While the whole editorial staff contributed to our 2012 awards, we wanted to allow everybody the opprotunity to publicly name their personal top 10 games of the year. While many did play the majority of releases in 2012, please remember that unlike our main awards, the editors are not naming the *best* games, but their personal favorites out of the selection they played.
10. E.X. Troopers
E.X. Troopers is one of the most stylistically and overall visually appealing games I’ve played in recent memory. It’s also one of the most competent third-person shooters to grace the market this year. One part shooter, one part JRPG, E.X. Troopers‘ combination of traditional shooting practicalities, action-packed stages, in-depth RPG elements complete with full character customization and an MMO-like lobby/hub that allows for quest gathering, shopping and conversing between missions makes for a beefy and varied game. By the by, it doesn’t do much to break the mold, but what’s there is holistically rock solid. Not to mention, it has some of the most exhilarating boss battles of any shooter, period. Now that’s a brave statement!
E.X. Troopers primary appeal though, is its unique art direction and top notch presentation. To be blunt, they are the best out of all the games here. A great cast of personalities coupled with an interesting story that knows when to not take itself too seriously doesn’t hurt Troopers’ placement in my top ten. Had Capcom been able to localize this gem, there’s no doubt that it would be talked about in some capacity by my fellow editors. It’s a shame to think that such a huge audience of gamers won’t play, or even know about, E.X. Troopers merely because it deserves to be experienced by anyone who considers themselves a fan of third-person action games.
Fortunately, the game is region-free on Playstation 3, and quite import-friendly. Meaning to say, it doesn’t require much knowledge of the Japanese language to play and enjoy, so long as you don’t care about only understanding the plot through deductive reasoning and your own interpretation of what is happening in each cutscene. Since a localization doesn’t look likely, I’d highly encourage importing it. It’s the same price as a full retail game here in the states, so you can’t go wrong.
9. Gravity Rush
(PSVita, SCE Japan Studio)
Gravity Rush can be best thought of as a whimsical animated film complete with imaginative set pieces and a mysterious plot that paces itself in the most meticulous of ways. As a fan of all things anime, as well as stories that create an undeniable sense of intrigue, Gravity Rush ultimately feels like a love letter to a very particular kind of gamer. That withstanding, regardless of your tastes, one cannot deny the sheer magic at work here. The graphics alone are enough to warrant a look-see, combining vibrant colors and a pitch-perfect art direction that is every bit as creative as it is recognizable to anyone who has laid eyes on a Japanese manga. In fact, even though the game is limited by the graphical capabilities of the Vita, it might just be one of the best looking games you’ve seen all year. The enchanting soundtrack further cements the fanciful tone that permeates the game in every part of its being.
Adding to these outrageously high production values and literary facets is the game’s heroine, Kat, who certainly wins top prize for best character in a new franchise. She is a strong, independent woman with a personality the exudes heaps of charm; and yet, her tale is one thick with strife and heartache, so much that the obstacles shes faces, and the prejudice she endures, is deeply saddening. At its core, Gravity Rush‘s story is a thematically powerful one that hits close to home. Often times it does this in a way that is comfortingly relatable, while at others unsettling and a stark reminder of how human beings can treat one another based off superficial characteristics outside of one’s own control. This apposite depiction regarding the human psyche’s innate limitations in practicing unconditional acceptance to their own kind is both emotionally stirring and chilling.
Visuals, pacing and story undertones aside, Gravity Rush has strong gameplay mechanics to support the weight of those aforementioned components. Refreshing is the most appropriate way to describe the inner workings of the adventure. Mashing together a tenacious combat foundation and gravity-based physics that enable players to aerially traverse large gaps and distances, attack far away enemies and dash along the sides of buildings in death-defying, supernatural ways works seamlessly. Although the gravity concept feels disorienting at first, in no time it becomes dizzying in its ability to deliver an experience unlike any other you’ll find on this list.
In the end, Gravity Rush is the total package. It’s unfortunate that so many will miss out on it simply because it’s on the Vita. I won’t say the game is worth owning a Vita for, but I won’t declare the opposite either.
8. Binary Domain
Binary Domain may be one of the most underrated, yet compelling, shooters of 2012. Sure, it didn’t have much of a marketing push, nor did it try to reinvent the wheel per se, but what it sets out to do, it does with extreme precision. For starters, Binary Domain is a sound cover-based shooter. It’s made even more effective by its clever use of squad tactics, solid shooting mechanics and a surprisingly profound storyline that expertly understands, and tries to convey, the fragility of the human condition. Shooting at androids isn’t something that usually carries with it much poignancy, but when said androids look like human beings, suddenly there is an element of existential responsibility the gamer must take on and consequently evaluate throughout their journey.
The game’s core concept of humans finding out that they’re not human at all, and are in fact machines, has profound implications on a metaphorical level. Humor me for a moment: we all, as people, learn things about ourselves as we push forward in life. Some of these undiscovered attributes of our personality and psychological makeup are extremely positive. On the contrary, we may occasionally realize certain aspects of ourselves that are seemingly dark, and not at all in line with our idea of an actualized existence. In this discovery, we can feel demoralized, scared and in some cases irrevocably broken depending on the severity of that recognition. Binary Domain attempts to tackle this idea that we all, whether we know it or not, have many layers to ourselves, and sometimes those layers hold shadowy secrets we wish to never unearth.
Can we live with those secrets, after understanding their presence? Can we continue living on as we have, knowing that we may not always be what we think or hope we are? These are the questions the game’s narrative places in our laps. For that reason alone, Binary Domain, without hesitation, makes this GOTY list.
7. Persona 4 Arena
(Multi-platform, Arc System Works/Atlus)
Personal 4 Arena is not only Arc System Works’ most accessible fighter to-date; it’s one of the most accessible fighters of the past few years. In spite of this user-friendliness however, P4A is a deeply nuanced game that can keep even the most devout, die hard, fighting game loyalist busy for an immeasurable number of hours. At last, Persona 4 Arena manages to tie these two elements together, to produce a sophisticated experience that is gratifying for veterans and newbies alike, something not easily achieved in this category of games.
The title goes beyond its accessibility however, combining notable components from the Persona series with those of a conventional 2D fighter. Meaning to say, it has one of the most robust story modes available for such a game, even managing to trump BlazBlue’s narrative-heavy experience. This is made better by the gorgeous art, fluid animations, rocking soundtrack that only a fighting and Persona game can provide as well as a host of modes that are sure to entice.
The goodness doesn’t stop there. In typical Arc System Works fashion, Persona 4 Arena is home to a diverse cast of fighters, each playing vastly different than the other. Though the roster is somewhat meager in comparison to other games that boast dozens of personalities, it’s insanely balanced and unique. There’s a character for what feels like every type of play style, so it’s difficult to not find someone with which you click. A fighting game with a smaller, more concentrated list of combatants means each available character has to bring something interesting to the table, as a way to make up for the lack of choices. Fortunately, that’s the case here.
When taking into account all of these factors, it’s easy to see why Persona 4 Arena is the fighting game of the year.
6. Sleeping Dogs
(Multi-platform, United Front Games)
Sleeping Dogs is essentially Grand Theft Auto in an eastern setting, with a kick-ass combat system akin to Batman Arkham City. United Front’s open-world crime-thriller is a game that’s as much about its captivating plot as it is punching dudes in the mouth and driving cars down city streets at law-breaking speeds. Aside from that, the game additionally possesses fantastic physics on-foot and in-car, some very competent cover-based shooting fundamentals and more content than you can shake a stick at. It has a gritty, noir feel to its tale as well, that is realistic and even relatable at times, despite the subject matter.
The real claim to fame with Sleeping Dogs is the aforementioned combat, which is silky smooth and hard-hitting. Being able to execute, with complete ease, these beautiful martial art maneuvers and counters makes for some of the most cinematic fights in all of gaming. Oh, and mid-scuffle you can set bad guys on fire by tossing their heads into flaming ovens. That’s pretty awesome, right?
Sadly, Sleeping Dogs gets overlooked and contrasted with the series it pays homage to: Grand Theft Auto. Juxtaposing the two is unfair however, because in doing that the spirit of Sleeping Dogs, and everything it does well, gets undermined. Sure, the two titles share many qualities, but so do a plethora of other games. It is possible for two similar games to co-exist, people. It’s even more possible that two like-games co-inhabit the same area while still being able to maintain their own, exclusive identity, separate from the other, regardless of their commonalities. In other words, Sleeping Dogs can be a great game, alongside GTA, which are also great games. It’s not one or the other.
5. Xenoblade Chronicles
(Wii, Monolith Soft)
Xenoblade Chronicles is massive. Enormous. Giant, even! Its scope is nearly beyond comprehension, actually. It’s been a long time since the JRPG genre received a truly spectacular title, but thanks to Monolith Soft, the pattern was broken with Xenoblade, seeing as it’s one of the best Japanese roleplaying games to come along this entire generation. It manages to maintain the familiarity many enthusiasts love, while simultaneously innovating to the point of making the genre germane by 2012 standards.
This is the real issue with JRPGs: they haven’t managed to keep up with the times. Monolith Soft was aware of this, and managed to do something about it. Furthermore, Xenoblade tells an epic tale filled with love, loss and surmounting the insurmountable, and should be commended for the sheer finesse it manages to exact in its story telling. It becomes a little clichéd and ridiculous by the end, but the beginning segments manage to make up for almost all of that.
More importantly here is the fighting constituent that can best be thought of as a more-active MMO combat system. The system is deep and rewarding, a feature largely appreciated considering the fact of how expansive the game is and just how many hours you’ll spend squashing baddies beneath the weight of your giant sword. And when I say the game is expansive, I mean it. To just see the story, think 60 hours of play time. But then there are the seemingly infinite number of sidequests that will run your in-game clock up to at least 100 hours, but could easily stretch into the 150, maybe even 200 hour mark. Yep, the game’s that big.
4. Guild Wars 2
MMOs are a grind, no pun intended. They’ve been around for over a decade, but haven’t advanced in the way needed to remain relevant and on gamers’ radars. Thankfully, NCSoft, the guys behind Guild Wars 2, knew this and bestowed upon us a gem that fixed many of the genre’s inherent issues. Dynamic questing and world events, cross-server PVP, rich aesthetics and a buy-to-play model (i.e. no subscription fees) all worked in GW2’s favor in making it the most anticipated and best MMO of the year. Unlike so many games these days that launch in a half-baked state, Guild Wars 2 came out of the gates strong, giving players a world ripe with adventure, opportunities for heroic deeds and content, content, content.
The best part about Guild Wars 2 though, is how streamlined it is; it makes the MMO process not feel so god-awful boring – and this is coming from a guy who loves MMOs! Helping its cause is the game’s aptitude to almost entirely eliminate the mindless point-and-click monotony that’s plagued the genre for years, giving players a rewarding battling experience that’s fast and furious, and even better, actively engaging. Likewise, being able to change weapons on-the-fly helps keep the warfare feeling unique and interesting.
Guild Wars 2 is the most innovative MMO to come out in a while. It feels fresh, it feels alive, it feels wonderful. In the end, NCSoft’s masterpiece is the benchmark by which all MMOs henceforth should be measured.
3. The Last Story
(Wii, Mistwalker/AQ Interactive)
The Last Story is Hironobu Sakaguchi’s baby, and also his proclaimed swan song — and boy, what a way to go out, if that’s the case! The game unfortunately seems to get overshadowed by its beefier brother, Xenoblade Chronicles, but to be frank, The Last Story is the better game. It’s not even close to matching Xenoblade is terms of content and length, but often times less is more. That is the design approach of TLS, anyway. The tale told is concise but never stripped down to the point of being unfitting or without emotionality. In fact, The Last Story is a game about its ensemble troupe of characters, and subsequently provides the most refined protagonists of any JRPG this generation (barring Lost Odyssey, that is).
In addition, the title has some of the most unique and crazy combat mechanics out there for an RPG, as it mixes elements of real-time strategy, cover-based shooting and all-out action-brawling. Initially, the options available feel out-of-place and, to an extent, hamfisted, but as the system’s intricacies open up more, its true brilliance is shown. There is a vast array of approaches to each enemy and encounter, so battles become very dynamic, personable experiences. This, blended with the heartfelt story, beautifully developed characters and impressive soundtrack makes The Last Story the JRPG to beat of this generation.
Sometimes all a game needs to do to succeed is stick with conventions that have worked in the past. This is playing it safe, but that’s okay. On the flip-side, some titles mark their place in history by the list of new concepts they bring to the proverbial table. Interestingly enough, The Last Story manages to do both all at once, while clearly emphasizing that latter philosophy over the former. Its ideas can be traditional, but also a bit wild, and there are instances where you’ll scratch your head, wondering where the developers are leading you with these seemingly disjointed ideas. As soon as you find yourself questioning their methods though, it all clicks, making brilliant sense. That’s the beauty of The Last Story; it’s a marvel of a game because of what it does do, but also because of what it doesn’t do. That’s a hard objective to complete, but Sakaguchi has pulled it off. Here’s hoping this isn’t his last story told.
2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
(Multi-platform, Firaxis Games)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a brilliant strategy game for so many reasons, most of which I won’t be able to put down in this short, limiting blurb. Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best. The reason why Firaxis Games’ latest title is so successful ultimately comes down to a number of factors, two of which are how engaging and addicting it is to gamers of all types, regardless of their experiential preferences. At its core, it’s just another turn-based strategy game covered in a coat of glossy sci-fi paint, but once those superficial layers are peeled back, and the search to understanding the game goes beyond its outward appearance and rudimentary quantification, the gathering of complex variables begin to unify to create a portrait that is holistically hypnotizing.
From the game’s sky high production values to imaginative graphics to the intuitive control schematics to the refinement of battling enemies in a tactically intelligent manner, XCOM is a deep, multifaceted title that still manages to be accessible to nearly anyone. This is astonishing considering the style of game it is – a style typically so elaborate that it often succeeds in scaring off most of those who are even casually interested in it. And yet, despite all of those trappings, steep learning curves and high barriers-to-entry, Firaxis has somehow juggled intricacy and approachability with great ease; so much that they have given a relatively niche genre big, mainstream success. Might I add, that’s no small accomplishment!
Perhaps what’s most striking about XCOM though is its ability to give players something on-par with today’s gaming expectations, while concurrently providing that distinct sense of playing something from a long forgotten era of gaming, thanks to the elicitation of face-punching nostalgia. In finding the harmony between all of this, we are treated to a game that feels both new and indescribably familiar at the same time. Being able to implement newfangled mechanics without losing the spirit of a cult-followed game, established two decades ago, is impressive in itself. The game may not out-do some of the others on this list in areas such as narration or existential thought provocation, but it doesn’t need to – it’s merits lie in an entirely different realm that are important in their own way.
What I mean to say is this: XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a video game, through and through, and doesn’t forget that. In actuality, it never once tries to be anything else. A certain level of respect must be paid to such bold behavior, especially at a time when games are becoming less and less game-like. Therefore, if you want to play an actual video game this year, you need not look any further than Firaxis’ XCOM. Trust me when I say: it won’t disappoint.
1. The Walking Dead: The Game
(Multi-platform, TellTale Games)
The Walking Dead earns my game of year nod, but also earns an award for being the game that I didn’t expect to be game of the year. What an emotional roller coaster this one is. TellTale Games are masterful at telling great stories, however they’ve out-done themselves with The Walking Dead. Hands down their most successful title to date, it is also one of the best games to happen to this industry in a long, long time. For everything it does right, it manages to do something even more right, and subsequently is an experience that probably should not have worked as well as it did.
In essence, The Walking Dead is more of an interactive movie than anything else. Its traditional gameplay segments are actually its only trappings to be entirely honest. Only when the game isn’t trying to be a game, do we get fully treated to all of its wonderment. While I would normally get down on a game for this, it’s a little easier to overlook with The Walking Dead due to how everything else it does, is done so flawlessly. Most impressive is its grisly depiction of post-apocalyptic life pungent with heartache, disaster and moments of the unwillingness to give up that resides within the human species. In this regard, The Walking Dead transcends its medium for all the right reasons. It’s a memoir to everything we have been as a race of people: selfish, fearful, greedy, reckless, loving, compassionate, joyful, conflicted, honest, vulnerable, perseverant, unrelenting, powerless and powerful.
All of these concepts are communicated through perfectly designed and developed characters, some of the strongest writing in all of multimedia, excruciatingly believable voice acting, lush visuals and the empowering act of making decisions. It’s that last part that makes The Walking Dead so good, and so important. The game forces us into situations that call for quick, irreversible decision making, just as real life does. As a result, it teaches us that we must live with the consequences, good and bad, of our actions and inactions, and in doing this, it provides the opportunity to feel wholly incompetent as well as poignantly capable. It takes us on a journey of polarizing highs and lows, and asks us to experience both ends of the spectrum with a delicate awareness of what it feels like to be a human being.
Crusader Kings II
(PC, Paradox Interactive)
“What do I do now?” That’s the question I asked myself over and over again in all of my time with Crusader Kings II. Ranking in at possibly the most in-depth, far-reaching game of the bunch, just in terms of sheer size and non-linearity, Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy pedigree is at its pinnacle in CKII. There are limitless options at your disposal, all of which are viable ways to victory. How will that conquest be attained, is what Crusader Kings will constantly inquire. Will success be achieved through blackmail? What about diplomacy? Military force is always an option as well. The truth is all of these conditions will, at some point, be more than likely utilized in order to reach success; a kind of success that can only be grasped through a series of non-scripted events that will be relentlessly thrown at the feet of your king. The sense of power Paradox places in our hands, as the players, feels heavy, as every choice made will have a splintering effect, altering the course of time and the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of friend and foe. So choosing carefully and wisely is of the utmost importance.
Crusader Kings II feels large and limitless. The number of actions that can be carried out is enough to boggle the mind, to the point of exacting paralysis during the first few hours spent with the game. Once that hurdle has been overcome, and the veil of confusion and panic lifts, a world rich with possibility opens up. Through all of this, there’s a specific sense of dispensation given to the player. This is further understood by how individualized the experience is, and how completely randomized the events are. This means that outcomes can’t be predicted through a series of algorithmic equations, but only by the weightless assumptions made in response to what you think will occur based off your own decisions, actions and inactions.
Be aware, there’s not a lot to take in visually for those unaccustomed to the ways of grand strategy, but believe it or not, this is actually Paradox Interactive’s most detailed game of this kind. Most notable is its elegant interface that comes complete with beautiful, easily navigated menus. Aside from that however, there aren’t massive battles to watch that play out with hordes of soldiers colliding, but that’s what makes the experience all the more meaningful. As a king, one does not stand side by side with his men on the battlefield. Instead, issues are given and up-close consequences are not felt. This level of disconnect is what allows a king to do what is necessary to seize his ambitions. Better still, this is where Crusader Kings II always excels: it is a simulator above all else – a simulator of being a ruler. Kind and compassionate, or cold and uncaring, the choice of who to be and how to play is yours, and yours alone.
Welcome to what it feels like to hold power in the palm of your hand.