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 It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best.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.

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Assassin’s Creed III Is Set for Big Sales Numbers

It’s weird to remember the time when “Assassin’s Creed” wasn’t relevant, but when the first title in the series was released, few found themselves enamored with the  young series. That would change, of course, with “Assassin’s Creed II” which is widely considered to be one of the greatest games of its generation, and would propel the franchise into the stratosphere where it finally settled in the pantheon of true Triple-A caliber videogame series.

It’s a real money in the bank title to be sure, and the upcoming “Assassin’s Creed III” is looking to continue that trend in a big way. As reported by joystiq.com, Assassin’s Creed III is officially the most pre-ordered game in the company’s history.  The exact figure wasn’t made available at this time, but it is more than double the pre-orders of the previous installment in the series, “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.” Tony Bartel, President of Gamestop, is already touting that Assassin’s Creed III is on track to become the best selling game of this year.

Even with the series more recent expansions (“Brotherhood” and “Revelations“) “Assassin’s Creed” is a series that doesn’t rest on its laurels and is constantly coming up with new ways to reinvent itself, and refresh the experience. With its new gameplay additions (like naval battles), the entirely unique American Revolution setting, a new protagonist, some fantastic ad campaigns, and enough E3 Awards and gushing hands on previews to make lesser games weep, the true next installment in the series looks to continue that tradition of excellence.

It also may be the only game left in the calendar year that has a shot of dethroning “Dishonored” for unanimous game of the year consideration (although, right now “XCOM“, “Journey“, or “Kingdoms of Amalur” has my personal vote), and I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one that can’t wait to find out if it will when it is released on October 30th.

Must-play game of 2009

League of Legends wallpaper.As the new year turns, I’m always compelled to look back on the previous year and think on what I played the most. 2009 was a strange year. I moved 700 miles across the country. I started writing for this blog and another, and I read a ton.

In short, I was busy, and it made a significant impact on my gaming. I cancelled my WoW subscription in favor of games that require less time. I purchased a console with hopes of finding new, less time-intensive titles. I bought more arcade titles on Steam than ever before. For all my efforts, though, I didn’t find my must-play game of 2009 until December.

I got an email from a real-life friend and former WoW buddy. He said he and another friend had picked up League of Legends, a free game that looked a lot like DotA. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big DotA fan, so I was immediately interested. Ten minutes into my first play session and I was hooked. The game is like DotA’s sexy younger sister, so much prettier and inexplicably more developed.

I’ll spare you most of the details, and just touch on a few of my favorites. First, the game is free. Don’t let that scare you away, though. The developers update the servers weekly and continue development for new heroes and maps. It’s the most well supported free game I’ve played in a long time.

Secondly, there’s a meta-game. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a very cool addition for what can be a repetitive genre. The appeal of the game is that you can complete a full game in under an hour, farming up items for your hero along the way. Once that game is done, though, the items are gone. For League of Legends, the developers added the summoner system, a game interface that allows you to purchase new heroes, upgrade your stats for every game you play, and purchase cosmetic enhancements for your characters. The bonuses are small, but you can unlock nearly all of them through gameplay. It ends up feeling like a much more immersive game because there’s something to do outside each individual game. Think of it like the farming/grinding/what-have-you that you do between raids.

Lastly, the game is well-supported. I know I mentioned this above, but Riot Games, the developer, is heavily committed to the game. They release new heroes, are working on new maps, and continue to fiddle with an underwhelming matchmaking system. The game is by no means perfect at this point, but they continue to work at it. That’s good enough for me to keep playing.

If you haven’t done so, head over to the official site and give the game a look. There’s even a special section for DotA converts. What was your must-play game of 2009?

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