifle shot allowed me to bring down both men in the main house with the a single bullet. Another shot opened the dog's cage which resulted in the last two guards being mauled to death. Everybody who played this game has a story like this, probably several. During the weeks following its release one of my favorite activities was visiting various forums to read what other bizarre and excited adventures others had. For each of its faults, there are four or five moments that occurred naturally in the game world that were more exciting than anything that I've seen in a Hollywood action film. 

8. The Walking Dead

I had my problems with The Walking Dead: clumsy action, poorly paced puzzles, choices that ultimately didn't matter, and technical issues that tarnished the experience for some and ruined the game for others. Even after all of that, it says something that I still feel so strongly about this game. The relationships you develop during the game feel more real than anything done in a game before, so much so that you develop real feelings for these characters; real attachments. You want these people to make it through, not because you want to 'win' the game, but because they're your friends; your family. I'm not kidding, if you put your hands on Clem, I'll kill you.

7. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure

I remember playing Oregon Trail between classes in the library at my school in fifth grade. I remember hunting for my family's food, the hardships when somebody would come down with measles, the decisions to be made when you came to a river. What I don't remember is launching into low orbit and battling a rogue satellite, then falling back to earth amidst very, very large group of buffalo, just barely escaping into the middle of a Civil War battlefield. Maybe it's this game plucking directly on the nostalgia strings in my mind, or the WarioWare-esque frantic pacing, or the pure brain-melting madness, but I love this game.

6. Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping Dogs is the that black sheep grandson that changed his name and moved over seas after emancipating himself. The fact that this game is somehow related to the mediocre Grand Theft Auto knock-offs of a near decade previous, True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City, is baffling. The fact that this game was canceled, sold, revamped, and came out as the yard stick for all future open-world games' combat system, is nothing short of a miracle. Sleeping Dogs is that game that, whenever I have a bad day at work, I throw in for a few hours to blow off steam. This game is as mechanically sound as any open world game has ever been, the story is solid, the characters are likable, and it's a whole lot of fun to play.

5. Max Payne 3

It has been roughly a decade since the first Max Payne was released. We're a forgetful bunch sometimes, back then it took little more than decent controls and a gimmick to stand out as a console shooter. Stories were secondary, if they existed at all. A sense of style was very rare, and almost never fully formed. The dream sequences in Max Payne were clever, but devilishly frustrating. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne suffers from one of the worst final boss encounters I can remember. Often we don't realize how far games have come in the past decade, but Rockstar made that apparent with Max Payne 3. Max Payne 3 managed to take the best parts of the series, modernize the mechanics, and wrap it up in one of Rockstar's dark stories. It is the best controlling shooter Rockstar has ever released, one of the year's best soundtracks, and the multiplayer that we worried would be tacked-on, turned out to be one of my favorite muliplayer experiences this year. Max Payne 3, in a lot of ways, does a better job of being a Max Payne game than the original game did.

4. Crashmo

Say what you will about the state of handheld gaming. Sure, smartphones may have put a dagger in the gut of dedicated gaming handhelds, and sure, that dagger twists with each iPhone iteration and zeitgeist Boggle derivative, but over the past couple of months less and less do I find myself pulling up Jetpack Joyride while I'm waiting in line at the bank. Late last year I purchased a 3DS, and, based on some recommendations  the first game I bought was Crashmo from the Nintendo eShop. Crashmo tends toward the sort of platform defining puzzle game like Tetris for the original GameBoy. Fantastic puzzle design, a forgiving rewind mechanic, and the ability to quickly pull the game up from the system's memory, all lend toward creating the game that keeps my iPhone's battery fully charged. Both Crashmo and Angry Birds are great games to play when you miss the bus and have to wait for a few extra minutes - the difference is that Crashmo is the reason I missed the bus.

3. Journey

My experience with Journey extended about ninety minutes after I finished downloading it, and I haven't had the strong desire to revisit the game since March, but this isn't a knock against the game. Journey was an experience that was so meaningful, so memorable, that I know replaying it would never live up to what my first adventure was. No dialogue, and very little in terms of story presentation, and still the game inspired more emotion from me than anything else this year. Perhaps the best conceived cooperative game in history, the online component of this game isn't there for you to kill time with your friends, but is actually an essential element of what this game is. You won't say a word to your partner, but I can guarantee that by the time the credits roll you will feel closer to the mysterious ally than you have felt with any online stranger in a coop game before. I can't say much else about the game without just explaining exactly what happened to me while I playing it, but that might harm the experience of those who haven't yet had it. If you do not own a PlayStation 3, either find a friend that will let you borrow it for an hour and a half or buy one now, but do yourself a favor and play Journey.

2. Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami is the most violent and stylish puzzle game I've ever seen. At first glance you might tell yourself this is just some indie action game pulling ques from games like Grand Theft Auto II and movies like Drive. While the inspirations are definitely there, limiting this game to that is to ignore what this really is. A well executed retro style, the best music of the year, and fast-paced and compelling gameplay might sound like the perfect formula to place a game on this list, but Hotline Miami is deeper than what a cursory glance might suggest. The missions in the game aren't very long. Each consists of a building, usually not more than a handful of floors. If you're good, you can rush through in a few minutes, even if you're struggling it won't take more than a half hour to complete a stage. During the action of the game I found myself shouting at the television whenever a man just off screen put me down with a well placed shotgun blast. I'd adjust my actions and discover some violent method for relieving the stress he caused. This was some of the most intense fun I had all year. You forget what you're doing during the mission - you don't have time to remember. Adrenaline kicks in and you kill sixteen men with a knife before you know what you did. Then, you complete the mission. The fast-paced music stops, the tone changes, the adrenaline fades, and you're required to retrace your steps to the entrance of the building - these are the most important moments in Hotline Miami. During these slow moments you're forced to face what you have done, and you begin to question the ambiguous plot, the hero, his motives; then the questions move beyond the game. Perhaps with the current political atmosphere, this game struck at just the right time. The game does not attempt to force any values on the player, but instead asks the player to question what their own values are, and as we see video games come under more scrutiny than ever before, these sorts of questions may prove to be very important.

What is it that makes a great video game? I don't believe there is one specific component makes a game great. Crashmo became a part of my life as much as watching the newest episode of The Daily Show or checking my email, something more than a distraction or entertainment. Journey, through almost no written story, provided an emotional experience that I will never forget, something personal, something that I was a part of. Hotline Miami made me question my personal beliefs, and take a step back to question what violent video games mean to me, and to the rest of the world. These aren't components of video games, these are not boxes that developers check while they're programming a game. What makes a game great is something that transcends itself as a game. It is when a game becomes something more important than a just video game. When what has been created has some intangible positive effect on its audience.

The first week of October I had extra money in my pocket, I must have paid a bill early because that isn't something that happens to me very often. Since we were in the dead of the video game release season I decided that I should pick up a game that I had not had any intention of buying previously. I looked up to see what games were coming out the following week, did some reading, and decided to be spontaneous - to try something unfamiliar.

1. XCOM: Enemy Uknown


What was I expecting when I went into the local GameStop on October 8th to pre-order the next day's release? I certainly wasn't familiar with the original XCOM. In fact, the only game remotely similar that I had played was Advance Wars 2 on GameBoy Advance. The store was full of Dishonored ads, the big release that week. The employees were a little taken aback when I approached them and told them what I wanted to reserve. "You know Dishonored is coming out tomorrow?" I knew that. I had been seeing trailers and screenshots and interviews and previews pop up for that game for about a year, of course I knew. Dishonored looked good, it looked fun, it looked safe. I didn't want safe. I wanted different. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to explore this medium and stray away from what I knew.

The next day I was scheduled to work both of my jobs. I'd be busy from well before GameStop opened until about ten that night, at which point I would need to go to bed to prepare for the next day of work. There was a brief two hour gap between jobs in middle of the afternoon. Instead of eating dinner that day I rushed to the nearby GameStop, picked up XCOM, and got on the next bus that took me home. I had about ninety minutes to kill. I installed the game to my Xbox 360 while I haphazardly tossed together a sandwich. I began creating my team. I would base the characters off of people I knew, obviously. The first one was my roommate, because I thought he'd get a kick out of seeing his future self killing aliens. I liked the idea of him being in the game so much that the next recruit became me. The recruit after that, another long time friend. The squad continued to grow in this fashion over the following days. I discovered a unique attachment to these otherwise disposable characters. I fought for the squad members as though they really were my friends.

In the following weeks something profound happened. My roommate, who hadn't purchased a game since he moved out of his mom's house, somebody who would only occasionally play some Nintendo 64 for nostalgia sake, or even less occasionally a cooperative mission or two in whatever the newest Halo game was, started his own game in XCOM. Maybe the idea of creating a squad of people I knew clicked with him, because next thing I knew he was going through the recruits renaming each after friends and family.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown had breached two thresholds that month. The first, enticing a life time video game fan to try a genre that was totally unfamiliar - and to fall in love. I have been eagerly exploring the strategy genre, lamenting the classics that I've missed, and having a newly developed anticipation for future releases. The second threshold, and perhaps more importantly, was that of inspiring somebody who is not only unfamiliar with strategy games, but not much of a video game fan at all, to jump in head first. Accessibility has recently had a negative connotation with it, that accessible games mean dumbed down games; XCOM: Enemy Uknown is proof that doesn't have to be the case.

Since I was a kid I can't remember the last time I was able to sit in a room with somebody who didn't play video games and talk, in detail, about strategy and tricks, and share stories about the ridiculous missions we had been on, and laugh over the goofy ways our mutual friends died. "My brother's cover was destroyed when he fired that rocket and then he was blown up by a Cyberdisc." "Holy crap dude, I was about to eat it when that Muton flanked me, but then you totally overwatched his ass and saved me."

What is it that makes a great video game? Transcendence. The positive effects it has outside of what it is. A great game isn't a good story, a new technology, or a fun mechanic. A great game is something that instills change outside of itself. Journey gave me an experience that I will always remember. Hotline Miami made me question something that I love. But in my apartment, for the month of October, XCOM: Enemy Uknown made video games cool again.

No comments:

Post a Comment