2012 Year End Game Review: Matt Byrd

2012 in gaming isn’t a year that is easy to sum up with hyperbole, or one sweeping statement.

It was far from the greatest year in gaming (very, very far), but even still, when I was compiling this list, I had to make some heartbreaking cuts, and felt I was disrespecting some very good games. For every cheap money snatching blockbuster we got this year, we were also gifted with some genuine surprises and accomplished franchise extensions (many of which make up this list). The end result of one step forward and one step back for an entire 12-month period may not have moved gaming ahead, but the constant motion made choosing the best of the year a dizzying experience.

Somehow, though, I was finally able to narrow it down to 10 games that I feel comfortable saying are the best of 2012.

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

On the surface, it looks like all there is to “Kingdoms of Amalur” is a standard RPG coat of paint and a souvenir of the high profile closure of “38 Studios.” It’s not the type of game that makes its first impression with its looks, but rather its personality. The game’s speedy free flowing combat system never ceases to be entertaining throughout the very long adventure “Amalur” provides.

An all-star team of developers and outside talent (fantasy great RA Salvatore penned the story) may have been behind “Amalur,” but nothing feels old hat about the game, and it instead comes across as something closer to a fresh faced group of young talent, with heads full of new ideas creating something against the grain. It’s one of the more surprising, and certainly among the most pure fun, releases this year.

9. Xenoblade: Chronicles

If “Amalur” looks standard and done before on the surface, then “Xenoblade” is practically a fossil upon first viewing. It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best. Yet after a wave of hype from the Japanese market, and several thousand petition signatures later, audiences everywhere were greeted by something that felt like meeting an old friend, and finding out that you have just as much fun with each other as you used to.

“Xenoblade” pays tribute to all of the great JRPG conventions that shaped it, but it just as carefully takes note of all the things that made those game’s grow stale as well, and manages to mold new forms for them so you are left with a game that somehow makes you nostalgic for things you never knew before. Your party becomes your family thanks to a great relationship system, and the character building and combat mechanics keep things fresh as you explore one of the more unique worlds available for the genre all in pursuit of finishing an equally gripping story. The era of JRPGs may be over, but “Xenoblade” reminds us why it had a dynasty in the first place.

8. Sound Shapes

I love new, bold ideas in gaming, and “Sound Shapes” may have been among the newest and boldest this year. It has nothing to do with its basic gameplay either, as “Shapes” traditional 2D side scrolling system is fairly ho-hum. Much like a new “Mario” release though, the real draw doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but rather the design. “Sound Shapes” employs a minimalist graphic style that is charming, but only serves to give substance to the soundtrack that defines the experience. Several different musical artists contributed to the music (and the design) of the levels, and as a result we are provided one of the first games since the brilliant “Rez” that feels like an organic and physical product of the soundtrack. It’s more of an interactive soundtrack than a fully loaded video game, but it’s artistic value is unquestionable, and I wouldn’t want to know the person who couldn’t have fun with it.

7. Far Cry 3

I almost had this list finished before “Far Cry 3” as I thought the year was done. Yet count me among the many who are now discovering that as 2012 winds down, Ubisoft saved their best for last not in the form of the new “Assassin’s Creed,” but rather the third in the “Far Cry” franchise.

“Far Cry 3” almost aggressively refuses to reinvent the wheel, and instead decides to look back into what makes FPS’s so much fun in the first place. Not since “Halo:CE” have I played a shooter that so successfully made combat feel like a constantly on your toes and the edge of your seat type affair. The further you think outside of the box in combat in “Far Cry 3,” the more you find the developers have crafted a box so encompassing that they’ve anticipated and incorporated every move you could want to make, and have thrown A.I. against you that can do the same.

Many games have only made the claim of possessing the qualities that “Far Cry 3” pulls off so effortlessly. Throw in a series of moments that rival the “Uncharted” series, and there’s no way this list would be complete without “Far Cry 3.”

6. Max Payne 3

It was Max Payne himself who quipped that “life knows two miseries; getting what you don’t want, and not getting what you want.” Thankfully for millions of patient fans, the long awaited “Max Payne 3” was exactly what we wanted.

“Max Payne 3” may have taken the action icon out of the familiar confines of Noir York, but it would prove to be for the best, as the old dog brought all of the tricks that made him famous, but picked up new ones as well that help to bring him into the new age without missing a beat. “Max Payne 3” feels like one of the more complete games of the year as it accomplishes everything you could have wanted from such a hyped entry into a beloved franchise. For pure, no-nonsense action fans, it is the best you’ll play all year.

5. Halo 4

I was ready to stomp out “Halo 4” like a finished cigarette. Not that I didn’t love the “Halo” series, but between the early footage and the new developer, all signs pointed to a blockbuster letdown that might finally spell the end of Microsoft’s flagship series, and I wanted to throw the first bit of dirt on the grave.

I couldn’t have been more wrong of course, as “Halo 4” is the “Batman Begins” or “Casino Royale” of the video game world, and proves that new blood can in fact be the giver of new life. You can’t overstate the accomplishment that 343 Studios pulled off in making “Halo 4” feel so fresh, and provide perhaps the most hair raising experience that the series has pulled off since the original “Halo.” Even though the excellent multiplayer was almost a foregone conclusion, it’s again a matter of how great it is, as the intensity of the series is alive and well, but again that new game smell is present for the first time in awhile.

“Halo 4” separates itself from the competition by accomplishing the same level of emotional intensity in every aspect of its gameplay and not resting on its considerable laurels. I came into the year to bury “Halo 4,” yet I’m exiting it with nothing but great blushing praise for everything it does so well.

4. Journey

There’s been a considerable crop of quality downloadable titles this year, so much so in fact that many of them outshined the mult-imillion, multi-platform titles that were supposed to rule this year. Yet even in such a quality selection of games, the definitive standout was a game so short, that it’s barely there.

There were hints of the greatness development team thatgamecompany was capable of with “Flow” and “Flower,” but “Journey” kicked the doors down, and now represents the most astonishing accomplishment in the field of video game art. In fact, accomplishment is the word overall, as everything in “Journey” feels like the product of blood, sweat, and tears, yet also plays like the most effortless thing in the world. The incredible visuals combine with one of the best soundtracks of the year to create a piece of interactive art that makes you question so many preconceived notions of the capabilities of the medium that you can only view “Journey” as a true landmark. It’s a monolith of accomplishment in artistic design.

“Jorney” may only last a handful of hours (though the brilliant co-op mode warrants a few playthroughs), but what you get is a true emotional experience that you can feel warming your soul as you play.

3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I laughed with the kind of smarky superiority that only too many years of playing video games can provide when I saw the very first news of “XCOM’s” revival. At the time it was a more traditional shooter, and looked deplorable in every aspect. I let the game fly off of my radar for a while until it’s release, but when it came back into view, it was a true UFO of its own, as I could no longer identify the game I once so openly mocked.

Now it had been turned into a grid based squad shooter, with a biting and rare level of challenge. In other words, it became the “XCOM” revival I’d always wanted. The success of “XCOM” comes from its combination of genres that is part action game, part strategy, part RPG, and part horror title. It mixes them all with an off the charts level of intensity where even the most well thought out of moves can lead to the untimely and permanent death of one of your squad. “XCOM” may be 99% strategy and statistics, but it’s that extra 1% blind luck that makes it so memorable.

“XCOM” didn’t set the kind of sales records that “Halo 4” did, and that’s a shame. It offers up one of the deepest and most complete gaming experiences this year with something for everyone, and yet is still so unflinchingly challenging and charmingly retro, it still doesn’t give a damn what you think of it.

2. Dishonored

In many ways, “Dishonored” feels like the greatest hits compilation of the bloated FPS market from the past 10 years. This is due in large part to the development team who by and large worked no many of the best representations of the genre in the last decade. More than just a soulless compilation of previous successes though, “Dishonored” instead yields the quality of a greatest hits album, but maintains the spirit of the individual releases that contribute to it.

“Dishonored” is a rare beast that feels so much like a blockbuster sequel, you forget it’s an original property. The steampunk world of “Dishonored” provides the perfect setting for a revenge thriller, where you play a super powered assassin that has the ability to approach every obstacle with a variety of options at his disposal. It’s these moments where you stand perched above your next challenge contemplating which of a variety of entertaining solutions you will employ, and a knowing smile unwillingly creeps upon your face that the brilliance of “Dishonored” reveals itself.

If the worst thing I can say against “Dishonored” is that it feels like a mixture of “Half-Life 2,” “BioShock,” “Deus Ex,” and “Far Cry” rather than something of its own, then I think you can understand what type of game we are dealing with. It’s a hair short of the best game I’ve played this year, but it is the one I would recommend without hesitation to everyone.

1. The Walking Dead

I kept trying to tell myself reasons “The Walking Dead” wasn’t the game of the year. After all, the whole thing is only around 10 hours long, gameplay is somewhat limited, and technical flaws are as prominent as the hordes of zombies. “The Walking Dead” is not a perfect game by a long shot.

But in a year where we celebrated the 40th anniversary of “Pong” we were also gifted with a game that gave us something we’ve never seen before from the medium, and that is evolved and mature storytelling. Ever since “Knight of the Old Republic” choices in games have been a buzzword, but it’s not until “The Walking Dead” have we truly been provided the opportunity to see the effect they can have. “The Walking Dead” warns you before each episode that the game is tailored to how you play it, and that isn’t just a buzzword or a tagline. There are no good and evil choices in the game, but every conversation, and every action, involves having to make several decisions that will ultimately severely alter your journey. Speaking with another person about the game can often lead to confusion, as it can be difficult to believe you are playing the same title with the variety of paths set before you.

Yet none of it would work if it wasn’t for the characters. It may take a little while, but you will soon put genuine investment into your group of survivors and you will care what they think of you, and the things you must do to them, and for them. You can never please everyone, and in “The Walking Dead” that is a fact that breaks your heart, as you just want everyone to live and be happy. But no matter what your choices, there are no happy endings to be found, and the best you can hope for is a firm sense of who you are to guide you to the ending you truly crafted with your heartfelt intentions.

Much like the blasphemy of referring to “The Wire” as a cop show, don’t you dare call “The Walking Dead” a zombie game. It can’t be shoehorned into any easy classification and defies and defines genres and concepts as it chugs along. No game released this year provides the same punch to the gut impact, or keeps you engaged in quite the same way. It is a revolution in everything it does well and, in case you can’t tell, is hard to sum up in a reasonable amount of words. I’ll end it simply with this then. It is my uncontested game of the year, and that sells it short.

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