The 13 most noteworthy games of 2012

Here are my awards for the 13 most noteworthy games of 2012.

The games that deserve some recognition

2012 was a strange year for video games. With the industry in a spiral as the current console cycle winds down, publishers have curbed investments in new ideas and turned to tried-and-true sequels. But that’s not all bad; plenty of great games managed to shine through this year, and the big-budget sequelitis even had the pleasant side effect of clearing the way for some superb smaller developments. Here are my awards for the 13 most noteworthy games of 2012.

Biggest Timesuck: Guild Wars 2

Platform: PC

On the surface, Guild Wars 2 looks like any other MMORPG, but behind that veneer it hides some clever ways of driving its hooks into you. A massive world spirals out from your home base, and you can whittle away hours just looking for scenic views, finding points of interest and gathering supplies. When the mood for battle strikes, Guild Wars 2 doesn’t saddle you with a to-do list, but instead presents a freewheeling quest system. New challenges seem to leap out as you explore the world, and the sheer saturation of other players in the area means there’s always a steady stream of allies to help in the fight. And then the sun’s coming up, and you realize you haven’t eaten or slept.

Most Improved: Borderlands 2

Platforms: PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360

The original Borderlands got a lot of things right. It was an addictive shooter with a Diablo-like loot system, and its comic art style was the perfect complement to its tongue-in-cheek attitude. It’d be perfect if only its plot and mission variety weren’t so shallow. Borderlands 2 is well-aware of its predecessor’s mistakes. It throws in plenty of new tricks to keep the shoot-and-loot action interesting, and it’s anchored by a plot that’s worth following to the end. And although it’s still not the perfect game--an intolerable amount of backtracking and respawning enemies holds it back--it’s everything a sequel should be.

Most Stressful: The Walking Dead

Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3, iOS

Most zombie games use the undead as mindless, squishy-headed fodder for the trigger-happy. In Walking Dead, Telltale Games uses them as a backdrop for interactive drama, where judgment calls and dialog choices can lead to terrible consequences as the story unfolds. There’s no head-exploding stress relief here--only five “episodes” of pure tension, where even a simple conversation between characters can feel like a life-or-death moment. It’s a tour de force as far as video games go, but it’s certainly no fun in the traditional sense.

Best Use of Music You've Never Heard Of: Hotline Miami

Platform: PC

Unless you’re deep into weird chiptune techno, lo-fi psychedelic rock and distortion-driven noise jams, you might just assume the soundtrack to Hotline Miami was custom-made to match the game’s retro killing sprees. That is, at least, until you start Googling the names that flash through the game’s credits--artists like Sun Araw, Coconuts and M.O.O.N.--and realize some of these artists have been around, just not in the circles you hang with. These tunes don’t merely fit the action, they define it, to the point that Hotline Miami seems more like backdrop for its incredible soundtrack, rather than vice versa.

Most Aesthetically Pleasing: Fez

Platform: Xbox 360

When it’s not making you tear your hair out over seemingly impossible puzzles, Fez is just really pleasant. Vivid pixel art landscapes accompany a soundtrack saturated with square waves, as you rotate the world in three dimensions to reveal new pathways for your little protagonist, Gomez. You can soak in Fez’s world without expending too much brainpower. But when you’re ready to discover the real truth behind its gorgeous retro universe, those maddening puzzles will be waiting.

Most Hypnotic: Super Hexagon

Platforms: PC, iOS

There are two kinds of addiction in video games. Games like World of Warcraft are more of a long-term vice, so alluring that it’s hard not to think about them even when you’re not playing. Then, there’s Super Hexagon, a game that may not dominate your thoughts, but will hold you tight as you try thread your little triangle through twisting, pulsating corridors. Like so many score-based iOS games, the goal in Super Hexagon is to survive as long as possible. But even in death, you’re compelled to keep going, beckoned to jump right back into the trance of colors, patterns and a gnarly chiptune soundtrack.

Most Punishing: Spelunky

Platform: Xbox 360

To call Spelunky’s difficulty “old-school” wouldn’t do it justice. At least in the old days, you had lives, continues or other ways to get back on track if you made a mistake. The 2D platforming of Spelunky offers no such luxuries. Although your treasure hunter can take minor damage, even a small slip-up can lead to fatal injuries, such as an arrow trap that launches you into a spike pit, or a snake attack that sends you over a cliff--and then it’s back to the beginning you go. It’s a maddening experience for players who fail to look before they leap, but like any difficult game, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of mastering it.

Best Display of Wii U Potential: ZombiU

Platform: Wii U

Although the combat of ZombiU wasn’t as refined or as varied as it could have been, its innovative use of the Wii U’s touch screen gamepad is a shining example of what Nintendo’s new console can do. The brilliant thing about ZombiU is the way it treats the gamepad like a pair of eyes, allowing you to scan for threats by aiming it outside the bounds of your television, or to dig into your inventory by pointing it downward. The second screen seems to expand the space of ZombiU’s world, which only heightens the feeling that zombies are everywhere.

The Game That Got its Groove Back: Halo 4

Platform: Xbox 360

As the new keepers of the Halo flame, 343 Industries was a studio with something to prove. Halo 4 couldn’t just be a tired rehash. It had to honor the past that former developer Bungie created, while forging a new path for the series. And 343 pulled it off, mainly thanks to its multiplayer mode that still feels like Halo, but with some modern-day tweaks like unlockable weapon loadouts and ordnance drops. The result is a Halo game that feels refreshed, but just as fun as it ever was.

Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Dishonored

Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

In a year of big-budget gaming starved for new ideas, Dishonored was destined to be a hit. The game set players loose as a noble assassin in the fictional city of Dunwall, which seemed like 17th-century London mashed up with the industrial revolution, powered by whale oil. Then it threw in a mish-mash of alluring ideas, including RPG-like character building, stealth action and gruesome combat. The result was maybe a little too busy for its own good, but still better than the majority of games with roman numbers attached to them. But that’s the irony of new, big-budget game ideas: because Dishonored was successful and critically acclaimed, you can be sure of a sequel.

Most Likely to be Help Up as Art: Journey

Platform: PS3

I try to steer clear of the debate over games-as-art. Such parameters can’t--and probably shouldn’t--be universally defined, so it’s pointless to try to exalt video games to a status that’s entirely subjective. Nonetheless, these debates will happen, so it’s a good thing we have a game like Journey, which sets aside the usual video game tropes of guns, swords, monsters and aliens. Instead, Journey invites players to travel through its desolate world, pondering how its civilization was brought to an end while soaking in the string-laden soundtrack. The game offers no easy answers, and is compact enough to revisit again and again, just as any good work of (ahem) art should.

GOTY*: Mass Effect 3

Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U

Mass Effect 3 was the pitch-perfect conclusion to Bioware’s three-part space epic, dramatically raising the stakes as players scramble to unite the universe against a race of omniscient, genocidal robots. On its own, it’s a fine mix of action and dialog-driven drama, but the real payoff comes for longtime players, as they’re constantly helped or haunted by their decisions from previous games in the series.

*Unless you count the game’s woefully thin ending, which seemed to turn the entire Internet gaming community into a angry mob. Mass Effect 3 is the Pete Rose of video games--clearly one of the all-time greats, but forever unforgiven for late-career indiscretions.

Game of the Year: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360

A lot of video games these days will feed you a war story. In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you end up creating your own. A remake of the 1994 classic, XCOM puts you in charge of a top-secret paramilitary organization as Earth faces an alien invasion. Your job is to guide groups of marines through turn-based combat missions, while also dealing with more administrative duties such as assigning research projects, developing new equipment and building out your base of operations. But in the end, it always comes back to your men and women on the ground, where the real drama happens. Play the game on “Ironman” mode, where it’s forbidden to reload old save files, and you’ll soon be having nightmares about the soldiers you could have saved. But even in those dark moments, you pick yourself up, rally your troops and get back into the fight. From a video game, that’s powerful stuff.

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