Number 10. – Borderlands 2
Borderlands 2 picks up five years after the original game ended. The Vault promised advanced alien technology and untold riches but all it delivered was (as the intro refers to it) ‘tentacled disappointment’. The opening of the Vault did cause one unforeseen development; the discovery of a new and valuable mineral known as eridium. The Hyperion Corporation, led by the villainous Handsome Jack, has come to Pandora to control the planet’s reserves of said mineral. Needless to say Pandora hasn’t thrived under Hyperion and Jack’s iron-fisted rule. Rumours of a new Vault containing great rewards have started circulating again and that’s where you, as a Vault Hunter, come into the story. Borderlands 2 is the rare kind of sequel that eliminates almost all of the faults from the first game, and makes improvements in other areas as well. While I can sit here and say I’d have loved at least one game-changing improvement, the reality is that Gearbox has done a truly fantastic job with the game. The characters are funny, and the tone of the game (i.e. irreverent, funny and over the top) is perfectly pitched and suits the game world perfectly. If you enjoyed the first Borderlands then picking up the sequel is a no brainer. If you didn’t grab the first game then there’s no better time to join the fun.
Number 9. – Trials Evolution
Trials Evolution does not bring much more to the table in that respect. The basic premise is still the same, and the physics handle with near identical similarity. However the evolution releases us from the confines of the warehouse in which Trials HD was trapped, unleashes fantastic multiplayer functionality and bundles in hilarious non-bike related skill games for good measure. None of that really matters though. The addiction is not going to withdraw simply because some irritating noises get in its way. Trials Evolution is the most compelling, entertaining and habit forming game on Xbox, arcade or otherwise. Once the obsession bug bites there is no stopping it as the hours and days disappear into that dark abyss as you race ever quicker to the fastest times and unreachable gold medal perfection. For some Trials Evolution will be a way of life, for everyone else it will still most likely be the best action and skill based game released this year.
Number 8. – Journey
There’s really nothing I dislike about Journey. It comes as close to achieving what it set out to do as any game I can remember. The only objections I can imagine are for people who desire something that this game has no intention of delivering. Players looking for mind-bending puzzles, complex dialogue trees, or pulse-pounding action won’t find any of that here. While Journey has more gamelike elements than other experimental games like Dear Esther or Proteus, its primary hook is the same sense of wonder and curiosity that makes those games so memorable. There is the fact that the game is quite short—three to four hours on average—but again, I don’t see that as a negative. The short play time allows you to take in the entire quest, to experience it with another person and form a bond instead of having to switch anonymous partners constantly. It’s even budget-priced accordingly.
Number 7. – Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja‘s is a 2D action platformer and the main focus is on stealth. The unnamed protagonist personifies basically everything you’ve ever heard about ninjas, fictional or not. You can climb up sheer walls and along ceilings, dispatch enemies without making a sound and deploy all manner of ninja tools, like smoke bombs and grappling hooks. Many of your ninja tools are also in short supply, but have pretty important effects, like distracting a guard, despite being simple in nature. Though it’s somewhat questionable that a smoke bomb or throwing darts at a wall can’t also draw guard’s attention like a noise making firecracker. It doesn’t really hurt the game once you understand the balance implications, but it is logic breaking. The game strikes a perfect balance of making you feel like a badass when everything’s going well in stealth but also keeping you vulnerable to the guns the mercenaries are packing. You can dispatch enemies instantly if you’re attacking from a hidden location or view, but you’ll need to successfully pull off a QTE to determine if it was silent or if the guard gets off a yelp. If you do get detected, you’re usually better off making a run for it than fighting it out toe to toe. It’s this vulnerability that reinforces the focus on stealth, and every guard becomes a decision to risk an execution to eliminate them or to try and sneak past them entirely.
Number 6. – XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Nobody makes games like XCOM anymore. By design it feels refreshingly old-school. From the grey-headed aliens to the intergovernmental agencies, this plays like a game that was designed in 1992, not 2012. From a gameplay point of view, it is so much more unforgiving than strategy games have been in such a long time that it would be unsurprising to hear more casual players are put off easily. It’s a game that is mercilessly difficult but consistently fair. Players will fail frequently, but they can know that it was their own mistakes that lead to that failure, and not a flaw in the gameplay. It’s not a game for everyone, but hardened players who persist amidst the difficult conditions set by XCOM discover a rewarding experience. XCOM can be a cruel, vindictive mistress, but she is one that can be tamed. With an investment of time and patience, players can gain access to a true tactical masterpiece, unlike anything we’ve seen in the past decade.
Number 5. – Max Payne 3
The Max Payne series is most known for it’s innovative bullet-time effects inspired from Matrix. And it’s been a good long time since we’ve seen the series back on its feet. Outside of the actual gameplay, Max Payne 3 uses an experience and leveling system popularized in other shooters nowadays, along with a hefty avatar and loadout system that gives you a lot to spend in-game currency on. Custom loadouts allow you to equip anything you want for the most part, but loading your character down with weapons does have drawbacks, including reduced stamina for running and an increased wait time to recharge health. If you’re at all a fan of shooters, then I urge you to run out and pick up Max Payne 3. It’s a great follow-up to one of the best third person shooter franchises around, and while it certainly changes up familiar elements of the series, pretty much all of the changes work out really well. The shooting is, bar none, some of the best you’ll see out of this generation of consoles, and really begs to experienced. So do yourself a favor and pick this one up, it really shouldn’t be missed.
Number 4. – Dishonored
As a full piece, however, Dishonored is incredible both as a game and as a work of art. Fun to play, intriguing to explore, beautiful to look at, and emotionally evocative, it’s a game that simply must be experienced. While it offers plenty of gory action for those who are interested in taking that route, its greatest gift is to deliberate, thoughtful players who enjoy stealth-based games with quality settings and meaningful moral choices. Dishonored made me feel like a person struggling to retain the things that were important to me in a world gone mad. It goes beyond “role-playing” to challenge players to draw their own personal moral line in the sand, but does so without being preachy or judgmental. Is it really best not to kill anybody, or are there people who are evil enough to deserve death, should you have the power to mete it out? It’s messy and thought-provoking, just like the real world… or at least a real world in which you have the power to possess rat swarms and perform impressive “death from above” leaping assassinations. Is it a world worth saving? That’s exactly what Dishonored wants each player to decide, and have a wickedly good time in doing so.
Number 3. – Far Cry 3
Far Cry 3 does almost everything just about right. You can tell the developers put a lot of thought went into the game’s systems and menus to keep the experience streamlined while still offering a lot of customization and information. One thing missing in particular in Far Cry 3 are the non-player characters. You’ll run along endlessly respawning jeeps of bad guys if you don’t take over their outposts, though besides that, you’ll find a small handful of natives hanging out in the villages and towns, and maybe at the beach. Besides occasionally doing dumb things or fighting with pirates, the small number of NPCs don’t do much in the game. On the other hand, wild animals (NPAs?) are everywhere and frequently get spooked enough where they come charging. Having a Gila monster hiss and scurry out of the brush, or shark suddenly strike while swimming through the water will scare the hell out of pretty much anyone. Also, the campaign sort of switches gears for the last 1/3 of the game, which I’m still not completely sure I’m crazy about. There’s no doubt in my mind that Far Cry 3 is one of the best releases of 2012. Ubisoft’s balance of open world gameplay and FPS action really hits the mark, and overall the game does a fantastic job in providing players with an interesting, immersive gaming experience.
Number 2. – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
I’m actually one of those people that actually believe that the add-on is better than the original game itself, and that’s a rarity to say that since DLC/Add-ons are just an extension of the real game. Blood Dragon however is it’s own game. Visually Blood Dragon delivers a pseudo 80s style, complete with plenty of neon glow to it. The island is a dark place, only highlighted by the bright outlines of soldiers, and their blue blood. Running on PC the effects are gorgeous, and all the issues of the console ports are gone. I was able to max out the settings and enable vsync, and still had the game running at a blazing frame rate. For owners of a machine that can run it, this is the version to own. The music also lit up my nostalgia meter. It sounds ripped from the cutting room floor of the Terminator soundtrack. The thumping drum beats, mixed with ambient tones really solidified the classic action movie feel. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is a treat on so many levels. When the base game it was built upon stands as one of the finest experiences of last year, then toss in an entirely new setting, it just amplifies the fun. Add the small sticker price and solid amount of content, and we definitely have a winner on our hands. Fans of Far Cry 3 should not miss this fantastic experience, and anyone who grew up watching films like Terminator, Aliens and Commando owe it to themselves to play this, as it was certainly crafted by people who understand the culture.
Number 1. – Guild Wars 2
We’ve waited a long time for an MMO that could stand against World of Warcraft and the second Guild Wars finally accomplished it… plus free of charge! Where World of Warcraft is as traditional an MMO as they come, Guild Wars 2 is the weird, contrarian opposite. Its design can be seen as an attempt to fix and improve on every broken mechanic that online games persist in pursuing. It has no quests: instead players gang together to fight in rolling ‘events’ – mini storylines that playout in stages depending on how gamers perform. It has no raids: it’s endgame is more about exploring the world or leveling alternative characters. It is heavily PvP focused: it is trying desperately to create an eSport with in-game tournaments and a spectator mode. But most importantly, it doesn’t demand a subscription fee from players. That last point is incredible, given the focus the game’s developers Arenanet have placed on improving and expanding the game. Every two weeks on the dot ArenaNet ship out the next chapter of Guild Wars 2. Dubbed the “living story” — changing the world with each release — these bi-weekly updates accommodate the players needs with fresh things to do and major improvements.