2012 has been an amazing year for great video game experiences – such an amazing year, in fact, that I’ve found it impossible to limit my year-end best-of list to the customary 10 titles. The list of games you now see before you makes up what I’m calling this year’s “Honorable Mentions,” but honestly, any one of them is good enough to warrant a purchase. So read on, because you never know – your own game of the year might be tucked away somewhere in the list below!
Assassin’s Creed III (PC/PS3/Wii U/Xbox 360)
Given the franchise’s popularity, you might be surprised to learn that Assassin’s Creed III is the first title in the series I’ve spent any considerable amount of time with, but there you have it: I was an Assassin’s Creed virgin until I played Ubisoft Montreal’s latest stealth action game for Wii U. And right up until the experience began to unravel near the very end of Connor’s campaign, I was fully onboard and ready to dive in to the rest of the series. A vast, beautiful, open world with a plethora of activities to keep you engaged in the downtime between missions? Check! An engaging story full of historical figures and Hollywood style familial dischord? Check! And oh, those naval missions! But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, none of it really amounts to a whole hell of a lot. The story fizzles out once the most interesting characters disappear from the narrative (with the only explanation being “you thought they liked you? Just kidding! They didn’t!”) The final mission is one of the most glitch-ridden, poorly paced excuses for gameplay I’ve ever experienced, and all those untold hours I spent hunting and fetching trinkets so I could craft better equipment didn’t make a lick of difference to the way I engaged enemies – I either killed them in stealth like the expert assassin I was supposed to be, or fumbled awkwardly through head-on battles when I couldn’t manage the element of surprise. And don’t get me started on the ending, which I’ll admit might’ve been less stupid in my eyes had I actually been invested in the characters. No, Assassin’s Creed 3 wasn’t Game of the Year material for me – not even close. But if you’re looking for a fun, lengthy romp through the American frontier and you’re tired of Red Dead Redemption, you could do far, far worse (see Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.)
I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy solving and re-solving Crashmo’s sometimes maddeningly obtuse puzzles – somewhere to the tune of 40 hours. Why? Because I’m a nice guy and I want you to avoid a brain aneurysm. For Nintendo fans jonesin’ for some old-school puzzle action, it doesn’t get any better than Crashmo, and if you’ve got a 3DS, there’s absolutely no reason not to fork over the ten dollar entry fee into Crashmo’s candy-colored, block-rearranging world.
Dishonored (PC/PS3/Xbox 360)
As I stated in my review, Dishonored is a great game: an original IP with interesting, highly repayable missions, a fun story and unique world that changes appropriately to reflect the way you play, and excellent visual and audio design crafted by some of the same folks responsible for Half-Life 2 and BioShock 2. It’s also a far more engaging example of stealth action than anything Ubisoft did with Assassin’s Creed 3. In fact, it’s one of my favorite games of the year! So what’s it doing wallowing down here in the Honorable Mentions? Simple: it crumbles under the weight of its own ambition. Dishonored was frequently touted in pre-release marketing as the game that would let you “play your own way,” and it’s true that it succeeds in this, for the most part. But boy, when the seams split open on Arkane’s game design, does that stuffing spill out! I can’t count the number of times I had to re-load an earlier save or start a mission over entirely because the game didn’t like the way I chose to approach a problem. Still, most of you never experienced the kind of problems I did within the game – characters who refused to acknowledge my presence, or wouldn’t die because they fell through the ground and continued falling indefinitely, and I’m willing to accept that I might’ve gotten the one retail disc that didn’t contain the best stealth game ever made. Dishonored is really, truly an amazing game, and if you go into it ready to accept its small but considerable shortcomings, you will find an experience unmatched by all but this generation’s best games.
Kid Icarus: Uprising (3DS)
Has there ever been a more triumphant series reboot than Nintendo’s long-awaited Kid Icarus: Uprising? Probably not. With a cinematic flair not commonly seen among Nintendo’s first-party franchises and a sense of self-awareness that would make any Nintendo fanboy blush, Uprising is a rare treat that feels nothing like its forebears yet perfectly at home among Nintendo’s best titles. The rub, as you’ve probably heard, is the control scheme, which proves not that the 3DS needs a second circle pad (it doesn’t), but that the game would’ve been much better suited on the Wii or Wii U, where motion control is the standard. If you’ve got a 3DS, you shouldn’t think twice about picking this one up – there’s really nothing else like it.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
It’s a platformer! It’s an RPG! It’s a PC-style adventure game! It’s none of these things! Paper Mario: Sticker Star, one of the funniest games ever localized by those clever scamps at Nintendo of America’s Treehouse division, proves yet again that the best Mario games are the ones that stray from the side-scrolling formula and allow the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom a chance to shine. This latest Paper Mario is a blast, and its sticker-based mechanic is more fun than it has any right to be, but the most unexpected surprise here just might be the game’s jazzy, infectious soundtrack that gives it a completely different feel from anything Nintendo’s ever done, Mario or otherwise. Seriously. I can’t stop listening.
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
If I hadn’t just started playing Persona 4 a few days ago, it probably would’ve landed somewhere in my top ten, regardless of the fact that it’s a re-release of a PS2 game; alas, we humble games writers have only so much time, and I wasn’t able to fit this one into my schedule until after Christmas. From what little I’ve played, I’m already comfortable saying it’s one of the best interactive experiences I’ve had all year, but I can’t yet articulate what makes it a good game because there’s just so much I haven’t seen yet. Suffice to say, if you’re into JRPGs, Japanese youth culture, romance, or a good mystery, you’ll eat this one up.
Professor Layton & The Miracle Mask (3DS)
In a year overstuffed with ultraviolence, Professor Layton & The Miracle Mask is both a breath of fresh air, and a gentle reminder of Nintendo’s expert ability to iterate on the same game, year after year, and spit out a product that’s infinitely better than most everything else you can spend your gaming dollars on. Miracle Mask does very little that hasn’t been done by any of the previous games in the series, but its emotionally resonant story, quirky characters, and welcoming presentation make this latest Layton as fun as he’s ever been. Added bonus: he won’t teabag you (though he might offer you a cup of Earl Grey.)
Sine Mora (PC/PS3/PS Vita/Xbox 360)
Another title I’ve only recently found time for thanks to its Sally-come-lately Vita port, Sine Mora is the perfect fusion of old-school shmup design and modern visual aesthetic. If you’ve always loved shoot ’em ups but have never had much luck completing them, you’ll be pleased to know Sine Mora’s a bit more forgiving in its approach to the whole “bullet hell” thing. In the story mode, you can’t die as long as there’s still time on the clock (time you’ll lose the more you get hit, and gain the more enemies you kill), meaning you’ll be able to spend more time honing your skills and less time staring at a game over screen. Fret not, ye hardest-of-core shooter fans, there’s still the arcade mode, which comes only in two flavors: hardest and evenharder. Out of all the games on this list, Sine Mora is probably fated to be the most overlooked, which is really kind of bullshit considering the number of platforms it’s been released on. Stop making excuses and get it already.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss (PS Vita)
What a great game! Uncharted: Golden Abyss took what worked best in the series’ PlayStation 3 incarnations, shoehorned in a bunch of pointless, mostly-optional touch-based interactions, and stuffed it down onto a little system you could fit in your largest jacket pocket. A PS Vita launch title, Golden Abyss is still the most technically impressive title on the platform nearly a year into its lifespan, proving you really could take a AAA, console-style adventure with you on your morning commute. But at the end of the day, is that really what you want from a handheld title? How much you appreciate Golden Abyss depends on your answer to that question. If you subscribe to the highbrow notion that portable games should offer experiences that can’t be replicated on a traditional TV-based console, well, maybe this isn’t the game for you. But for people like me who spend half their waking hours riding trains, Sony Bend’s take on one of PlayStation’s flagship franchises is a classic example of what Sony does best…and makes the time it takes to get home in the evening that much more bearable.
The Games of 2011 (Multiple Platforms)
What’s that, you say? I’m cheating? Hear me out. The current console cycle has given us no shortage of unforgettable games, but no single year has given us so many titles we’ll still be playing for the next several years as 2011. Seriously, if you claimed to be a gamer and told me you haven’t clocked more time in Minecraft, Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Super Mario 3D Land than most of the games released in 2012, I’d call you a lying liar and know I was right. Why? Because you’d be lying!
Listen: there’s nothing shameful about getting your money’s worth out of your gaming purchases, so take a look at what you’ve got on your shelves and be honest with yourself: do you really need to buy any more games right now?