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Barnes’ Best 2012, Console Edition

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.

Sine Mora


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.

Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2012, Analog Edition

Quite frankly, I thought 2012 was a pretty shitty year for board games. Not just because I didn’t play them nearly as much as I have in recent years due to being in double baby jail with a one year old and a two year old, but also because the really outstanding games were few and far between. There was a whole lot of mediocrity, and then the Kickstarter thing made it possible for any yahoo to sell underdeveloped, unfinished beta prototypes to suckers. There weren’t really even all that many games in 2012 that I felt were compelling enough to try outside of the reprint cavalcade, which caught up this year with Crude, Wiz-War, Merchant of Venus, and Netrunner. I didn’t play Risk: Legacy, the new Descent, Mice & Mystics, or tons of expansions for pretty good games that came out this year. I couldn’t possibly care less about Zombicide, Seasons, or most of the new deckbuilders. Regardless, here are your Barnes’ Best board game picks for 2012.

There were, of course, a couple of really great games that rose above the clutter, made even more cluttersome by all of the Kickstarted crap that’s only just now disappointing “backers”. As usual in my Games of the Year articles, I’ve disqualified reprints and I’m only listing new-in-2012 titles. It just wouldn’t be fair to this year’s new games to shunt them out of recognition because a 30 year old masterpiece is back on the shelves. Because, I mean, seriously- was there a better game released this year than Netrunner? Not quite.

First up, the honorable mentions. Two of these are games designed by personal friends, Battle Beyond Space and Article 27. The former is a great 2-4 player space battle that is dramatic, surprising, and frequently hilarious. The latter is a classically designed pure negotiation game that would be considered a classic had it come in a 3M bookshelf box. John Clowdus did good by us again this year with Tooth & Nail and Donald X. Vaccarino delivered his best game to date with FFG’s excellent cyberpunk heist game Infiltration. Dungeon Command started out good and got better over the course of four releases, offering a simple but compelling dungeon brawl option. And then there’s the Star Wars LCG, which I just started playing in the final days of 2012 but will review favorably next week.

Now, on to the shortlist. The four best games of 2012 and my pick for Game of the Year.

1812: The Invasion of Canada

This was one of the first games I played in 2012, and in my review I mentioned that it set the bar pretty high for the year. I knew all year long that we’d see this game in this column. Play after play, this simple team-based wargame has delivered the goods. It’s fun, fast, and full of interesting strategy. The dice-based combat system allows for some surprising strategic detail, the battles range from complete washes to total devastation, and overall the game has an easy flow that rewards risky play- and cooperation between teammates- over rules exploitation, resource management, or other factors. The subject matter may not be the most scintillating and on the table it looks like total cube confusion , but this was one of the best ways to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the titular event.

Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery

This is 2012’s Cinderella story, a game that beat the odds to emerge as one of the year’s top titles. The strikes against it were potential deal breakers. But these first-time designers, publishing through a company that has never done a board game before, came up with an innovative game that is as conceptually thematic as games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune are. Splitting the process between a nasty take-that card game and a one-on-one gladiator battle with a gambling element, Spartacus did an awful lot with the subject matter without getting bogged down in rules. It definitely has the best- and most necessary- rule of the year: don’t be an ass. This great game can be had for around $20, and with an expansion on the way I expect to be playing it into 2013.

Lords of Waterdeep

Lords of Waterdeep board in play

The genius of Lords of Waterdeep is that is very much a back-to-basics Eurogame, offering a simple but not shallow worker placement mechanic paired up with a fun- but light- dusting of Dungeons and Dragons atmosphere. It’s hugely accessible, unlike so many games in its genre. In a year where I found myself more attracted to simpler, more minimalist designs I appreciated that the designers of this game really cut through all of the bullshit and got right down to key elements that make these kinds of games work. It’ll never be as deep or intricate as Caylus, but it’s a heck of a lot more fun to play and that counts for…well, everything.

Mage Wars

Of course, Mage Wars was hardly a simpler, more minimalist design at all. Instead, this game is a complex, detailed game that feels like an omnibus of hobby gaming concepts. It’s a board game, miniatures game, and collectible card game all in one. It really should have been a hot mess and reading through the rules I thought it would be, but in play Mage Wars offered some of the most rewarding gameplay of 2012. With an intriguing “open deck” style of play that uses binders to allow players access to every card in their deck, the designer made the most of several bottlenecks in the design to keep the decision-making interesting. But it ain’t dry- there’s also plenty of dice-rolling, PVP ass-kicking to do while you’re making all of those compelling decisions. Definitely looking forward to expansions on this one as well.

And finally, Barnes’ Best Game of the Year 2012…it’s probably no surprise, but here we go…


Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

X-Wing is quite possibly the best tabletop miniatures game I have ever played, leveraging familiar subject matter and the particular style of Star Wars’ dogfighting scenes to present a fast-and-furious game that feels exactly right and is suitable for any player that knows what an X-Wing or a TIE fighter are. Low rules overhead and the use of templates to handle all of the measurement keep the usual miniatures table disagreements to a minimum, and the novel card-based method of building out and equipping ships makes for a great metagame. And the miniatures are truly impressive- any Star Wars fan that grew up with the toys is going to love them. Yes, this is an expensive game but if it sinks its teeth into you, you won’t notice that you’re spending your games budget on extra Y-Wings and TIE Advanced instead of on other games you won’t play nearly as much. This is a game that’s great as it is today with only four ships available, and will only get better in 2013 as more are released. This was- and is- the 2012 game I played and want to play again the most. A truly phenomenal game that builds on great ideas from its peers and improves everything across the board.

That’s it then. We’ll see what happens in 2013…it may turn out that X-Wing wins this year too! Stay tuned for the digital edition, in which I make one of those crazy statements about a currently popular game that may get me publically executed.

Mark of the Ninja in Review

I absolutely hated Klei’s 2011 digital release Shank. I think it is a disgrace, an embarrassment to the video games medium that wallows in joyless, cynical immaturity and dully moronic violence. Its humor and tone are straight out of one of those mid-1990s post-Pulp Fiction “indie” crime or action films and the look was a cheapjack imitation of pretty much any “edgy” adult cartoon you’ve ever seen. The gameplay was stultifyingly stupid, rife with button-mashing and little to offer but mindless and unappealing lowest common denominator bloodshed. I gave it the lowest score possible at Gameshark, and I stand by that. I ignore the fact that a sequel exists.

So it’s a big surprise that Mark of the Ninja, their latest now on XBLA, isn’t just good- it’s one of the best games of the year. It’s a brilliantly conceived and executed stealth action game that makes the daring assumption that the genre doesn’t have to be relegated to a third- or first- person presentation. It’s a 2D platformer that feels like a classic of the form overlain with an index of the best sneaker mechanics. It’s not hard to go through and sort out the bits came from Metal Gear Solid and which from Thief or Splinter Cell. It also borrows liberally from Rocksteady’s masterful Batman titles- not the least of which is that incredible feeling of bad ass empowerment that comes from scaring your enemies, hiding in the rafters, and stringing them up. They even borrowed a couple of riffs from Elevator Action. Shoot out the lights so they can’t see you. Or just drop the lights on ‘em.

As much as has been appropriated from previous sources, Mark of the Ninja is one of those studied, academic games where it’s more innovative than imitative. Working out how to put stealth gameplay in a 2D platformer is a compelling design goal as it is and many indie developers would have called it a day there. But Klei brings in multiple gadgets including distraction devices, upgradeable techniques in both lethal and nonlethal varieties, and a plethora of visual cues and signifiers to enable players to play strategically. Light, sound, color, and iconography are surrogates for your own lacking ninja skills and intuition. As in the best stealth games, a little risk-taking is often necessary and that thrill of hiding behind a door while a patrolling guard walks by is a source of nail-biting tension. Foul up, set off the alarms, and either try to mitigate the breach of stealth or start again at one of the generous checkpoints.

There’s often more information than is actually necessary and it can be a little gamey. I’m not sure that even the best ninjas- even Sho Kusogi or Stephen Hayes- can see a dog’s sniffing radius. And the AI can be pretty easy to fool, but that’s not uncommon in the genre. Some of the puzzles, particularly deeper into the game can be tiresome. But these are small complaints in a game that is otherwise outstanding in every way.

Except for the story. It’s stupid, and to be honest I lost interest in it during the first cutscene. The animation style is back, but it looks more refined and confident. It’s typically lame Z-grade piffle about Ninjas, clans, honor, magic tattoos and whatnot punctuated by completely unnecessary violence that makes the game feel far more teenage Xtreme in your face than it needs to be. But you’re not going to play this game for a great story. You’re going to play it to find all of the hidden scrolls, secret puzzle levels, multiple pathways, and to complete objectives that essentially let you organically select how hard you want the game to be. And of course, you’re always going to want to replay a level you hacked and slashed your way through to get the no-kill bonus. High score leaderboards add to the fun, I’m not sure how in the world one guy on mine consistently scores so high on every level. Maybe he’s really a ninja, I don’t know.

Every year for the past several years there have been two or three XBLA games that have really exceeded expectations and blown past their AAA retail peers in terms of presenting us with interesting concepts and new ways of enjoying classic gameplay models. Last year it was Bastion and Outland. This year it’s Sine Mora and Mark of the Ninja. Another game this good and Klei will be well along the road to redeeming their earlier transgressions.

Five Great Things about Act I of The Witcher 2

It’s Witcher 2 Week again for the third straight week. Get used to it. If you’re not playing or haven’t played this amazing game, get off my Web site. This game is almost the perfect real-world argument against everything we grumpy old folks complain about here at NHS. If only the industry would look to this game as a model that shows how to do things right.

I have no idea how many hours I’ve put into The Witcher 2, heading into the third week of playing it. Usually I’m interested to see this statistic because it speaks to pacing, content, and I can usually gauge where my interest is with the game. With The Witcher 2, I couldn’t care less. I’m taking my time and savoring every minute with it and getting the most out of it. It’s a game that you can really dig into and get lost in- these days among console games.

But I do know that as of Friday I completed Act I and as far as I know every optional objective. Following are five great things about the first part of The Witcher 2. Obviously, there are spoilers abound so don’t read if you want to preserve the great sense of revelation and discovery this game offers.

1) The Kayran. I loved that the entire first act of the game effectively builds up to the massive battle with the Kayran. As I wrote about in my last Witcher 2 entry, I loved that the game had that same Monster Hunter-like buildup and preparation for the big fight. It’s reminiscent of the movie Dragonslayer, and I love how the inevitable climax with the Kayran casts a shadow over everything that goes on in Flotsam. It’s out there. You know it’s coming. You’ve got to learn about it and get your ducks in a row.

I loved the sortie into the Kayran’s lair to get the mucus sample, brewing the Mongoose potion, and collecting materials to build traps. I loved discussing the upcoming fight with Sile. I loved the gradual development of a sense of readiness. The game never tells you it’s time- you decide.

The fight itself could have gone horribly wrong. When I saw the glowing tentacle parts, I sighed. But then it turned out to be, like some of the best boss fights in the Souls games, more of a puzzle than a resource management or dexterity test. Also like the Souls games, I had that awesome “how the FUCK am I going to kill this thing” feeling when Sile lured him out of his lair.

I actually really liked the QTE segment- it was really well done, and it depicted a kind of action that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It only took me about ten deaths to get to that stage and then the damn thing dashed me against the columns a couple of times. But then I got to the run-up, tossed the bomb, and then robbed its body of eyeballs and such.

Now I’m wearing the son of a bitch.

2) Adult sex! BioWare, I hope you saw the scene with Geralt and Triss and the Elven Baths. I hope anyone entertaining the idea of putting a sex scene in a game sees this, because it was by far the most successful, heartful, and mature one I’ve seen to date- even with some still pretty creepy and weird uncanny valley stuff going on. The secret to its success is that it’s a very spontaneous, actually quite romantic interlude between lovers- not some sleazy Commander Shepard hook-up where the player has followed leading dialogue lines to try to get in the sack with a blue lady or gifted a bunch of trinkets to a character to shift a slider toward Booty Readiness.

Prefacing it with the scene where Geralt gives (or doesn’t give, if you’re a jerk) the Rose of Rememberance to Triss made the entire exchange feel genuine and tender, even in its relative explicitness. I didn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by it at all, and instead it seems to really cement Geralt and Triss’s relationship in my mind. I’ve run across a couple of instances where Geralt could hop into bed with other women, but it makes sense to me that the character would be completely monogamous and faithful to Triss- particularly after the Elven Baths. It also influenced my decision to go after Triss at the end of the first act.

I also really liked the humorous denoument to the scene with the dwarf bandit hearing the “ghostly” moaning- one thing that I absolutely love about the game is its willingness to introduce some levity into its otherwise dark proceedings.

3) All politics is local. I loved encountering the unique political situation in Flotsam, rife with corruption, racism, rebellion, and intrigue. I felt like it all integrated seamlessly into the larger story of the game and the subplots were compelling and well worth pursuing. I also really liked becoming a thorn in Loredo’s side, skulking around his compound, stealing all his stuff, and snubbing him whenever possible.

I also really liked how Iorveth’s Scoi’atel, who could have been portrayed as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, are not apparently good or bad. Like almost every character and faction in the game, they’re chaotic neutral. How delicious was it not knowing if Iorveth was going to be friend or foe, or how Geralt would fit into the dissension between the trading post and its harassing outlaws?

It’s another testament to the great writing on display. Even more than obscured motives, situational ethics, and moral gray areas, the story and decisions are so well-presented that the game never has to tell you what is right or wrong. It’s up to you- the player- to decide where you and Geralt fall politically without facile value judgments or phony morality. That’s a very, very uncommon degree of respect afforded to the player.

4) Learning by Doing. I’m over games that explain everything in tutorials. I never want to spend the first hour of a game in some tutorial, learning to press the A button and tilt the control sticks again. I loved that I spent a lot of Act I learning to play the game, developing skills, and figuring out how to do things like brew potions and fight crowds effectively. I almost feel like I’m remembering how to do all this stuff along with Geralt as he regains his badassedness.

It’s another example of how this game respects its players. It knows you’re smart enough to figure most of it out. The tutorial is really just a combat exercise to teach you the mechanics- but even then, it’s part of a mini-story about Geralt and the game’s combat arena. Of course, there were times when I just didn’t know what was going on and I felt like I was thrown in the deep end. But the payoff of actually becoming skillful with the game was well worth some early frustration.

Some ways into Act 2, I feel like I’m still learning. I still don’t really get how to use the Harpy traps for exampIe. I almost hope that I never figure it all out.

5) A Witcher’s work is never done. The sidequests are probably the best I’ve ever seen in a game because they make sense, they’re interesting, and they’re thematically consistent with the nature of a Witcher. Taking on jobs to root out Nekker nests, investigate local strangeness, and even prizefighting make total sense for a ronin-like vagabond taking odd jobs and plying their talents for coin.

A couple of the sidequests have been as good as the main story- the burned-down hospital in particular. The key is that the optional quests all provide compelling leads and the promise of story content, not just level grinding, money, and loot. They’re fully realized sub-stories, and they reveal more of the game world and Geralt’s character.

I keep thinking of how wrong Kingdoms of Amalur had it with its MMORPG-style quest system. Doing menial crap like picking flowers or killing X of Y may make more sense with an overlay of socialization, but in a single player, story-focused title they simply do not work. I’ve done- and will do- every side quest in the Witcher 2. I think I saw maybe 15% of the hundreds of empty, meaningless sidequests in Kingdoms of Amalur.

I’d feel like I was missing out if I skipped them in this game. In Kingdoms and other, lesser RPGs I’ve never looked back. Somewhere on my 360’s hard drive there are dozens and dozens of NPCs wondering when I’m going to be back with whatever crap they wanted me to find or why I said “no” to getting their cat out of a tree. The Witcher 2 demonstrates the difference between great optional content and filler trash.

So it’s onto Vergen in Act II, and I’m already cowl-deep in the goings-on there. A mist choked with wraiths, a Joan of Arc-like figure seeking to unite the races of the Pontar Valley, foul-mouthed dwarves, and harpies galore. It’s almost like another game, and truth be told if Act I were all there were to the Witcher 2, I’d still be very, very damn satisfied with it.