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Game of the Year 2012 – #1

The Walking Dead – PC/PS3/360

I grew up with adventure games more than any other genre. My first exposure to Monkey Island was a revolutionary experience at the time. The much more thoughtful gameplay combined with the impeccable humour of the old Lucasarts games and the insane “I have to use the rubber chicken with what?” logic appealed to me. As an avid reader, I had finally found a way to take an active part in a story, rather than simply being a passive observer. The recent resurgence in the adventure game genre, with the Kickstarter success of Double Fine Adventure and studios like Wadjet Eye dedicating themselves to the medium, has made me happy in many special places.

Telltale are another developer who have been attempting to revitalise the genre for a while, and at the same time pushing episodic content as a potential form for these types of experiences. The enjoyable but very traditional reboot of the Sam and Max franchise showed some potential, but made no attempts to be anything other than an adventure game for people who like point and click adventure games. This all changed this year with The Walking Dead.

Make no mistakes, there is adventure game DNA throughout The Walking Dead. It’s all about walking through a location scanning for interactive sections, talking to other characters, and working your way through a story. The difference with The Walking Dead is that this is no traditional adventure game story.

The premise is quite standard for zombie based fiction at this point, where a group of survivors fight to stay alive in a world that has crumbled around them. The game sets the tone that it intends to go on with right from the start, with Lee, our lead, in the back of a police car on the way to jail for alleged murder. Very quickly things go from bad to worse, and when your “tutorial” section ends with your character wielding a shotgun and under immediate threat, you realise this is as far from classic Lucasarts as you can get. The zombies in The Walking Dead are almost part of the setting, rather than a permanent adversary to be defeated. They provide a mechanism to create tension and stress, pushing the characters both together and apart over the course of the narrative. What separates Walking Dead from a lot of zombie fiction is how much it commits to showing the dark sides of people forced into this horrifying situation, rather than attempting to paint it with Hollywood gloss. I have no qualms in saying that some of the scenes in this game are some of the darkest that the medium has ever had, while keeping them away from being shocking for shocks sake (see Call of Duty 4’s “No Russian” level). It takes what Heavy Rain was trying to do with its gesture based actions and uses it at key moments to heighten the emotion of a scene.

A lot of the emotion that Walking Dead brings out comes from Lee’s relationship with Clementine, the young girl he takes under his protection when he stumbles upon her in her home, waiting for her parents to come home. Their journey is at the core of the whole story, and how their relationship develops is one of the best pieces of video game characterisation that I have seen.

This is a game about choices, and how those choices will affect not just yourself but those around you. Mass Effect gave gamers a taste of choice with real consequence, though admittedly ballsed it up at the end. In the Walking Dead, you really feel like you have influence over the story. Every major event that happens feels like it came from a chain of events that you started or altered. The accomplishment of the game is that you feel like you have agency over the whole story, when behind the scenes the amount of real direction change you can make is not huge. There is a wonderful amount of smoke and mirrors obscuring just enough to pull you into the experience, without going overboard. If you decide to dive into this game, be prepared to only play through it once. Even just from talking to others who have had their own experiences with the game, the illusion of agency has started to break down, and I feel that playing through the whole game again would completely shatter it. The game treads a fantastically narrow tightrope of allowing choice to let a player leave their mark on the game, while keeping the main thread in such a way where they do not have to create so much content to ensure that they don’t pull a Valve and have months or years between episodes. Again, Mass Effect attempted to create “real” player agency, and at the end of the trilogy you could see Bioware frantically running around attempting to tie up every loose end they have created in a very obvious way.

It is exceptionally difficult to talk about how important and affecting this game is without spoiling massive chunks of what makes it special. Touches like adding a timer to conversation options in important dialogues does more to create stress and tension in Walking Dead than any amount of scripted sequences in its peers have managed. A few times it resulted in me choosing the “silence” option, either because I could not make a decision in time, or because I did not want to choose a side in an argument. I genuinely cannot think of another game since Heavy Rain that has made me stop and think hard about a decision before making it, when Walking Dead allows you time at all.

If you value storytelling in games as an important part of the experience, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. After finishing the final episode I felt both physically and emotionally drained, which is not something that happens very often to me. This is not just my favourite game of 2012, but I think it is an important game for the medium as a whole. This is something that can be held up as an example of mature storytelling and the ability to provoke real emotion in those who invest in it.

Game of the Year 2012 – #2

XCOM : Enemy Unknown – PC/PS3/360

While hearing people talking about this game during a lot of GOTY conversations, it sounded like I was the only person who had played the original games, despite being younger than most of the other people out there. I spent an inhumane amount of time with the second XCOM game, XCOM : Terror From The Deep, which is essentially the first game but underwater with new equipment and enemies. Despite pouring hours and hours into the original game, I was pretty terrible at it. There was no story, no tutorial, you were just thrown into the commanding position and told to go save the world. I never succeeded. I don’t even think I saved a country. I don’t even know if that game had an ending.

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I’m sure there were a lot of surprised people out there when a turn based strategy game appeared near the top of a lot of outlets Game of the Year lists, but I feel that is just a testament to what this game has managed to do. Strategy games have languished in a corner of the games market reserved for a select few who dared attempt to learn tech trees and manage resources. Turn based squad tactics games share an even smaller market share, relegated to WWII sims and it’s ilk.

So it was with a healthy mix of frothing anticipation and sheer terror I jumped head first into Firaxis’ revitalization of the franchise. Coming from the same developers as the legendary “just one more turn” Civilization series, I should not have worried. They have managed to take an exceptionally deep and complicated game and trim off just enough of the fat, and leaving behind a much more manageable experience, while keeping all of the core mechanics that kept me coming back after getting pounded by aliens over and over again. And not in a “Mass Effect blue alien sexy time” way. I mean obliterated in a ball of alien hell fire.

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Firaxis have managed to keep the base management part of the game intact too, albeit not as needlessly complicated as it used to be. Handling the scientist’s research, the manufacturing lines production priorities, and keeping your team in fighting shape are all here. On top of this, they have reworked the “council” aspect of the game. Flying all over the world to take down alien invaders costs money, and that comes from the collection of countries that are funding the XCOM project. You have to keep them sweet though, or that funding will dry up. The game is a constant juggling act, ignoring one countries pleas for assistance while helping another, just because they have more to offer. You never feel like you are on top of everything, and if you do get ready for the rug to be pulled out from under your feet.

One of the challenges to making the series more mainstream was to produce a console version, which up until now has been kryptonite for the strategy genre. The roads are littered with the forgotten bodies of titles that have attempted to cram a keyboards worth of commands onto a controller, and failed miserably. Even the lack of a mouse is usually enough to push these experiences out of the living room and back to the PC. It is with great joy I can say that XCOM has managed to pull it off. While most of the game I have played so far has been with a mouse and keyboard, I have played a few multiplayer matches with the controller and it is perfectly playable. Not enough to convert me, but if forced it would not have me wishing for more buttons.

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Thankfully the difficulty has been fine tuned to perfection, as opposed to the punishing original where the lifespan of your average soldier was measured in turns rather than missions. While one wrong move can jeopardise an entire mission, it still feels fair, and that the death of one of your tirelessly trained units was the fault of your own rash actions. For those who want to reminisce over the old days are taken care of by a combination of “Classic” difficulty and “Ironman” mode, where you have a solitary continually updated save game. No chance to re-take a shot that eliminates your most treasured team member.

Out of all of the games on this list, the only two I will still be playing in 2013 are SSX and XCOM. I think that is possibly the best recommendation I can give.


PC – Steam
PS3 – Amazon
360 – Amazon

Game of the Year 2012 – #3

SSX – PS3/360

SSX is an incredibly special series for me, and the impact that it had on my life is unquestionable. It helped shape the way I dressed, the music I listened to, and is the reason I travel a reasonable distance and pay a lot of money to learn to snowboard for real. Apart from possibly Metal Gear Solid 2 or Gitaroo Man, SSX 3 was the PS2 game that I poured the most hours into on that console.

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This should be more than enough to explain why this game is in my top 5 this year. From the moment the demo appeared, I was as hooked as I ever had been, and instantly felt comfortable again. It is still an incredibly tight snowboarding experience, with a second to none control system that straddles the line beautifully between being easy to pick up and look good, while requiring just enough work and practice to really start to hit the high scores.

RiderNet was the most important addition to SSX, and totally changed how the game is approached in terms of competition. It constantly informs you of the performance of everyone else on your friends list, pulling their race times, trick scores and their ghost data into your game. At the end of each run, the game is evil enough to tell you “Hey, great job on that last event, but JimBob27 just trounced your score on this other mountain, you want to go see if you can beat it?”. If the PS3 had a “fuck yes!” button on the controller, it would have been worn down to bare silicon by this point. The addition of a random coloured loot shop and an XP system, there are so many reasons to keep ploughing away at the shockingly large number of mountains and runs that ship with the game.

The fact there is no split screen was a bit of a disappointment concerning the amount of SSX Tricky I played with a friend back home, but it’s a feature I would probably have used probably about twice this year. The bigger problem was the lack of any non-asymmetric multiplayer, so there was no way for you and JimBob27 to carve the slopes at the same time. This was solved with a patch later on in the year which introduced the bizarrely named “3-2-1-GO” mode, which lets up to 5 people jump out of the same helicopter and feed their hard earned cash into a collective pot that the winners will get to take home. With a few friends I can see this being a great way to spend some time insulting each other.

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The newest addition to the series are the “Deadly Descent”  runs. These are courses with a specific twist designed to make getting to the bottom as difficult as possible. These range from pitch black caverns requiring a headlamp to navigate, to being chased down the mountain by an ever encroaching avalanche. These are fun little diversions, but are not exactly what I’m looking for in an SSX game.

I feel SSX was slightly unfair to the other releases this year when attempting to woo me. Unless the game was a complete travesty, and totally changed the way it played, it was always going to be a personal favourite. When trying to be as objective as possible, this is an exceptionally well put together snowboarding game. It has just enough of a ridiculous edge to it, with the Deadly Descents and the impossible trick combos, to make it fun without going down the “sim” route. If you are remotely interested in the old games or snowboarding in general, I would check this out.

PS3 – Amazon

X360 – Amazon

Game of the Year 2012 – #4

Asuras Wrath – PS3/360

Being a huge fan of Quantic Dreams work, namely Farenheit and Heavy Rain, I do not have a problem with Quick Time events being a primary component of a game, provided they are done well. This comes with the proviso that they add to the effect that the game is trying to create, be that by ramping up tension or creating a bond with the character by forcing the player to physically perform the same actions (see the “finger” scene in Heavy Rain)

Asuras Wrath goes above and beyond in this regard.

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I have herd the game described as “the best Dragonball Z game ever created” despite having nothing to do with Dragonball Z. Your reaction to that statement will very much dictate your enjoyment of this game. If the idea of lots of insane hand to hand fighting, characters channeling some non-descript energy to throw each other about, and general anime dialog (read as “screaming”) and story has you on board, then stop reading this and go pick it up right now.

This is not a game you go into for gameplay, you are in this for the experience. There are very few times where I sat in front of my TV this year with my jaw on the floor, not quite believing what I was seeing, or what the game was making me a part of. The actual “game” parts of Asuras Wrath are nothing incredibly special. Most game time is taken up by totally competent 3rd person brawling sections, which by the end of the game require some finesse and some quick reactions to handle, especially while hunting for the elusive S rank for each chapter. When you are not beating things senseless, you are flying through Rez style shooter sections, complete with a lock on and rapid fire weaponry, which would be relatively boring were it not for the sheer scale of the things going on around you. The majority of the game instead revolves around what are essentially cut scenes with quick time events layered on top. While attempting to S rank the second chapter of the game, I skipped every non-interactive cutscene, and finished it in 48 seconds. That was only good enough for an A. This sounds like the most diabolically boring game in existence when described as such, and to be perfectly fair I struggle to explain why it was not so.

Suffice to say that in one scene, Asura gets so angry that he screams and takes out a fleet of spaceships. Name me one other game where you can do that.

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At this point I am worried I have scared people away from this game. All I can recommend is that you try the demo, and you will very quickly know if you will enjoy this game. When all is said and done, I do not think there was another game that provoked such astonishment in me this year.

Plus I got to punch a spaceship. In the face. You heard me.

PS3 – Amazon
360 – Amazon

Game of the Year 2012 – #5

Alan Wake –  PC/360

The more astute amongst you may note that Alan Wake did not come out this year, which for 360 owners is a true statement. Feburary this year, however, brought about the PC release, and with it my ability to finally play this Twin Peaks inspired survival-horror/adventure/mental fest.

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Alan Wake was one of the few games that I wish I had owned a 360 for. Everything about it, from the surreal nature of the environment, the unnerving nature of all of the peripheral characters.

I am glad to say that all of my hopes for the game were validated. You will not have played another game like this last year, and possibly ever. The constant unsettling atmosphere, where you are never sure how much of what is happening is actually occurring or just in Alan’s mind. The dedication to the TV show concept, with each new chapter beginning on a “Previously on Alan Wake” and ending on a title card (a theme in two of my top 5 games this year) only adds to the effect they very successfully create.

On top of the gameplay, as a technical achievement it is a very impressive feat. I do not own the most powerhouse of PCs, yet the stunning lighting and environment work were shown in full force without affecting performance. This really is a stunning looking game.

I would highly recommend that if you are going to pick this game up you also get the 2 pieces of DLC “The Signal” and “The Writer”. When the core game arrived at its conclusion, there was very little in the way of resolution. “The Writer” especially rounds the story off in a much more satisfying way

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Alan Wake

PC – Steam –  £22.99

Includes both DLC packs

360 – Amazon – £10

DLC Packs –  560 Microsoft Points each