My Top 10 Games of 2012

I’ve already handed out a number of awards, but here are my top ten games of the year. There are plenty that just missed out: XCOM and NintendoLand might, on another day, have made it. XCOM is wonderful in many respects, but it was a game I admired rather than loved. I felt uncomfortable including NintendoLand without playing any of its games with the full complement of players. Other games I think may have made it but I didn’t play enough of include Far Cry 3 and Paper Mario: Sticker Star (which my son is several hours into and loving). Tokyo Jungle and Kid Icarus: Uprising would make my top 20, as would New Super Mario Bros. U, Super Hexagon, The Walking Dead, Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, Floating Cloud God Saves The Pilgrims and Sine Mora. But these are the ten that did make it. I hope you enjoy reading my reasons for including them, and do let me know your own personal favourites in the comments.

10. ZombiU

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This unrelentingly dark survival horror not only remembered what made the genre great, but provided compelling evidence that Wii U’s controller is more than just a gimmick. It’s bleak, uncompromising and occasionally a little clunky, but once you learn to scavenge, conserve and avoid conflict where possible (early reviews suggested some critics were trying to play it like an FPS) it becomes a gripping, frightening adventure and, just as importantly, an exceptional launch title for its host console.

9. Thirty Flights Of Loving

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It’s over in 15 minutes, but Brendon Chung’s fragmented tale contains more surprises than games 20 times its length. Its narrative pinballs through time, giving you just enough information to rearrange its pieces then glue them together. The resultant picture may be incomplete, but the process is thrilling and rewarding in equal measure.

8. Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed

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Bizarre Creations alumnus Gareth Wilson helped mould a very good kart racer into something that dared to stand out from its peers. It’s more OutRun than Mario Kart, its blend of drift-happy handling and weaponised competition also recalling Bizarre’s ill-fated Blur. The icing on the cake is its evident love for Sega, with tracks and characters taken from the publisher’s biggest hits to less obvious but fondly remembered fare like Panzer Dragoon and Burning Rangers. It’s a fast-paced and enormously fun racing game that deserves more attention and acclaim.

7. Spec Ops: The Line

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Yager’s much-delayed shooter doesn’t just examine the cost of war from the perspective of its participants, but the effect of violence on its players. The Walking Dead might have asked you to make some horrible choices, but the actions you take here are more disturbing still, culminating in perhaps the most powerful, upsetting moment in games this year. At times it borrows too liberally from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but this haunting story trumps Telltale’s episodic adventure for the quality of its writing.

6. Asura’s Wrath

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There’s a wonderful purity to Asura’s Wrath: it’s a multi-part anime dedicated entirely to one man – one god, even – getting very, very angry indeed. It looks incredible, the simple but responsive combat is entirely in keeping with the character, and the ferocious QTEs are the perfect physical augment to the onscreen madness. You might spend more time watching than playing, but what powerful, unforgettable sights they are.

5. Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition

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The best sports game of the year was the most unexpected. I only played this because I was asked to review a clutch of the Vita’s launch titles, and it turned out to be comfortably my favourite of the lot. AM2’s colours look more vibrant than ever on Vita’s gorgeous screen, and I’ve encountered few moments quite so thrilling this year as witnessing an immaculately rendered buggy-whip Nadal forehand save a match point, the Spaniard uppercutting the air in triumph as the crowd roared their approval.

4. Beat Sneak Bandit

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Simogo’s rhythm-action stealth platformer was the best iOS game I played all year. It’s a miniature masterpiece of pattern recognition, memory and rhythmic timing, set to a wonderfully weird soundtrack that ranges from squelchy funk to Scooby Doo via piano jazz. And it’s been made with the kind of polish, charm and attention to detail that you’d normally associate with Nintendo at their best. A gem.

3. Journey

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A great deal of Journey’s appeal comes from simply manoeuvring its protagonist. Its narrative may have been a little self-important, but floating, swooping, sliding and gliding around its gorgeous, imposing environments made you feel like an artist, that slightly awkward PS3 controller transformed into a paintbrush dancing over the broadest of canvases. In one brief sequence, it became a better snowboarding game than SSX. And I’ll never forget the way gaming’s finest ever sunset made me feel.

2. Gravity Rush

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The creator of Siren couldn’t have chosen a project more different for his Vita debut, but Keiichiro Toyama duly produced the best game on Sony’s portable. It plays like the first act of a superhero movie, the moments where the protagonist struggles to acclimatise to their powers. As the likeable Kat, you fly by falling, a gravity-shifting conceit that sees you clumsily hoist innocents into the air, and crash awkwardly into park benches upon landing. Crucially, all this is utterly thrilling, a sense of giddy momentum conveyed expertly through speed and animation, and in Hekseville it has a place whose hidden nooks are worth seeking out. Like its identifiably un-super hero, Gravity Rush is a true original.

1. Binary Domain

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I kept looking for reasons for it to be number one, but in the end, I couldn’t find enough reasons for it not to be. When it comes down to it, Binary Domain is the one game I think I found the most consistently entertaining this year. It’s a shooter with a rare warmth, its mismatched cast proving more endearing the more time you spend with them, its well-worn story somehow becoming more than the sum of its Blade Runner and i, Robot-inspired parts. It has thrilling set-pieces, tremendous weapons, properly challenging boss battles, moments of genuine humour and the best enemy grunts I’ve ever faced in a shooter. There’s something chilling about their relentlessness: blow off a limb and these robotic foes will calmly pick up the gun they dropped and carry on shooting. The encouraging shouts of your team, meanwhile, brought about my favourite moment of the year. After blasting several enemies in quick succession with a shotgun, I finished off the final robot, the silence that followed eventually punctuated by a delayed but familiar cry: “That was sweeeeeet!” Yes, Big Bo. It really was.

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2012: My year in games – part two

Hello! You’ll no doubt be glad to hear that this has a much shorter preamble than yesterday’s part one, as I conclude my daft little awards bit ahead of my Top Five Games of 2012 piece, which will appear on this here site on Monday, if not a little sooner. 

Best Editing

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Jump cuts! Why did no one think of that before? In around the time it takes to finish a scalding cup of green tea (I checked), Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving takes the player through the preparation for and aftermath of a heist that goes horribly wrong in ways that are never fully explained. It’s a rare game that credits its players with intelligence, asking them to piece its fragmented narrative together. I’d be lying if I said I fully understood everything that was going on, but few games this year felt quite so dizzily exciting. It makes your head spin in the very best way: a rollercoaster you want to hop back on the instant it screeches to a halt.

Best Visual Design

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Bad Hotel’s art deco stylings and bright colours lit up iOS (and gave us the year’s coolest app icon); Hotline Miami’s woozy ‘80s stylings plunged us into a violent, drug-fuelled nightmare in a dark alley where Michael Mann and Gaspar Noe endlessly beat the shit out of each other with baseball bats; NintendoLand gave us a hand-stitched Hyrule, a mechanical Pikmin garden, wooden Yoshis and a shower curtain turning day into night. Elsewhere, Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed had bluer skies and brighter colours than even the Mushroom Kingdom, while Beat Sneak Bandit’s artful angularity was an oddly perfect match for its squelchy beats before Journey gave us gaming’s greatest sunset. But Asura’s Wrath is my winner, for the best 3D rendition of a 2D art style I’ve ever seen, capturing manga’s jagged extremes in a presentation more vivid than any other. It didn’t always keep your thumbs busy, but nothing else this year gave your eyes such a treat.

Best Worst Business Decision

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RocketCat Games’ Punch Quest gave freemium a good name, allowing you to play for hours on end without ever feeling pressured into spending. It was reliant, therefore, on the goodwill of its players, the devs evidently hoping they’d be tossed a few coppers by way of thanks. After three weeks on the App Store, the game had been downloaded 600,000 times, yet had earned RocketCat just $10,000. The lesson: human beings are arseholes.

Best Unofficial OutRun Sequel

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Throw a dart at any review of Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit either the word ‘Mario’ or the word ‘Kart’. Nintendo’s seminal series is the obvious touchstone when it comes to a mascot-led racer, but this didn’t deserved to be lumped in with also-rans like LittleBigPlanet Karting (big on charm, short on thrills, and – yes – floaty) and F1 Race Stars (a kart racer without drift? Pfffft). Rather, it’s much closer to Sega’s Ferrari-porn classic in its drift-happy handling and dazzling colour. Its publisher’s money woes might mean we never see another OutRun; this is a more than acceptable substitute.

Best NPC

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It’s no surprise that the director of Billy Hatcher should come up with two likeable allies in the form of violinist Marie and faithful mutt Fondue in the upsettingly ignored Rhythm Thief and the Emperor’s Treasure. Palutena was a welcome foil for Pit in Kid Icarus: Uprising, their playful bickering (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘banter’ in any context these days) enlivening a thoroughly silly story. I very nearly went with French robot Cain in the wonderful Binary Domain, though you can expect to hear more about that game in my top five). So instead I’m going to go with Seren from Fable: The Journey. After Fable 2’s dog, she’s further proof Lionhead is better at making us care about animals than humans; quite the feat given that you spend half the game looking at her backside. She’s expressively animated, and though the little physical interactions you have with her (plucking an apple for her to munch on, brushing muck from her flanks, pulling an arrow – as gently as Kinect will allow – from her side) you genuinely form a connection with her, one you just know the game will exploit for a tear-jerking moment or two later. Better than Agro? Yyyyyyyyno. Maybe. Either way, the fact I’m even asking that question is surely a good thing. 

Best Bit in an Otherwise Disappointing Game

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The opening half-hour of The Unfinished Swan? The King of Chinatown level in Hitman: Absolution? Both close, but no. Assassin’s Creed III was probably my biggest disappointment of the year, in that it turned out to be merely okay rather than super-wow-amazing as I’d hoped. It had a dull lead, tedious mission objectives, a distinct lack of polish in places, and its reimagining of historic moments was often inadvertently comical, the midnight ride turning poor Paul Revere into a horse-mounted satnav, bellowing directions well within earshot of the redcoats you’re supposed to be avoiding. Then you have the naval battles: slick, exciting, visually incredible, with great controls and a real sense of weight and heft to manoeuvring your ship. Can Ubisoft Singapore make the whole of the next game, please?

Best Multiplayer

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NintendoLand gets better and better the more people are involved. The competitive stuff reaches a sweet spot at four players (one more, and the GamePad player tends to be at a disadvantage) but it’s still fun however many friends or family members join in. And the co-operative games are a revelation: I’ve spent several happy hours tackling Pikmin Adventure’s surprisingly tough challenges with my son, while grappling up to Samus’s ship in Metroid Blast to escape a firefight has the same air-punch value as a cheesy last-minute rescue in an Eighties action film. An honourable mention to Tank! Tank! Tank!’s My Kong mode, a game as single-minded as it is hilarious. Seeing your face on a giant gorilla as it farts out an apocalyptic ass laser is one of the highlights of my gaming year.

Best Game that was Ever-So-Slightly Overpraised

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Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One is sitting proudly on top of a lot of Game of the Year lists at the moment. I can understand a lot of the praise, but equally many of the hyperbolic comments about its writing can only come from people who don’t play enough games of that ilk. It’s a visual novel cunningly disguised as a survival horror/point-and-click hybrid, a blend which seems to have made such a dialogue-heavy game all the more palatable for a mainstream audience. I think at least part of its success is down to timing: the TV series was going through an extended dip in form around the time the game’s first episodes arrived – many compared its more daring moments favourably to the uneventful AMC show, and those shocks were enough to paper over quite a few mechanical cracks (not to mention the widespread – and often game-breaking – bugs that were scandalously ignored by the developer). Nevertheless, it’s a fine achievement, with the Gary Whitta-penned Episode Four the best of the lot, a masterpiece of pacing with some of the most emotive moments of this initial run. There’s definite room for improvement, but I’m very much looking forward to Season Two.  

Most Effective Guilt Trip

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Cannon Cat is an unassuming little iOS action game where you tap cannons to fire the eponymous moggy through the air and towards the exit. Along the way you have to catch fish trapped in bubbles, who then head to the portal with you. Fairly standard stuff, right? However! While you can complete a level without getting all the fish, it’s almost impossible to move onto the next thanks to one of the most horribly manipulative level complete screens I’ve ever encountered. Miss even a single fish and the cat looks devastated, a single tear falling down his furry face. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his anxiety is made even more explicit by a tiny thought bubble containing the fish you – yes, you, you monster – have left behind. In the next update, it’ll probably display the legend ‘BASTARD’ should you dare to attempt a new stage.

2012: My year in games – part one

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I said on Twitter that 2012 wasn’t a vintage year for the medium – and what a chin-stroking dolt I sound for saying that – but as I started sifting through my ‘writing work completed’ folder on my PC, I came around to thinking that perhaps I’d been a little harsh. I think part of the problem was the sheer number of games I had to play for review – over 140, number fans – and if you factor in all the titles I played that I didn’t write about, you’ve probably got a figure close to 200 (EDIT: having opted to try to list them all, I’m up to 209, and I’ve probably missed a few there, too). If we say it’s a round 200, that’s a game every 1.825 days, and if you factor in timesinks like Assassin’s Creed III, not to mention the hours I’ve spent playing Skylanders with the boy and taking thousands of turns on Words With Friends and Disc Drivin’…well, that’s a pretty scary figure.

The problem with playing that number of games is that it doesn’t really allow you to savour anything: once you’ve finished one, it’s straight onto the next. I really got the opportunity to give any game a chance to percolate, to let its delicate flavours infuse within my thoughts. That’s partly why I’m going to try and focus my efforts on feature writing next year – I’ll still write plenty of reviews, of course, but I’d like to take the time to really get to know the games I play, to explore them more thoroughly, beyond simply playing something for however many hours it takes to see the credits roll and then tossing it aside.

The troubling thing is that there are a great many high-profile games I either haven’t played or have barely touched. I’ve spent less than an hour with Hotline Miami, ditto Max Payne 3. I haven’t touched Borderlands 2 or Resident Evil 6. Far Cry 3 is sitting next to my TV, atop my play-as-soon-as-you-possibly-can pile. I’d like to go back to Fez and Spelunky, the former of which left me cold despite ostensibly being very much my cup of tea, the latter proving just a little too punishing for my impatient mood at the time. It’s getting increasingly difficult to play all the stuff you should play these days. Time to specialise? Perhaps, but then my tastes are fairly eclectic, and I’m loath to limit myself to two or three genres. Particularly when some of my very favourite games have been the biggest surprises, the games I didn’t expect to adore, but which ended up capturing my heart.

Initially, part of the reason I felt 2012 was disappointing was the lack of games I’d consider putting in my all-time top 20. But as I look back, the diversity of experiences I’ve enjoyed may well put any other year in the shade. Sure, some of the big-budget titles I’d been anticipating underwhelmed, and I didn’t quite fall in love with anything this year the way I did with Skyward Sword or Vanquish or Super Mario 3D Land in 2011. But maybe that’s my fault. Maybe I didn’t lavish these games with the attention they deserved. Or maybe I’m just really fucking tired (I really am). Either way, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m beginning to think I was wrong about 2012. There has been some really great stuff this year, as this feature will – hopefully – prove.

Without further ado, then, here are my awards for 2012. There are no physical prizes, of course. Instead, the winners can console themselves with the knowledge that some fat, scruffy northern idiot likes them. Assuming they read this, that is. Which they almost certainly won’t.

Best corporate overlord

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It’s Iwata, of course. It’s always Iwata. E3’s banana-staring incident only cemented his number one slot. But I’m going to give due credit to someone else this year. Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida did a great deal to make his company’s public face that much more charming and attractive. A smart, astute and knowledgeable guy, he’s clearly passionate about what he does, as evidenced by his sterling efforts creating stages for indie Vita platformer Sound Shapes. He regularly engages with fans and critics alike on Twitter, and even managed to find a cheekily endearing way to shill Sony product using a rival’s console. On top of all that, he seems like a genuinely lovely guy.

Saddest loss

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We’ve bidden a number of tearful farewells this year, from the closure of Psygnosis Studio Liverpool to the demise of Xbox World and PSM3 magazines. It was the death of another publication, however, that hit me the hardest. Nintendo Gamer was an absolute joy to read and an honour to write for, an irreverent, often splutteringly funny mag written by some of the UK’s smartest, wittiest, most passionate journos (and, inexplicably, me). Its pages dripped with Nintendo love, but it never pulled its punches when it came to the big N, and wasn’t afraid of holding back when a game deserved a kicking. I’ll forever owe a debt to the likes of Charlotte Martyn, Matthew Castle, Alex Dale, Mark Green and Martin Kitts for the influence they’ve had on my career, but more importantly, they all contributed hugely to one of the best damn game magazines ever. It will be missed.

Best vocal performance

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Dave Fennoy was admirably sturdy in the face of unthinkable adversity in The Walking Dead, while Nolan North played startlingly against type in Jager’s Apocalypse Now tribute Spec Ops: The Line. The Last Story, meanwhile, had a wonderful mix of regional UK accents, with fellow Stockportian Kelly Wenham particularly likeable as the comely Syrenne. Adrian Hough came within a whisker of snatching this away from the eventual winner, snarking up a storm – and making the world’s longest prologue bearable – as Haytham Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III. But I’m giving this to Liam O’Brien as the eponymous lunatic in CyberConnect2’s batshit interactive anime Asura’s Wrath, if only for somehow communicating a range of emotions from little more than guttural grunts and full-blooded roars. If nothing else, he deserves it for knackering his vocal cords in the name of art. Get that man some honey and lemon!

Most enigmatic puzzler

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It’s been a good year for puzzle games, from quirky seating-arranger Girls Like Robots to FuturLab’s sparky tile-matcher Surge via the underrated Slydris, an iPad title from the prolific radiangames that no one played. As with life, however, it’s the weirder ones I tend to get on best with. I described iOS word game QatQias “a roguelike with words”, which is probably one of the most succinct things I’ve written all year, if not ever. But it’s neither as downright odd nor as wonderfully taxing as Yoot Saito’s Aero Porter, a game which puts you in charge of guiding baggage onto planes via a series of ramps and conveyer belts. It’s at once accessible and ridiculously challenging, not least when you have to watch out for coloured luggage tags to load onto Air Force One while blowing on the screen to find out which case has a bomb in it. I’m awful at it, but any time I’ve had a spare ten minutes in the last fortnight, this is the game I keep turning to.

Best game name

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I nearly gave this to XBLIG shooter Shark Attack Deathmatch, partly because the game really does live up to the title’s promise. But then I’d (briefly) forgotten that DakkoDakko’s Floating Cloud God Saves The Pilgrims also came out this year, a title that rather neatly works as its own elevator pitch. It obviously helps that the game is a perfectly-pitched slice of old-school arcade fun, with delightful Japan-centric art and refined, challenging play mechanics. I urge the four people reading this who own either a PSP or a Vita to give it a try.

Okay, that’s it for now. Assuming the Mayans were wrong and the world hasn’t succumbed to a fiery apocalypse, part two should follow in approximately 24 hours, and will include such awards as Best unofficial OutRun sequel, Best NPC and Best Worst Business Decision. In the meantime, I’m off to play Yakuza 5. See you tomorrow!