1. The Walking Dead
; In spite of all of the technical issues I had on the 360, mostly that it chugged along, no game has ever had me as emotionally invested on a minute-by-minute basis than The Walking Dead. It's surprising to me that a game with such glaring problems on the technical side of things, in addition to being a game that's extremely light on actual gameplay, would make my Top 10 (let alone be my GOTY). That's a testament to the strength of everything else. Nothing else in 2012 got my heart pounding harder or faster more often than the 16-or-so hours I spent playing this. Playing this over the course of just 5 days, the number of successive gut-punches delivered in such a short span really put me into a dark place, all the while feeling regret over not doing something differently. And that speaks volumes about what video games are truly capable of; when it comes to interactive storytelling, the industry could take plenty of notes from TellTale's achievement.
2. Mark of the Ninja
; If we were voting purely on the best gameplay of 2012, Mark of the Ninja would win, hands down. For this game, Klei combines stealth and puzzle-platforming into a package that is as rewarding as any I've played in 2012. The ways in which it portrays information to you based on your line of sight are incredibly novel, and it gives you the right amount of observable data that a master ninja would make use of, without putting the enemies at too much of a disadvantage. The game rewards you for trying new and different approaches to stealth (i.e. trying to complete the optional objectives), exploring different paths (really clever challenge rooms), and playing well overall gives you plenty of neat upgrades to make use of (which also emphasize different styles of playing a certain level). The game is every bit as enjoyable and satisfying when taking enemies out undetected with a wide-array of executions, as it is when passing through a level undetected and without killing anyone. And it also has a gorgeous art-style. Mark of the Ninja gave me just about everything I would want out of a stealth game.
; Where Mark of the Ninja and Dishonored restored a little luster to the long-declining stealth genre, ZombiU gives survival horror a much-needed jolt, in what is my surprise game of the year. A title that I fully expected to suck back when it was announced at E3 (The recipe for disaster: A Nintendo-exclusive, first-person, Ubisoft-developed launch title? That was changed mid-development into a different game? Called "Zombi U"? BWAHAHAHAHA!), ZombiU is everything you could have wanted, both from a Wii U launch title and from a modern-day survival horror game. Boldly, but smartly, Ubisoft eschewed making a FPS altogether and went with pure survival horror more in the vein of Condemned. ZombiU sets the ground rules early on, punishing you for failing to survive, and is relentless in this approach. When you screw up really badly, you won't want to make that mistake again. Improving your strategy and surviving for longer stretches becomes incredibly rewarding, but knowing that one mistake could undo much of that work turns confrontations with multiple zombies into an incredibly stressful experience. The game does an excellent job of making use of the Game Pad, and turning it into something that you become heavily reliant on (a concept that comes into play brilliantly at times). The result is a tense gameplay experience that brings forth situations of intense panic, and at times the game features some of the scariest sequences I've played in a game all year: the recipe for a good survival horror game. Also, killing zombified versions of your friends for loot is AWESOME.
; I considered putting Dishonored as high as #2, because I really enjoyed playing most of this game. It's just not as consistently strong as the games listed above, and at a certain point, the game falls apart. It's no coincidence that this happens about the same time that the storyline takes a turn that is best described as DUMB. I knew from the moment that this game got going that it might end up going where it did, which is incredibly lame because 100 other games have used the same plot device already this generation. I admit that I started to lose interest in what I was doing at this point, and combined with the last few stages not being as strong from a level design and mission standpoint as earlier stages, it got to a point where I just wanted to get things wrapped up. It's really a shame that they were so lazy with the writing, because it really diminished what Corvo's motivation (and by extension, mine) was going forward. That being said, it's in my Top 5 for a reason. It combines elements from a number of great games I really enjoyed (Deus Ex, Half Life 2, Bioshock). I played the game stealthily and hardly ever got into any combat situations, which is what I wanted out of it. The game allowed me to play exactly the way I wanted to with my own personal style of stealth, which is what any good stealth game does. The powers that you get in the game (such as Blink, Shadow Kill and Devouring Swarm) are awesome, and give you a lot of incentive to mess around and try different things. But Dishonored isn't quite as good of a stealth game as Mark of the Ninja because (a) it discourages stealth kills, but the game isn't nearly as fun or rewarding by playing non-lethally. Not to mention that many of the game's powers make stealth kills a hell of a lot more fun, but in the back of your mind you want to avoid doing it. And that leads into (b), that Corvo has too much of an advantage over the enemies that going completely silent and non-lethal is too easy, such that going out of the way to kill enemies makes the game much more interesting, but is discouraged. Still, upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to go back and replay it, this time focusing on different skills/abilities, making different choices, taking different paths, etc. That says something.
5. New Super Mario Bros. U
; After playing Super Mario 3D Land in stretches last year, as well as playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii for the first time last year, I was on Mario overload and am stunned that I enjoyed this game as much as I did. But I'm not going to lie -- NSMBU was a blast. Maybe it's not saying a lot, but it's the best of the NSMB games. And with the absence of horribly tacked-on motion controls, it's so much more fun to play than NSMB Wii (even though it laughably recycles almost everything
from that game). When you boil it down, it's just a better designed game than its predecessors. It still may not be an A-team effort, but they've taken strides here and there. Some levels start to branch out with a distinctive art style, while other levels aim for a more creative overall design. Some of the star coins are very well hidden, and going out of your way to find all of them in a level is more enjoyable here than it has been; in the Wii edition, I skipped most of these altogether. In the end, fun won out over originality here. I hope they don't make another one for a long time, though. And when they do, change EVERYTHING about the audio and visual aesthetic!
; Journey is not much of a game, but I'm okay with that. thatgamecompany smartly takes a minimalist approach, by simplifying the experience through removing complex gameplay that could get in the way of what they wanted players to get out of it. Unlike a similar-themed game like Ico, which came close to being completely ruined by some of the worst combat I've ever seen in a game, Journey avoids these pitfalls by eliminating the possibility for frustrating emotions. Instead, the emotional response to the game is generated through the gorgeous visuals, beautiful music and its interesting approach to co-op gameplay. It was something I may have laughed about in advance, but there's just something different when you're playing with another human that just cannot be replicated by AI, even when both are every bit as anonymous and silent. And for that reason, I felt naturally
compelled to care about my companion more than I ever would have if it was the AI. I can't really explain it, but the journey I went on was really something. There's not much to it, but I feel like that's a large part of what made Journey the most unique and memorable gaming experience of the year.
7. Sleeping Dogs
; This is just an all-around, solid open world game. On the surface, it's your typical open world stuff: the story and characters wouldn't be out of place in GTA, the mission structure as well, the way treasure is spread across the map is very much like Assassin's Creed. The story is decent -- it doesn't do anything mindblowing, but it's never bad to the point of insulting either. It doesn't do any of the usual open world features spectacularly, but it does everything well enough. What sets Sleeping Dogs apart is its combat, which is very fun and is second only to maybe Arkham City as far as open world games. Think about that -- an open world game where you don't
want to use guns. Combat is a lot of fun, and the environmental kills are always really cool to pull off (some of these are the most brutal I've seen in a game since The Punisher). The RPG-esque upgrade system really works here, and the perks make the combat even better and make you want to vary your moves. Also, while the controls for it are pretty janky, pulling off an action hijack to steal a car is awesome...and then returning it to the black market dealer, so that you can then buy that car and have some lackey deliver it to you out in the middle of the highway, use it to drive to a drug bust, grab a tire iron out of the trunk and beat up a bunch of thugs before door-slamming a few of them and throwing one of the thugs back into the trunk of the car you stole but now own...short version: it's great. Maybe it's not mayhem on as large a scale as GTA, but I had a lot more fun creating mayhem on a moment-to-moment basis in Sleeping Dogs than I did in GTA IV. Beyond all of that, the game has a nice visual style (particularly the look of Hong Kong at night) with a great soundtrack that always seems to set the mood perfectly.
8. The Unfinished Swan
; Like Journey, The Unfinished Swan combines a minimalist look and feel, gorgeous visuals, terrific soundtrack and a subtle but introspective story and creates a pretty damn good experience that can be had in a single sitting. This game, especially early on, made me feel the wonders of endless childhood imagination all over again. In a way, the ways in which I (as the boy) was bringing this mysterious, surreal world to life was reminiscent to my first experiences playing video games as a kid. It was a sense of wonder I had had not felt in a long time. And as someone who hasn't had the greatest relationship with his father, the story (and in particular, the ending) resonated with me more than most games. Where it ultimately slips for me is that it never quite builds on this; rather, it keeps shaking things up. While the concept of having each chapter feel completely different is novel in that the game doesn't get repetitive, it wouldn't matter anyways in such a short game. Much like the first Portal, this feels more like a prototype game. Each chapter has a different mechanic that it is built around, some of them are insanely clever, but the game never really brings it all together; instead, it feels like 3 disjointed concept demos rather than one cohesive experience. That being said, this was a great way to spend an afternoon.
9. Resident Evil: Revelations
; Is it everything I ever hoped and wanted? No. But RE: Revelations is still the best Resident Evil title since RE4, and the first survival horror entry into the series since 2002. It tries to hearken back to the days of classic RE, with the number of enemies greatly reduced and ammo in much shorter supply. It's very much an old-school RE experience with a new-school camera, even if the game does fall victim by trying too hard to cater to the fans introduced with RE4 and subsequent games. While the Queen Zenobia has the look and feel of a classic RE locale, it never feels anything like the intricate maze of the Spencer Mansion or RPD Building. There's some backtracking when finding keys to locked doors, but it usually only amounts to a couple of ammo rooms here and there (nothing that really impacts the story progression). You're never presented with more than 2 paths on where to go, and usually one of them is conveniently blocked; regardless, in case you somehow got lost, there's always a nice hand-hold-y waypoint telling you where you need to go. So, it's more like watered-down classic RE, but hey, you gotta take what you can get. Aside from things designed to be more accessible, it still does a lot of what you'd expect from a classic RE. Boss fights are battles of attrition again, where you just hope to have enough ammo and health to survive. While I'm perfectly content with the majority of the game, which is Jill's scenario, it is interrupted by a number of poorly-thought out action and/or escort sequences that take place elsewhere. These are the worst parts of the game, and in a case of addition by subtraction, this would be a much better game if those weren't there. The standalone story is laughable, with 50 too many plot twists (49 of which I didn't care about at all)...the "revelation" is that there were no revelations! On the plus side, there's a ton of replayability (Hell Mode difficulty is the closest thing we may ever get again to the "good old days") and Raid Mode is incredibly addicting. It's a mixed bag, and overall I'd rank it somewhere near the middle when comparing it to all of the main RE games. But that first playthrough, playing it in the dark with headphones on, brought back that tense feeling of early RE and provided a few genuinely scary moments.
10. Max Payne 3
; This is more of a testament to this being a down-year for games. My #10 spot was the toughest for me, because I was sorely disappointed in each of the games I was considering for this spot, even though none of these games were "bad", really. Just not "Top 10 good" in any other year. Anyways, I needed a 10th pick and went around-and-around several times over, and Max Payne gets it for being less appalling than the others. While it paled to Remedy's efforts, Rockstar still did a heck of a job on this game's production values (really damn good looking, even on consoles; fabulous soundtrack). Were it not for Walking Dead, this would be the darkest, grimmest game of the year, and I found the overall repulsiveness of every single character somewhat refreshing. For a largely cover-based shooter, the mechanics are quite good and I could still manage to be Badass Max in spite of the overall change in the style of gameplay. It's a pretty good game with a decent story, nothing spectacular. Obviously, the game has its problems (collectables scattered around in your face, but the game doesn't want you to look for them; too many sections that should be part of the gameplay are replaced by cutscenes). But it wasted less time out of my life than the likes of Assassin's Creed III and Darksiders II, and wasn't riddled with bugs. So yeah...Max Payne 3. Not one of my all time favorites, but solid enough to make this list.
2011. Rayman Origins
; Gorgeous, fun, addicting -- 2D platforming goodness. Great game, would have made my Top 3 of 2011. Can't wait for Legends.