It’s time. After 12 months of playing the very best (and worst) that 2012 had to offer, we’re finally in a position to crown our best games of the year. As ever, we’ve got a range of categories, each ordered into runners-up and winners.
The real deal though? The real deal is our Game of the Year 2012, a title elevated above all others after extensive discussions, arguments and tantrums (mainly from Rich). So let’s cut the faffing and get to it. Let the awards begin.
Sometimes a game’s premise can be enough to convince us of its worth, enough to intrigue us or excite us without any further information. Here’s this year’s best.
We won’t lie. When Ubisoft announced that Assassin’s Creed III would be set during the American revolution, we were disappointed. Feudal Japan would have been cool. Victorian London, maybe. But America? Boring. We were wrong. Moving the action to the emerging cities of the US at such a volatile time, and venturing away from urban environments into the wilderness was the most profound shift in the series yet. It’s not a perfect game, but Assassin’s Creed III has a great premise.
Ubisoft were at it again later this year with Far Cry 3. Lunatics, pirates and savage animals roaming a tropical island with deadly intent. A free-form, truly sandbox environment where you could dictate the action amongst a randomised world. A main campaign with a structured, scripted adventure marked by trippy hallucinations, flashbacks and the deteriorating mental state of its protagonist. Ubisoft' Montreal's Far Cry 3 mixes this all up together to create one of the best premises of the year.
It’s not often we get a game with as fresh a perspective as Dishonored. Set in a world that’s equal parts Dickens and Half-Life 2, with the sense of place matched only by the likes of Rapture, Arkane Studios’ creation took us to somewhere we’ve never been. Somewhere unique and fascinating. It did what games do best. Yet it’s what you can do in that world that makes Dishonored’s premise so engaging. Whether you prefer the slow, steady and stealthy approach, a balls out noisy offensive or this kind of acrobatic violence displayed here, the breadth of options is massively impressive. That Arkane conceived of this premise is great, that they pulled it off so successfully is jaw-dropping. That's why it's our best premise of 2012.
Make no mistake, 2012 was a triumphant year in terms of video game storytelling. The types of tale being told and the methods in which they were delivered took a number of interesting turns in the past 12 months. Here’s the best.
As anyone who has ever played a Grand Theft Auto game is aware, Rockstar knows its cinema and in Max Payne 3 the developer pulled out all of the stops, drawing on Brian De Palma, Tony Scott and a raft of others to deliver troubled protagonist Max Payne’s latest squalid tale. With an intricate, complicated yet well-told narrative shot through with despair, loss, corruption and dark humour, Rockstar cemented their position as some of the best storytellers in the business.
Character arcs in video games are usually relegated to the progression of numbers. As their adventures play out, our heroes get stronger, better equipped, more nimble and more dangerous. Their actual characters, meanwhile, remain pretty stagnant. But not in Spec Ops: The Line. In Yager’s shooter the hero Captain Martin Walker enters as a soldier and emerges... something else entirely. In any other year Spec Ops: The Line would have won, but this was no ordinary year.
Seldom has a video game lit up social networks in the way The Walking Dead has. Marked by the hashtag #forclementine, these tweets and status updates weren’t about gameplay, but about the episodic title’s story. Rarely has a game inspired players to share their emotional responses so readily. Indeed, rarely has a game inspired such emotional responses. For years, critics of the medium have asked when a video game would make us cry. Some quietly referred to Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII. Now when they’re asked, they can choke back the tears and cite The Walking Dead. Best story of the year? Yes. It’s also possibly the best game story ever.
Everyone’s doing multiplayer these days, slapping it on games even when they don’t require it. Some though, some do it just right. Here’s 2012’s best examples.
Though we are now familiar with the basics, there’s no denying the pulling power of Call of Duty: Black Ops II’s multiplayer suite. It’s so fully featured, deep and compelling that only a fool would bet against it being the most-played online game in the world for the next 12 months. Whether it’s because of the thrilling moment to moment gameplay, the compelling progression system, or the revised and strengthened Zombies mode, Black Ops II will keep a lot of people happy for a long time.
There’s a simple joy to Borderlands 2’s co-operative multiplayer. Chucking players into a big open world world stuffed with guns and missions and alien nasties and guns and colourful environments and even more guns, Gearbox allows you to run around like lunatics in the pursuit of ever-increasing, ever-tasty XP. And guess what? Get three of your mates together and it’s massively entertaining, hugely compelling and joy-pukingly brilliant. Nothing can quite compare to Borderlands 2’s co-operative carnage.
Creating a worthy multiplayer suite is often easier said than done, especially for a studio who's not only working with one of the biggest video game franchises ever, but is a new studio altogether. 343 not only nailed multiplayer on their first outing with an IP they've never worked on before, but they did it and made it fresh at the same time. New weapons, well-designed maps and some new vehicles all contributed, but it's also balanced and supremely smooth to play. It's easily the best multiplayer experience on consoles and with Halo 4, 343 proved they have the experience and know how in their ranks to please fans and newcomers alike. Bravo, 343, you deserve all the praise you get.
As we approach the end of this generation developers are now squeezing every drop of power from consoles. The games below offer not just the most visually sumptuous games of the year, but the very best that the hardware is capable of offering.
One of the select few games this year to score full marks for graphics in our review category, Mass Effect 3’s cinematic look, deep blue tint, expressively modeled characters and intergalactic scope marks it out as an exceptional visual treat. The Mass Effect games have always looked great, even if the first game in the series suffered from horrible technical issues. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of five years of stellar work from BioWare.
Forza games have always nailed that shiny, car showroom approach to creating mouth watering vehicle porn and Horizon is no exception. Yet in Playground Games’ open-world spin on the series comes the addition of some truly staggering draw distances and stunning vistas, marked by gorgeous time-context effects. It’s not often you’ll go flying into a barrier at 200 MPH because you were staring at a sunset. In Forza Horizon we did it all too often.
While the rest of the world began talking up the possibilities of the Xbox 720, 343 Industries was busy cooking up a little taste of the future with Halo 4. The most visually impressive title on any console in 2012, Halo 4 offers up the nearest we’ve had to next-gen graphics with retina-searing environments, insanely detailed cut-scenes and a spin on that world famous art style. A generational leap over its predecessors.
Much is made of visuals and gameplay, and rightly so. But a truly great game soundtrack can transport us to other worlds and offer drama unlike anything else. Here’s this year’s best original scores.
Clint Mansell’s soundtracks for Moon and (especially) Requiem for a Dream rank among the very best film score in recent years, so the composer’s presence on the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack is something of a coup. Mansell’s Leaving Earth and And End Once and for All (ironic, eh?) mark the highlights of a fantastically evocative score, but there’s some fantastic work from stalwart Sam Hulick too. Mass Effect 3’s soundtrack upholds the series’ impeccable reputation.
While Mass Effect 3 courted big name composers, Rockstar took a different approach with Max Payne 3, enlisting the talents of little known Los Angeles quartet HEALTH. It’s an at times discordant, pulsing, metallic score that lurches between intensity and introspection. Fitting, considering the game’s dark atmosphere. We’d like to hear what HEALTH can come up with when let off the leash even more.
With a CV featuring collaborations with the likes of Massive Attack, Damon Albarn, David Bowie and Snoop Dog, Neil Davidge’s triumphant Halo 4 soundtrack should hardly be surprising. Yet the way the veteran producer retained the series’ sweeping orchestral melodies while also upping the electronica to embrace the game’s new antagonists was a masterstroke. The best-selling game soundtrack of all time, Halo 4 is the best original score of 2012.
New franchises are the lifeblood of the industry. They’re the games that most forcefully introduce new ideas, new characters, new gameplay elements and more. They keep our imaginations alive with the possibilities of the games. Here’s the best of 2012.
Who knew adventure games still had the power to so completely capture the hearts and the credit cards of the mainstream. Telltale’s The Walking Dead not only revitalised the genre, it also delivered on the promise of episodic content (something which seems to have eluded much of the industry), told one of the best stories the medium has ever seen and had thousands crying over their controllers all at the same time. And that was just the first season! Bring on Season Two.
Meanwhile, the True Crime series may have been temporarily suspended, but Activision’s loss was Square Enix’s gain as the publisher built on those foundations to create Sleeping Dogs, a thoroughly enjoyable romp around an open-world Hong Kong. With great combat, fun driving and some brilliant missions, Sleeping Dogs is far better than the games that preceded it. From the death of an old franchise rises one of the greats of 2012. We’re hungry for more.
Break it down into its constituent parts and there isn’t much that’s truly new about Dishonored. With bits of Bioshock, Deus Ex, Half-Life 2, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and more besides, the game’s influences are worn proudly. Yet chuck all these elements in together and what emerges is completely fresh. This is an entirely new universe, a passport to a fantastic new world. As such the opportunities for Arkane to build upon this promise is great. That’s why Dishonored is our Best New Franchise of 2012.
Remember when XBLA was a place for ports of stinky old arcade games and the (very) occasional gem like Geometry Wars? Now it’s the delivery system for some of the greatest games on the platform, a place where creativity and innovation can flourish. Here’s the best examples of 2012.
We loved Trials HD so much it earned our Arcade Game of the Year award in 2009 and, despite the fact that the sequel has only secured a runners-up spot this year, Trials Evolution still offers substantial progress. Slightly more accessible, yet no less demanding of precision, it’s a game that demands you give that tricky track just one. More. Go. Chuck in a brilliant multiplayer mode and RedLynx has earned themselves another triumph.
In any other year in the history of the platform, Minecraft would have been the number one XBLA game. Indeed, in terms of sales it certainly is number one - racking up in excess of 5 million copies sold - a towering achievement. Yet Minecraft is relegated to a runners-up position only after long, angry discussions. A phenomenon, a endless creative tool, a classroom resource and just about as much fun as you can have with a controller, Minecraft’s ability to entertain is remarkable.
Such has been the success of The Walking Dead that Telltale had no choice but to schedule the entire first season of the game for release on disc. But its true home is on XBLA with short, powerful episodes released (roughly) once a month. This wonderfully told story of compromised decisions and desperate survival had us on the edge of our sofas. It flourished on XBLA, allowing us to mull over our choices. As such, The Walking Dead is a seminal work.
Without new ideas, creative industries wither and die, so it's of great importance that we celebrate innovation. And hey look! Here's a whole category devoted to it.
Since video games have existed, or rather since menus have existed in video games, fiddling about with the options has required a break in the action and a trawl through tabs and options. But not in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, thanks to Kinect. With this feature you can issue commands on the fly, as you drive. It may seem gimmicky and inconsequential but it by passes years of convention with just a few voice commands. For that reason it’s one of our most innovative gameplay features of 2012.
Coming from Kim Swift, the brains behind Portal, it should come as no surprise that Quantum Conundrum features a creative new feature. The game’s dimension mechanic sees players switch between realities - fluffy, heavy, slow and reverse gravity - each of which has its own unique characteristics. All you have to do is jump between then in order to reach the exit door of a room. Easy right? Well, no not really. Quantum Conundrum’s brain-twisting gameplay feature is a treat nevertheless.
When we reviewed Hitman: Absolution we fell head over heels in love with Contracts, the game’s customisable, asynchronous multiplayer mode. Allowing you to create your own hit scenario with which to challenge your friends, Contracts successfully promotes replayability without just slapping on an unnecessary Team Deathmatch mode, something other games have been all too eager to do. Contracts is huge, with a vast amount of options to choose from, meaning no scenarios too outlandish. Deep and inventive, Contracts mode is our most innovative gameplay feature of 2012.
This year has thrown up quite a few surprises, from the re-emergence of commercially unviable genres to unexpected new twists on established genres. Here’s the best examples from 2012.
A fantasy RPG from an arguably ailing Japanese publisher isn’t exactly the recipe for high expectations, especially coming so soon after Skyrim. Yet Dragon’s Dogma confounded expectations with its innovative Pawn system (in which you can share companions online and earn XP for their exploits), a fresh take on combat and... well, let’s be honest, watching an ally get grabbed by the shoulders and hoisted high into the air by a griffin is just plain awesome. Dragon’s Dogma is an unexpected delight.
True Crime was never the greatest of series. Under Activision’s guiding hand it established itself as a sometimes entertaining also-ran, a stop gap between better, more compelling releases. So when we heard that the publisher had abandoned True Crime: Hong Kong and that Square Enix had helped transform it into Sleeping Dogs, our expectations were low. But we were wrong. Our review called Sleeping Dogs “a stunning open-world action romp that draws on a variety of cinematic influences to startling effect.” A fitting tribute to a pleasant surprise.
Even the announcement of XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a surprise. We knew there was going to be an FPS version of the revered PC strategy series, but the turn-based reboot reveal came completely out of the blue. Yet the most surprising thing about XCOM is just how good it turned out to be and how completely it captured our imaginations. In a world where the immediate gratification of shooters dominate, XCOM demands patience and forethought. It’s a game where mistakes are punished by permanent death. It feels completely fresh. A triumph, XCOM is this year’s most joyful surprise.
Of course, the past year wasn’t all sweetness and light. Despite our high expectations, there were games that just didn’t live up to hype. Here’s 2012’s biggest disappointments.
Earning a place on our disappointment of the year list isn’t about making a bad game. Need for Speed: Most Wanted is not a bad game. But by the lofty standards of Criterion - creators of Burnout: Paradise, the best open-world racing game in history - Most Wanted is indeed a disappointment. “Need for Speed: Most Wanted is let down by too few race types and a multiplayer mode with somewhat limited appeal," said our review. "Joyriding around Fairhaven can be fun, but there's simply too little real meat on Most Wanted's bones. Criterion can do and has done better."
With Medal of Honor our patience has now run out. Once an exciting and vital series, it has become an also-ran, a me-too shooter designed to hoover up any of the spare cash left behind by Call of Duty. Warfighter was a chance for a rejuvenation, bringing a supposedly realistic approach based on the input of real Tier 1 soldiers with combat experience. The results were underwhelming. A poor game, Medal of Honor: Warfighter is also a massive disappointment.
You can sense that Capcom wanted to get it right. Resident Evil 6 is one of the biggest, most ambitious, visually attractive games the Japanese outfit has ever produced. It has content designed to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Yet in stretching so far, Capcom fell well short, abandoning much of what makes the series great. Survival horror is now a distant, fuzzy memory. Resident Evil 6 could have been fantastic, but instead it’s our biggest disappointment of the year.
The talent behind the games we love, nobody is more important than the developers. This year has seen successes in a variety of different genres and styles, offering gamers a fantastic variety of experiences. Here’s who’s responsible for the very best.
Stepping into the shoes of Bungie and delivering the latest instalment of Microsoft’s flagship franchise must have been a daunting task, yet 343 Industries was up to the task. Not only did they produce a Halo game worthy of the name but they also provided compelling evidence that they have the skill to take it in exciting new directions. Halo 4’s peaen to Cortana was a fantastic achievement. The kings of Halo are dead. Long live the kings.
While other developers on this list released one remarkable title in 2012, Ubisoft Montreal shipped two. Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 3 are among the very best games of the year, displaying the kind of ambition and scope that very few have the talent, or the resources, to match. In their open worlds, their hunting and their vertical platforming, AC III and FC 3 are rather similar, but in execution they couldn’t be different. This is a behemoth of a developer performing at the top of its game.
Telltale has had quite a year. They revitalised the ailing fortunes of an entire genre. They created an adaptation that can stand tall with its source material. They delivered on the concept of episodic content where so many others have failed. They produced arguably the greatest video game narrative in the history of the medium. Oh and the did it all with just one game: The Walking Dead. Just one of these achievements would have been admirable. That the developer pulled it all off in one go is nothing short of miraculous. That’s why Telltale is our Developer of the Year 2012.
Publishers often get stick from the press. They’re the ones that cancel projects and play it safe and won’t give us what we want. But they’re also responsible for giving life to our favourite games. Here’s who we thought fared best this year.
For Ubisoft, the names should speak for themselves. Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, Rocksmith, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Trials Evolution, I Am Alive, The Expendables 2 and er... The Hop Hop Experience. The publisher turns out decent titles at a frightening rate. Some of them, like Far Cry 3. Trials Evolution and AC III are among the year’s very best. For that reason alone they should be celebrated. Congrats Ubi.
Square Enix is responsible for a couple of this year’s most high profile releases, in the form of Hitman: Absolution and Final Fantasy XIII-2. They also published one of the year’s most innovative experiences, Quantum Conundrum. But it’s Sleeping Dogs that has earned them a place as a runner-up in this year’s best publisher category. Sent to die by Activision, but reborn as an entirely new Square Enix franchise, Sleeping Dogs is testament to a publisher with a laudable quality: Belief.
Very few publishers are willing to make the kind of gambles that 2K is. Borderlands, on paper, is a risky proposition, quite unlike anything that has gone before, yet 2K has turned it into a successful franchise. Similarly, they gave Firaxis the time and resources needed to create XCOM, the best turn-based strategy title in recent years, a potentially foolhardy move considering the lack of the clout the genre has on consoles. Yet the gamble paid off. Even safer projects like NBA 2K13 shine, one of the best sports games of all time. Chuck in Spec Ops: The Line and The Darkness II and you’ve got a massively impressive slate of games. After a year of unparalleled excellence, 2K is our best publisher of the year.
This is what it’s all about. Here’s our pick for the very best game of the year, and a few words on the runners-up that pushed it so close.
With a clever plot, wonderfully implemented and varied gameplay and a uniquely characterful world, Dishonored’s revenge drama just oozes class. Let loose in a decadent steampunk world that’s crumbling into disrepair and skullduggery, your adventures as the supernatural assassin Corvo are wonderfully liberating. Encouraging freedom of expression in a game that displays the same? That’s why Dishonored is one of our best games of 2012.
Meanwhile, if you had of cornered us last year and said that a turn-based strategy title would almost win game of the year, we’d have laughed in your face. Yet here we are on the last day of 2012 announcing just that. It may be “the best strategy game this generation and possibly the best ever on consoles,” as our review said, but XCOM is also more than that. It’s one of the most challenging and rewarding titles we’ve played in recent years, a roaring success regardless of genre.
Some of this year’s games were more ambitious. Some were more innovative. Others had better graphics, soundtracks or storylines. But none entertained us so thoroughly as Far Cry 3. Every inch of Rook Islands is stuffed with adventures of your own making, unique tales of cunning, aggression and those weird ostrich things. And if you get bored of that (as if!), you can embark on the game’s main campaign, a loony romp encompassing huge imagined boss battles, Tomb Raider-esque puzzle solving and a hell of a lot of satisfying gameplay. Put simply, Far Cry 3 was fun. Really fun. That’s why it’s our Game of the Year 2012.