The best games of 2012 (so far!)

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As the staff of Quarter to Three goes home for the long holiday weekend, we’ll leave you with a touch of our own fireworks in the form of an annual half-year list. What are the ten best games of the year so far?

But first, a quick mention for some games that didn’t make the list. I admire Dragon’s Dogma for making all the weird choices that other RPGs are afraid to make, but being different can only get you so far. I ended up preferring some very conventional RPGs. Warlock: Master of the Arcane and Conquest of Elysium 3 have made it a great year for turn-based fantasy. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion for the PC, Defender Chronicles II for the iPhone, and Resident Evil: Revelations on the Nintendo 3DS are all great. However, each of these games is an iteration of an earlier recent game. Speaking of the Nintendo 3DS, Zen Pinball 3D and Kid Icarus meant the 3DS had more than three times as many must-haves as Sony’s Playstation Vita.

But, after the jump, there are ten games I liked better than any of those.

10) Mass Effect 3

A grand sci-fi shooter with solid RPG elements (or is is the other way around?), a gratifying alien invasion story, spectacular action set pieces, and co-op multiplayer that feeds into the single-player campaign. It took three tries, but Bioware finally created an epic sci-fi game every bit as good as the original Knights of the Old Republic.

(Note: I didn’t write a review of the game, but you can read contributor Tim James’ great review here.)

9) Sine Mora

In the soggily earnest As Good As It Gets, during the obligatory redemption scene, Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt, “you make me want to be a better person”. Sine Mora makes me want to be a better shmup player. But it’s not just a clever variation on the formula of shooting crazy things on a screen full of bullets.

Yeah, sure, you’ve seen spider bosses, squid bosses, train bosses, and giant robot bosses before. You’ve seen cities and canyons and factories and bug lairs. But not quite like the ones in Sine Mora, which are equal parts cartoon kitsch, serious manga, alternate history, and hi-octane-retro-punk. This is a game of vibrantly colorful beauty and astonishing imagination.

Read the review here.

8) SSX

Who doesn’t love sliding down a hill? EA’s SSX reboot, SSX: No Subtitle Needed, makes it just fancy enough, grindy enough, Tricky enough, RPGy enough, and social enough. From the review:

Like the tracks in Codemaster’s brilliant Dirt 2, these drops have their own local flavor and gameplay. Alaska isn’t like Africa, which isn’t like the Himalayas, which isn’t like Antarctica. SSX draws and colors them differently, and thanks to some clever gimmickry based on lighting, bottomless pits, altitude sickness, deadly obstacles to forward momentum, hard icy surfaces, and even lethal temperatures, the locations play differently. This is not your older brother’s SSX. EA refuses to just do this latest SSX the way every other SSX did it. EA takes chances, which isn’t something EA does very often.

7) Lego Batman 2

Lego Batman 2 taught me that a good open world game doesn’t even have to be much of a game. This diminutive Gotham is as easygoing, smooth, and sweetly delicious as ice cream.

This is as ridiculous and ridiculously effective an open world game as Saints Row 3, but whereas that game was driven by action movie excesses, Lego Batman 2 is driven mostly by the two things all boys love most: breaking things and collecting stuff.

Read the review here.

6) Wargame: European Escalation

So far, it’s a really good year for real time strategy games, with the retooling of Age of Empires Online, the reboot of Sins of a Solar Empire, and the debut of Wargame: European Escalation, an all new RTS based on the same forumula as Ruse, but with a thrilling Cold War angle. And it’s also one of those rare RTSs that succeeds as a single-player game.

What really drives Wargame: European Escalation is what happens between the missions. Here’s where you spend the points you earned to unlock your choice of hardware and then include it in your army. Whether you just want better variants of the same tank, or whole new tanks, or older cheaper tanks. Whether you want powerful but frail attack helicopters or long range missiles to shoot those helicopters down when the other guy brings them out. Whether you want elite special forces for airborne insertions behind enemy lines or masses of cheap troops spraying inexpensive anti-tank rockets. Whether you want armored command vehicles to hold territory; or big fat supply helicopters to ferry in fuel, ammo and repairs; or batteries of rocket launchers; or cheap recoilless rifles on cheap jeeps. Every single unit is modeled after real world hardware, and every single one of them details specific stats for specific weapons in easy-to-understand gameplay terms. This is the ultimate salad bar buffet of Cold War toys.

Read the review here.

5) Waking Mars

Exploring strange new worlds doesn’t have to be an exercise in expensive production values. The strange new world of Waking Mars is created with good writing, clever gameplay mechanics, and an ecology that’s not above running wild. There aren’t many games that I can lose decisively and still fall in love with. From the review:

The genius of Waking Mars is that where other games would have combat, or spells, or inventory, or the usual gameplay vocabulary, you instead get ecology. It’s up to you to fit the pieces together. Parts of the game remind me of planting gardens or feeding ducks. And as you progress deeper, the interaction of various systems gets more complex, and more delicate, and more expansive. Waking Mars is full of surprises that all come down to nature being composed of interrelated systems, each affecting each other, each depending on each other. You might have the power to wake it up, but it’s not yours to control. This is a surprisingly thoughtful, delightfully atmospheric, smartly written, carefully designed game about a place nearly as intricate and mysterious as Australia.

4) Darkness II

I wondered briefly whether I liked The Darkness II so much because it’s so much better than its predecessor, or simply because it’s so darn good. But only briefly. The answer is clearly that it’s so darn good. It’s got design smarts, grimly colorful visuals, unique co-operative multiplayer, and something I rarely get in even the best shooters:

…if you like the story — and I’ll bet you dollars to demon droppings you will — you’ll find a clever combination of dark, creepy, sly, and sometimes even funny. Here are elements of Alan Wake, Fear, Shutter Island, Chronicles of Riddick, Legacy of Kain, The Crow, Hellboy, and Dark (“Take the fucking elephant!”) Man. For good measure, throw in a memorable goblin/demon/soccer hooligan sidekick who now belongs on every list of best ever videogame sidekicks for reasons that I can’t go into because it would mean spoilers. Just stick him right under Wheatley, please. Before you know it, you’re actually reading the backstory you unlocked with each collectible artifact. If you want good writing and a memorable story in your corridor shooter, The Darkness II will oblige you.

Read the review here.

3) Diablo 3

What can I say? Blizzard knows me.

Diablo III is a socks-on-hardwood-floors slide down a long corridor full of stuff to break and squish: earthenware pottery, old barrels, bubblewrap, honking squawking critters that need killing. It is the product of more than fifteen years of Blizzard whittling away at a genre they arguably invented, weighing carefully how best to get it right for the most people. It is a velvet smooth, resistance free glide without the tough choices an RPG demands. “Sacred cows and longtime fans be damned,” Blizzard cried. “Let them sulk and play their copies of Diablo II!” I love it when a developer does this. I love it when a developer has the confidence, experience, vision, competence, and balls to not listen to us.

Read the review here.

2) Rebuild

A few months ago I started a game of Rebuild, a zombie apocalypse survival horror strategy game, in which I would play a turn a day and write about the turn. I even named the characters after volunteers on the forum. But as I sat down to play every day, I had a palpable sense of dread. I worried too much about food. Too many zombies were gathering. Our builder was killed. Our combatants were getting whittled down. I knew everyone was going to die and that it was going to take weeks for it to happen, one day at a time. The daily turn became a source of anxiety. My stomach hurt. It was a relief when I finally resigned the game to hang unresolved. There aren’t many games that create this sort of gut reaction. From the review:

It’s bleak, difficult, and most often ends in failure. It’s about desperately needing to do three things but only having the resources to do two of them. It includes suicide, starvation, disease, lawlessness. Even the dog can die. Looming over it all is a sense of impending doom as the zombie attacks get bigger and more frequent. Over time your survivors form a band of combat hardened bad-asses. If you didn’t give them names when you recruited them, you’re going to learn their names or change them once they’ve survived a while (Rebuild will even give some characters a nickname based on certain injuries). At which point the inevitable losses sting all the more.

Who knew one of the most insightful videogames about zombie mythology would be a turn-based iPhone game, where you can experience the anxiety in short bursts at the time and place of your choosing.

1) Xenoblade Chronicles

When writers like me talk about the Citizen Kane of videogames, we’re often rolling out trite hyperbole about some flawed spectacle, usually the latest in a long line of flawed spectacles. But works of genius are often unsung surprises, usually without great marketing budgets, many times unexpected. Greatness is at its greatest when it blindsides us and we have to struggle to describe it.

That’s what happened to me last April when I half-heartedly started an RPG I knew nothing about. A JRPG. On the Wii. What followed was an immaculately paced 100+ hour odyssey full of unforgettable characters, places, and events, all built on a foundation of the best bits from MMOs, RPGs, and open-world games. Is it the Citizen Kane of videogames? Oh, who knows. I don’t even really like Citizen Kane. But it’s certainly the Lord of the Rings of videogames and the best game I’ve played this year.

Read the review here, or the game diary here.

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