The top ten games of 2012

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I’m not sure that any of these games would have made my top ten, but I never got around to trying the Walking Dead series, Mark of the Ninja, Hitman: Absolution, Guardians of Middle Earth, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Natural Selection 2, Last Story, Tokyo Jungle, Yakuza: Dead Souls, or Spec Ops: The Line. So, mea culpa maxima.

But of the games I did play, here are my favorites for the year.

After the jump, the Qt3 trophies go to…

10) XCOM

Sometimes you can update a classic without betraying it. Sometimes you can appeal to newcomers without alienating the hardcore fans. Sometimes boardgames can teach videogames a thing or three.

XCOM owes more to the great boardgames of the 21st century than to the original X-Com. This is a design about establishing simple rules and then breaking them. For instance, a soldier only gets to do two things a turn. Simple rule. But a heavy soldier with bullet swarm gets to fire before doing its two things, or an assault soldier with run-and-gun gets to move twice and then fire. Simple rule broken.

Read the review here.

9) Need for Speed: Most Wanted

So this is what the Need for Speed and Burnout games have been building up to! So what if it’s missing the personality of Driver or Midnight Club: Los Angeles?

Most Wanted has motivation galore. It constantly and keenly answers the question, “Why should I race?”, yet it offers a startling amount of freedom and flexibility. This is the same franchise that loved to shunt you down long wending ribbons of predetermined road, and it’s the same developer who recently laid out a city in Burnout: Paradise without really understanding the point of an open world, much less the best way to do it. And now Criterion’s Need for Speed is one of the best open world arcade racers you can play, nearly on par with Rockstar’s brilliant Midnight Club: Los Angeles or Ubisoft’s curiously subversive Driver.

Read the review here.

8) Waking Mars

Although it’s now available on the PC, this is the first of two iOS games on my top ten list! Go, iPhone!

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.

Read the review here.

7) Diablo III

Yeah, I fell for this one. Hard and long and in spite of some very real problems. I’m not proud. But I have several high- to mid-level characters to show for it.

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.

6) Story Nexus

Story Nexus is a platform established by Echo Bazaar creator Failbetter Games. This is where you go to play the brilliant Echo Bazaar, recently renamed Fallen London and pried free of Facebook and Twitter.

[Echo Bazaar] is every bit as good as the classic Infocom text adventures. Better, in fact. I don’t remember the writing in those games being this good, although perhaps I was too young to appreciate it. But I don’t think any of the Infocom text adventures visited a place as vividly imagined and darkly memorable as Fallen London. And I know for certain none of the Infocom games had anything resembling the free-form gameplay on which Echo Bazaar is built. Its foundation is a latticework of quests, stats, random events, and inventory items, all of which you navigate by making choices that spread and intertwine like vines. It’s not simply about making numbers go up over time, although that certainly happens. It’s about making mutually exclusive choices. It’s about struggling with madness. It’s about solving mysteries. It’s about choosing factions. It’s about your pick of a lifelong ambition. It’s about building a framework of contacts, quirks, plots, and schemes. It’s about opening a jar of shrieks, deciding what to do with a boxed cat, and trading whispered secrets for ancient mysteries.

But Story Nexus is more than just Fallen London. It is the home of spin-offs like The Silver Tree, weird Western Zero Summer, sci-fi saga Winterstrike, the historical intrigue of Cabinet Noir, the Rogue-like Below, and more, including stuff you can create and share yourself. This is where you go if you want to see what videogames can accomplish when they have good writers instead of graphics.

Read the Fallen London review here. But, more importantly, check out Story Nexus here.

5) Rebuild

Possibly the best zombie game ever made for how it understands that a zombie apocalypse is about the survivors more than it’s about the zombies. 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?

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.

Read the review here.

4) Assassin’s Creed 3

I had given up on Assassin’s Creed games. I love how wrong I was. Ubisoft created a grand new game as big as America herself.

Most of the meaningful Americana is in the homestead, a sprawling counterpart to the villa improvements from the previous games. The homestead is a bit like the city building in Dark Cloud, or the Colony 6 progression in Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s got touches of Harvest Moon or the “dudes, too” dating in Grand Theft Auto IV. You’ll also find bits and pieces in the liberation missions, which range from burning diseased blankets, standing up for hungry children, or freeing conscripts from their service to King George. The story of America in Assassin’s Creed III is in the ancillary characters in the wilderness, at sea, in the nascent cities, telling ghost stories around campfires on the frontier, having babies, planting grain, and even falling into dopey teenage love with each other. It’s like your party in a Bioware game, but writ larger and broader, as befits the birth of a nation.

Read the review here.

3) Borderlands 2

In a year with some really good shooters, Gearbox’s enormous clever playground is the best place to go to shoot guns at and alongside interesting characters. And in a year with some really good action RPGs, it’s the most interesting place to go if you just want to level up.

There aren’t many action RPGs or shooters worth playing for the story. But there also aren’t many action RPGs or shooters with the writing, sense of humor, and sense of set pieces as Borderlands 2. I’m even tempted to roll out the phrase mise en scene as it might apply to a shooter, but such an academic fancypants terms doesn’t do justice to set pieces like Tiny Tina’s tea party, or Shooty McFace’s brief appearance, or Scooter’s poem for his girlfriend, or how the characters from the first game are used…I guess the best way to put it is to say Borderlands 2′s mise en scene is so kick-ass that I’m wondering how it happened.

Read the review here.

2) 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, RPG, 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.

Read the review here, or the game diary here.

1) Guild Wars 2

I am not an MMO player. I am strictly a dabbler. Guild Wars 2 changed that. This is the game I’ve played the most this year, and not because it’s an effective time sink (hi, Diablo III!). It’s the game I’ve played the most because it’s the game I’ve most wanted to play. And it shows no sign of letting up. Whatever you have in store for me, 2013, you’ve got a tough ongoing act to follow.

…I can count on two hands the games I’ve loved as much as I now love Guild Wars 2. This isn’t just a great example of the genre and arguably the Second Coming of MMOs. It isn’t even just one of the best games I’ve ever played. This is what happens when a group of talented, smart, dedicated, imaginative, bold, consumer-friendly creators get together and spend years solving problems and making something wonderful.

Read the review here.

The most disappointing games of 2012
The most overrated games of 2012
The year-end awards