2012 has been an odd one, that's for sure. We were a little worried initially, truth be told. After all, Sony's big handheld release proved to be something of a damp squib as far as sales went, leading to some spectacular corporate trolling from Nintendo later in the year. This was the year of delay, as we saw plenty of titles we'd been excited abut for years pushed back. As this console generation entered its twilight years, we wondered if developers and publishers would simply save their best material for the next one. And finally, with the middle ground squeezed hard this year, we couldn't help but wonder if there'd be gaps in the calendar.
We needn't have worried.
It feels like it's been a longer year than usual, and that's frankly down to the fact that the benchmark for quality has been so very high this year. It took mere seconds to essentially pick out the highlights of last year, but across the board there've been some staggeringly good games from those some might term "the B-team" studios or unknown entities.
The likes of Treyarch, 343 Industries, Arkane Studios and more stepped up to the plate to deliver where those such as Infinity Ward, Bungie, and Bethesda Game Studios had run riot the last year or two. And they knocked it out of the park. Double Fine's advertisement for Kickstarter suddenly empowered consumers, wit successes such as the Giana Sisters and FTL proving that crowdfunding really could work. We saw indies step into the mid-range, using marketplaces and downloadable platforms to offer damn fine gaming experiences at low-to-mid-range prices.
And it was one hell of an emotional rollercoaster of a year...
Game of the Year | Journey
This year I did something I very rarely do: I booked myself a dedicated night in, by myself, with a game. I ensured that my flatmate wouldn't be in that evening and locked the door. I turned off my phone, powered down my laptop, and drew the curtains to make it look like no-one was in.
And then I played Journey.
It's a testament to thatgamecompany's utter delight of a game that, even with a running time of only around two or three hours, there are so very many memorable moments. From the moment I stepped out into the desert and sung a single note to the unknown player ahead of me, to surfing down a river of sand to a stirring track from Austin Wintory's outstanding score, to hiding from shadowy creatures in darkness in the ruins that the sands had claimed, ad finally scaling the vast mountain that had seemed a small triangle on the horizon only a smattering of hours before.
I sat watching the credits, as the game's first vocal track tugs the heartstrings, with tears streaming down my face. Not out of sadness, but simply a sheer fore of feeling that was too great to contain. As I said in the review, for me, "Journey is a reflection of life itself. The beauty, the vibrancy, the fluid nature of things. How we all start off not really knowing who we are, but our march towards our end is inexorable, tumultuous, filled with both light and dark. That those who take the time to delight in the world around them will find joy, that those who persevere will find reward, that sometimes you have to travel the lowest depths to reach the highest peaks. That a Sam Mendes' plastic bag dancing in the wind has nothing on thatgamecompany. That doing it alone can be devastating."
There books and films and other vignettes of artistic expression that you feel, having experienced them, have made you a better person. That you are all the greater having seen or read or witnessed those things. For me, this was the year in which video games made that list. The Walking Dead managed it with aplomb, and almost snuck in here, but Jenova Chen and his team pulled it off without a single word being spoken.
Favourite Game of 2012 | Dishonored
There are plenty that could have made the grade here. What a year it's been! The Walking Dead, XCOM, FTL, Halo 4, Far Cry 3, The Last Story, Mass Effect 3, Mark of the Ninja, NBA 2K13, Crusader Kings II, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and so many more besides.
But it was on the cobbled streets of Dunwall and, more often than not, flitting high above from rooftop to rooftop, that I had some of the best times this year. Dishonored brought stealth back in true style. It wasn't perfect, being a little too short-lived and not quite making the most of its setting, but it was tremendous fun, carving murderous playgrounds out of Victorian-esque cityscapes.
Arkane delivered a blank canvas in Corvo Attano, with a commendably mature approach to player freedom that asked much of us, challenged us, and delivered ultimate gameplay satisfaction in return. In refusing to apologise for prioritising stealth over action, Arkane showed us what we'd been missing. In the end, it didn't matter that the penned story fell a bit short, because frankly the narratives that we wrote ourselves would prove the more memorable.
Best Gaming Moment of 2012 | Beers, Rifles, and a Turian
It's been months since Mass Effect 3, and I still don't really know how I feel about it as a whole. I haven't felt the urge to go back and play through it again, simply because the ending was so horribly awful that it would feel pointless investing myself in the trilogy all over again when I know the destination is abject disappointment.
However, that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the rest of the game. In fact, having spent the best part of 80 hours in his company, facing the end of galactic civilisation as we knew it, cracking open a cooler of beers up in the rafters overlooking the Presidium, I delighted in a moment of friendly respite with Garrus.
Here was BioWare doing what they always did best: deft characterisation and the fulfilment of a narrative relationship in a manner that neither squandered the moment nor proved ostentatious. It was a perfect moment of calm in amongst the rest of the storm that made up Mass Effect 3's story.
Biggest Surprise | Double Fine Adventure
"Oh man," my good friend Mike said to me earlier this year. "Imagine if Tim Schafer was still making point and click adventure games. I'd pay good money to see that."
And then he did.
Kickstarter's boom was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year for me, introducing me fully to an incredibly exciting business model, empowering creatives and consumers, and cutting out the middle man. Here was a dream, quite literally coming true.
"Publishers tell us that adventure games are dead," Schafer said at the time. "Our fans tell us they aren’t. Who is right? Well, I think it’s about time we found out! Into the THUNDERDOME! And by THUNDERDOME, I mean KICKSTARTER!"
Of course, adventure games weren't really dead, Telltale, WadjetEye and Amanita had proven that much. But here was the creator of one of my favourite games of all time - Grim Fandango - returning to the genre that established him as an icon and cult hero. It was huge, it shook the games industry, it came almost out of nowhere, and its effects are still being built upon.
Biggest Disappointment | Mass Effect 3's Ending
So Mass Effect 3 makes my list twice, unsurprising when you think about it. Investment was the entire point of the Mass Effect series, even as it was with KOTOR before it: you get suckered in by the story and the characters, you listen to their problems build up a relationship with them, invest time in establishing a connection to their individual narratives. It's only natural, really, that there'd be highs and lows.
But that makes Mass Effect 3's ending all the more galling. Instead of seeing your actions decisively affect the trilogy's finale the previous 90 hours are swept aside with but a cursory sentence here or a small snippet of dialogue there. We've had epic moments throughout the last three games, but the battle for Earth plays out like any other average third-person shooter. Lots of shooting, little context, emotional connection severed by character farewells that are literally phoned in , and then ten minute of psychobabble that actively tries to retcon the previous two games, gives you colour coded choices that lead to ostensibly the same paltry cutscene that, again, makes no sense.
It's not a matter of entitlement. It's not a matter of being artistically true. It doesn't make sense for a franchise that has hit such great highs to be written off into the jungle sunset in such low fashion. Look at The Walking Dead for a finale that was not afraid to produce a brave ending, and do it well. Fan fury regarding ME3's ending and the debates that followed about redoing it overshadowed the basic truth of the situation: Mass Effect 3's ending was bollocks.
Most Anticipated For 2013 | Oculus Rift
I staggered out of my half hour session with a Rift prototype that looked like it was made up of 90% duck tape, completely disoriented, my mind blown. It didn't help that I had back to back preview sessions throughout that final day of Gamescom, and I was stopped by a fellow writer who noticed I looked a little peaky. I replied saying that I'd just been in another world.
Doom 3: BFG is not the best looking game, but a short demo between myself, Mars, and the Rift assured me that this would be right at the top of my lists of desirables for next year. There are games galore to look forward to, of course, particularly the likes of Sim City, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Strike Suit Zero, and Aliens: Colonial Marines. But I' looking forward most to immersing myself in a deeply effective sensory manner. Oculus wowed the crowds at Evolve here in London a few days ago, and with dev kits going out early next year, it's to be hoped we might see retail kits emerge before 2013 is out.
Either way, I'm so up for VR again!
Stay alert, we'll have more appraisals and retrospective looks at the past twelve months from the rest of the team over the next few days before launching into our awards season in a week or so's time.