Dishonored (Arkane Studios, PC PS3 Xbox 360)
Dishonored gameplay trailer
One thing that bothered me about the otherwise enjoyable 2011 action adventure title L.A. Noire was that when the game shoehorned players into a combat section (which, for the most part, centred around responding to police broadcasts of in-progress crimes), the only outcome available was taking out the would-be criminal in a firefight, often to their death. For a game that pushes the player into making meaningful choices in how they approach the solution to its puzzles, this relative lack of choice seemed completely at odds with the rest of the experience – it certainly wasn’t the option that I wanted to pursue at those moments.
Dishonored, however, does give me the choice to play what is essentially a violent action game entirely non-violently. This choice extends into how I decide to accomplish this goal, creating a wonderful sandbox of interesting options: do I keep an eye on the movement patterns of the guards and try and sneak past, or do I try and draw them away and render them unconscious at my leisure? It’s a type of freedom that’s been entirely neglected for too many years now, harking back to the immersive sims of past (the original Deus Ex, the Thief series, et al). While not as complex as the mechanics of those aforementioned titles, Dishonored is a masterful achievement in embracing and forming an incredibly solid experience out of its mechanics, rather than the "see what sticks" approach. Additionally, it’s set in a beautiful realised alternate version of plague-ridden England, one that tells a far more effective story than the main narrative arc (which is too predictable).
Now, if only they’d spelt dishonoured correctly!
Journey (Thatgamecompany, PS3)
Journey gameplay trailer
Given the horrendous lack of individuality or true creativity exhibited in a worrying majority of titles released these days, cynics may lay claim to the notion that games have exhausted their capabilities as a truly expressive art form. Then, those cynics play Journey.
Criticise so called ‘art games’ if you will. Berate the experience and disregard it as self-indulgent and pretentious. The truth is, Journey is the exact type of game this art form needs to thrive.
Journey was, and is, special for me. I’ve certainly had experiences while watching films where I’ve been utterly captivated and enthralled by the world and its characters, but there’s only so much a passive viewer can do to supplant themselves into it. Journey broke past that barrier and let me experience it first-hand, and in doing so perfectly cemented the advantage that games have over film.
It truly is a beautiful experience: the artistry exhibited in all aspects of its design (the characters, the music, the environment, the art style) is superb. It does not ride on the coattails of nostalgia, but forges something original, poignant and wonderfully elegant. It also successfully does co-op gameplay without being a co-op game: it’s true drop-in and drop-out without shackling it to the bother of linking up with friends or the frequent horror of gaming with a stranger.
I remember reading an article on RockPaperShotgun that talked about how the games of the author’s past promised a future of gaming that never really eventuated. Not in terms of increased graphical fidelity, but a maturing of deep core concepts and the experimentation in bold, new directions. For the most part, I agree with the sentiment. But every now and then, something like Journey comes along to remind us that the future we thought was inevitable is still achievable. Journey not only gets a spot as a game of the year for 2012, it gets a spot as one of my favourite games of all time.
Ha! And you thought we’d forgotten about you. You thought wrong! After a much-too-long break, we’re back and trying to update on a regular schedule again. We’re only 3 months overdue for our GOTY 2012 awards, so let’s get started!
I played a number of excellent games last year – I finished some, got halfway through others, and only just started an uncomfortably large number of the rest. The thing I love most about gaming is that there is a huge variety of choices, and that variety is getting larger every year. 2012 was no exception, with some of my favourite games of the year being from some very different genres, from the very niche to the mainstream.
There were several games that I couldn’t play a significant amount – whether it was due to game bugs, time constraints, or something else – so they get a few mentions:
Rhythm Heaven Fever, the sequel to one of my favourite DS games. The game retains the humour and style of the previous games, but unfortunately I struggled with the Wii controller, it seemed too imprecise for the timing perfection that the game requires.
The Walking Dead, which I started playing but stopped for some reason. Recently I’ve picked it up again, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly. However, I hardly played it in 2012 so it misses out.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a superb game that was somewhat unexpected. I got this game in the Christmas Steam sales, and didn’t get to play much before the new year rolled in. It’s a fantastic game and a must-play for any fan of turn-based strategy.
Far Cry 3, the game with the most incredibly stupid story and characters of the year. However, the sandbox part of the gameplay, the exploring, hunting, and assaulting camps is incredibly enjoyable. It’s a shame the story missions are the complete opposite.
Darksiders II, which I will play one day. I enjoyed the first, but only played the first hour or two of the second so far. I was going to wait and see if the PC port got some nice patches to fix some issues I noticed, but it’s pretty obvious that’s not going to happen now that THQ has gone bankrupt.
Now onto the games I did finish and enjoyed, but didn’t get the GOTY award from me:
Spec Ops: The Line, the game that got everybody talking last year. It was marketed as a very generic shooter, but it turned out that the whole thing was a bit of a mind game that pointed out some very interesting concepts in modern gaming. While it was certainly worth the experience, it doesn’t get very high in my list of favourite games for the year. It does deserve a mention, though.
Black Mesa, which is classified as a mod rather than a game. However it is a fantastically crafted reproduction of one of my favourite games of all time, and it did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of the original Half-Life all those years ago.
The runners up:
Dishonored, my favourite "AAA" game of 2012. It combines the old school with the new, creates an amazing world and environment, has some great gameplay that allows the player a decent amount of freedom when compared to most high-budget games that have been released recently.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy, my biggest time sink of 2012. I love music and rhythm games, and this one is very well done. While I’ve only played 5 of the main Final Fantasy series, I still enjoyed playing through the music of the games in the various game modes. The touch screen mechanics are smooth and all the mechanics work very well. I would love to see other game series get music games like this!
And the winner is…
This year my game of the year award goes to Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR), a visual novel and room escape game for the Nintendo 3DS. Visual novels aren’t very popular in the west, but I’m so glad this one made it across. It does some really cool things with non-linear storytelling that would just be impossible to experience with a traditional novel or game. The room escape puzzles are difficult but not impossible or frustrating – it strikes a very nice balance.
One side-effect of playing VLR is that I have discovered the joy of visual novels. I have been having a grand old time discovering old classics of the genre and playing through them. (I’m also very happy that fan translation groups exist!)
It’s not the type of game for everyone, but it definitely is for me. It has a great story with a non-linear plot, well designed puzzle sections, and it opened me up to a whole new genre I haven’t experienced before. Which all adds up to the reason why Virtue’s Last Reward gets my game of the year award for 2012.
…and did I mention that I think some of the music is pretty good, too?