Of all the years I’ve been playing videogames, 2012 was definitely one of them.
After the jump, some specifics
Best new game mechanic: city growth in Fallen Enchantress
Civilization has cast a long shadow on strategy gaming. It’s always nice to see new light slip through that shadow. One such example is the way cities developer in Fallen Enchantress, which is very much the same way characters develop in an RPG. You make mutually exclusive choices that unlock unique upgrades. It’s about time a strategy game gave cities some character.
Runners up: Guild Wars 2’s weapon-based skill system, Diablo III’s freely swappable skills, zero-G tactical positioning in Hybrid, the over-the-top ship battles as Assassin’s Creed 3’s money sink, infection and frenzying in Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, time as health in Sine Mora, freely refundable purchases in Orcs Must Die 2, rotatable 2D in Fez, dungeons that come to you in Cargo Commander, open space instead of dungeons in Drox Operative
Worst new game mechanic: the camera in Spirit Camera
The novelty of seeing a ghost superimposed on the world is pretty nonexistent for anyone who’s been on the haunted mansion ride at Disneyland, where you didn’t have to wave a Nintendo DS around to make it happen. Augmented reality camera tricks aren’t a good basis for an entire game that isn’t for kids.
Runners up: episodic Spartan Ops in Halo 4, massages in Sleeping Dogs, booster packs in Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer
Best surprise of the year: Sony’s Vita
The Vita is seriously sexy as a piece of hardware, with enough unique titles to make it worthwhile. I can almost get past the lack of backwards compatibility, the newly proprietary and insanely expensive memory chips, the uselessness of the rear touchscreen, and the general lack of support from Sony.
Runners up: XCOM didn’t suck!, Need for Speed: Most Wanted didn’t suck!, not only does Carmaggedon hold up, but it’s great on the iPad!
Worst surprise of the year: Nintendo’s Wii U
How does Nintendo follow up on the success of the Wii? With a system so slow that it makes Xbox Live’s Kinecticated front end seem snappy. With hardware that won’t support surround sound into my fairly typical sound system. With a gimmicky gamepad with a twenty minute battery life. And what’s more, all the content from my Wii is lost because of a corrupt file that jams up the unnecessarily closed transfer procedure. And to top it all off, a paucity of worthwhile launch titles. Oh, Nintendo.
Best single moment: the reunion in Waking Mars
A sure-fire narrative device is to introduce two characters who care very much about each other and to then keep them apart from each other for some reason. Call it the Romeo and Juliet Principle. You can see it in games as diverse as Silent Hill and Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time. And you can also see it in Waking Mars, a game that’s partly remarkable for managing to make room for humanity in a story about an entire planet’s ecology.
Runners up: seeing goblins moving among the trees on my first night in the woods in Dragon’s Dogma, Tiny Tina’s rocket countdown in Borderlands 2, hitting the level cap in Guild Wars 2 and not feeling the least bit tapped out, Reaper vs Thresher Maw in Mass Effect 3, kicking Jessica Chobot off my ship in Mass Effect 3
Worst single moment: the Morse code puzzles in Secret World
I don’t get Morse code. After a while, I can’t tell a dot from a dash, or where one letter ends and another begins. I would make a terrible seaman. So when Secret World asks me to transcribe Morse code from a sound file or blinking headlights, it might as well tell me to Google “secret world morse code puzzle”. I guess that’s why it has an ingame browser.
Runners up: hitting on Emma Stone in Sleeping Dogs, when the SHIV bug wiped my first game of XCOM, an awkward moment of self-awareness as I gunned down bystanders in Prototype 2 to beat my friends’ Radnet score for most blood spilled, hunting through the menus in Halo 4 and realizing there was no firefight mode
Most punishing game: Spelunky
Cowards and Spelunky players die a thousand deaths. So deceptively cute, so brutal.
Runners up: dungeons in Guild Wars 2, Hotline Miami, everything that wasn’t the story mode in Sine Mora, trying to get past the first mission on XCOM’s aptly named impossible difficulty level
Least punishing game: Diablo III
Prior to the patch that let us adjust the difficulty level, the first run through Diablo III — in other words, getting past normal difficulty — was little more than an extended introduction.
Best character: Peacock in Skullgirls
Peacock was my favorite character of the year, largely because she’s unlike any videogame character. Who isn’t stuck in an Epic Mickey game. She’s a mix of charm, irreverence, old-timeyness, sass, and cybernetic ruthlessness. She even smokes. It’s kind of a shame she’s only in a fighting game.
Runners up: Tiny Tina in Borderlands 2, Melia and Riki in Xenoblade Chronicles, Aveline in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
Worst character: Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 6
This award could go to pretty much any of the dudes in Resident Evil 6, but Chris Redfield stands out as a haunted soldier suffering a crisis of leadership. If there’s one thing worse than bad Capcom, it’s bad emo Capcom. Also, Piers Niven just for his name. Do developers think they’re being subtle by sticking together names from two different sci-fi authors?
Runner up: Jason Brody as the vessel for Far Cry 3’s supposed heart of darkness
Best sidekick: the darkling in Darkness II
The darkling wasn’t just a well-written character. He was thoroughly integrated into the storytelling and gameplay. Plus he peed on dudes after you killed them. Teabagging is so 2010.
Runner up: Claptrap in Borderlands 2, as good as he’s always been
Worst sidekick: Cortana in Halo 4
This new and improved Cortana is anything but. Sexy Cortana’s Shodan impression is one of the many disappointing things about Halo 4, which is in dire need of characters who aren’t awful, stale, bland, or some combination of those three things. I suppose they get the Cortana they deserve.
Best weapon: the Type 25 in Call of Duty: Black Ops II
I don’t even know if the Type 25 is a real thing. And it’s not inherently better than any other assault rifle in any other game. But it’s my pick for best weapon the year because Activision understands the effectiveness of getting me attached to a particular weapon by leveling it up, earning attachments, and unlocking skins. The concept of upgrading weapons is so commonly copied because it’s effective, and no one does it better than Activision.
Runners up: muskets in Assassin’s Creed 3, James Heller in Prototype 2, any of the traps in Orcs Must Die 2, the bow in Far Cry 3
Worst weapon: the cricket bat in ZombiU
Not only was the joke played out in Shaun of the Dead, but considering how many whacks it takes to brain a zombie, this has to be the least effective cricket bat ever made. I know, I know, gameplay balance. Still.
Runners up: Any one of the “now it shoots orange beams!” guns in Halo 4. Take your pick.
Best villain: Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2
Evil and funny require careful writing. The phrase “butt stallion” demands careful delivery. Borderland’s writers and voice actor Dameon Clarke pull it off.
Worst villain: Vaas in Far Cry 3
Vaas isn’t scary or menacing. Instead, he’s tedious on multiple levels: the character design (mohawks were as menacing as they were ever going to get in 1976’s Taxi Driver, and it’s been downhill ever since), the voice actor (the “random yelling equals crazy” school of acting), the writing (“I now recite yet another speech before trying to kill you yet again”). Fortunately, he goes missing half way into the game.
Runners up: The Didact in Halo 4 (an orc who lives inside an egg whose name makes me think of a Woody Allen routine?). Also, any of the characters or bosses in Diablo III that wasn’t named Zultan Khule, but especially Diablo himself who has mouths for shoulders.
Best graphics engine: Wargame: European Escalation
A graphics engine that’s got it all. Zoom all the way out, zoom all the way in, smoke, fire, sunsets, buildings that blow up real good, and not too demanding on the hardware. Muscular, limber, good-looking. Why do shooters get all the eye candy accolades when there are RTSs that look this good?
Worst graphics engine: Mass Effect 3
While the artwork in Mass Effect 3 tried mightily to break out of its confines, this was still just shoeboxes with elaborate skyboxes. That’s fine for dungeons, but a terrible way to do sci-fi. The Frostbite engine can’t come soon enough to Bioware’s games.
Best artwork: Guild Wars 2
ArenaNet brings to life an enormous coffee table book full of fantasy postcards. Looking at the concept art or the splashscreens, you think, “no way”. Then you’re in the game and it’s all, “yes way”.
Runners up: Sin of a Solar Empire: Rebellion’s spaceship porn, Sine Mora deliriously imaginative worlds and bosses, Dishonored’s steampunk aesthetic, SSX’s various and distinct winter wonderlands, the amount of character per pixel in Conquest of Elysium’s unit graphics
Worst artwork: Need for Speed: Most Wanted
What an incredibly dull excuse for an open-world. Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Driver, Test Drive Unlimited, Test Drive Unlimited 2, and Forza Horizon can manage memorable locations for your driving purposes. It’s a testament to Most Wanted’s gameplay that I’m putting up with the cardboard bland of Fairview, or Viewhaven, or Fairweather, or whatever the heck it’s called.
Best sound design: Assassin’s Creed 3
The crunch and slice of combat is grand. The ambient sound in the cities, in the countryside, at sea is grander.
Runner up: Since there’s not much of a driving model — these are rockets, not cars — a lot of the heavy lifting for distinguishing the cars in Need for Speed: Most Wanted is done by the over-the-top sound effects.
Worst sound design: Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
Thanks to the comically bad accents, the inconsistent sound levels, and the underdone ambient noise, this is a game best played with earphones. Earphones jacked into your favorite podcast. You’ll know something is wrong when you’re walking through New Orleans and hear a terrible avalanche behind you, only to turn around and realize it’s the sound of someone’s broom sweeping the street. What happened, Ubisoft?
Best music: Hotline Miami
The perfect accompaniment to fever dream serial killing
Runner up: Cargo Commander’s twangy space trucker theme
Worst music: dub step in Far Cry 3
Nothing says tropical paradise like wub-wub-wub.
Best ending: Mass Effect 3
Whether you liked the ending of Mass Effect 3 — I liked it, but that’s neither here nor there — the reaction to the ending raised important questions about how games end, about what fans are owed, and about a developer’s responsibility to its audience. I disagree with the answers that many fans concluded from Mass Effect 3, but I’m glad the topic was raised and I’m glad Electronic Arts pretty much stuck to their guns. If the end result is gamers expecting better writing and more meaningful payoffs in their games, the ending of Mass Effect 3 is a win for everyone concerned.
Runner up: I’m not sure I understood the ending of Xenoblade Chronicles, but it was exactly the satisfaction I needed after over 100 hours of weird mythology, domestic drama, and political intrigue.
Worst ending: Far Cry 3
I accidentally did a terrible thing at the end of Far Cry 3 because I wasn’t really clear on what I was being asked. Oh well. How much can you expect from another last minute left-trigger-or-right-trigger decision?
Best quest: the Black House in Secret World
You don’t get breadcrumbed to the Black House. Instead, you see it on the side of the road. Like any creepy haunted house, it’s watching you. It calls to you. And it reveals itself in a tidy package with a memorable backstory that helps flesh out the world of Secret World
Worst quest: the Black House in Secret World
It was literally weeks after the game’s release before this quest actually worked. And because of the way Secret World featured puzzle quests that you had to figure out, you had no way of knowing that the quest was broken. Instead, you just beat your head against an unsolvable puzzle, thinking that it was a solution you hadn’t calculated, none the wiser that the game simply didn’t work. The small terrible unforgettable Black House is an example of everything right and everything wrong with The Secret World.
Best multiplayer: ZombiU
Asymmetry is inherently interesting. And there is no multiplayer more asymmetrical than ZombiU’s FPS vs RTS matches, playing in only and always in the same living room.
Runners up: Max Payne 3, Darkness II, SSX, Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3
Worst multiplayer: Assassin’s Creed: Liberation
I’m still not convinced the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed: Liberation isn’t an elaborate joke. Okay, Ubisoft, you got me.
Best writing: Borderlands 2
There is no reason the sequel to Borderlands needed to have this much effective humor, or characters this memorable, or moments this effective.
Runners up: Waking Mars. Retro City Rampage is actually funny! Many of the games on Story Nexus.
Worst writing: Lollipop Chainsaw
There may be games with worse writing than Lollipop Chainsaw, but they aren’t credited to someone who should know better. After years of Troma and the self-aware insight of Super, James Gunn’s work in Lollipop Chainsaw is bitterly disappointing.
Runners up: Diablo III, Sleeping Dogs, Resident Evil 6, and so on
Best twist: Resident Evil: Revelations
Revelations is the Resident Evil for the Nintendo 3DS. It’s set on a ship. And to say anything about the twist would spoil a nifty narrative sleight-of-hand, so you’ll just have to play it yourself.
Runners up: how Batman foils the Joker in Lego Batman 2, the ending — and possible ending — of Darkness II (come on, Darkness III!)
Worst twist: Diablo III
There are actually a few twists in the Diablo III story. They’re all pretty bad because the story does absolutely nothing to earn them.
Runner up: a certain character betraying you in Xenoblade Chronicles
Best interface: mapping in A Valley Without Wind
The maps in Valley Without Wind were a truly remarkable way to help you find your way through the game’s literally infinite worlds.
Worst interface: crafting and trading Assassin’s Creed 3
As much as I love the idea of my homestead being the industry that drives Assassin’s Creed 3’s economy, I see no reason that it has to be this much of a pain in the ass.
Runner up: Zen Pinball’s buttonless flippering on the iOS, quest and inventory management in Borderlands 2, sorting skills in Diablo III’s elective mode, flying without an inverted Y-axis in Lego Batman 2, religion in Gods & Kings expansion for Civ V, trying to find items in Black Ops II’s zombie bus tour mode
Worst PR: Fez
Between Phil Fish’s comments on Japanese games and his public musing about not patching the game because it would be too expensive, Fez managed to burn pretty much all the goodwill it earned by being a good game.
Runner up: Sony’s lack of support for the Vita
Best PR: Fallen Enchantress
Developer Stardock provided free copies of Fallen Enchantress to owners of Elemental to make up for the state of that game’s release. It might have taken a year, but Elemental owners eventually got the great fantasy strategy game they’d paid for.
Runner up: Blizzard thoroughly documenting various design choices on their developer blog, including the ones they decided didn’t work
Best business model: Guild Wars 2
The perfect balance among the traditional retail package followed by a subscription fee, the shameless game design compromises of free-to-play, and the even more shameless real-world transactions plugged into a player-driven economy. You pay your $60 and you’re good to go. If you want to be a whale and buy into the microbuyables or splurge on ingame gold, you can. If you want to earn everything through gameplay, you can. If you just want a complete online RPG for your $60, you’ve got it.
Runner up: Age of Empires Online’s extensive retooling at the beginning of this year, making it a much more reasonable fit for the free-to-play model
Worst business model: Skylanders: Giants
As much as I’m curious to try a Skylanders game, I simply can’t abide what a toy selling boondoggle this thing has become. Activision’s shareholders must be elated.
Runner up: Bethesda’s Doom 3: BFG Edition is a real headscratcher. Who’s buying a full-priced re-release of an awful game? Diablo III compromising the ingame economy with its real money auction house still hurts, even though I try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Best name: I Am Alive
I’m a sucker for an entire sentence.
Worst name: Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
Can we wait more than a few years before recycling entire names?
Runners up: XCOM, all caps, no hyphen. ZombiU (pronounced “zom-bye-YOO”). Nexuiz. Fertang. QatQi.
The “Hey, what kind of fast one are you trying to pull?” award: Capcom’s Steel Battalion for the Kinect
Runner up: the latest Karateka
Most likely to be mistaken for weird porno: Of Orcs and Men
Runners up: Deep Black, Growlanser, Fertang.
Click here for awards from the Quarter to Three community.