Reflecting back on the year in video games is pretty grim. There was plenty of mediocre junk and really just a couple of really significant titles. The industry kept truckin’ on toward its self-circumscribed oblivion, writ in DLC, preorder bonuses, shoehorned multiplayer, sixty dollar price points, and endless iteration. Vaporware was popularized by Kickstarter, and indie games apparently brought innovation to the medium by whimsically mimicking twenty and thirty year old design concepts and game styles. Then there was that long, dreary summer where almost nothing of note was released. And then there was Lollipop Chainsaw. Come, Armageddon, come.
But there were some great games this year, none of which have “Walking Dead” in the title. That overhyped, over-feted game is by far the biggest disappointment of 2012- not only because of the lack of actual gameplay, the disjointed Z-grade TV writing, and goofy graphics but also because gamers actually liked this garbage. Are standards of writing and character development in video games that low these days? Look, I like the idea of sophisticated, serial storytelling in games. But when it’s delivered in little more than BioWare-style dialogue trees (sans sleazy come-ons) in a game that makes Heavy Rain look like a video game, we’re moving in the wrong direction.
But these games, unlike Walking Dead, most certainly did not suck. They are Barnes’ Best 2012 material.
First up, two honorable mentions. ZombiU, one of Ubisoft’s WiiU launch titles, received mixed reviews that it mostly deserves because it is hampered by a couple of design-level fumbles (the cricket bat thing) and some hideous visuals. But it’s also full of amazing ideas, pairing up Dark Souls’ fatalism with classical survival horror gameplay. The gamepad makes for some surprisingly compelling mechanics- having to actually look down and rummage through your bag for a grenade while a bunch of zombies are lumbering toward you is one of the tensest, most nerve-wracking experiences I had in games this year. It’s gloriously slow-paced, not at all the shotgun massacre that most murder-fantasy zombie games are.
The other honorable is Dragon’s Dogma. I gave this game a mixed review myself, and it remains a hot mess. It’s an Engrish version of a western RPG, and out of that comes some truly innovative ideas. It’s sometimes infuriatingly obtuse, the game never holds your hand at any point, and it can be ruthlessly difficult. But moment-to-moment, the game is as good as anything released this year. The combat is straight from a brawler but the intricate character development is squarely RPG. There’s no other game in 2012 that let you grab on to a burning Gryphon and stab it to death in the air. I think about this game almost every day, and every day I think “man, I need to get back to that one.”
Now, Barnes’ Best 2012- digital edition. Consoles first.
This incredible game is the definitive “shmup” of this generation. Beautifully executed, masterfully designed, and accessible without shying away from very hardcore difficulty, Sine Mora is the best game that’s ever had the Grasshopper Manufacture brand on it. Working with Digital Reality, the Japanese developers gave us some of the best bosses, levels, and shooter gameplay of all time. And man, that Akira Yamaoka soundtrack. Influences ranging from Cave shooters and UN Squadron to Blacksad and Giorgio Moroder made for a sophisticated, visceral action gaming experience that was hard to beat in 2012.
I’ve played thatgamecompany’s Journey only one time, but the two hours or so I spent with it were among the most profound and moving that I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Partnering you up with an anonymous online player with no voice communication was a brilliant masterstroke, enabling players to actually experience things like the development of language and the nurturing of relationships. I think those are far more interesting concepts than shooting brown people or anything to do with Kratos. It’s been argued that there’s not much game here and that may be the case, but the sense of exploring more spiritual and transcendental material made this brave, one-of-a-kind games one of the most important video games of the year.
Firaxis did the impossible and resurrected X-COM in a way that was both throwback and modern. It is the same game you remember. But it shows almost twenty years of design improvement, refinement, and editing. What’s left is everything that really matters about the original game, and almost all of the clunky filler and old fashioned content cast by the wayside. Of course, bitchers gonna bitch about something or other not being in the new game, but they’re dead wrong. This is the perfect version of XCOM, circa 2012. One of the best squad-based TBS games I’ve ever played, if only because it’s so masterfully pared down to the key values.
Rayman Legends Demo
Yeah, that’s right, I put a demo on my Game of the Year list. It’s my show. Write a letter if you don’t like it! This Wii U demo blew my mind, plain and simple. In just three levels, this demo showed more heart, joy, passion, and creativity than any number of AAA bloodbaths or fake 8-bit retro nostalgia exercises. The game pulses with energy and excitement, incorporating recent gameplay ideas cribbed from Cut the Rope, Rock Band, and other modern titles. But it’s still a pure platformer, even though you’re using the gamepad to perform touchscreen functions. The co-op is great, the art style is to die for, and the graphics are as good as anything on the market today. This is definitely one to watch in 2013, and it may be a compelling reason to buy a Wii U- far more so than Nintendo’s own New Super Mario Bros. Wii U is.
The Witcher 2 Enhanced Edition
Even though it was a reissue of a 2011 game, there wasn’t anything on shelves in 2012 better than the Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition on the 360. This game absolutely blew my mind with its intelligent, thoughtful writing, great characters, and completely immersive setting. Add in viscerally strategic combat, brilliant quest design, and sex scenes that were actually intimate and adult rather than the puerile sleaze companies like BioWare slop into their games and you’ve got the makings of something special. I never play 50-70 hour games twice. But I played The Witcher 2 twice. And I would play it again. No part of this game was disappointing, lackluster, or badly handled, and it is your Barnes’ Best GOTY 2012.
That’s it then. Had I started playing Little Inferno before this morning, that may have had a berth on here as well. Brilliant, brilliant game that I’m afraid many just won’t get.
24 thoughts to “Barnes’ Best 2012, Console Edition”
Disagree totally about Walking Dead, but that’s why we are people.
Seasons is a great game too ??
Why should it be that you and I should get along so awfullly?
I also disagree about The Walking Dead, but I can’t argue with your actual choices. I’m curious to know of you ‘played’ Thirty Flights Of Loving? I could be wrong, but I think you’d appreciate it.
I haven’t…now that I have a less-crappy-than-I’m-accustomed-to laptop that can actually play something newer than Spear of Destiny, I’ll hace to check that out.
It’s hilarious. I went through my xbox activity for the year and most of the games I played didn’t even come out this year. So here’s my top 5 games that I played in 2012:
1. Dark Souls – Best. Game. Evar.
2. Red Dead Redemption – An excellent game and an incredibly solid story. I would watch the movie.
3. Batman: Arkham Asylum GOTY edition – Freeflow combat. Batman. Some amazing surprises.
4. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas 2: My only complaint about this game is that the incendiary grenades don’t make the terrorists scream as they burn to death like they did in Vegas 1.
5. FTL. Because I just bought it and it hasn’t pissed me off too much yet.
FTL hasn’t pissed you off too much yet? Takes about two games. Guess you’ve only played it once.
no, I’ve played it a lot. But I realized too late that it isn’t a console game so it shouldn’t be on there at all. FTL, FML
I really enjoyed The Witcher 2 when I played the PC version last year. The dialogue and divergent story elements were great, and while I can’t claim to have followed the more apocryphal references the characters would make, it wasn’t nearly as impenetrable as the first game. I wound my way through, choosing the least bad options I could identify, and customized a nice array of gear and abilities to help me complete the game.
In The Walking Dead, my decisions are not being guided by a desire to win the game. Many of my choices now run directly counter to conventional gamer logic because, in the slender seconds that reaction timer draining, my first thought is how to be a good protector and role model for an eight-year-old girl.
I’ve been gaming a pretty long time. Any title that can provoke me into reacting less as a strategist than as a parent is a hell of a thing.
I just don’t feel the parenting thing in it at all..maybe if the little girl wasn’t so “golly gee, I’m so precocious and munchkin-like, take care of me surrogate daddy”.
And really, didn’t Heavy Rain do some of that too?
I’m all for messages about parenting in games…Bioshock 2 had one of the most profound messages about being a parent in a game that I’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t trite or forced at all.
If you’re more conscious of Clementine’s artifice than her charms, I can understand why you wouldn’t care for The Walking Dead. I expected to be in that position myself, having come somewhat late to the party, but damn if that saltlick conversation didn’t chisel it’s way into my heart.
Regarding Heavy Rain, while Ethan’s situation as a parent might be central to the story, I wouldn’t consider it a game about parenting. Shaun’s a good kid who’s grappling with a lot of dark stuff, but you’re not searching for a way to guide him through it — you’re mostly working to keep him alive.
Clementine is also a good kid in a bad situation, but in The Walking Dead, I’ve felt repeatedly challenged by questions about when it’s okay to lie to make someone feel better, what constitutes stealing, and what line a person has to cross to be condemned to death. Most games treat these things as cheap was to manipulate a morality bar, and it’s a rare treat for me to *feel* personally invested in how they should be answered.
I tried playing some Walking Dead. Maybe it’s the format – I tried the first episode on iOS (iPad 3rd Gen), and found it to be somewhat sluggish and unresponsive. Played maybe a half hour or so and then gave up, thinking I’d go back to it later.
Like Slothboy, it looks like all the games I dumped time into this year and enjoyed were from last year or before (e.g. Red Dead Redemption, Arkham City, Borderlands).
_Boring_, sluggish, and unresponsive. FYP. ??
XCOM rules. I actually just started playing it again last night after getting sidetracked for a month by other games. It’s a perfect distillation of everything good about the original game, with almost all of the chaff cut away. The enemies are awesome, and as I went through the game every enemy caused me to say “holy shit, the game expects me to fight these?” And then I did, and it was awesome. Except sectopods. They’re not awesome.
And I’ll have to give the Rayman Legends demo a shot, since I also(!) started playing Rayman Origins again just recently after putting it on hiatus. A really solid platformer with gorgeous graphics and distinct mechanics. They’re so distinct that I still mess them up, but they don’t feel arbitrary or clumsy. They work, I don’t. Maybe I’ll try 4-player with my group tonight, since I only ever played it 2-player.
Disagree on Sine Mora, though. I have never seen a game so ruthlessly work against itself; everything I like about the game has a totally annoying counterbalance. The time-death system tries to make things accessible by removing lives restrictions, but amounts to the same thing. Playing arcade mode, you can really only take two hits, which is stricter than most shooters. And sometimes you’ll be screwed and not even know it yet, fighting a boss you can’t possibly win. It frustrates me to no end.
I love rank systems that get harder the better you do, but Sine Mora’s just jerks up a level in an instant. You’re cruising along and then it ratchets up and all of a sudden you’re dead. The best rank systems are more of a gradual process that you can only barely feel until you realize that things are becoming hella hard.
Then there’s the special abilities, which are awesome but you can’t use if you want to get a high score, since they lower your rank. If you want to score well, you have to play the game as boring as you can. Plus there’s randomized powerups, so even if you’re playing well, you might fare worse than somebody who got lucky. I think the game’s a hot mess in general. Oof, sorry I vented. Oh well. Dodonpachi SDOJ and Ginga Force are coming out soon, so it looks like a great coming year for the genre.
My runners-up for GOTY were XCOM and Mushihimesama HD. I’m sure there were others, but it’s hard to remember, you know?
Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed was my favorite of the year. For the first few hours of gameplay it really *felt* like its budget price, and I kind of hated it. But then the handling and the levels came together and it’s just a dream to play. The transformations are great, the powerups are incredibly designed, and the levels are high-energy. The single player mode is even better than Diddy Kong Racing’s and keeps you busy with a ton of content, not to mention 4-player split screen throughout. I reviewed it on my blog, which I will self-plug here:
Anyways. Happy new year, everyone. Keep playing games. Especially you, Barnes!
Oh, I love Mushihimesama…that’s one of Cave’s best, no doubt.
Yeah, XCOM is exactly what I mean when I talk about editorial design- paring away the nonessentials to get at the core values. Unfortunately, there’s a legion of dunderheads on the internet that want to decry anything editorial and refined as “dumbed down”, when in fact the game in question has been “smarted up”. XCOM is a “smarted up” game, with lots of dated, no longer fun bullshit cut away.
I was going to come on here and leaving a scathing reply about many of the best games of this year and you didn’t mention a single one, then realized they were all on PC. You win this round Barnes.
Quick meta-question: Is the lead “Barnes’ Best” image a screenshot of the actual “Barnes’ Best” image used in previous articles?
No. There are 37 discrete paradimensional differences as well as a stereoscopic image of the German silent film actor Emil Jannings embedded in this one.
does barnes have a write up for Walking Dead?
with an opinion like that i’d like to read his reasonings and examples for disliking it, it’d make for good reading
I don’t know, maybe if I play some more of it (unlikely!) I’ll write about it. More possible is incorporating discussion of it in an article on another topic.
just as good. i’ll look forward to your future article.
my opinion was that they started to get into the swing of things in Ep 3 and 4, but Ep 5 just failed to deliver any of the build up from the previous episodes. I was disappointed, but accepted the end that they gave for the characters.
Amen to Journey. I only played through it a few times, but it is perfectly paced. The climax of that game gave me chills. I respectfully disagree on The Walking Dead as well, but whatever floats your boat. However, I am seriously surprised to not see Dark Souls on that list. If you hated the lack of actual gameplay in TWD, Dark Souls is like the polar opposite. It’s about as pure a game experience as you could ask for.
I was late to the Dark Souls party, having recently built myself a new gaming PC and decided this was as good an opportunity as any to try it out. It was on sale on Steam; I have a wireless receiver for my 360 controller; and I’m well aware of the DSFix mod, so the PC version is by far the superior version. However, I think more people played the console version. Regardless, this game has utterly consumed the entire second half of my two week Christmas vacation since I built my new rig off post-Boxing Day sales. The combat system is visceral, but patient and methodical. It’s the polar opposite of frantic, combo-centric button mashing like Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and God of War. Nothing wrong with those games mind you, but when you commit to swinging your sword in Dark Souls, you’re going to swing your sword. There’s a realistic weight to the melee combat that I really love.
I’ve clocked about 50 hours on my first playthrough so far, and I’m not done yet. And then there’s the New Game Plus system and a possible alternate class playthrough. I honestly can’t remember the last time I actually spent 50+ hours on a single player game. Probably playing an older Final Fantasy game when I was a student and ironically had more free time than I do as a working adult. I thought that I just didn’t have the time for any game that took that long to play anymore. It turns out I just needed the right game. Of course, some time off work probably didn’t hurt either.
Also, I bought The Witcher on Good Old Games when it was on sale a while ago and avoided the console port, because I knew the PC version would be superior and I had plans to eventually build a new rig sometime soon. I think that’s next on my list. I’m going to be busy well into 2013.
Dark Souls was on it last year…I still went with Arkham City over it, probably because of Batman.
That said, I would probably say that overall Dark Souls is the best game of this console generation in terms of raw gameplay.
I think Journey just proves that you don’t need a complex game to have fun. There’s something primal about the need to go explore and just generally dick around, which is quite different from how most games are generally set up to be a structure of do x and receive reward.
It also goes to show you that games don’t have to be about conflict, struggle, and fighting…that they can reach for deeper concepts and engage the player on a more reflective, introspective level. The sense of discovery, revelation, and transcendence are really quite unmatched in games. The reward isn’t even really in playing the game, it’s in how you interpret and recieve what it tells you, shows you, and asks you to do.